Wiarton Willie, the world’s most prophetic rodent, pokes his head up from his hole in the ground to see if he can spot his shadow, thereby effectively predicting how many weeks of crappy movies are still to come. Among the Farmer’s Almanac crowd Willie has a pretty good track record, but he has yet been able to spot the exceptions. While it might be true that the worst movies are earmarked for release in these early forgotten months of the new year, some really good films are also making their way into theatres, you just have to look a bit further beyond your shadow to find them. What Wiarton Willie needs is to read a film review or two, and I’m happy to forward him mine.

Last week it was The Class, this week it’s Wendy and Lucy – two great films worth fighting the cold for. Not surprisingly, neither of these films come courtesy of the household-name studios but from Mongrel Media, a champion of grade A independent and world cinema.

Read Thom´s interview with Mongrel Media founder, Hussain Amarshi

Wendy and Lucy is a warm, humanist’s fairy tale with Michelle Williams (Wendy) as the paper-bag princess en route to Alaska who gets detoured in a milk-run town near the Oregon-Washington border. Her dog Lucy, wonderfully underplayed by director Kelly Reichardt’s own family pet, goes missing. That’s story enough for me – give me a loner looking for a beloved dog and I’ll be standing in line for my ticket. But Wendy and Lucy, which is based on a short story by Jonathan Raymond, is much more than just Old Yeller-style sentimentality. It´s a story about the uncompromising paths that take us from drifting to belonging and what gets left behind along the way.

Reichardt’s minimalist film style reminds me of early John Sayles or Jim Jarmusch without the brilliant black-and-white cinematography of a Tom DiCillo or a Robby Müller. And then I recall another drowsy little independent movie called Sleeping Dogs – so minor that even avid film buffs are not likely to have ever encountered it.

Sleeping Dogs comes out of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, one heckuva place to celebrate Oktoberfest but hardly the mecca of Canadian filmmaking. Still, it’s the home of Terrance Odette who makes quiet little films about tired but determined people living on society’s fringes. Sleeping Dogs is the perfect title, not only because it identifies the storyline of a blind and elderly shut-in who is hell-bent on rescuing his dog from being euthanized at the local pound, but also because its tone is so gently compassionate that its affect is not unlike that of caressing a faithful mutt to a state of complete contentment.

But simple, sleepy movies don’t always get noticed – not even at film festivals where audiences are generally acclimated to forgiving evenly paced, tenderly told and unpolished filmmaking. Wendy and Lucy could have been one of them if it were not championed by folks such as the Toronto film critics circle, who named it the best film of the year – although it only gets a wide release this weekend. My guess is few of these critics, if any, have Odette and his film on their radar.

There are arguably many ways in which these two similarly themed films part ways – the biggest factor being that Odette’s movie stars the unknown Brian Stillar, while Reichardt’s film stars Williams and a few notable character actors (Will Patton) and one folk musician (Wally Dalton). And Wendy and Lucy is technically a more competent and better produced film than Sleeping Dogs, given that Reichardt’s meagre budget is a sight less meagre than Odette’s. But where Sleeping Dogs has been shooed out of the house, Wendy and Lucy is being properly groomed and kennelled.

I bring up Sleeping Dogs for two reasons. First, because it kept popping up in my mind while watching Wendy and Lucy, and second, because Wendy and Lucy is a small film that could get ignored, while Sleeping Dogs is a smaller film that did get ignored.

It’s too late for Sleeping Dogs (unless it shows up on DVD or pay-per-view somewhere), but there’s hope for Wendy and Lucy. You don’t have to be a connoisseur of cinema to love a film like Wendy and Lucy. You might be thrown off a bit by its minimalist style and presentation, by its strolling metaphoric storyline or by its downplaying of Williams’s star quality, but, if you allow it, you can be mesmerized by the simple joy of one person’s quiet misadventure.Big films will return soon enough to bury the gems beneath an avalanche of hype and celebrity press. Now is the time to replenish your soul. Do not let this sleeping dog lie.

Also in theatres this weekend: Coraline: 3D Feast of Wonder

Thom Ernst is a Toronto-based film writer and critic and the producer/interviewer of TVO´s long-running movie program, Saturday Night at the Movies.

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