The recent run of Ealing reissues concludes with what many consider to be the best of the bunch. Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is a mordant assault on patrician snobbery and the dubious morals of the bourgeoisie. It is also a drawing-room melodrama, a bedroom farce, a murderously black satire and a genteely eviscerating comedy of manners.

Such is the Wildean eloquence of Hamer and John Dighton's screenplay that the Edwardian action seems deliciously modern, right down to the cynically ambiguous ending. Yet, considering it is one of the classic Ealing comedies, it's not actually all that funny. Instead, it is a pitiless dissection of the British class system and the politics of envy that still afflict the country some seven decades on. Nowadays, it's instant celebrity, easy wealth and material abundance that are coveted rather than titles, status and honour. But the same sense of dissatisfaction with one's lot that drove the islanders of Todday to loot a sunken ship in Whisky Galore! (1949) and the thugs who torched the Sony warehouse that dismayingly jeopardises the future of so many small film distributors informs the efforts of a Clapham drapery assistant to become 10th Duke of Chalfont.

On the eve of his execution, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) puts the finishing touches to a confessional account of his life. The son of an Italian opera singer and a ducal heiress, he had grown up resenting the D'Ascoyne relations who had disowned his mother (Audrey Fildes) and forced her to take in lodgers after her husband had died on hearing she had given birth to a son. Having learned all about the family tree during his childhood, Louis felt further alienated when he was refused a position in Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne's bank and his late mother was denied a place in the chapel vault. So, after being dismissed from his West End store after a contretemps with Young Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, Mazzini vows to murder his way to the dukedom.

He begins with his cross-counter adversary and send him over a weir in a punt during a country inn assignation with a mistress for whom Louis believes death would be a blessed release after a weekend locked in a room with a charmless cad. But he feels a certain qualm about blowing up photography enthusiast Henry D'Ascoyne in his homemade dark room, as he is an eminently decent fellow. Moreover, the second killing brings Mazzini the added problem of Edith (Valerie Hobson), his victim's attractive widow, who he feels would make a much better consort than Sibella Halworth (Joan Greenwood), the childhood sweetheart who has continued to flirt with him since marrying hapless financier Lionel Holland (John Penrose).

Delaying making any romantic decisions, Louis resumes his mission and poses as a bishop on a brass-rubbing tour to poison the Reverend Henry D'Ascoyne for his interminable oration at Henry's funeral. He next assassinates Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne by firing an arrow at the hot air balloon she is using to distribute suffragette leaflets over Berkeley Square. Spared the trouble of bumping off Admiral Horatio D'Ascoyne by a piece of naval incompetence, he next dispatches General Rufus D'Ascoyne with an exploding jar of caviar.

Meanwhile, Mazzini has been taken on at the bank and is entrusted with handling the Holland account. During one meeting, Lionel drunkenly begs Louis to stave off his bankruptcy, but he refuses and later ridicules Sibella's attempt to blackmail him when she realises he is getting ever closer to his coronet and plans to ditch her and marry Edith. However, she has the last laugh when, just days after Mazzini stages a hunting accident to remove Duke Ethelred and learns with tinged relief that Lord Ascoyne has died from the shock of succeeding him, Sibella hides Lionel's suicide note and allows her lover to stand trial for his murder in the House of Lords.

The machinations don't end here, however, as Louis fools Sibella into thinking he will dispose of Edith if she proves that Lionel killed himself. But, having been spared his appointment with Hangman Elliott (Miles Malleson), Mazzini is so beguiled by his own brilliance that he only remembers that he has left his memoirs on the cell desk on being invited to sell his story by a reporter from Titbits (Arthur Lowe).

The missing name from this summary is, of course, Alec Guinness, who played all eight members of the D'Ascoyne clan. Each is a masterly caricature, although only Lord Ascoyne (who becomes dotingly fond of Louis) and the bibulously well-meaning Rev. Henry occupy much screen time. Dennis Price also doubles up to essay his moustachioed father in a much broader lampoon that makes one grateful that Hamer and Dighton decided against following the example of Roy Horniman's scurrilous 1907 source novel, Israel Rank, and making their anti-hero Jewish.

