The time frame between a film being launched in cinemas and released on DVD is getting smaller all the time. In many ways, this is a good thing, especially for those who don't always have access to the latest titles (particularly the more obscure arthouse ones) and for those who are either unable to get to their local movie theatre or those who have long since tired of sitting in close proximity to someone who is more preoccupied with their popcorn, wrappered sweets, date's neck or mobile phone than the events on the screen.

However, it must be frustrating for regular visitors to these pages to be confronted with reviews of films they only read a matter of weeks before. One can only hope in these instances that the resubmitted opinions accord with their own or inspire them to rent or buy the picture concerned. But, as in the clip shows that sitcoms and cartoon series use to pad out one episode per season, every effort is made to present a little new material amongst the repolished gems.

With the exception of the United States, Japan probably has more cult directors than any other film-producing nation. Satoshi Miki began his career writing for television variety shows. Having frequently collaborated with the legendary comedy troupe Downtown, he moved into theatre before making his feature debut in 2005 with an adaptation of Hideo Okuda's acclaimed novel, In the Pool. This was followed a couple of months later by Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers before Miki returned to the small screen for the hit cop series Time Limit Detective, which confirmed the growing reputation of performers Joe Odagiri, Aso Kumiko and Mitsushima Hikari, as well as cult director Sion Sono.

Miki has since acquired a sizeable following with features like Damejin (2006) and The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia (2007). But the three now available on disc in this country are Turtles, Adrift in Tokyo.(2007) and Instant Swamp (2009).

Much more considered and accomplished than the rather scattershot psychiatry comedy In the Pool, Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers centres on ordinary people with the capacity to surprise themselves and the extraordinary moments that enliven the daily routine. Breaking away from the sketch format with which Miki made his name, this genial comedy relies more on perceptive wit than pratfalling slapstick.

Ever since she was at school and her exercise books were never as trendy as those of best friend Yû Aoi, Juri Ueno has had to settle for being unremarkable. Her house is chic, but as so so as her cooking, while her marriage is has come to centre around phone calls with a workaway husband who is more concerned with his pet turtle Taro than his wife. Indeed, just about the most exciting thing that happens to Ueno is a flood that requires her to call out a plumber.

But, while climbing the seaside steps she has known since her childhood, Ueno is forced to duck by a cascade of spilt apples and notices a sticker advertising for trainee spies. Tired of being invisible and desperate for some excitement, Ueno goes to a drab apartment to meet handlers Ryô Iwamatsu and Eri Fuse (a husband-and-wife team of an unemployed nobody and a shopping mall announcer), who instruct her to remain as anonymous as possible to provide the best cover. They also present her with a bundle of banknotes to cover expenses on her first mission, which she decides to put in the fridge for safekeeping.

However, things become complicated when Ueno wins a fishing trip on a wheel of fortune and coaxes Aoi into accompanying her. The adventure is curtailed, however, by the discovery of a a body in the water and Ueno finds herself at the centre of a spy hunt after the Japanese security forces launch a counter-offensive against sleeper agents. A chance encounter with an adolescent heartthrob and his son drags Ueno further away from quotidian dullness and she finally gets the chance to be a heroine when orders come for the spy ring members to go into hiding and Ueno's quick thinking enables her to save the day, earn the gratitude of an unlikely spymaster and help Aoi fulfil her lifetime ambition to live in Paris with a view of the Eiffel Tower.

The French connection is rather telling here, as this recalls the kind of madcap romp that became popular in Europe following Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Espions (1957) and the launch of the James Bond franchise. As with these all-star co-productions, the pace is unrelenting and the absurdity of the plot is compensated for by directorial bravura and the commitment of the performances. The ensemble playing is admirable, with Iwamatsu and Fuse amusing as perhaps the oddest undercover couple in screen history. But it's Ueno who most impresses, as she soldiers on in the face of banality to rescue a drowning youth, cut the town's power supply and free the turtle whose captivity represents her own.

Although Miki's domestic status was assured with his first two features, it was Adrift in Tokyo that brought him to the attention of a wider audience. Adapted from a novel by Fujita Yoshinaga, this typically left-field blend of rose-tinted nostalgia, soured reality and unsuspected optimism benefits from cinematographer Sohei Tanigawa's lovely views of the capital's autumnal streets and the curious chemistry between scruffy law student Joe Odagiri and mullet-sporting debt collector Tomokazu Miura.

Now in the eighth grade, Odagiri has devoted less time to his studies than frittering away money. However, his gambling debts catch up with him when he gets a visit from the menacing Miura, who informs him (while stuffing his mouth with dirty socks) that he has three days to find 800,000 yen or face the consequences. Failing utterly to raise the sum, Odagiri is starting to run out of options when he bumps into Miura, who makes him the unlikely proposition of offering to clear his IOUs (and provide him with a lump sum for the future) if he will accompany him on a walk around Tokyo.

