2010 has been a crap year for Hollywood so far, but that doesn't mean there hasn't been a wide array of extremely compelling releases that bypassed the multiplex. So before we enter the season of prestige pictures and festival stunners, here are my five favorite films of the year that weren't seen much beyond the major markets but deserved larger audiences (and that larger audiences deserved in turn). For those interested, I've also included the info about when you might be able to check out the movies you missed.
Johnnie To's latest isn't his greatest, but it might be the most brutally fun and deliriously stylized film of his career. To continues to find new facets of the Hong Kong underworld to explore in his unique and increasingly balletic fashion, time melding the succinctly cold dynamics of his favorite milieu with the fluid slo-mo frenzy of his pickpocketing comedy Sparrow. To's titles never lie, and Vengeance is no exception -- this is a cut and dry story of payback done right and with a Gallic twist. French legend Johnny Hallyday comes to Macau with a memory disorder and a hankering to end the gangsters who murdered his daughter (Sylvie Testud) and her family. Some of To's most insanely awesome set-pieces ensue, including a nighttime park shootout that borders on the symphonic. The parts are greater than the sum, but Vengeance has some great parts. Available now On-Demand.
Sylvie Testud (again) stars in Jessica Hausner's elliptically spiritual gasp of a film, the story of brittle, complex, wheelchair-bound Christine who somehow (miraculously?) regains the use of her legs during a church group pilgrimage the titular religious mecca. Part Dryer and part Carlos Reygadas, Lourdes deploys static, sterile shots (evocative of her confined heroine) to tell a wistful story that's less about religious belief (Christine seems to be there more for the male company anything else) than it is the profoundly human see-saw of hope and despair. Anchored by one of my favorite performances of recent memory, Lourdes is the year's most unsettling mystery. Available on region-free blu-ray from Artificial Eye.
3. Winter's Bone
Debra Granik's Ozark-noir is home to a brilliant slice of John Hawkes (whose performance as Teardrop requires an Oscar nomination) and the star-making performance of Jennifer Lawrence, but this backwoods mystery's greatest virtue might be that it never falls victim to the conveniences of poverty porn. The saga of a preternaturally adult teenage girl forced to wade through a close-knit network of Missouri meth compounds in order to find her supposedly dead father, Winter's Bone is strong stuff -- honest, never condescending, and frigidly relatable. Lawrence anchors the film, but Hawkes' quietly Shakespearean Teardrop is what'll stick with you. Available 10/26 on DVD & blu-ray.
Italian master Marco Bellocchio is almost 71, but his biopic about Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Mussollini's lover and the disregarded mother of his son Albino) is every bit as brash and invigorating as his classic Fists in The Pocket, which he made in 1965. Opulent and operatic, Vincere is all grit and razorblades despite its ravishingly gorgeous veneer. Avoiding the "I want MY son!" histrionics of other films about mothers scorned, Bellocchio rapturously foists history and cinema upon itself, resulting in a self-reflexive film that doesn't revisit history so much as it revisits history being made (in this respect it's not entirely dissimilar fromInglourious Basterds). Anchored by Mezzogiorno's magisterial performance, Vincere makes you hope that Bellocchio is just getting started. Now available on DVD.
Some films create their own shorthand, but Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth quite literally creates a whole new vernacular one word at a time. Somewhere in Greece there is a house, and in that house lives a peculiar family. To say any more than that would be revealing too much -- the language of Dogtooth is one meant to be learned rather than spoken. This is a film better suited to a warning than a synopsis -- Dogtooth is bold and confrontational, an experience perhaps at its most violent when it's forcing out some nervous giggles. Wherever you hope it's not going is exactly where it's headed. Gleefully subversive and bleakly hilarious (culminating in what has to be cinema's greatest Flashdance homage), Lanthimos' film is an unforgettable argument that the world at large is only what we perceive it to be. No home video announcement yet, but expect one soon.