They also chose not to have Mazzini emulate his literary forbear by murdering a child by infecting it with scarlet fever spores, although he does note with a certain satisfaction in his urbane narration that the 8th Duke fortuitously lost his wife and two children to diphtheria. The voice-over contains some of the film's wittiest lines and its insouciance contrasts amusingly with the world-weary delivery that had already become familiar through such Hollywood crime dramas as Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944). Indeed, this could easily be described as Ealing's first comédie noire, especially as Joan Greenwood's Sibella is the most sensuous femme fatale in postwar British cinema - not that the competition provided by such wicked manipulators as Margaret Lockwood in Bedelia (1946), Simone Simon in Temptation Harbour (1947), Colette Melville in The Flamingo Affair and Christine Norden in Nightbeat (both 1948) is particularly strong.

Laced with allusions to Shakespeare, Chaucer, Tennyson and Longfellow, this may well be the screen's most cultivated act of subversion. Mocking the class system and the established church and challenging the rule of law with its disregard for conventional morality and the sanctity of human life, it was daringly provocative for its time and retains much of its corrosive sparkle.

The killer is considerably less personable in Lee Sang-il's Villain. But this measured adaptation of Suichi Yoshida's cult novel is much more dismayed by the decline in traditional values and the widening of the generation gap in Japanese society that has primarily been caused by the young's growing disregard for the concepts of honour, loyalty and civility that have their roots in the medieval Bushido code. Reflecting on the deceptiveness of appearances, the elusiveness of love and the transience of contentment, this is an ambitious blend of psychological thriller, romantic melodrama and social critique. But Lee struggles to accommodate the fragmentary flashbacks into an already intricate structure and occasionally allows the action to drift before regaining his focus for the shocking climax.

Hikari Mitsushima works for an insurance company in Fukuoka. She seems a typical twentysomething as she giggles over mobile phone messages in a restaurant with friends Hanae Kan and Ayaka Nakamura. But, while she swoons over college student Masaki Okada, she is actually having paid sex with internet acquaintance Satoshi Tsumabuki, a labourer who lives with grandparents Hisashi Igawa and Kirin Kiki in a small fishing village near Nagasaki.

One night, Mitsushima stands up Tsumabuki after bumping into Okada and climbing into his car. However, he is unnerved by her aggressive flirting and drops her on a remote hill road, where she is found dead the next morning. Detective Sansei Shiomi arrests Okada, but is forced to release him after he spends a humiliating period in a cramped cell.

The guilt of his crime crushes the Tsumabuki and he seeks solace in Eri Fukatsu, another online contact who emails him after a lengthy silence in a desperate bid to escape the ennui of working in a Saga menswear store and living with her self-centred younger sister, Kinuo Yamada. They meet at the town railway station and Fukatsu is taken aback when Tsumabuki suggests they check into a love hotel. She doesn't expect to hear from him again after he drops her off, but they become inseparable when he learns that the police are pursuing him and persuades the lonely Fukatsu to run away with him.

With her husband in hospital, Kiki is left alone to cope with the press pack camped on her doorstep. She calls Tsumabuki's estranged mother, Yoshiko Miyazaki, but she is more concerned with how the scandal is affecting her own life than with her son's fate. Nephew Mansaku Ikeuchi offers Kiki sanctuary, but she declines and tells him nothing about the fact she has been swindled out of her savings by the thuggish henchmen of bogus herbalist Suzuki Matsuo.

Mitsushima's doting barber father, Akira Emoto, is similarly distraught at his daughter's demise and cruelly blames wife Yoshiko Miyazaki for her maternal failures. However, he is determined to discover the truth about her secret life and begins stalking Okada in a bid to shame him into acknowledging his part in Mitsushima's murder. But, as he is confronting Okada and buddy Kento Nagayama in a posh city restaurant, Fukatsu is captured in a remote coastal village after calling Yamada from a payphone to let her know she is okay. She manages to escape, but inadvertently leads the police to the lighthouse where she and Tsumabuki had been laying low and wishing they had met before everything started to go so wrong.

