There are big movies and there are little movies. I mean that entirely in the sense of budget and release, promotion and theatrical scope. In the United States we talk most about our wide studio releases, then homegrown smaller independent films and the big-name foreign imports.
But that leaves quality filmmaking to fall through the cracks. Movies that, for one reason or another, no one seems to be talking about. There are overlooked gems, and then there are the deep cuts.
The homegrown niche dramas, the Irish horror flicks, the Latin American comedies, the Scandinavian experiments in nonfiction? This year saw some extraordinary unheralded work from abroad, alongside some excellent films that came from unexpected domestic places. Here are thirteen of them.
There aren’t enough independent lesbian dramas (or comedies, for that matter) released in the United States. This is actually a mathematical fact, given the near impossibility of funding projects like Concussion. So the simple fact that Stacie Passon’s film moved from the LGBT film festival circuit to a theatrical run was really exciting.
Then it turned out to be a great movie, with an impressive lead performance from Robin Weigert and a really interesting commitment to its ideas. More than just sexy (which it certainly is), it’s contemplative and wise in ways that might surprise you.
Marina de Van’s Dark Touch is a dark, surprising little horror film. Its opening poltergeist-esque sequence is terrifying, and throughout the film set pieces in houses show a real understanding of how to use visual space (and some really inspired art direction) to freak out an audience. Beyond that, it’s worth seeing because of how it handles its protagonist, a young girl with trauma-induced supernatural powers. Other films in the genre have taken the horror-child and treated it as a symbol of corrupted innocence, and primarily as an image. Dark Touch gives 11-year old Niamh a bit more agency and development, and it makes for a more intriguing third act.
The End of Time
Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler is a strange bird. His most critically successful film to date might be 2002’s Gambling, Gods and LSD, a three-hour experimental documentary about the pursuit of “transcendence.” The End of Time is similar, in that both films take an idea or two and chase them around the world, piecing together disparate human responses.
The newer film takes a look at time itself. Mettler traveled to Switzerland to contemplate particle physics, to Hawaii to see the physical representation of time in lava flows, to Detroit to experience human decay and renewal, and to India to explore Hindu funeral rites. It may not have the answers, but it doesn’t necessarily seek them. Rather, it is a trip through time that yields questions as rewards.
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners
Director Shola Lynch refers to the style of Free Angela and All Political Prisoners as a sort of “historical vérité.” It’s an excellent way to conceive of not only this particular film, but the recent spate of documentaries that expertly use archival footage as the central building blocks of a narrative (Let the Fire Burn and How to Survive a Plague come to mind).
There are moments in Free Angela as immediately potent as they would be in any well-directed narrative biopic of Angela Davis. Meanwhile, the handful of new scenes (by cinematographer Bradford Young), more mood pieces than reenactments, add a layer of emotion to a film about a woman so public in her activism but so private regarding her personal relationships.
This is a little Irish movie about an alien invasion and a LOT of drinking. What’s not to love? Everyone in it has great comic timing, especially Richard Coyle (Coupling) and Ruth Bradley, who won an Irish Academy Award for her performance. Charmingly riduclous monsters from outer space (the “grabbers” in the title) descend upon a small island off the coast of Ireland, and their only weakness is an alcohol allergy. The premise evokes the absurdity of the great Ealing Comedies, and its gumption classes it with recent independent British sci-fi endeavors like Monsters. It’s the sort of genuine, earnest B-movie romp we just don’t get enough of.