I saw a lot of great movies this year. Unfortunately, quite a few of them never got released in this country. They screened at local festivals, but didn’t get picked up for commercial exhibition–even by the small, independent distributors who pick up the good stuff that the Hollywood studios and their faux independent subsidiaries, don’t bother with.
Not that the distributors miss everything. When I saw them at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I was sure Forbidden Lie$ and Stranded would make this list. But they got picked up and shown, at least briefly, in a few theaters.
The following films did not. I hope you get a chance to see them someday. I list them in the approximate order I saw them, because I don’t want pick one as better than another.
Around the Bay, Cinequest. Sparse and utilitarian, Alejandro Adams’ low-key drama gets right to the point, then tells its dysfunctional family story without pyrotechnics. Single dad Wyatt (Steve Voldseth) is so remote and disconnected from his five-year-old son (Connor Maselli) that he leaves the child home alone–and that’s in a house with an unfenced swimming pool. Looking for a way out of his responsibilities, he asks his estranged 21-year-old daughter (Katherine Celio) to move in as caregiver. Slowly, they work out some of their problems, but by no means all of them. Adams made Around the Bay for very little money, shooting it on standard-def video. The low budget shows, but thanks to an excellent script and cast, doesn’t hurt the film.
Mataharis, San Francisco International Film Festival. Three female private detectives, all working for the same agency (and the same sleazy boss), struggle with private and professional problems in this character study. Inés finds herself in a moral dilemma when she realizes that the two factory workers she’s supposed to spy on are suspected of union activity, not theft. Eva uses her skills to follow her own husband, thus discovering a secret that, while not really all that horrible, shatters her ability to trust him. And the older and possibly wiser Carmen helps a client facing double betrayals and begins to doubt her own marriage.
Time to Die, San Francisco International Film Festival. Almost a monolog by an old woman talking to her dog, this Polish wonder is much better than any film that meets that description has any right to be. Danuta Szaflarska is wonderful in the lead role–wistful, bitter, demanding of respect, a little crazy, with a tendency to spy on her neighbors. Not that she doesn’t have reasons. The yuppies next door want to buy her property and tear down the once-beautiful house where she spent her life. Despite the title, the film is not so such much about death as about how one spends the last years of one’s life.
The Art of Negative Thinking, San Francisco International Film Festival. This a Norwegian comedy/drama is brutal, terrifying, and forces you to think about how you’d respond should disaster severely limit your life. It’s also devastatingly, hysterically funny, and the best movie I saw at SFIFF. It addresses a subject that we’re not supposed to laugh at: the disabled and the fully-abled people who care for them. A mostly wheelchair-bound support group, led by an incompetent yet self-righteous social worker, come to the home of a potential new member. But Geirr, boiling with rage since a car accident paralyzed him from the waist down, doesn’t want to join. When he finds it impossible to ignore the group, he sets out to destroy it.
Emotional Arithmetic, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. In the best performance of an excellent career, Susan Sarandon plays an American-born Holocaust survivor (the story is set in 1985) trying to hold onto her family and her sanity. She’s overjoyed by the arrival of two old friends and fellow survivors, but their presence complicates her tricky relationship with her remote, sarcastic husband and their grown son–who appears to be devoting his life to caring for his messed-up parents. Beautifully written, designed, shot, acted, and edited, with a near all-star cast including Christopher Plummer, Gabriel Byrne, and Max Von Sydow. Read my full review.
In the Family, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Joanna Rudnick made this haunting and troubling film to document her own emotional struggles with the news that she carries the BRCA genetic mutation–a condition that forces some serious decisions. One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews carry it, and for women it means an almost certain death by ovarian or breast cancer–-unless the dangerous body parts are removed before the cancer strikes. For Rudnick, only 31 and looking forward to having children, that’s a very difficult decision. She trains her camera on her boyfriend, her family, and herself, and lets everyone speak candidly. She also goes beyond her problem and interviews others who have, or might have, BRCA, including some who found out about it or acted upon it too late. She also speaks with the scientist who discovered it and the inventor who got rich off the very expensive diagnostic test. This one stays with you.
Idiots and Angels, Mill Valley Film Festival. Bill Plympton made a very bizarre, dark, and funny cartoon, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows his work. This story of a lonely, angry, and all-together rotten man (at one point he pushes a tear of empathy back into his eye) who inexplicitly sprouts angel wings will make you grimace as well as laugh. Dialog-free, Idiots and Angels reveals its characters by showing us their actions and their daydreams, which are mostly about money and undeserved glory. But no matter what their bearer may be thinking, the wings themselves insist on virtue. Plympton has created a dreadful world filled with dreadful people, yet allows something magical and wonderful to come out of it.
Jerusalema, Mill Valley Film Festival. The best new film I saw at Mill Valley. Like the Warner Brothers gangster flicks of the early 1930’s, it tells the tale of a street punk who rises to the top of his profession through a combination of brains, charm, and ruthlessness. But this isn’t prohibition America, but post- Apartheid South Africa. In other words, it’s a society filled with grinding poverty, new opportunities, lingering racism, and bitter disappointment that the revolution didn’t bring Utopia. In this environment, Lucky Kunene (Jafta Mamabolo as a boy, Rapulana Seiphemo as a man) shows both street smarts and book smarts. He starts by hijacking cars. Eventually he’s taking over Johannesburg tenements, intimidating both the tenants and the landlords, and doing well by pretending to do good.
Katyn, Mill Valley Film Festival. In the spring of 1940, Soviet special forces massacred over 15,000 Polish prisoners of war, including the father of future filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. After the war, Stalin’s government insisted that the Nazis were to blame and suppressed the truth. Wajda tells the story of the crime and the cover-up through a handful of fictitious characters in this visually gorgeous yet emotionally shocking historical epic. The second half, set mostly after the war, sags through too many characters you haven’t really gotten to know, but it’s still an amazing recreation of a largely-forgotten atrocity.