After December’s endless ‘best-of-2013’ lists (our own list here!) and January’s blitz of stories previewing upcoming 2014 movies, it may be useful to consider the movie universe from a different angle. What interesting movies premiered elsewhere in the world in 2013, but haven’t yet screened or opened to the public in Los Angeles?
The answer unpacks all sorts of misconceptions. For starters, two recent online exchanges among American critics carried the same theme: that 2013 was a below-average year for movies outside the U.S. But as the list below confirms, nothing could be further from the truth.
Yes, the year’s crop from Cannes wasn’t one to remember. But it did yield such extraordinary works as “Stranger by the Lake,” the long-overdue breakout movie from writer-director Alain Guiraudie—for my money the best new movie I saw in 2013—along with Lav Diaz’s jaw-dropping epic “Norte, The End of History”; Cambodian master Rithy Panh’s stunning autobiographical “The Missing Picture” (just nominated for the best foreign-language Oscar); the winner of Cannes’ coveted Camera d’Or for best debut feature, “Ilo Ilo” from Singapore writer-director Anthony Chen; and another wonderful debut discovery from northern Argentina, “The Owners,” from writing-directing duo Ezequiel Radusky and Agustin Toscano.
And that was just Cannes. There’s a whole wide world out there beyond the most powerful film festival, one where an impressive roster of movies appeared in a year when—if all you were listening to was the American press—the only thing that mattered was the Oscar race. Los Angeles likes to think of itself as the movie capital of the world, but it typically gets a lot of these movies late in the day and sometimes not at all, part of what spurred some of us at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association to create the ongoing screening series, “The Films That Got Away.”
So, in alphabetical order, a lineup of the best 2013 movies that may—or may not—get away from Los Angeles. Some have screened at Los Angeles festivals, but if you blinked, you missed them. If the movie has a U.S. distributor, this is noted in parenthesis.
- Blue Ruin (Radius/TWC). A tough, deliciously nasty revenge saga that premiered in Cannes and played at AFI Fest.
- Bobo. One of my favorite finds at the Toronto film festival, a tender yet rigorous domestic drama from talented writer-director Ines Oliveira.
- Bethlehem (Adopt Films). If John Le Carre were an Israeli novelist, he might have come up with something like this striking political thriller, with a superb screenplay by Yuval Adler and Ali Wakad.
- Child’s Pose (Zeitgeist). Another great script, by director Calin Peter Netzer and Razvan Radulescu, girds a stunning moral tale that reminds that Romania’s cinema is still kicking and taking names.
- Emperor Visits the Hell. Easily one of the year’s quirkiest, Canadian-Chinese filmmaker Luo Li imagines an ancient story of imperial intrigue as an absurdist contemporary comedy.
- Fair Wind—Notes of a Traveler. A beautiful example of the hand-made film, Austrian filmmaker Bernadette Weigel takes her Super-8 camera along on her long road trip to the East.
- The Fifth Gospel of Kaspar Hauser. If movies are dreams, then Galician artist-turned-16mm filmmaker Alberto Gracia’s debut is a movie to the umpteenth power, defying logic and perceptions to suggest the Kaspar Hauser tale through the unseen Kaspar’s point of view.
- Forty Years from Yesterday. 2013 saw many fine co-directed movies, few better than this stunning feature debut from the Northern California team of Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck about a family’s profound grief after the loss of a loved one.
- Gloria (Roadside Attractions). This is a triumph for highly regarded Chilean actor Paulina Garcia, who delivers a wry, comic tour de force as a woman of a certain age trying to get her mojo back. [nb: “Gloria” to open this Friday at the Landmark.]
- The Great Flood (Icarus Films). A master of stunning montages of found and decayed footage, Bill Morrison has resurrected film documenting the devastating Mississippi Flood of 1927 for stunning effect.
- Grisgris (Film Movement). Another fine Cannes premiere, writer-director Mahamet Saleh-Haroun’s unlikely drama of a dancer and violence in Chad should finally arrive here this year.
- In Bloom (Big World Pictures). Like a bolt out of the blue from the burgeoning cinema scene in Georgia, this marks an unforgettable collaboration between first-time filmmakers Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross and a mind-blowing ensemble.
- Harmony Lessons. Another remarkable debut, this Kazakh drama (which screened at AFI Fest) examines systems of male domination and brutality with cool precision.
