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.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Werner Herzog’s most significant contribution to cinema this year is, of course, his part in the distribution of The Act of Killing. For all we know, the best thing he’ll do next year is his commentary on the Blu-Ray of Joshua Oppenheimer’s nonfiction sensation. However, Herzog’s much more active role in narrating, editing and releasing another filmmaker’s footage was mostly overlooked this spring.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is a collaboration between the German auteur and Dmitry Vasyukov, whose time living on the Yenisei river yielded such beautiful, interesting images of life on the edge of human settlement. While Herzog’s narration occasionally yields to his more grandiose thematic impulses, at one point even gesturing toward the end of the world, on the whole Happy People is a minor triumph of frozen intimacy.
Harried men on boats is something of a theme this year, with All Is Lost and Captain Phillips angling for Academy Award nominations. But Robert Redford and Tom Hanks aren’t alone in this waterlogged genre. Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking is a gripping tale of trouble on the high seas, focusing on an unarmed Danish cargo ship that gets captured by Somali pirates, and the subsequent efforts back in a Copenhagen corporate suite to get them back.
What sets it apart is its bold dual setting and its commitment to a hostage negotiation that goes on for months. Lindholm creates scenes of incredible suspense, but also finds moments of tranquility and humanity in places you might not expect. It’s formidably constructed, remarkably acted and just about every scene hits exactly the right mark.
The Human Scale
There’s a bit of a surge recently of documentaries about city planning and development. This makes sense, of course, given the fact that more and more of the world’s population is becoming concentrated in urban areas. But is there enough to discuss to sustain that many films? The Human Scale proves that there absolutely is, if only because no two cities are exactly alike.
While the film is structured much like Gary Hustwit’s Urbanized, the cast of characters is very different. Director Andreas Dalsgaard filters things through a particular theory of urban planning in Denmark, that of architect and academic Jan Gehl. He then travels to Dhaka, New York City, Siena, Chongqing and other places to kaleidoscopically look at how cities have been managed and mismanaged over the last century. A final chapter in post-earthquake Christchurch, New Zealand is particularly essential.
In the House
François Ozon has had an interesting, perhaps disappointing decade. Ricky, Angel, 5×2, and to an extent Potiche were all misfires, though interestingly so. In the House is far and away his best film since 2003’s Swimming Pool, but it almost slipped by unnoticed. It’s a comedy of manners that falls somewhere between Hitchcock and Pasolini, playfully and explicitly evoking both filmmakers. A mild thriller of imagination, interested in deconstructing the bourgeois family with the tempered and less radical humor of the 21st century, In the House is a lovely film built from one of the best screenplays of the year.
Immediately after the close of World War Two, Europe was a mess of violence and migration the likes of which the continent had never seen. We know this, factually, but it doesn’t come up too often in movies. Maybe it’s because such a non-conclusion would leave us without closure, without a sense of victory. In steps Cate Shortland’s Lore, a gorgeously rough journey through the confused Germany in the days immediately following the armistice.
Young children, abandoned by the intervention of history in the lives of their high-ranking Nazi parents, must travel across the whole of their cracked-open country to seek refuge with their grandmother in the North. More than simply an illumination of a forgotten time, Lore is an earthy coming-of-age tale that grafts the rawness of youth onto the wreckage of the 20th century.
The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear
The structure of Tinatin Gurchiani’s first documentary feature is simple enough. Find young people and ask them about their lives, contextualize, repeat. All of this is done in the small, Caucasian nation of Georgia. What Gurchiani finds and presents, however, is not at all simple. The communities she visits have created complex, often determined and occasionally brutal young minds that lend the film a unique philosophical slant. It’s an intriguing and exciting debut.
Mother of George
Brooklyn has never looked so good. Andrew Dosunmu’s melodrama of marriage and family in the Nigerian community of New York City’s Crown Heights neighborhood is a breathtaking example of how no independent, low-budget film needs to be “small.” Danai Gurira is extraordinary as a wife caught between a stubborn husband, his mother and the struggle of fertility. The supporting performances are without exception among the best of the year, the costumes are something to behold, and the whole thing is shot (again by Bradford Young!) with a delirious and sensuous attention to detail.
The best Shakespeare adaptations are rarely the faithful ones (no slight intended to Laurence Olivier). Matías Piñeiro’s Viola is not his first attempt at capturing the spirit of The Bard, but it’s his best. Weaving through the lives of young creative types in Buenos Aires, the subtle erotics of “Twelfth Night” find new life here, including the year’s best scene of seduction. Questions of love and its duration float about like birds, both Shakespeare’s and Piñeiro’s words achieving a light but very textured quality that connects people in unexpected but destined ways.