The Arbor: Roughly 700 films open theatrically in New York City. Philadelphia gets about a fourth of those. That means we miss some gems. One of the greatest casualties was Clio Barnard’s ingenious doc, which relates the short life of working-class English playwright Andrea Dunbar through a simple device: actors lip-synch to the audio interviews with those she left behind, including a half-Pakistani daughter who fell into drug use. It’s a striking and moving way to spice up documentary filmmaking’s usual talking heads-and-exposition approach.
Leap Year: Just as some people must carelessly rent the wrong Crash, chances are some of the five or six people seeking to rent Leap Year, the Amy Adams rom-com, instead wind up with Michael Rowe’s dark Mexican drama about a lonely sex addict who finally finds a partner who will join her in urolagnia and well, well beyond. Lead Monica del Carmen helps make an in-some-ways too tidy production as resonant emotionally as it is aesthetically.
Ong Bak 3: Video on Demand has made small/foreign genre films accessible to a wider audience, and that’s fantastic. But it still would have been nice to see the latest from Thai ass-kicker and elephant-enthusiast Tony Jaa old school: on a big screen with a whooping crowd.
Putty Hill: The most exciting American indie released this year, Matthew Porterfield’s city portrait offers a nonjudgmental look at young, low-income Baltimoreans in the wake of an OD, although most would rather hang out or play paintball than grieve. Porterfield casts mostly non-pros then interviews them in “character,” and the jostle between real and fiction proves thrilling.
Shit Year: The same year Ellen Barkin became a potty-mouthed Twitter star, she delivered one of the year’s finest performances. Cam Archer’s kaleidoscopic, B&W character study casts Barkin as an aging, Barkin-esque actress who retires. She shouldn’t follow suit.
To Die Like a Man: Now that Pedro Almodovar’s transsexuals are played by hot actresses, the torch is passed to Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues. The maker of the formally adventurous O Fantasma and Two Drifters slows down for this elegy to an aging, dying drag queen that’s alternately loopy, hypnotic and deeply melancholic.