A film’s domestic box-office take has never been an indicator of quality, but until recently, it’s at least provided a reasonably good barometer of a film’s cultural saturation. That’s growing increasingly untrue, though, as video-on-demand and streaming services are providing more and more platforms and ancillary revenue streams for the sort of smaller film that might have glanced off the public consciousness like a pebble just a few short years ago. Nonetheless, a film’s domestic box-office take continues to be the yardstick against which a film’s overall success tends to be measured, for better or worse. With that in mind, we searched the lower echelons of the 2013 box-office records for smaller successes, great films that grossed less than $100,000 at the domestic box office. (Note: All totals, via Box Office Mojo, are as of December 8, 2013, and don’t take into account revenue generated by VOD, streaming, or other non-theatrical outlets.) Most of these came and went from arthouse theaters in a matter of weeks (or days), but for our critics, their impact stretched throughout the year.
Domestic box-office gross $92,336
First-time feature director Alexandre Moors makes a lot of bold, confident choices in this film about the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, but the most striking is the way he focuses on the emotions of the story first, and the history second. Blue Caprice spends little time on the shootings, and much more on the moody relationship between the two convicted killers, who developed a father-son bond out of mutual need and isolation. Lead actors Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond are terrific, and Brian O’Carroll’s chilly cinematography is wonderfully evocative, but what comes across most clearly is Moors’ restraint. He evokes horror without exploiting it, and suggests the humanity behind the murderers without excusing their actions, or offering easy explanations.
It’s A Disaster
Domestic box-office gross $60,818
This Is The End was the year’s high-profile apocalyptic ensemble comedy, but there was more off-kilter wit and high-wire acting to be found in the smaller, daffier It’s A Disaster, which sees an already jittery Sunday brunch interrupted by news that a dirty bomb has taken out most of downtown Los Angeles. As they await the deadly fallout, a group of seven friends—plus one nonplussed date (David Cross) who’s meeting everyone else for the first time—slowly come to terms with their likely demise, sparking an uproarious amalgam of explosive recriminations, bizarre digressions, and last-second status-jockeying. So cheerfully corrosive is the film’s sense of humor that at one point two tardy guests are left outside to die as punishment for having perpetually shown up late to brunch for years. Written and directed by members of the L.A. comedy troupe The Vacationeers, It’s A Disaster makes a terrific showcase for them while deftly weaving better-known ringers like America Ferrara and Julia Stiles into their deliberately frayed tapestry. But it’s Cross, playing the straight man for a change, who owns the movie, turning bewilderment into a thing of frantic beauty.
Domestic box-office gross $76,211
This strange product of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab strapped cameras to commercial fishermen and their boat for long, completely uncontextualized takes that capture the commercial-fishing experience with you-are-there realism. An astonishing mixture of beauty and ugliness, the film stares uncritically at men rapidly breaking down a catch into saleable cuts and organic trash, and contemplates the hypnotic movement of sea, sky, birds, and waves. The shots are astonishing for different reasons—sometimes because they’re uncommonly gorgeous, sometimes because they’re baffling, sometimes because they’re so banal—but the result is, as the filmmakers intended, more visceral experience than movie, and more intense by far than a narrative documentary.
Domestic box-office gross $81,900
“Narcocorridos” are toe-tappingly catchy ditties with pretty harmonies and hooky rhythms. But the bright melodies belie dark lyrics, written about—and often commissioned by—some of the most dangerous drug lords in Mexico, who collect these odes to their vicious activities as perverse status symbols. There was surely an interesting documentary to be made in comparing this genre's meaning and impact to other violent art like gangsta rap or torture porn. Instead, director Shaul Schwarz eschews the use of critics or talking heads in favor of an approach more suited to his background as a war photographer: Embedding himself with Edgar Quintero, one of narco culture’s most popular musicians, as he blithely glorifies the drug war from the safety of Los Angeles, and Richi Soto, who fights on the front lines of that bloody conflict as a beleaguered forensic scientist in Juárez, Mexico. A little more context and history about narcos would have been useful, but Schwarz’s film is nonetheless brutally effective, and his juxtaposition of Quintero’s musical fantasies and Soto’s grim reality is absolutely devastating.
Something In The Air
Domestic box-office gross $73,306
Olivier Assayas has had some significant arthouse hits in the United States—his familial drama Summer Hours made over $1.6 million in theaters in 2009—but this semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story failed to connect with audiences. The ultra-generic English title probably didn’t help; the original French title, which translates to “After May”—as in the protests and strikes in Paris circa May 1968—made a lot more sense. But it’s more likely some viewers were turned off by Assayas’ creatively bold but financially risky decision to treat his characters—including the one loosely based on himself—with ambivalence rather than blind, gauzy nostalgia. He allowed his teenagers to be teenagers: immature, confused, and largely unformed. Eventually the fervor of 1968 fades the same way most teenage passions do, and as it’s replaced by the far less glamorous responsibilities of adulthood, Assayas’ characters disperse to pursue other interests. In this film, the revolution will not be televised, it will be co-opted—and, sadly, not seen by many people.
