The 25 Best Undistributed Films of 2013

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It's hard to pin down exactly when it happened, but at a certain point in the cinema's ongoing digital revolution it became easier to make a movie than it is to get it seen. That's a sweeping and reductive generalization, of course, but what would the introduction to a Film.com list be without one of those? The truth of the matter is that, between the disparate poles of "Gravity" and "Leviathan", the impossible image is all but extinct. Technology has caught up with (and likely eclipsed) the scope of our vision, and filmmakers have never been so empowered to confront their imaginations and realize their stories in one form or another. The inevitable result is that we're living in a golden age of cinema so clear and ubiquitous that it can be difficult to even notice, the film festivals and streaming channels of the world absolutely saturated with brilliant offerings from established directors and undiscovered talents alike.

It's never been more likely that your college roommate might make a truly great movie (he wrote flippantly before remembering that his actually did), but – to paraphrase or blindly quote "The Incredibles" – in a world where everyone has superpowers, nobody does. If film festivals have accommodated the deluge of new films by functioning as a faucet for great cinema, the distribution market is a clogged drain. As a result, a very particular kind of film has become synonymous with independent cinema by virtue of the fact that examples thereof are often rewarded with a theatrical release from a major outfit. While the occasional oddity has managed to secure distribution (congrats, "Manakamana"!), the industry simply hasn't evolved to accommodate an unprecedented surplus of terrific product. VOD services are certainly doing their best to fill the void, but the unfortunate reality is that dozens of essential movies will simply never be (legally) distributed in the United States, evaporating as little more than an indelible delight for a select few festival attendees.

With that in mind, we thought it might be helpful to compile an alphabetical list of the best films we saw at festivals this year that are still without domestic distribution. From micr0-indie upstarts to the latest from established (and, in one case, detained) auteurs, these are the 25 best undistributed films of 2013. – David Ehrlich

P.S. We know there are actually 26 films on this list. #YOLO

BLIND DETECTIVE

Directed by: Johnnie To

Screened at: Toronto International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival

You’d think, given the unprecedented international success of his recent crime thriller “Drug War”, that Johnnie To would have little trouble securing stateside distribution for its follow up. Alas, the machinations of the system have thus far conspired against him, relegating his superb “Blind Detective” to the festival circuit and leaving the question of an eventual theatrical run in this country regrettably unanswered. It’s true, of course, that “Blind Detective” was received somewhat coolly by American critics when it premiered at Cannes last May, but I suspect this partly a result of expectations: best known in North America as a purveyor of exemplary crime thrillers, Johnnie To’s work in other genres has yet to really take off outside of Hong Kong and China, where he is acclaimed as much for his knack for romantic comedy as he is for stylized gunplay. “Blind Detective|, in other words, is a hard sell: an unlikely romance in the classic screwball mould, it’s a film whose comic tone and light touch are bound to throw off anybody anticipating something like “Drug War 2”. And that’s precisely what makes the film such a delight: a breathless, exuberant genre exercise, “Blind Detective” proves To’s mastery of nearly any style or register.  – Calum Marsh

CLOSED CURTAIN

Directed by: Jafar Panahi & Kambuzia Partovi

Screened at: Berlin International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival

The miracle of Jafar Panahi’s continued filmmaking comes second to the complexity and artistic evolution shown in his work made under an imposed filmmaking ban. “Closed Curtain” takes place in Panahi’s beach house, not his Tehran apartment, yet if anything it feels more constricted, housing a narrative that conflates Panahi’s own fears of repression with Iran’s dog-killing policy. It makes for a stark kind of paranoid thriller, compounded when the pet-hiding protagonist finds himself letting some people hiding from authorities into his home. Then, things start to get strange, an already spare setup fading into near-nothingness until a shot stares into a mirror, a figure walks on the screen, and everything changes.

The self-reflexivity may turn off some viewers, but if the mere existence of Panahi’s recent work is a challenge to filmmakers to never give up, the exploratory nature of that work, pushing against the limits of conventional cinema as much as Panahi pushes the limits of his own sentence, offers an equally strong challenge to never rest on one’s laurels under any circumstances.  – Jake Cole

DOCUMENTARIAN

Directed by: Inese Kjava & Ivars Zviedris

Screened at: Millennium International Documentary Film Festival

Filmmakers Ivars Zviedris and Inese Kjava have made a film about an angry old woman in rural Latvia, and it is one of the best documentaries of the year. She is Inta, a brash provincial character who doesn’t take too kindly to being treated like the camera’s object. At times she rants and raves at Zviedris, shouting strings of curse words. She calls him “paparazzi” and demands that he leave her alone with her soup. Multiple times it seems as if perhaps the filmmakers should just pack up and go home, and let Inta return to a life away from the camera’s lens.

