It's funny how the memory can play tricks. This cinematic survey of 2010 was going to follow the tone adopted by many fellow critics in lamenting the quality of the year's big releases. But Parky at the Pictures rarely focuses on blockbusters, kidpix or date movies and the consequent relative absence of 3-D, CGI, sequels, prequels and remakes means that the arthouse and independent view looks very different from that of the mainstream. By no means has this been a vintage 12 months for films. But, considering the constraints imposed by the recession, the difficulty smaller pictures continue to face in finding screen space and the media's ongoing obsession with Hollywood spectacle and celebrity, it's still clear that this has been the most consistently engaging film year of the 21st century to date.

As the home of the OxDox documentary festival, Oxford has a special affinity with actuality and several notable titles have passed this way in recent times. The pick is Johan Grimonprez and Tom McCarthy's Double Take, which was brilliantly edited by Dieter Diependaele and Tyler Hubby to provide a mischievous treatise on both Alfred Hitchcock and the Cold War world in which he worked between 1957 and 1964. Replete with choice quips culled from Hitch's TV shows, this acute insight into the director's fascination with other selves found curious echo in No Greater Love, Michael Whyte's humbling and quietly inspirational study of the Carmelite sisters living in Notting Hill's Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity; Patrick Keiller's Robinson in Ruins, which toured Oxfordshire and Berkshire to contrast historical and contemporary incidents and resilient flora and fauna with derelict domestic and industrial architecture to reassess Britain's relationship with the United States; and Michael Madsen's Into Eternity, which examined the possible ramifications of burying thousands of tons of nuclear waste in a vast network of underground chambers at the remote Finnish facility of Onkalo.

The intensity of Madsen's interviews with the scientists behind this audacious project was only matched by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's encounters with the members of the Second Platoon, Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Restrepo. Filmed over 15 months in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan that was dubbed `the most dangerous place in the world' by CNN, this is a graphic insight into the near-impossibility of the Allied mission against the Taliban and the apolitical attitude of American troops who fight not for a cause, but for their own lives and those of their comrades in arms. Yet, amidst the many sobering accounts of life in this benighted nation, Timothy Albone and Lucy Martens managed to find a good news story in Out of the Ashes, which follows the efforts of genial coach Taj Malik Aleem to steer a country that lacked a proper cricket pitch until 2008 through the various stages of the ICC qualifying for this year's 20/20 World Cup.

The feelgood factor was also high in three of the year's music documentaries. Emmett Malloy's White Stripes Under Great White Lights accompanied Jack and Meg White on their 2007 tour of Canada to provide a touching insight into the on-and off-stage bond between the gregarious, guitar-playing frontman and his demure, drumming ex-wife. The relationships between the bandmates is also key to Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen's Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, an affectionate 40-year survey that assesses the ever-changing brand of prog rock that has enabled Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart to boast album sales that rival those of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. However, the most compelling of the trio is Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis's Pianomania, which follows Steinway tuner Stefan Knüpfer as he goes about his duties at the Vienna Konzerthaus. An affable perfectionist who revels in his work, Knüpfer makes for an unlikely hero. But such is his innate understanding of both the instruments in his care and the classical repertoire that he reclaims the concept of expertise from the arrogant and often self-promoting nobodies who currently dominate talking-head documentaries and TV shows.

This small delight finds charming company in two variations on Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953), which was the standout of the many wonderful reissues that adorned the schedules this year. So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain inverts the tale by making the inconvenient guests a pair of adorable sisters, who are passed from pillar to post while their mother goes in search of their absentee father. Kim Hee-yeon and Kim Song-hee excel as the six year-old and her toddler sibling who find solace away from hard-drinking, penny-pinching aunt Kim Mi-hyang to pal up with market trader's rascally son Ha Min Woo and make a few coppers by selling roasted grasshoppers to shoppers and office workers in the town centre. By contrast, Hirokazu Kore-eda duplicates Ozu's restrained style and sagacious trenchancy in Still Walking, a deceptively scathing satire on Japanese manners whose surface solicitude and substratal seething conceals a sheer layer of genuine affection, as retired doctor Yoshio Harada and wife Kiri Kirin confront taciturn picture restorer Hiroshi Abe and flaky sister You with their unworthiness when they arrive with their families to mark the anniversary of their older brother's death.

