indieWIRE's Top 15 Undistributed Films of 2004
Compiled by Wendy Mitchell
For the past seven years, indieWIRE's editors and contributors have come up with a list of the best films we saw that didn't make it to theaters. For 2004, there were dozens of worthy candidates, which we have narrowed down to the 15 listed below. We didn't include self-distributed films that were technically without a distribution deal, nor did we include 2004 films already acquired for release in 2005.
This year's contributors to the list are Erica Abeel, Brian Brooks, Howard Feinstein, Eugene Hernandez, Brandon Judell, Anthony Kaufman, Michael Koresky, Wendy Mitchell, Jeff Reichert, and Steven Rosen.
Films that would have been on this list if U.S. distribution deals didn't seem imminent: are Wong Kar-Wai's "2046," Lodge Kerrigan's "Keane," and Mark Milgard's "Dandelion." All are in final stages of deal negotiations, with pacts to be announced soon.
indieWIRE's Top 15 Films of 2004 Without U.S. Distribution (in alphabetical order)
Please note that each film's track record indicates highlights, not every festival where a film has screened.
"The Beauty Academy of Kabul"
Directed by Liz Mermin
Track record: Tribeca Film Festival, documentary winner at Cinema Paradise, IDFA, High Falls, Mill Valley.
Lowdown: "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" is an irresistibly moving doc about a beauty school opening up in the Afghan capital that carefully balances the culturally imperialist potential of such a project with candid portraits of Afghan woman trying to overcome their oppressive surroundings. This doc seems like a natural for theatrical release -- it's touching, enlightening, and often funny -- probably the most entertaining portrait you're likely to see of life in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Wellspring previously held the theatrical rights but they are now up for grabs.
"Days and Hours" (Kod amidze Idriza)
Directed by Pjer Zalica
Bosnia & Herzegovina, narrative
Track record: AFI Fest, Thessaloniki, Toronto Film Festival, opening film Sarajevo.
Lowdown: Pjer Zalica's "Days and Hours," from Bosnia and Herzegovina (their Oscar pick this year), is a quiet story of a man who goes to fix the hot water heater for his elderly aunt and uncle and is forced to spend the night after his car breaks down. The plot obviously isn't action-packed, but there are a lot of emotional layers explored as the generations deal with the aftermath of a family member's death in the war. Zalica, who directed festival hit "Fuse," again shows his nimble hand here... this simple story is one you'll ponder for weeks afterwards.
"Dead Man's Shoes"
Directed by Shane Meadows
Track record: Toronto, Raindance, Thessaloniki, British gala at Edinburgh, winner of the Golden Hitchcock at Dinard Festival of British Cinema, eight nominations at British Independent Film Awards.
Lowdown: Meadows' new film is a world apart from his comedic work "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands" even though this one is also set in the English Midlands. "Dead Man's Shoes" is an unsettling look at a brother seeking revenge on the drug dealers his mentally challenged younger brother had been associating with. Paddy Considine, who co-wrote the script, gives the performance of his career as a vigilante out for justice in a sleepy town. Prepare to be shaken.
Directed by Bryan Poyser
Track record: Grand jury prize at Atlanta Film Festival, IFP Independent Spirit Awards Someone to Watch nominee, best feature at Boston Underground Film Festival, best of the fest selection in Edinburgh, played at Slamdance, Florida Film Festival, SXSW, GenArt, Mannheim.
Lowdown: This brave debut feature chronicles the unsettling relationship between an older man and the bored teenage boy who live in the same apartment complex. The awkward but horny younger boy, Wes, takes an interest in the older man's job writing for a porn magazine called Dear Pillow. This deftly crafted film shows the reality of teenage (and middleage) sexual alienation without stooping to cheap titillation. The relationship between the two men may be unsettling -- as is their hobby -- but it's 100 percent believable.
"Down to the Bone"
Directed by Debra Granik
Track record: Directing award and special jury prize for acting at Sundance 2004, best narrative feature at Woodstock and Florida Film Festivals, FIPRESCI prize Viennale, nominated for John Cassavetes award and best actress at Independent Spirit Awards.
