20 Best Undistributed Films of 2014
Every year, film festivals around the world premiere thousands of brand new films, and every person behind those works hopes a distributor will come along and pony up the cash to give their movie a nice release. The reality is that plenty of films have a hell of a time finding distribution.
Granted, there are a handful distributors in the US willing to put out some truly bold, excellent work (a few examples: Cinema Guild, KimStim and Strand Releasing). That doesn’t mean truly great films don’t end up falling through the cracks every year. Sometimes a film might be so challenging or strange it’s easy to see why no one will want to go near it. Other times it’s hard to believe why no one wants to get a certain movie out to as many eyeballs as possible.
That’s why we’ve made this list of our favourite films of 2014 that still have yet to find US distribution. These are films that should be on people’s radar, but might never see a proper release in the States. If you want to see any of these films, try to get the word out. And let this list be a message to anyone in distribution: We think these movies deserve to be seen. Hopefully you’ll agree.
Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st is a devastating film, one that made our top 5 of 2012. The film’s co-writer Eskil Vogt makes his directorial debut with Blind, and while it doesn’t match the power of Oslo it comes close. After going blind, Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) lives as a hermit in her apartment. She spends her time imagining the lives of different people, a distraction from her crumbling marriage and social life. Vogt shoots the film entirely through Ingrid’s perspective, so we only see what Ingrid thinks is going on around her, meaning elements of a scene can change on a dime. A conversation between two characters can suddenly change locations, and a person’s clothing can change between cuts, just to name a few of Vogt’s visual tricks employed throughout.
The way Vogt films Ingrid’s head space is what makes Blind so effective. It extends beyond gimmickry because of how much the style establishes Ingrid’s inner turmoil. It feels like a mature, European version of a Charlie Kaufman film, tackling deep, existential issues with stylistic ingenuity. After premiering at Sundance this year where it won a prize for its screenplay, Blind has only gotten a few festival screenings in North America, which is a shame. It’s one of the year’s best debut features, and establishes Vogt as a new directorial voice to keep an eye on. [C.J.]
The Creator of the Jungle
Back when I reviewed The Creator of the Jungle at Hot Docs, it quietly snuck up on me and became one of my favourites at the festival. It’s one of those stories where truth truly is stranger than fiction. Garrel, a man with the boundless imagination of a child, has spent 45 years building, destroying and rebuilding an elaborate playground in a forest. He builds structures, mazes, dams and even cave systems with nothing except for the materials around him. At the same time, Garrel would direct himself in Tarzan movies shot on a friend’s VHS camcorder, using his creations as a set for Tarzan’s home in the jungle.
Director Jordi Morató spent 18 months poring through and editing Garrel’s home movies, putting together an astounding portrait of one man’s battle to simply play with his toys in peace. Just when it seems like Garrel’s story has come to an end, Morató suddenly jumps ahead in time to reveal even more information about Garrel and his lifelong project. And as the camera opens up, going from muddled VHS footage to widescreen HD, the clarity of seeing Garrel’s work in full will make your jaw drop. Watching Creator of the Jungle feels like discovering a hidden treasure, but without any foreseeable distribution this film will continue to stay tragically hidden. [C.J.]
Eddie Mullins’ Doomsdays is a funny, idiosyncratic hangout movie about two fatalistic vagabonds named Dirty Fred and Bruho (Justin Rice and Leo Fitzpatrick, respectively) as they weave their way through the Catskills, looting rich people’s vacation homes in preparation for the impending apocalypse brought on by peak oil (google it…if you dare). The scruffy scavengers help themselves to whatever pills and booze they find and enjoy their charmed bromance with each other…that is, until a teenage boy and a pretty girl join their number and things get sticky.
What’s really special about Doomsdays is the way it’s filmed: the camera remains almost exclusively static, with the characters walking around, in and out of the carefully composed shots in surprising, interesting ways (think of a minimalistic, nature-set Tati film, where your eyes are free to roam the frame as they may). On top of all that, the cast is great, the writing is quippy and sharp, and the ending is pleasantly unexpected. (Bonus: there’s an awesome joke in the movie about Irish beans that I stole and totally use on my friends. Gets a laugh every time.) [Bernard]
Canadian filmmaking group Astron-6 have quickly made a name for themselves with their loving, comedic homages to trash cinema like Father’s Day and Manborg. The Editor, their latest film, is a huge step up from their previous output. The best way to describe The Editor would be saying it does to giallo what Black Dynamite did to blaxploitation.
