THE BLOG

Second That Emotion

02/12/2015 08:55 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

Against all odds filmmakers continue to make fine works, adapting or creating stories not from comics or videogames but exploring the human experience on our own planet.

Even when all the elements magically come together to make something that rises above disposable entertainment, though, there's no guarantee a picture will find an audience. With countless riches available on cable and streaming and commercial networks, so many projects are competing for our attention that it's easy to miss unheralded gems. Below, some smaller films worth staying home to watch on Valentine's -- or any other -- Day.

1. Chef. Jon Favreau first sprang into public consciousness with a previously unseen mix of brazen attitude and emotional nakedness, a kind of hyper boy-girl blend. Though its box office didn't reflect the good news, his latest outing returns us to the prickly satisfactions of Favreau's early films, after years of career and salary bloat. A boisterous adventure in food porn, Chef is warm rather than sweet, its suspense entirely emotional, the relationships between its characters and their search for fulfillment its chief plot motor. The actor does some of his subtlest work here, even as he allows his character to go over the top; as director, he even manages to tame costar John Leguizamo's excesses. Cute but uncutesy child actor Emjay Anthony is the movie's secret weapon: the film's true love story is that between father and son, though the director doesn't press too heavily, using it as the subtle base for his multiseasoned stew. And though he casts two (comically) stunning actresses as romantic partners for his unglamorous lead, Favreau limits his seductions to the culinary, leaving everything to the imagination with what can only be called delicacy.

2. Hateship Loveship. There is pain, trauma and heartbreak in Liza Johnson's intimate third feature, but also the promise of happiness. This adaptation of an Alice Munro short story would seem to be a familiar dark fable headed in a predictable direction, but the actors, particularly Guy Pearce and Kristin Wiig, elevate their troubled characters beyond cliché. Johnson has created a moving paean to love unexpectedly fulfilled.

3. Frank. Musicians follow their bliss into bizarre corners in this film inspired by a real-life figure whose personal quirk has to be seen to be believed. Alternately a challenge and a delight to watch, Frank captures the highs and lows of pursuing stardom, the unique comaraderie of artists joined in a goal, and the mixed blessing of achieving what you secretly want. Not all the performances match Maggie Gyllenhaal's and Michael Fassbender's, but the whole of Frank's parts transcends some uneven moments to make this odd, original piece hard to shake.

4. Kelly & Cal. Juliette Lewis gives a beautifully nuanced performance in Jen McGowan's tender look at people struggling to adapt to the fraying of their dreams. The actress's preternatural youthfulness and her costar Jonny Weston's grounded, mature presence make their forbidden relationship less fraught than it might be, but the talent both before and behind the camera make this an affecting journey.

6. 1,000 Times Good Night. An intelligent, quietly gripping story of a woman whose essential nature -- as a photojournalist driven to risk death to bring the truth of horrifying violence into the open -- battles the demands of love and family. Hard to imagine a story of, say, a male firefighter painted as a villain for pursuing his heroic work, but Juliette Binoche is no man, and that's the problem. The film doesn't flinch from showing the havoc wrought in the wake of difficult decisions, and the cast, including Games of Thrones' dashing dastard Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, makes a strong impression. Good Night is an old-fashoned tale of the personal versus the political that feels urgent and of-the-moment.