Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman” received plenty of boos at its Cannes world premiere. But the negative reaction confounded several critics, who left the festival with a more flattering opinion of the Argentine director’s third feature – after her equally auspicious efforts “La Cienaga” and “The Holy Girl.” It was this writer’s favorite film of the festival and judging from the results of indieWIRE’s poll of best undistributed movies, “The Headless Woman” shouldn’t feel forsaken.
Topping our critics list of more than 250 titles that do not yet have U.S. distribution, “The Headless Woman” received the poll’s most dubious honor: Good for us critics, but not apparently, good enough for a film company to bring to audiences.
If “The Headless Woman” may be Martel’s most oblique movie, it’s also her most mesmerizing in its observation of an upper-middle-class woman who may have hit a dog – or a little boy – in her car. Unfolding like a disorienting guilt-ridden dream and shot with shallow-focus blur-inducing lenses, the film is an aesthetic tour-de-force, an incisive critique of the bourgeoisie, and Martel’s “strongest to date,” according to critic J. Hoberman.
The distribution fate of “The Headless Woman” may change, of course. (Where is IFC Films when you need them? The company has already lay claim to several films that critics believed were un-acquired, including “Still Walking,” “Summer Hours,” and “The Chaser.”) And several of last year’s undistributed pictures soon found releases (i.e. “The Romance of Astree and Celadon,” “La France,” “In the City of Sylvia,” and “Frownland” all placed in this year’s top 40 releases of 2008). Unfortunately, however, last year’s top orphaned pick “Secret Sunshine,” Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s sublime drama about a young mother’s return to her hometown, remains without a release.
If Korean art-cinema has been unloved by U.S. distributors, this year is no different. Following closely behind “The Headless Woman” was Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo’s latest, “Night and Day.” (His “Woman on the Beach” topped indieWIRE’s poll of abandoned favorites in 2006, and much of his oeuvre has consistently had a tough time finding U.S. theaters.) Writing about the film after its New York Film Festival premiere, critic Glenn Kenny pointed out the great irony of his fond appreciation for the director’s latest portrait of male desire and confusion: “The prospects for this 140-minute sex comedy/drama to gain any kind of meaningful U.S. release are dim indeed.”
If distributors are wary of marketing such films of bold narrative and stylistic choices, how could they turn down the critics’ third place choice, Pablo Larrain’s disco-era thriller “Tony Manero,” in which a middle-aged Chilean man obsessed with the protagonist of “Saturday Night Fever” becomes a serial killer during the dictatorial reign of Augusto Pinochet? From Cannes, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wrote that the film’s “reckless, nihilistic black humor … might just make it a candidate for international cult status.” Perhaps at a time, not long ago, when companies partial to risque material like Tartan or Palm Pictures were active, “Manero” would have a fighting chance at distribution.
“Manero” director Larrain is one of the few newcomers to crack the top ten. Most of high-ranking picks have a festival track record and critical following that precedes them. For example, Catalan auteur Albert Serra’s latest “Birdsong,” a black-and-white contemplative re-imagining of the Three Wise Men’s trek toward Bethlehem, came in at #4. Though few outside of the most devout cineastes follow Serra’s work, critic Robert Koehler has claimed, “There is no European filmmaker to have emerged in the past five years (at least) to make the distinct impression that their art is absolute, inviolate, a discipline, a calling, a quest–certainly something that can’t and probably won’t be tamed.”
Like Serra’s minimalist, extremely rigorous cinema, other artier fare, such as Lisandro Alonso’s “Liverpool” (7th place), a glacially-paced outing that follows a ship-workers’ homecoming, are likely to find solace at museums and small DVD labels. In today’s cutthroat exhibition climate, frankly, it’s the only type of exhibition and release such rarefied titles can hope to receive.
But what of more traditional art-house fare, such as Claire Denis’s “35 Shots of Rum” (also at #5), a surprise favorite at the Toronto International Film Festival about the close relationship between a father and his young adult daughter on the outskirts of Paris? Or Koji Wakamatsu’s “United Red Army” (also tied at #5), a docu-drama about the rise and fall of an infamous radical leftist paramilitary group in Japan, that was championed aggressively by Cinemascope’s Christopher Huber. (His lengthy essay Welcome to the Wasteland: Wakamatsu Koji’s Radical Resistance” offers insight into the 190-minute epic and reason to care about the largely unknown 72-year-old Japanese maverick). Or Gerardo Naranjo’s “I’m Going to Explode” (#6), a spirited Godard-ian romp about teenage rebels on the run, hiding on the boy’s own rooftop?
And where might you ask, after all this heady, daring international cinema, are the American films? One best guess is that most of them have already found a way into theaters. More and more American indie directors, for want of New York Times reviews or paying off their investors, are done with waiting for distributors to acquire them and have gone ahead and distributed themselves. See, for example, “Ballast.” And do see it, if you haven’t it.
The few holdouts that still exist include Antonio Campos’s rigorous Haneke-an voyeuristic teen portrait “Afterschool” and Nina Paley’s 2-D animated musical comedy “Sita Sings the Blues” (both tied in the 9th spot). And coming to a museum near you is James Benning’s latest experimental chronicle of American landscape, the cinematic train-ride “RR” (also at #9).
And the list goes on. Whether Johnnie To’s Hong Kong pickpocket tribute “Sparrow,” Richard Linklater’s 1940s-set cinephile love letter “Me and Orson Welles,” or Sacha Gervasi’s affecting and hilarious heavy-metal documentary “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” the film industry does not discriminate: Big or small, foreign or domestic, fiction or documentary, these days, theatrical distribution is far from a given for any film.
The 76 undistributed films that received more than one mention in the iW Critics Poll:
|1||The Headless Woman||24|
|2||Night and Day||20|
|5||35 Shots of Rum||14|
|United Red Army||14|
|8||I’m Going To Explode||12|
|Sita Sings The Blues||10|
|Four Nights with Anna||7|
|Me and Orson Welles||6|
|19||Anvil! The Story of Anvil||5|
|20||You, the Living||5|
|21||Be Like Others||4|
|The English Surgeon||4|
|26||Finally, Lillian And Dan||3|
|Frontier of Dawn||3|
|Guest of Cindy Sherman||3|
|In A Dream||3|
|Prince of Broadway||3|
|The Mourning Forest||3|
|36||A Gentle Breeze in the Village||2|
|A Time to Stir||2|
|Adrift in Tokyo||2|
|Eat, For This is My Body||2|
|Everything is Fine||2|
|Go Go Tales||2|
|Jesus Christ Savior||2|
|Linha de Passe||2|
|Made in America||2|
|Milky Way Liberation Front||2|
|My Mother, My Bride, and I||2|
|Of All the Things||2|
|The Good, The Bad, and The Weir||2|
|The New Year Parade||2|
|The Windmill Movie||2|
|Those Who Remain||2|
|Waiting for Sancho||2|
|When It Was Blue||2|
|Who Is KK Downey?||2|
|Your Name Here||2|
EDITORS NOTE: This article and chart were revised immediately after publishing to remove the films “24 City” and “Revanche,” both of which now have U.S. distribution. Also, films with distribution that received votes from individual critics are not included on the accompanying chart.