Every week (bar the very thinnest parts of the calendar), somewhere between seven and twelve movies end up opening in theaters. On some weekends, it's even more -- the first week of December saw eighteen films begin their theatrical runs. As such, it's hard enough for film writers to stay on top of things, let alone Joe Public, who doesn't have the benefit of free screenings and DVDs in the post to take the edge off things.
Films always slip through the cracks, and as part of our continuing year-end coverage, we've picked out a handful of films that might have passed you by over the last twelve months. There was so much small-scale greatness that we could have been here all day (check out our 2012 overrated/underrated feature piece for some more personal picks), but here are eleven films that came to mind most immediately this year. In all cases, we urge you to track them down as soon as you can. Let us know your own hidden gems in the comments section, and for all The Playlist's year-end coverage make sure to follow all our Best Of 2012 features.
A powerful statement about political dissidence, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” chronicles the path of resistance by of one China’s most famous artists, Ai Weiwei. Using Twitter, his blog, and all types of multimedia, the edgy agitprop and charmingly cheeky Ai Weiwei is both confrontational and warm. With a soothing personality, his devilish nature comes out in his art in a battle against the restrictive political regime in China. As Ai’s popularity and influence grows -- he documents an earthquake that kills children in poorly constructed schools that the government refuses to acknowledge -- the artist gets deeper in hot water with the authorities. He is beaten, hounded, put under government surveillance and soon his blog is shut down and he is also forced to destroy his warehouse full of art because of a trumped up zoning issue. The deck is stacked against him and yet Ai, somewhat of a merry prankster, persists against a Sisyphean battle he knows he can never win. He files lawsuits, harrasses the same police officers who beat him up and gets his crews to document and photograph it all. Ultimately detained for three months' detention on charges of tax evasion, Ai Weiwei is briefly silenced, but as a symbol for change, his anarchic spirit and innate human kindness deeply resonate and inspire.
As extraordinary a film as Georgos Lanthimos' debut "Dogtooth" was, there was something about its Fritzl-ish premise that seemed like it was riding the zeitgeist (even if it marched firmly to the beat of its own drum), and we wondered how the director would fare with something that felt less ripped from the headlines. "Alps" has no such problem, by virtue of being quite unlike anything you've seen before; "Dogtooth" is perhaps the closest comparison point, but the follow-up is darker, stranger, funnier, and somehow more moving. A nightmarish puzzle that will be too oblique for many, it starts with a string of exceptional scenes – a gymnast menaced by her coach, a girl dying in the back of an ambulance, questioned about her favorite movie star by the paramedic – and very gradually, Lanthimos reveals how they fit into the grander narrative, how each one plays out their role in his ingenious, heartbreaking conceit (which we won't spoil here). It's a film about grief, and in part about acting (it's an interesting companion piece to "Holy Motors" in some ways), a shifting meta game that never, ever lets you feel comfortable or settled in what you're watching, or knowing what to expect in the next scene. In a world of endless sequels and undemanding comfort viewing, we realize this is not going to be for everyone, but for us? "Alps" was a thrill.
Directed by Jeff Orlowski (“The Strange Case of Salman abd al Haqq,” “Geocaching: From the Web to the Woods”), “Chasing Ice” is to climate control what “The Cove” was to illegal dolphin and whale hunting in Japan. In other words, it's a powerful statement and cautionary tale about the effects of our vastly eroding polar ice caps and how they connect to the rest of the global eco-system and our growing global warming problems. But it's not simply a pro-environment eco-doc. It follows National Geographic photographer James Balog, spurned on by a work assignment, in his hunt to document and capture a multi-year record of the world's changing glaciers using time-lapse photography. What becomes very clear during Balog’s mission (which soon turns into an obsession) is that the visual evidence is stunning, near-horrifying and pretty much damaging to any of the climate control naysayers. Balog’s beautiful, breathtaking photos and his fearlessness to go anywhere to capture them (even after four knee surgeries and doctors begging him to not to continue climbing the ice caps), is undeniable evidence of climate change. Whether his photos change the tide of history remains to be seen (we as nations sadly wait til there are disasters in front of us before we act), but “Chasing Ice” is a chilling (pardon the pun) reminder if we do not respect the changes in our Earth, we and our generations to come, will be paying for it down the road in irrevocable ways.
Disturbing, upsetting, and memorable, there are few controversial films this year that have gotten audiences talking the way "Compliance" has. Based on a true story, the movie is an unsparing look at the power of authority to make people do unspeakable and humiliating things, and the film's bracing examination of those themes has been a major conversation starter. Character actor Ann Dowd shines as the dim fast food restaurant manager gullible enough to believe a random voice at the end of the line is a police officer asking her to assist him in interrogating one of the restaurant’s employees. And as it all escalates, the film gets queasier and vile. Shot with a greasy lens caked in what looks like French fry grease, “Compliance” is unpleasant and unpleasant to look at and that’s the entire point. While its confrontational and hostile nature outraged some audiences, the picture is ultimately a haunting psychological horror cum cautionary tale about the malleability of human behavior and the crushing essence of the fast food industry.
Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev and this methodical, beautifully composed symphony of a film, was of the best discoveries of 2012. “Elena” played a lot of film festivals, and received an unfortunately limited theatrical release, so it’s likely to have never made it to your city. That’s frankly a crime against smart, adult filmgoers hungry for great cinema. However, with a Netflix account, you can watch it at the click of a button as it’s streaming on Watch Instant, as is Zvyagintsev’s even better debut, “The Return.” (His second feature, “The Banishment” is in desperate need of a R1 DVD release). But, what makes “Elena” so strong, beyond its wonderful subtleties and pure cinematic storytelling through imagery and sound, is how, in lesser hands, it could come off as a kind of tawdry late-night Showtime thriller. The film follows the titular character (Nadezhda Markina) as she cares for her wealthy second husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) in a gigantic penthouse apartment in a high-class area of the country. By contrast, Elena's jobless son Sergey dwells in a lower-income section with his family, faced with the dilemma of whether to have his son Sasha join the military because they can't afford school. It's up to grandma to sort things out, but unfortunately, Vladimir refuses to cough up a single penny, citing Elena's son as lazy and irresponsible. Why should he continue to support him? He's got a point, but his wife must also think about the welfare of her son -- which leads to some drastic measures. And under Zvyagintsev’s masterful, patient direction, it’s the one of the most wholly satisfying films of the year. And that’s not even mentioning the chilling Philip Glass score, the work from the stellar cast (every character is a living, breathing human with actual dimensions), and the perfectly calibrated, icy cinematography from DP Mikhail Krichman, who’s worked on every film for the director.