BIZ: indieWIRE Picks Favorite Pics (without U.S. Distribution) of 1999
by Anthony Kaufman
Last year, 5 out of our top 7 features without distribution found a theatrical home in 1999. Scott Ziehl's "Broken Vessels" was released by fledgling distrib Unapix, Hirokazu Kore-eda's "After Life" had a healthy life via Artistic License, David Moreton's "Edge of Seventeen" found a home with Strand Releasing, Fox/Lorber took Tsai Ming-Liang's "The Hole," and First Run Features put out Rose Troche's "Bedrooms and Hallways." The year also saw a fitting deal for Nick Davis' "1999," which aired aptly on New Years Eve on Sundance Channel. While many of these films were headed for deals long before they appeared on our list, we'd like to think we helped forge their sales, or at least, get the word out.
So again this year we asked our staff and regular contributors: what were your favorite films of 1999 that have yet to be acquired for theatrical distribution. As must always be noted, for all the films we saw, there were hundreds we missed. But it wasn't for lack of trying. Over the course of the year, indieWIRE covered major festivals from Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, and Venice, to the LAIFF, Telluride, and New Directors/New Films, to major international festivals in Edinburgh, London, Vienna, and Havana, among others.
In line with last year's eclectic line-up, 1999's results are anything but predictable. Topping the list were Lynne Ramsay's "Ratcatcher" and Christopher Doyle's "Away with Words," followed by, in no particular order, Otar Iosseliani's "Adieu, Plancher des Vaches" ("Farewell Home Sweet Home"), Rob Schmidt's "Saturn," Tom Gilroy's "Spring Forward," and Katya Bankowsky's "Shadow Boxers." For those not paying attention, that's two American dramatic features, one American doc, two foreign films, and the unclassifiable Christopher Doyle. Pretty even, we'd say.
How did we choose? It's hardly scientific. Everyone elects 5 films and the ones with the most votes are highlighted. However, some staffers noted the difficulty this year in choosing 5 top candidates. Two entries only contained 3 titles and there were no mandates among our top 7. What does this say? That there weren't as many worthy films? That our voters didn't see enough films? That, more likely, everyone saw different films and therefore no clear winners came to the forefront? Whatever the reason, this is our list and you're free to give as little or as much credence to it, as you like.
We first saw Ramsay's "Ratcatcher" in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. Her first feature film, after receiving much acclaim for two shorts (her 15-minute "Gasman" won second prize at last year's Cannes), is "luminously photographed, and framed with an elegantly off-kilter, yet entrancing perspective," we reported from Cannes. Ramsay's unique poetic vision combined with her heartwarming child-actors makes for a beautiful film, one which was singled out by writers at other festivals throughout the year, most notably London where the film won the Sutherland trophy for most original and imaginative first feature film, and Flanders, where Rachael Portman received a Best Music award for her work on the film. While at Cannes, a few small distributors noted the excellence of the movie, but claimed that they didn't how to handle it in the U.S. marketplace.
Though an even more challenging film, at least "Away with Words" has the prestige and curiosity value of being famed cinematographer Christopher Doyle's directorial debut. Though "Words" has divided viewers ever since its Cannes premiere, there is no underestimating Doyle's original visions. indieWIRE contributor Augusta Palmer calls the film "an ode to beer and the color blue. About the silent communication between one man who forgets everything and another who remembers everything." Palmer adds, "Though its maker recommends viewing it high, the film produces a collective hallucination which makes other drugs unnecessary." Ripe for inclusion in Wong Kar-Wai retrospectives or avant-garde breakthroughs, "Away with Words" deserves to be seen, if only for its ability to provoke, perturb and inspire.
Though practically unknown in the States, Otar Ioselliani has been making films since 1962, and his latest "Farewell Home Sweet Home" has been well regarded throughout the year at festivals both domestic and international since it premiered out of competition in the Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival. Winner of the FIPRESCI Award at the European Film Awards, "Farewell Home Sweet Home" takes place in present day Paris where a wealthy young man leaves the family estate to see the world. While indieWIRE contributor Stephen Garrett praised Ioselliani's "delightfully inventive" bew work, reviewer Ray Pride noted "as in the films of [Jacques] Tati or [Luis] Buñuel, even if you lose the drift of his interlaced comic tales, there are sweet moments offered up to the viewer like a flagon of the host's best drink."