Yet the drive to stay on and finish the film worked out beautifully. Inta and Zviedris develop a rapport that complicates and enriches their relationship. She’ll shout at him and then feed him, argue with the camera and then share a warm and intimate moment with her paparazzo. What begins as an uncomfortable experiment in exploitation becomes a thoughtful, unique portrait. The presence of the camera itself forces these two people together, whether they realize it or not. The filmmaker needs the subject to create art, obviously, but the subject also needs the filmmaker. Without each other, they do not exist.  – Daniel Walber

DOOMSDAYS

Directed by: Eddie Mullins

Screened: Fantasia International Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival, Woodstock Film Festival, Dark Bridges Film Festival

The mirror universe version of the antic, star-driven apocalypse comedy "The Is The End," “Doomsdays” is a lo-fi howl into the abyss with mere trace elements of eschatology, but an abundance of muted melancholy and gallows humor.

Blurbed by many as Jarmusch-esque (and not without good cause!) “Doomsdays” follows a Hudson Valley Vladimir and Estragon as they break into empty vacation houses to raid liquor cabinets and wait for the peak oil crisis to begin. (The more violence-prone Bruho is the true believer, snide lit-prof-on-dark-drugs Dirty Fred may just be along for the ride.)

As nihilistic romps are concerned, “Doomsdays” differentiates itself with crackling dialogue, black comedy and assured long takes. Writer/director Eddie Mullins, a former film critic, has put together a remarkable first picture on a miniscule budget. It is a mature work, arrogant on the surface but marinated in a genuine “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me” angst that is impossible to fake. For yet another indie of two guys yapping in the woods, Mullins shows tremendous potential. –  Jordan Hoffman

Visit the film's website.

THE GARDEN OF EDEN

Directed by: Ran Tal

Screened at: True / False Film Fest, hotdocs 2013, Jerusalem Film Festival, Independent Film Festival Boston

Owing more to Errol Morris circa “Vernon, Florida” or Werner Herzog circa “Fata Morgana” than any typical documentary about the ethnic struggles within Israel's borders, Ran Tal's “The Garden of Eden” works on a number of levels. By keeping focus on a jam packed park (with lakes of debated origin) the film's compression of one year into a 75-minute review is, in part, merely a striking summation of an ecological oddity divorced from any larger political implications. The clean video and smooth cutting is enough to sell this as a faux-nature film. Then the people who float in and out of view – many of whom members of Israel's minorities - slowly unveil their histories fraught with personal tragedy. Casual racism flows all over the place - people give it and people take it - everyone seems on the same page that it's bad, but no one seems to know what to do to change it.

The rather evocative and moody feel of the film invites you, however, to pull back further. The specifics of religious tension (both within groups and without) becomes an eventual din and we focus on more universal struggles. Small pleasures battle the general melancholy that exists throughout the human condition. “The Garden of Eden” is a song in a minor key, but a beautiful one.  – JH

HARMONY LESSONS

Directed by: Emir Baigazin

Screened at: TriBeCa Film Festival, 2Morrow Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival 

Emir Baigazin’s debut is a very of -the-moment normative Festival Film, with slightly too schematic ironies and downward spiral degradation rendered in implacable static shots; it’s all very Michael Haneke. But Baigazin’s less prone to infuriating deck stacking, relentless horror or smug blanket condemnation of the human race than his master. An explicitly Darwinian examination of high school bullying microcosmically standing in for all Kazakhstan, it’s admittedly the kind of movie that has people lecturing on Darwin just so you don’t miss anything. Mostly, though, Baigazin’s crafted a convincingly angry portrait of a society in which your only choice is who to get screwed by, the screwing-over itself already a pre-ordained outcome as barely regulated capitalism spreads its tendrils.