Despite being perplexed by the prospect that this stroll could take months, Odagiri accepts and the pair begins a series of perambulations and conversations that shatter the viewer's preconceptions. Amidst the flashbacks and fantasies, Odagiri reveals he was abandoned by his parents as a child and Miura admits he has accidentally killed his wife. But Miki refuses to allow us to dwell on the confessions, as he whisks us to another intriguing location and introduces us to such peculiar characters as a karate-kicking antique clock expert, a trio of onanistic builders, a peripatetic rock musician, an artist with a penchant for nautical scenes, an ageing kleptomaniac superhero and a gaggle of giggling schoolgirls.

They even bump into actor Ittoku Kishibe and discuss the legend that touching him can bring one luck before Miura presents Odagiri to `pretend' wife Kyôko Koizumi and her niece Yuriko Yoshitaka and they enjoy the transient pleasure of feeling like a father and a son before Miura decides the time has come to hand himself in at the Kasumigaseki police station.

At one point in the odyssey, Miura and Odagiri find themselves at a cosplay gathering at which people don costumes to portray their favourite character from literature, manga or movies. It may seem a rather laboured metaphor, but Miki plays so deftly on the regrets and longings of his protagonists that their desperate situations acquire a poignancy that never becomes mawkish. He proves less convincing in cutting away to the work colleagues of Miura's deceased spouse, whose distractability while trying to discern her whereabouts becomes a little wearing. But the insights into identity, isolation, self-delusion and acceptance are as acute as the shifts from physical and verbal comedy into sombre reflection and the use of some of Tokyo's lesser-known landmarks.

The gags come much thicker and faster in Instant Swamp, which opens with a frenetic montage introducing straight-laced magazine editor Kumiko Aso and her eccentric mother, Keiko Matsuzaka. She is so convinced that a kappa water sprite resides in their garden that she nearly drowns while searching for it in a nearby pond and Aso is not only left to cope with her coma, but also the loss of her pet bunny at a rabbit farm, being dumped by her photographer boyfriend, the bankruptcy of her magazine and the ignominy of having the bulk of her possessions repossessed. A letter from a man claiming to be her father could not, therefore, have been discovered in a once-submerged postbox at a worse time.

Tracking down the sender to a threadbare antique shop by the river, Aso is dismayed to discover he is shock-haired Morio Kazama, who is known to all and sundry as Light Bulb. Having nothing better to do, Aso decides to keep her identity secret while helping out and see if she can reverse the run of bad luck that has dogged her since a cat talisman and several of her favourite toys were hurled into a swamp on her eighth birthday (which just happened to be the day her father left home). Forging an unlikely friendship with punky electrician Ryo Kase, Aso helps middle-aged bride-to-be Shoko Aida locate the fortune-telling machine that she recalls from her childhood and is convinced will assuage the doubts that are holding her back. But, while Aso warms to Kazama and his entertaining anecdotes and oddball ways, she fails to detect his slippery slide and he lulls her into parting with a million yen in return for the key to his warehouse. Enraged by her gullibility, Aso throws the key away. But fate hasn't quite finished with her yet.

With Aso evincing a winsomeness that recalls Audrey Tautou, this frequently resembles Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie (2001). But while her performance is charming without ever being drippy, Aso is rather tossed around by a mercurial narrative whose fantastical finale requires a whopping suspension of disbelief. The tone is genial, the humour often pleasingly surreal. But this is nowhere near as freewheeling as the crowd-pleasing Adrift in Tokyo.

The comedy is much broader, but the discussion of intimate matters is amusingly prudish in Beijing-based actor Sam Voutas's feature bow, Red Light Revolution, which is somewhat surprising given that this is China's first sex shop comedy. Pitched somewhere between a Carry On film and The Full Monty (1997), this bawdy romp about little people bucking the system says as much about its Australian director as it does about shifting social and economic attitudes in a country that is increasingly open to outside influences and very much prone to the problems brought about by the global slowdown. But, while the humour may occasionally be too localised or broad, this is pleasingly amusing fare that benefits greatly from the brisk byplay between the anti-heroic Jun Zhao and the feisty Vivid Wang.

Having lost his job as a taxi driver and been thrown out by his adulterous wife, tubby loser Jun Zhao is forced to move in with parents Huimin Tian and Ji Qing, who eke out a living making traditional medicines. Jun is appalled to discover, however, that they still have a very active sex life and seeks sanctuary from their daytime canoodling in a new job promoting a diet drink at the local supermarket. As disenchanted with the product as fast-talking colleague Vivid Wang, Jun jumps at the opportunity when school friend Xiduo Jiang suggests he asks flamboyant Japanese boss Masanobu Otsuka if he can set up his own marital aid franchise, as he has been making pots of cash.

As her grandmother has a disused store in a hutong backstreet, Wang is hired as Jun's assistant. But business is slow, as potential customers are too bashful to patronise the premises in daylight. However, a nocturnal accident persuades Jun to change his opening hours and he is soon pandering to the kinky needs of such regulars as frisky couple Tess Liu and Jianxiong Yao, the demure Virgin Chen and vibrant veterans Liansheng Wang and Siwei Song.

All seems lost when snooping local official Bing Bo catches Jun trading without a licence and confiscates his stock. But the resourceful Wang realises they can make a fortune selling Tian and Qing's patented virility tonic and Jun is soon off to a sex expo to impress Otsuka and his biggest overseas client (Voutas).

