By Indiewire | Indiewire January 7, 2004 at 2:00AM
indieWIRE's Top 20 Undistributed Films of 2003
by indieWIRE Staff
For the past six 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 2003, there were dozens of worthy candidates, which we have narrowed down to the 20 listed below. There were also a number of other deserving films that have or will have played in art houses despite remaining technically without a distribution deal. We did not include those titles. Also, we didn't include films that have been acquired for distribution in 2004. (We'd like to point out here that one film on last year's list, Ed Lachman and Larry Clark's "Ken Park" was rumored to have a distribution deal in 2003 but that fell through, so several contributors also mentioned it again this year.)
Track records indicates just highlights, not every festival where a film has screened.
The following are listed in alphabetical order:
Director: Ross McElwee
Track Record: Cannes Directors' Fortnight, Toronto, New York Film
Festival, Rotterdam, Torino, AFI Festival, Copenhagen.
Lowdown: McElwee's latest personal documentary and sociological study
is a hilarious, insightful, and penetrating look at the Tobacco
industry in his native south. Much like his earlier doc "Sherman's
March," McElwee again interweaves his own life story -- concerns about
his son growing up, his father's passing -- along with the larger
social history of the tobacco industry.
"The Brown Bunny"
Director: Vincent Gallo
Track Record: Cannes competition; Toronto, FIPRESCI prize at Vienna
Lowdown: We've all heard the brouhaha that erupted after
Cannes with Gallo's road movie. (Not to mention the Roger Ebert cancer
threat thereafter). But since a trimmed version of "The Brown Bunny"
has shown at Toronto and other festivals, many reports have said that
it is -- at the least -- an intriguing film. Coming full circle from
the boos in Cannes, the film won the FIPRESCI prize in Vienna, where
the jury said should be commended for its "bold exploration of yearning
and grief and its radical departure from dominant tendencies in current
American filmmaking." Gallo fans should at least get the chance to
judge for themselves.
Director: Morten Tyldum
Track Record: audience awards in Karlovy Vary, Warsaw, and Haugesund;
screened at Montreal World, Helsinki, Ghent, London, AFI Los Angeles,
Lowdown: In this film, a twentysomething slacker named Kristoffer
sudden fame when his wacky home videos starring his loser friends
become a TV hit. The film bowled over the backpackers in Karlovy Vary,
and even though Kristoffer and pals are a little bit "Jackass," they
turned out to possess some emotional depth. "Buddy" is a crowd-pleaser
in the best sense of the phrase; this is a real charmer that has even
impressed many critics despite its commercial leanings.
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Track record: Venice, Thessaloniki, Rotterdam, AFI Film Festival.
Lowdown: Takeshi Kitano's "Dolls" is a gorgeous group of stories
love and loss. It hasn't gotten much attention because the gangster
stuff is at a minimum, and Beat himself does not make an appearance,
but it may be his best film, at least as good as "Sonatine."
"Fear and Trembling"
Director: Alain Corneau
Track Record: jury mention and best actress prize, Karlovy Vary; Hong
Kong International Film Festival.
Lowdown: "Fear and Trembling" is the tale of a young Belgian woman
works as a translator for a huge Tokyo corporation. Along with sharp
writing, the film is immensely helped by the surprisingly shrewd comic
talents of French actress Sylvie Testud. "Fear and Trembling" is like a
smarter, more surreal version of "Office Space" for the art-house
crowd. The culture clashes and humiliations that Testud suffers here
range from touching to hilarious (and sometimes both). Plus, there is a
priceless scene in which she calls herself the "Sisyphus of accounting"
and dances naked around the office before burying herself in trash.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Track Record: Sundance, Rotterdam, Karlovy Vary, Edinburgh, Helsinki,
Lowdown: Danish newcomer Nicolas Winding Refn's mesmerizing thriller
"Fear X," which was written by Hubert Selbert Jr. ("Requiem for a
Dream") and stars John Turturro as a mall security guard obsessed with
his wife's murder, combines surreal Lynchian red rooms, Cronenbergian
video feeds, and an ominous Middle American milieu into one strange,
shocking, and suspenseful head-trip.
Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Track Record: FIPRESCI jury prize, Thessaloniki documentary festival;
spirit of Freedom award at Jerusalem Film Festival; Human Rights Watch
Lowdown: This documentary like no other cuts through the stereotypes
many of us carry about Palestinians. As a young driver, who deals in
contraband, carries his passengers from one Israeli roadblock to the
other, we're exposed to a whole array of personas. Some riders argue
for suicide bombings; many against. Some see Israel as much a victim as
they are of world craziness. Others are much less charitable. Funny,
gripping, and angst-producing, this one is a must-see.
Director: Ron Mann
Track Record: runner-up for audience award in Toronto; SXSW, Hawaii
International Film Festival.
Lowdown: Ron Mann's Toronto-winning irreverent and unabashedly
congratulatory portrait of Woody Harrelson's bio-fueled bus tour,
preaching the ways of raw food eating and environmentalism, has
transformed many people's ways of thinking. Pus and blood, be damned,
some of us have become devout believers and consumers of organic milk.
"Goodbye Dragon Inn"
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Track Record: Venice, FIPRESCI prize; Toronto, New York, Vienna,
London Film Festival.
Lowdown: A gorgeous, rain-drenched, deadpan meditation on longing,
fittingly in a movie theater -- what better place to illustrate
people's desperate need for connections? Tsai Ming-liang's latest film
is not only one of the most beautiful of the year, but for cinephiles, the
"Good Morning, Night"
Director: Marco Bellocchio
Track Record: FIPRESCI prize at European Film Awards, four awards at
Venice Film Festival; screened in Toronto and Karlovy Vary.
Lowdown: A retelling of the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, rendered by
Bellocchio in stark shades of claustrophobia. A striking attempt to
reconcile the troubled history of Italy during the 1970s, it's even
more powerful if viewed as Bellocchio's reconsideration of the brimming
anarchy that fueled his own early films.
Director: Randy Nargi
Track Record: Played at Seattle International Film Festival, Calgary
International Film Festival, and awarded "best of fest" at Sarasota
Lowdown: Who ever thought a film about garage sales would be funny?
Following a group of garage sale junkies converging on a plush
"g-sale," the film is a mockumentary that is so clever it would make
Christopher Guest take notice. Though it was a crowd favorite at
festivals it never caught the eye of distributors.
"L'Histoire de Marie et Julien" (The Story of Marie and
Director: Jacques Rivette
Track record: Toronto, San Sebastian.
Lowdown: Jacques Rivette's dark, elegant ghost story, in which the
septuagenarian master boldly deconstructs our expectations of the genre
while musing wistfully on his sense of mortality. Emmanuelle Beart and
Jerzy Radziwilowicz perform brilliantly as the couple forever separated
by time, fate, and noir conspiracies.
Director: Carlos Sorin
Track record: several prizes at San Sebastian Film Festival;
Sundance, Karlovy Vary.
Lowdown: The old adage about horrid conditions as a breeding ground
creative juices rings true in veteran Argentinian director Carlos
Sorin's "Historias Minimas." Could the vast, empty spaces of Patagonia
in the south of the country be a metaphor for a more general void?
Anyway, the region is fascinating, and the paucity of people and
structures serves to foreground the three principal characters, each
with a story that is almost entirely separate from the others -- the
minimal stories of the title -- but do share Sorin and screenwriter
Pablo Solarz's deep sense of love and compassion.
"Jesus, Du Weist" (Jesus, You Know)
Director: Ulrich Seidl
Track Record: best documentary, Karlovy Vary; Vienna Film Award at
Vienna Film Festival, Locarno, Toronto.
