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By Phil Hall | January 1, 2008

For every movie playing at your local multiplex, there are thousands of films that never quite find their way into the cinema projector. And there’s a good chance you won’t find them at your local DVD rental store – the lack of well-financed promotion keeps these titles off the shelves and out of sight.

However, many of these films are genuinely superior (in content and style) to the so-called mainstream movies. These under-the-radar productions have only been seen by those who experienced them through festivals, speciality DVD rentals or purchases, non-theatrical screenings or tripping across the right web site. To most moviegoers, however, they remain “unseen” – and unless you are a regular Film Threat reader, there is a good chance you’ve never heard of them.

Once again, Film Threat gathers the best of this under-appreciated cinematic sector with the annual list of the Top 10 Unseen Films. For 2007, the list spans the genres of animation, documentary, narrative features and musical celebrations. Features and shorts exist side-by-side here, with settings ranging from a two-dimensional universe inhabited by geometrical beings to the American heartland to a Caribbean marijuana farm to a bodybuilder community decimated by a cannibalistic serial killer.

As 2007 draws to a close, let’s have one final round of applause for those under-the-radar endeavors – and here’s hoping we’ll see more of these films in 2008! The Top 10 Unseen Films of 2007 are:

1. “Flatland” – The debut feature from Alabama-based filmmaker Ladd Ehlinger Jr. is an astonishing tour-de-force: a full-length animated production that mixes rude political and social satire with intensive mathematical musings in the tale of the geometric beings of two-dimensional universe who are war with each other and at odds with rival beings from parallel worlds of different dimensional parameters. Equal parts profound and playful, with wicked slams against Dubya-style government and irresponsible capitalism exploitation, “Flatland” is a towering achievement that leaves the view speechless with its audacious depth and brazen scope.

STATUS: Currently available on DVD in direct sales from the filmmaker.

2. “Plan 9 from Syracuse” – Filmmaker Ryan Dacko literally chases his dream across the U.S. in this stirring and deeply personal documentary. Dacko’s somewhat bizarre plan to run from upstate New York to Hollywood in an attempt to draw attention from a major film producer goes awry at every imaginable level once he starts his race, yet his indefatigable spirit serves as an inspiration to anyone who deferred their wildest dreams in pursuit of a complacent and safe existence. This documentary features amazing footage of the richly varied American landscape, where endless extreme weather fails to stop Dacko in his pursuit of a cross-country journey.

STATUS: Currently on the film festival circuit.

3. “Discovering Cinema” – The year’s finest DVD release is this invaluable two-disc set that traces the error-filed trials in the struggle to bring color and sound to the movie screen. Film historians Eric Lange and Serge Bromberg helmed a pair of one-hour documentaries, “Learning to Talk” and “Movies Dream in Color,” that traces the American and European pioneers who sought to upgrade the monochromatic silent cinema into a full mirror of real life, complete with rare footage highlighting the triumphs and embarrassments of their efforts. The DVD also includes rare early films that showed the technical progress as it slowly inched across the first two decades of the 20th century. Any serious student of film history will need to include this release in their collection.

STATUS: Currently on DVD from Flicker Alley.

4. “The Tragic Story of Nling” – If Samuel Beckett made animated shorts, he would’ve created something along the lines of Jeffrey St. Jules’ weirdly hilarious of an alcoholic man and a talking donkey plotting to escape a post-apocalyptic garbage dump. The brilliant animated effects and the hypnotically eccentric story provides a remarkable achievement captivates the cerebral regions while tickling the funny bone. For its sheer audacity and striking originality, this is the year’s best short subject.

STATUS: Currently on the festival circuit.

5. “Have You Heard From Johannesburg?” – Connie Field’s compelling documentary traces the unlikely success of the mid-1980s movement by civil rights activists to force American divestment from apartheid South Africa. Using an intelligent mix of rarely-seen news footage and compelling interviews with the participants in the action, the film details how the unlikely gathering of college students, labor unions, celebrities and local governments helped to snowball the divestment movement into a major socio-economic statement against doing business (and profiting from) South Africa’s racially segregated society. The movement’s triumph, the realignment of American foreign policy despite the veto efforts of President Reagan, serves as a reminder that grassroots muscle can have an effect on Washington.

