Among the Inceptions, Potters, Twilights and Toy Stories this year, there were plenty of movies that were lighter on limelight and box-office but equally worth hunting down. Here’s a few to keep your eyes out for on DVD
Director: Juan José Campanella
The Academy loved it, but UK audiences largely said “No, gracias” and this majestic Argentinian thriller – genuinely one of the best films of the year – got lost in the wash. A labyrinthine, enthralling dive into Buenos Aires’ violent past, it’s handled with terrific skill by Law And Order veteran Juan José Campanella. He rips up the crime procedural handbook to deliver a spectacular five minute set-piece that will blow your mind. Beg, steal or borrow (preferably the latter), it’s a must see.
Director: Clio Barnard
A play within a film set on a Bradford housing estate was never going to challenge Avatar at the box-office but, in its own way, The Arbor was just as groundbreaking. Tribeca and the BIFAs certainly thought so, bestowing well-deserved awards. Director Clio (pronounced ‘Cly-o’) Barnard used a unique form of cinematic ventriloquism to recreate the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, writer of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, and stumbled upon a whole different tragedy in the process. If the idea of actors lip-synching the words of the real protagonists sounds, well, a bit mad, the effect gives a hugely haunting echo of past sins. Or Mike Leigh’s stab at Creature Comforts, depending on your perspective.
Director: Nicole Holofcener
A funny, savvy Upper West Side indie by a director who long since decamped to LA, Please Give is the kind of film Woody Allen used to make, brimming with smarts and offering a wonderfully skewed take on success and liberal guilt. Inevitably, Holofcener was immediately proclaimed “the new Allen”, but her poisoned pen letter to consumerism is very much its own thing. Holofcener muse Catherine Keener and a mischievous Oliver Platt sparkle, while Ann Morgan Guilbert’s battle-axe neighbour is the scariest thing this side of The Last Exorcism. Watch out too for the opening montage of the year.
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Seven years on from The Triplets Of Belleville, and set and filmed in Edinburgh, Sylvain Chomet’s return was another quirky, loving homage to a bygone age. A tender surrogate father/daughter tale emerges from Jacques Tati’s story like flowers from the clenched fist of its magician hero. It’s set in a magical-realist Auld Reekie, where the Illusionist, his terminally angry rabbit and a young Scottish girl share a chilly bedsit and watch as the world of music-halls and magic drifts slowly into the past. Perhaps not everyone’s glass of Pernod, but a treat for fans of nostalgia, animation and psychotic bunnies. Just lovely.
Director: Jay and Mark Duplass
A slyly funny three-hander with real comic bite, the Duplass brothers’ black comedy was a little gem. The three hands – Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly – all bring their A games, with Hill particularly good as a clingy twentysomething who splices the DNA of Norman Bates Jr. and Little Britain’s Bitty. Anxious to keep a vice-like grip on his mother’s (Tomei) affections, he declares war by passive aggression on her lovelorn suitor (Reilly). Carnage and weird-ass electronica ensues. The Duplass’ best – yup, even better than Empire-fav Baghead – and we’re already looking forward to seeing what’s next.
Director: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar
A film made with the contents of a seven year-old’s bedroom floor and just as brilliantly loopy as it sounds, A Town Called Panic is the best thing to come out of Belgium since the Tintin-shaped chocolate waffle. It was championed on this side of the Channel by Hammer & Tongs honchos Nick Goldsmith and Garth Jennings, who helped bring the deliriously silly antics of Horse, Cowboy and Indian to any cinemagoer prepared to take a punt on a film where the hero has four legs, is made of brown plastic and plays the piano. Dazzlingly imaginative and slightly mad, see it for Christmas. Every year.
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Back in September a leftfield verbal assault from Gerard Depardieu propelled Juliette Binoche back into a limelight she doesn’t relish. Binoche prefers to do her talking onscreen, and did exactly that with a pitch-perfect turn as the nameless woman at the heart of Abbas Kiarostami’s first European film. She jousts, flirts and bickers around a Tuscan town with William Shimell’s priggish author, waxing and waning between hauteur and tender vulnerability. But are they strangers or are they reprising a love affair? Or is it all an elaborate role play? Proof that Inception didn’t have the monopoly on endings to make you go “hmmm…”
Director: Neil Jordan
It won't go down in history as one of the great Neil Jordan films, but Ondine is of those solid, well-crafted movies that don’t seem to come around too often any more. It can boast dramatic weight and edge to add to a solid script and strong performances, especially from Colin Farrell as a loner trawlerman who fishes a mysterious woman from the brine. Farrell gives a great performance that’s firmly a part of his excellent and underrated mid-career Catholic guilt phase (see also: In Bruges, Triage, Pride and Glory). Filming in County Cork, Jordan showed that home really is where the heart is. Plus it's got Sigur Rós on the soundtrack, which automatically brings some awesome.
Director: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
In a pretty strong year for documentaries, Restrepo stood out. Raw without feeling voyeuristic, powerful without being lecturing, it gave an fly-on-the-dugout-wall view of the Afghan conflict, captured through the youthful eyes of a US combat unit. Co-directors Hetherington and Junger, colleagues at Vanity Fair, pooled their talents for photography and reportage to get embedded for a year in the Korengal Valley, at the time the world’s most dangerous place. Every bead of sweat, buzzing fly, thudding mortar round and zipping bullet was caught on their handheld cameras. Food, Inc., Countdown To Zero and Collapse were full of scary future apocalypses, but this was apocalypse right now. Don’t be surprised to see Junger and Hetherington at this year’s Oscars.
Director: Scott Sanders
Sadly “60,000 volts of black power” translated into only about £60,000 of box office, because this Blaxploitation spoof was genuinely funny – like, Zuckers funny – and deserved a much bigger audience. Michael Jai White took it to the Man as an ex-CIA agent who’s back and ready to karate-chop crime right in the face. Following the money all the way to the top, Black Dynamite uncovers a plot to flood orphanages with heroin – a plot that leads him from the ghetto to Kung Fu island and back to clear up the bodies. Like Shaft meets All The President’s Men on helium.