The Best Undistributed Films of 2007

Chris Wisniewski January 2, 2008

What is it about Korean auteurs that have critics salivating and distributors running for the exits? Last year, Hong Sang-soo’s “Woman on the Beach” topped indieWIRE’s best undistributed films list for 2007. This year, Hong compatriot Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine” was far-and-way the winner of the honor. Thirty-four of the 106 critics surveyed in the 2007 indieWIRE Critics’ Poll put the film on their list as one of the best undistributed films of the year. But, of course, it’s an accolade that cuts both ways: Call it a back-handed compliment, as Caveh Zahedi once did upon receiving his award for “Best Film Not Playing at Theater Near You,” or a paean for the sorry state of art-house film distribution.

[ Editor’s note: This article appeared originally in indieWIRE on Dec. 18, 2007. The complete results of indieWIRE’S annual critic’s poll were published on subsequent days.]

Or look on the brighter side: Think of it as a stopover on the way to a limited 2008 release and a deal with a small DVD label. (At least that’s what happened to “Woman on the Beach”; the movie was acquired by New Yorker Films and will be distributed, starting at New York City’s Film Forum on Jan. 9.)

Ever since L.A. Weekly and Variety critic Scott Foundas caught “Secret Sunshine” in advance of its 2007 Cannes Film Festival premiere, calling it a “secular hymn to the small triumphs and cavernous tragedies of the everyday” and singling out lead actress Jeon Do-yeon as a “revelation,” expectations were high for director Lee’s big-screen return after his brief stint as South Korea’s culture minister. At Cannes, the film didn’t disappoint; indeed, Jeon went onto capture the Best Actress prize.

Following his heralded three features, “Green Fish” (1997), “Peppermint Candy” (2000) and “Oasis” (2002) – the latter of which is the only to see U.S. theaters – “Secret Sunshine” marks the apotheosis of Lee’s brief, but forceful filmmaking career. As one of the most sophisticated leading lights of Korea’s New Wave, Lee has emerged as an extraordinary director of actors and a master of the tragic, without the sentimentality that undermines Korea’s more commercial product. Critic Michael Atkinson once called “Oasis” “a daring heartbreaker,” which could be said for all of his work.

If “Secret Sunshine” should be lucky enough to find theatrical exhibition in 2008 (a complete Lee retrospective is already set for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), many of this year’s undistributed films will not be so fortunate.

While Jia Zhang-ke’s Venice winner “Still Life” (which placed #2 in last year’s undistributed poll) will also be released in January 2008 by New Yorker Films, his follow-up “Useless” (#2 in this year’s poll with 20 votes) will have a tougher time: Jia’s “Dong,” the first in a trilogy of films about artists that continues with “Useless,” remains without distribution. Though explicitly a documentary about China’s clothing industry, “Useless” is much more, as described by Chris Wisniewski in Reverse Shot: “something beautiful, expansive, and deeply philosophical.”

It should be noted that an equal number of critics listed Mexican maverick Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light” on their ballots, but that film has been acquired by Tartan Films, thereby disqualifying it from our poll. But according to a Tartan spokesperson, the company has “not set a release date” and is “not close to setting a date at this time,” which doesn’t augur well for the film’s theatrical fate. Laura Dunn’s poetic documentary “The Unforeseen” also appeared on many ballots, but the film was picked up by Cinema Guild and will be released in February. Same for Guy Maddin’s latest dreamy auto-portrait “My Winnipeg,” which was acquired by IFC Films — one of the few bigger companies to take on these much beloved, yet esoteric films.

Abel Ferrara’s “Go Go Tales” (7 votes) on the other hand, doesn’t have an announced distribution deal, but rumors suggest that IFC will acquire it. But for now, it’s still technically available, as is Nick Broomfield’s Iraq docu-drama “Battle for Haditha” (6 votes).

As with last year’s undistributed list, foreign-language festival pictures dominate, with old-vet Eric Rohmer’s fable “The Romance of Astree and Celadon” and Spanish newcomer Jose Luis Guerin’s “In the City of Sylvia” tying for third place with 14 votes. Bela Tarr’s “The Man from London” (11 votes) and Roy Andersson’s “You, the Living” (8 votes) scored high on the list.

Other films in the top ten are welcome surprises. Coming in strong (also with 11 votes), Boston-based filmmaker John Gianvito’s 58-minute “Profit motive and the whispering wind” was one of the few American films to rank well. Described by Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope, “Profit motive” is a “lean, poetic and rigorous” experimental landscape documentary about the history of the American Left.

The only other U.S. pictures in the top 25 titles were Ferrera’s “Go Go Tales” (an Italian co-production), Ronald Bronstein’s “Frownland” (each with 7 votes), which won this year’s Gotham Award for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You” and described by Amy Taubin as a “mesmerizing piece of New York miserabilism,” and Chris Smith’s “The Pool” (4 votes), the “American Movie” director’s recent sojourn in Indian neorealist filmmaking, which this writer called “immensely resonant” and “well-crafted” after its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January.

Playing largely under the radar in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight program, Serge Bozon’s “La France” (9 votes) has garnered a number of impassioned fans, though is largely unknown outside the festival circuit. “A WWI musical (think Beach Boys, not Michel Legrand) with more than a few surprises,” wrote Andrea Picard, “‘La France’ is by far one of the boldest films of late … beguiling audiences around the world.”

And what about the other over 250 feature films on the list, from highly touted Cannes premieres like Ulrich Seidl’s “Import Export” (5 votes) and Wang Bing’s “He Fengming: A Chinese Memoir” (4 votes) all the way down to the obscure Japanese comedy “Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters” (2 votes)? If they don’t get the chance to beguile the world in theaters, maybe, at the very least, they’ll find their way to audiences via digital download.

The Ten Best Undistributed Films of 2007

1. “Secret Sunshine,” directed by Lee Chang-dong (34 votes)

2. “Useless,” directed by Jia Zhang-ke (20 votes)

3 and 4. “The Romance of Astree and Celadon,” directed by Eric Rohmer and “In the City of Sylvia,” directed by Jose Luis Guerin (14 votes)

5 and 6. “Profit motive and the whispering wind,” directed by John Gianvito and “The Man >From London,” directed by Bela Tarr (11 votes)
“La France,” directed by Serge Bozon (9 votes)

7. “You, the Living,” directed by Roy Andersson (8 votes)
8 and 9. “Frownland,” directed by Ronald Bronstein and “Go Go Tales,” directed by Abel Ferrara (7 votes)

10. “Battle for Haditha,” directed by Nick Broomfield (6 votes)

(Reprinted with permission, copyright Anthony Kaufman, indieWIRE 2007.)