In some ways, 2016 looked good on the distribution front. Netflix and Amazon finally made a big splash, snatching up titles at major film festivals and causing bidding wars that resulted in things like Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation getting acquired for $17.5 million — and we all know the rest of the story. On the smaller side of things, Grasshopper Film launched this year with an impressive slate of titles that keeps growing, and we saw at least three films with 5-hour-plus runtimes get a theatrical run of some sort. And I haven’t even mentioned how MUBI is entering the distribution game, giving short-, medium-, and feature-length titles from the festival circuit a new life via their streaming platform.
But distribution is still in a transitional phase, and the influx of new buyers and options to get a film seen doesn’t guarantee that everything will be available outside of a festival screening. Films will get ignored, passed on, and ultimately remain in limbo — a fate I hope these ten films don’t end up with. Here are ten films from this year without a home in the US that deserve to be on your radar, and are hopefully already on the minds of some distributors. We’ve linked to reviews where available and included more honorable mentions at the bottom.
Austerlitz (Sergei Loznitsa)
Part of what makes Sergei Loznitsa’s latest documentary the best film to deal with the Holocaust in the past several years is its simplicity. Whether it’s from inside or outside the studio system, films about the Holocaust tend to take a perspective either from the past or with the privilege of hindsight, letting viewers remind themselves of one of civilization’s greatest failures so they can feel satisfied knowing they won’t let history repeat itself. Loznitsa’s perspective stays firmly in the now, plopping the camera down at different areas of a concentration camp and observing hundreds of tourists stroll around in their summer clothes. It’s genocide as an amusement park attraction, and Loznitsa lets the juxtaposition speak for itself, with the added touch of shooting in black and white to underline the disturbing disparity between past and present. A film like the bland, stodgy Denial can make it seem like filmmakers have exhausted the possible ways one might approach the Holocaust, but Austerlitz shows there’s been a great film waiting this whole time. All someone had to do was point and shoot.
Catfight (Onur Tukel)
Who knew that one of the year’s most potent representations of America’s addiction to abrasive conflict would be Anne Heche and Sandra Oh beating each other to a pulp? Onur Tukel’s Catfight is an unabashedly silly and political film, but it’s also a funny one, with its two lead actresses literally and figuratively hurling themselves into their roles. Heche and Oh play former college friends who bump into each other years later on the opposite sides of society — one is a struggling artist, while the other is married to a filthy rich Wall Street worker — and the tensions between them eventually boil over into a giant brawl, leaving one comatose. From there, the story turns into a cycle of misfortune and violence so unsubtle about the point it’s making that it becomes hilarious just for this alone. Couple that with a committed ensemble (including a great cameo by Dylan Baker) and Catfight becomes an entertaining breath of fresh air, a film that rubs its politics in your face without giving a damn about whether or not you like it.
The Dreamed Path (Angela Schanelec)
Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path is one of the most captivating films of 2016 and among the hardest to figure out. While watching her story of two young lovers in the 1980s torn apart by a tragedy in the boyfriend’s family, Schanelec’s elliptical approach feels like it’s using cinema to unbound itself by the restrictions of time. Years can pass within a single cut, but Schanelec doesn’t bother establishing any context for viewers; in fact, she abandons her story halfway through for another one without any warning. That leaves no choice but to navigate the film’s emotional landscape, where Schanelec provides a moving and melancholic look at regret and lost love. When The Dreamed Path’s last act joins its two different tales together in a way that finally does away with any sense of temporality — and features quite possibly the best music cue of the year — it’s the sort of invigorating, singular moment that more people should get to experience for themselves.
Excursions (Daniel Martinico)
Ever since its premiere at Slamdance, not enough people have been talking about Daniel Martinico’s Excursions, though that’s because not enough people have even heard about it. Excursions is one of the craziest things I’ve seen all year, an assured dive right into the deep end done with so much confidence and precision that it demands admiration. It takes place over a weekend getaway in the forest as two couples get together to try achieving a state of transcendence through a series of meditations and exercises. When those methods don’t work, they resort to extreme measures to force a state of enlightenment. Much of Excursions is inexplicable in the best way possible, with Martinico abandoning convention as his film becomes more and more abstract once the characters come closer to their goal. It’s a compelling and exhaustive experience, one that always feels like it’s on the verge of devouring itself, but I think about it more than any other film I’ve seen all year.
Fraud (Dean Fleischer-Camp)
When director Dean Fleischer-Camp stumbled upon a YouTube account containing hundreds of hours of a family’s home videos, he saw an opportunity that resulted in Fraud, a 55-minute found footage fauxumentary. Fleischer-Camp and editor Jonathan Rippon take what was most likely innocuous footage and repurpose it into a document of a consumerist family’s run from the law after committing a crime to feed their spending habits. The film is the sort of commentary on the power of materialism that isn’t exactly new in what it says, but it’s never really been done like this before. By utilizing imperceptible digital effects and edits, Fleischer-Camp makes it near-impossible to guess where observation ends and manipulation begins, making Fraud an unsettling reminder of how malleable our perceptions can be.
