Everyone and their granny knows that this year saw the release of Iron Man 3 and The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, but there was a huge amount of quality hidden away from the big multiplexes, in art-house cinemas and at festivals all over the world. Not all the films featured on this list have had a UK cinema release to date, but make sure to seize any opportunity to see them if you spot them showing near you or on DVD...
THE ACT OF KILLING
An utterly fascinating and bizarre documentary in which former members of the genocidal Indonesian death squads of the 1960s are encouraged to recreate their crimes in the medium of film. One of them goes for a song-and-dance number. Then again, with Werner Herzog on producer duties, the odd curveball was probably to be expected.
THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek and filmmaker (and former Peter Greenaway alumnus) Sophie Fiennes follow up 2006’s Pervert’s Guide To Cinema with another slice of off-kilter movie criticism. The prism of ideology is the point this time, with Zizek setting his bizarre sights on anything from Nazi propaganda to Taxi Driver. His actual recall and understanding of his celluloid subjects is sometimes wide of the mark, but that’s all part of the fun.
Fearsome black comedy horror from Evan Katz (part of the Adam Wingard / Ti West ‘mumblegore’ collective), in which a down-on-his-luck Pat Healy and his old pal Ethan Embry choose to compete in ever more disturbing contests for the wealth of cash proffered by a demonic David Koechner. The metaphor is blunt but Cheap Thrills is horribly compelling and awfully funny.
Karen Shakhnazarov’s WWII epic, based on a novel by Ilya Boyashov, was Russia’s submission to the 2013 Oscars. Like Moby Dick with tanks, it involves one Russian commander’s obsession with the defeat of the titular German armoured mega-weapon. It’s an unusual and powerful combination of gritty war viscera and mythic fantasy.
Dogged by comparisons to The Artist, Pablo Berger’s silent Spanish riff on Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs is really in a class of its own. Macarena Garcia excels as the young bullfighter, and Maribel Verdu terrifies as the wicked stepmother.
STORIES WE TELL
Sarah Polley’s riveting family saga plugs into that recent subgenre of the mystery documentary (The Imposter, Catfish, Searching For Sugarman). The narrative is one of family secrets, beginning with her late mother. Polley’s various relations provide the talking heads and they’re intercut with 8mm home movies, some of which, disconcertingly, turn out to be reconstructions. Prepare to be wrongfooted.
This black comedy, set in the dying days of the Soviet Union, features a Keaton-blank former gangster turned boilerman (and nascent literary genius) less than fastidious about the matter being destroyed in his furnace. Director Aleksey Balabanov (Brother, Of Freaks And Men) hadn’t had an international release outside the festival circuit for a decade. It was good to have him back.
Nicholas Jarecki’s high-achieving Wall Street drama scored a heavyweight cast (Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling) for its narrative of a hedge fund mogul losing his precarious grip at the top. Financial irregularities are tangled with the concealment of an accidental death and the ensuing investigation of Roth’s laconically dogged cop, making for a satisfyingly complex, grown-up thriller. A quality item.
Midlife crises abound in Sebastian Lelio’s feisty Chilean drama. Sergio Hernandez is the divorced, beleaguered father of difficult daughters, while Paulina Garcia gives a sensitive and nuanced performance as a woman seeking both love and independence.
Exhilarating music documentary about the famous recording studio perched on the banks of the Tennessee River in Alabama. Singing the praises of the colourful soul music hub are the likes of Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys, Steve Winwood and Percy Sledge. Bono, naturally, muscles in too, but the real stars are local stompers The Swampers.
THE SELFISH GIANT
Loachian British kid drama from Clio Barnard, in this ultimately uplifting story of Bradford schoolboys and the scrap metal trade. Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas give brilliantly natural central performances, although the film’s relationship to its namesake Oscar Wilde story is oblique.
IN THE FOG
Sergei Loznitsa’s tough WWII drama is set during the Nazi invasion of Belarus. Vladimir Svirski is cleared by the Germans of the accusation of having been involved in the sabotage of a train, but he faces suspicion of traitordom when he returns home. His situation does not improve when Partisan soldiers Vlad Abashin and Sergei Kolesov show up on his doorstep with their personal brand of justice. A still, spare and thought-provoking adaptation of Vasil Bykov’s novel.
Elliot Goldner’s feature debut is a found-footage British horror – but don’t let that put you off when it hits UK cinemas generally next April. Ben Wheatley regular Robin Hill gives a brilliantly funny central performance, backed up by a wonderfully taciturn Gordon Kennedy, in a yarn about Vatican investigators digging into paranormal disturbances at a West Country church. The format, for once, makes perfect sense, and there’s no let-up from the unsettling atmosphere, despite the frequent laughs.
A detailed and amazing look into Chilean mentalist Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted plans to film Frank Herbert’s sci-fi doorstop, a few years before it was given to David Lynch. Slightly credulous and uncritical as a documentary, it’s nevertheless hard not to buy into Jod’s enthusiasm, and share his frustration at the project’s demise.
With the price of rice plummeting, farmer Jake Macapagal moves his family to big-city Manila, where gangster action encroaches and twists are pulled off with aplomb. A heist thriller that begins as a social drama, shot in the Philippines by a director from Brighton, the BIFA-triumphing Metro Manila is a constant surprise.
A hypnotic trawl through the working life of a fishing vessel, you could hardly call this a documentary. With no narrative as such, and no dialogue, it’s a uniquely impressionistic portrait of New England’s offshore action, assembled by Harvard ethnographers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. We’re left in no doubt that the violent sea beast of the title is the boat itself.
WHAT MAISIE KNEW
While Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore convinced us as Maisie's warring parents in this moving take on Henry James's tale, and Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham charmed us as her surrogates-by-default, it was youngster Onata Aprile who stole the show – and our hearts with it. Her expressive face, brimming with uncomprehending hurt as she becomes the filling in a rage sandwich, was one of the year’s indelible images.
With screenwriting credits for Borgen and The Hunt to his name, Tobias Lindholm had impeccable credentials to tackle the year’s other Somali pirate flick. And, sure enough, he turned in a drama/thriller (driller? Thrama?) that gripped like a barnacle wielding a tube of Super Glue. Unlike Captain Phillips, Lindholm’s focus is on the tortured negotiations and the slow-build pressure on the crew of the hijacked ship.
The year ended with Dirty Wars, a doc that explored the shadowy means a nation uses to defend its borders, but Alex Gibney’s Wikileaks exposé and this fascinating doc weighed in early on the subject. Somehow, director Dror Moreh persuaded five former heads of Israel’s answer to MI5, Shin Bet, to submit to interrogation about their often lethal line of work. The story that emerged, stylishly complemented by newsreel footage and swish graphics, is of a nation struggling to come to terms with its own violent near-history. Compelling from first to last.
A feel-good film set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland might not seem the most obvious pitch, but when music is the core it makes perfect sense. Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s film centers on the legendary (in Belfast) Terri Hooley, owner of the titular record shop and label, whose only ever hit single was The Undertones’ 'Teenage Kicks'. A classic of indomitable spirit and unreliable narration.