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Memo to Distributors: Buy These 2021 Fall Film Festival Standouts

The bulk of the fall festival season has come to a close, but some of the most exciting films to hit the circuit are still looking for homes. Buy 'em while you can!

As the New York Film Festival wrapped late last weekend, the bulk of the fall film festival season has now come to a close after a dizzying few weeks that saw Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York, and the more genre-leaning Fantastic Fest roll out in somewhat normal fashion. While some of this year’s festival lineups were understandably truncated (most notably, TIFF) and some of the buzziest titles arrived at events with distribution already in hand (as was the case with many of the biggest titles at Venice and NYFF), a number of hot titles are still looking for homes.

These films include some of IndieWire’s favorites from the past few weeks, including both new and established talents, exciting features for distributors looking for awards contenders or simply to get into biz with bright talents on the rise (or, why not both?), and much more. Open up those pocketbooks, and take a chance on these standouts.

Jude Dry and Siddhant Adlakha also contributed to this article.

“A Night of Knowing Nothing”

A dreamlike documentary that magnifies the personal until it reveals a lucid political collage, Payal Kapadia’s feature debut “A Night of Knowing Nothing” is composed of archival footage, student chronicles of contemporary protests, and letters whispered aloud to an absent lover. Co-written by Kapadia and Himanshu Prajapati, its fictitious framing device — a box discovered in a room at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), containing lost film reels and a diary written by a student known only as “L” — creates several floating layers of dramatic reality, which gently fall atop each other to create a vivid portrait of revolt and oppression, love and pain, and philosophical thought threatened by nationalist agenda.

The central thesis of this New York Film Festival Currents selection can be boiled down to a single question: What is the purpose of a university in modern India? However, its approach to this seemingly simple idea is boldly multifaceted, from its ghostly depiction of young love that blossoms in the absence of parents (and curdles when they re-enter the picture), to its exploration of the modern Indian film school — using decades-old student reels to create an artistic continuum — to the vital role of the student protest within India’s political milieu, and its self-reflexive goal of using socialized education to level the playing field. “A Night of Knowing Nothing” hits on a much deeper emotional level than its niche subject might suggest, and any enterprising streamer would be lucky to carry one of the most fluid and exciting non-fiction movies of the year. —SA

Sales contact: Square Eyes

“Benediction”

“Benediction”

With “Benediction” — another spectacular and terribly sad biopic about a poet cursed with the ability to express a private agony they could never escape — Terence Davies has once again made a film that feels like the work of someone flaying their soul onscreen. In “A Quiet Passion,” it was Emily Dickinson who provided the prism through which Davies could refract his own wants and wounds, and here it’s the English poet Siegfried Sassoon, an openly but self-loathingly gay WWI hero who became famous for his eventual protest against the war only to spend the rest of his life seeking a peace of his own. Davies’ wounded yet delightfully acid-tongued distillation of Sassoon’s life trembles with desire for the absolution that Sassoon never finds, and the urgency of that search becomes so palpable that it seems to bleed through the screen.

Each playing Sassoon at different ages, Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi lead an excellent cast that locates the heartbeat of this story even during its more dolorous moments, with “War Horse” star Jeremy Irvine emerging as a particular standout for his cattily incorrigible take on the Welsh entertainer Ivor Novello. One meme-worthy performance won’t be enough to make “Benediction” a surprise hit, but Davies has never been much of a box office draw; specialty distributors invest in his work because it stands the test of time, grows invaluable to their libraries, and makes the entire filmic ecosystem richer in the process. Boutique outfits like Music Box Films have recognized that upshot in recent years, and we strongly encourage a distributor in that category to do so again. —DE

Sales contact: Bankside Films

“Bitterbrush”

With her second documentary feature following “After the Curtain,” filmmaker Emelie Mahdavian tracks the experiences of two female cowhands (the term “cowgirl” is especially antiquated in this context) as they work on a remote Idaho ranch during its off-season. An entrancing non-fiction study of hardened femininity and companionship, “Bitterbrush” deconstructs popular Western tropes and all the masculinity they offer up by simply hanging with its two protagonists as they go through a lovely routine of outdoor rituals and dinner talk.

The filmmaker poeticizes her subject’s experiences by setting them to Bach, and they come across as shrewd, sensitive caretakers. While “The Power of the Dog” may be lighting up the festival circuit with talk of Western revisionism, Jane Campion is not alone: “Bitterbrush” is an absorbing big-screen achievement that still manages to convey a striking degree of intimacy, and a savvy distributor would recognize just how well this movie could resonate among cinephiles and cowhands alike. —EK

Sales contact: Cinetic

Dashcam horror blumhouse

“Dashcam”

Blumhouse

“Dashcam”

This wildly unhinged cinematic invention from Blumhouse and “Host” director Rob Savage, “Dashcam” is a rollicking chimera of cringe comedy and cringe horror — cringe horror comedy, if you will. Because if the sight of a mouth-stapled zombie shitting herself doesn’t make you cover your eyes in disgust, perhaps a Covid-denying, MAGA-loving, rapping white girl will. Anchored around the uncomfortably charismatic Annie Harding (playing a heightened version of herself), “Dashcam” has not only created a character far more terrifying than any mythical monster, but has totally rewritten the rules for the ever elusive “unlikable woman.” It’s also one of the most incisive films about the pandemic to come out yet, without being overly didactic about it.

Shot in shaky “Blair Witch” style with an innovative setup like “Searching,” the movie is framed around Annie’s livestream musical show, with rolling commentary from the anonymous army of libertarian/anti-vax trolls who follow her. When non-verbal zombie she picks up starts vomiting all over her, the allegories to the coronavirus, and Annie’s denial of it, become bloody clear. Rather than hit you over the head with the parallels, however, “Dashcam” uses the specter of the pandemic as its own terrifying funhouse mirror. Annie personifies our unexpected pandemic terrors — the selfish conspiracy theorists who turned out to be just as scary as the virus itself.

As he did with his wildly successful Shudder film “Host,” Savage boasts a canny ability to tap into the darkest corners of the zeitgeist while producing genuinely entertaining and chilling horror. Equal parts confounding, challenging, and insanely fun, “Dashcam” is horror at its most inventive. A fearless distributor, one who’s not afraid of a little controversy, could get it for a steal.—JD
Sales contact: WME

“Dug Dug”

The first feature from Indian director Ritwik Pareek is a genuine discovery: A dazzling and strange odyssey about the nature of modern-day religion and its roots hearsay, “Dug Dug” revolves around the unpredictable outcome of a motorcycle accident in the middle of the desert. When the bike keeps showing up in the same location even after it’s locked up as evidence, the surrounding community decides to hail it as a god, building a shrine to surround the vehicle. With time, those efforts expand to a full-blown temple, with an accompanying prophet, media attention, cult-like adoration.

Set to a funky soundtrack and edited with constant, pulsating momentum, “Dug Dug” suggests what might happen if French cinematic prankster Quentin Dupieux (“Rubber,” “Wrong”) took on more spiritual themes. At the same time, Pareek’s vibrant satire grows more soulful as it moves along, exploring how religion can fit its way into a society in need of uplift to the point where it doesn’t want to know the truth. A cult classic in waiting, “Dug Dug” deserves a genre-savvy distributor capable of bringing the movie to committed cinephiles eager to embrace a fresh vision from a filmmaker who will be worth tracking for years to come. —EK

Sales contact: UTA

“Earwig”

French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic follows up her expressionistic horror effort “Evolution” with another transgressive coming-of-age story about a child trapped in most unusual circumstances. In this case, the story — co-written by “High Life” scribe Geoff Cox — revolves around the efforts of a mysterious man (Paul Hilton) who cares for a 10-year-old girl (Romane Hemelaers) with ice cubes for teeth. Equal parts Hammer Horror and David Lynch, the ensuing odyssey finds the pair venturing into the eerie countryside as the girl may or may not face the looming opportunity to leave her confinement for good.

But where could she go? “Earwig” is dominated by ominous, dreamlike rhythms and an alien world in which nothing is certain other than the extraordinary tonal immersion of the director’s audiovisual design. Like British director Peter Strickland, Hadzihalilovic excels at utilizing horror tropes to explore deeper emotional truths. To that end, “Earwig” is a remarkable immersion into the scary and at times inexplicable process of growing up, physically and otherwise, and it’s the kind of bold cinematic gamble that invites much post-screening conversation. A wise distributor would find a home for the movie where its cult status and debate-worthy twists would keep unfurling indefinitely. —EK

Sales contact: CAA

“The Hill Where Lionesses Roar”

Cannes

“The Hill Where Lionesses Roar”

2019 was a banner year for rising star Luàna Bajrami: the Kosovo-born French actress and filmmaker was lauded for her scene-stealing turn as a young maid in Céline Sciamma’s luminous “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” was nominated for Most Promising Actress at the César Awards, and wrapped production on her directorial debut, the intimate coming-of-age drama “The Hill Where Lionesses Roar” — all by the time she was 18. Not too shabby!

Neither is “Lionesses,” which will likely inspire comparisons to everything from Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s “Mustang” (a country setting, an indifferent society, young women desperate to break free) to Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” (deep ennui, an unsettling tremor of what’s to come, a real sense of how to film the bonds between women), all of which hints at a big career to come for Bajrami, on whichever side of the camera she chooses. Any first-time filmmaking tics are largely forgivable: Bajrami, who also wrote the script, tends to both obscure major events and bolster moments that needed more development. For better and worse, the most pleasurable moments in “Lionesses” are the unexpected ones.

The film premiered at Cannes earlier this year, but has enjoyed other festival berths, including a turn at TIFF. Hopefully, those new-ish premieres will put it back on domestic distributors’ minds, because getting into biz with Bajrmami now is the kind of gamble any forward-thinking boutique outfit should take ASAP. She’s a star, but that doesn’t mean anyone needs to wait for what she’s doing next. “Lionesses” is already something worth roaring about, and right now. —KE

Sales contact: Loco Films

“Marcel the Shell with the Shoes On”

A surprise treat at this year’s Telluride Film Festival, Dean Fleischer-Camp’s charming “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” feature-length film was billed by this writer as “the cutest film about familial grief you’ll see all year, perhaps ever.” It’s that, and more, and any distributor looking for a crowd-pleasing, totally out of the box (out of the shell?) contender for the year’s animated laurels would do well to snap this one up ASAP.

Like the trio of early short films Fleischer-Camp and co-writer (and voice of Marcel) Jenny Slate crafted around the stop-motion shell in the early aughts (plus a pair of best-selling storybooks), “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” adopts a breezy mockumentary style to tell the tale of the world’s most charming shell. This time, however, the duo (plus newbie partner Nick Paley, who wrote it alongside Fleischer-Camp and Slate) dig deeper into Marcel’s seemingly everyday life to unearth the usual tender feelings (he’s a tween shell! with shoes! he’s adorable!), plus a slew of insights that speak to far deeper emotions and ideas. In a time beset with films consumed by questions of connection, community, and change, “Marcel the Shell” seamlessly marries big ideas with charm and humor (and inventive stop-motion work to boot). —KE

Sales contact: Deb McIntosh at Endeavor ContentNick Ogiony at CAA

“Saloum”

A delirious African spin on bait-and-switch B-movies in the vein of “From Dusk Till Dawn” — but also a film that feels the hurt of Senegal’s deepest wounds, no matter how silly it gets — Jean Luc Herbulot’s “Saloum” begins as a semi-ironic espionage thriller set in the aftermath of Guinea-Bissau’s 2003 coup d’etat, only to switch gears into something completely different after its three mercenary heroes are forced to crash their getaway plane in the middle of the remote delta that lends this story its title. There, in the “land of myths and cursed kings,” the boys try to lie low for a few days at a super chill resort that asks guests to pay with domestic chores instead of money. It sounds like a great deal, but, uh… the local villagers are kind of weird, right? And why do people keep talking about dark spirits who “devour your senses one by one until your body no longer belongs to you?”

The answers to those questions are best discovered for yourself, but it’s safe to say that Herbulot is heading towards the supernatural in a big way that belies his tiny budget. From its giddy premise, “Saloum” mixes Senegalese folklore and African-Caribbean mysticism into a survival-horror movie that’s bent towards revenge against the all too human evils at the heart of its fuzzy monsters. The direction is lithe, the plot unpredictable, and the characters — particularly a dreadlocked Voodoo shaman played by Mentor Ba — are so much fun that you want them all to survive (don’t hold your breath). It amounts to a relentlessly fun genre mash-up that stands out from the usual crop of low-budget bloodfests in every possible way, and a smart distributor could leverage that into a word-of-mouth success in the wake of a festival run that ran the gamut from Austin to Venice. —DE

Sales contact: Elle Driver (sales@elledriver.eu)

“She Will”

Aging film star Veronica Ghent (a snippy, delightful Alice Krige) may be recovering from a double mastectomy, but the actress — famous for the controversially sexual role she played as a 13-year-old girl in a movie called “Navajo Frontier” — still has all sorts of things to get off her chest. Charlotte Colbert’s menacing yet strangely upbeat “She Will” begins with Veronica being accompanied to a remote Scottish health retreat by her beautiful young nurse (Kota Eberhardt), but the healing that follows is of a more spiritual kind than you might imagine. In part, that’s because the wilting flower child who runs the place (a very fun Rupert Everett) is into new age cures for ancient problems. And in part it’s also because the director of “Navajo Frontier” (Malcolm McDowell channeling Roman Polanski) is in the process of casting a fresh-faced innocent to play Alice’s role in the remake.

For Alice, it’s a perfect storm of personal anxieties, as the source of her greatest sexual trauma resurfaces at the same time as, to her mind, she’s been deprived of her femininity. Toss that all together with a thick giallo vibe and it’s already more than enough to make “She Will” an unusually evocative psychodrama, but when you stir witch-burnings into the mix, well, that’s when things get really interesting. Splitting the difference between “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “The Duke of Burgundy” (among other things), Colbert’s debut is catnip for fans of occult-tinged character studies, and should play as well to genre fiends as it does to a more general audience. A distributor like IFC Midnight that knows how to bridge the gap between those crowds shouldn’t miss the chance to get in on the ground floor of a potentially major new filmmaker. —DE

Sales contact: Rocket Science

“True Things”

“True Things”

Another strong addition to the growing sub-genre of stories about people so desperate for a little danger in their lives that they decide to get romantically and/or creatively involved with Tom Burke despite the fact that he’s a walking red flag six feet tall who would sooner self-destruct than return anyone’s emotional investment (previous entries include “The Souvenir,” “The Crown,” and “Mank”), Harry Wootliff’s “True Things” is a movie that starts with a woman surrendering to fantasy, and then slowly unravels as she tunnels her way towards freedom. It’s the Burke Effect in action: His devil may care darkness stains everything it touches, but it’s tempered with a lightness that helps people find their way to the other side.

So while every part of you might want to shout at a listless Ramsgate government clerk (a phenomenal Ruth Wilson) to run in the opposite direction of the dyed blond ex-con who slurs into her cubicle one gray afternoon like a “Good Time” cos-player gone too far, people familiar with the ghosts of Burkes past might be more willing to watch Kate make a mess of things. We’ve seen how a guy like him can erase the women he promises to make whole, and we’ve seen how those same women can redraw themselves by their own hand in the blank space that he leaves behind.

Wootliff’s tactile but woozy adaptation of Deborah Kay Davies’ novel makes time for both of those scenarios, with “True Things” gradually moving into “Morvern Callar” territory as Kate’s desolation gradually thaws into something new. This bad romance may be too elemental or implosive to become a bonafide indie hit, but it’s the kind of raw storytelling that sticks to your bones, and both of the film’s lead performances will linger with anyone who catches a glimpse of them. A nimble, quality-forward distributor like MUBI would be well-positioned to introduce “True Things” to the people who should appreciate it most. —DE

Sales contact: The Bureau

“Zalava”

The scariest part about writer/director Arsalan Amiri’s Iranian Revolution horror movie “Zalava” is an invisible, potentially demonic force housed inside a glass jar (the “Prince of Darkness” vibes are strong with this one). Whether or not what’s in there is actually a demon remains ambiguous in the film’s economic screenplay, as the real threat here is the violent aura of persecution plaguing the small, eponymous village nestled in the mountains of Kurdistan, and the real curse that it causes is the paranoia of one’s own neighbor raining down fire on the community.

While this 1978-set horror movie isn’t exactly scary, it conjures a thick atmosphere of dread once a shaman arrives with a supposed cure and the locals begin bloodletting each other in an effort to perform amateur exorcisms. “Zalava” might speak to a particular moment from Iran’s past, but its atmosphere of hysteria — and the tension that it allows to simmer under every scene — speaks to the current moment in a universal tongue. If the movie never quite takes off as a terrifying genre piece, Amiri’s attempt to exorcise his own demons is admirable, engaging, and ready to connect with a wide audience of streaming viewers who might recognize some of the movie’s disquiet as their own. —RL

Sales contact: LevelK (debra@levelk.dk)

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