More films, please

Video on Demand expands local film lovers’ horizons

Movie wise, the past year was a pretty good one locally. There were, by my count, nearly two dozen new films of exceptional interest that reached Chico theaters. And a couple of dozen more—upward of 30, by my lights—were variously within reach on video.

From where I sat, the video cavalcade got even more impressive once I started tapping into the On Demand offerings on my cable service. VOD rentals are generally more expensive than renting locally or through Netflix, but they offer a unique kind of access on account of the innovative distribution deals that have many new foreign and indie films becoming available on demand the same day they have their U.S. theatrical premieres.

As it happens, three year-end releases in that mode—Secret Sunshine, Hadewijch, The Time That Remains—are among the very best films I’ve seen in the last 12 months. And I could come up with a perfectly respectable 2010 Top Ten list just from the two dozen or so first-rate movies I encountered via On Demand. Here are a few of the very best (the first two of which are currently available):

Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea)

Shin-ae (a mercurial Jeon Do-yeon), a widowed single mom and piano teacher moving to the small town of Miryang, is not easy to like—and that’s part of what makes her a fascinating character. Her story eventually takes shape as a spiritual journey of an unexpectedly paradoxical sort, but the path to that recognition takes us through some deceptively low-key versions of several other kinds of story—provincial satire, murder mystery, psychodrama, morality play, religious quest. Sang Kong-ho is very good as the bachelor mechanic and would-be guardian angel toward whom Shin-ae feels wildly ambivalent.

Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont, France)

Celine, aka Hadewijch, daughter of a well-to-do Parisian family, is also embarked upon a paradoxical spiritual journey. Expelled from a convent for excessive devotional zeal, she ventures out into contemporary French society and eventually finds herself in the company of two young Muslims, her boyfriend Yassine and his philosophically intense brother Nassir. Julie Sokolowski is enigmatically iconic in the title role as filmmaker Dumont takes her story along a fascinatingly fragmented path that raises as many questions as it answers.

Something Like Happiness (Bhodan Sláma, Czech Republic)

Monika (Tatiana Vilhelmová) and Toník (Pavel Liska), friends since childhood, are both struggling to make lives of their own in an economically depressed small town (half rural, half industrialized). A quietly intricate network of little dramas—fractured families, lost loves, generational conflicts, compassion and resentment among parents and children—plays out against a gritty social landscape. Vilhelmová (radiant, dedicated, smart) and Liska (sorrowful, doggedly congenial) are contrasting icons for a generation trying to make good things happen in otherwise discouraging circumstances.

Mother (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

The title character (an unforgettable Kim Hye-ja) is fiercely protective of her mentally challenged young-adult son, and when he is suddenly charged with the murder of a neighboring schoolgirl, she goes on the offensive—in his defense. What emerges is a slow-brewing mystery tale with surprisingly complex psychological underpinnings. An almost Hitchcockian character portrait takes shape amid sidelong meditations on the puzzle of memory and emotional impulse.

Welcome (Philippe Lioret, France)

Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), a teenage Kurdish refugee, enlists the aid of Simon (Vincent Lindon), a swim coach in the port town of Calais. The kid is determined to swim the English Channel so he can join his girlfriend in London. Simon, reluctant at first, becomes more and more supportive of Bilal’s cause, even as his marriage to a fiercely committed charity worker (Audrey Dana) unravels. It’s an immigration drama from another hemisphere, but even more than that it’s a surprisingly moving picture of the several kinds of homelessness and exile that are epidemic in our times.

The Time That Remains (Elia Suleiman, France/Israel)

Suleiman, an Arab Israeli born in Nazareth, portrays the history of the state of Israel, 1948-present, through an eccentrically autobiographical lens. Suleiman plays himself (“ES” in the credits), with child actors playing him as a child and as a teen. What ensues is a darkly comic/ironic historical panorama, with touches of Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati and something like the cinematic absurdism of Jean-Luc Godard, Abbas Kiarostami and Manoel de Oliveira.