Alongside this enchanting twosome are the year's guilty pleasures. Leading off is a quartet of dark comedies, with the politically incorrect hilarity of Michel Hazanavicius's OSS 117: Lost in Rio (in which Jean Dujardin is again superb as the French secret agent whose patronising tone towards women is as egregious as his casual racism) and Bruce Webb's The Be All and the End All (which sees Scouse teenager Eugene Byrne trying to help a dying mate lose his virginity) contrasting with the bleaker wit of Adam Elliot's Mary and Max. (a gloriously drab claymation account of a decidedly odd pen palship) and Ben Wheatley's Down Terrace (which reclaimed the British crime genre from those opprobrious peddlers of mockney muppetry in demonstrating that the family that slays together, stays together).

Equally disarming, albeit in markedly different ways, were Laís Bodanzky's The Ballroom (a superbly choreographed compendium of six stories that are effortlessly interwoven during a night of terpsichorean passion at a São Paulo gafieira), a couple of slyly satirical Middle Eastern road movies (Ben Hopkins's The Market - A Tale of Fair Trade and Babak Jalali's Frontier Blues), 102 year-old Manoel de Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (which invokes the spirit of Luis Buñuel and Claude Chabrol in translating a short story by the 19th-century realist, Eça de Queirós, to credit crunch Lisbon) and Benoît Jacquot's Villa Amalia, a tale of remote retreats and second chances that allowed Isabelle Huppert to depart from the steely, but vulnerable types that has recently become a trademark in stern dramas like Claire Denis's White Material.

Finally, there's a lengthy list of admirable arthouse offerings that narrowly missed the 2010 Top 10.

Notwithstanding the dual loss of Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, French cinema had a notable year. The old guard was well represented by Alain Resnais's Wild Grass (which featured a fine performance by André Dussollier, as a man with a past becoming fixated with dentist Sabine Azéma after finding her purse) and André Téchiné's The Girl on the Train, a fact-based analysis of anti-Semitism and victim culture that was ably headlined by Emilie Dequenne, as an unemployed, rollerblading twentysomething who causes a national scandal by claiming to have been attacked by racist thugs on a Parisian commuter service. But it was the younger generation's turn to seize the attention, with visceral crime profiles like Jacques Audiard's A Prophet and Olivier Assayas's Carlos eliciting exceptional performances from Tahar Rahim and Edgar Ramírez respectively as small-time crook learning the ropes of prison life and as the notorious 1970s terrorist, Carlos the Jackal.

Elsewhere, Alice De Lencquesaing, Sylvie Testud and Marina Hands proved equally effective as a teenager coming to terms with grief, a multiple sclerosis sufferer experiencing a miracle and a doctor summoned to treat Josef Stalin in Mia Hansen Løve's deeply moving The Father of My Children, Jessica Hausner's enigmatically wry Lourdes and Marc Dugain's unnervingly credible An Ordinary Execution. Indeed, as American actresses continued to lament the paucity of decent roles, world cinema counterparts like Nina Hoss, María Onetto and Giovanna Mezzogiorno respectively impressed as a Nazi supporter who falls in love with a Red Army officer in Max Färberböck's authentic, if melodramatic Anonyma: A Woman in Berlin, a middle-aged dentist shaken by a hit-and-run accident in Lucrecia Martel's intense study of class callousness, The Headless Woman, and as Benito Mussolini's spurned mistress Ida Dalser in Marco Bellocchio's chillingly atmospheric Vincere.

Lastly, alongside such lauded award winners as Juan José Campanella's The Secret in Their Eyes (which rather surprisingly won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recalls His Past Lives (which took the Palme d'or at Cannes), honourable mention should also be given to Warwick Thornton for the integrity of his exposé of Aboriginal poverty in Samson & Delilah, Giorgos Lanthimos for the sheer strangeness of his dysfunctional family saga, Dogtooth, Tom Ford for devoting so much time to the look of A Single Man that Colin Firth was able to contribute a magnificent performance as a 1960s gay academic contemplating suicide, and to Clio Barnard for the audacity of her use of offbeat staging and the verbatim theatre technique in her brilliantly unconventional Andrea Dubar biopic, The Arbor.

But the films that made the deepest impression on this critic in 2010 are:

10) The Happiest Girl in the World
Bucharest seems like somewhere from another time and place to provincial teenager Andreea Bosneag in Radu Jude's The Happiest Girl in the World, as she travels from Geoagiu Bai to the Romanian capital with parents Violeta Haret Popa and Vasile Muraru to collect the car she won in a competition sponsored by a soft drink company.

