Even the most passionate moviegoer is a slave to the marketplace. Anyone catching the latest cinema in theaters, DVD or digital platforms relies on distributors to put it there. Those viewers proactive enough to follow the latest film festival buzz may widen their perspectives somewhat, but they won't be able to share their discoveries at all unless someone decides to spend some money on getting them out there. The result is that year-end analyses of the movies tend to rely on a narrative determined by the companies with the most cash: It's no coincidence that the quality of new releases appears to rise with the last burst of releases in the fall.
Of course, the picture's a lot bigger than that. Among the thousands of movies completed over the course of a calendar year, many of which screen at film festivals, a significant number struggle to find distribution. Despite a number of valiant risk-taking companies willing to gamble on some difficult possibilities, a lot of well-intentioned distributors recoil at the prospects of releasing certain movies, no matter their greatness. Their explanations usually boil down to a few difficult ingredients, but one rules them all: Subtitles? Yikes.
While savvy distributors jump at the prospects of releasing classy, traditional foreign language titles in the hopes of pushing them into the Oscar race, anything remotely experimental or otherwise "challenging" that takes place in another language is automatically deemed box office poison. While compiling my top 10 list of the best new movies screened in 2013 that have not yet found U.S. distribution, it was only after I completed it that I realized none of the titles come from America, and only one of them takes place in English.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Companies like Cinema Guild, Strand Releasing and Drafthouse Films continue to take major risks just because they can, while countless others have begun to explore the wide-ranging possibilities of the video-on-demand market. We're steadily creeping toward a future where nothing is too obscure to find whatever audience exists for it. And if it's good, there's an audience.
For now, however, the following 10 titles that arrived at festivals this year do not (to my knowledge) have U.S. distribution. But that can change. If you want to see these movies, make your voice heard; and if you work in distribution, listen up.
"Don't Leave Me"
If Jim Jarmusch made a movie about two alcoholic friends hanging out in the woods, it might look something like the Dutch documentary "Don't Leave Me" ("Ne Me Quitte Pas"). Directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden's hilariously touching portrait of bitter men drowning their sorrows in booze is the ultimate buddy comedy with brains. Shot in the isolated forests of Wallonia, in French-speaking southern Belgium, it manages a fascinating naturalistic tone that's infectiously lighthearted without obscuring the downbeat quality of its subjects' lives.
The filmmakers focus on the meandering exploits of middle-aged native Marcel and his slightly older Flemish chum Bob, whose destructive antics have cut them off from any source of companionship aside from each other. As they stumble through a seemingly abandoned world defined by their vices and self-deprecating wit, "Don't Leave Me" marks the finest example of deadpan humor to come along in years. That's largely because it never strays from an emotional foundation that makes Marcel and Bob so likable no matter how much they screw up.
"What Now? Remind Me"
The first image of "What Now? Remind Me," Portuguese film industry veteran Joaquim Pinto's 164-minute portrait of his one-year experience taking experimental medication for AIDS and Hepatitis-C, sets the tone perfectly: In a lush extreme close-up, a grey slug oozes across the screen, its pores magnified to expressive degrees. In a voiceover that remains continuous for the remainder of the movie, Pinto introduces himself and observes that his world has moved past him. Coupled with the telling visual aid, Pinto effectively conveys the slow, thoughtful pace that maintains solemn and graceful qualities throughout.
Even as the movie covers a specific period of his life, it drifts from moments of abstract observations and reminiscences with the ease of a Chris Marker diary film, the closest precedent for Pinto's self-reflexive approach. Though he has directed a handful of features, Pinto's worked for years as a sound engineer for luminaries of the Portuguese film industry like Raul Ruiz and Manoel Oliveira; the background shows in this expertly realized immersion into Pinto's troubled psyche, a world equally haunting and lyrical.
Early on, Pinto explains that he was diagnosed with AIDS in the late nineties and recently began trying out unapproved drugs after years of more traditional approaches. But the document of his experience avoids too many details about the medical challenges he faces. Instead, within minutes of the initial shot, a dazed Pinto is lying in bed attempting to describe the symptoms of his latest unauthenticated medication. For the most part, however, "What Now? Remind Me" wanders through his head space with the delicate confusion suggested by the title.
The winner of the top prize at this year's CPH:DOX festival in Copenhagen, Algerian filmmaker Narimane Mari's "Bloody Beans" follows a handful of Algerian children exploring their country's history of colonialism and its battle for independence through an increasingly bizarre series of play sessions. The result is like last year's New Orleans-set "Tchoupitoulas" (in which a trio of boys engage in lyrical adventures over the course of a vivid evening) were framed against the backdrop of "The Battle of Algiers." With its emphatic children guiding the story forward, "Bloody Beans" manages to be simultaneously charming and thematically complex. Over the course of an increasingly wild night, the kids engage in a flamboyant dance to reenact their cultural heritage, take a French soldier "prisoner" and dodge invisible bombs. Through this spectacular choreography of mimicked rituals and liberated energy, "Bloody Beans" keenly illustrates the performative aspects of history as it travels through generations.
"Story of My Death"
The title of Spanish director Albert Serra's fourth feature, "Story of My Death," presents a sardonic riff on 18th century Italian Renaissance man Giacomo Casanova. His memoir, "Story of My Life," recounts his lively travels across Europe and encounters with fellow luminaries of his era like Voltaire and Rousseau. But Serra sets those recollections aside in favor of a dryly introspective (but certainly macabre) look at Casanova's dwindling command over his legacy as it starts to fray when faced with changing times, a force manifested in the form of Dracula.
Unsurprisingly for the director of "Birdsong" -- a black-and-white, digital video depiction of the Three Wise Men that famously includes an eight-minute static shot of nothing but the subjects wandering across an empty desert plane -- Serra has made a slow, cryptic work heavy with metaphor and implication but also riddled with details. Yet, it's oddly Serra's most accessible work, the first with scripted dialogue and something closer to a conventional plot. Casanova is a vivid character nevertheless rich with metaphor. Serra's interpretation is something akin to an anti-biopic that turns the characters into symbols of history in flux.
Casanova has remained an object of historical fascination for epitomizing the secular convictions of the Enlightenment. An ebullient womanizer who fetishized his high class existence, the Casanova in Serra's dark, intentionally murky parable (played with an eerie frozen grin by Vincenc Altaló) faces the morbid ramifications of the incoming 19th century Romanticism in the form of a scheming vampire (Eliseu Hertas) who arrives later in the film to upend Casanova's existence. Yet even as the invader is meant to represent Dracula, "Story of My Death" is far from a traditional bloodsucker drama. Before the supernatural component creeps into the narrative, Serra crafts an undead world in which the aging Casanova has already begun to fade from existence.
Shot on digital video but warmly lit primarily with natural light, "Story of My Death" retains an ancient feel on par with sifting through Casanova's texts. But Serra also infuses his work with a dreamlike quality that quickly defines the proceedings. With an opening dinner shared by various party guests at Casanova's Swiss home, "Story of My Death" starts out with a quiet, gentle tone in which time appears to stand still, an apt way to set the mood because neither Casanova nor his surrounding friends see the shifting times on the horizon. "Story of My Death" manages to connect its profound aims with a devious atmosphere to match the turn of the century backdrop. Serra's vampire is an expressive creature of chaos, a description one could equally apply to the movie itself.