It starts out as a murder mystery on a film set, with the film-within-a-film’s one-handed editor considered the prime suspect. If you’re familiar with giallo, it should come as no surprise that the plot soon becomes incomprehensible, involving plenty of subplots and characters with no rhyme or reason. All of this is deliberate, of course; Astron-6 hilariously embrace everything wrong with the giallo sub genre, from awful dubbing to rampant misogyny. Yes, people unfamiliar with what The Editor spoofs won’t get much mileage out of it, but those with some knowledge of what it’s doing will find themselves laughing the whole way through. Here’s hoping someone gives this future cult classic a chance to get out in theatres next year. [C.J.]
Episode of the Sea
Lonnie van Brummelen & Siebren de Haan profile the small, remote fishing town of Urk in Episode of the Sea. What makes Urk unique is that it’s a fishing town without any surrounding water; it was an island until the government drained the water around it to increase farming. The townspeople refused to play ball with the government, so they traveled further to keep fishing. Episode of the Sea relates the different ways people of Urk have cleverly avoided different roadblocks to hold up their traditions. I reviewed the film at TIFF earlier this year, where it came and went as quickly as its hour-long runtime.
What makes Episode of the Sea such a delight to watch is the way van Brummelen & de Haan involve themselves into the process. Shooting on gorgeous 35mm in Academy ratio, rounded corners and all, the documentary finds a common bond between old fishing and filmmaking methods. The directors combine both worlds by having people from Urk perform for the camera, re-enacting conversations overheard and transcribed by the filmmakers. Episode of the Sea isn’t one side observing another; it’s an exchange between both filmmaker and subject, a documentary about the process as much as it’s about the results. It’s always nice to see a film break conventions in such a pleasing way. [C.J.]
From What is Before
From What is Before observes a small barrio in the Philippines as it slowly gets destroyed under Ferdinand Marcos’ rule in the 1970s. Director Lav Diaz’s slow, patient approach opens the film up in a way that lets viewers feel every small detail of the world Diaz creates, teleporting them into characters’ lives in ways a more traditional narrative feature couldn’t do. And that method makes things all the more tragic once Marcos’ soldiers show up.
It’s standard procedure with Diaz’s films to mention how he takes a very long, patient approach to filming. From What is Before is over 5 and a half hours long, and for that reason it’s unlikely to ever get a theatrical release outside of festival screenings (kudos to Cinema Guild for putting out Diaz’s previous film, the four-hour Norte, the End of History, in theatres this year). Those willing to give Diaz’s work a shot will find a rich experience offering plenty of rewards. It’s all a matter of being up for the challenge. [C.J.]
Hard to Be a God
It’s a film nearly 50 years in the making. Aleksei German started adapting Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s sci-fi novel in the 1960s, only to start making it until 2000. Pre-production lasted until 2006, and post-production took another seven years. German never saw the final product; he died during post-production, leaving his family to finish the film for him.
And the final result of this decades-long filmmaking journey is a flat-out masterpiece, a film so singular it’s impossible to imagine anything else like it. The story takes place in the future on a planet similar to ours, except it’s currently going through the Middle Ages. Men from Earth have been sent down to observe the planet’s inhabitants, with explicit orders to not interfere with anything, save for trying to protect people smart enough to help move the planet’s civilization forward (anyone showing signs of talent and/or creativity usually get slaughtered immediately by the unintelligent masses).
German doesn’t just present a filthy, disgusting world of a backwards society. He makes you feel like you’re right there in the mud and shit with everyone. It’s like German is observing rather than creating; his vision is so epic in scale, so immersive in its execution it feels like every bit of this world is real and not a fictional creation. But be warned: German’s vision isn’t a pretty one. It’s showing the worst side of humanity, meaning Hard to be a God is far from an “enjoyable” experience. But it’s a towering achievement, and one of the only modern-day films to come close to matching the sense of awe and wonder of classics like Playtime and 2001: A Space Odyssey. [C.J.]