As part of her prize, Bosneag has shoot a commercial that requires her to sit in a beribboned Logan Break and deliriously gush about how lucky she is before downing half a bottle of fruit juice. However, director Serban Pavlu, producer Diana Gheorghian and client Alexandru Georgescu have very different ideas about how Bosneag should deliver her line and how much garishly orange liquid she should consume. Consequently, she has to endure endless retakes that are punctuated by crude remarks from the crew and frequent trips to the make-up caravan and a nearby portable toilet.

Further sapping Bosneag's meagre reserves of jollity is the fact that Popa and Muraru want her to sell the car so they can convert her dying grandmother's house into a bed and breakfast that will enable them to quit their dead-end jobs. However, Bosneag has set her heart on using her new motor to impress classmates who dismiss her as a dumpy wallflower and she resists her parents' increasingly underhand emotional blackmail while brooking yet more delays, as Georgescu demands a trendier location than the city's university district.

Considering the extent to which Romania's Communist past continues to impact upon its capitalist present, this appears a rather laboured lampoon of town-and-country attitudes and the contrasting expectations of the different generations. But Jude exploits the absurdist potential of the interminable repetitions to expose the lack of direction that has hamstrung the country since December 1989 and question the more dubious benefits that free-market libertarianism has brought. Cinematographer Marius Panduru makes telling use of the confined vehicular spaces and the gridlocked roads, while the costumes and hairstyles are as callously hilarious as much of the dialogue. But it's the clumsy finagling of Popa and Muraru and Bosneag's passage from sullen resistance to sudden realisation that she can turn the situation to her advantage that makes this so comically compelling.

9) Of Gods and Men
In 1996, a Cistercian monastery in the Algerian village of Tibhirine in the Atlas Mountains was raided by Islamic fundamentalists. Six of the brothers and a recently arrived guest were taken hostage, as the terrorists demanded the release of their jailed comrades. After several months, the heads of the seven monks were discovered in the desert. But it has never been conclusively proved who was responsible for their murder.

Despite suggesting tensions between the community and the national security forces, Xavier Beauvois makes little attempt to solve the mystery in Of Gods and Men. Instead, he concentrates on the psychological and spiritual impact that the knowledge of impending death has on men who had sacrificed their lives to the service of others, but had never previously considered the prospect of dying for their faith. The result is a film of great intensity, integrity and intelligence, as it contemplates the legacy of colonialism on the Maghreb, as well as the centuries-old struggle between adherents of the Bible and the Koran. But it is also a quietly inspirational treatise on the difference between religious conviction and living according to one's beliefs.

Nestling in the verdant countryside of an unnamed North African state, the monastery headed by the scholarly Lambert Wilson has close ties to the adjoining village. Medic Michel Lonsdale tends to the locals with an easy avuncularity, while Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Loïc Pichon, Xavier Maly and the aged Jacques Herlin sell produce at the nearby market. When not attending to their chores, the brothers gather in the simple chapel for sung services of humble beauty that emphasise the strength of their bond and the piety of their non-proselytising mission.

However, on Christmas Eve, jihadi commander Farid Larbi comes to the monastery and demands that Lonsdale travels to his camp to treat a wounded rebel. Wilson resists and is surprised when Larbi offers a handshake out of respect for his decisive leadership and knowledge of Islamic scripture. But everyone realises that the incident has exposed their vulnerability at a time of growing fanaticism and Wilson offers his companions the opportunity to return to France. Lonsdale and Herlin have no intention of leaving, but the others have to wrestle with their consciences, with Rabourdin being particularly torn between duty and martyrdom.

The situation deteriorates after some Croatian labourers are slaughtered and Larbi is assassinated by the local militia. Wilson and Pichon visit the regional governor, only to be greeted with a volley of anti-imperialist rhetoric and a callous indifference to their fate. So, once again, Wilson offers the monks the chance to leave. But they vote to remain and celebrate what turns out to be a last supper with the visiting Olivier Perrier.

Accompanied by the strains of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, this sequence is superbly photographed in fluid close-ups that capture the mixed emotions of ordinary men discovering unsuspected reserves of courage, acceptance and faith. Yet Beauvois retains the mood of restraint that makes this exploration of theology, politics and humanity so authentic and poignant. Caroline Champetier's use of light and Michel Barthélémy's austere interiors are crucial in this regard. But it's the discipline of the performances that gives the drama its potency, with Wilson particularly excelling as the abbot whose somewhat aloof manner doesn't always endear him to either friend or foe.