Despite the subject matter, this is an unexpectedly chaste picture that largely opts for sitcom-like caricature and quirkiness rather than inspired slapstick or outright smut. Voutas passes a few gentle remarks about the ability of the supposedly staid older generation to shock the young and the ramifications of new Chinese morality (the country produces 70% of the world's sex toys and the capital now has 1999 more outlets for such merchandise than it did 25 years ago). But this takes far too few satirical risks and relies heavily on the banter between Jun and the vivacious Wang, whose deadpan delivery is often brazenly hilarious.

A hint of Takeshi Kitano and John Woo at their best informs Na Hong-jin's brutal fugitive thriller, The Yellow Sea. Despite making less impact in South Korea than Na's 2008 debut, The Chaser (which went straight to disc in the UK, but has been slated for a Hollywood remake), this is a pulsating pelt through a little-seen part of the world that not only sheds light on the plight of the Joseonjok community living in the north-eastern prefecture of Yanbian, but also exposes the corruption, decadence and vice that are infecting every stratum of Korean society.

Taxi driver Ha Jung-woo has hit a new low. One of the 800,000 minority Korean-Chinese living in the crime-riddled city of Yanji, he hasn't heard from his wife in the six months since she left to find work in Seoul. Moreover, he also has massive mahjong debts and has just lost his job. Thus, he is left with little option to accept shady dog seller Kim Yun-seok's offer to take over a commission from mobster Jo Seong-ha and kill businessman Kwak Byung-kyu in the South Korean capital.

Enduring an exhausting journey by train, bus and fishing boat, Ha is distracted by the discovery that his wife has disappeared. Nevertheless, he stakes out the professor's apartment and tries to fathom how to hit him in a building with an awkward staircase and a highly sensitive lighting system. However, the problem is partially solved for him, as Jo is not alone in wanting Kwak dead and a bloodbath ensues that leaves Ha fleeing for his life and into a maelstrom of dead ends and detours that eventually lands him in a frantic lorry and car chase through the streets of Busan.

With the police and various Chinese and Korean gangsters on his tail, Ha manages to avoid any number of bullets and blades, as Na not only keeps Lee Sung-je's camera hurtling through the nightmarish underworld of Lee Hwo-kyoung's design, but he also has editor Kim Sun-min cut the slickly choreographed action to the relentless rhythms of Jang Young-gyu and Lee Byung-hoon's poundingly propulsive score. Occasionally, the virtuosity seems too calculated and risks duplicating the thuddingly dull run-and-gun antics of the standard Hollywood actioner. But Na succeeds in placing the audience in the middle of Ha's enveloping hell and ensures no one can second guess what's going to happen to him next.

As Kim Jee-woon's A Bittersweet Life (2005) and Leo Jeong-beom's The Man From Nowhere (2010) demonstrate, lone wolves in extremis are nothing new in recent Korean cinema and Na fails to recapture The Chaser's originality and verve. However, in trading goodie-baddie roles, Ha invests his role with a shambolic anti-heroism that contrasts amusingly with Kim's demented psychosis and slaughtering prowess. And if the strategy of following eruptions of kinetic mayhem with quirkier, quieter codas eventually becomes repetitive, the opening sequences are supremely atmospheric and Na makes his socio-political points with stern authority before launching into the frenzied finale, which itself ends in a moment of unexpected poignancy.

The brutal crime drama has become a staple of Mexican and Brazilian cinema in recent times. But Argentinian examples of have been fewer and further between, which makes Eduardo Pinto's formulaic Caño Dorado (2008) all the more disappointing. Set in a derelict neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, it drips with atmosphere and menace, as Daniel Ortega's camera prowls Sergio Hernández's claustrophobic interiors before Pinto starts contrasting the peaceful delta countryside with the dark hagiographic visions cluttering a twentysomething fugitive's troubled mind. Evocatively melded into visceral montages of blurred images and dislocating jump cuts by editor Mariano Dawidson, these rival anything in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros (2000) or Fernando Meirelles's City of God (2002). But, unfortunately, nothing else does.

Scraping by working as a blacksmith, Lautaro Delgado begins producing homemade pipe guns in his late father's old workshop. He keeps his sideline from doting mother Tina Serrano and family friend Luis Campos, but he soon attracts the attention of local gangster Yiyo Ortiz, who suggests a meeting to talk business. However, while waiting at Sergio Ferreiro's club, Delgado becomes besotted with his granddaughter, Camila Cruz, and he invites her on a fishing trip on his beloved boat.

Cruz agrees and the pair slip away early next morning. But not only does Delgado not know that Cruz is underage, but he also has no idea that Ferreiro employs her to do sexual favours for his special customers and Ortiz is less than amused to discover she has absconded with someone he considers an underling. Learning the awful news from his mother, after a night of illicit passion in a riverside hotel, Delgado is keen to keep his distance. But Ortiz tips off the cops about his gun factory and puts the frighteners on Serrano, leaving Delgado with no option but to come home and fight his corner.

Long before the economic downturn hit the rest of the world, Argentina had been struggling to extricate itself from a prolonged period of recession and Pinto ably captures the sense of despair that would persuade someone trapped on the lower rungs to do something foolish in the hope of improving his lot. He is well served by Delgado, whose tough exterior belies the fact he is a decent lad who would like to see his mother all right before settling down. But, even though Cruz smoulders capably as the jailbait who has managed to survive in the face of hideous exploitation and Ortiz makes a suitably hissable villain, this never feels particularly provocative or tense.

