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Unseen Gems: The 10 Best Foreign Films Still Languishing Without U.S. Distribution This Decade

Best Movies Without Distribution
War of Lies / Black Venus / A Sun

One of the strangest and most vexing things about reviewing movies for a trade paper like Variety — which involves covering films at festivals and markets, as opposed to those consumer newspaper critics who follow the theatrical release schedule — is the fact that so many of the films we cover don’t have U.S. distribution at the moment we write about them. That’s the whole reason Variety is there: to give buyers, agents, and festival programmers an idea of where the quality lies. But it can be surreal to read (or write!) a rave review of a movie that may never reach a movie theater near you.

Sometimes an enthusiastic critic can nudge a company into taking the risk on a foreign gem, but more often than not, the marketplace is too tough for a review to make a difference in a tiny film’s fate. And so the films never find their way to U.S. audiences, despite a market healthy enough to support limited releases for hundreds of foreign films each year — the vast majority of which earn just five or six figures at a box office oriented heavily toward English-language franchise pictures, rather than outside-the-box arthouse fare (consider Canadian talent Xavier Dolan’s multi-award-winning debut, “I Killed My Mother,” which took years to find a U.S. distributor despite launching his international career).

Looking back on the past decade — two and a half of which Variety allowed me to spend in France, focused on the international film beat — I consider myself extremely privileged to have been on the front lines, screening films at festivals around the world and doing my part to champion the most exceptional work I see. As I always say, the indefatigable hope of discovery is the reason I sit through so many mediocre movies. The good news: Eventually, the best work found its way to the U.S., even if only via home video (like Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine”) or through streaming services like Mubi, Film Movement, and Netflix (check out Argentine comedy “The Distinguished Citizen”).

Still, there are hundreds — thousands, really — of wonderful films stranded without American distribution, which is why I’ve taken this opportunity to look back over the past 10 years and spotlight 10 discoveries (movies that expanded my idea of cinema, and the world) that it pains me to think U.S. audiences never got a chance to see. Here, for those who’ve always wondered what they’ve been missing, are the movies I believe it’s still not too late to share with American audiences. Find them any way you can!

“La Belle Époque,” 2019 – dir. Nicolas Bedos

This delightful high-concept romance delivers so much of what Americans love about classic French movies in a dazzlingly modern, Hollywood-slick package. “Caché” star Daniel Auteuil plays a fuddy-duddy husband faced with the prospect of being dumped by his longtime wife (Fanny Ardant, never better) who arranges with an elite service that specializes in elaborate historical re-creations to test the theory that things were better back in the day — where the day in question is the couple’s first date. Picture “Synecdoche, New York” with bitingly funny dialogue and an irresistinle romantic streak.
Why it’s not too late: The crowd-pleaser has been a big hit in France and packs the potential to connect with U.S. audiences starved for grown-up romantic comedy options.

“Black Venus” (Vénus noire), 2010 – dir. Abdellatif Kechiche

A decade on, this upsetting portrait of African freak-show sensation Sarah Baartman, aka “the Hottentot Venus,” from controversy magnet Abdellatif Kechiche (“Blue Is the Warmest Color”) remains too hot for Americans to handle. Granted, the nearly-three-hour running time doesn’t help (frankly, all of Kechiche’s movies could stand to be tighter), nor did a poisonous dismissal by the New York Times. In actuality, the film holds the key to Kechiche’s later work, putting audiences in the position of ogling spectators, implicating them in the tragic mistreatment and humiliation of a woman exploited for her exoticism at the time — in a way that still echoes in society today.
Why it’s not too late: The film was ahead of the curve in exploring issues the Black Lives Matter movement and a small handful of race-related American movies (“12 Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained”) have since dared to confront.

“Class Enemy” (Razredni sovraznik), 2013 – dir. Rok Bicek

After one of their classmates commits suicide, a group of high school students rise up against their new teacher in this unsettling psychological study from the small country of Slovenia, whose film industry is only just emerging. In this tense, well-acted debut, up-and-coming director Bicek explores the chilling power that a group of self-righteous young people can have on the adults in the room. Sure, recent years have shown the upsides of adolescent ingenuity, from post-Parkland anti-gun lobbyists to eco-conscious teen crusader Greta Thunberg, although this thought-provoking film illustrates the flip-side tendency from which Hitler Youth and hate groups emerge, helping audiences to understand how callow individuals unfettered by life experience can be led astray.
Why it’s not too late: The pressure-cooker drama plays like a thriller and packs an “it could happen here” punch.

