Hundreds of movies come to American theaters every year. Sometimes they arrive at a rate of 20 per week, at least in New York, where most films that don’t open widely begin their first runs. And that’s not even taking into account Netflix and other streaming services, which have changed how movies are being distributed without really decreasing the total number of them out there. What this means, practically speaking, is that it’s impossible for The A.V. Club to review every new movie available to audiences in a given year, month, or week. The hard reality is that we can’t cover everything, and plenty of films slip through the cracks—not because they’re bad (although some of them are), but mainly because they’re too small to compete with the more high-profile fare we have to privilege.
These oversights do weigh on the conscience, though. And so to atone for our annual sins of omission, we try to carve out a space every December for some of the best movies we missed along the way—the films that deserve to be seen, even though we didn’t review them during their initial release. Below, we’ve singled out 13 such orphan triumphs and identified, best as we can, how you too can play catch up with them. Don’t sleep on these movies, even if we did.
Most of the films of the Barcelona-based director José Luis Guerín have been documentaries, a background that he draws on creatively in his first fiction film since the A.V. Club favorite In The City Of Sylvia. Like that beguiling and self-reflexive masterpiece, The Academy Of Muses concerns itself with the old story of men drawing inspiration from the mystery of women. Playing a fictionalized version of himself, the real-life academic Raffaele Pinto teaches a seminar on historical muses (“As philologists, we know that love and desire were invented by the poets”) at the University Of Barcelona. Most of his students are women, and as the semester trudges on from fall into winter, their discussions stretch the movie’s boundaries further into both fictional drama and documentary. Like much of Guerín’s most accomplished work, the movie—which was made on a tiny budget with a non-professional cast and no crew to speak of—finds the critical discourse in poetry and vice versa. Playing in select theaters; click here for cities and dates. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
The Birth Of Saké
One needn’t be a drinker, or particularly interested in Japanese culture, to be fascinated by this documentary portrait of the Tedorigawa Brewery, which was founded nearly 150 years ago and is one of the last remaining breweries that makes saké by hand. (Machines took over the industry long ago.) Gorgeously shot by director Erik Shirai, who has a terrific eye for both on-the-fly imagery and studied interstitial compositions reminiscent of Yasujirō Ozu, The Birth Of Saké is aggressively process-oriented, capturing every finely tuned step in riveting detail. But it’s also, somewhat sneakily, a paean to a community of workers who live communally right in the brewery for seven months each year, forming a unique bond. Many of them are elderly and wonder aloud how much longer the old way will endure. Should the tradition die, however, this doc provides most of the information that’d be necessary to resuscitate it. Available on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, and VHX. [Mike D’Angelo]
Anyone who wondered why the FBI played such a major role in this year’s presidential election can find some answers in Craig Atkinson’s compact, explosive documentary about police militarization. Initially asking how weapons of war ended up in the hands of everyday cops, Do Not Resist carefully digs beneath the phenomenon to find a whole evolving culture within American law enforcement, wherein the poor, the foreign, and the petty criminal are cast as savage supervillains whom bleeding-heart politicians and defense lawyers are too weak to stop. Along with some jaw-dropping ride-along scenes with armored small-town officers in urban tanks, the film features chilling snippets of the us-or-them rhetoric being drilled into rank-and-file policemen every day by modern crime experts—including, yes, FBI director James Comey. This doc is a vital record of an America transitioning to martial law so quickly and stealthily that we’re barely acknowledging the change. Playing in select theaters; click here for cities and dates. [Noel Murray]
For all of the acclaim that’s greeted Primer and Upstream Color, few films so far have been recognizably influenced by Shane Carruth. There’s definitely a Carruthian vibe to the enigmatically titled H., though, in terms of both its no-budget formal precision and commitment to tantalizing obfuscation. Divided into chapters, it first introduces a middle-aged married couple (Robin Bartlett and Julian Gamble) whose easy rapport extends to the woman’s obsession with creepily lifelike baby dolls. Unrelated weird stuff—objects that suddenly float; a loud, paralyzing hum—happens in the margins and continues in the second chapter, which shifts focus to a younger couple (Rebecca Dayan and Will Janowitz) who collaborate on art projects. (H. itself was written and directed by a similar couple, Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia.) The film is much more interested in raising questions than answering them, to a degree that some will likely find exasperating. But its unusual amalgam of low-key, keenly observed naturalism and WTF inexplicability is potent enough to keep viewers enraptured. Available on Netflix. [Mike D’Angelo]
The first half of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s 317-minute Happy Hour is a relatively conventional group portrait of four Japanese women, longtime friends whose lives are about to go in different directions. The narrative picks up steam when Jun (Rira Kawamura) announces her intention to divorce her husband, then takes a boat out of town and out of the movie entirely. As in L’Avventura, a disappearance resets the narrative tone completely, as the movie turns increasingly sinister, morbid, and far away from the restrained emotions of the first half. Long workshops and rehearsals prior to shooting enabled the actresses, all making their big-screen debuts, to seem like people who have genuinely known each other for a long time. That’s already a huge achievement. That Hamaguchi then pushes that group portrait into unexpected, strange terrain makes for a bracing, adventurous experience. [Vadim Rizov]
