In films like Our Little Sister and Like Father, Like Son, Japanese film-maker Hirokazu Koreeda has explored extended and sometimes dysfunctional families with the lyricism and insight of a master.
His stories meander rather than race, but cunningly enfold you in his humorous and moving domestic stories - his latest film, After the Storm, being a perfect case in point. Hiroshi Abe stars as Ryota, a once-promising novelist and writer whose life is now a bit of a mess. Showered with praise on the publication of his first novel, he's never been able to follow it up and now ekes an undignified living spying on philandering spouses for a firm of Tokyo private detectives. Ryota claims it's research for a novel but is fooling nobody, and meanwhile has a gambling habit that's spiralling out of control. His ex-wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki) is unimpressed by his failure to pay child support for his 11-year-old son, Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa), and, to Ryota's horror, has taken up with a wealthy but arrogant new suitor.
Ryota's not a bad man, just a weak one, and his doting mother, Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki) hasn't given up on him. She pretends not to notice when he searches her apartment for heirlooms to pawn, and tries to feed him at every opportunity. His elder sister, Chinatsu (Satomi Kobayashi) is not so indulgent. But Yoshiko still hopes her son will be reunited with Kyoto, and nature seems to lend a hand when Kyoto and Shingo come to her apartment on a visit and are trapped for the night by an impending typhoon.
Full of humour, and beautifully acted, After the Storm tellingly explores the slights, resentments, rivalries and grudging affection that are lifeblood of every family. The tall and handsome Hiroshi Abe is very good in the lead, and veteran actress Kirin Kiki is - as ever - a delight, making the resourceful and wickedly amusing Yoshiko seem like a reassuring universal mother.
Animation is mainly used to tell uplifting, saccharin stories, but the Franco-Swiss film My Life as a Courgette demonstrates how powerful a medium it can be for dark and serious drama. Directed by Claude Barras and Armelle Glorennec, it follows the fortunes of Icare, a lonely, mournful young boy who lives in a small French town with his alcoholic mother. She mutters and groans and throws empty beer cans at the telly, while Icare - or Courgette as she likes to call him - draws and paints and dreams in the garret attic.
When his mother dies in an absurd accident for which Icare blames himself, he's sent to an orphanage run by kindly social workers but populated by deeply troubled kids. One of them, Simon, initially picks on 'Courgette', as Icare insists on being called, but gradually the two boys find common ground.
Simon's background was traumatisingly violent, and the other inmates are similarly scarred by drug addiction, alcoholism, abuse and crime. When a pretty girl called Camille turns up, Courgette falls heads over heels in love with her before discovering that her story is grimmest of all.
Painstakingly made using a stop-motion animation style similar to that favoured by Tim Burton, My Life as a Courgette is not at all as grim as it sounds, and focuses more on hope and kindness than the dark starts to the children's lives.
They even go on a beautifully rendered alpine skiing trip, and in the film's most touching moment, the orphans stand silent and transfixed watching a mother play with her child.
The film was nominated in the Best Animated Feature Film category at the Oscars, and should have won. It has wisdom and heart in spades, and demonstrates how kindness and love can unlock the potential of even the most unfortunate child.