By now you’ve seen Oscar favorites like “Moonlight” and “Manchester By The Sea” and indie darlings like “The Lobster” and “Swiss Army Man.” But what about new films from Anne Fontaine and Joachim Trier? As is the case every year, a majority of indie and foreign films got overshadowed by more popular titles and awards contenders, which makes the end of the year a vital time to catch up on the year’s overlooked gems. Start with these 12…
French filmmaker Anne Fontaine returned to the big screen with force back in July thanks to this profound and powerful meditation on a forgotten piece of history. The excellent Lou de Laâge (so brilliant in last year’s equally overlooked “Breathe”) plays a French Red Cross doctor who travels to Poland just after WWII to assist survivors of the German camps and stumbles upon a horrific secret afflicting nuns at a nearby convent. Bolstered by striking imagery from cinematographer Caroline Champetier and evocative editing from Annette Dutertre, the final result is a film that never backs down from the terrible stories it must tell, but delivers them with beauty and compassion.
At first, Avishai Sivan’s “Tikkun” is a quiet, sensitive portrait of a young Israeli rabbinical student struggling with his beliefs, and then a talking reptile bursts out of the toilet.That’s just one of several jarring moments in Sivan’s eerily provocative third feature, which combines the observant look at ultra-Orthodox Judaism familiar from “The Chosen” with the nightmarishness of spirituality’s darker side found in “Pi.” While shot in black-and-white to accentuate its ominous atmosphere, the theme is the exact opposite. “Tikkun” doesn’t just chronicle a crisis a faith; it puts viewers inside the tumultuous experience.
Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier has proven himself a master of uncanny realism and gripping relationship dramas in films like “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st,” and his English-language debut strongly carried the tradition this year. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne and the breakout Devin Druid, “Louder Than Bombs” is a powerful meditation on grief as a family tries to recover from the tragic death of their matriarch. Mixing tense family drama with a delicate connective tissue between the past and present, “Louder Than Bombs” is a wrenching experience with top-notch performances. It should have been a larger breakout in the states for the extremely gifted Trier.
It’s a damn shame when a wonderful Arnaud Desplechin movie can’t find the traction it deserves in U.S. theaters, and such was the case with the luminescent coming-of-age story “My Golden Days.” This wistful tale of adolescence is told in three chapters, as Matheiu Amalric’s Paul reflects on his struggles with his mentally unstable mother and his love affair with a young woman named Esther. Desplechin combines the traditional elements of the genre with his striking humanism to create something startlingly authentic. It’s impossible not to see yourself buried in the soul of “My Golden Days.”
If you heard about this strange documentary, chances are it was probably because of the goat testicles, and yet Penny Lane’s “Nuts!” transcends its silly subject matter with a form that is one-of-a-kind. This mesmerizing portrait of celebrity medical practitioner and radio mogul Dr. John Romulus Brinkley might be the closest we get to a documentary in the vein of Charlie Kaufman. It’s a seriocomic story of passion and desperation that transforms into something far more mysterious and provocative. Mixing archival material, voiceovers, contemporary interviews and a variety of hand-drawn animation, the movie deconstructs the process of self-mythologizing from the inside out.
At just 27 years old, Brady Corbet has somehow become the go-to guy for major European auteurs in need of a young American who can pick up what they’re putting down. His filmography includes a series of brilliant collaborations with titans of international cinema like Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”) and Lars von Trier (“Melancholia”), and you can feel the influence of these masters of cinema pulsating underneath his unusually accomplished directorial debut, “The Childhood of a Leader.” Corbet delivers a strange and startling film that reflects the unique trajectory of his career, leaving behind a squall of unanswered questions that linger in the mind long after it squelches to a finish.
Overflowing with daring technicality (there is a 40-minute long take that ranks as one of the year’s most absorbing screen moments) and dreamlike beauty, “Kaili Blues” finds director Bi Gan blending the past and present to startling effect. The story concerns a local doctor as he interacts with people from his past and present while traveling the countryside in search of his nephew. Bi Gan, making his feature debut, creates an otherworldly atmosphere that strikes the viewer with a fantastical haze full of existential reckoning. We can’t wait to see what Bi Gan does next.
Stephen Dunn works a delicate balance with his “Closet Monster,” an imaginative spin on the coming-of-age tale that blends together both straightforward storytelling and recognizable emotional beats with creative flourishes. Those flourishes — including a talking hamster and a series of fantasy sequences — are treated with the same equanimity as the rest of the more reality-rooted elements, allowing “Closet Monster” to retain an authenticity that other, similar features may not be able to hold on to with such grace. “Closet Monster” may feature a talking hamster and a hefty volume of very bloody flashbacks-turned-fantasy, but Oscar’s issues continually remain real and relatable. Dunn plays around with perspective and style, but all the flash doesn’t obscure the film’s emotion and heart, which are deep and true.
North Korean propaganda is so ripe for satire that its darker ramifications are often lost in the laughter. “Under the Sun” literally puts them in closeup, as Russian filmmaker Vitaly Manskiy’s gripping experimental documentary follows an eight-year-old child struggling within the constraints of the country’s suffocating ideology. “Under the Sun” was shot from a script provided by the regime, and footage was subjected to daily scrutiny. But Manskiy manages to fashion this material into an ominous indictment of the country’s brainwashing tactics and absurd self-regard, mostly by just letting the camera roll. The insanity speaks for itself.
“Men Go To Battle” is not your normal micro-budget independent film. The story of two Kentucky brothers trying to uphold their estate in Civil War-era Kentucky is a perfect example of how resourceful low budget filmmakers can be, as director Zachary Treitz and his small band of collaborators create a vibrant and lived-in period drama that looks and feels like it was made for three times the budget. But the film is much more than an inventive recreation of the Civil War period. Treitz takes a modern approach to story and filmmaking, cutting through the film’s historical foundations to make a direct and intimate drama that is more relatable than most set in present day.
An emotionally lost twenty-something returns to her childhood home in search of new meaning. You’ve seen this indie a million times before, and while Zach Clark’s fifth feature “Little Sister” certainly adheres to the formula, it also finds a way to breathe new life into every convention. Addison Timlin is a revelation as a young nun whose trip back home reopens old family wounds and reawakens old personality traits. Watching Timlin come into her own is vulnerable trip worth lauding. Shimmering with a quiet sense of ambition from the start, “Little Sister” captures the high emotions of self-discovery in low-key way.
Every new Terence Davies film feels like a miracle, and never has that been more true than it is of “Sunset Song.” A faithful adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel of the same, this sweeping character drama vividly captures the bittersweet beauty of life on earth. Credit the immaculate photography and the unforgettable central performance from Agyness Deyn, an English model who exposes the steady, self-possessed and human heart of her character in the most beautifully measured way imaginable. Davies had described Gibbon’s novel as “a story which deserves to be told,” and he made a film that demands to be seen.