Beauvois and co-scenarist Étienne Comar might have presented more of each man's backstory (especially as several of the actual victims had led remarkable lives) in delving more deeply into the reasons why the monks are so determined to stay. They could also have examined the reaction of both their flock and the wider church to their plight. But this is still a compelling study of doubt and fear and the consequences of putting one's entire trust in the rectitude of a religious calling.

8) Police, Adjective
Having won the Caméra d'or at Cannes for 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), his hilariously revisionist take on the 1989 Romanian revolution, Corneliu Porumboiu surpasses himself with this chilling insight into the extent to which things have really changed since the coming of democracy. Tackling such complex issues as language, the law and the long reach of history, Police, Adjective is also a stylistically ambitious picture that compellingly combines long stretches of mundane activity with taut sequences of intricate verbal dexterity.

Dragos Bucur is an undercover cop in the north-eastern city of Vaslui, who has been detailed by inspector Ion Stoica to shadow teenager Radu Costin, who is suspected of being a drug dealer. Following him from his apartment in a drab tenement, Bucur watches Costin sneak away with classmates Alexandru Sabadac and Anca Diaconu for a crafty smoke on some wasteland near a toddlers' playground. He also spends hours lurking outside Sabadac's family home, noting the comings and goings of his parents and the disappearance of an older brother, who is probably responsible for smuggling the dope into the country. Yet, even though he has collected a couple of joints, Bucur is far from convinced that Costin is a danger to society.

When he's not on stakeout duty or setting slowly turning bureaucratic wheels in motion back at headquarters, Bucur is bickering with new wife Irina Saulescu, either over her repeated playing of a corny pop song on her laptop or the imprecise use of grammar. Ironically, it's a linguistic matter that proves Bucur's downfall, as he is subjected to a grilling by martinet captain Vlad Ivanov, who makes him look up the words he uses so casually in his report to demonstrate the rigidity of the Romanian legal system.

Photographed in long realist takes by Marius Panduru, this is a darkly satirical, yet insidiously disconcerting study of routine and rubric. Moreover, it's an acute dissection of a society trapped between its totalitarian past and a pan-European future. Bucur is unwilling to prosecute Costin, as he will receive a life-ruining sentence for something that would merely be deemed a minor misdemeanour under incoming EU legislation. But, having spent days scrupulously avoiding his superiors, his humiliation by Ivanov suggests that not everyone is yet prepared to relinquish trusted methods.

Exposing the absurdity of much detective work and the growing inability to communicate in the new media age, this is a deceptively trenchant film that ends the drolly interminable scenes of surveillance and beadledom with a resounding thump, as the iron fist of authoritarianism crushes any notions of personal initiative.

7) The Milk of Sorrow
Claudia Llosa attempts an ambitious amalgam of stylised naturalism and magic realism in The Milk of Sorrow, a sincere tribute to the women who endured rape, torture and violence during Peru's traumatic past that won the Golden Bear at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival. According to uncle Marino Ballón, twentysomething Magaly Solier inherited her sense of insecurity from her recently deceased mother Bárbara Lazón's milk. However, the fact that Solier has never removed the potato she inserted into her vagina to prevent assault suggests that her fears remain very real. Thus, her decision to work as a maid for temperamental pianist Susi Sánchez represents a genuine act of courage - especially as she has to pass through a bustling Lima market packed with strangers in order to reach the seclusion of Sánchez's verdant garden and the cool calm of her impeccably maintained house.

Solier is determined to bury Lazón in her home village, but she doesn't have the money for the journey. Consequently, the usually taciturn Ballón has to keep reminding her that she has to remove the corpse before cousin María del Pilar Guerrero's forthcoming wedding. Meanwhile, Solier is also under pressure at work, with Sánchez keen to know more about the evocative whispered songs with which she exorcises her demons and middle-aged gardener Efráin Solis taking an increasingly solicitous interest in her welfare.

Using Natasha Braier's sinuous camerawork to contrast the serenity of Sánchez's compound with the bustle of the surrounding streets and the poverty of Ballón's shack, this is a slow-burning saga that's made irresistible by Solier's poignant impassivity and Llosa's confident juxtaposition of the everyday and the ethereal. Yet, for all the melodrama surrounding Solis's bashful attempts to prove his affection and Sánchez's cynical exploitation of Solier to poach her melodies for a recital, this is also a gently humorous depiction of indomitable humanity's ability to make the best of life in the worst of circumstances.