The convincingly/justifiably angry work goes down easier thanks to Baigazin’s dab hand at chilly foreground-background contrasts and touches of unexpected drollery (a ring of high school extortionists is led by a very Winklevi pair of twins, introduced doing synchronous pull-ups and rings around a playground bar). Oddly enough, Baigazin is currently developing a sequel. – Vadim Rizov

IT FELT LIKE LOVE

Directed by: Eliza Hittman

Screened at: BAMCinemafest, Sundance Film Festival

UPDATE (11/26): VARIANCE FILMS HAS ACQUIRED THE FILM FOR A 2014 RELEASE

Heading south from Crown Heights, Eliza Hittman’s astonishing debut feature “It Felt Like Love” brings the fire of the sexual awakening film to Gravesend. Her heroine, Lila (Gina Piersanti), is fourteen. We see her first on the beach, her face white with sunscreen, staring into the open ocean. She’s there with her best friend, Chiara, and Chiara’s boyfriend Patrick. Lila is the odd one out, the awkward adolescent in a world with no more fourteen-year-old virgins. Determined to catch up with Chiara and Patrick, she decides to pursue Sammy, a college-aged guy she meets on the beach. Chiara absent-mindedly points out that Sammy will “f**k anything that movies,” unaware that’s exactly what Lila is looking for.

The most obvious comparison is to Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” which is warranted and a compliment to both films. “It Felt Like Love” also has a crucial scene in a marsh, and also uses dance to explore its protagonist’s self-confidence and sexuality. The final set piece in the film is a performance, a cathartic moment of choreography as Lila and Chiara dance to Mykki Blanco’s “Wavvy.” Yet if “It Felt Like Love” leers and dances like Arnold’s work, it sweats like a film by Catherine Breillat. Lila’s grasp for sexual fulfillment is reminiscent of “Fat Girl,” the consciousness that love can be nothing but another way to make the loss of virginity even more painful in the long run. Lila’s pursuit of Sammy may not be as horrific as the final events of Breillat’s masterpiece, but it confronts the danger and dark naiveté of youthful sexuality that has gone too far in its own way. – DW

READ OUR FULL REVIEW HERE

I'VE ALWAYS BEEN A DREAMER

Directed by: Sabine Gruffat

Screened at: Chicago Underground Film Festival, Wisconsin Film Festival

This film is not the first documentary about the decline of Detroit, and it will not be the last. What sets it apart is its global audacity, comparing the apparent death of the Motor City to the meteoric (and quite physical) rise of Dubai. Some of the connections are quite cerebral, economic contrasts between these two cities which both sprung up like enormous, industrial wildflowers. Others, however, are more visually striking. In the clip above, Detroit’s underused elevated train, the “People Mover,” is paired seamlessly with a new Ferris wheel overlooking Dubai’s waterfront.

Inevitably, and wisely, Sabine Gruffat takes apart what initially seems to be a very black and white opposition of disparate places. She highlights some of Detroit’s attempts at renewal alongside the poverty in Dubai that often gets left out of its international reputation. Her method of completely separating images and audio, even that of interviews, initially seems cold and dissociative. Yet as the film progresses it becomes more of a creative cool, isolating elements of architecture and ideas of economics and society in order to create a sort of urban poetry.

With the growing number of nonfiction films filmed in and around America’s new favorite metaphor, it’s possible that “I’ve Always Been a Dreamer” will get lost in the shuffle. Yet this kind of vision helps turn our more rational reactions to international issues of commerce, poverty and labor into something emotional, personal and human. – DW

Visit the film's website.

LEONES

Directed by: Jazmín López

Screened at:  New Directors / New Films

“Did you ever imagine yourself in a world where there is nothing at all?” In some ways this is the essential query of “Leones,” to the extent that the film even has a definable essence. Jazmín López’s debut feature is as enigmatic as it is bold, forging new cinematic ideas from the vastness of the natural world and brief flirtations with character and philosophy. López is interested in the “in-between,” exploring the often hazy landscape amid life and death and the gaps of time itself. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen.

The plot is simple, at least as it opens. A group of teenagers are hiking through a breathtaking forest of epic proportions, ostensibly on a short vacation. The camera follows them from behind, building stunning long takes that wind through the trees with an almost cosmic patience. As we slowly learn more, López’s vision becomes progressively bolder up until what is easily the most stunning final shot of the last few years. – DW

READ OUR FULL REVIEW HERE

THE MANOR

Directed by: Shawney Cohen

Screened: Hot Docs Canadian Film Festival

Come for the shocking look at adult entertainment, stay for the insightful examination at lesser-discussed forms of self-destructive behavior. “The Manor” is a heartbreaking documentary about family dysfunction of the highest order.