The title promises a party movie, a genre that connotes good tunes, tossed-off bon mots, and long, boozy nights to remember. But since this birthday party is a parent-supervised one for evangelical teen Henry Gamble (Cole Doman) and his devout friends, you might not expect too much debauchery. Still, Henry’s becoming aware that he might be gay, and as day turns to night, all the characters’ problems emerge along with the alcohol that wasn’t supposed to be there. Writer-director Stephen Cone—himself a preacher’s son whose features generally explore Christian milieus—doesn’t condescend while tracing the moment when faith becomes an obstacle to self-realization. And he’s still thrown a party, with lots of moments of group uplift and hilarity captured in elegantly framed widescreen by cinematographer Jason Chiu. Streaming on Netflix; also available on iTunes and Amazon. [Vadim Rizov]
While Don’t Breathe cleaned up nicely at the box office this summer, the year’s other tense home-invasion thriller involving sensory impairment went straight to Netflix. Which is a shame, because Mike Flanagan’s ruthlessly efficient Hush would play like gangbusters on the big screen. At just 81 minutes, the film wastes little time setting up its cat-and-mouse game, which pits a deaf novelist (Kate Siegel) against the psychopath stalking the perimeter of her secluded country home. The heroine’s impairment ratchets up the threat level (how can she fend off what she can’t hear?), and Hush toys with genre convention by unmasking the killer fairly quickly. Mostly, though, this is just an effectively straightforward exercise in suspense, one that further positions Flanagan—who also made the year’s well-received Ouija prequel—as a filmmaker with a strong grasp on horror’s fundamentals. It’s enough to make one wish those rumors about him taking over the Halloween franchise had turned out to be true. Streaming on Netflix. [A.A. Dowd]
As so many films these days do, the Chinese travelogue Paths Of The Soul, which follows a group of Buddhist villagers as they trek to the high-up holy city of Lhasa, combines elements of fiction and documentary. But director Zhang Yang’s movie—a meditation on ritual filled with jaw-dropping Tibetan scenery—isn‘t the least bit fussy about its own formal alchemy. The clear-eyed Paths stays admirably focused throughout on the sheer enormity of the months-long, 1,200-kilometer journey-by-foot, made all the more arduous by the fact that the pilgrims prostrate themselves on the pavement every few feet. Their devotion is staggering. And so is the film. Available on iTunes and Amazon. [Benjamin Mercer]
Part of the wicked fun of Pet, a dark little exercise in sadism and black humor, is how it upends the traditional conventions of the “wronged woman turns the tables on her abuser” narrative. True, it stars Dominic Monaghan as a socially inept loner who gets frustrated when his awkward efforts to woo an old schoolmate (Ksenia Solo) come across more like stalking. And yes, when he picks up her journal and learns her habits, he forms the kind of plan that normally turns into dime-store violent voyeurism of the gratuitous kind. But from there, the films zigs where you expect a depraved zag, resulting in a smart and unsettling tale—filmed with surprising brio by director Carles Torrens, who makes sure the viewer knows every nook and cranny of the layout—in which the expected plod through yet another disturbed creep torturing a plucky damsel gets a jolt of campy energy. Playing in select theaters. [Alex McCown-Levy]
Canadian filmmaker Brett Story takes an outsider’s look at the ripple effects of mass incarceration in the United States, via a dozen short, poetic vignettes that cover everything from a man who runs a business preparing inmate care packages to a former industrial town that now relies on the local prison to drive the economy. Not all of The Prison In Twelve Landscapes’ segments are equally fascinating. An overlong chapter on Ferguson, Missouri, tries to squeeze too big of a subject into an inadequate frame. Even there, though, Story mostly focuses on the alarming and heartbreaking particulars of a society that first criminalizes then exploits its underclass, squeezing every last dime from citizens who can’t spare a nickel. Playing in select theaters; click here for cities and dates. [Noel Murray]
Terrence Malick produced Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s short but unforgettable debut documentary, which contrasts the lives of two Minnesota drug dealers—one grizzled, one young—as a way of exploring the larger social problem of Native American gangs. The Seventh Fire mostly follows criminal lifer Rob Brown, a frequent convict who lives in a small village on a reservation, where he picks up a teenage disciple, Kevin. Combining nuts-and-bolts detail about the low-rent narcotics trade with evocative scenes of extreme poverty and native rituals, the film explores how cultural pride has been warped over time by pervasive criminality and the cold grip of addiction. Available on iTunes and Amazon. [Noel Murray]
Filmmaker Wang Bing’s wrenching ’Til Madness Do Us Part might not be the longest documentary to play in a movie theater this year—before it hit TV, the seven-and-a-half-hour O.J.: Made In America had a week-long Oscar-qualifying run in New York—but at 228 minutes, it certainly earns a place in the heavyweight division. Madness observes the day-to-day life, by turns chaotic and somnambulant, on the men’s floor of a hard-up mental institution in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. Having gained (improbable) access to this forgotten corner of the world, Wang proceeds to do something remarkable with it, crafting deeply humane portraits of these troubled individuals and their makeshift community. It’s a tough sit, bleak in content and forbidding in length, but also a formidable achievement. [Benjamin Mercer]
South Korea’s Yeon Sang-ho found a fresh take on the zombie-breakout flick by narrowing and elongating its shape; he constrains most of the action to a single high-speed rail, challenging a band of human survivors to safely pass from car to car. Yeon clearly establishes the rules governing his flesh-eaters early on and works within them well (one clever set piece involving a climb through the luggage racks will leave one’s nails in shreds), though his humans don’t have that same thought-through quality. (Pregnant woman and dutiful husband? Check. Workaholic dad and precocious young daughter? Check. Tragic teenage lovers? Check.) But a zombie movie content not to aspire to any loftier subtextual readings needs little more than a skilled choreographer of action, and there’s plenty of evidence that this film had one in Yeon. Ooh, do “demons in a submarine” next! Available on Blu-ray and DVD. [Charles Bramesco]