Pinto places a lot of emphasis on the nightmarish reveries. But, for all their technical proficiency, they seem self-consciously outré and detach the action from the raw realism that always feels more authentic than the runaway romance or the vendetta that sparks the combustible finale.

Across South America, Uruguayan Federico Veiroj proves to have a much surer grasp on his technique as he makes exquisite use of monochrome photography in A Useful Life, a paean to the seventh art that confines its action within the Academy Ratio format that was de rigueur before the introduction of widescreen in the early 1950s. Celebrating cinephilia, while also cautioning that there is more to life than flickering shadows, this is an absolute gem that is so subtly studded with allusions to earlier film styles, movements and genres that it will delight arthouse aficionados and amuse those who view movies as a sociable recreation rather than the centre of their existence.

Jorge Jellinek has worked at the Cinemateca Uruguaya in Montevideo for 25 years. However, as he shares out the titles in a forthcoming Icelandic season with boss Manuel Martinez, a telegram arrives threatening the venue with immediate closure unless its back rent is paid. Undaunted, Martinez shuffles off to the projection booth to provide a live microphone translation of the intertitles in Erich von Stroheim's much-savaged silent masterpiece, Greed (1924), while Jellinek records a message to be played at subsequent screenings to urge patrons to buy bonds that will keep the cinémathèque functioning.

Jellinek also hosts a rather lifeless show on Capital Radio discussing matters of cinema scholarship and promoting forthcoming presentations, such as a centenary tribute to the Portuguese maestro Manoel de Oliveira. In the meantime, they have to make do with a guest appearance by Uruguayan director Gonzalo Delgado, who comes to introduce his latest feature and a student short to a meagre audience and promptly complains about the way it is being projected. It's not all gloom for Jellinek, however, as he spots law professor Paola Venditto in the foyer and spends the next couple of hours steeling himself to invite her for coffee.

Typically, she has papers to mark and hurries into the night, leaving Jellinek to walk back through the swing doors alone. A montage follows showing Martinez and Jellinek striving to rectify their financial crisis. But a meeting with arts charity executive Felipe Arocena sounds the death knell and there is a melancholic immutability about the `Fine' on the Cinemateca screen as the curtains close for the last time.

Having packed his few belongings into a bag, Jellinek walks out into the wider world he knows better from films than experience. He sheds a tear on the bus and almost has to follow the example of a fellow pedestrian to work out how to cross a busy road. But his confidence begins to grow after he calls Venditto at the university and learns she will be free after 9 o'clock. Unfortunately, however, she meant in the evening and Jellinek finds himself wandering the campus, enjoying the creaky silence of a library and the bustle of the corridors. Indeed, he becomes so relaxed that he plays along when student Victoria Novisk mistakes him for a substitute teacher and he recycles Mark Twain's views on lying before departing with a quiet smile of satisfaction.

This burgeoning sense of self-esteem is reinforced when Jellinek catches sight of himself in a fish pond in the quadrangle and he defies a caretaker by tossing in a couple of coins and making a wish. Indeed, he feels so assured after a relaxing hair wash and cut that he abandons the bag that symbolises his film buffish past and he even dances like a cross between Fred Astaire and Alfred Molina on the law department staircase before asking Venditto if she would like to go to the pictures.

This masterclass in observation and understatement is short, sweet and close to perfection. Veiroj directs with a wry affection that allows him to poke gentle fun at the seriousness with which Jellinik and Martinez approach their duties, while also admiring their devotion to both the moving image and their second home. He also clearly hopes that everything works out for Jellinik and Venditto, although he can't resist referring to his anti-hero's first love, with neo-realist and nouvelle vague passages being complemented by nods to silent cinema, genres such as comedy, the musical and the Western and to individual film-makers like Jacques Tati, Lisandro Alonso and José Luis Guerin.

Considering they are respectively a film critic and the former head of the Cinemateca Uruguaya, Jellinek and Martinez are splendidly persuasive, with the latter delivering a drolly withering monologue on the difference between being a movie anorak and genuinely appreciating an artform and the former's hangdog expression changing imperceptibly in a series of documentary-like close-ups in the radio studio, the cramped print library, the cinema office and the hairdressing salon. Jellinek is at his best in the classroom, however, as he paraphrases Twain to extol the virtues of innocent deception and, thus, contradicts Jean-Luc Godard's oft-quoted contention by suggesting that cinema is actually lies 24 frames per second.

Crossing to France, writer-director Franck Phelizon makes an earnest, but decidedly underwhelming debut with Les Amours Secrètes, a tale of wartime passion and treachery that is more reminiscent of the BBC series Secret Army (1977-79) than more sinisterly complex Occupation masterpieces like Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien (1974) and Jacques Audiard's A Self-Made Hero (1996). Indeed, it most resembles Max Varnel's The Secret Invasion (1962) in its decent sense of place and time and the determination of the cast to make the most of a formulaic scenario that holds interest without saying anything of particular significance.

