For the fifth year running, we tally up the Other Year’s Best — the films that made it to DVD (or onto U.S. home video in any format) but not to theatrical, which generally meant they posed too much of a marketing challenge. As in, the films were either too odd, too original, too archival, too subtle, too something. DVDs still stand as our go-to B-movie-distribution stream of choice, although as I’ve barked every year, video debuts are still not eligible for any year-end toasts or trophies. Except ours.
10. “Parking” (Chung Mong-hong, Taiwan) At first blush a Taiwanese riff on “After Hours,” this measured little odyssey is more realistic, evoking those all-night odysseys we’ve all had, when time evaporates and tiny logistical dilemmas drive us insane and eventually it’s morning and something about our lives is different. Chung doesn’t spring for laughs when you think he will — he holds back, shoots his urban tapestry as if he were Wong Kar-wai and Ridley Scott’s bastard son, and luxuriates in the secretive weirdness. Asian demigod Chen Chang stars as a husband in a shaky marriage who stops to buy a cake for his wife, and returns to his car to find it blocked by double-parking, sending him across the paths of two crisscrossing gangster herds, a beleaguered Chinese hooker, a one-handed barber with a secret past, an executed murderer’s family, a mishandled fish head, and so on. (The original review.) (Evokative Films)
9. “How to Live in the German Federal Republic” (Haroun Farocki, Germany) A scrapbook toss-off by one of Europe’s most adventurous documentarians, this assemblage stares dead-eyed at more than 30 real-life scenarios, all shot before reunification, in which West Germans are being trained for living, engaging in classroom reenactments of everything from diapering babies to handling job interviews, launching shoulder rockets, having domestic fights, setting dinner tables, even stripping in nightclubs. Life, here, is not even a movie but an endless preparation for one; it’s a doc, but it’s 100% pretend. (The original review.) (Facets)
8. “Skeletons” (Nick Whitfield, Great Britain) This deadpan metaphorical farce posits two shabby, suited contractors in black suits making house calls to literally extract poisonous secrets out of people’s closets. Of course they cross their profession’s line and must be exorcised themselves, but the textures are funny and mysterious, and the symbology gets richer the deeper you go. (Indiepix)
7. “Yesterday Girl” (Alexander Kluge, West Germany) Kluge, a New German Cinema pioneer all but unknown here, grabbed the New Wave mantle for his homeland with this intimate, Godardian 1966 critique, in which a disaffected, rebellious girl from East Germany confronts the Darwinian recalcitrance of modern Capitalism in Berlin, beginning with a prison stint for a petty crime. Cut like a pile of mirror shards, and beguilingly generational. (Facets)
6. “Daytime Drinking” (Noh Young-seok, South Korea) A peripatetic generation-Z comedy that’s as eventless, but as seductive and wistful, as a real afternoon boozing spree, following a lovelorn dope as he drunkenly buses to a snowy vacation town expecting to meet his buddies, but arrives alone, and can’t quite leave. Soju-soaked and shruggingly comic, Noh’s movie isn’t high concept, but rather Jarmuschian, ambling along organically, as if it happened on its own, like a mushroom patch or blast of sunlight on a cloudy day. (The original review.) (Evokative Films)
5. “Mary & Max” (Adam Elliot, Australia) A claymation true story as lachrymose and despairing as it is texturally outrageous, this uneasy saga is not for kids, pivoting on child neglect and alcoholism and New Globalism and Asperger’s and loneliness and death. Framed by understated, ironic narration (read by Barry Humphries) that complements Elliott’s handmade visuals like sugar in very black coffee, the movie chronicles the happenstance pen-pal relationship between an abused Australian girl and an obese, middle-aged New York man with debilitating Asperger’s, which does not end well. Elliot’s visual/sculptural invention is fascinating, and the story’s beautifully sad. This loitered around in festivals and in short runs so long it may seem like it was released, but it wasn’t. (The original review.) (MPI)
