By Karina Longworth
I recently submitted a ballot for indieWIRE’s annual Critics’ Poll, which offers respondents a chance to create two separate lists of the best films of the year: one comprised of films which received theatrical distribution (which is described as, at minimum, a one week run in a commercial theater in New York City, essentially the same type of release required for Oscar consideration); and a list of the best films which weren’t distributed commercially in 2008––ie: those which screened only at festivals, and/or in other non-commercial venues, and/or outside of New York. Because I see so many films at festivals, I had a far greater pool of candidates for the latter list than the former. My “true” top ten list would combine films which were made readily available to audiences via studio subsidiaries (such as "Synecdoche, NY" and "Rachel Getting Married"), with films that I fell in love with at a festival and may never get a chance to see again, and with films which had the bare minimum New York release, but nevertheless were probably still seen by fewer people than the average distributor-less festival hit (such as "Build a Ship," "Sail to Sadness"). That said, I understand the purpose of making the distinction––even if there was no other benefit to it, there’s always the hope that some smaller theatrical and straight-to-DVD distributors will look to the annual Best Undistributed list as a reference to films they might have missed. After all, 2007’s “winner,” Hong Sang Soo’s "Woman on the Beach," was purchased and ended up in theaters barely a week into the new year.
In fact, I think singling out films which are still on the market, and in a perfect world wouldn’t be, is so worth doing, that not only am I revealing here the ten titles I included in the poll, but I’m adding a few bonus films. The following list is presented alphabetically and should be considered unranked, with the exception of the first title mentioned — they all deserve to be seen by wider audiences, but the reception thus far bestowed on the work of one French master in particular is actually a travesty.
"Frontier of Dawn," directed by Phillipe Garrel
Reviewed at Cannes
Other notable festivals: Sao Paulo, Mar Del Plata
Why it’s on this list: (from my review) “A story of amour gone so fou that the natural world becomes subject to the supernatural. Hands down the most accessible Garrel film I’ve seen, it’s still a strange, swoony, genre-bending challenge.”
"35 Rhums," directed by Claire Denis
Reviewed at Toronto
Other notable festivals: Venice
Why it’s on this list: (from my review) “Rather shockingly, the new Claire Denis film is also a bittersweet family movie, and the work you put into it early on is paid back in surprisingly tender dividends.”
"The Burrowers," directed by J.T. Petty
Reviewed at Fantastic Fest
Other notable Festivals: Toronto, Screamfest
Why it’s on this list: (from my review) “Beautifully shot and tightly scripted, it’s the rare Hollywood genre film (bought and paid for by Lionsgate) that’s more concerned with human relationships and behavior than the mysterious supernatural forces that sets the action in motion.”
Worth noting: Lionsgate originally planned a theatrical release, but announced a couple of days ago that come April 2009, they’re dumping it to DVD. For a film that looks this good on a big screen, this is equivalent to it not being distributed at all.
"Everything is Fine," directed by Yves Christian Fournier
Reviewed in the market at Cannes
Notable festivals: Berlinale, Seattle International (where it won the New Directors Showcase Competition. Grand Jury Prize), Denver
Why it’s on this list: (from my review) “With a strong sense of style and an especially inventive feel for sound design, first-time feature director Yves Christian Fournier manages to turn the story of the inner conflict of a 17 year-old boy into something almost resembling a thriller, with a final act catharsis that left several of us in the screening room in tears.”
"Finally, Lillian and Dan," directed by Mike Gibisser
Reviewed at CineVegas
Other notable festivals: AFI Los Angeles, Denver
Why it’s on this list: (from my review) “The mumbling here is so stylized and disturbed that it’s like a precision bomb against the twee subtleties explored by other contemporary filmmakers––it’s more like Tourettescore. But there’s also a tenderness here, and lofty aesthetic ambitions underpinned with authentic melancholy. It’s a heartbreaker.”
"Forbidden Lies," directed by Anna Broinowski
Reviewed at True/False
Other notable festivals: SilverDocs, Aljazeera Film Festival (where it won the Golden Award)
Why it’s on this list: (from my review) “Broinowski’s fabrications hardly undermine the film’s integrity––in fact, it’s through the melding of form and content that Broinowski both delivers her most potent commentary on the Khouri clusterfuck, and provides the film with some of its most crowd.