Lowdown: Ulrich Seidl doesn't take the fly on the wall approach with
his documentaries -- instead this doc looks nearly stage directed. But
it reveals some shocking truths as it eavesdrops on Austrian people in
conversation with God. They reveal some shockingly personal, and not so
holy thoughts (like the woman who contemplates kidding her adulterous
husband). A unique topic presented in Seidl's unique style.
Director: Allan Mindel
Track Record: two awards at Seattle International Film Festival;
Slamdance, Young Critics Award in Cannes; Toronto, Karlovy Vary, London
Film Festival, Premiere magazine award in Deauville.
Lowdown: Mindel's quirky story features a standout performance from
Garity (also seen last year in "Soldier's Girl"). Set in the often bleak
environment of Milwaukee, the film follows the life of the young and naïve,
mentally disabled Albert (played by Garity).
"The Movie Hero"
Director: Brad Gottfred
Track Record: Won best feature at Tambay Film & Video Fest, Rhode
Island International Film Festival, Austin Film Festival; best actor at
Cinequest Film Festival.
Lowdown: The world's a stage for Blake (Jeremy Sisto), the leading
in the movie that is his life. He's convinced his daily day existence
is really a movie, so everyone -- including his girlfriend -- cast him
off as a wacko. But before the day's up Blake catches the bad guy (a
swarthy character he follows on Hollywood Boulevard) and gets the girl
(his therapist), in his own mind at least.
Director: Rodrigo Bellott
Track Record: Locarno Festival's FIPRESCI prize; screened in Cannes
Toronto and AFI Los Angeles.
Lowdown: This provocative and honest look at teenage sexuality
five interconnected stories of three teens in Bolivia and two in the
United States. Using DV and split screens, the film's look mirrors its
edgy topic. Director Bellott is only 25, so we're expecting many more
great things from him. This film is Bolivia's submission for the
Director: Jesse Moss
Track Record: jury prize, Newport Film Festival; Grand jury prize at
Boston Independent Film Festival; audience award, Full Frame; audience
award for best Long Island Film at Hamptons International FIlm
Festival; screened at SXSW, Atlantic Film Festival, SilverDocs, Gen
Art, Florida Film Festival.
Lowdown: With this film, Moss (a former indieWIRE contributor)
drove head on into the strange world of the demolition
derby, following our hero Ed "Speedo" Jager, an auto mechanic and
fairly successful derby driver with a charming penchant for
self-promotion. Thanks to Speedo's rapid-fire storytelling and the
film's expert pacing (not to mention the killer tunes), even someone
with zero interest in the demolition derby can get engrossed quickly.
Director: Laura Gabbert
Track Record: best documentary audience award, IFP LA Film Festival;
jury award in Tribeca; screened at SilverDOCS.
Lowdown: This documentary feature about two residents of the Sunset
Hall retirement home for political progressives was a surprise and a
delight at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year.
Director: Gyorgy Sjomjas
Track Record: Berlin, Karlovy Vary, Sarajevo, Seattle,
Lowdown: Gangs of undisciplined youth in the old Soviet Empire are a
product of the economic fallout of the movement from centralized
socialism to an uncertain capitalism has created many types of
no-hopers. Szomjas gives them a lyrical narrative in which to play out
their anger, their drunkenness, their fistfights, their burglaries:
It's as if he's applied Bressonian views on the human condition to the
state of their existence. The young people here practice rural folk
dances in "dance halls," where performance is as much a celebration of
folk heritage as pockets of beauty in a gray milieu.
Honorable mentions: Ryan Eslinger's "Madness & Genius,"
"Pretend," Hong Sang-Soo's "Turning Gate," Wang
Bing's "Tie Xi
District: West of the Tracks," Aleksei Balabanov's "Vojna"
Jerome Bonnell's "Olga's Chignon," John Hulme's
In addition to indieWIRE editors Wendy Mitchell and Eugene Hernandez,
indieWIRE contributors Howard Feinstein, Scott Foundas, Jason
Guerrasio, Adam Hart, Brandon Judell, Anthony Kaufman, Jonny Leahan,
and Nick Poppy contributed to this article.