Every year, some faction of the film industry declares that the sky is falling, while another one shoots for the stratosphere. In 2018, Moviepass floundered and FilmStruck went kaput, but distributors continued to snatch up new titles on the festival circuit with some measure of success. From hot Sundance buys like “Sorry to Bother You” and “Searching” to late-in-the-year slate additions like “Vox Lux,” plenty of visionary storytelling that began the year without clear release plans found welcoming homes. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of new movies premiering at festivals throughout the year guarantees that plenty of highlights either slip through the cracks or scare off risk-adverse distributors.
To qualify for this list, a movie must have premiered within the calendar year, but not have secured any form of North American distribution, no matter how much it deserves otherwise. Memo to distributors: It’s not too late.
Oscar-winning director Orland von Einsiedel (“The White Helmets,” “Virunga”) has excelled at exploring international conflicts around the world, but this project has a far more intimate focus. The movie revolves around von Einsiedel and his family reeling from his brother’s suicide and hiking across the United Kingdom as they work through their collective devastation. Equal parts personal essay and group therapy session, “Evelyn” is also an effective window into exploring the reverberations of suicide and the capacity for a family to recover from immeasurable grief on a universal scale. —EK
Sales Contact: 30 West
9. “The Weekend”
Fresh off the success of her first studio film, the winning YA adaptation “Everything, Everything,” filmmaker Stella Meghie delivered another winner with this energetic and slim new rom-com. Bolstered by star Sasheer Zamata, who charms in a tricky role, Meghie’s amiable chamber piece ably balances prickly people and nutty situations to put a fresh spin on the genre. Zamata stars as Zadie, a fledgling stand-up comedian who dedicates most of her act to sharing mortifying details of her three-year-old breakout. Zadie is still not over it, and it’s easy to see why when we soon meet the object of her affection and obsession: long-time pal Bradford (Tone Bell), who is taking this “let’s stay friends” thing to wild new limits. Thanks to what amounts to a totally bonkers plan, Zadie, Bradford, and Bradford’s new lady Margo (DeWanda Wise) end up spending the weekend at Zadie’s own parents’ bed and breakfast, where their awkward peace is made even stranger by the arrival of lone guest Aubrey (Y’lan Noel). What unfolds isn’t predictable in the slightest, but funny, smart, and zippy as anything. As the rom-com genre stages a steady comeback (thanks to both studio offerings and a big push from Netflix), “The Weekend” offers a twist on the genre with a sparkly leading lady to match, an appealing package for any distributor eager to get back in the business of fun, flirty movies that appeal to everyone. —KE
Sales Contact: UTA/CAA
Argentine director Benjamin Naishtat has become one of Latin America’s most intriguing new voices. His first feature, “History of a Fear,” was an allegorical apocalyptic movie about the country’s deep-seated class issues; he followed that up with the equally suspenseful and strange “El Movimiento,” a black-and-white western that dealt with the nation’s history of oppression. “Rojo” is his most ambitious narrative to date, the ‘70s-set tale of a successful lawyer whose world begins to unravel after a testy exchange at a restaurant.
In the bizarre opening sequence, this awkward encounter takes a grim turn that involves one dead body and a couple forced to keep it a secret. But that’s just the starting point for the twisty noir to come, which also involves a shady real estate deal and one very nosy detective (the great Chilean actor Alfredo Castro) trying to make sense of it all. Not every loose end finds a clean resolution, but that’s sort of the point in this lush, at times dazzling period piece, as Naishtat chronicles a society steeped in obvious roads to corruption so often left unexplored. Though not to all tastes, it’s an impressive step up in scale for the director and the kind of movie that could help him uncover some new audiences intriguing by his enigmatic storytelling. —EK
Sales Contact: Luxbox
7. “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael”
Robert Garver’s portrait of Pauline Kael is the ideal introduction to the most significant American film critic of the 20th century, and long overdue. Years in the making, the movie provides a sweeping overview of Kael’s impact, how her riveting and often quite personal prose evoked both fervent admirers and terror among filmmakers in her crosshairs. The documentary balances testimonials from Kael’s peers with tributes from major directors such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, guaranteeing that anyone curious about Kael’s impact on film criticism will get the full picture, and fans of her work will gain a whole new perspective on her legacy. —EK
Sales Contact: Cinetic
6. “Ray & Liz”
Rob Baker Ashton
For years, photographer and visual artist Richard Billingham’s work has derived an autobiographical depth from the quasi-gothic photographs of his parents, a dysfunctional pair who raised their son in ’60s-era British poverty. For his mesmerizing debut, Billingham translates that project into a cinematic tapestry of dark, emotional storytelling with a series of vignettes. The movie tracks Billingham’s alcoholic father (Patrick Romer) and foul-mouthed, chain-smoking mother (Deirdre Kelly) as they endure a series of hardships and poor choices that tear the family apart. Billingham’s movie becomes a fascinating collection of memories in moving image form, some more unsettling than others, all in service of a poetic look at what it means to grow up in squalor and spend a lifetime reeling from it. While at times disturbing, “Ray & Liz” is also frequently beautiful, proving that even difficult moments can take on a profound lyrical depth with time. —EK
Sales Contact: Luxbox
Update: “Ray & Liz” has been acquired by Kimstim.
The last thing the world needs right now is another movie about a thirtysomething man whose existential crisis is solved by having sex with an 18-year-old girl, but leave it to the great Mia Hansen-Løve to mine grace, sensitivity, and tremendous nuance from such a nauseatingly familiar premise. An elliptical story of self-rediscovery and the strangers who can make it possible for us, “Maya” follows a withdrawn French war reporter named Gabriele (the handsome, bird-like Roman Kolinka) as he’s released from ISIS captivity, and retreats to his childhood home of Goa in order to center himself and rediscover his purpose. There in the coastal India state he meets the wide-eyed title character (first-time actor Aarshi Banerjee), and something instantly sparks between these two strangers — an adult who is retreating from the world, and a teenager who is just preparing to fling herself into it.
You can imagine what happens from there, but Hansen-Løve is less interested in the sexual element than she is in the context around it. The closer Maya and Gabriele come to each other, the more rootless they feel, and the more Goa reveals itself as a part of the world that’s unstuck in both time and tradition. There’s a stilted quality to this low-key love story, and not even the director’s cool mix of Indian and Euro pop soundtrack cues can settle it down into a comfortable groove. “Maya” is an off-kilter experience that never allows you to get settled, but it sinks deep under your skin because of how adamantly it refuses to get stuck in place. It may not be the best of Mia Hansen-Løve’s films, but it’s watchable and beguiling in a way that should delight audiences hungry for transportive international fare, or are champing at the bit for new work from the director of “Eden” and “Things to Come.” —DE
Sales Contact: Orange Studio
4. “American Dharma”
Errol Morris excels at interrogating morally complicated men, from Robert McNamara to Donald Rumsfeld, but he’s never ventured as far to the dark side as he does with “American Dharma.” Confronting Steve Bannon in a cold, empty room for the duration of this unsettling portrait, Morris presses the alt-right icon to justify the racist ideology behind the machinations that propelled Donald Trump to the White House.