6) A Room and a Half
Russian animator Andrei Khrzhanovsky steers a path between affection and affectation in his live-action feature A Room and a Half, in which he imagines the return to his beloved Russia of prodigal poet Joseph Brodsky, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. Cast out of the Soviet Union 15 years earlier, he failed to make his cherished pilgrimage before his death at the age of 55 in 1996. But it's hard to imagine a more poignant or captivating homecoming than the one Khrzhanovsky accords him here.

The recollections flow as Brodsky (Grigori Dityakovsky) sets sail for St Petersburg on a luxury liner and it's his reunion with his naval photographer father (Sergei Yursky), after his wartime service in China, that sets the tone of wonderment that dominates the childhood episodes. Even though he has been forced to endure a miserable existence in prison camps across the country with his Red Army translator mother (Alisa Freindlich), young Evgeni Ogandzhanyan finds everything fascinating and the treasures that Yursky unpacks from his suitcase fire the boy's imagination. Thus, Khrzhanovsky is able to use animated reveries to convey his flights of fancy with the family cat penning sonnets and orchestra instruments floating over the Leningrad rooftops, as yet another Kremlin clampdown means that soldiers are dispatched quite literally to throw culture out of the window. Ogandzhanyan isn't solely preoccupied with lofty thoughts, however. On the day that Stalin dies, his gaze falls upon the ample posterior of his music teacher, as she kneels to collect the broken pieces of the dictator's toppled statue. Then, while Yursky is playing cards with the caretaker at the museum, Ogandzhanyan finds a book of Old Masters and purloins it to view the images of naked female flesh under the bed sheets. Indeed, sex becomes such a priority with the adolescent Artem Smola that he piles books against the curtain that separates his bedroom from the main living area in the family's cramped apartment so he can have some privacy with the succession of pretty classmates he singularly fails to seduce in an amusing montage sequence.

The picture loses momentum as Smola seeks to find his niche among the city's bohemian clique and winds up being accused of parasitism by the Khruschev regime. But Khrzhanovsky judges the denouement to perfection, first as Dityakovsky phones home from a New York bar to ask Freindlich if she remembers the words to a sentimental song and neighbours in her hallway join in the rendition along with the ex-pat revellers on the other side of the world, and then as he joins his now deceased parents for a last supper in the cosily shabby room in which they survived the poverty, repression and anti-Semitism of his youth. Rarely has a child's gratitude been so warmly and sincerely captured and it's impossible not to be touched by Dityakovsky's realisation of the sacrifices his folks made for his intellectual freedom and his dismay at the transformation of his drastically capitalised hometown.

Impeccably designed by Marina Azizjan and photographed by Vladimir Brylyakov with a lyricism that matches the extracts from Brodsky's writings that punctuate the action, this is a highly personal and deeply moving celebration of loving domesticity. The performances are exceptional, while Khrzhanovsky's inspired use of animation and archive footage imparts a touch of surrealism to the teasing allusions to Soviet political and cultural history. Purists may complain that the film takes too many liberties with Brodsky's life. But one suspects he would have greatly appreciated this chimerical pilgrimage and the memories it evoked.

5) Winter's Bone
An exceptional performance from Jennifer Lawrence dominates Winter's Bone, Debra Granik's adaptation of a bleak Ozarks novel by Daniel Woodrell. Indeed, Michael McDonough's camera can barely pull itself away from her steadfast features to focus on Mark White's meticulous production design, which barely distinguishes between the dwellings occupied by the feuding families and the ramshackle outhouses surrounded by rusting junk. But this is far from being another clichéd backwoods melodrama, as the dealings are largely conducted by the womenfolk, who never seem to use more words than are strictly necessary.

With her father in jail for cooking methamphetamine, 17 year-old Lawrence takes care of her mentally fragile mother and dependent younger siblings. She gets help putting food on the table from neighbour Shelley Wagganer. But when sheriff Garret Dillahunt calls to inform her that her father has jumped bail after putting up their home as collateral, she has no option but to walk the mountains in the hope that somebody knows where he is hiding. Unfortunately, her father has made many enemies, including his testy brother John Hawkes, who advises Lawrence against meddling in matters that can only provoke trouble.

