Now that 2012 has come and gone, you don't need me to tell you about Marvel's The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, movies that were so big with audiences (and critics) that it was almost impossible to ignore them. You've already decided whether to buy them on DVD or Blu-ray.
But every year brings a host of movies that you might not have seen, or even heard of. While some of them have been on critics' best-of-2012 lists, and might get some love when the Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 10, they were still basically art-house efforts, ones that got into far fewer theaters than the year's blockbusters, and whose box-office revenues were a fraction of the big-ticket movies.
And don't get me wrong about the big tickets. I very much liked The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, with Knight among my favorites this year. Still, I recommend the movies below as additional, mostly adult pleasures deserving a place on your video shelf -- and certain to get you through some of the wintry days and nights.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox, $29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray). A little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives in an isolated Louisiana community full of danger from a storm and from her emotionally unraveling father. Lapsing into fantasy in between confrontations with her grim but sometimes eerily beautiful life, Hushpuppy takes the audience on a mesmerizing journey in one of the most surprising films of the year.
Chico & Rita (New Video, $29.95, $39.95 Blu-ray/DVD). This animated musical begins in Cuba in 1948, where pianist Chico meets singer Rita, leading to conflict, passion, sex, and a lot of music. Nominated for a best-animated-feature Oscar, the film at times slips into cliche in its storytelling, but the images are often beautiful -- as is the soundtrack, highlighting real-life Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes. The Blu-ray/DVD combo includes the soundtrack on a bonus CD.
Damsels in Distress (Sony, $30.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray). Writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) ended more than a decade away from filmmaking with this oddball comedy about young women in college. Drawing on seemingly every kind of campus humor from the 1930s to the present day, it is still filtered through Stillman's trademarked formal dialogue -- and an impressive cast led by Greta Gerwig. Even when I begin to think Stillman has lost his narrative mind (for example in Damsels sudden shift into musicality), I keep smiling.
The Invisible War (Docurama, $29.95 DVD). Top-shelf documentarian Kirby Dick (Outrage, This Film Is Not Yet Rated) turns his attention to rape in the military -- and the way the people raped are victimized yet again by a system that not only tries to ignore the crimes but to punish the people making the accusations. The most painful parts are the stories by those raped; the most chilling is the afterword showing how some of their attackers have not only gone free but thrived. While the film was not widely seen, a viewing by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta led to immediate changes in policy. The film is also on the short list of potential documentary-Oscar nominees.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Magnolia, $26.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray). An 85-year-old man running a small sushi restaurant provides a springboard for a contemplation of the pursuit of perfection, and the price a family must pay for it.
Killer Joe (Lionsgate, $19.99 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray). Matthew McConaughey did the big-movie thing this year, pretty much stealing the hit Magic Mike from Channing Tatum. But he also made some smaller films, including the likable Bernie and this blood-soaked comedy of murder from Oscar-winning director William Friedkin and writer Tracy Letts. When a dunderhead hatches a scheme to kill his mother, he turns to a detective/hitman (McConaughey) who quickly develops his own agenda. It adds up to twisted, sometimes disturbing action, and more than a little weird humor. Also starring Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, and Thomas Haden Church.
Moonrise Kingdom (Universal, $24.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray/DVD combo). I plan to look at this again back-to-back with Damsels in Distress, to enjoy a double dose of writer-directors with wit, special rhythms in dialogue, visual style, and romantic streaks. The director here is Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), the script by Anderson and Roman Coppola, the story about love between two 12-year-olds in 1965. The cast is stacked with Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, and Frances McDormand, among others, but the real joys are in the two leads, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward.
Take This Waltz (Magnolia, $26.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray). Yet another strong performance by Michelle Williams forms the center of this drama from writer-director Sarah Polley. As with Polley's earlier Away From Her, this film is about what we do for love, and for marriage -- and what emotional commitment really means. Too artsy in spots, Waltz is often starkly realistic, especially in its portrayal of the actual consequences of romantic dreams.
Down video road
Eco-horror film The Bay comes to DVD on March 5. Men of a Certain Age: The Complete Second Season (which also proved to be the last) arrives on DVD on Jan. 15. Testimony of Two Men, the 1979 miniseries starring David Birney, will be on DVD on Feb. 5.