Opening with elderly Wladimir Hodzack thumbing through a diary that was written in Vichy France in 1942, the action flashes back to its author, Deborah Durand, singing in a small-town cabaret under an assumed name to disguise the fact that she is Jewish. Owner Frédérique Dupré makes no bones about the fact she caters for the local Nazi contingent and exploits her friendship with young SS officer Grégory Barboza to help smuggle Jews and Maquis members out of the country.

Were it not for the fact that he is half-Spanish and half-Austrian, Barboza would be the stereotypical `good German' and his romance with Durand is as inevitable as Gestapo chief Nicholas Buchoux suspecting that Dupré isn't quite the collaborator she makes out to be. Thus, he sends an agent into the house she shares with mother Anémone, who hasn't uttered a word since the death of her son earlier in the war, and 16 year-old Sullivan Leray, another Jewish fugitive who has a crush on Durand and spies on her nightly assignations with Barboza.

However, while Emni Blakcori quickly discovers that Dupré is in resistance cahoots with parish priest René Vaysse, he also falls in love with her and is distraught when she is arrested shortly after helping Durand and Leray escape to her family farm in the free zone. But Durand's younger brother, Jérémie Elkaïm, is still seething at the execution of his parents and the news that his sister is pregnant by Barboza goads him into a reckless reprisal that has calamitous consequences.

With the notable exceptions of Anémone and Richard Bohringer (who cameos as a Jewish cobbler helped to escape in the opening scenes), the cast is made up largely of unknowns and their combined inexperience with that of the director is too often readily apparent for this either to convince or engross. The storyline is far too predictable and Phelizon fails to invest it with any intensity or suspense. Despite the limited budget, the period trappings are adequate. But the performances feel far too modern and this will probably only entice those interested in this traumatic period of French history.

Céline Sciamma follows up her impressive debut, Water Lilies (2007), with another charming study of hesitant emotions and confused identity. Variously recalling such classic Gallic childhood tales as Jean Eustache's My Little Loves (1974), François Truffaut's Small Change (1976) and Alain Berliner's Ma Vie en rose (1997), this perfectly captures the way in which younger kids accept the world around them. However, it also raises sly questions about the extent to which personalities and preferences are established in the formative years and the role that peer and parental pressure plays in forming them.

Moving into a Marne valley estate outside Paris with pregnant mother Sophie Cattani, workaholic father Mathieu Demy and pesky sister Malonn Lévana, 10 year-old Zoé Héran is entirely comfortable with being a tomboy. Yet when she meets Jeanne Disson, she is so keen to befriend her that she fails to correct her mistaken assumption that Héran is a boy and she is forced to keep up the pretence in order to avoid embarrassment.

Thus, Héran finds herself playing football with the other lads with her shirt off and stuffing some plasticine down her trunks to go swimming. She is nearly rumbled when Disson comes to the house and asks for `Michael', but the whip-smart Lévana realises what is going on and exploits the deception to her own advantage.

Naturally, the truth emerges and Héran is not only faced with repairing the damage with Disson, but also with coming to terms with the fact that her new baby brother has usurped her status within the family. But Sciamma skirts melodramatics as deftly as she avoids sexualising the puppy love that develops between Héran and Disson. Consequently, the action retains its essential innocence, even though Sciamma is constantly exploring weightier themes below the surface.

Shooting with a Canon 7D photo/film hybrid, Crystel Fournier keeps the camera moving in mostly intimate close-ups to convey the eager naturalism of the performances. Héran is sweetly gauche, but the six year-old Lévana steals just about every scene with her impish wit and delight in sharing a naughty secret. Indeed, the assurance of the young stars ultimately atones for the fact that the narrative rather peters out into predictability, with the grown-up intrusion feeling all the more contrived because Cattani and her neighbours had previously been so peripheral.

Writer-director Samuel Maoz makes exemplary use of confined spaces in Lebanon, a visceral account of a four-man Israeli tank crew's experiences on the first day of the 1982 invasion that ranks alongside such other autobiographical anti-war films as Joseph Cedar's Beaufort (2007) and Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir (2008). Superbly played by a taut ensemble, the action is photographed with great percipience by Giora Bejach, who adeptly augments the tension by using the vehicle's viewfinder and night-vision facility to contrast the quartet's alternating fortitude and vulnerability as it becomes detached from the vanguard and finds itself in a hazardous no man's land.

New gunner Yoav Donat has barely been introduced to officer Itay Tiran, smart alec loader Oshri Cohen and nervous driver Michael Moshonov before they are pitched into action as back-up to a paratroop unit that is reccying a village that has already been pounded by the air force. On the outskirts, Donat hesitates when a car approaches and his equivocation costs the life of a soldier, whose agonising last seconds he watches through the range finder. Ordered to be more proactive, Donat blasts the next truck that approaches. However, he succeeds only in mutilating a civilian carrying a cargo of chickens and he is flashed a look of contempt by field commander Zohar Strauss, as he puts the screaming victim out of his misery with a single bullet to the head.