Even with such flattering words, our foreign entries will likely face a near impossible struggle for U.S. exhibition. In contrast, the Amer-indies in our selection will likely fare much better, most likely all seeing releases in the coming year. As Rob Schmidt's second feature "Crime and Punishment in High School" heads to the Sundance Competition in just three weeks with major studio MGM backing it, his first film "Saturn" remains stranded in space. "One of the standout features at this year's Los Angeles Independent Film Festival," Stephen Garrett reported "is Rob Schmidt's dark, elegiac drama 'Saturn,' about Drew, a 24-year-old man burdened with taking care of an invalid father." Garrett continued, "the taut, restrained direction of the actors and rendering of their tortuous circumstances reveal the depths of Schmidt's ability to tap into the truth of his subject. . . . What emerges by the end of the movie is evidence of an undeniable filmmaking talent who, in his feature debut as both writer and director, is already showing signs of maturity." For some time, Strand Releasing was rumored to be courting the film, but no distribution sale has been made.
Another Sundance-bound filmmaker is Tom Gilroy. His "Spring Forward," which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, came in a not-too-shabby third place in the race for the Festival's Discovery Award. "At the earnest center of the movie are winning performances by Ned Beatty and Liev Schreiber," wrote indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez, "a couple of small town Connecticut parks and recreation workers who strike a close friendship over the course of one year. Deliberately paced and richly shot, the movie slowly reveals its two leads through their lengthy on the job conversations. So strong is Beatty's performance as the retiring surrogate father to an apologetic ex-con, that acting awards will undoubtedly follow him once the film is released theatrically." Hernandez and indieWIRE's Mark Rabinowitz reported on a special added screening at Toronto where attendees included Roger Ebert, Fine Line chief Mark Ordesky and USA Films' Peter Kalambach, among others, but a sale for the film is still up in the air, with Park City a probable place for a deal.
As our only documentary, Katya Bankowsky's "Shadow Boxers" has generated positive word of mouth, after winning a Best First Feature Award at the Florida Film Festival, garnering strong buzz at the IFFM, and a prestigious Toronto Film Festival selection. "'Shadow Boxers' deserves special recognition for bringing a subject unknown to many, women's professional boxing, into the light that it deserves as a serious sport," reported Rabinowitz from the Hamptons Film Festival. "The film settles on one of the most charismatic athletes I've ever seen: Lucia Rijker, the Dutch-born 5-time world kickboxing champion. . . . She is intelligent, thoughtful, spiritual and absolutely gorgeous." According to Bankowsky, who was reached just prior to the new year, a deal for broadcast and/or theatrical rights has been in the works, but no one has signed on the dotted line as of yet.
Just one vote away from being included in our highlights are a number of other noteworthy festival films from 1999. Here are the rest in alphabetical order:
"A Slipping Down Life," directed by Toni Kalem
"Barrio," directed by Fernando Leon de Aranoa
"Beautiful New World," directed by Shi Run Jiu
"Better Living Through Circuitry," directed by Jon Reiss
"Bobby G. Can't Swim," written, directed and starring John-Luke Montias
"The Book of Stars," directed by Michael Miner
"Fidel," directed by Estella Bravo
"Gregory's Two Girls," directed by Bill Forsyth
"L'Humanite," directed by Bruno Dumont
"Les amants criminels," directed by François Ozon
"Lies," directed by Jang Sun Woo
"Life Tastes Good," directed by Phillip Kan Gotanda
"Luna Papa," directed by Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov
"Of Freaks and Men," directed Alexei Balabanov
"The Personals," directed by Chen Guo-fu
"Pups," directed by Ash
"Return of the Idiot/Wheels," directed by Sasa Gedeon
"Seventeen Years," directed by Zhang Yuan
"Time Regained," directed by Raul Ruiz
"Voyages," directed by Emmanuel Finkiel
"The Wind Will Carry Us," directed by Abbas Kiarostami (newly acquired by
New Yorker Films)