Although the trials of Kiki and Emoto are harrowing, the relationship between Tsumabuki and Fukatsu provides the central focus of this emotionally intense saga. Prepared to endure anything to experience passion and companionship, Fukatsu contrasts sharply with the shallow and vindictive Mitsushima, just as the callous and selfish Okada differs from the taciturn Tsumabuki, whose flashy car and dyed-blonde hair belie the fact that he spends much of his time helping his grandparents and their elderly neighbours. Yet, having made the couple seem as sympathetic as Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell in Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night (1949), Lee fatally misjudges the denouement, in which Tsumabuki explains how his mother abandoned him at the lighthouse as a child before attempting to throttle Fukatsu as the cops burst in to arrest him.

But Villain should not be dismissed simply because Lee clumsily posits that a murderer can't be all bad if he can smile at a sunset. The performances are uniformly impressive, while Norimichi Kasamatsu's rich imagery is matched by the subtlety of Joe Hisaishi's score. Lee's mix of lyricism and laceration is also laudable. But, for all the acuity of the character study, it's Lee and Yoshida's incisive appreciation of Japan's unravelling social fabric that makes this so compelling and disconcerting.

Societal breakdown is also a theme of Susanne Bier's In a Better World, which won this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. As in After the Wedding (2006), Bier uses a Third World scenario to draw comparisons with events back in Denmark. However, the barbarous actions of a tribal warlord and the errant schemes of a grieving schoolboy are rather mismatched examples of priapean violence in an otherwise commendable discussion of pacifism, loyalty, bullying and retribution.

Swedish medic Mikael Persbrandt works in a field hospital in a remote part of Kenya and frequently has to perform emergency surgery on pregnant women who have been cut open by the brutal Evans Muthini to check on the sex of their babies. Persbrandt's estranged wife Trine Dyrholm is also a doctor at a hospital in Denmark, where their elder son Markus Rygaard is being bullied at school by Simon Maagaard Holm and this injustice stings new student William Jøhnk Nielsen, who has come to live with grandmother Elsebeth Steentoft following the recent death of his mother that has strained his relationship with workaholic father, Ulrich Thomsen.

Nielsen beats Holm with a bicycle pump and threatens him with a knife, but avoids censure when headmistress Bodil Jørgensen simply suggests the trio shake and make up. But Nielsen feels empowered by his stance and, when mechanic Kim Bodnia slaps Persbrandt for protecting son Toke Lars Bjarke in a playground scuffle with his own boy, he refuses to accept that turning the other cheek is a manly gesture and begins plotting to blow up Bodnia's van with pipe bombs fuelled by firework gunpowder.

Meanwhile, Persbrandt has returned to Africa, where, despite the misgivings of his staff, he is forced to treat Muthini for a leg wound. However, when he begins abusing fellow patients, Persbrandt snaps and allows the locals to take their revenge on the now-defenceless tyrant. Consequently, Persbrandt is preoccupied when Rygaard skypes him that night and, thus, misses the opportunity to prevent the explosion that will land his son in hospital, after he rushes to warn some passing joggers of the imminent danger.

The melodramatic escalation of events is undoubtedly the weakest aspect of Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen's screenplay. Yet, such is the intensity of the performances that this remains disconcertingly compelling. The steely eyed Nielsen and the brace-wearing Rygaard are particularly impressive as the boys reacting in confusedly different ways to their father's absenteeism, while Persbrandt ably conveys the conflicts of a man whose personal and professional codes are compromised by the cowardly deeds of others. However, Dyrholm and Thomsen are rather marginalised, with subplots involving her bitterness at Persbrandt's infidelity and his pain at his dying wife's cruelty going largely unexplored.

Cinematographer Morten Søborg evocatively contrasts the African bush and Danish coastal vistas, although his penchant for closing in on the characters heightens the dramatic tension with only marginally more subtlety than Johan Söderqvist's rather obvious score. But such tactics are typical of a didactic picture that seems to allow all but Muthini to escape the consequences of their actions. Moreover, by focusing so schematically on the notion of violence begetting violence, Bier neglects such other potentially intriguing themes as male responses to bereavement, class and racial antagonisms, the role of schools in providing moral guidance and the still patronising attitude of supposedly civilised societies to the developing world.