Distribution is experiencing a crisis right now.
The facts are simple: only a few specific types of film dominate the primary box office conversation – superhero stories, sequels to established IP, etc. – while many others are either passed over by studios, or find themselves funded by streaming services (such as Netflix), where they'll spend their run on a digital shelf, being programmed into your "suggestions”, thanks to the all-dominating algorithm. Almost all the smaller pictures that make their way to the streaming giant are fest acquisitions made in America or studio leftovers, leaving a great deal of foreign language and idiosyncratic independent movies to duke it out for a limited number of spots at labels like IFC, Sony Pictures Classics and Well Go USA, or (in the worst cases) flail in the proverbial wind.
There aren't many foreign language and indie suppliers left, and the market has become so rigidly defined that – should a title not necessarily fit into a distributor's "brand" – it's back to slugging it out on the festival circuit, until hopefully getting an offer that will land the movie in front of (sometimes very) limited eyeballs. Many producers – especially when it comes to foreign language – want their movies to be able to compete for their country's entry into the Academy race and adhere to that category's strict guidelines (thus limiting their streaming first options), while others still value the notion of a traditional bow in art houses (which are also on their way out, in terms of a business model) before hitting video.
Long story short: there are so many motion pictures that you may not even see that are 100% better than what's currently being offered up in auditoriums or on VOD. This may be truer than ever in 2018, as four of the best titles this writer has seen still don't have American distribution, and would easily place high on a Top 20 list, were the date December 31st. We should be banging a drum for cinema this good, and the fact that these movies are struggling to find their way to American audiences is a crying shame.
Dead Pigs (d. & w. Cathy Yan)
Margot Robbie handpicked Cathy Yan to helm her upcoming Harley Quinn spin-off Birds of Prey based on her directorial debut – the Shanghai-set interweaving familial drama that plays like Johnnie To remade Magnolia. Catching up with four members of the same clan as they deal with their respective hardships, Yan's visually stunning portrait of economic woes in modern China is one of the most widely accessible (at least in terms of American audiences) foreign language films in recent memory, shot with an impressively slick eye (just look at all that neon) while deftly juggling multiple storylines. One glance at the film's steadily escalating first act explains why Robbie (or any producer) would want to see Yan operate with a studio budget. She was born for this sort of grandiose widescreen storytelling, the camera becoming an extension of her worldview as every individual in the ensemble comes alive in surprising and amusing ways (check out Evan's full review from Sundance here).
Yet it's the way Yan manipulates and amalgamates weighty themes and discordant tones that makes Dead Pigs miraculous, as she somehow manages to include local crime bosses, a sappy love story, karaoke cued musical numbers, and insights regarding the scourge of capitalism into a dizzying tableau of rainy melancholy. Dead Pigs is as much a political polemic as it is a sweeping melodrama, attempting to comprehend the meaning of "home" in a landscape where everything is disposable, ready to be demolished and rebuilt if a corporation deems it necessary. It's a movie that reminds you to call the ones you love, because they (or the house you grew up in) may not be there for much longer, thanks to the ongoing drive of "progress". This is sensational world cinema that should be seen on the biggest screen possible, and Yan deserves to have a career as lengthy and varied as her bow.
Holiday (d. Isabella Eklöf, w. Johanne Algren & Isabella Eklöf)
Were ‘18 to end today, Holiday may very well rank as my #1 movie of the year, for the simple reason that I haven't been able to shake the troubling feeling it left me with since first seeing it in January. Isabella Eklöf's cold, precise, detached tale of a gangster's mistress – Victoria Carmen Sonne, delivering a freshman performance that's absolutely devastating – who learns what it means to become an object (and how she chooses to live with that fact) could have never been made by men. Because Eklöf – who also co-wrote the outstanding modern fairy tale, Border, which NEON is distributing later this year – is making a movie about a woman coming to terms with becoming a literal product, to be used and disposed of as her keeper sees fit, and never judges her once for it. The level of clinical examination is downright Cronenbergian in its amorality, treating this concubine like a test subject in the most gorgeous lab possible (the beautiful port city of Bodrum on the Turkish Riviera).
