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The 25 Best Undistributed Films of 2013

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It’s hard to pin down exactly when it happened, but at a certain point in the cinema’s ongoing digital revolution it became easier to make a movie than it is to get it seen. That’s a sweeping and reductive generalization, of course, but what would the introduction to a Film.com list be without one of those? The truth of the matter is that, between the disparate poles of “Gravity” and “Leviathan”, the impossible image is all but extinct. Technology has caught up with (and likely eclipsed) the scope of our vision, and filmmakers have never been so empowered to confront their imaginations and realize their stories in one form or another. The inevitable result is that we’re living in a golden age of cinema so clear and ubiquitous that it can be difficult to even notice, the film festivals and streaming channels of the world absolutely saturated with brilliant offerings from established directors and undiscovered talents alike.

It’s never been more likely that your college roommate might make a truly great movie (he wrote flippantly before remembering that his actually did), but – to paraphrase or blindly quote “The Incredibles” – in a world where everyone has superpowers, nobody does. If film festivals have accommodated the deluge of new films by functioning as a faucet for great cinema, the distribution market is a clogged drain. As a result, a very particular kind of film has become synonymous with independent cinema by virtue of the fact that examples thereof are often rewarded with a theatrical release from a major outfit. While the occasional oddity has managed to secure distribution (congrats, “Manakamana”!), the industry simply hasn’t evolved to accommodate an unprecedented surplus of terrific product. VOD services are certainly doing their best to fill the void, but the unfortunate reality is that dozens of essential movies will simply never be (legally) distributed in the United States, evaporating as little more than an indelible delight for a select few festival attendees.

With that in mind, we thought it might be helpful to compile an alphabetical list of the best films we saw at festivals this year that are still without domestic distribution. From micr0-indie upstarts to the latest from established (and, in one case, detained) auteurs, these are the 25 best undistributed films of 2013. – David Ehrlich

P.S. We know there are actually 26 films on this list. #YOLO

BLIND DETECTIVE
Directed by: Johnnie To
Screened at: Toronto International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival

You’d think, given the unprecedented international success of his recent crime thriller “Drug War”, that Johnnie To would have little trouble securing stateside distribution for its follow up. Alas, the machinations of the system have thus far conspired against him, relegating his superb “Blind Detective” to the festival circuit and leaving the question of an eventual theatrical run in this country regrettably unanswered. It’s true, of course, that “Blind Detective” was received somewhat coolly by American critics when it premiered at Cannes last May, but I suspect this partly a result of expectations: best known in North America as a purveyor of exemplary crime thrillers, Johnnie To’s work in other genres has yet to really take off outside of Hong Kong and China, where he is acclaimed as much for his knack for romantic comedy as he is for stylized gunplay. “Blind Detective|, in other words, is a hard sell: an unlikely romance in the classic screwball mould, it’s a film whose comic tone and light touch are bound to throw off anybody anticipating something like “Drug War 2”. And that’s precisely what makes the film such a delight: a breathless, exuberant genre exercise, “Blind Detective” proves To’s mastery of nearly any style or register.  – Calum Marsh

CLOSED CURTAIN
Directed by: Jafar Panahi & Kambuzia Partovi
Screened at: Berlin International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival

The miracle of Jafar Panahi’s continued filmmaking comes second to the complexity and artistic evolution shown in his work made under an imposed filmmaking ban. “Closed Curtain” takes place in Panahi’s beach house, not his Tehran apartment, yet if anything it feels more constricted, housing a narrative that conflates Panahi’s own fears of repression with Iran’s dog-killing policy. It makes for a stark kind of paranoid thriller, compounded when the pet-hiding protagonist finds himself letting some people hiding from authorities into his home. Then, things start to get strange, an already spare setup fading into near-nothingness until a shot stares into a mirror, a figure walks on the screen, and everything changes.

The self-reflexivity may turn off some viewers, but if the mere existence of Panahi’s recent work is a challenge to filmmakers to never give up, the exploratory nature of that work, pushing against the limits of conventional cinema as much as Panahi pushes the limits of his own sentence, offers an equally strong challenge to never rest on one’s laurels under any circumstances.  – Jake Cole

DOCUMENTARIAN
Directed by: Inese Kjava & Ivars Zviedris
Screened at: Millennium International Documentary Film Festival

Filmmakers Ivars Zviedris and Inese Kjava have made a film about an angry old woman in rural Latvia, and it is one of the best documentaries of the year. She is Inta, a brash provincial character who doesn’t take too kindly to being treated like the camera’s object. At times she rants and raves at Zviedris, shouting strings of curse words. She calls him “paparazzi” and demands that he leave her alone with her soup. Multiple times it seems as if perhaps the filmmakers should just pack up and go home, and let Inta return to a life away from the camera’s lens.

