There are directors that everybody loves, or at least everybody knows that it's a Big Deal when they have a new film: Tarantino, the Coens, Malick, etc. To say "I am so glad there's a new Malick film this year" isn't to say anything at all, other than "I watch and enjoy motion pictures".

Beyond that shared pool of universal touchstones, we all have our own private list of the filmmakers that are really worth getting excited about, and this is to me where cinephiles get really passionate. I can love Malick, but everybody else loves him; he's not "special" to me. Whereas I also love Nicole Holofcener, and it feels somehow like I'm the only one who does: meeting other Malick fanciers is just enough to keep a cocktail party going, but meeting another Holofcener acolyte (which I have never yet done, at least not to my knowledge) would be like bumping into a soul mate. The little filmmakers, the ones that you feel like you discovered all by yourself; that's where respect shades into love. And indeed I love Holofcener's cinema to an indefensible degree: her little observational studies of female urban life are never so robust and adventurous that they could place on a Best of the Year list, and yet I also know for certain that I'll never be bored or unhappy watching one.

I bring all this up because I don't want to sound like an idiot when I claim that Holofcener's fourth feature, Please Give, has probably been my most-anticipated film of the summer of 2010. Keep your superhero adventures! your sequels! your adaptations of dubious source material! For me, I shall take the travails of quirky, but not overly quirky, New Yorkers, told with aesthetic minimalism and a deep well of close observation.

In Please Give, Holofcener's regular muse Catherine Keener plays Kate, who with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) owns a mid-century antique furniture shop, which is kept stocked largely because of the couple's diligence in hunting down the children of the recently deceased, and offering to pay them a little cash for the stuff in their parents' homes, just to make it easier on them, because who wants to deal with it, y'know? And as the film begins, Kate is feeling like something of a vulture about it, especially as she and Alex are presently waiting for the death of their next-door neighbor, Andra (Ann Guilbert), since they will then be able to expand their cramped condo into the adjoining space. Meanwhile, Andra's grandchildren, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet) are going about their own lives, which in Rebecca's case largely involves making sure that Andra has food and being distinctly dissatisfied with her vaguely depressing job as a mammogram technician.

There's not much plot; there never is, in a Holofcener film. There's definitely incident: at the end of the film, every major character has had some significant change to their life. But the movie is less about the process by which those changes happen, and more about the way that characters react emotionally. There are very few directors now working who have the bravery to make something this aggressively slight; the film lives or dies on the strength of the characterisations, and the director's ability to completely trust her actors pays off, for the cast is literally the difference between a Please Give that is monstrously unwatchable, and a Please Give that is hilarious at times, and sweet and moving at others, and very often both. This is not to say that Holofcener is lazy as director or writer; but she understands that the effect she wants is not one that you can generate through writing and directing if the performance is not there.

That kind of approach to filmmaking is helped immensely by the presence of a solid collaborator, and Holofcener has one in spades, in the form of Catherine Keener. The director has never made a feature without that actress in a primary role, and their understanding of one another's strengths has consistently deepened, to the point where Kate is one of the very best performances yet in Keener's entirely admirable career. She's well-matched by Hall, who has been on of the Young Actresses Worth Watching ever since her debut a scant four years ago; that this is the best performance of her career is largely due to the brevity of her career, but it's nonetheless a subtle and wonderful characterisation that plays nicely off of Keener's. Between the two actresses, they make Please Give something of a study of guilt: obvious and encompassing in Kate's case, with her constant grousing about the morality of her business, and her absurdly generous handouts to anyone who looks like they might be homeless; quieter but also more desperate in Rebecca's case, as it becomes clear to us that she is driven largely by her sense of obligation to her grandmother, refusing even to admit that in her age, Andra has become a shrewish, unpleasant person. This is all expressed lightly and playfully, so that the film never becomes a grind; yet it's not so light as to be in any way shallow.

The economic guilt of the middle class is not an unfamiliar territory for Holofcener, but in this film she explores that theme deeper than ever before thanks largely to having a strong lower-class character in the form of Rebecca; it's plain that she lives in some part off of her sister's charity. Which makes her an even better foil to Kate, who has as one of her greatest crises in the film the question of whether or not it's sane to buy her 15-year-old daughter (Sarah Steele) a $200 pair of jeans. Whether or not the director is lightly mocking Kate is up for discussion; there are no characters in her film that she doesn't like or at least understand on some level. This is at the heart of her gently comic treatment of her leading lady: she understands why Kate's life is so full of turmoil and questioning, even as she makes it plain that Kate's turmoils are somewhat silly compared to the real world.

It's the combination of good-nature and light snark that makes Please Give maybe the strongest film of Holofcener's career, certainly the best since her debut, Walking and Talking. From the breezy opening sequence - a montage of old breasts on the mammogram machine set to "No Shoes" by the dryly comic folk trio The Roches - it's much more overtly funny and sarcastic than anything she's done before, but the comedy never masks or gets in the way of the seriousness with which she treats the characters. This is not a film for all tastes, God knows - tell me that nothing happens, and I'll shrug and say you're right - but it's a great thing for exactly the kind of movie it is, the kind that presents situations and characters with sympathy but not blind ignorance of their self-inflicted woes. It's also the kind that leaves you thinking that you've figured it out, and the more time you spend away from it, the more you puzzle over the behavior of the characters, thinking of them rather more like people you knew for a time than two-dimensional fictions on a screen. Outwardly simple, the film proves to burrow and probe into the ways that human beings are, in the subtlest, most honest way.