Rolling into the heart of the scarred settlement, the crew witnesses a terrorist hostage situation in a gutted building. Dismayingly, Donat's indecision again proves fatal and he peers through his gun sight as a terrified Reymond Amsalem rushes into the street after her family's slaughter and is forced to strip by a twitchy trooper to show she's not a suicide bomber. Having survived a rocket attack, the tank becomes a mobile prison for Syrian captive Dudu Tasa and Strauss orders them to hand him over to Phalangist fanatic Ashraf Barhom after they rendezvous deep in enemy territory.

However, even the hard-bitten Strauss is beginning to doubt the sagacity of the orders coming from headquarters and it's with some reluctance that he agrees to follow Barhom back to safety. Naturally, even this simple mission misfires and, after it refuses to hand over Tasa to certain execution, the foursome finds itself stranded in a backstreet, immobilised and out of radio contact. Consequently, it takes an act of selfless courage to save the day.

Eschewing the rights and wrongs of the conflict to focus solely on human reactions in extremis, Maoz has created a much more chilling and immediate insight into the pressure, uncertainty and horror of frontline action than Kathryn Bigelow managed in her over-praised Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker. Beside a couple of testy exchanges between Tiran and Cohen and an erotic adolescent reminiscence about anguish, the dialogue is pretty perfunctory. But Alex Claude's sound effects and Nicolas Becker's score punch home the crew's isolation and understandable tendency to fear the worst from each shock of artillery fire and outbreak of ominous silence.

Moreover, Maoz adeptly cuts between the tensions in the claustrophobic cabin and the mayhem unfolding outside, which he devastatingly allows to intrude in the form of the seething Strauss, the corpse of the IDF casualty, the petrified Tasa and the sinister Barhom. Bookended by contrasting views of a sunflower field, this is an uncompromising and deeply personal recollection. But it lacks the political and ethical complexity, the character strength and the psychological depth to match its technical dexterity. Thus, while this reflects the chaos and callousness of combat, it doesn't always make it easy to identify or empathise with the protagonists.

Norwegian cinema has rarely captured the wider imagination. But it can now boast two fine film-makers in Bent Hamer and Joachim Trier, who follows up his impressive debut, Reprise (2006), with Oslo, August 31st, a riveting study in isolation and despair that has all the audiovisual ingenuity of the early nouvelle vague and a sensitivity in depicting psychological strain that was somewhat lacking in distant cousin Lars von Trier's recent apocalyptic melodrama, Melancholia. Working from the same 1931 Pierre Drieu La Rochelle novel that inspired Louis Malle's Le Feu follet (1963), Trier has produced a masterpiece that poses the terrifying question is being alive reason enough to keep living?

Waking up in the bed of Swedish pick-up Malin Crepin, thirtysomething Anders Danielsen Lie dresses calmly and walks to a nearby lake and tries to drown himself clutching a giant rock. He fails and returns to the clinic where he is two weeks away from completing a drug rehabilitation programme and, having attended a group session with therapist Aksel Thanke, dresses for a job interview in the city. As he has a couple of hours on his hands, Lie calls in on old party-going pal Hans Olav Brenner, who is now married with two children to Ingrid Olava and is anything but the hellraiser who used to consider excess a reasonable starting point for a night out.

The pair chat over lunch and Lie tells him about the interview with Folio magazine that might relaunch his stalled writing career. Brenner encourages him as they walk in a local park and reminisce about old times. Ignoring Lie's contention that he is nothing more than a spoilt brat who messed up, he even suggests they hook up later in the day at a mutual friend's birthday party and Lie appears to be in good spirits as he sets off for his appointment. Editor Øystein Røger also seems enthusiastic about hiring Lie. But he loses his nerve when asked about the gap in his CV and the admission of being a long-term addict seems to tip him from reluctant acceptance of the need to reintegrate into society into a suicidal despondency from which he will need considerable proof of the validity of existence to extract himself.

Unable to make phone contact with ex-girlfriend Iselin Steiro in New York, Lie sits alone in a café and listens to the conversations at the other tables in a brilliantly constructed sequence reliant on shifts in angle and focus and the amiable banality of the various references to tentative crushes, unfaithful lovers, school waiting lists and dead pop stars. Nothing he hears, however, rouses Lie from his torpor and he traipses the streets with unseeing eyes before arriving at the restaurant where he had arranged to meet his lesbian sister. She fails to show, however, and sends girlfriend Tone Beate Mostraum in her place to explain that she has yet to forgive him for the pain he caused during his wilderness years and refuses to accompany him to the house their parents have been forced to sell to pay off his debts.

As much disgusted with himself as angry with his sibling for failing to give him another chance, Lie storms off and feels sufficiently crushed to visit former dealer Johanne Kjellevik Ledang and purchase a wrap of heroin. He isn't quite ready to give up on himself or his friends, however, and crosses the capital to the party that Brenner had mentioned. Hostess Kjærsti Odden Skjeldal is surprised to see Lie, as he has been out of circulation for so long, but she welcomes him warmly and he breaks a 10-month dry spell by having a glass of champagne. More drinks follow, as he realises Brenner has stood him up and he has to endure the smug teasing about his erstwhile bad behaviour by Skjeldal's boorish husband, Emil Lund.