Yet the drive to stay on and finish the film worked out beautifully. Inta and Zviedris develop a rapport that complicates and enriches their relationship. She’ll shout at him and then feed him, argue with the camera and then share a warm and intimate moment with her paparazzo. What begins as an uncomfortable experiment in exploitation becomes a thoughtful, unique portrait. The presence of the camera itself forces these two people together, whether they realize it or not. The filmmaker needs the subject to create art, obviously, but the subject also needs the filmmaker. Without each other, they do not exist.  – Daniel Walber

DOOMSDAYS
Directed by: Eddie Mullins
Screened: Fantasia International Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival, Woodstock Film Festival, Dark Bridges Film Festival

The mirror universe version of the antic, star-driven apocalypse comedy “The Is The End,” “Doomsdays” is a lo-fi howl into the abyss with mere trace elements of eschatology, but an abundance of muted melancholy and gallows humor.

Blurbed by many as Jarmusch-esque (and not without good cause!) “Doomsdays” follows a Hudson Valley Vladimir and Estragon as they break into empty vacation houses to raid liquor cabinets and wait for the peak oil crisis to begin. (The more violence-prone Bruho is the true believer, snide lit-prof-on-dark-drugs Dirty Fred may just be along for the ride.)

As nihilistic romps are concerned, “Doomsdays” differentiates itself with crackling dialogue, black comedy and assured long takes. Writer/director Eddie Mullins, a former film critic, has put together a remarkable first picture on a miniscule budget. It is a mature work, arrogant on the surface but marinated in a genuine “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me” angst that is impossible to fake. For yet another indie of two guys yapping in the woods, Mullins shows tremendous potential. –  Jordan Hoffman

Visit the film’s website.

THE GARDEN OF EDEN
Directed by: Ran Tal
Screened at: True / False Film Fest, hotdocs 2013, Jerusalem Film Festival, Independent Film Festival Boston

Owing more to Errol Morris circa “Vernon, Florida” or Werner Herzog circa “Fata Morgana” than any typical documentary about the ethnic struggles within Israel’s borders, Ran Tal’s “The Garden of Eden” works on a number of levels. By keeping focus on a jam packed park (with lakes of debated origin) the film’s compression of one year into a 75-minute review is, in part, merely a striking summation of an ecological oddity divorced from any larger political implications. The clean video and smooth cutting is enough to sell this as a faux-nature film. Then the people who float in and out of view – many of whom members of Israel’s minorities – slowly unveil their histories fraught with personal tragedy. Casual racism flows all over the place – people give it and people take it – everyone seems on the same page that it’s bad, but no one seems to know what to do to change it.

The rather evocative and moody feel of the film invites you, however, to pull back further. The specifics of religious tension (both within groups and without) becomes an eventual din and we focus on more universal struggles. Small pleasures battle the general melancholy that exists throughout the human condition. “The Garden of Eden” is a song in a minor key, but a beautiful one.  – JH

HARMONY LESSONS
Directed by: Emir Baigazin
Screened at: TriBeCa Film Festival, 2Morrow Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival 

Emir Baigazin’s debut is a very of -the-moment normative Festival Film, with slightly too schematic ironies and downward spiral degradation rendered in implacable static shots; it’s all very Michael Haneke. But Baigazin’s less prone to infuriating deck stacking, relentless horror or smug blanket condemnation of the human race than his master. An explicitly Darwinian examination of high school bullying microcosmically standing in for all Kazakhstan, it’s admittedly the kind of movie that has people lecturing on Darwin just so you don’t miss anything. Mostly, though, Baigazin’s crafted a convincingly angry portrait of a society in which your only choice is who to get screwed by, the screwing-over itself already a pre-ordained outcome as barely regulated capitalism spreads its tendrils.

The convincingly/justifiably angry work goes down easier thanks to Baigazin’s dab hand at chilly foreground-background contrasts and touches of unexpected drollery (a ring of high school extortionists is led by a very Winklevi pair of twins, introduced doing synchronous pull-ups and rings around a playground bar). Oddly enough, Baigazin is currently developing a sequel. – Vadim Rizov

IT FELT LIKE LOVE
Directed by: Eliza Hittman
Screened at: BAMCinemafest, Sundance Film Festival

UPDATE (11/26): VARIANCE FILMS HAS ACQUIRED THE FILM FOR A 2014 RELEASE

Heading south from Crown Heights, Eliza Hittman’s astonishing debut feature “It Felt Like Love” brings the fire of the sexual awakening film to Gravesend. Her heroine, Lila (Gina Piersanti), is fourteen. We see her first on the beach, her face white with sunscreen, staring into the open ocean. She’s there with her best friend, Chiara, and Chiara’s boyfriend Patrick. Lila is the odd one out, the awkward adolescent in a world with no more fourteen-year-old virgins. Determined to catch up with Chiara and Patrick, she decides to pursue Sammy, a college-aged guy she meets on the beach. Chiara absent-mindedly points out that Sammy will “f**k anything that movies,” unaware that’s exactly what Lila is looking for.