But, with best friend Lauren Sweetser offering to keep house in her absence, Lawrence ventures into a pitiless world of drink, drugs, ignorance and internecine violence to call in some family favours. Cousin Casey MacLaren tells her that clan chief Ronnie Hall is the only one who can help her, but access to him is firmly blocked by his doughty wife, Dale Dickey. Hawkes tries to convince Lawrence that her father died in a brewing blaze, but she refuses to accept the evidence of a torched shack and inevitably finds herself dragged back to Hall's estate to be taught a lesson in minding her business.

Although this is bound to invite comparisons to Courtney Hunt's Frozen River (2008), this unflinching saga is actually closer in spirit to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Rosetta (1999) and Lance Hammer's Ballast (2008). Lawrence is fearless in her deadpan determination to find her father, as much in a bid to salvage a last vestige of respect for him as to hold him to account for his reckless selfishness. Her showdowns with Hawkes and Dickey are particularly striking, both for their frankness and their simmering unpredictability. But she also impresses when teaching her siblings to fend for themselves in the kitchen and how to handle a gun in the wilds. Her triumph is never in doubt, especially when Hawkes decides to do his avuncular duty. But Granik never takes for granted the tenacity and mettle Lawrence has to display in order to stand firm in the face of unregenerate chauvinism.

4) Certified Copy
Making his first feature outside Iran, Kiarostami has produced in Certified Copy a simmering pastiche of bickering couple pictures from Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy (1954) to Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Using mirrors and shifts of perspective to ensure that nothing is as it seems, this meticulously photographed, philosophically provocative and mischievously romcomic piece sends English academic William Shimell and French antique dealer Juliette Binoche on a Sunday odyssey to the Tuscan hill town of Lucignano, where they debate originality, authenticity and value while keeping the audience (and themselves) guessing about the precise nature of their relationship. The dialogue is a touch ripe in places, but the leads respond splendidly to Kiarostami's playful mockery of the clichés sustaining both arthouse and mainstream film.

Shimell is in Italy to promote his contentious new book about copies being as artistically valid as the original works and he is warming to his theme when Binoche arrives late and takes a seat on the front row. She is distracted, however, by the restless antics of hungry son, Adrian Moore, and leaves hurriedly after hastily scribbling a note and acquiring six copies of the text. Later that day, Shimell ventures into her cellar shop and comments awkwardly on the reproduction statues she has for sale. He seems anxious to catch a train, but Binoche persuades him to take a drive into the surrounding countryside.

En route, she tells him about her sister's marriage and he listens with civility rather than interest. They arrive in Lucignano and Binoche tells Shimell that couples come here to marry because there is a golden tree in the church that is supposed to bring good luck. Once again, he responds politely and follows Binoche into the small museum, where a tour party is standing in front of a painting that was long believed to date from Roman times, but is, in fact, an 18th-century reproduction.

This time, Shimell allows his disdain to show and the hurt Binoche's mood is scarcely improved by a phone call from Moore asking if he can go skating rather than study. They stop at a café and, while Shimell is taking a call of his own outside, Binoche allows owner Gianna Giachetti to believe that they're husband and wife and invents a backstory to explain Shimell's demeanour. Yet, as they wander to the church, the conversation seems to suggest that Shimell and Binoche do have a history and this sense that a once great passion has cooled into fractious intolerance is reinforced by Shimell's refusal to pose with newlyweds beside the golden tree, a curious encounter with strangers Jean-Claude Carrière and Agathe Natanson in the town square and Shimell's peevish behaviour in a deserted restaurant.

The charade seems to be over, as they sit on some steps and listen to the bells tolling. But Binoche claims to recognise the pensione and they take the room she insists they stayed in once before. The view from the window looks familiar and Shimell's mood improves. Binoche goes to the bathroom to freshen up and smiles at her reflection, because while the situation may not be perfect, it's better than nothing.

Kiarostami has resolutely refused to clarify the precise nature of the couple's relationship. But the mystery merely adds to the allure of this cineaste's delight. Working for the first time from a detailed screenplay, Kiarostami peppers the conversation with ideas that veer from the challenging to the mischievous, while Luca Bigazzi's restless camera captures both the tension between the protagonists and the ethereal atmosphere of the sublime location. Making his screen debut, Shimell deftly recalls George Sanders's solicitous indifference in Voyage to Italy, while Binoche (who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes) adds a playful sensuality to Ingrid Bergman's melancholic determination.

