10 Great Sleeper Films You May Have Missed (Vol. III)
“Animal Kingdom” (2012) is a gritty Australian crime thriller that follows 17-year old “J” (James Frecheville) who loses his mother to addiction and is forced to re-enter the lives of his extended family, a gnarly group of hardened Melbourne criminals. Taken in by his grandmother (Jacki Weaver) and uncles (Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton and Ben Mendelsohn), J soon finds himself enmeshed in dangerous criminal activity while being hounded by a persistent police detective (Guy Pearce) dedicated to saving him from destruction. Written and directed by David Michôd (The Rover), “Animal Kingdom” is a striking and heartbreaking depiction of innocence lost and dark family legacy, told in a strikingly engaging visual manner (major tip of the hat to Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw). Later developed into an American television program by the same name, though the original film is vastly superior to the latter effort.
Shot in one single, continuous take for the entire 138-minute running time, "Victoria" (2015) is a dynamic German thriller about a young Spanish woman named Victoria (Laia Costa), swept up in a dangerous plot alongside four young men she chances to meet one night at a Berlin nightclub. Writer/director Sebastian Schipper has crafted a thrilling potboiler with this one, balancing patient chemistry-building between Victoria and the charming Sonne (Frederick Lau), growing atmospheric tension, and ultimately frenetic, edge-of-your-seat action. Shipper and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen give the film a great midnight-to-dawn (and then some) aura in-and-around the Kreuzberg and Mitte neighborhoods of Berlin, and the actors do an impressive job of improvising their dialogue throughout. It’s a vastly entertaining, enthralling, one-of-a kind cinematic experience not to be missed.
3. Zero Days
"Zero Days" (2016) is a fascinating and alarming documentary about the Stuxnet computer virus that raised red flags throughout the cybersecurity world in 2010. Told in urgent fashion with first-hand accounts from cyber professionals, "Zero Days" details the efforts of analysts to dissect the Stuxnet code, and ultimately determine that it was the wayward product of a joint effort between the U.S. and Israel governments to sabotage centrifuges inside Iran's Natanz nuclear plant—in the hopes of slowing their development of nuclear weapons. The unfolding mystery of this story plays out with urgency and dismay, as the implications of this covert operation unfold. It’s a stunning real-life thriller from renowned documentarian Alex Gibney that not only details the complexities of advanced coding in a remarkably evocative manner, but also spells out much of the modern espionage involved in making such an elaborate operation even possible.
4. The Tribe (Plemya)
"The Tribe" (2014) is an immersive Ukranian film about a new student to a school for the deaf who is recruited into the ruthless gang of male students that lords over the campus like a mafia-style organization. Grygoriy Fesenko plays the lead, Serihy, as a game, agreeable teen content to fit in even as he is engaged in violent initiation activities and charged with pimping out his female classmates at local truck stops. The turning point for Serihy comes when he develops feelings for one of the girls he supervises, setting off a cascading series of events that lead to a stunning, brutally jarring climax. Note: since all of the characters in the film are deaf there is no verbal dialogue spoken throughout, and no subtitles are provided either. But don’t let this dissuade you—it isn’t hard to deduce the intentions of the performers, it’s one hell of an experience and it’s definitely worth the challenge.
5. Son of Saul (Saul Fia)
Depicting the atrocities of work as a Nazi concentration camp Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoner forced to dispose of gas chamber victims), "Son of Saul" (2015) is about as grim yet undeniably affecting a film as you’ll come across. The stark Hungarian drama is shot up-close in a 4:3 aspect ratio that limits the viewer’s scope of the nightmarish death camp experience to a claustrophobic frame of vision. This immersive effect puts you on-the-scene and in-the-moment as the titular Saul searches for a Rabbi amongst the incoming prisoners to assist in the burial of deceased child. Incredibly tense and riveting throughout its entire 107-minute running time, first-time writer/director László Nemes has captured a true hell-on-Earth vision that somehow carries an underlying spirit of hope and yearning for childhood innocence that stands out against the backdrop of such a bleak environment. Utterly unforgettable.
