1. Big Bad Wolves (Directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado. Starring Lior Ashkenazi, Rotem Keinan, and Tzahi Grad)
For fans of: Saw, Hostel, Quentin Tarantino films
How you can watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $8.99
In a way, Big Bad Wolves — a glossy, sharply edited Israeli thriller that Quentin Tarantino boldly dubbed the "best film of 2013"— is an anti-torture movie. Sure, the film's centerpiece scene depicts a man getting all of his fingers broken, his toe nails ripped off, and his chest burned. But until that point, writer/director team Keshales and Papushado revel in toying with the conventions of genre films. It takes pleasure in the anticipation of torture rather than the act itself. There's certainly a self-referential quality underlying the execution of Big Bad Wolves, which makes it a cut above the rest in the torture-porn canon — but the film's hackneyed, pitch-black script isn't quite as smart as it thinks it is.
In the film's slow-mo opening credits, three young children play hide-and-go-seek in an abandoned school house, when one of the three — a young girl — goes missing. It doesn't take long for Big Bad Wolves' brutality to kick in when her decapitated, defiled body is found close by. Micki (Lior Ashkenazi) — a detective of the "shoot first, ask questions later" school of policing — immediately singles out the mawkish, gangly religious studies teacher Dror (Rotem Keinan) as the prime suspect, and wastes no time getting a pair of thugs to try and beat a confession out of him. Unfortunately, Micki's stunt is secretly captured on video — and when it goes viral, Dror is set free and Micki is demoted.
After Micki's bad blunder, Gidi (Tzahi Grad) — the girl's revenge-hungry father — decides to take matters into his own hands and hatches a plan to kidnap Dror and bring him to a secluded cabin to "interrogate" him. Eventually, Gidi teams up with Micki and ties up Dror in a decrepit basement with a table full of painful torture devices at their disposal.
Big Bad Wolves flirts with morality in ways that are designed to play with the audience's emotions. The film's gratuitous, tense, and drawn-out torture makes us question Gidi's motives: Are we meant to sympathize with a grieving father dolling out what he thinks is justice? Or are we meant to be horrified by his methods? That moral dilemma is echoed by Micki, who eventually shifts sides, now unsure of what he was once wholly convinced of. Employing a darkly comic tone throughout, Big Bad Wolves manages to evoke as many laughs as it does cringe-worthy moments of suspense and gore. But it ultimately leaves you with a moral bellyache: Are we meant to laugh or be horrified at its cynical finale? It's no surprise that the film's moral ambiguity was loved by the guy who made Pulp Fiction.
2. 12 O'Clock Boys (Directed by Lotfy Nathan)
For fans of: Hoop Dreams, The Wire, coming-of-age documentaries
How you can watch it: Available Jan. 31 on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99
It would have been easy for 12 O'Clock Boys — a documentary about a pack of urban dirt bike riders in Baltimore — to have been yet another movie lazily exploiting urban culture. But director Lotfy Nathan's decision to explore this culture through the lens of a young boy transforms it, wonderfully, into something far more affecting. It's a documentary that's less concerned with shedding light on a controversial issue than presenting an impressionistic portrait of an adolescent fixated on being something great.
Racing down the streets of Baltimore, clogging all lanes and popping high wheelies (the name derives from popping a wheelie so high the bikes are basically vertical), the 12 O'Clock Boys are notorious throughout the area. Neighborhood residents cheer them on when they pass by, but they're a huge nuisance to the city's cops. But they're the world to charismatic 10-year-old Pug, and he aspires to be one of them no matter how dangerous their hobby might be. The film chronicles three years of Pug's life, capturing his growing infatuation with the 12 O'Clock Boys to becoming a sort of junior member. Nathan also documents the hardships of Baltimore's more troubled neighborhoods: Pug's older brother died much too young, and his mother, a former stripper, struggles to keep the family together.
But for all those nuances, the film isn't isn't trying to paint a portrait of a low-income family trying to make ends meet, or make some sort of statement about class status in Baltimore. This film is about the glory of the 12 O'Clock Boys.
That much is evident through director Nathan's gorgeous, polished slow-motion shots of the 12 O'Clock Boys racing through the streets of Baltimore, which are nothing short of poetic. Coupled with the film's terrific hip-hop score, we see the 12 O'Clock Boys exactly as Pug does: As heroes. Of course, there's the stark reality that throws a moral cog in the machine: Is this really something to be celebrated? As Pug's academic record begins to slip, one begins to wonder if someone should intervene.
But Nathan knows better than to give his film over to such questions. 12 O'Clock Boys never strives to be anything more than a deeply personal and gorgeously shot portrait of a kid with a dream, and its commitment to that moving story makes it the first great documentary of 2014.
3. Pit Stop (Directed by Yen Tan. Starring Bill Heck, Marcus DeAnda, Amy Seimetz)
For fans of: Weekend, Blue is the Warmest Color, LGBT romance films.
How you can watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99
Echoing the nuanced characterization of gay life in Andrew Haigh's deeply moving romance, Weekend, Yen Tan's Pit Stop is a subtle, delicate profile of two gay men in a small Texas town caught at a crossroads in their life. While Weekend flourished in the deeply personal and affecting development of the two central characters' budding, brief romance, Pit Stop is more concerned with the circumstances that brings its two main characters together. Unfortunately, that detracts from what could otherwise be a gorgeously quiet romance that explores identity and romance in a small rural town.
The film begins with Gabe (Bill Heck), a semi-closeted gay man who maintains a healthy relationship with his ex-wife Shannon (Amy Seimetz) and their daughter. Gabe spends much of the film unsure about what exactly it is he wants out of life. An affair with a married man left him vulnerable and skeptical about hopping into another relationship, and his reluctance to publicize his sexual orientation causes a rift with his ex-wife when she tries to set him up on a date. But the biggest conflict for Gabe comes when Shannon begins dating one of her co-workers. She still desires Gabe, and his desire to hold together his family causes inevitable tensions.
Enter Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda), who's grappling with his own conflicted emotions after breaking up with his boyfriend. Both Ernesto and Gabe navigate the gay community of their small town with unsatisfying results; both search for sex, but long for something more. It's nearly three-quarters through the movie until the duo finally do meet through an online dating app, and share an intense and passionate night of love together. Although both insist that it was a one-night stand, their body language suggests it was something more.
Director Tan handles his characters like Robert Altman, injecting depth and intrigue into a variety of the film's periphery figures, which makes it a terrific vehicle to showcase the great range of the film's cast. Pit Stop's subtlety can make it hard to get fully invested, but it's still worth checking out.