Hypernormalisation (Adam Curtis)
I’ll admit: this pick is a little bit of a cheat. Adam Curtis’ BBC documentary Hypernormalisation will probably never see a proper release on this side of the ocean due to the immense cost and effort it would take to clear the rights for its archival footage — but it’s one of the year’s most vital films, copyrights be damned. Once again, Curtis uses a wealth of material to dissect the dire consequences of decisions made by the most powerful people in the world, this time showing how decades of reducing complex world problems into digestible narrative packages for the public has led to the kind of jaded, detached society that allows something like Brexit or Donald Trump to happen. Curtis’ ability to use the narrative format to make viewers aware of its power remains as strong as ever, and the sprawling scope never collapses under its own weight thanks to Curtis always bringing things back to the terrifying and depressing world we find ourselves living in. No one said essential viewing had to be easy.
Mister Universo (Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel)
Mister Universo came and went earlier this year at Locarno and Toronto without much buzz surrounding it, but those who gave it a chance wound up seeing one of 2016’s greatest low-key delights. Taking place at a travelling circus, Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s film follows a young lion tamer whose lucky charm — a piece of iron bent by a famous strongman — has gone missing, resulting in a road trip to get another charm made by the same person. What Mister Universo might lack in dramatic stakes it more than makes up for with a remarkable sense of character and place, using non-professional actors to observe a tight-knit community of circus performers hanging on to their livelihood. It’s a pleasant immersion into a different world — one filled with cute animals, fascinating figures, and a relaxed quality that makes it impossible not to smile throughout.
Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)
It’s not surprising to see Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama still waiting around for distribution after its tumultuous time on the festival circuit, with rumors circulating about rejections from Cannes and Venice due to its story of young terrorists wreaking havoc on Paris (San Sebastian and Toronto ended up accepting it instead). If the rumors are true, then it’s disappointing to see such a terrific film get denied a screening at the very places designed to celebrate works as intelligent and exciting as Bonello’s. Split into two halves, Nocturama sidesteps ideology and character motivations as it observes its terror group execute their attacks before waiting things out in a closed shopping center. By avoiding obvious political messages the film turns into a look at the futility of extremism in our modern age. Instead of upending the systems these characters target, they wind up throwing themselves straight into the belly of the beast before getting digested one by one. Bonello continues his trend of churning out some of the most sublime moments in film today (and his soundtrack choices remain flawless), but it’s his bone-chilling final act that solidifies Nocturama as one of the year’s best films.
The Park (Damien Manivel)
With a runtime just over 70 minutes, the dreamlike haze of Damien Manivel’s The Park floats away just as quickly as it arrives, creating a serene experience out of one strange day in a suburban park. A young couple spend their afternoon walking around and sneaking off into the woods to fool around from time to time. Cinematographer Isabel Pagliai nails the look of your average lazy summer day, but it’s in the film’s second half where The Park’s visual power soars. After a jaw-dropping long take where day turns into night in real-time, Manivel dives straight into a surreal adventure that’s as enchanting as it is baffling. It’s shot on what appears to be a tiny budget, and Manivel’s ability to conjure up such a lovely curiosity with his limited resources should make him someone to keep an eye on in the future.
Werewolf (Ashley McKenzie)
There’s a bit of a small renaissance going on in Canadian cinema right now: every year, a new talent seems to pop up with an impressive debut feature. 2016’s talent is Ashley McKenzie, who takes a hard, realistic look at the life of two young addicts in Werewolf. Taking place in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, it concerns methadone users Blaise and Vanessa as they spend their days taking drugs and lugging around an old lawnmower to earn money by mowing lawns. McKenzie and cinematographer Scott Moore combine handheld footage with stark, powerful compositions to visualize the miserable stagnancy of the two lead characters, watching them endlessly hustle just to keep from falling off the edge, and McKenzie generates empathy for her characters without creating an opportunity to judge them. It’s the kind of smart direction social realist dramas like this need, and it should put McKenzie on an ever-growing roster of young, Canadian filmmakers to look out for.
There are plenty of other films still seeking US distribution, many of which I couldn’t get to watch, but have plenty of fans both on The Film Stage and elsewhere. Lav Diaz premiered two films, the eight-hour A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery and the nearly four-hour The Woman Who Left (this is what Diaz fans like to call a slow year for the director). Expect some sort of release for the latter title, due to it winning the top prize at Venice, but don’t expect any theaters carving out eight-hour blocks of time for Lullaby. Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada was a critical hit at Cannes and remains one of the only titles from the fest’s main competition without distribution; Kati Kati walked away with an award at TIFF, but given how rare it is for African cinema to get noticed, don’t expect that win to do it any favors; and Matías Piñeiro’s Hermia & Helena still hasn’t been picked up, although it feels like a small NYC/LA run will be inevitable for this title.
What was your favorite undistributed film this year?