While I certainly don't catch every movie released in a given year, I do watch my fair share... including a handful of stellar efforts that didn't have the benefit of lavish studio campaigns or hefty promotional budgets to draw attention to themselves. Not one of these films grossed over $5 million in America; some of you might not even be aware of their very existence. Now easily available on DVD and Blu-Ray, each is well worth seeking out.
In The Loop
This British effort, released through IFC Films in the U.S., is easily the smartest—and most uncomfortably accurate—political satire since Wag The Dog. But don't let that scare you off, because In The Loop is also violently, profanely, jaw-droppingly funny, with so many quotable lines coming fast and furious, multiple viewings seem almost a necessity. A well-deserved "Best Original Screenplay" nomination, plus the presence of James Gandolfini (as an American general crunching troop numbers via a talking toy calculator in one priceless scene), should entice those who like their comedy smart and adult, but the film's secret weapon is Scotsman Peter Capaldi; as British communications chief Malcolm Tucker, he wields obscenity like a saber, precise and gut-splitting.
Bonus Features: Unlike most "Deleted Scenes" extras, these bits are actually worth watching. Trimmed off the film's original four-hour (!!) running time, they're every bit as hilarious as anything in the final edit.
In a perfect world, Sam Rockwell would've scored multiple awards for his one-man tour de force in Moon, a thought-provoking meditation from first-time director (and son of David Bowie)Duncan Jones. The film itself is a winking nod to 2001, right down to GERTY, the HAL-influenced computer voiced by Kevin Spacey. But where Kubrick strove to blow your mind apart, Jones is content to let his feature unfold quietly, allowing Moon's twin themes of loneliness and corporate greed to sneak up on the viewer, unannounced. The result ranks amongst the best science fiction of the last decade, proving that bold execution trumps big budget every time.
Bonus Features: Several strong "Making Of" documentaries, which capture Jones' charming enthusiasm and shed light on how to produce top-notch effects with a (relatively) shoestring budget of $5 million.
The Damned United
Thanks to standout roles in Frost/Nixon, The Queen, and now The Damned United, Michael Sheen is fast becoming one of my favorite actors to watch in practically anything. Taking on the real-life role of legendary football manager Brian Clough, Sheen unveils a complicated, complex, and utterly fascinating character study, aided on all sides by stellar British ensemble acting from Colm Meaney (AKA the great Gene Hunt of Life On Mars) and Harry Potter "alums" Jim Broadbent and Timothy Spall. Like most Americans, I have no real interest in soccer, no knowledge of Leeds United or the European Cup or First Division standings... and yet, I was completely enthralled for all 98 minutes. Here's betting you will be, too.
Bonus Features: Strong, fully-produced deleted scenes, plus documentary footage of the real Brian Clough, every bit the character of Sheen's portrayal.