In the Crosswind
One of my favourites from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, In the Crosswind transforms what looks like a gimmick into something genuinely moving. Inspired by the true story of a woman’s struggle for survival during Stalin’s purge of Baltic nations in the 1940s, In the Crosswind primarily plays out through a series of elaborate tableaux vivants. Director Martti Helde spent months planning out each scene, and the preparation shows.
Shot in gorgeous black and white, and filmed in a series of long takes that bring Béla Tarr to mind, In the Crosswind uses the image of its frozen characters to evoke the feeling of suddenly losing your home, your family, and everything that grounds you in a specific time and place. These are people in constant transition, and Helde’s direct method of expressing that state of existence leads to truly affecting results. [C.J.]
L for Leisure
Considering how much American indies get criticized today for their homogeneity, L for Leisure feels like it’s from a completely different planet. Taking inspiration from directors like Whit Stillman and Eric Rohmer, L for Leisure is a series of episodic segments following graduate students in the early 90s over different holidays. They chill out, talk about what they’re working on, smoke nutmeg to get high, play laser tag, water ski and just act really mellow.
Directors Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn spent several years getting L for Leisure made, traveling around the world to film different segments on 16mm (an aesthetic choice that’s essential to the film’s success). The laid back, dry humour slowly works its way into the brain, and by the end the dumbest exchanges can cause the biggest laughs (“I’m so mellow.” “Oh my god, I’m so mellow!”). Plus, L for Leisure has one of the year’s best soundtracks. Luckily you can buy the soundtrack, but as of now you can only hope the film might screen near you (or better yet: try to arrange a screening yourself). [C.J.]
Lake Los Angeles
As an exceptionally quiet film—and when there is dialogue, it’s in Spanish—about illegal immigration and the dreams of those who come to America as refugees, I’m surprised I liked Lake Los Angeles as much as I did. This is, after all, covered ground. Add to all of that, much of the film revolves around a 12-year old girl, Cecilia (Johanna Trujillo), who spends a great portion of the film wandering through the cold desert of California. The film is bleak, shot mostly in washed out grays, blues, and browns. And did I mention throughout, the main character Francisco (Roberto ‘Sanz’ Sanchez) speaks love letters into a tape recorder for his wife back in Cuba? It sounds depressing, and so easily could be, except that director Mike Ott pieces it all together into an achingly touching tale of the need in everyone for companionship. It’s about the families we build for ourselves and the way we allow ourselves to be needed and loved by others. Most astounding is the performance by first-timer Johanna Trujillo who occupies much of the film as she escapes into the desert, surviving on her own and dreaming that her father is indeed on his way to find her. She shows incredible soul and depth for such a green actress and young person. It makes no statements on immigration or refugees, but uses this as a backdrop to a story of familial love bestowed and given. It’s a mesmerizing film that I hope to get to discuss with a greater audience in the future. [Ananda]
The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest
I had the privilege of seeing this film at the Los Angeles Film Festival and was moved by not only the tale of life-prisoner Mark DeFriest, but also of the greater magnifying glass held to the United States penal system. This documentary by Gabriel London showcases the intriguing personality of Mark DeFriest, considered the Houdini of the Florida state prison system due to his many remarkable (and at time hilarious) escape attempts. I remarked in my initial coverage of the film—and the impression remains—that under entirely different circumstances, Mark DeFriest is the sort of mastermind who should have had films made documenting the spectrum of his mind and the inventions he might have been able to funnel his genius into. Instead, due to a misconception, DeFriest was imprisoned for “stealing” his own father’s bequeathed tools. A short sentence that he would have quickly gotten out of if it weren’t for DeFriest’s absolute incapability of understanding and obeying the rules of justice in America. His sentencing—now compounded to life after so many escapes—is one injustice, the added ways the system have abused him only prove further that our one size fits all approach to justice in this country has made perpetrators of the peacekeepers. It’s an excellent documentary and I sincerely hope more people get the chance to see it. [Ananda]
It’s an hour-long, but it might be the best thing to come out all year. Living Stars is the KISS Principle in action, a film with a concept so simple and enjoyable it’s hard to believe no one’s done it sooner. Directors Gastón Duprat & Mariano Cohn plopped their camera down in people’s homes across Buenos Aires with one direction: pick a song and dance to it. The results are pure joy.