Shawney Cohen is yet another guy who picked up a video camera to shoot his nutty family. His initial peg – the “nice Jewish family” that owns a successful strip club off an Ontario highway – soon tangents into how body image can destroy multiple psyches in a single bound.

Cohen's mother suffers from intense anorexia. His father is morbidly obese. Nobody talks about any of this, even as bones shatter and arteries clog. Family meals are evenings of terror as Mom busies herself to stay away from food and Dad gorges himself. On the fringes are the drug dealers, strippers, mullet-wearing Quebecois and the interloping would-be sister-in-law. (Not only is she not Jewish, she's a nutritionist!) “The Manor” is a bit of a freakshow, but at its center is a concerned son trying anything to keep his family together. – JH

SEE THE REST OF THE YEAR'S BEST UNDISTRIBUTED FILMS ON PAGE 2

MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS

Directed by: Tom Beringer

Screened at: TriBeCa Film Festival

UPDATE (1/13/14): STARZ WILL RELEASE THE FILM ON iTUNES ON MARCH 28TH, 2014

The rare tour documentary that makes no attempt to glorify or lionize the band it follows, Tom Beringer's brilliant, emotionally lucid and compulsively watchable "Mistaken for Strangers" was never going to be just another behind-the-scenes exercise in rock vanity. When he first introduces himself to us via amateurishly shot home video, Tom is a 30-year-old burnout (self-diagnosed), a garrulous metalhead who lives with his mom in Cincinnati. Tom is a goof with a heart of gold, but his untapped potential casts a pall over the entire Beringer family... especially Matt Beringer, who is a newly minted rock star (well, he's Brooklyn famous). Matt Beringer, ten years Tom's senior, is the lead singer of The National, a critically acclaimed rock band whose "brainy" (#NationalHumor) songs have connected with a wide audience, and their most recent albums have made fans of frat boys, indie tastemakers, and The President of the United States.

The brothers clearly love one another, but a civil resentment simmers between them, and when Tom effectively invites himself on tour with the band in order to make a documentary about their travels, Matt agrees out of pity and helplessness.While "Mistaken for Strangers" (an incredibly apt title, borrowed from one of the band's songs) certainly contains some strong concert footage, the bedrock of this 80-minute film is the increasingly strained relationship between Tom and Matt as the stressful circumstances of the tour bring their brotherly tensions to a head. Candid, sweet, and satisfyingly self-reflexive, "Mistaken for Strangers" resonates in part because it's tremendous qualities underscore Tom's own, infusing the film with a casual but unexpectedly masterful meta-text that should earn the documentary more serious consideration from the festival cognoscenti. Complete with the most moving closing credits sequence in recent memory, "Mistaken for Strangers" will get out there sooner or later, it just needs someone to give it the chance. – DEVisit the film's website.

MY SWEET PEPPER LAND

Directed by: Hiner Saleem

Screened: Cannes Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival

“My Sweet Pepper Land,” is no masterpiece, but it is an interesting blend of classic cinema tropes set in the extremely specific (and rarely discussed) liberated Kurdistan. We open in 2003. Saddam Hussein has been ousted and the new Kurdish government is proud to present their first ever execution. “We can have no democracy without security and we can have no security without punishment.” With that, a noose goes around a criminal’s neck, but no one has given thought where to hang him. As the officials stoically look on in wide-angled portraiture (and the condemned’s long legs touch the ground as he dangles) it’s clear that Baran (Korkmaz Arslan) has had enough.

...The gorgeous cinematography both of the landscapes and the interiors are among the film’s chief pleasures.“My Sweet Pepper Land” exhibits the rare ability to be both modern and traditional, a tale laden with exquisite details that aren't essential to the plot but nevertheless add an ineffable quality to this intriguing, enjoyable film. – JH

READ OUR FULL REVIEW HERE.