- Ilo Ilo (Film Movement). See intro above
- The Island of St. Matthews. 16mm filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson is a true independent—not one of these so-called “indies” who stuff the streets of Sundance. His half-fiction, half-docu look at a backwater slice of his Columbus, Miss. hometown is a perfect balance of the poetic and everyday.
- La ultima pelicula (m’aidez films). Any movie inspired in part by Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie” and “American Dreamer” (starring Hopper) should be just this side of mad-crazy, and this phantasmagoria deep in the Yucatan from Canadian filmmaker/programmer Mark Peranson and the extraordinary young Filipino director Raya Martin more than fulfills that promise.
- Ma belle gosse. A teenage girl’s summer reverie becomes something genuinely unforgettable when seen through debuting French filmmaker Shalimar Preuss’ expressive lens.
- Manakamana. A series of aerial tramway rides to the Nepalese temple of Manakamana provides filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez with fresh, cinematic insights into human nature.
- Manuscripts Don’t Burn. How writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof was able to make this bitterly caustic political drama in (and out of) Iran, then smuggle it to the Cannes competition is already the stuff of legend.
- The Missing Picture (Strand Releasing). See intro above
- Night Labor. A night worker at a Maine fishing plant provides the filmmaking team of David Redmon and Ashley Sabin with the kind of black comic verite that Werner Herzog would kill for.
- Nobody’s Daughter Haewon. What a year for South Korea’s master of intimate comedy, Hong Sang-soo. This character piece, along with Hong’s “Our Sunhi,” form a marvelous, intriguing double view of smart men and women making fools of themselves.
- Norte, The End of History (Cinema Guild). See intro above
- Oktober November. Critics were baffled that Austrian writer-director Gotz Spielmann’s delicately observed drama of two quite different sisters wasn’t a redux of his hit, “Revanche.” Which is a reason to distrust critics.
- Omar (Adopt Films). Nominated for the foreign-language Oscar, writer-director Hany Abu-Assad brilliantly explores the same theme addressed in “Bethlehem”—the use of young Palestinian men as informants for Israel’s spy service.
- Our Sunhi. See note on “Our Daughter Haewon.”
- The Owners. See intro above
- People’s Park (Cinema Guild). Like “Manakamana,” a product of Harvard’s Ethnography Sensory Lab, which is reinventing the idea of non-fiction cinema. Unlike “Manakamana,” it’s comprised of a single, astonishing shot.
- A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. The combination of Ben Rivers and Ben Russell—both makers of films that travel to remote corners of the planet and human identity—results in one man’s mesmerizing adventure into and out of the deep wilderness.
- Stop the Pounding Heart. Italian documentary maker Roberto Minervini has quietly made a phenomenal trilogy of real life in rural Texas, with “Pounding Heart” as the tender climax.
- The Story of My Death. Casanova meets Dracula. There’s nobody else like Albert Serra, who makes movies about impossibly grand subjects (Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, The Three Kings) with his Catalan friends, and always makes magic.
- The Strange Little Cat. The discovery of the Berlin film festival is a kitchen-sink wonder, exploring family dynamics in purely cinematic terms. Amazing.
- Stranger by the Lake (Strand Releasing). See intro above.
- Stray Dogs (Cinema Guild). Good for distributor Cinema Guild: The brave little company supports great cinema artists like Tsai Ming-liang, whose latest recalibrates his unique grasp of slow-burn absurdism.
- Vers Madrid: The Burning Bright!. We’re betting Los Angeles festivals aren’t touching radical documentary maker Sylvain George’s dynamic report from the front lines of protests against the Spanish government’s unpopular austerity measures.
- Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (KimStim). Yes, there are great moviemakers in Canada, and maybe the best is Denis Cote. Two women, a cabin, nasty neighbors, critters and bad feelings make for a strong concoction.
- What Now? Remind Me. Already viewed by some as the finest non-fiction work of recent years, this video-shot diary has Portuguese filmmaker Joaquim Pinto looking at himself as he searches for medicines to stem his advancing sickness from HIV-AIDS. But it’s about so much more.
- When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism (Cinema Guild). Oh, this is one smart movie. A director and his female lead engage in a fling during production, but by the end of Corneliu Porimboiu’s brilliantly written and shot drama, the whole purpose of making art is questioned.
Robert Koehler, a film critic for Film Comment, Cinema Scope, IndieWire and Cineaste, blogs about movies on arts·meme.