4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (IFC)
A college student needs an abortion, and her best friend wants to help. The fact that they live in '80s Communist Romania, where abortion is illegal, makes for 113 of the most grindingly tense, quietly horrifying minutes you'll ever spend in front of a screen. There's nothing polemical about this little-seen gripper, just an entirely too evident human toll on bodies, nerves, and souls.
Chop Shop (Koch Lorber)
Welcome to the Third World, American-style, as 12-year-old Ale (Alejandro Polanco) struggles and scrapes to survive on his own in Queens amid a landscape of clangorous body shops and rusted American Dreams. When his older sister (Isamar Gonzales) shows up, he's no longer alone, but he now has someone else to worry about. There is no easy Hollywood heart-tugging or drama-juicing here, but no bran-muffin-y self-righteousness, either. Just a nearly perfect film.
Generation Kill (HBO)
It's often right around here in a critic's list when he or she starts slavering over The Wire, David Simon's intricate urban drama which concluded its run on HBO this year, the final season of which is now out on DVD. But Simon produced another intricate drama for broadcast this year, a no-less-engrossing but even more criminally underseen adaptation of Evan Wright's account of a Marine recon battalion's thrust into Iraq in the opening days of the war. It shares with The Wire pungent dialogue, a convincing portrait of men trying to do their jobs in spite of their politicking superiors, and penetrating insight into how things got so bad so quickly.
30 Days of Night (Sony)
No one's going to argue that this graphic-novel adaptation about vampires who besiege a frozen Alaskan town in the sunless dead of winter is a Great Film. But it is a damn good B movie, the kind they don't make anymore, highlighted by Danny Huston's performance as the vaguely Euro, uber-creepy head bloodsucker. Now that it's out on DVD, it can start building the wider audience it deserves.
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Criterion)
Even in an age where you can search up footage of anything online, the endless, unblinking torture and degradation of Salo still carries a transgressive charge. That's because director Pier Paolo Pasolini's final film is not only an indictment of fascist thuggism and abusive power, it's also an indictment of those who capitulate to abusive power, as well as those who merely sit back and watch it take hold.
"The Red Balloon" (Criterion)
Albert Lamorisse's 1956 Oscar-winning short follows the adventures of a boy and the red balloon that follows him around the streets of Paris like an inflated puppy. It's quiet, whimsical, heartbreaking, and uplifting. Any child who watches it will be a better person, guaranteed, and probably so will you.
Budd Boetticher Box Set (Sony)/Seven Men From Now (Paramount)
The string of B Westerns director Budd Boetticher shot with over-the-hill cowboy star Randolph Scott between 1956 and 1960 have won a cult following that's set to expand thanks to these 2008 releases. Seven Men From Now, the first Boetticher/Scott film, set the template for the best of the rest: An upright loner on a quest (Scott) finds himself thrown together in a lonesome place with both someone to protect (often a woman) and someone who wishes him ill. Psychological and moral complications ensue. The five-film Boetticher/Scott box includes a couple of misfires, but The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station are pure formalist perfection.
The Wayward Cloud (Strand)
Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang's 2005 sequel to his 2001 arthouse hit What Time Is It There? never got a theatrical release in the United States. Still, it's hard to blame distributors for balking at a candy-colored softcore-porno lip-sync musical about love and sex and intimacy and watermelons, shot in Tsai's trademark long, static takes, even one as eye-popping, jaw-dropping, and slyly funny and poignant as this one.
This 1981 punk-rock opus finally emerges on DVD. While Stains is wobbly and dated in many ways, Diane Lane's snarling performance as a smalltown girl who talks her way onto a tour with a British punk band (featuring members of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, fronted by a babyfaced Ray Winstone) and up the ladder of success still leaps off the screen.
Comedy Central's TV Funhouse (Comedy Central)
In 2000, Saturday Night Live evil genius Robert Smigel created eight underseen episodes of the most inappropriate kids show ever. A cast of cheap-looking, unlovable domestic-animal puppets tell filthy jokes, hump, do drugs, engage in illegal activities, backstab each other, and generally behave like the venal beasts of the species generally considered their superior. Funny. Wrong, but funny.