NOBODY'S DAUGHTER HAEWON

Directed by: Hong Sang-soo

Screened at: Berlin International Film Festival, New York Film Festival

Hong Sang-soo's 14th feature film enjoys many of the pleasures found reliably in his other work, plus a few to call its own. Chief among the holdovers is Hong’s perceptive, sensitive depiction of interpersonal relationships, which here include both mother-daughter and student-teacher pairings in addition to the usual bittersweet romance. The film centers on the eponymous Haewon (Jung Eun-chae), a film student and amateur actress living in Seoul whose mother, Jin-joo (Kim Ja-ok), is preparing to emigrate to Canada. The story simply deals with the emotional fallout that follows: stricken by loneliness, Haewon instinctively gravitates to a former lover, Seong-joon (Lee Sun-kyun), a film director and professor with whom she had a long-running affair a year earlier. Deeply pained and yearning for affection, Haewon thrusts herself back into the arms of a (still-)married man, effectively switching out one kind of hurt for another...

...The simple joys of Hong’s methods ultimately survived being wound into even the tightest curlicues of time and space, but it’s still refreshing to find him taking a more straightforward approach here (as he does again in “Our Sunhi”, his second feature of 2013). “Haewon” only indulges in one structural device, and it’s a much more legible one, even perhaps classical in its elegance and simplicity: on several occasions we come upon Haewon asleep at the table of a restaurant or library, and what follows are the often surreal reveries of her daydreams, formally unembellished and unadorned. In the first, and most frivolous, she gives directions to French actress and singer Jane Birkin (playing herself), mother of Charlotte Gainsbourg, who compliments Haewon by telling her that she looks just like her daughter. Subsequent dreams betray a similar deference to waking-life surrogates, which Hong uses to work through many of the film’s thematic preoccupations in a manner that excuses (and undoes) the neatness of his resolutions. It’s a simple gimmick, but Hong derives much from it: the impact of the naturalistic drama is heightened by these brief forays into the realm of fantasy, which subtly shift the focus from emotional catharsis to the process of attaining it. As always with Hong, the central dynamic is in how people relate. But here there is a twist: Haewon relates with many others but most important is how she relates to herself. – CM

READ OUR FULL REVIEW HERE

NORTHERN LIGHT

Directed by: Nick Bentgen

Screened at: New Orleans Film festival, BAMCinemaFest, Viennale

UPDATE (11/29): THE FILM HAS BEEN ACQUIRED FOR DISTRIBUTION IN 2014.

Nick Bentgen’s outstanding and (so far) relatively slept on documentary has chilly formal chops to spare. Acting as his own cinematographer, Bentgen trains his gaze on Michigan’s snowy, low-population upper peninsula, his main focus patriarch Walt Komarnizki, who fuels an unprofitable passion for snowmobile racing through long-haul truck driving. Walt’s an unreconstructed red state reactionary in a mixed state, prone to beginning family dinner anecdotes with choice quotes like “I was in Corpus Christi, land of the queers.” Around him, casual misogyny, racism et al. become seemingly interchangeable with and inextricable from self-styled rugged individualism. Walt and his community are as endangered as anyone in the US by continuing recessionary pressures, and the film’s implacability in observing their perilous survival is empathetic without being exculpatory. – VR

PALO ALTO

Directed by: Gia Coppola

Screened at: Telluride Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival

UPDATE (12/19): TRIBECA FILMS WILL DISTRIBUTE THE FILM IN 2014.

Cigarette smoke rises from the Vatican chimney – a new Coppola has been chosen! 26-year-old Gia Coppola’s first feature sounds like a toxic brew of nepotism (she’s Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter) and restless vanity (the film is adapted from a collection of short stories by James Franco), but such suspicions, however warranted, are almost immediately put to bed. Essentially Fast Times at Raymond Carver High, a tight and teen-sized “Short Cuts”, “Palo Alto” begins with a blast of frustrated energy, the prologue soaked in such sensitive and assuredly adolescent nowhere, California verve that you’re helpless to accept that the film exists for reasons other than the fact that it can.

“Palo Alto” has a palpable sense of place, at once both flat and shimmering with the promise of a million brighter tomorrows, but the film could ultimately take place anywhere in America. The white privilege that hosts these particular stories – a surface element as endemic to the work of young Coppolas as soft lighting and perfect music – ultimately helps the characters to be more broadly accessible, their lack of responsibilities helping to forefront and deepen their collective need for purpose.