"Go Go Tales," directed by Abel Ferrara
Reviewed at NYFF 2007
Other notable festivals: Cannes 2007, CineVegas 2008
Why it’s on this list: (from my review) “Go Go Tales is probably the most lovingly photographed stripper movie of all time, but it’s most exciting in the friction it finds between the gaga dream gaze of the patrons, and the behind-the-scenes scrambling that supports it.”
Worth noting: Though Go Go Tales was rumored to have been acquired concurrent with its New York Film Festival debut in the fall of 2007, an official announcement was never made, and since the film then popped up in the sidebar for undistributed pictures at CIneVegas this past summer, I guess it’s still available…?
"Intimidad," directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin
Reviewed at SXSW
Other notable festivals: AFI Dallas, Sidewalk (where it won Best Documentary), Denver, Sarasota
Why it’s on this list: (from my review) “At times, when [its subjects] crumble under the stress of their situation, Intimidad offers moments of genuine emotion that are miles removed from the score-saturated tear-jerking money shots that mark generic issue docs.”
Worth noting: Intimidad had two screenings at MoMA this fall, which wasn’t enough to qualify for indieWIRE’s theatrical list, and thus it earned a spot on my undistributed list. But the filmmakers are releasing Intimidad on DVD in 2009, via their Carnivalesque Films label.
"La Vie Moderne," directed by Raymond Depardon
Reviewed at Cannes
Other notable festivals: None that I recognize; after theatrical runs in France and Belgium, it opens in the Netherlands and the UK in Spring 2009
Why it’s on this list: (from my review) “Depardon’s style of inquiry certainly requires more of an investment from his audience than fans of contemporary crowd-pleaser non-fiction might be used to, but it’s an investment that pays off. Where coarser filmmakers approach their subjects with laser-guided precision, essentially turning each question rhetorical, Depardon simply sets up a camera and has a conversation.”
"Prince of Broadway," directed by Sean Baker
Seen at Woodstock
Other notable festivals: LAFF (where it won the grand prize), Denver
Why it’s on this list: Dardennes comparisons are flying around fast and furious of late, but no joke: Sean Baker’s follow-up to Take Out––shot on location in Manhattan’s wholesale district for a low-mid five figure budget, using virtually all non-professional actors––is Three Men and a Baby meets L’enfant. It’s a genuinely independent crowd-pleaser that never panders.
"Sita Sings the Blues," directed by Nina Paley
Reviewed at Tribeca
Other notable festivals: Berlinale. Denver. Winner of the Not Coming to a Theater Near You award at the Gothams.
Why it’s on this list: (from my review) “A strange and beautiful little film, a potentially wispy slice of autobiography smartly elevated through irresistible, orgiastic style.”
Worth noting: As of this writing, Paley *can’t* distribute her film, because she’s still negotiating the right to use the recordings of Annette Hanshaw which comprise the bulk of the film’s soundtrack.
"Treeless Mountain," directed by So Yong Kim
Reviewed at Toronto
Other notable festivals: None, as far as I know
Why it’s on this list: (from my review) “An autobiographical feature about two tiny girls sent to live with distant relatives by their caring but insolvent mother, Treeless Mountain is a sparse but incredibly moving film about love turning to longing turning to resentment,…Hands down, the thing that makes Mountain a Toronto must-see is the performances, which are all the more impressive considering the fact that the film’s two young stars are non-actors.”
"Voy a Explotar," directed by Gerardo Naranjo
Reviewed at NYFF
Other notable festivals: Toronto, Venice, Thessaloniki
Why it’s on this list: (from my review) “It’s the rare love letter to influence that’s infused with enough personal style and sentiment to transform the stolen into something thrilling and moving.”
"Yeast," directed by Mary Bronstein
Reviewed at SXSW
Other notable festivals: Sarasota, IFFB, St. Louis (where it won the New Filmmakers Forum competition)
Why it’s on this list: (from my review) “Even fans of Frownland (which Bronstein starred in under the direction of her husband Ronald) may not be ready for Yeast’s full-on assault on the senses. This is a film that not only seeks to dodge the audience’s comfort zone, but it actually, actively mocks it.”
Worth noting: Yeast went straight from the festival circuit to Amazon VOD. I’m not sure if that counts as “undistributed”, but it definitely went without a theatrical release.