The most obvious comparison is to Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” which is warranted and a compliment to both films. “It Felt Like Love” also has a crucial scene in a marsh, and also uses dance to explore its protagonist’s self-confidence and sexuality. The final set piece in the film is a performance, a cathartic moment of choreography as Lila and Chiara dance to Mykki Blanco’s “Wavvy.” Yet if “It Felt Like Love” leers and dances like Arnold’s work, it sweats like a film by Catherine Breillat. Lila’s grasp for sexual fulfillment is reminiscent of “Fat Girl,” the consciousness that love can be nothing but another way to make the loss of virginity even more painful in the long run. Lila’s pursuit of Sammy may not be as horrific as the final events of Breillat’s masterpiece, but it confronts the danger and dark naiveté of youthful sexuality that has gone too far in its own way. – DW

READ OUR FULL REVIEW HERE

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A DREAMER
Directed by: Sabine Gruffat
Screened at: Chicago Underground Film Festival, Wisconsin Film Festival

This film is not the first documentary about the decline of Detroit, and it will not be the last. What sets it apart is its global audacity, comparing the apparent death of the Motor City to the meteoric (and quite physical) rise of Dubai. Some of the connections are quite cerebral, economic contrasts between these two cities which both sprung up like enormous, industrial wildflowers. Others, however, are more visually striking. In the clip above, Detroit’s underused elevated train, the “People Mover,” is paired seamlessly with a new Ferris wheel overlooking Dubai’s waterfront.

Inevitably, and wisely, Sabine Gruffat takes apart what initially seems to be a very black and white opposition of disparate places. She highlights some of Detroit’s attempts at renewal alongside the poverty in Dubai that often gets left out of its international reputation. Her method of completely separating images and audio, even that of interviews, initially seems cold and dissociative. Yet as the film progresses it becomes more of a creative cool, isolating elements of architecture and ideas of economics and society in order to create a sort of urban poetry.

With the growing number of nonfiction films filmed in and around America’s new favorite metaphor, it’s possible that “I’ve Always Been a Dreamer” will get lost in the shuffle. Yet this kind of vision helps turn our more rational reactions to international issues of commerce, poverty and labor into something emotional, personal and human. – DW

Visit the film’s website.

LEONES
Directed by: Jazmín López
Screened at:  New Directors / New Films

“Did you ever imagine yourself in a world where there is nothing at all?” In some ways this is the essential query of “Leones,” to the extent that the film even has a definable essence. Jazmín López’s debut feature is as enigmatic as it is bold, forging new cinematic ideas from the vastness of the natural world and brief flirtations with character and philosophy. López is interested in the “in-between,” exploring the often hazy landscape amid life and death and the gaps of time itself. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen.

The plot is simple, at least as it opens. A group of teenagers are hiking through a breathtaking forest of epic proportions, ostensibly on a short vacation. The camera follows them from behind, building stunning long takes that wind through the trees with an almost cosmic patience. As we slowly learn more, López’s vision becomes progressively bolder up until what is easily the most stunning final shot of the last few years. – DW

READ OUR FULL REVIEW HERE

THE MANOR
Directed by: Shawney Cohen
Screened: Hot Docs Canadian Film Festival

Come for the shocking look at adult entertainment, stay for the insightful examination at lesser-discussed forms of self-destructive behavior. “The Manor” is a heartbreaking documentary about family dysfunction of the highest order.

Shawney Cohen is yet another guy who picked up a video camera to shoot his nutty family. His initial peg – the “nice Jewish family” that owns a successful strip club off an Ontario highway – soon tangents into how body image can destroy multiple psyches in a single bound.

Cohen’s mother suffers from intense anorexia. His father is morbidly obese. Nobody talks about any of this, even as bones shatter and arteries clog. Family meals are evenings of terror as Mom busies herself to stay away from food and Dad gorges himself. On the fringes are the drug dealers, strippers, mullet-wearing Quebecois and the interloping would-be sister-in-law. (Not only is she not Jewish, she’s a nutritionist!) “The Manor” is a bit of a freakshow, but at its center is a concerned son trying anything to keep his family together. – JH

SEE THE REST OF THE YEAR’S BEST UNDISTRIBUTED FILMS ON PAGE 2


Categories: Lists

Tags: A Spell to Ward off darkness, Best Undistributed Films of 2013, Calum Marsh, Closed Curtain, Daniel Walber, David Ehrlich, Gia coppola, It Felt Like Love, Jake Cole, Leones, List, Mistaken for strangers, Palo alto, Vadim Rizov