“The Gatekeepers” (2012) is a fascinating documentary providing a historical exposition of Shin Bet (Israeli secret service) dating back to 1967, as told directly by its six surviving former heads of the counterespionage outfit. The film provides a remarkable retrospective that examines in-depth the milestone events and decisions that have shaped the agency's agenda, policies and activities over the past 50+ years. Utterly superb storytelling by director Dror Moreh that delves directly into the most important matters of hatred, violence, revenge and collateral damage. Moral questions arise surrounding a number of controversial actions and activities, and the filmmakers take the wise approach of remaining journalistically neutral to the subject matter. Ultimately the personal revelations of each of the 6 former dignitaries to be truly profound, and their insights provide a stunning, utterly memorable history lesson.
“Only Lovers Left Alive” (2102) is the story of two vampires, Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton), married for thousand of years and living thousands of miles apart, subsequently reunited in modern-day Detroit to find Hiddleston in state of disrepair and depression. Their lives are shaken up by the sudden appearance of Swinton’s wayward young vampire sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), whose troublesome ways set the heart of the story in motion. Written and directed by noted indie auteur Jim Jarmusch, “Only Lovers Left Alive” is the type of evenly-paced and wryly amusing dramedy that only Jarmusch could craft. The atmosphere and sensibility of the film are palpable and affective, aided immeasurably by a dark, somber soundtrack by Jozef Van Wissem & SQÜRL. Less of a narrative and more of a modern-day-vampire-slice-of-life, this is one of those films that gently gets under skin and stays awhile.
8. Win Win
"Win Win" (2011) is a lively and pleasing comedy/drama that follows Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) as an attorney and high school wrestling coach overwhelmed with debt, a struggling law practice, unhealthy anxiety and a hopelessly bad wrestling team. In a desperate attempt to remain afloat, Mike swindles one of his clients but is subsequently forced to care for the client’s grandson—only to discover that the boy is a wrestling phenom. Suddenly realizing the opportunity to find unheralded success for his team on the wrestling mat, Mike is soon facing serious moral dilemmas as his carefully constructed agenda begins to unravel. Directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, The Station Agent), “Win Win” is a genuine and original story that starts out on one path, but ends in a very different, unexpected place. I love McCarthy’s style of tempting convention but avoiding cliché and finding refreshingly unfamiliar plot resolution.
9. The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)
“The Red Turtle” (2016) is an animated French/Belgian/Japanese fable about a nameless man shipwrecked on a desert island who attempts repeatedly to escape upon man-made rafts, only to see each vessel smashed on the open sea by a mysterious creature. Increasingly desperate and unnerved, the man eventually comes face-to-face with his aggressor: a large, seemingly benign red sea turtle. In a moment of unexpected magical-realism, the turtle transforms before the man’s eyes into a beautiful woman who soon becomes his companion upon the island. Told without dialogue, “The Red Turtle” is a touching parable about survival and acceptance, aided immeasurably by composer Laurent Perez Del Mar’s ephemeral soundtrack. The animation is simple yet embellished with perspective, displaying many moments of profound meaning and importance in a straightforward yet evocative manner. A real treasure worth seeking out.
“Güeros" (2014) is the story of a rambunctious Mexican youth, Tomas, who is sent by his mother to live with his brother, Federico, in Mexico City. Soon after arriving in the capital city, Tomas finds himself caught up in a leisurely, road-trip-of-sorts around the city with Federico and his roommate in search of a famous musician who they desperately hope to meet before his death. It’s a languid, dreamy story fractured into various vignettes featuring student radicals, poets, hooligans, elitists, musicians and revolutionaries, shot wonderfully in black-and-white and coming off like something of a 21st Century homage to the French New Wave movement of the 1960’s. The film runs a bit slow at times, and it never rushes to hit you over the head with its agenda, but it’s worth searching out if you’re in just the right mood for something sublimely poetic and lightly adventurous. A really nice touch of inspired youthful idealism.