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.
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.
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.
“The Dance of Reality”
In the opening minutes of “The Dance of Reality,” cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first movie in 23 years, he appears onscreen reciting a poem that compares money to blood, Christ and Buddha, then equates death to consciousness and wealth. It’s that combination of evocative prose and bizarre associations that define the director’s appeal, which stretches back to the glory days of his midnight movie stardom with “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain.” While lacking their polished lunacy, “The Dance of Reality” maintains the gonzo spirit of its creator, virtually emerging directly from his psyche.
The movie finds Jodorowsky reteaming with French producer Michel Seydoux, with whom the director collaborated on a famously ambitious, uncompleted adaptation of “Dune” (a story told in the documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” premiering at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight section alongside the new work). In contrast to that costly endeavor, “The Dance of Reality” is a noticeably small, unapologetically messy, diary-like ode to his upbringing. Jodorowsky adapts his memoir of the same name in addition to elements of another book, “The Boy of Black Wednesday,” in which he imagined a scenario that found his father scheming to kill Chilean president Carlos Ibañez del Campo as part of a communist plot. Meanwhile, the real-life Jodorowsky (now in his eighties), hovers in and out of various scenes draped in black to guide them along. In this regard, one gets the sense of the director guiding audiences through this chaotic world, never letting it drift too far from his personal connection. More than a return to form, “The Dance of Reality” deepens its possibilities without sacrificing the macabre freakishness coursing through the director’s work — and that’s the prime reason for celebrating its continuation.
To some extent, Korean director Hong Sang-soo remakes the same movie each time out, with slight variations in character and tone, which means you either roll with his style or reject it outright. In most cases, Hong’s movies contain minor plots involving a handful of neurotic characters, usually one of whom is a filmmaker; much of the exposition involves ample drinking and commiserating among romantic loners and old friends. Endless chatter drives everything. But within those constraints, Hong often strikes a nuanced tone pitched between philosophical intrigue and angst-riddled comedy, with some results more refined than others.
There are many variations on the Hong formula. In the past five years, he has completed eight features, including two that have premiered this year alone: Following the Berlin Film Festival entry “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon,” Hong has unveiled “Our Sunhi,” his most enjoyable work since “In Another Country” — at least for those who respond to the director’s restrained approach. Yet it’s also distinctly charming and funny, providing an ideal access point for those unacquainted with his other work.
Hong takes little time putting the basic pieces in place. Recent film school grad Sunhi (Jung Yumi) decides she wants to do post-graduate work in the U.S. before turning her attention to movies and asks her old professor Donghyun (Kim Sangjoong) for a recommendation. Later, she runs into Munsu (Lee Sunkyun), an ex-boyfriend who has made a movie based on their romance. Within short order, both Donghyun and Munsu dispense advice to Sunhi to explain how her lack of ambition clashes with her intellect, a point underscored when Sunhi reads her recommendation from her old teacher and discovers that it’s rather mixed.
As usual, Hong’s camera generally just sits there and lets the scenario organically unfold, but the actors are especially lively and the dialogue fits together with puzzle-like finesse. Even as everyone around Sunhi has an agenda for her, she’s either too unmotivated or overwhelmed to choose one for herself. As usual with Hong, his subjects are stuck in a limbo of confusion that feels both strangely distant and, for the same reasons, true to life.
On March 29, 2012, as thousands of youth stormed the streets of Barcelona for a general strike against the nation’s austerity plans, Ludwig Minkus’ “Don Quixote” was performed at the Opera House. Filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky (“¡Vivan las Antipodas!”) threaded together these two seemingly unrelated events with a third: He sent 32 of his film students from his Master of Creative Documentary course at the Pompeu Fabra University to document the chaotic protests. The feature-length project assembled out of the extensive footage, titled “Demonstration,” has been cleverly set to excerpts of Minkus’ compositions, resulting in a ballet of moving images that simultaneously recounts the events while meditating on their significance.
The music lends a graceful quality to the chaos by playing against it with darkly ironic and often humorous results. Minkus’ score crescendos as police swarm toward unseemly groups, batons in hand, and fail to do much beyond stir things up even further; elsewhere, a helicopter playfully drifts in and out of an otherwise empty shot of the cloudless sky, as if mocking the authorities’ finicky response. Even if the gimmick runs its course before the movie’s end, it maintains the vitality of the music by showing how the protestors skillfully dance to their own tune.
“A Letter to Nelson Mandela”
With the very recent passing of Nelson Mandela and the biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” revving up for Oscar season with a recent White House screening, widespread veneration for South Africa’s iconic leader has arguably never been higher. The mythology surrounding Mandela has grown so sacrosanct that the measured approach to his failings in Khalo Matabane’s diary-like documentary “A Letter to Nelson Mandela” has almost radical connotations. However, far from issuing a subversive missive, Matabane manages a thoughtful analysis of Mandela’s monolithic legacy through the prism of growing up in its shadow as a child of the eighties. Expertly assembled with a mixture of authoritative talking heads and the filmmaker’s introspective first-person narration, “A Letter to Nelson Mandela” cannily deconstructs the messianic fervor surrounding its subject — and, by extension, others like him.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei might be restricted from leaving his country, but that hasn’t slowed down his output. A touching portrait of a strong-willed young woman with AIDS fighting the government for better care, “Stay Home!” is a noticeably subdued production in contrast to the blatant flag-waving found in his other media works. It’s center is Ximei, an ebullient young woman orphaned at an early age who spends her days living in a Chinese hostel and complaining about the limitations of her healthcare. Ai goes great lengths to establish the rhythms of Ximei’s seemingly ordinary life so that she never takes on symbolic value, instead rooting the socioeconomic problem in her personal experiences.
Gradually, it becomes clear that Ximei leads an oppressed existence. Like Ai, she’s stalked by the government at every corner, which only pushes her to complain louder, as she petitions the government for more affordable treatment and complains about the physical efforts she must invest in receiving it. While Ai has been the subject of several recent documentaries, as much as he makes an enticing figure of individual revolt, he’s even better at finding it elsewhere.
“The Rendezvous of Deja vu” (“La Fille du 14 Juillet”)
Plenty of contemporary movies are inspired by the French New Wave, but “The Rendezvous of Deja Vu,” which premiered at Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, feels like it was made during it. The caustically playful debut of Antonin Peretjatko takes the form of a charming road movie in which enterprising young Parisian Hector (Gregoire Tachnakian) pines for the affections of a young woman (Vimala Pons) while the duo launch on an ill-fated trip to the beach with some friends. Along the way, they encounter a series of absurd setbacks that lead to the movie’s main concern: high-minded slapstick humor and silly asides that never lack a heightened state of comedic inventiveness. With the police constantly on their tail (don’t ask), the group veers from one bizarre scenario to another, from a deranged dinner party to the sudden news that the government has decided to cut summer break short, which causes further chaos for everyone involved. Imagine Godard’s “Weekend” crossed with a Looney Tunes cartoon and you might start to get a sense for Peretjatko’s wacky aesthetic, which ranks among the best debut stories of the year. Forget “Movie 43”; this is wacky sketch comedy at its finest — and great filmmaking, to boot.