Coppola’s adaptation owns the humility of Franco’s short stories and coheres them into something significant – as fun as “Risky Business” and as sincere as “The Spectacular Now”, “Palo Alto” is one of the best movies ever made about high school life in America (admittedly a low bar), blurring the lines between how unique it is to be a teenager, and how universal it is to feel like one. – DE

THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS

Directed by: Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzan

Screened: Toronto International Film Festival, Fantastic Fest, BFI London Film Festival

Belgian directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani (“Amer”) open their new picture with classic Dario Argento giallo hallmarks. To electronic rock music we see a man running around his “old world” elegant apartment building looking for his missing wife. He buzzes doorbells and finally meets “the old woman upstairs” (represented by a voice and some legs in stockings.) As he explains that his wife has gone, she starts to tell him what she feels is a relevant story.

What follows is hazy, stream-of-consciousness barrage of images and sounds that dredge up difficult to elucidate (and often uncomfortable) emotions is an ingredient many filmmakers use to spice up their stew. Most use it sparingly, if they dare at all. But since the dawn of cinema, surrealists have seized this artform to try and capture the ineffable quality of dreams.

“The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears” is a fantasia of death, sex, panic, confusion, primary colors, aggressive music, 60s modern interior design, nipples, blood and straight razors. Lengthy passages are unrelated to any discernible narrative, and seem to exist in that interzone your mind travels through just before it goes to sleep. You may be familiar – it’s often the time when your leg twitches, heart skips a beat and you slam open your eyes again. – JH

READ OUR FULL REVIEW HERE

REMOTE AREA MEDICAL

Directed by: Jeff Reichert & Farihah Zaman

Screened at: BAMCinemafest

In 1985, Stan Brock founded Remote Area Medical, a volunteer pop-up clinic offering free on-site medical care to the isolated inner reaches of the Amazon rainforest, where many worked at high risk of injury miles from the nearest physician. But in the nearly thirty years since its inception, Remote Area Medical has found its efforts redirected toward a more domestic crisis: a full 60% of its resources are now put to use across the United States. Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s “Remote Area Medical” takes place in Bristol, Tennessee — a city of just 26,000 — whose citizens have shown up by the thousands for a three-day clinic at a crowded-out NASCAR stadium.

As a document of the state of American health care, the film is duly compelling: its portrait of the working class family unable to afford life-saving medical treatment isn’t one of desperation so much as resignation, which proves far more disconcerting. People are used to this. But Reichert and Zaman’s approach isn’t overtly argumentative — there’s no need to be strident when the evidence speaks for itself. They focus instead on the details: organizational issues, administrative problems, and in general the overwhelming difficulty of pulling something of this scale off at all.  – CM

SOLDATE JEANNETTE

Directed by: by Daniel Hoesl

Screened at: Sundance Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Melbourne International Film Festival

“Soldate Jeannette” isn’t a film, it’s a “European Film Conspiracy.” At least that’s how its filmmakers present it at the top of the opening credits, in impetuous pink letters. It’s an anarchic shot of adrenaline to the neck, a political work of art insistent upon declaring war. Yet its principal soldier, played by a thrillingly uncompromising Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg, fights by simply refusing to cooperate with the money-driven high society in which she has found herself. She stands up and walks away from her financial and personal obligations, not because she has had a psychological break or a grand epiphany, but because she just doesn’t particularly care for them.

This probably sounds confrontational and frustrating, but it isn’t. The filmmaking itself is blunt and vehement in its pursuit of its message, but not in a way that alienates the audience. This isn’t a hyper-ideological project, more enamored with verbose ideas than actual people. Instead, the two women at the center of the narrative come to life as unlikely heroes for a perhaps sleepy audience that needs to be slapped awake by this kind of cinema. It hardly incites revolution, but it does certainly insist that you think twice about anything at all.

It also has one of the best soundtracks of the year, kicking off with Bettina Köster’s “Crime Don’t Pay (Stupid).” The trailer, below, is also the brief opening scene of this bluntly brief film.  – DW

A SPELL TO WARD OFF THE DARKNESS

Directed by Ben Rivers & Ben Russell

Screened at: Toronto International Film Festival, AFI Fest, BFI London International Film Festival

Early in “A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness”, two members of a sustainable-living commune in Estonia are found discussing the psychological effects of certain strains of techno music. Trance, they argue, slides its listener into the locked groove of a vinyl record — its rhythmic, deeply repetitious qualities function like a kind of maha mantra for the dance set, awakening psychic energies and fortifying the body and mind. Techno, in other words, is basically meditative. “A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness” contains no techno music, but it does culminative with a 25-minute black metal concert set in a Norwegian dive, and I think this passage about the meditative dimension of trance applies here just as well. Metal offers its listeners another locked groove: one that’s more severe, even overwhelming, but no less trance-like in its effects.