He bumps into old buddy Petter Width Kristiansen, however, who invites him to go clubbing with a couple of female students. But Lie decides to linger and sits with old flame Skjeldal on the balcony and listens as she bemoans the fact she is bored with Lund and is struggling to conceive a child. Impulsively he kisses her and she scurries off in embarrassment, leaving Lie to seek sanctuary in a bedroom. He calls New York again and leaves a long message imploring Steiro to take him back and build a life together. But the line goes dead and he succumbs to the temptation to steal cash from the coats and bags lying on the bed and hurriedly leaves.

Lie takes a cab to the bar where Kristiansen is carousing and he hits it off with medical student Renate Reinsve. She clearly likes him and persuades him to come clubbing after he has a half-hearted confrontation with Anders Borchgrevink, who had slept with the distraught Steiro after she could no longer cope with Lie's callous antics. Reinsve comes on stronger at the club and Lie not only responds, but also rides on the back of her bicycle to go swimming in a park pool at the last day of August dawns. However, as he watches her skinny dipping with Kristiansen and his girlfriend, Lie suddenly realises what he must do and he walks through the deserted streets to the family home, where he inexpertly plays the piano before fulfilling his destiny.

The picture closes with a poignant sequence of still lifes showing the deserted locations that Lie had visited in the course of his odyssey. But this is surpassed by a brilliant late afternoon montage that showcases the exemplary contributions of co-scenarist Eskil Vogt, cinematographer Jakob Ihre, editor Olivier Bugge Coutte and composers Torgny Amdam and Ola Flottum, as Lie wanders aimlessly through the city centre while ruminating in voice-over about the way he was reared by parents who adopted a curious mix of liberalism and severity that clearly helped shape his psyche, even if it can't necessarily be blamed for his self-destructive tendencies.

Recalling New Wave gems like Jean-Luc Godard's A Bout de Souffle (1959) and Agnès Varda's Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962), this compelling combination of character study and city snapshot captures the spirit of Oslo and its people in spite of Lie's suffusing melancholy. Indeed, rarely has the ordinariness of daily life seemed to reassuring and the film's tragedy is not that Lie wants to top himself, but that his Lie's addiction has made him so preoccupied with his own physical and emotional needs that he can no longer find comfort or joy in the contentment of others.

As in Reprise, Lie delivers a quietly devastating performance and he is superbly supported by a solid ensemble, whose failure to recognise the warning signs owes as much to years of Lie abusing their friendship as to their own self-immersion or indifference to his fate. But it's Trier and Ihre's masterly use of location and light that most tellingly conveys the contrast between Lie's existential angst and the unthinking tenacity of those able to find enough in the smallest moments to consider even the most unremarkable life worthwhile.

Raul Ruíz died in August 2011 at the age of 70, leaving La Noche de enfrente unfinished in post-production. Consequently, Mysteries of Lisbon - which was filmed while Ruíz battled liver cancer - will be the last completed work by the prolific and scandalously underrated Chilean maverick and this lavishly mounted and typically labyrinthine 272-minute adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco's 1854 novel is a worthy last testament. This `diary of suffering' requires several narrators to chart its sweep from the Portuguese capital through Spain, France and Italy to post-colonial Brazil in order to reveal how a `frivolous game' became a `sordid bourgeois drama'. But such is Ruíz's mastery of both cinematic and storytelling techniques that this Dickensian saga quickly becomes utterly engrossing.

With so many characters appearing in so many guises in so many times and places, it's best to restrict plot summaries to the basics. Nobleman Pedro da Silva (José Afonso Pimentel) starts the tale by recalling his unhappy childhood as a bullied stray (João Arrais) in the Catholic boarding school run by the kindly Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). However, the 14 year-old's situation changes when he learns following a bullying incident that his mother Ângela (Maria João Bastos) is the Countess of Santa Barbara and, shortly after their reunion, he learns how she was parted from his father, Don Pedro da Silva (João Baptista), because her father, the Marquess of Montezelos (Rui Morrison), disapproved of her consorting with a man of aristocratic birth but limited means.

Thanks to the scheming of her maid, Deolinda (Ana Das Chagas), Ângela steals time alone with Don Pedro. However, the Marquess hires a ruffian known as The Knife Thrower (Ricardo Pereira) to assassinate him and the besotted youth dies while seeking sanctuary with Fr Dinis. Learning the Marquess has instructed The Knife Thrower to murder the child at birth, Dinis assumes the disguise of horse thief Sabino Cabra and purchases the child for 40 coins and rears him at the orphanage, while Ângela endures a miserable marriage to the Count of Santa Bárbara (Albano Jerónimo), who confines his wife to her room and lives openly with her maid, Eugenia (Joana de Verona).

Having discovered that Ângela has escaped from his mansion with the help of his valet Barnardo (José Airosa), Santa Barbara accuses her of adultery and Fr Dinis travels to an inn where the count is recuperating from an illness to demand a retraction. Suitably penitent, Santa Barbara tells the priest how he fell in love with Ângela at first sight during a society soirée. However, she spurned his advances and it was only when her father ordered her to be more civil that he began to press his suit. On learning that she had a son, Santa Barbara had been consumed with envious rage and had imprisoned her in revenge for his sense of betrayal. The count dies soon after making these revelations and Ângela decides to take the veil in the same convent as Fr Dinis's sister, Antónia (Vânia Rodrigues). Pedro is crestfallen by his mother's vocation, but his mentor is distracted from consoling him by the arrival of Friar Baltazar da Encarnação (José Manuel Mendes), who had been Santa Barbara's confessor. He invites Dinis to his cell, where he informs him that he had once been known as Don Álvaro de Albuquerque (Carloto Cotta), who attended the fashionable salons of Lisbon with his cousin, Paulo (Filipe Vargas).

