With film-festival organizations and the Brooks Museum of Art supplementing traditional exhibitors, plenty of great movies hit Memphis every year, but we still only get a partial glimpse at modern film culture. By my count, exactly half of the top 100 films in the 2008 indieWIRE critics poll have never screened in Memphis, and many of those that have got brief runs on a single screen.
With both of last week's releases (The Class, Watchmen) already reviewed in these pages and none of this week's sketchy slate (Last House on the Left, Race to Witch Mountain, Miss March) given an advance screening, this seems like a good week to look at some recent DVD releases local audiences might have missed:
Frozen River: This Sundance Film Festival grand-jury-prize winner actually did get a strong month-long run at Studio on the Square late last summer, but given how superb it is and given its local connection via first-time filmmaker Courtney Hunt's Memphis roots, it still deserves a larger local audience than it got. And, since it was released on DVD a few weeks ago, everyone has a chance to catch up — myself included.
I was out of town when Frozen River (which garnered much-deserved Oscar noms for lead actress Melissa Leo and screenwriter Hunt) screened for critics last year and never found time to see it during its local run. Seeing it now, I'm not quite as bowled over as my colleague Greg Akers, who proclaimed it last year's best film. But, in retrospect, I do think it's one of the best films to get a local theatrical release in 2008. If I had a do-over, it would nab a mid-to-late spot in my '08 Top 10.
A story of two women getting nickel-and-dimed to death in rural upstate New York and who become uneasy partners in a human-smuggling operation across the St. Lawrence River, Frozen River is even more harrowing than its recent hardscrabble indie companion Wendy & Lucy, in large part because Frozen River focuses on a struggling member of the working poor with two kids rather than a fetching drifter with a dog.
Paranoid Park: Gus Van Sant's other 2008 feature after his multiple Oscar-nominated Milk, Paranoid Park finished sixth in the indieWIRE poll (Milk was 15th) but never screened locally. A semi-mystery about a sensitive teenage skateboarder who may have been involved in the killing of a railroad yard security guard, Paranoid Park is a lower-budget, more experimental film than Milk. Essentially a coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence story set against its alienated teen-culture milieu, Paranoid Park treads similar ground as Van Sant's superior Elephant. The post-Columbine Elephant was a brilliant film; Paranoid Park is merely an alluring, affecting one. It's worth seeing (especially in its mix of 35-millimeter cinematography from Christopher Doyle and Super-8 skate footage from Rain Kathy Li), but I'd call it Van Sant's second-best film of 2008.
Mother of Tears: Italian horror master Dario Argento picks up where he left off a quarter-century ago with Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), completing his so-called Three Mothers trilogy. This version finds a dark witch on the loose in Rome, where only a heroine played by the director's daughter, international film goddess Asia Argento, can combat the plague of evil.
Argento is known for artful gore, and Suspiria and Inferno (especially Suspiria) are sights to behold, but in this sloppier series-ender the gore half of that equation wins out. Within the film's first 10 minutes, a woman is disembowled and strangled with her own intestines. And that's only the beginning of the freakiness. This is not a good movie, but it has its audience. You know who you are.
Today, they tackle the screenplay, editing, and cinematography categories. Tomorrow: acting.