“Corn Island” (Simindis kundzuli), 2014 – dir. George Ovashvili

For the sake of this list, I’ve tried to avoid examples of overly obscure art movies — the sort that frequent Film Comment’s annual “best undistributed films” roundups — since it’s obvious why distributors steer clear of anti-commercial auteur cinema. That said, this little-seen Georgian wonder, which earned top honors at the 2014 Karlovy Vary Film Festival, merits a mention, considering the spectacular feat of filming this agricultural fable (which involved staging the various phases of a corn harvest) on a tiny sliver of neutral land floating between violently disputed borders.
Why it’s not too late: Ovashvili’s achievement is so visually and logistically stunning, it really deserves a bigscreen release.

“The Life of Fish” (La vida de los peces), 2010 – dir. Matías Bize

It drives me crazy that my favorite romance of the last decade isn’t available in the U.S., especially since this Argentine charmer — in which two old flames bump into each other at a party and spend the evening cautiously orbiting each other, before finally facing the tough questions sure to resonate with anyone who’s ever wondered what might have been — is so much more satisfying than the Amer-indie equivalent. Remember the so-called “Mumblecore” movement? Well, this is the kind of sincere, ground-level relationship drama those directors dreamed of making.
Why it’s not too late: The main actor, Santiago Cabrera, is someone Americans should recognize from the TV series “Heroes.”

“Our Children” (À perdre la raison), 2012 – dir. Joachim Lafosse

A terrible true story treated with utmost empathy, this wrenching Belgian drama features a career-best performance from Émilie Dequenne, the former child actress best known for “Rosetta,” now grown up enough to play a desperate mother of four driven to unconscionable extremes (hint: the opening scene features four child-sized coffins). In order to humanize the headlines, director Lafosse joined forces with the team behind “A Prophet” (including screenwriter Thomas Bidegain), casting Tahar Rahim as the controlling husband and Niels Arestrup as his father figure, resulting in a complex patriarchal critique.
Reason it’s not too late: Rahim is an MVP of the past decade, with many other unreleased-in-U.S. treasures, including “Grand Central,” to his credit.

“Real Love” (C’est ça l’amour), 2018 – dir. Claire Burger

Little seen since the Venice Film Festival where it premiered, here’s a modest yet profoundly perceptive film that blew me away this past year, inspired by the divorce of the director’s parents and the impact that had on her big-hearted father (Bouli Lanners). Stretching beyond his usual comedic range, Lanners is a great bear-like actor who’s completely convincing as a man unmoored by the fact his family seems to have decided they have no more use for him. The movie’s strengths lie in its generous humanism and the documentary-like specificity Burger brings to such a relatable story.
Why it’s not too late: “Real Love” is still making the rounds of festivals, bringing positive attention to its talented female director.

“Snap” (Sa-nap), 2015 – dir. Kongdej Jaturanrasamee

Apart from the work of tropical surrealist Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, U.S. audiences don’t show much interest in Thai cinema. That’s too bad, considering how few directors can match Jaturanrasamee’s gift for capturing the anxieties of the Millennial set. His youth-centric sensibility crosses cultural lines, leveraging a wealth of local details (including the country’s 2014 military coup) to achieve an easily relatable quality. Americans should have no trouble connecting with “Snap,” in which an altar-bound and Instagram-obsessed young woman starts to rethink her engagement after bumping into an old boyfriend, now a wedding photographer.
Why it’s not too late: Between this and 2019’s “Where We Belong,” Jaturanrasamee has proven himself the chronicler of a generation Hollywood doesn’t get.

“A Sun” (Yang Guang Pu Zhao), 2019 – dir. Chung Mong-Hong

In the past, Taiwan has produced such masterful directors as Ang Lee (“Lust Caution”) and Edward Yang (“Yi Yi”), to whose ranks I’m now ready to add “Parking” helmer Chung, on the strength of this knockout family drama. The unpredictable, yet emotionally gripping film opens with a severed hand landing in a boiling hot pot and proceeds to surprise us a dozen times over as it follows the fates of two brothers, one his parents’ high-achieving only hope, the other seemingly little more than a delinquent black sheep. It’s “The Godfather” good.
Why it’s not too late: After premiering in Toronto this past fall, “A Sun” is still relatively early in its festival run, which means U.S. distribs haven’t necessarily had the chance to see it yet.

“War of Lies” (Krieg der Lügen), 2014 – dir. Matthias Bittner

This ambitious student film (technically, a feature-length graduate thesis) ought to be required viewing for all Americans, since it unpacks the roots of the Iraq War, exposing how easily the media and public can be bamboozled. Bittner dares to trace the claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to their source, a shady character known as “Curveball,” who reveals that he was simply telling intelligence officers what they wanted to hear — although one can’t help but wonder whether the slippery trickster is doing any different for the camera.
Reason it’s not too late: Bittner earned an International Emmy award for his trouble. The movie’s revelations still aren’t widely known or acknowledged.

The Best Films of the Decade: