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The Best Undistributed Films of 2019

While some movies struggled at the box office and others became surprise hits, these gems of the festival circuit still need homes.

“Lux Aeterna,” “Tito,” “Alice”

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Despite the existential anxiety surrounding the future of the theatrical experience, 2019 kept buyers busy. While Amazon’s big paychecks for “Late Night” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon” out of Sundnace didn’t exactly yield commercial hits, they started the year off with evidence of an active buyers market dominated by unpredictability — and plenty of more promising results. Sundance also found A24 nabbing “The Farewell” and Neon taking Grand Prize-winner “Clemency”; the company also picked up “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” out of Cannes following a fierce bidding war. At TIFF, HBO flexed some muscle with a shocking $20 million deal for TV-only rights to the Hugh Jackman cheating scandal saga “Bad Education.”

Whatever next year brings — new streaming platforms with their own eager acquisition teams, and stalwarts eager to remind the world they still exist — it’s clear that plenty of entities remain invested in the fight to get good movies out into the world and seen.

But nobody’s perfect. The festival circuit is filled with hidden gems and adventurous work that often scares off risk-averse buyers, if it rises to their awareness at all in the first place. Every year, IndieWire keeps tabs on the best undistributed movies of the year with a recurring “Memo to Distributors” feature. Sometimes, buyers take note, but there are always a few stragglers still in need of a home. Here are this year’s crop of titles still searching for U.S. distribution. Fingers crossed they don’t stay that way for long.

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10. “Alice”

The opening minutes of “Alice” make the case for Emilie Piponnier to be a movie star, and the rest of the movie keeps it up. As the eponymous centerpiece of the 2019 SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner, Piponnier dominates every frame, with a mesmerizing screen presence that pushes the drama well beyond its formulaic premise and visible microbudget constraints. Nevertheless, French director Josephine Mackerras’ understated debut operates on the same intimate wavelength as Piponnier’s simmering desperation — and, eventually, her newfound sense of pride — as a woman who becomes a sex worker to support her child. That premise may not change the world, but “Alice” succeeds as a sturdy window into one woman’s quest to take control of her oppressive world. If a festival breakout narrative counts for anything, it should advance the careers of the women on both sides of the camera. —EK

Sales Contact: Visit Films

9. “Pahokee”

A lush fly-on-the-wall look at small-town life in South Florida, directors Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan’s vivid documentary chronicles a year in the life of four high school students as they anticipate graduation and contemplate a college life beyond the limits of their surroundings. The subjects range from a cheerleader to an academically-talented Mexican immigrant, and with none of them especially privileged, their quest grows infectious through this absorbing movie’s subtle progression.

“Pahokee” is the kind of layered non-fiction experiment that sneaks up on you. It makes no grand gestures or bold formalist swings, yet it funnels a vivid snapshot of class and race into poetic tidbits of coming-of-age insight. Woven together around a series of tense football showdowns, “Pahokee” turns the notion of the high-school movie inside out, mining for poignance in overarching desire to find meaning in a world as it slowly reveals its appeal. It might not make bank at the multiplexes, but this touching non-fiction achievement deserves a young audience eager to see their experiences represented onscreen. —EK

Sales Contact: Maida@genuinearticlepix.com

8. “Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street”

One of the most entertaining documentaries of the year uncovers the surprisingly moving story of Mark Patton, an actor who fled Hollywood at the height of his career under threat of being outed as gay. Patton starred in the infamously queer-coded “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” a bomb that was later reclaimed by gay horror fans. As an aspiring closeted actor trying to make it at the height of the AIDS epidemic, however, Patton felt betrayed and misled by the film’s director and writer. 30 years later, he’s embraced his cult status, but he hasn’t forgiven.

The film takes a hard look at the homophobia that once pervaded Hollywood, the history of subtextually queer film, the price of fame, as well as a moving chapter on the AIDS crisis, then and now. Patton is a charming and thoughtful subject, one whose life has taken many fascinating turns. The popularity of the original film and the pulpy subject matter should make this one an easy sell. —JD

7. “I Am Woman”

There are a handful of tropes that seem to inevitably spell disaster for any biopic: the character who coughs a lot (and nobody notices) and the character who sniffs a lot of coke (and everyone ignores). Unjoo Moon’s fact based-accounting of singer Helen Reddy’s life — titled “I Am Woman,” after both her biggest hit and her essential ethos — is beholden to such cliches, but the sheer star power of breakout leading actress Tilda Cobham-Hervey, combined with the movie-ready career path of Reddy and Moon’s clear respect for her, set it a cut above other genre entries.

I Am Woman

“I Am Woman”

TIFF

Respiratory-based ailments are anathema for big star biopics, but nothing is more forgiving than a wallop of a leading performance and a story that has long needed to be told. For every mild misstep the film makes, Moon and Cobham-Hervey offer essential corrections. Reddy’s rise to stardom seems tailor-made for the big screen, from her humble beginnings to her smashing success, but the details of her ascent feel particularly timely, from skeezy execs who wanted to dim her shine to her eventual adoption by the feminist movement for her empowering anthems. The result is a rousing, often tear-soaked crowdpleaser about a woman deserving of the most affectionate of feature-film treatments. —KE

Sales Contact: WestEnd Films

6. “Porno”

Keola Racela’s feature film debut is a riotously funny horror comedy about a group of teens fighting a sex demon living inside their local movie theater. Racela guides the action with a self-assured hand, pacing the action at a steady clip and eliciting convincing performances from the cast of mostly newcomers. The director edited the movie as well; a few well-timed sharp camera turns easily establish the film’s comedic style.