And that, in essence, is the purpose of the film as a whole: its glacial plotting, absence of action or drama, and infinite patience for natural beauty makes it a hypnotic experience, a cinematic trance. Whether it awakens any inner psychic energies is unclear. But it does, I think, offer a way to the sublime. – CM

THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT

Directed by: Ramon Zurcher

Screened at: Vancouver International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival

Ramon Zurcher’s “The Strange Little Cat” has been compared to the work of Jacques Tati, and for good reason — it shares with a film like “Playtime” an affection for the comedy and pathos inherent in the banal, for the strangeness of the furniture of everyday living. The difference is one of scale: where Tati made a canvas of the city at large, Zurcher is content with the confines of a modest apartment, a space whose cramped rooms and narrow hallways provide their own sort of minimalist amusement. As for what goes on within them, the answer is remarkably little: the film is not so much interested in action as it is in perspective, and part of the joy of watching lay in seeing the world from a new set of eyes — namely the cat’s.

It’s been remarked that much about “The Strange Little Cat” seems off somehow, as if even the most mundane words or gestures had a sort of alien quality about them. That’s the result of our point of view: a cat regards all domestic behaviour as essentially inexplicable, sitting in the corner forever bemused, eyeing the little rituals of daily life with a combination of confusion and awe. The film presents the world as refracted through the eyes of the cat who watches it all. As a result it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen.  – CM

STRAY DOGS

Directed by: Tsai Ming-liang

Screened at: Venice Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival

UPDATE: 1/10/14: CINEMA GUILD WILL RELEASE "STRAY DOGS" LATER THIS YEAR.

The extremities of Tsai Ming-liang's first feature-length use of digital are a factor of time, not in the jumbled and complex manner afforded by modern editing capabilities and excessive coverage offered by inexpensive cameras but in the vastly expanded amount of footage that can be recorded on a hard drive. Shots in “Stray Dogs” occasionally stretch well past the 11-minute limit of a traditional 35mm film reel, typically focused on actors’ faces for so long that mundane action, or outright inaction, takes on cryptic, interpretative qualities.

The film’s story (for want of a better term), which opens as a series of vignettes involving a single father (Tsai’s regular collaborator Lee Kang-sheng) and his two young children, engaged in activities such as the kids jovially roaming forests and beaches while their father stands on street corners holding signs for apartment complexes. Well into the film, Tsai reveals that the family is homeless, recontextualizing the dull rote of the father’s job and the wistful truancy of the children into something more harrowing and desperate. This withholding of information turns a basic fact of the characters’ identities into a development instead of a foundation, moving “plot” along the z-axis in such a way that nothing ever pushes the film forward but a narrative slowly emerges through the clarification of literal and symbolic connections.

If this is where Tsai gets off (he recently announced his intentions to retire), he – in his singular – quiet way, leaves cinema farther along than he found it. Not bad going for a film whose final half-hour consists of silently staring at a wall. – JC

TIL MADNESS DO US PART

Directed by: Wang Bing

Screened at: Toronto International Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, Vancouver International Film Festival

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Wang Bing’s four-hour tour of a Chinese mental facility is a devastating portrait of institutional sin by omission, in which the general absence of staff in the extremely long, winding takes through the prison-like building says more about negligence than any spoken assertion of failure could. The inmates run the asylum, in other words, yet in their chaotic movement among cells (the concept of room assignments is irrelevant here), the patients carve out a kind of support system for each other, unorthodox as it may be. Abandoned by family and those charged with tending to them, the people who reside within the facility’s cold, concrete walls are not so much given a voice by Wang’s camera as a chance to show they are human. That so many of the patients seen are openly implied to be there solely for their homosexuality only deepens the devastating critique the filmmaker delivers with hardly a jot of didactic speech. - JC

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TOM AT THE FARM

Directed by Xavier Dolan

Screened at: Toronto International Film Festival, AFI Fest

The comparatively stark aesthetic of “Tom at the Farm” would be enough to represent a severe new direction for the burgeoning auteur, but Dolan’s latest work most fundamentally feels like a change of pace because of how it internalizes the psychology that he once lived to incept.

Adapted from a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, “Tom at the Farm” begins with the eponymous protagonist (played by Dolan himself, here scraggly and bleach blonde) heading into the vaguely homophobic heart of Canada’s farmland in order to attend his boyfriend’s funeral. The first images briefly locate us in the filmmaker’s usual mode as we see Tom’s hand scratching out a confessional, tear-stained eulogy onto a paper towel, but the title card effectively wipes the slate clean, cutting to a distant helicopter shot that will prove emblematic of the remove at which Dolan keeps us from his characters. That his name was “Guillaume” is one of the only two things we ever learn about Tom’s dead lover, though there’s much to be gleaned from the broken mother (Lise Roy) and brutish older brother (Pierre-Yves Cardinal as Francis) that survive him on the family farm.

“Tom at the Farm” may not prove that Xavier Dolan has matured (nor does it confirm that he had to), but it’s compelling evidence that the emperor doesn’t always need to wear all of his clothes to prove that he owns them. – DE

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TOWER

Directed by: Kazik Radwanski

Screened at: Locarno Film Festival, New Directors / New Films, Toronto International Film Festival

Kazik Radwanski’s “Tower” is an abrasive experience — boldly, even defiantly so. Its protagonist, Derek (Derek Bogart), charges headlong into social interaction as if on a suicide course, crashing into conflict or awkward silence nearly every time he opens his mouth. He is a loner by habit rather than choice, and his enthusiastic attempts to find friends (or prospective lovers) are painful to watch: we see him thrusting around nightclub dancefloors, straining to make small talk at work, deflecting the prying inquiries of the parents who still generously house him. Being around people is a battle for which Derek is woefully unequipped. And Radwanski, far from shying away, takes an approach of uncomfortable intimacy: he shoots his subject exclusively in close up, hovering around his face or the back of his head, never cutting away to an establishing shot. Forget character study — “Tower” is a veritable character inquisition, a sustained investigation at the closest possible range. – CM

LA ULTIMA PELICULA

Directed by: Raya Martin & Mark Peranson

Screened at: Toronto International Film Festival, Viennale

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“La última pélicula” admittedly hits me in two potentially esoteric areas: one, it festishizes the end of celluloid film to such an extent that it conflates the end of film strip manufacturing with the Mayan-prophesied apocalypse. Two, it features Alex Ross Perry, whose murmuring wiseass may not be to everyone’s tastes but never fail to reduce me to fits of laughter. He’s in fine form as the on-screen director of this feature, an arrogant shit who insistently steamrolls his concocted narrative of film/the world’s end onto the reluctant descendants of Mayans who wish he’d stop filming their trash-filled backyards and presenting them as contemporary ruins. Its shots are regularly beautiful in a collage of seemingly tossed-off shots, but that thinly veiled excoriation of the solipsistic auteur enabled by the technology of film is always present, and if the movie makes one pine for the unique textures of processed film, it also leaves one open to a digital cinema that hints at opening up filmmaking to someone other than a white male film-school grad. – JC

WHAT NOW, REMIND ME?

Directed by: Joaquim Pinto

Screened at: New York Film Festival, DocLisboa, Vancouver International Film Festival

UPDATE (12/18): CINEMA GUILD WILL RELEASE THE FILM IN 2014.

A nearly three-hour video diary by cineaste/longtime HIV and Hepatitis C survivor Joaquim Pinto, “What Now, Remind Me?” is understandably self-indulgent for a film about the importance of Pinto being himself. The director tries to maintain internal unity of identity as a yearlong course of experimental drug treatment wreaks physical and mental havoc. Filming everything helps Pinto remember what the drug sometimes makes him forget and see the world freshly and appreciatively: his gaze is attentively curious to (adorable) dogs and passing insects, scenery, fires on his property, the glow of a late-night laptop against the body of his sleeping partner, etc. ad infinitum. His mind races through medieval history, memories of past collaborators like João Pedro Rodrigues and anything else this seemingly intellectually omnivorous person finds to have chain-of-association relevance to his present state.

Pinto can get on his radical soapbox, tiresomely fuming about how people don’t take fun drugs anymore in favor of doping themselves with pharmaceuticals, and he seems to not-so-secretly regard himself as an infallible oracle. The film can be exhausting, but it’s a mostly successful externalization of what ongoing weakness and up-down physical health lurches, lapsing into memory when in sickness and more intensely registering the present when in health. – VR

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