10 Great Sleeper Films You May Have Missed (Vol. II)
“Incendies" (2010) is a deeply enthralling drama/thriller that follows a pair of Québécois siblings as they honor their mother’s last wish by traveling to the Middle East in search of the father they have never known. Their journey is finely interwoven with flashbacks to their mother’s own travails within the same war-torn region decades earlier, as a Christian-Arab driven by the injustice of losing her lover and son amidst hardline sectarian tumult. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, who would go on to great success with Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, “Incendies” is immersive, riveting and ultimately shocking—
providing as emotionally visceral an experience as you are likely to find on film. A 2010 Best Foreign Film nominee, this one is clearly something very special right from the captivating Radiohead-themed opening sequence.
“Shame” (2011) is a mesmerizing depiction of sexual addiction, featuring Michael Fassbender in one of the most remarkable acting displays of the past decade. The film follows his protagonist, Brandon, through his day-to-day existence as a high-performing professional harboring an incessant, nearly furious demand for sexual gratification. Fassbender’s performance is quite nearly matched by Carey Mulligan as his wayward sister, whose intrusion into his lifestyle sets the central conflict of the story in motion. In many ways to sex what Requiem for a Dream was to drugs, Shame is certainly not to be viewed with mixed company (note the NC-17 rating). With this film, director and renowned British artist Steve McQueen furthered his ascension toward filmmaking royalty, following-up on his stunning 2008 feature Hunger and precluding his Academy Award winning triumph 12 Years A Slave.
3. Starred Up
In this 2013 British prison drama, Jack O'Connell plays Eric Love, a troubled youth who is “starred up” by the courts due to his fractious behavior, and is transferred from the youth penal system to a maximum security penitentiary. Confronted with the harsh reality of adult prison life, Eric openly and violently rebels against the disparate forces that he faces: unsympathetic guards, fierce inmates, disillusioned administrators and his own incarcerated father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). The heart of the story revolves around the push and pull Eric struggles against between Neville, his reluctant yet aggressive benefactor, and the empathetic prison counselor Baumer (Rupert Friend). All three leads are dynamite in their performances, with O’Connell shining brightest as the frighteningly combustible Eric. Razor sharp direction across the board—an achingly concise depiction of inherited violence balanced with just the slightest glimmer of hope.
4. All is Lost
“All Is Lost” (2013) is the straightforward tale of a solitary man (Robert Redford) on a solo sailing voyage around the world who struggles to survive as his ship is repeatedly battered by the elements of nature. Very little dialogue is present as Redford's character steadily, painstakingly faces each new challenge head-on, even as the ship's demise become increasingly inevitable. "All is Lost" is an immersive and involving depiction of survival wrought with ominous dread that is never forced or rushed, but rather almost discerningly patient in its progression toward the inevitable. To top it off, Alexander Ebert (of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros) delivers a wonderfully affecting musical score, perfectly balancing spirited adventurism and existential finality. A real sleeper of a film from J.C. Candor, who seems to specialize in under-appreciated gems (Margin Call, A Most Violent Year.)
“Enter the Void” (2009) is a stunning, one-of-a-kind visual experience from Argentine auteur Gaspar Noé (Irréversible, Love), about a young American drug dealer, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) living in Tokyo with his sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), when he is gunned down by the police. The camera follows the perspective of Oscar’s soul as it exits his body and embarks upon a mesmerizing, kaleidoscopic journey through time and space, throughout the city of Tokyo, and into the minds and bodies of his loved ones. Inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Noé employs mind-blowing camera work and visual effects to represent Oscar’s journey through the Bardo states of intermediate existence according to the school of Buddhism. It’s a lengthy, weighty and daring escapade marred slightly by middling performances and wooden dialogue, but the pure psychedelic splendor and existential thrill of the experience is impossible to deny.
“American Honey” (2016) follows Star, a young woman from a broken home, who runs off with a traveling group of door-to-door magazine subscription salespeople—a ragtag crew of lost young souls crisscrossing America in search of some semblance of the American Dream. Drawn in by the crew’s charismatic sergeant Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and repeatedly challenged by their no-nonsense general (Riley Keough), Star finds herself immersed in a world of newfound freedom, hedonism and incessant demand to succeed. It’s a bold and refreshingly original work from acclaimed British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road), offering up an unusual brew of high-spirited adventurism, hard-nosed business enterprise and cult-like dedication to rule. It’s highlighted by an eclectic musical soundtrack, and the careful selection of songs really glues the entire storyline together in a “soundtrack of our lives” sense—very much of the times for these frantic, wayward youths of America.
Set in New York City in 1921, “The Immigrant” (2013) is an engaging parable about a young Polish immigrant, Ewa, arriving to Ellis Island with her sister, Magda, only to see Magda quarantined for health concerns—leaving Ewa to fend for herself on the streets of the Lower East Side. Subsequently forced into prostitution by Bruno, a devilish theater owner and pimp played by Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard plays the titular immigrant to aggrieved perfection. She delivers an award-worthy performance as she ekes out all of the helplessness and distraught confusion of the young naif, forced into complex relationships with both Bruno and his dashing cousin, Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner). A premise that may sound less interesting than it actually is. In fact, this is the type of invigorating filmmaking (courtesy of writer/director James Gray) that will have you fully engaged from start to finish.
“The Other Dream Team” (2012) is a documentary that tells the remarkable true story of the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Men’s Basketball team that received scant media attention in the shadow of the renowned U.S. “Dream Team” of NBA superstars (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, et al.). The Lithuanians’ story was all the more compelling in that it came on the heels of their country’s emancipation from Communist rule in 1990, when financial support was minimal, and the team had little hope of participating in the Barcelona games. Only after their plight was detailed in a local newspaper in the U.S. did The Grateful Dead (of all sources) learn of their conundrum and offer to finance their pursuit of Olympic glory. It’s a wonderful story told with exuberance and verve, showcasing an inspiring moment in global partnership by the most unlikely of benefactors. A real treasure of a film.
9. Soul Kitchen
“Soul Kitchen” (2009) is a lively and enjoyable German comedy about a Greco-German restaurant owner, Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos), striving to save his locals-only restaurant in a Hamburg warehouse space. Facing mounting tax bills and a painful back ailment, Zinos enlists his incarcerated brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) as part of a prison work release program, as well as the mercurial Shayn (Birol Ünel) as his new head chef. They soon transform the titular eatery into a gourmet destination and hip music venue, amidst comical strife between the various disparate personas involved. “Soul Kitchen” is a lighter affair from writer/director Fatih Akin (Head-On, The Edge of Heaven), showcasing his flair for lively characterization, bustling plot elements and undertones of compassion. Akin is one of the most exciting young auteurs working in film today, and “Soul Kitchen” one of his most entertaining accomplishments to date.
10. Like Crazy
“Like Crazy “ (2011) is a winning tale of young love, starring Anton Yelchin (RIP) as Jacob, an American college student enraptured by British exchange student Anna (Felicity Jones)—only to see Anna denied re-entry to the United States after outstaying her student visa. Forced apart by unbending immigration policies, they strain to maintain a long-distance relationship as their lives proceed in separate spheres and their hopes of being reunited fluctuate. It’s a touching and honest story, based in part on writer/director Drake Doremus’ own experience in a complicated relationship with a British woman thousands of miles away. Made for just $250,000 with the actors improvising much of their own dialogue, “Like Crazy” maintains a finely naturalistic tone as it depicts the complexities of young love in an utterly unique and authentic manner. Winner of a well-deserved Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.