Unlike the other movies on this list, it's somewhat easy to understand why distributors are cautious about even considering Holiday for acquisition. On top of being rather unapologetic about its difficult subject matter, the picture’s approach toward its acts of violence against the central protagonist are unflinching, beginning with a portentous "toying" of her body by her beau while she's passed out drunk, and climaxing with a simulated assault scene that includes unsimulated sex. However, these moments are key in comprehending Eklöf's thesis. Much like this year's Revenge, Holiday is embracing a certain subgenre of lurid pulp, only to provide us a woman's POV regarding these heinous atrocities. To wit, it isn't about the act, but rather what the act means to this poor girl, and how she chooses to either embrace or reject her position in her new underworld. Just like its violence, the finale of Holiday is truly shocking, sending you out of the theater shook because it never takes the easy path or provides a simple solution. This is art at its most confrontational, as Isabella Eklöf and her young star have combined to create one of the most radical motion pictures you'll ever witness.
Burning (d. Chang-dong Lee, w. Chang-dong Lee & Jungmi Oh)
The movie this writer has taken to calling "the Korean Vertigo", Chang-dong Lee's sixth film in twenty-plus years is a slow burn masterpiece of all-consuming obsession and dread. Lee Jong-soo (Ah-In Yoo, a quiet revelation) is a peasant kid trying to make ends meet while living on his jailed father's farm. One day, he runs into the beautiful Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), who's equally impoverished and has harbored a fixation on the boy since they were kids. The two begin a romance of sorts, only for Hae-mi to become beguiled by a flighty playboy (The Walking Dead's Steven Yeun, speaking his native tongue) and a temporary love triangle ensues. Soon after, Hae-mi disappears, and Jong-soo suspects that her new beau is the culprit, desperately stalking the man until he discovers what happened to the little girl who he may or may not have rescued from a well when they were children.
Burning is a master class in how to create suspense, as Chang-dong Lee allows us to share Lee Jong-soo's mania, while simultaneously side-eyeing the rich man’s emerging pattern of behavior when it comes to picking up pretty, young poor girls. Is this the first time he's made his concubines disappear? Was the mound of debt Hae-mi accumulated inescapable? Did she just run away? Or is it all in our head, as we've become too wrapped up in this invented drama? The truth is: Chang-dong Lee doesn't seem to care about letting you know the truth, as by the end, we're questioning everything we just sat through, and whether our South Korean Scottie Ferguson is even reliable at all. You could remake Burning with three movie stars and it'd rake in all the money at the box office, but no Hollywood adaptation could match the smoldering intensity of this stunning, intoxicating masterpiece.
Thunder Road (d. & w. Jim Cummings)
Made for roughly $500,000 in Austin, Texas, writer/director/producer/star Jim Cummings' portrait of a cop on the edge of a nervous breakdown plays like a companion piece to Jody Hill's best work. Cummings' Officer Jim Arnaud operates like a cross between Magnolia's Jim Curring and The Foot Fist Way's Fred Simmons, desperately trying to hold on to any thread of sanity he has left in the wake of his mother's death and divorce from his wife (who is now seeking sole custody of their daughter, Crystal [Kendal Farr]). A real "when it rains, it pours" narrative set up, it seems like the whole world is crumbling around Arnaud, and we're forced to witness his stammering, inevitable freak out via a series of impossibly long takes.
The way Cummings films this character is telling, as not only does it showcase the actor (who delivers a multi-layered, darkly hilarious turn) but also rejects the standard simplistic "shot/reverse shot" dynamic that dominates so many of these indie dramedies (to quote De Palma: "coverage is a dirty word"). Starting with a funeral eulogy so stunningly uncomfortable (an expansion of Cummings' short film of the same name [see below]) it'll have you screaming for the exits, Thunder Road is an expertly made movie, placing us inside living rooms, parent/teacher conferences, squad cars, and at uncomfortable dinner tables, as Jim continuously attempts to not put his foot in his mouth and only further hinder his situation. Apparently, producer Matt Miller is going to self-distribute the movie – much like he did with Dennis Hauck’s scrambled John Hawkes neo noir Too Late – but the simple fact that a movie this good couldn't get a satisfactory offer from a distribution label is absolutely infuriating. Thunder Road is a terrific example of modern American independent filmmaking, and (if the universe were fair) Jim Cummings should be batting studio offers away for both acting and directing gigs.