Álvaro had been bewitched by Silvana, the Countess of Viso (Maria João Pinho), whose jealous and short-tempered husband (Marco D'Almeida) was a sworn enemy of King João I's feared and detested first minister, the Marquess of Pombal. Yet, instead of noticing Álvaro's passion for his spouse, Viso encourages him to escort her to social occasions while he plots against the government that had executed Álvaro's father for treason. Thus, when Viso rushes to court after Pombal falls in 1777, Álvaro and Silvana become lovers and flee to Venice when their affair is betrayed by prying servants. However, Silvana dies in childbirth and Álvaro asks Paulo to raise their son, while he retreats to a monastery.

Returning home by coach, carrying his mother Silvana's skull in a reliquary, Fr Dinis witnesses a duel between Don Martinho de Almeida (Paulo Pinto) and Alberto de Magalhães (Ricardo Pereira) and learns from more interlinking yarns that the latter is The Knife Thrower, who has gone up in the world and appears to have used several aliases across Europe since making his fortune (according to rumour through slavery and piracy) with the ransom that Dinis had paid to spare young Pedro's life.

In trying to ascertain the reason for the duel, Dinis discovers that Alberto (who is now married to Eugenia and living in Lisbon) is being pursued by Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme), a French heiress who had resisted his attentions before being driven by a shortage of funds to prostitute herself to him over several nights until her twin brother challenged Alberto and died of gunshot wounds following a struggle in the street. Elisa has since sought to return the money she received from Alberto (just as he is keen to return Pedro's blood money to Fr Dinis) and even pays Eugenia a visit to urge her to accept the bag of coins. But, with each refusal, Elisa becomes more determined to avenge her brother's demise and dupes social gadfly Baron Sá (André Gomes) into finding a man to fight on her behalf.

Sá persuades Martinho to do the deed, but his failure prompts Dinis to visit Elisa in the hope she will drop her vendetta. She is surprised to learn that Dinis knows more about her than she suspects, as he was brought up in France following Paulo's death. Having survived when his protector was guillotined during the Revolution, he served in Napoleon's Grand Army with Benoit (Julien Alluguette), with whom he shared a devotion of Blanche (Léa Seydoux). However, having rescued Ernesto Lacroze (Melvil Poupaud) from a Portuguese firing squad during the Peninsular War, Benoit became enraged by his friendship with Blanche and hid his rival's letters after he returned to the colours. Eventually, Ernesto was killed and Blanche married Benoit. But, having borne him twins - Elisa and Arthur - she withdrew to the hunting lodge on his estate, where she died in a fire, despite Dinis's efforts to save her.

However, as the story jumps forwards several years, the adult Pedro returns from his studies in France to become entranced by Elisa and she talks him into challenging Alberto de Magalhães to a duel. Although he had always refused to give opponents satisfaction, Alberto agrees and they meet with swords at dawn. However, he is too quick for his youthful adversary and disarms him before cajoling him into accepting an olive branch rather than continue with pistols. But, the humiliation of failing to vanquish Elisa's foe proves too much for Pedro and he spends the remainder of his life travelling in Africa and South America, where he begins dictating this sprawling saga to a hotel servant.

As the plot touches upon war, treachery, spiritual anguish, prostitution, honour, faith and social duplicity, chameleonic characters come and go at a dizzying rate that seems to spur Ruíz on to take the increasingly convoluted events at an even more breakneck lick. Ably abetted by a superb cast and an intricate, if occasionally operatic script by Carlos Saboga, Ruíz keeps André Szankowski's HD camera gliding through Isabel Branco's glorious sets to the accompaniment of Jorge Arriagada's swooningly romantic score. He even makes charming use of the toy theatre that Ângela bought Pedro for scenic transitions and to emphasise the dramatic gravitas of key scenes. Moreover, he also delights in leaving on mystery unsolved, as Fr Dinis avoids satisfying Ângela's curiosity about the non-fraternal relationship between Sister Antónia and his high society alter ego, Sebastião de Melo.

Many will compare this supremely controlled, but irresistibly accessible and engrossing picture with Ruíz's majestic Proust adaptation, Time Regained (1999). But he seems more intent on paying tribute to Manuel De Oliveira - who adapted Castelo Branco's Ill-Fated Love in 1979 - than referencing his own oeuvre. Yet the asides on memory, status, duty, hypocrisy, caprice and coincidence have a familiar ring and the ever-mischievous Ruíz appears to revel in gently lampooning the conventions of the heritage movie by allowing the temperature occasionally to come close to tele-novelettish fever pitch. There's no question that this makes enormous demands on the audience. But those willing to pay close attention will be handsomely rewarded by the magisterial swan song of an under-appreciated master.