The result is a gory teen comedy that blends outrageous carnage with a legitimately scary plot to delightful ends. Throw in a winking fetish for cinephile culture, and audiences are sure to go wild for the gutsy film. With horror’s seemingly endless popularity, any distributor would be smart to snatch this one up. —JD

Sales Contact: Cinetic

5. “Tito”

Director Grace Glowicki’s unique feature-length debut is one of the most exciting entries in SXSW’s always-compelling Visions section, which has launched everything from “Uncle Kent 2” to Joel Potrykus’ “Relaxer.” With “Tito,” Glowicki stars as an introverted man — you read that right — terrified to leave his house, at least until he encounters a friendly neighbor (Ben Petrie) willing to coax the character out of his shell. Opening with post-apocalyptic dread before it evolves into a buddy movie until a jolting experiential twist in its final act, “Tito” is the sort of visionary work that film festival audiences deserve to discover on the ground, and bodes well for the career of a filmmaker willing to tackle complex themes (gender identity and social biases both come into play) with a singular voice. —EK

Sales Contact: Visit Films

UPDATE: “Tito” has been sold to Factory 25.

4. “My Zoe”

While Julie Delpy’s directorial output thus far has mostly consisted of fizzy rom-coms like her “Two Days” features and the odd historical drama (“The Countess”), “My Zoe” finds the filmmaker and star moving fast into fresh territory. One part domestic drama, one part medical mystery, “My Zoe” subtly spins those two acts into its final segment: a contemporary thriller with morals and medicine on its mind. Framed around Delpy the actress as Isabelle, a mother willing to do anything to get the custody arrangement she wants with her beloved young daughter (the Zoe of the title), Delpy the filmmaker stretches that “do anything” spirit to nutty ends. Yet Delpy’s ability to believe in both her audience and her wild story remains compelling throughout the film, even as it careens through tropes and tricks and genres with increasingly off-kilter speed.

The competing genres of each act ultimately help push forward each other, and Delpy earns every minute of the story, one that shows off her ability (and desire) mix things up with a fresh eye. Distributors that do well with genre content have the potential to play off that strength with this original application of familiar tropes. —KE

Sales Contact: CAA

3. “The Vigil”

Jewish superstition has been riddled with dybbuks and golems for centuries, but horror movies haven’t wised up to it nearly enough. “The Vigil” is proof that Bible-thumping priests and haunted convents can’t have all the spooky fun. In director Keith Thomas’s eerie first feature, a young man estranged from the Orthodox Jewish community of Borough Park, Brooklyn, agrees to fulfill the duties of a “shomer,” the ritualistic practice of looking after a dead body over the course of one night. Desperate for rent money, he agrees, unwittingly signing up for a long night with a possessed corpse.

the vigil

“The Vigil”

TIFF

The ensuing mayhem relies on the usual preponderance of jump scares, but Thomas combines those moments with aplomb and surprising thematic depth. Set almost exclusively within the confines of the shadowy home, “The Vigil” suggests the potential for a new angle on “The Conjuring” universe via Jewish guilt and Holocaust trauma. And if “Conjuring” owner Warner Bros. doesn’t ingest its lore, Thomas has ample potential for a new franchise of his own. —EK

Sales Contact: CAA

2. “Lux Aeterna”

The insuppressible Gaspar Noé took a gig to make a 15-minute Yves Saint Laurent ad and turned it into a freewheeling, neon-drenched 50-minute exploration of the filmmaking process that scored a Cannes midnight slot earlier this year. Béatrice Dalle is hilarious in the lead role as a version of herself, making her directorial debut on a film shoot that keeps going very wrong. Charlotte Gainsbourg (also playing herself) is tasked with acting in a post-modern tale of witchcraft, but Noé’s rapid-fire narrative has a lot more on his mind than this straightforward plot.

The movie regularly cuts away to text-based musings on the filmmaking process, and climaxes with an unnerving 10 minutes of stereoscopics. But despite its visceral provocations, “Lux Æterna” always shows the mark of a filmmaker in control of his outlandish material, and the movie manages to deliver its outrageous twists with a consistent fixation on the chaos of the creative process. An adventurous distributor could propel this unclassifiable shot of cinematic inspiration to a successful launch on VOD, but rumor has it that Noé has more footage for “Lux Æterna” and could actually transform it into a more traditional feature-length achievement — which would make it a terrific candidate for word-of-mouth success. In any case, Noé is a singular film artist whose work deserves an audience. —EK

Sales Contact: Wild Bunch

1. “South Mountain”

South Mountain

“South Mountain”

SXSW

Director Hilary Brougher’s first film since 2006’s “Stephanie Daley” is a tender, intimate, and blatantly personal work about Catskills resident and community college teacher Lila (Talia Balsam in a stunning turn), whose stable life is thrown into upheaval when her husband (Scott Cohen) confesses that he has had a child with another woman. The poetic fallout finds Lila exploring a romance with a younger man, plotting revenge on her husband, and roaming the astonishing natural scenery in her suddenly vacant home, as she comes to grips with an unexpected new stage of life when she least expected it.

This wise, understated, and exquisite acting showcase was one of the most enticing entries in the SXSW narrative competition, precisely because its emotional power has been designed to sneak up on you. It deserves to be discovered beyond the insular festival circuit, as many audiences will relate to its gentle emotional trajectory and absorbing performances; it’s a layered drama that keeps finding new and intriguing ways to make its scenario new again, and in the process, provides the best argument for how even the most familiar set of melodramatic circumstances can be filled with surprising emotional sophistication. —EK

Sales Contact: hbrougher@gmail.com

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