Lowdown: If Debra Granik's "Down to the Bone" can't find a good distribution deal, indie film really is dead. Granik shoots this hardcore drug-addiction drama with the sharpness and sobering truth of its subject matter. Shot in a wintry upstate New York town, Irene's life is as gloomy and frigid as her surroundings, and the film's climax, involving a betrayal of more than just love, hits a nerve as deep as any of this year's Oscar contenders. Vera Farmiga turns in a star-making yet subtle performance.
"Duck Season" (Temporada de Patos)
Directed by Fernando Eimbcke
Track record: Cannes, Toronto, Edinburgh, jury prize winner at AFI Los Angeles, best director at Thessaloniki, FIPRESCI prize and six other awards at Guadalajara Mexican Film Festival.
Lowdown: "Temporada de Patos" (Duck Season) by first-time director Fernando Eimbcke is the nuanced story of two 14-year-old boys, Moko and Flama, who spend a lazy Sunday afternoon playing video games... until the power goes out and they have to turn their attention away from the TV. They bond with a neighbor girl who comes to borrow their oven, and they torment a pizza deliveryman who shows up one minute late. The plot may sound trivial, but there are some deeper themes at play -- handled with an impeccably light touch. Even the choice to shoot the film in black and white is the perfect choice. An understated charmer.
"The Green Hat" (Lu Mao Tze)
Directed by Liu Fen Dou
Track record: Best narrative feature and best new director at Tribeca Film Festival, screened at Edinburgh, FIPRESCI prize at Thessaloniki.
Lowdown: Two stories of male impotence placed side by side, Tribeca 2004 winner "The Green Hat" situates the first tale of rejection in a claustrophobic market with wall-to-wall crates of empty Coke bottles; it's a brilliantly conceived location (is this another Chinese self-critique of its growing capitalism?), where our first protagonist loses the love of his life over the telephone. The second half follows the policeman who witnesses the dejected lover's suicide. While the film has a sense of humor, Liu's vision is captivating, original, and deeply angst-ridden. One of the year's best debuts.
"The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things"
Directed by Asia Argento
Track record: Cannes Directors Fortnight, Toronto, AFI Fest.
Lowdown: Hell-raiser Asia Argento (daughter of Dario) creates an unholy mix of ribald black humor and mother-son love in her latest film. She stars in this one-of-a-kind Southern Gothic based on stories by J.T. Leroy about a rough childhood. The star-studded cast also includes Peter Fonda, Marilyn Manson, Kip Pardue, Jeremy Renner, John Robinson ("Elephant"), Winona Ryder, and Michael Pitt.
"House of the Tiger King"
Directed by David Flamholc
Track record: Edinburgh Film Festival, opening night Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival, IDFA, Gothenburg Film Festival; selected for a British Film Institute tour in early 2005 as well as 2005 fests including HBO Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo.
Lowdown: Perhaps its best not to try to describe too much of David Flamholc's new film; it's hard to characterize anyway. The filmmaker follows noted explorer Tahir Shah on a search for the lost city of gold, Paititi, and along the way the project apparently falls apart. Truth and fiction seem to be mixed in this at times hilarious, always entertaining expedition diary.
Directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Track record: Toronto International Film Festival, San Sebastian, Thessaloniki, London Film Festival.
Lowdown: One of the more auspicious and eye-popping debuts of the year, from Gaspar Noe collaborator Lucile Hadzihalilovic, "Innocence" imagines a dark fairytale world of prepubescent girls, trapped in a forest camp, trained in ballet under a strict set of foreboding rules ("always follow the lamps at night") and ominous threats ("obedience is the only path to happiness"). As old grandfather clocks chime in the background, we wait -- very slowly -- for the girls to graduate or escape from their prison-cum-ballet school. The final shot of "Innocence" -- of a young girl stepping into a pulsating fountain and feeling the force of water erupt through her hands in orgasmic intensity -- is reason enough for a small theatrical release.