3) The Time That Remains
Elia Suleiman is often compared to Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton for the deadpan manner in which he dissects daily life in the Occupied Territories. But his chief inspirations are Robert Bresson and Hou Hsiao-hsien and their precision and economy are evident in every frame of The Time That Remains.

Completing the trilogy started with Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) and Divine Intervention (2002), this deeply personal history of Nazareth from 1948 to the present day confirms Suleiman among the most acute and trenchant observers of the Palestinian situation. Retaining the technique of wryly observing minor incidents and revealing character traits from a detached distance, Suleiman also stars as a returning exile, who thinks back on his family's experiences during a taxi ride from the airport.

Sixty years earlier, Fuad (Saleh Bakri) had refused to follow his parents and sister to Jordan, electing instead to take up arms against the Israelis seizing territory for their newly established state. However, as he dodges patrols to link up with his comrades, civic dignitaries assemble to sign over birthrights and the formality of the ceremony contrasts starkly with the confusion erupting fitfully on the streets. Pausing to witness casual acts of looting and oppression, Bakri is eventually arrested and savagely beaten before being tossed over a wall to certain death.

However, he survives to marry his sweetheart (Samar Tanus) and father Elia (Zuhair Abu Hanna), a spirited son who is frequently chastised at school for denouncing American imperialism and refusing to sing patriotic Hebrew songs with sufficient enthusiasm on National Day. When not watching screenings of Zionist allegories like Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), Elia listens without conviction to the latest piece of gossip from his short-sighted Aunt Olga (Isabelle Ramadan) and takes note of his father's frequent nocturnal fishing trips and his guarded conversations with a cantankerous neighbour (Tarek Qubti), who is rarely averse to shouting anti-Israeli slogans and attempting self-immolation when in his cups.

Consequently, after Fuad is jailed for supposedly smuggling arms from the Lebanon, the now-teenage Elia (Ayman Espanioli) begins to sympathise with the cause of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Shortly afterwards, he is forced to flee after he is denounced for tearing an Israeli flag.

On his Christmas return as a middle-aged man, Elia (Suleiman) finds it almost impossible to communicate with his widowed mother (Shafika Bajjali), who can't forgive him for either his reckless act of political opposition or for being forced to abandon his father so soon after he had undergone open-heart surgery. Attempts at reviving fond memories through old songs misfire and Elia spends more time reacquainting himself with his hometown and some long-lost friends. Yet, even though much of what he witnesses can only appal him, he remains impassive as he watches a mischievous resident being followed by an Israeli tank as he disposes of his rubbish and a jeep patrol closing down a disco for infringing the curfew.

Making droll use of running gags to emphasise how little Arab-Israeli tensions have changed over six decades, Suleiman combines irony, surrealism and political critique with a deceptive skill that is reinforced by the poignant subtlety of his Keatonesque performance. He also excellently served by production designer Sharif Waked and cinematographer Marc-André Batigne, whose views of the Nazareth skyline are frequently framed by walls and arches to emphasise the extent to which Palestinians are enclosed within a pitiless society.

2) The Maid
Dealing with notions of class and loyalty, but essentially a simmering study in self-destructive loneliness, Chilean Sebastián Silva's The Maid is dominated by an exceptional performance by Catalina Saavedra. Yet, with the ensemble being as superb as Sergio Armstrong's fluent handheld camerawork - which stealthily confines the characters in their Santiago townhouse - Silva keeps a lid on the melodramatics, even as Saavedra's passive aggressive territoriality becomes increasingly sinister.

An unprepossessing provincial, Saavedra has served bourgeois couple Alejandro Goic and Claudia Celedón for 23 years. Indeed, she has done more to bring up their children, Andrea García-Huidobro and Agustín Silva, than either parent, with Celedón devoting herself to keeping up appearances and the workaholic Goic spending his spare time making model ships. But Saavedra has recently started to feel the strain and begun bickering with the increasingly haughty García-Huidobro. So, when she is hospitalised following a blackout, Celedón decides to hire her some help - which is the last welcome home present that Saavedra wanted.

Despite being forced to convalesce in her cramped bedroom, Saavedra quickly sets about undermining Mercedes Villanueva, especially after the wilful García-Huidobro makes such a show of befriending her. She vigorously scrubs the shower after the young Peruvian has used it and locks her out of the house when she goes to collect a grocery delivery. Celedón tries to explain that Villanueva isn't a threat to Saavedra's position, but she continues her campaign until her rival flees in tears. Replacement Anita Reeves is a harder nut to crack, however. Furthermore, she has no respect for her employers and Saavedra's frustration spills over into violence that prompts Reeves's dismissal.