4. “Sing a Song of Sex” (Nagisa Oshima, Japan) So much happen in the ’60s we never saw – thanks to Criterion, three rare ’60s bonfires by the Japanese New Wave’s most recalcitrant pain in the ass, Nagisa Oshima, qualify as 2010 debuts. Released in 1967, this discontented narrative essay (the actual title is “A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs”) is framed around four students who chase women after their exams, imagine compounded rape scenarios, wonder why they’re not bummed about the death of a professor, and generally stand in for the soulless, aimless generation Oshima witnessed caring little for adult society but barely even caring about the carnage of Vietnam. Absolutely of a piece with “If…,” “La Chinoise” and Bertolucci’s “Before the Revolution,” and entirely improvised, the film is one of the late ’60s key documents, a generational holler with double-bladed edges. Same goes for Oshima’s “Japanese Summer: Double Suicide,” another 1967 assault that is almost pure chaos, pointless violence and anarchic behavior, taking the fragmented wager of late-decade Godard and tripling the bet. Closer to Japanese Makavejev, absolutely logic-free, and completely adorable. (The original review.) (Criterion)
3. “Three Resurrected Drunkards” (Nagisa Oshima, Japan) The last “new” Oshima, this absurdist goof lacerates Japanese bigotry, beginning with the three titular idiots, gamboling Monkees-style, going swimming only to have a mysterious hand pop out of the sand and replace their clothes with immigrant-Korean duds. From there, they are persecuted and pursued, captured, shipped out to Vietnam and back, constantly changing clothes in order to better conform but never quite succeeding. Then, after a documentary fissure where the characters interview people on the street (who all say they’re Korean), the entire film begins again but gradually deviates from the first half, as the three schmucks cease resisting being defined one way or another ethnically but instead embrace however they’re perceived. Only Oshima. (The original review.) (Criterion)
2. “The Last Stage” (Wanda Jakubowska, Poland) Where had this history-changer been hiding? Released in 1948, it’s a Polish film about life in Auschwitz, made less than three years after liberation of the camp, shot on location in Auschwitz itself, using real liberated prisoners as extras, filmed by a woman (female Polish directors in the ’40s?) who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz just three years earlier. However professionally glossy (?!), Jakubowska has her shaky hands on what she seemed to already know was the most loaded real location of the 20th century: the train tracks, the front gate, the Nazis guards lined up against the sky as the transports roll in, the inmate crowds so huge (thousands, at least) that Jakubowska could have only recruited extras from displaced person camps in Poland. If any forgotten movie deserves to enter the broader discourse about contemporary history, this is it. (The original review.) (Facets)
1. “Shirin” (Abba Kiarostami, Iran) The Iranian master’s most innovative, and taxing, anti-movie, in which he adapts a classic Persian legend full of romance and swordfights but only as an off-screen rapture enjoyed by dozens and dozens of women in the audience, watching the film that isn’t there. (They’re not even listening — typically for him, AK concocted the hot-blooded soundtrack later.) Sounds simple, but self-reflexivity gets refluxed and refracted right back at ya. (Cinema Guild)
Runners-up: “Searchers 2.0” (Alex Cox, U.S., 2007); “Salto” (Tadeusz Konwicki, Poland, 1965); “Divided Heaven” (Konrad Wolf, East Germany, 1964); “Destricted” (Marina Abramovic, Larry Clark, Matthew Barney, Gaspar Noé, et al., U.S./Great Britain, 2006); “The Disappeared” (Johnny Kevorkian, Great Britain, 2008); “Don’t Look Back” (Marina de Van, France, 2009); “Getting Home” (Zhang Yang, China, 2007); “Towards Zero” (Pascal Thomas, France, 2007); “Storm” (Hans-Christian Schmid, Germany, 2009); “Possible Lives” (Sandra Gugliotta, Argentina, 2007); “Ex-Drummer” (Koen Mortier, Belgium, 2007).