It's tricky, as a cinema critic, to keep up to date with the great morass of titles released direct to DVD each week - some unlucky not to get a theatrical outing, some obviously lucky to be getting any kind of release at all, many sequels to films we weren't hugely fussed about first time round. With the apparent demise of the high-street video shop, the pleasures of browsing the lower racks for those dusty, generally unloved features starring Gary Busey or Olivier Gruner have been taken from us - you kind of have to know what you're looking for when logging on to online rental and streaming sites. Nevertheless, with the aid of a few reliable guides (Kim Newman's Video Dungeon, in the back pages of each month's Empire magazine, has become an increasingly invaluable touchstone), I've somehow managed to stumble across the odd gem - so, in the holiday spirit, here are the ten best direct-to-DVD titles I saw over the past 12 months. (No Busey or Gruner, alas. Not even a Jake Busey.)
10. The Tunnel/Der Tunnel
Finally emerging in the UK ten years after its original airing, this feature-length cut of a TV miniseries bequeathed several of its actors to those excavations of Germany's past that followed (Downfall, Sophie Scholl, The Lives of Others). Yet the excavation here is literal: it's the true story of Harry Melchior (Heino Ferch), a champion swimmer who - in 1961, as the Berlin Wall was going up - defected from East to West Germany, and spent the next few years digging a tunnel under the border with the intention of bringing his loved ones across. Solidly acted and very handsomely mounted, it comes with its own in-built, to some degree conventional tensions (fans of cinematic engineering will cheer when Sebastian Koch finally gets his hands on a Bosch sledgehammer), but digs up its fair share of leftfield, you-couldn't-make-it-up twists along the way to its great escape: amazingly, Hollywood executives began to circle around Melchior's story even as the tunnel was being hollowed out.
The year's foremost killer pig movie. With The Artist's Berenice Bejo and Gregoire Colin, unusually effective as the beta-male forced to pick up his rifle when his industrialist hosts wig out (or expire).
8. Beneath Hill 60
More true-life tunnelling, this time the work of Australian mining engineers recruited by the Allies during World War I to dig under key locations, so as to facilitate troop movements or the laying of explosives under key enemy locations. Though the set-up gives rise to old-school set-pieces - like a tense crawl through no-man's-land to rig the cellar of a farmhouse with TNT - the drama is driven chiefly by the neuroses of the modern combat movie: the desperate wait for rookies who've become separated from the rest of their patrol, the inevitable push towards Ypres (or "Wipers", as the Aussies pronounce it), on which we're offered a new, subterranean perspective, as the miners are asked to dig below sea level, and to keep their heads above water without getting them blown off. Flashbacks to the hero's courtship in bright, wide-open Queensland pierce the gloom from time to time, but Jeremy Sams's handsome, decent film is at its most effective evoking stalemate, showing us individuals who aren't getting anywhere, lying scrambling or trapped: there's a reason it opens in 1916, slapbang in the middle of this protracted conflict, and works slowly, assiduously towards the light.
A London Film Festival pick back in 2009, and source of a John Pilger polemic, Robert Connolly's film is a complex equation, seeking to filter the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 through the eyes and experiences of six white Australian journalists: the five TV newsmen who went missing as the troops first moved in, and then Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), the veteran print hack recruited only a matter of months after his colleagues' disappearance to find out what exactly happened. It at least has the self-awareness to address the issue it raises - the sensation that, once again, the tragedies of a people East refers to as "brown folk" are being translated in terms white folk might more easily understand - in a scene where the journalist and his guide (Oscar Isaac, in the Haing S. Ngor role) debate what the former is actually in town for, and LaPaglia's battered, bracing humanity continually cuts against the worthiness inherent in the material.
Standard Hollywood operating practice is to take a great film made in a foreign language and then make it over in the most turgid fashion imaginable. This Cantonese thriller is on exactly the right lines in taking screenwriter Larry Cohen's superlative premise, let down by shoddy handling in 2004's Chris Evans/Kim Basinger vehicle Cellular, and improving upon it by several notches. The set-up's identical - a kidnapped woman manages to place a call to the mobile of a complete stranger, obliging him to investigate the crime - but Connected gains a dimension from the off by making the stranger in question not a bland hunk on board to pull in a particular demographic, but a fully-grown, frazzled debt collector (Louis Koo) busy enough trying to get across town to see a son from whom he's become estranged. (And in a succession of hilariously mid-range cars, at that.) The action - some tremendous stunt driving sequences, worth the rental price on their own, build to a last-reel forklift truck rampage (!) - is all director Benny Chan's own, but the framing brings it closer than anyone could have expected to the version of Cellular that Hitchcock would have made.
5. 14-18: The Noise and the Fury/14-18: Le Bruit et La Fureur
This really shouldn't work: a patchwork of archive footage, some of it (ugh) colourised, some of it restaged for the cameras, that aims to give a chronological sense of the still underdocumented First World War - a patchwork, furthermore, overlaid with the recollections of a fictional French soldier, talking us through each battle, victory and defeat. Yet it's assembled with the kind of sheer, unarguable Gallic seriousness - to honour history, and the fallen - that makes it powerful and moving viewing. Distinct grains of celluloid sit alongside one another: a Chaplin short deployed to entertain the troops falls between an excerpt from a later Francesco Rosi feature, and German and Allied propaganda newsreels, and it all goes towards telling (and reinforcing) the same grim story. A brilliant work of extrapolation, liberating these mute, sometimes spectral images from the vaults, threading them together, and wondering how best they might speak to us, almost a century on in time.
