10 Great Sleeper Films You May Have Missed (Vol. I)
1. Green Room
“Green Room” (2015) is a dynamic thriller about a punk band touring the Pacific Northwest, barely scraping by, and forced to trek to a remote music hall in the Oregon woods to perform to a houseful of aggressive Neo-Nazis. Backstage after their set, they stumble upon a murder scene within the titular green room, setting off a volatile scramble to barricade themselves against the murderous alt-right brotherhood overseen by Patrick Stewart (at his menacing best). Building on his previous success with the revenge thriller Blue Ruin, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has crafted a twistedly enjoyable and remarkably well-crafted nail-biter with this one. It’s a wicked brew of fear, claustrophobia, and startling violence that’s certainly not primed for family viewing—but it’s so finely drawn out, the characters all so nicely-defined and the direction so spot-on every step of the way—it’s an undeniable pleasure.
“Attack the Block” (2011) is a rollicking sci-fi/action/comedy set amidst the council estates of South London, as a gang of tough urban youths defend their home turf against extraterrestrial invaders from above. From the producers of Shaun of the Dead, "Attack the Block" shares a similar energy and irreverent sense of humor with Edgar Wright’s zombie comedy classic, and is highlighted by the lead performance of a young John Bodega (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi) as Moses, the tough, no-nonsense leader of the heroic street gang. Writer/director Joe Cornish really scored with this one—it’s intense, extremely well-made and laugh-out-loud funny, with some of the best street slang dialogue I’ve ever heard in film, bruv. “Major ratings” to all involved.
3. War Witch (Rebelle)
“War Witch” (2012) is an enthralling African war drama written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Kim Nguyen, and set in an unnamed Sub-Saharan country overrun by civil war. The film follows the travails of 12-year old Komona after she is abducted from her home village and conscripted amongst rebel forces against her will. Komona narrates the story to the unborn child growing within her womb, as she experiences the horrors of warfare, the complexities of young love, the heartbreak of loss, and ultimately the transcendence of (at least partial) reconciliation. “War Witch” is beautifully shot and amazingly well acted by mostly non-professionals; it was a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012, and Rachel Mwanza won a well-deserved Best Actress award at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival.
4. A Hijacking (Kapringen)
In 2012, Captain Phillips was the Somali pirate film of the year for most moviegoers, but it was this Danish drama about a Scandinavian cargo ship hijacked in The Gulf of Aden that I felt was the superior achievement. Laid out in a moderately-paced manner and unfolding over several weeks worth of time as crew members suffer and executives painstakingly negotiate for the crew's freedom, "A Hijacking" lacks the shoot-em-up heroics that its American counterpart so proudly displayed. Instead it serves as a riveting human drama and a high-intensity negotiation procedural that plays out like the tensest of human chess matches. Uncomfortable, stressful and increasingly anxiety-inducing, this one paints an honest portrait of a true-to-life hostage scenario in all its ugliness and complexity.
“Winter’s Bone” (2010) is s stark neo-noir tale of young teenage Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) struggling to care for her impoverished family when she learns that her meth-cook father has disappeared and that her family faces eviction from their home. Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, the film follows Ree’s race-against-time in the search for her father within the criminal underworld of their small Ozark Mountain community. The storyline leads her from one jarring confrontation to another and blends life-like naturalism with classic mystery elements, adding up to an impressive hybrid of styles that feels at once both refreshingly familiar and strikingly original. It’s edgy, engaging stuff and Lawrence is stunningly good in her first lead performance, displaying the perfect blend of steely nerves and moments of honest fragility.
Nine years after his out-of-nowhere, mind-bending premier Primer (2004), Writer/Producer/Director/Star Shane Carruth returned in 2013 with this exponentially more challenging feature—a neo sci-fi/drama/thriller quite nearly impossible to describe effectively in words. Ostensibly focused upon a woman who has been drugged, brainwashed and robbed and is subsequently drawn to an unknown man who has experienced a similar theft, Carruth draws out the drama in a fractured narrative that challenges the viewer to piece together the dream-like story fragments and implications like a complicated puzzle. Certainly not "audience friendly" in any sort of traditional sense, I love how Carruth paints such an elaborate, intelligent tale in such a remarkably original manner. If this is the future of film, I'm definitely on board.
“Ida” (2013) is a stark black & white drama set in the early 60’s about a young Polish nun-to-be and her bawdy Aunt Wanda searching for the truth behind her family’s demise at the hands of the Nazis. What initially comes off as a painfully slow sleep-inducer quickly evolves into a touching and lively contrast between the two lead characters; one virtuous and pure, the other boorish and hedonistic. Their journey is equal parts amusing, insightful and heartbreaking, with Ida’s personal exploration of self playing out as a remarkably humanistic affair. The cinematography by Lukasz Za and Ryszard Lenczewski is particularly striking, each shot a work of art in its own right. Logging in at just 82 minutes, the entire story moves quickly and invariably leaves you wanting more. Ultimately it’s the kind of film that will stay with you long after you’ve watched it.
“Tangerine” (2015) is a unusual and refreshingly original story about a transvestite prostitute, Sin-dee Rella, who is released from jail and returns to the streets of Los Angeles, only to learn that her pimp and boyfriend, Chester, has been cheating on her while she was incarcerated—setting off a madcap search and series of absurd and unusual confrontations. Highly energetic and unconventional, often quite funny, "Tangerine" is a genuine treat. It features an interestingly intertwined subplot about an Armenian cab driver and his family who become enmeshed in the entire affair, which lends a fascinating cross-cultural component to the overall storyline. Tangerine has great style and flair, wonderful use of music and dynamite cinematography—the latter being particularly noteworthy since it was all shot on an iPhone!
“I, Daniel Blake” (2016) is a British drama about a middle-aged carpenter (Dave Johns) recovering from a heart attack, caught in a web of complexity as he attempts to navigate the convoluted schemes for both state-sponsored sickness and unemployment benefits. Unable to properly qualify for either, he falls between the cracks of a system far too impersonally concerned with process and procedure. His sole concord comes in the burgeoning friendship he develops with a young single mother and her two young children, who he strives to assist through their own financial dilemma. Directed by Ken Loach, "I, Daniel Blake" attacks the British welfare system as a bureaucratic monstrosity that’s far too obstructed by structure and formality to maintain any reasonable degree of empathy for those suffering from sickness and loss of wages. A film set to anger you and unnerve you, yet leave an indelible mark on your heart.
In “Beginners” (2010), Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a young man who reminisces over the final years of his father’s life, beginning with the father’s dual announcement that he is both gay and that he has terminal cancer. Much of the story is told in flashback, as Oliver looks back upon the late-blooming happiness his father finally found after years of suppressing his true self, with Christopher Plummer delivering a wonderful performance in the role of Hal the father. Written and directed by Mike Mills, the film is based on MIlls' own life experience, and very much captures the magical, mixed-up energy and emotions such a transformative experience would have engendered. It’s a touching story of love and loss, with great performances and genuine heart.