Convinced she has triumphed, Saavedra resumes her duties. But Celedón - urged on by patrician mother Delfina Guzmán, who abhors temperamental domestics - resolves to impose her will and hires the exuberant Mariana Loyola. Although she's also a country girl, Saavedra greets Loyola frostily. But, as the interloper recognises how much the family means to Saavedra and defers to her with a cheery grace, the tetchy fortysomething not only begins to accept her, but also seeks her out in the evenings and even agrees to spend Christmas with her relations.

The trip is not without its unexpected developments, however, with Loyola's uncle making a move on the inexperienced Saavedra, who acquiesces out of politeness. But the bombshell comes when the pair return to the capital and Saavedra is suddenly faced with regaining the autonomy that no longer seems quite so important.

Despite frequently feeling like a Buñuelian spin on Jean Genet's The Maids (1947) and Joseph Losey's The Servant (1963), Sebastián Silva's second feature follows Enrique Rivero's Parque Vía (2008) and Claudia Llosa's The Milk of Sorrow (2009) in exposing the class gulf that divides so many Latin American societies. Indeed, it draws on his own memories and was filmed in his childhood home. Thus, while it teasingly threatens to descend into horror cliché, this is a work of darkly comic humanism that is more interested in Saavedra's vulnerability than her inexpert attempts at defending her domain. Consequently, Celedón and her family are depicted as being carelessly patronising rather than snobbishly cruel in failing to comprehend Saavedra's plight, while her seething determination to resist change is rooted less in peasant conservatism than in a proud sense of irreplaceability that she has concocted to assuage her guilt at neglecting her own mother back home.

1) City of Life and Death
Lu Chuan came to international attention with his own Tibetan saga, Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, in 2004. However, he has produced his masterpiece with his third feature, City of Life and Death, which is one of the few genuinely outstanding titles on show at this year's festival. The result of four years' research and filmed with laudable detachment in sombre monochrome, this nevertheless emotionally wrenching epic recalls the Nanking Masscre of 1937-38, in which some 300,000 Chinese perished at the hands of their Japanese occupiers.

Often recalling Roberto Rossellini's neo-realist studies of war-torn Europe and the less overtly Socialist Realist combat dramas produced behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s, this is a defiantly non-melodramatic reconstruction and it would be interesting to screen it alongside Florian Gallenberger's City of Death: John Rabe, which views the same events from the perspective of the Nazi envoy who helped establish the international safety zone.

It says much for the commendable balance of Lu's version that his principal character is Japanese sergeant Hideo Nakaizumi, who recognises the depravity of the duties he is forced to perform, but is too inured to military discipline to protest. In the front rank of the invasion force that captures China's wartime capital in just four days, Nakaizumi witnesses the extermination of resistance fighters led by Liu Ye. However, he retains a modicum of compassion and extends some bashful charity to Yuko Miyamoto, one of the comfort women who have been imported to fulfil the soldiers' sexual needs. But not even Nakaizumi can resist the dictates of sadistic platoon commander Ryu Kohata, when the safety zone is infiltrated in March 1938.

Events within the embassy enclave are presented with an identical emphasis on doing whatever it takes to survive. The central figure here is Fan Wei - who is the longtime assistant of John Rabe (John Paisley) - whose priority is protecting his pampered wife, Qin Lan, their young daughter and his spirited sister-in-law. At one point, Fan commits an act of heinous treachery in order to secure diplomatic immunity for his family. But he suffers a double loss before redeeming himself with a final act of nobility when the foreigners are forced to leave the zone. A parallel subplot involving teacher Gao Yuanyuan and reformed prostitute Jiang Yiyan proves equally affecting, particularly during the sequences in which the women are marched into a cavernous church in order to volunteer for brothel service and Gao risks her life to save her friends during a round-up of unmarried men.

Whether depicting guerilla rearguards, mass executions and triumphalist victory marches or moments of quiet dignity, selfless courage and poignant intimacy, Lu retains total control over the aesthetic and emotional tone of this remarkable picture. Cao Yu's handheld widescreen imagery and Yi Hao's harrowingly authentic sets palpably convey the sense of physical and spiritual decimation that is ably reinforced by the estimable ensemble. But what leaves the most indelible impression is Lu's melancholic appreciation of the dismay that was ultimately felt on both sides at the bestial depths to which humanity could descend.