Every scene unfolds in one take, with each dancer letting it all out in their home or workplace. Usually a friend or relative is in the background, watching or ignoring the action. The rigid form only makes it more fun when things slightly deviate from the formula (the reappearance of one dancer is one of the best surprises you could ask for). I watched Living Stars with a grin fixed on my face the entire time, and when it ended I watched it again. Living Stars shouldn’t just be seen, it should be prescribed as a cure-all for sadness. [C.J.]
Szabolcs Hajdu’s Mirage is one of those stories you describe in a single sentence. A stranger walks the desert lands of a foreign country, hiding out from those he’s wronged, searching for an existence. This is Hungary’s modern take on minimalist westerns, a cinematic hybrid channeling Jarmusch, Herzog, and Sergio Leone all at once. In other words, Mirage is brilliant at its highest points (leading man Isaac De Bankole walking towards the horizon, meeting various miscreants along his journey to nowhere) and only slightly off-putting at its lowest points (awkward humor, scenes that rely on the thin plot).
The good news is, its peaks outnumber its troughs and the film is an overall cinematic bundle of joy, full of staggeringly gorgeous wide shots, fantastic music, and plenty proof of how captivating De Bankole’s screen presence is. That it has no distributor doesn’t exactly come as a shock because marketing something like this would be like trying to sell an antique to a high-tech company; but here’s hoping this antique gets picked up soon because it’s a great reminder of the cinematic allure at its most stripped down form. [Nik]
It’s a sad truth that first time directors have the hardest time finding distribution—without a famous family member or benevolent producer out to champion for it, that is. And while I tend to be the hard-nosed sort that thinks directors need to earn their kicks in this world and work their way up, it’s rare I find a film debut as polished and moving as Kimberly Levin’s Runoff. The small-town tale of a farm family whose business suffers as larger corporations offer lower prices. Joanne Kelly plays Betty, the wife trying to support her husband in his business, especially as his health starts to wane, while being the sort of mother who hand-sews her son’s Halloween costume and connects with her elder son about his hopes and dreams for life after high school. The film’s visuals beautifully capture the allure of family life on a farm, engendering the same sort of pride felt by the protagonists. Performances in the film are all around wonderful, but it’s the building tension of the film’s final act as Betty is faced with hard and fast decisions to make, that Joanne Kelly truly shines, becoming a woman who fights for the life her family has built. Levin, who also wrote the film, isn’t afraid to get a little dark, grappling with harsh realities and moral ambiguity. While there’s no end to films on the disenchanted American Dream, this one is an engaging quiet watch worth getting to see on the big screen. [Ananda]
Still the Water
Naomi Kawase has no luck with US distribution, and I’m really not sure why. She’s a regular at Cannes, and her movies wonderfully capture the beautiful balance between man and nature. The latest one, Still the Water, premiered at Cannes and it follows in her usual style; meditative, lyrical, infused in Japanese tradition and mentality. Perhaps it’s that last aspect that drives US distributors away, thinking Kawase is too foreign for American audiences. Instead of seeing it as a great opportunity to show an audience a highly fascinating culture.
The story of Still the Water is a coming-of-age tale. A boy lives with his single mother on a Japanese island, meets and falls in love with a girl whose own mom is on her death-bed and whose surfer-dad is trying to keep their restaurant working. There’s a murder mystery subplot that doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of the film, but as a whole, the picture is full of so many touching moments and contemplative images. Kawase shows how deeply intelligent she is with a slow, assured, flow that washes over the viewer like a wave. It would be a terrible shame and a great loss to keep this one away from US audiences. [Nik]
Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait
Less of a film and more of a prolonged, traumatic experience, Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait is an unflinching examination of a state in the throes of war. Exiled Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed relied on the home footage of “1,001 Syrians,” as well as an elementary school teacher Wiam Simav Bedirxan. Mohammed uses text and online chat tones to recreate his conversations with Bedirxan as the two lament over the active destruction of their home country, only for tensions to reach the breaking point when Bedirxan stops immediately returning Mohammed’s messages.
Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait premiered as a Special Screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival but went on to show at TIFF and the New York Film Festival. The footage assembled for the film is horrific in the worst ways, and even if you can imagine the atrocities, actually experiencing it on-screen is more devastating than you can prepare for. Mohammed’s film is an unprecedented look at war ripping a country apart from the inside, and deserves to be witnessed by unwavering eyes. [Zachary]
Back at TIFF, I saw Tokyo Tribe and raved about it, saying it “will leave viewers dazed, assaulted, and mortified.” As a fan of Sion Sono’s work, I didn’t expect him to be able to top the insanity of his previous film Why Don’t You Play in Hell?. The opening scene of Tokyo Tribe, a sprawling single take musical number introducing the film’s major players, kicked my expectations directly to the ass-end of hell.
Taking place over one night, Sono’s musical/kung-fu/comedy/gangster/epic/action/thriller follows an impending battle between feuding gangs wrestling for power in a dystopian Tokyo. Sono’s ability to stack one crazy, hilarious idea on top of another reaches a fever pitch here, to the point where it can get exhausting trying to take it all in. That kind of style can leave people running in the opposite direction; I embrace Sono’s wackiness with open arms. The fine folks at Eureka will be releasing Tokyo Tribe in the UK, but no one has taken the opportunity to unleash Sono’s epic on US soil. You may not realize it, but you should be very jealous of the British right now. [C.J.]
Tu Dors Nicole
Tu Dors Nicole, a Canadian production from Quebec, did get a release in Canada (that’s why I was lucky enough to see it). Unfortunately it hasn’t been picked up by a U.S. distributor yet. A black-and-white portrait of a young, twentysomething woman lazing around for the summer, Tu Dors Nicole has all the makings of a belated coming of age story. Director Stephane Lafleur thankfully finds a way to quietly break conventions. The hazy, melancholy look of the film immediately makes it distinctive, and its surreal touches can be downright hilarious.
I reviewed Tu Dors Nicole earlier this year at TIFF, and since then my opinion has only gone up. It’s a low-key delight, and hopefully some nice distributor will come along to let American audiences get a shot at seeing it (Are you reading this, IFC?). [C.J.]
Welcome to Me
This is just a matter of time, really. Co-produced by Will Ferrell, and starring the rising Kristen Wiig, Welcome To Me has Canadian distribution but somehow still doesn’t have US. Strange, not only because of the talent involved but because Wiig has never been funnier. Her Alice Klieg, a loner with Border Personality Disorder, becomes a millionaire overnight and decides to spend most on it on a television show based around her life. Major hilarity ensues.
Boasting a strong supporting cast (Wes Bentley, Joan Cusack, James Marsden, Tim Robbins, among others), and a scathing commentary on contemporary societal obsession with reality television and talk shows, Welcome To Me mostly exists as a showcase of Kristen Wiig’s monumental comedic talents. That should be more than reason enough to get distributor attention, so keep your eyes open. [Nik]
Here’s an example of the kind of film that needs to be released. Wild Canaries follows Noah and Barri (writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine and his wife Sophia Takal), an engaged couple living in New York City trying to get by. After their downstairs neighbour dies from an apparent heart attack, Barri suspects foul play. Teaming up with her roommate Jean (Alia Shawkat), and ignoring her fiancé’s protests, Barri takes on the role of amateur detective in order to find the murderer (if there even is one).
It would be easy to compare Wild Canaries to Cold Weather, Aaron Katz’s low-budget indie mystery, but the two only share a few similarities. Levine’s film is a gleeful ode to madcap, screwball comedies like The Thin Man, going for big laughs. That broad, over the top sense of humour, combined with the nuanced relationship dynamics on display between Barri, Noah and the supporting characters, make for a wholly unique and exciting combination. The entire cast is excellent, with Levine and Takal playing Noah and Barri perfectly. Only a real-life couple could make you go from thinking these two characters can’t stand each other to believing they’re a perfect match. Wild Canaries is the shot in the arm American indies need right now. It’s funny, distinctive and isn’t afraid to be earnest. [C.J.]