4. 5150 Elm's Way/5150 Rue des Ormes
This French-Canadian entry in the captivity cycle immediately breaks new ground by having its film student protagonist (Marc-André Grondin, the kid from C.R.A.Z.Y.) stumble into a suburban residence that appears the very model of domesticity: the devoutly Christian family that lives there run their dungeon like a spare room in a B&B, bringing their prisoner breakfast every morning, and apologising when their headstrong eldest daughter takes a baseball bat to his legs. Eric Tessier's film would appear to be influenced less by Eli Roth or the Saw series than by all those news stories about so-called quiet folk (usually Austrian or Belgian) keeping others locked away for years without anybody knowing; its smarts are evident in the characterisation of the patriarch as a chess master who obliges his prisoners (who may or may not include his own family) to test his defences for weak spots. Gorehounds should be assuaged by what's going on in the basement, yet even the carnage lined up there has a striking ambition; the normality the film sucks us into is creepy enough besides. A weird and distinctive escapee from a cinema that - flatulent awards bait like Incendies and The Barbarian Invasions aside - we still don't see enough of.
3. Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape
Jake West's documentary, the most comprehensive work I've yet encountered on the "Video Nasty" storm, opens with a mash-up of selected highlights from the 72 horror films singled out as obscene by the Department of Public Prosecutions at the beginning of the 1980s: morbid carnivals of blood and nipples, these films - even the ones you just know would be rubbish over 85 minutes - all look marvellous. (Marvellous enough to send one compiling a counter-list of 72 "respectable" films of the period - Chariots of Fire? On Golden Pond? - that deserved prosecution for featuring neither blood nor nipples, and being obscenely boring.) The critics, directors and experts assembled here to refute the nasties' censorship are smart enough to discern the ambitious and lively (The Evil Dead, The Last House on the Left) from the dull and drossy (Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, Anthropophagus: The Beast), while the narrative hones in on key martyrs and heroes (such as jailed distributor David Hamilton-Grant, and Martin Barker, the academic who made the first public defence of these works) from an otherwise especially depressing period of recent British social history. One of the best DVD sets released this year, too: bonus features range from trailers for each of the 72 films on the DPP list to the twinkle in Derek Malcolm's eyes as he describes the absurdity of one of the court cases he found himself caught up in.
2. Ip Man 2
For my money, this is the best martial arts franchise out there right now: a loving, sincere recreation of the life and career of Master Ip (Donnie Yen), driving force behind the Wing Chun school at a time of extraordinary upheaval in mainland China, and eventually tutor to Bruce Lee. Two features distinguish these films. The action, superbly choreographed by co-star Sammo Hung, is shot to ensure the cleanest, most efficient of lines (ct. Sherlock Holmes), always pinning down the one or two details in any given set-up that gives the whole that extra zing (here, a table top that hasn't been properly nailed to its legs, or Ip's superlative use of a fish-market loading pallet). The other mini-miracle is Yen's quietly expressive and moving central performance: one of the few modern action stars capable of projecting thought, and to be as compelling a presence in repose as he is in attack, he invests Ip with a touching gentility and civility in the face of all kinds of beastliness and corruption. The sequel adds a dash of Lagaan-like spice, as Ip faces up to British colonial rule while exiled in Hong Kong: it builds to a rousing finale and a lovely closing gag, and along the way even manages some choice Zen advice on what to do in times of economic recession ("Just treat this as a diet, and lose some weight").
1. Last Train Home
Lixin Fan's extraordinary documentary gets so close to its chosen truth that it contains sequences I found damn near unwatchable, as they would be in any non-cinematic context. Fan's subject is the world's largest human migration: the annual return of 130 million Chinese labourers to the families they've left behind in what are often very poor, outlying villages. In the opening moments, we watch a crowd of thousands breaking through a police cordon to charge along a railway platform before - sweaty-faced, beneath their own self-shepherded luggage - haphazardly cramming themselves, with scant regard for health or safety, on already overcrowded trains heading out of the city; watching it - even as I did, through my fingers - those bores who habitually write to the Evening Standard bemoaning the service on South West Trains might want to reconsider their tone, if not their entire position.
Fan begins down whittle down this mass of humanity, the better to follow the progress of one family over the course of two years, as its constituent members lie awake in their temporary lodgings and try to put together a plan for economic survival. Having parents who leave home to work elsewhere clearly obliges the offspring to become more independent in turn - so that they, too, will eventually be able to fulfil their obligations to their own children; Fan shows how this process of adaptation has, in contemporary China, become a rite, however heartbreaking the sacrifice and separation that results. The film is quietly brilliant on capitalism as a system that splits up families, and then rewards each party, not always handsomely, for their unhappiness: this is the model you sense certain Tory MPs were getting at when they suggested, sincerely or not, that anyone out of work in the north of England should relocate south in order to find themselves employment - indirectly showing up the sham the party's family-first policies have become.
Miraculously, in the middle of its heaving establishing shots, Fan finds a distinct personality for each one of her principals: the apparently matter-of-fact dad, who blithely walks through police lines, yet explodes when his daughter dares to use the F-word in front of him - and who ultimately seems to be suffering most for this need to save face and make ends meet; his loving wife, supremely dignified even as she crumples in tears; their young son, insistently underlining his number five position in class, where he remains at the film's end (he's not going anywhere, you sense); and their daughter, who moves from smiles and cheeky asides to sulky resentment at her situation, and must, surely, be left to go her own way as the credits roll. At all points, the family's work ethic, their dedication and commitment, is both a marvel and somehow tragic, unthinkable in the West; this, we must conclude, is the reason China's is the biggest economy in the world, and why the rest of us, who may or may not know better, probably won't have any jobs left to travel to or from by the time our own New Year comes around.
All the above titles are currently available to rent, buy or view online.