STATUS: Currently available in non-theatrical release.

6. “Another Sky” – The retro discovery of the year was British film critic-turned-director Gavin Lambert’s feature, originally shot in 1954 but barely seen at the time of its creation (its American release, in 1960, was brief and barely acknowledged). Set in pre-independence Morocco, this drama focuses on a repressed British governess (Victoria Grayson, an excellent actress who never had another role of equal worth) who discovers her inner self through a chaste relationship with young local musician. When her would-be lover disappears, the woman’s long-buried passions and sense of adventure are unlocked as she begins a frantic, far-flung search for her missing beau. With its daring use (for the era) of a traditional Moroccan music score and its uncommon intelligence by presenting North African culture and protocol as equal to its European counterparts, the film is a boldly invigorating experience.

STATUS: Currently available on DVD from Facets Video.

7. “41”– Eighteen-year-old Nicky O’Neill was the youngest person to perish in a devastating 2003 Rhode Island club fire that made national headlines, yet his relatively brief life had a profound effect on almost everyone who came into his presence. His brother Christian O’Neill, working with filmmaker Christian de Rezendes, has helmed a deeply moving tribute to the young man’s life and spirit. While all evidence suggested O’Neill was headed to a successful music career, his off-stage persona was equally stellar through the kindness, humor and sincerity he brought to his surrounding. But what is genuinely jolting is how the film shows that O’Neill spirit is still with his loved ones through an eerie and excessive amount of examples where O’Neill’s lucky number “41” of daily life.

STATUS: Currently on the festival circuit, with a DVD release planned for February 2008.

8. “Harvest” – Nicolas Jollet’s eccentric feature follows a Rastafarian marijuana farmer on St. Lucia who is trying to hurry his harvest while government anti-narcotics helicopters circle the Caribbean island in a hostile search for the local wacky weed crops. This tale is fueled by live concert footage featuring the Canadian group Psycho Key, whose off-beat reggae and rock melodies propel the story along to a joyful beat. The odd mix of concert and narrative works with remarkable ease, offering a boldly original triumph of sight and sound.

STATUS: Currently available on DVD in direct sales from the filmmaker.

9. “Gypsy (Improv)” – Joel Vetsch’s short offers cellist Brandon Smith, assisted by blonde bombshell Joey Rainbow, in a wild and loopy explosion of gypsy jazz. While Smith creates intricate and impassioned rhythms and melodies, Smith does her best to arouse the male members of the audience with her scorching physical presence and erotically-charged drumming – who ever knew that drumming could be such an arousing viewing experience? Vetsch’s inventive camerawork adds to the fun, creating a psychedelic swirl of sound, sex and experimental cinema.

STATUS: Currently available online for real-time viewing.

10. “Beef: You Are What You Eat” – Horror film veteran Pete Jacalone has dark fun with the slasher genre by offering male bodybuilders as the unlikely victims of the serial killer’s blade. Watching the big guys get cut down to size will provide perverse satisfaction for the 98-pound weaklings in the audience, and Jacalone provides enough off-kilter humor to make this endeavor a surprisingly amusing feature. Special kudos are in order for Matt Weight’s excellent performance as the physique-obsessed photographer with a cannibalistic game plan (check the title to see what becomes of the sliced-up beefcake).

STATUS: Currently available on DVD directly from the filmmaker.

HONORABLE MENTION: Pediatric AIDS victims suffering from poor medical care in Iraq and China are the focus of the tragic short documentaries
“Sari’s Mother” and “The Blood of Yingzhou District” (the latter film won the Oscar earlier this year); “Outride the Devil” re-examines the life and legend of Doc Holliday through a bravura filmed record of Kit Hussey’s vigorous one-man theatrical production; The Days and the Hours” is a poignant film essay of the homeless people who seek shelter in a San Francisco church; “Tim Buckley: My Fleeting House” provides an intelligent celebration of the legendary folk singer’s erratic career; and “Black Ribbon” offers a Rod Serling-worthy tale of a smug writer whose life is lethally disrupted when he acquires an antique typewriter with a gruesome history.

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