Directed by Jessica Hausner
Track record: Cannes Un Certain Regard, Karlovy Vary, London, Toronto, Melbourne, Copenhagen, Pusan.
Lowdown: Jessica Hausner ("Lovely Rita") returns with this otherworldly horror set in a sinister mountain hotel that plays like a minimalist tale from the Brothers Grimm. Eerie sound design, impeccable restraint from blonde topliner Franziska Weisz, and the troubling sense that the menace lies within as well as without make this one a must-see.
"Liberia: An Uncivil War"
Directed by Jonathan Stack
Track record: Special jury prize, IDFA, special jury mention, SilverDocs, International Documentary Association's courage under fire award, showed at Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
Lowdown: Jonathan Stack's latest doc, described by the IDFA festival jury as "a film whose very creation was an act of bravery -- or, some might even say, suicidal insanity," takes viewers to the front lines of the battle for Liberia, between oppressive leader Charles Taylor and a rebel group known as the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). With interviews and sometimes-brutal verite footage of the fighting, Stack and co-director James Brabazon go inside an emerging rebellion in this award-winning doc, which they hope can become the first in a trilogy.
Directed by Lisandro Alonso
Track record: Cannes Directors Fortnight, Viennale FIPRESCI and audience prizes, best feature film in Torino, jury prize in Peru, played in Sarajevo, Buenos Aires, Vancouver, Toronto, Edinburgh, Pusan, Sao Paulo, Gijon, Thessaloniki, Rotterdam.
Lowdown: A middle-aged man is released from prison and journeys upriver to see reunite with his daughter. The plot is simple enough but the film's mysterious tone and cold matter-of-factness make this an extremely disturbing journey. The languid pacing and minimalist staging may throw some viewers off, but stick with this one until its chilling conclusion. This is a beautiful film, and it is not afraid of taboos. On the festival circuit, it has already become a hallmark of the new Argentine cinema.
"No Rest for the Brave" (Pas de repos pour les braves)
Directed by Alain Guiraudie
Track record: The film started its festival run at Cannes 2003 and appeared many large international fests and has continued on the U.S. fest circuit, including Philadelphia, in 2004.
Lowdown: Alain Guiraudie's dream-like barely-a-narrative tries so damn hard to defy expectation that it nearly becomes lucid. Within the first half-hour, the figure thought to be the male protagonist is summarily killed, and then simply reappears nonchalantly in a subsequent scene. Then after slipping from sun-dappled bucolic realism to nightmarish noir and back again, "No Rest for the Brave" falls into a rhythm so congenial, it's hard not to project your own brand of logic onto it. Undoubtedly a different experience for each person that watches it.
"The Talent Given Us"
Directed by Andrew Wagner
Track record: Grand jury prize at CineVegas, played at Dances with Films, will screen at Sundance 2005 later this month.
Lowdown: "The Talent Given Us," a digital feature shot for $30,000, could qualify as the bravest film we've ever seen. With his debut feature, Wagner casts his eccentric family members to play themselves in this tale of a family road trip during which parents talk openly about their infidelities, a sister masturbates with a friend, and mom worries about being a mean mother. Very much a "warts and all" look at the dysfunction found in most families, this film is touching and hilarious, and more truthful than some documentaries. After winning the big prize at CineVegas, Wagner kept the film off the festival circuit in hopes of getting a spot at Sundance. It worked; his film screens at the festival later this month and should stir up plenty of buzz.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (also in alphabetical order):
Erik Van Looy's "The Alzheimer Case," Celesta Davis' "Awful Normal," Carlos Sorin's "Bombon - El Perro," Thomas de Their's "Feathers in My Head," Danielle Arbid's "In the Battlefields," Frederic Fonteyne's "La Femme de Gilles," Aleksei German Jr.'s "The Last Train," Eugene Green's "Le Monde vivant," Sandra Dickson & Churchill Roberts' "Negroes With Guns," Joel Cano's "Seven Days, Seven Nights," Tawfik Abu Wael's "Atash" (Thirst), and Vladimir Vitkin's "X,Y."