With each new year, it appears the split between films that wind up in ubiquitous theatrical and DVD release and films that barely get a festival screening or wind up in unheralded DVD and/or Net viewing becomes wider and wider. The latter category does not fly under the radar because of bad breaks, not bad filmmaking. In fact, many of these films are superior to the mass release offerings.

To most moviegoers, these unfamiliar titles 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 2008, the list spans the comedy, animation, documentary, experimental and short subject genres. The films also span the world, with entries from as far afield as the frozen Alaskan tundra to the tropical Congo to war-torn Iraq to the far reaches of the solar system.

With 2008 on its way into the history books, here is one last chance to enjoy those under-the-radar endeavors – and here’s hoping we’ll see more of these films in 2009! The Top 10 Unseen Films of 2008 are:

1.”No Burgers for Bigfoot.” Jonathan Grant’s quietly subversive parody of the pretensions and failings of today’s no-budget, no-connection indie filmmaking scene is one of the most devastatingly honest comedies to come around in a long time. Grant casts himself as the endlessly clueless filmmaker who repeatedly surrounds himself with the worst possible elements and individuals as he pushes ahead to create a film that literally needs to be seen to be believed. If this film is any indication, the Oklahoma-based Grant is poised for the proverbial bigger and better.

STATUS: Currently on the film festival circuit, with plans for limited theatrical and DVD release in 2009.

2.“Solar.” Ian Wharton and Edward Shires, students at the Cumbria Institute of the Arts in Great Britain, created this astonishing four-minute CGI animated short that imagines the peculiar labor of a strange giant who is assigned to catapult boulders through the skies. It would spoil the film to reveal why he is doing this, but what can be revealed is news of a visually striking and deeply witty short that proves student filmmakers are more than capable of great things.

STATUS: Currently available for online viewing at several web sites.

3. “Lumo.” Four directors (Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, Nelson Walker III, Louis Abelman and Lynn True) helmed this remarkable non-fiction feature about a 20-year-old Congolese woman who becomes a patient at the HEAL Africa hospital after a rape by marauding soldiers left her with a fistula, a painful condition that leaves her incontinent and threatens her chances of giving birth. Rejected by her fiancé and most of her family, Lumo finds a new support network within the hospital, where the dedicated staff and her fellow patients surround her with love and a well-intended (though often anvil heavy) devotion to the power of faith. The film offers an extraordinary look into the tragic human drama within Congo’s seemingly endless internecine conflicts and the spirit of a young woman determined to live a normal life amidst abnormal circumstances.

STATUS: In non-theatrical DVD release.

4.“My Home – Your War.” Australian filmmaker Kylie Grey’s extraordinary documentary shows the tragic effects of the occupation from the street level view of a middle class Baghdad family from 2003 to 2006. The U.S. actions unleash a rollercoaster of emotions: the panic of what will happen prior to the “shock and awe” campaign, the initial giddiness of Saddam Hussein’s ouster and the new freedoms of expression and assembly, the gradual numbness that the U.S. military’s incompetence is allowing Baghdad to go to rot, and the despair that violence and theocracy have permanently taken root in what had been a stable and secular society. It is a jolting and haunting film that demands to be seen.

STATUS: Currently in non-theatrical release.

5.“Turandot.” Opera fans have reason to pounce while opera haters can experience an edgy challenge to their long-standing prejudices. The 1983 Vienna State Opera production, which was originally broadcast on Austrian television and is now having its U.S. DVD premiere, conceived for the stage by Broadway musical director Harold Prince and faithfully captured on camera by Rodney Greenberg. Its bold visual style, with elaborate masks and glittering costumes, takes the Puccini classic out of the often-stodgy operatic format into a wild, iridescent parallel universe.

STATUS: Currently available on DVD.

6. “J.M.W. Turner.” Carroll Moore’s documentary focuses on Great Britain’s greatest painter, with a skein of nearly 80 paintings presented in vivid HD videopgraphy. If you were unable to attend the film’s inspiration – the Turner exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. – this 30-minute offering more than compensates.

STATUS: Currently available on DVD.

7.”Profit Motive & The Whispering Wind.” John Gianvito’s brilliantly imaginative documentary celebrates four centuries of American rebellion by viewing the monuments and grave sites of the brave men and women who dared (and, often, failed) in their challenge to the governing status quo. At no point in this film is there any narration. The soundtrack, for most of the running time, consists solely of the sounds of the open air – wind rustling through trees, birds, the drone of traffic. Quite frankly, you’ve never seen history presented in such a stunning manner.

STATUS: Currently available on DVD.

8. “Killer Weed.” Gabe Evans’ amusing short pays tribute to the old school monster movie through a comic cannabis haze. All of the beloved cliches are in place – the wild-haired man scientist, the vaguely shabby monster – in this case, a giant marijuana plant spliced with human stem cells –and angered villagers marching off with blazing torches. Evans clearly knows that he can only get X mileage of the humor – but with a seven minutes running time, “Killer Weed” runs its course perfectly without wearing out its welcome. And, quite frankly, that is everything a great short should accomplish!

STATUS: On the festival circuit.

9. “Greetings from Havre de Grace.” Mark Scalese’s easy-going documentary explores the funky history of Havre de Grace, Maryland – from its almost-ran footnote status in colonial history (it was nearly the U.S. capital) to its current state as a serene tourist destination. Scalese boldly takes the film to a higher level in questioning the concept of grace, both in the town and in the wider world. The result is a memorable cinematic visit.

STATUS: On the festival circuit.

10.“Sikumi (On the Ice).” Alaskan filmmaker Andrew Okpeaha MacLean scores an extraordinary hit with his taut 15-minute morality play about an Inuit hunter who witnesses a murder and finds himself as judge and jury for the killer. The film moves quickly and crisply, with the three-man cast brilliantly establishing their tragic roles with rapid yet subtle depth while cinematographer Cary Fukunaga turns the barren Alaskan environment into a haunting yet beautiful landscape that seems like a natural setting for a trial of man’s soul.

STATUS: On the festival circuit.
Honorable mention: ”Cat Stevens” offered retro fun with a DVD release of the hippy-dippy singer/songwriter’s 1971 mini-concert for public television; ’Strawberry Fields” followed the plight of Palestinian farmers caught in the middle of the Israel-Hamas struggle; “Tillie Olsen: A Heart in Motion” offered an insightful celebration of the feminist writer’s legacy; and ”Bigger Plans” is a sincere short drama that helps usher Burundi into the global movie market.

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