by Anthony Kaufman
As 1998 nears completion, and critics' groups announce their picks
for the best films of the year, indieWIRE decided to offer an
alternative to the traditional year-end list. Given that our editorial team
has had the unique opportunity to see a whole slew of films that have not been
acquired for U.S. distribution, we decided to conduct a survey of the staff
and regular contributors, asking the question: "What were your
favorite films of 1998 that have yet to be acquired for theatrical
From Sundance to Seattle, the LAIFF to Cannes, Toronto to Thessaloniki,
indieWIRE has been on the scene over the course of the year, scouting
out the best in international cinema. Our results are eclectic to say
the least: "Broken Vessels," "1999," "After Life," "The Hole," "Bedrooms
and Hallways," "Edge of Seventeen," and "Miss Monday." This list is
by no means meant to be exhaustive; and it is true that for all the
films we saw, there are hundreds more that we didn't. Why are no
documentaries on our list? Is this is a reflection of the marketplace
or just a general prejudice against non-fiction work that even those at
indieWIRE can't escape? Incomplete yes, exclusionary perhaps,
hierarchical you might allege, but here are seven films we saw over the
course of 1998 that indieWIRE recommends. Our only criteria: it played
at a festival; we saw it; and no U.S. theatrical distributor is attached as
The most popular film in our unofficial staff poll was Scott Ziehl's
"Broken Vessels," which debuted at this year's Los Angeles Independent
Film Festival and deservedly won the audience award. In our report on
the festival, we called this story about the downward spiral of drug use
"a tightly scripted, well-acted, and studiously shot feature debut."
During the festival back in April, producer's rep John Sloss assured
indieWIRE that "we'll definitely sell it," but several months and film
festivals later (among them, the biz-heavy Toronto fest) "Vessels"
remains hanging -- although this week, Sloss' office claimed they're on
the verge of a deal. In a conversation at the LAIFF, Ziehl who had
never been to a festival before, told indieWIRE, "I really believe it's
got an audience and I even more believe that now that I've seen the
response here. . . . I just hope the right people get behind the film
and give it a chance."
Also at the LAIFF was Nick Davis' millennial tale of relationships
(paternal, amorous, and everything in between) "1999." Although some of
the staff caught the film at last year's IFFM, Davis' comedy has had a
successful run at film festivals this year, including Atlanta, Chicago,
Raindance, Denver and Hawaii, among others. At the IFFM in '97,
indieWIRE wrote, "Cheers and applause filled the theater at the
conclusion of the well-crafted, witty story of New Millenium's Eve (and
even during points in the screening) leading some to think that '1999'
is a likely candidate for a distribution offer." That offer still
hasn't come, even with rising indie actor Dan Futterman turning in a
charismatic performance, as well as a notable ensemble cast including
Steven Wright, Buck Henry, Matt McGrath, Jennifer Garner, and Amanda
Peet. The film was recently nabbed by the Sundance Channel for
Tied with "1999" was a very different film from Japan: "After Life,"
from "Maborosi" director Hirokazu Kore-Eda which wowed staffers at its
Toronto debut and later went on to receive the FIPRESCI Critic's Prize
at the San Sebastian Film Festival. From Toronto, indieWIRE wrote that
the film "is as mythically evocative as 'Wings of Desire' in its
depiction of a way station between heaven and earth. . . . Whimsical,
surprisingly profound and refreshingly bereft of any special effects,
After Life' is as gently moving as it is wildly original." Kore-Eda
will bring "After Life" to the 1999 Sundance Film Festival where
audiences will get another chance to catch this beautiful film. Technically,
the film is no longer eligible for our staff poll -- late this week
word came that the film was acquired by Artistic License.
Another foreign film that astounded staffers and made our poll list was French
director Gaspar Noe's "I Stand Alone" ("Seul Contre Tous"). This week indieWIRE
confirmed that the film has indeed been acquired by Strand Releasing.
Although now disqualified from our poll, the film is still worthy of
prize winner at Cannes's Critic's week and eventually caught by
indieWIRE staff at the New York, Toronto, and London Film Festivals,
Noe's shocking debut is the kind of difficult film that repels and
attracts at the same time. Procovative and brutal, the caustic shocker
follows a renegade butcher who "suggests a walking piece of meat wired
with dynamite" (New York Times) -- who has a running interior monologue
of racism, sexism and violence. "I Stand Alone" will next screen at
Another popular Cannes debut and equally challenging film was Taiwanese
filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang's "The Hole" which went on to play at a number
of other top-tier festivals. "The Hole" refers to a missing piece of
floor that brings together its two lead characters, the man upstairs who
is possibly infected with a millennial epidemic and the women down below,
played by famed Taiwanese actress Yang Kwei-mei. At Cannes, indieWIRE
wrote, "The film's bleek depiction of its cockroach-like urban
inhabitants is counterbalanced with some fantastic surreal musical
sequences lip-synched Monroe-style by Kwei-mei."
Two films popular with gay audiences also made our favorites list: "Go
Fish" director Rose Troche's second feature "Bedrooms and Hallways" and
David Moreton's debut "Edge of Seventeen." From Toronto, indieWIRE
called "Bedrooms" "a British comic romp with a cast of eccentric
characters and startlingly campy production design. With roars of
laugher and heavy applause during and after the film, it's definitely a
crowd-pleaser." Although "Bedrooms" finally acquired a British distrib,
the U.S. is still waiting.
A winner of four awards at L.A.'s OutFest, "Edge of Seventeen" is an
honest depiction of an Ohio teenager's first experiences with his
sexuality in the 80's. In indieWIRE's interview with "Seventeen"
screenwriter Todd Stephens, Aaron Krach wrote, "What could have been a
witty nostalgia trip back to 1985 instead became a remarkably small film
with a heart the size of Ohio." "Edge of Seventeen" will next screen at
Sundance '99 in the American Spectrum section.
Rounding out the list is 1998 Sundance Competition entry, "Miss Monday,"
which has yet to secure a domestic distribution deal despite having a
successful international run theatrically. Benson Lee's assured feature debut
recently nabbed the top prize in the New Filmmakers Forum at the St. Louis
International Film Festival.
Other unacquired films from 1998 that made the indieWIRE list include (in no
particular order): Jimmy Smallhorne's "2x4," James Bogle's "In the
Winter Dark," Derek Cianfrance's "Brother Tied," Julian Goldberger's
"Trans," David Riker's "La Ciudad," Juliet Darling's "Dead Letters,"
Kwang Mo Lee's "Spring in My Hometown," Abel Ferrara's "The Blackout,"
Rolf de Heer's "Dance Me To My Song," Christopher Nolan's "Following,"
Patrice Toye's "Rosie," Kevin DiNovis' "Surrender Dorothy," Hal
Hartley's "Book of Life," Samantha Lang's "The Well," Mark Daniels'
"Melvin Van Peebles' Classified X," Dan Katzir's "Out for Love...Be Back
Shortly," Kip Koenig's "How To Make The Cruelest Month," Alexandre
Rockwell's "Louis and Frank," Lee Chang-Dong's "Green Fish," and
Sebastian Gutierrez's "Judas Kiss."
[In our first issue of the new year, indieWIRE will offer the results of its
staff/readers poll surveying the best theatrically released films of 1998.
To participate in the survey, send us an email message requesting a survey form
by Monday, December 21st.]