Morris consolidates Bannon’s evolution from conservative media maverick to the architect of the Trump campaign into a slick overview. However, those details are less compelling than Morris’ tendencies to interrupt Bannon’s self-mythologizing in search of the truth. “American Dharma” delivers a suspenseful and upsetting showdown between one man confident of his cause and another mortified by it. At this divisive moment in the country’s history, it’s a welcome attempt to wrestle with alt-right lunacy and combat the extremist with a healthy dose of rational thought. Audiences may be wary about watching Steve Bannon talk for a feature-length period, but this movie may be the first real window into what it takes to talk back. —EK
Sales Contact: WME
3. “Happy New Year, Colin Burstead”
British director Ben Wheatley is known for twisty dark comedies enlivened by flourishes of violence, from the murdering couple of “Sightseers” to the slapstick feature-length shootout of “Free Fire.” With “Happy New Year, Colin Burstead,” Wheatley takes the mold of bumbling anti-heroes from his earlier works and positions them in a more familiar commercial context — a dysfunctional family gathering for the holidays. Structured around a busy New Year’s Eve party that goes wrong every which way, the movie evades specific twists in favor of hectic snapshots: The ever-reliable Neil Maskell (the conflicted murderer of Wheatley’s “Kill List”) stars as the eponymous Colin, who gathers multiple generations of his self-hating relatives to a posh castle for a seemingly well-intentioned reunion.
Instead, various festering rivalries and resentments immediately burst to the surface, all unfolding with Wheatley’s trademark naturalistic dialogue. The result is an Altamanesque cringe comedy by way of “The Celebration,” with Colin alternately trying to bring the family together and tell everyone off while his siblings (some more estranged than others) and neurotic parents attempt to make sense of the whole affair. The movie combines a glorious anarchistic streak with the genuine pathos of a broken family desperately to heal its many wounds.
Ironically, while “Happy New Year, Colin Burstead” is at once Wheatley’s warmest, most accessible work and the hardest sell to U.S. audiences introduced to his work through the more wackier genres he used to smuggle in sophisticated narrative techniques. The new work is a richer network of character studies closer in approach to the textured storytelling of German auteur Maren Ade than anything Wheatley has done before. Broadcast on BBC and available in the U.K. on the network’s streaming service, the movie deserves to be seen beyond the insular British market as it shows just how much Wheatley has evolved as a filmmaker while retaining his own delightful voice. —EK
Sales Contact: Goalpost Film
2. “Amazing Grace”
Aretha Franklin hardly says a word in “Amazing Grace,” but she sings with an energy and conviction that has powerful resonance nearly 50 years later. As a record of the church music from Franklin’s youth, cascading off the walls of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, “Amazing Grace” is soulful ear candy. But Franklin’s sweaty, impassioned delivery, which galvanizes her audiences with an electric charge, extends her awe-inspiring musical convictions beyond religious euphoria. It’s a rousing portrait of creativity as a unifying force.
Left unfinished for decades due to technical glitches, the lively concert documentary on Franklin’s landmark 1972 gospel recording provides the full picture of her largest commercial hit in real time. The project was abandoned shortly after the production by director Sydney Pollack; in recent years, it was completed and restored, but Franklin’s estate blocked multiple attempts to screen it on the festival circuit. It’s ironic that Franklin had to die for “Amazing Grace” to finally reach audiences, because it consolidates the essence of her legacy into 87 minutes of pure celebration.
Sales Contact: WME
1. “Black Mother”
Khalik Allah’s 2015 breakout “Field Niggas” was a dreamlike assemblage of impoverished Harlem faces, drifting through the after hours in slo-mo set to their philosophical lamentations. His latest feature, “Black Mother,” is a challenging and profound deep-dive into Jamaican identity that rewards repeat viewings and confirms the aesthetic of a visionary filmmaker. As with “Field Niggas,” Allah’s approach has the immersive qualities of installation art, even as he stuffs a preponderance of evocative visuals into some semblance of narrative structure.
The three trimesters of a woman’s pregnancy provide a loose framing device as Allah careens through an 87-minute collage of Jamaican faces from multiple generations, as voiceovers share tidbits of history, racial struggles, and personal philosophies, fusing them together with spiritual fervor. There’s almost no music on the soundtrack, but the meandering testimonies take on a rhythm of their own — it’s oral history as art, and at a moment where filmmakers are clamoring for better representation onscreen, it’s a no-brainer that this dazzling cinematic poetry deserves an audience. —EK
Sales contact: Khalikallah@