When a film goes directly to DVD without playing in any theaters, it's easy to assume it's bad.

But maybe not.

Maybe the film is too good for the theaters - or more accurately, the film may appeal to such a small, specialized audience that it's economically unfeasible to back it up with the sort of marketing campaign a theatrical release entails.

Over the past year I've dealt with DVD versions of popular films and TV shows, but the biggest thrill comes from discovering a gem I never saw coming.

Here's a recap of some of the year's most impressive home-video releases you may have never heard of, including indie and foreign titles and documentaries. They're all worth seeking out.

"La Mission": A widowed former gang member (Benjamin Bratt) loses it when his teenage son announces he's gay. A valentine to San Francisco and its lowrider community.

"Bass Ackwards": An affable loser (writer/ director Linas Phillips) takes a cross-country road trip in this unhurried, low-key comedy.

"South of the Border": Oliver Stone looks at Latin America's new socialism - and likes what he sees. Guaranteed to start a discussion/debate/slugfest.

"Bird on a Wire": Tony Palmer's long-lost documentary about Leonard Cohen's 1972 European concert tour.

"Skeletons": Two frumpy psychics work for a mysterious English company exorcising spirits and demons. It's "Ghostbusters" with a Ph.D.

"Big Fan": This black comedy stars Patton Oswalt as a New York-area sports nut who lives and dies for his beloved Giants. A terrific performance.

"Talhotblond": A real-life tale of Internet deception in which a teenage tease taunts an ex-Marine until he kills. With a last-act revelation you won't believe.

"Salvage": Bucolic Brit cul-de-sac becomes site of unfolding horror. Neve McIntosh gives a superb performance as a mother struggling to save her estranged daughter.

"Entre Nos": Abandoned by her husband, a Colombian mother (luminous Paola Mendoza) must survive NYC's mean streets. Mendoza also directed this real-life story.

"I Knew It Was You": Essential documentary about actor John Cazale (Fredo in "The Godfather"), who made only five films . . . but all were nominated for best picture (three won).

"The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia": Spend a year with this real-life hillbilly clan and have your eyes opened. Alternately hilarious and touching.

"Smash His Camera": Are paparazzi scum? This documentary about infamous Jackie O. stalker Ron Galella may change your mind.

"Terribly Happy": Rebounding from a divorce meltdown, a Copenhagen cop is reassigned to a small Danish town where the brutish locals have their own ideas about law enforcement.

"Helen:" Ashley Judd is heartbreaking and scary as a wife and mother in the grasp of mental illness. Know someone with clinical depression? This film will open your eyes.

"Red Riding Trilogy": Three films by three directors provide a 20-year odyssey into one of Britain's most notorious serial killers. The best crime saga since "The Godfather"?

"Mary and Max": A fat, mentally challenged man and a depressed Aussie girl become pen pals in this sardonic stop-action animated comedy from the maker of the Oscar-winning "Harvie Krumpet."