Domestic box-office gross $16,668
Claire Denis’ latest mood piece could be labeled a film noir, with its pitch-black tale of power and revenge, but her elliptical touch is so alluring and distinctive that it’s really just a Claire Denis film. Bastards may be Denis’ darkest work to date—quite a feat after the vampiric Trouble Every Day—but she creates an atmosphere that’s utterly intoxicating, spinning a mystery out of corporate power games and the peculiarities of human behavior. The story involves the unnatural death of a bankrupt shoe manufacturer and the pitiless tycoon held responsible, and Denis and her screenwriting partner, Jean-Pol Fargeau, make a fine hash of the motives of those caught up in their web of intrigue. But trying to sort through the plot is never the best approach to watching a Denis film, and that’s doubly true of Bastards, which succeeds in evoking evil as an invisible yet palpable force that hovers over all.
Domestic box-office gross $53,398
On May 13, 1985, long-standing tensions between the city of Philadelphia and the radical urban group MOVE escalated into tragedy when the police dropped a bomb on MOVE headquarters, setting off a fire that killed 11 people and burned a series of rowhouses. With the “found-footage” documentary Let The Fire Burn, director Jason Osder relies wholly on existing news reports, committee hearings, and other footage to set the context for what happened. By eliminating the perspective of interview subjects looking back now on events that happened almost 30 years ago, Osder both immerses viewers in the period and takes a more balanced approach to the sins of all parties. That doesn’t forbid his own point of view—the title, a notorious quote by the authorities, makes his horror clear enough—but the film is a vivid snapshot of the times, capturing Philadelphia as a wounded civic organism.
Domestic box-office gross $92,181
Howard Hawks once described a good movie as having three great scenes and no bad ones. But what of a film with three great scenes and some bad ones? Something like that must still be worth a look, right? Directed by Brian De Palma, Passion’s setpieces belong in any highlight reel, including a split-screen sequence that feels straight out of the director’s 1970s work. As for the film around those setpieces, it’s kind of a mess, from a plot that’s more tangled than twisty and scenes that don’t bear much resemblance to how humans interact with one another. But the lurid, dreamlike movie deserved a bigger audience than it found.
Domestic box-office gross $85,252
In 1994, Neil Jordan directed a pretty good, extremely high-profile adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire. 2013 saw the American release of another Jordan-directed vampire tale, to much less fanfare. That’s unfortunate, since Byzantium combined Jordan’s gift for memorable imagery with weary performances from Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton that conveyed the accumulated weight of living far longer than nature intended. Culturally, we may have reached peak vampire a while ago, but this is one that deserves to find an afterlife.
Domestic box-office gross $14,000
Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq’s These Birds Walk is a documentary with the look and feel of a great fiction film, taking an unconventional approach to the work done in Pakistan by The Edhi Foundation and its octogenarian philanthropist founder. Rather than providing a broad overview of how Edhi provides medical care and shelter to the impoverished, Mullick and Tariq embed at street level, to show why the foundation matters. In long, intimate scenes, These Birds Walk follows the daily interactions of orphans and aid workers, spending the time to show not just their struggles, but to reveal their hearts and souls. The subjects have their dark moments, but that’s only because they aren’t reducible to statistics or anecdotes. By the end of These Birds Walk, Mullick and Tariq have dispensed with the kind of third-world miserablism that tacitly suggests the poor are so wretched that they’d be better off dead. Their lives, the film argues, are worth saving.
Domestic box-office gross $10,068
The Errol Morris-like documentary Informant uses first-person interviews and archival footage to tell the strange story of Brandon Darby, an activist who went from defying the federal government as an advocate for victims of Hurricane Katrina to working with the FBI to imprison his radical anarchist associates. By bringing in multiple perspectives on Darby—and by spending a lot of time with the frequently irascible Darby himself—director Jamie Meltzer raises questions about whether his subject became interested in social justice in order to make the world a better place, or because he just has a dangerous hero complex. Informant is a provocative inquiry into what drives people to make a difference, and how that drive can lead to some questionable “ends justify the means” choices. The film also serves as a vivid illustration of how grassroots movements like The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have more in common than their adherents would like to acknowledge—in their diffuse fervor, if nothing else.
Domestic box-office gross $31,641
As an homage to the Italian “giallo” thrillers of the 1970s, writer-director Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio might strike some as an exercise in frustration, since most of the movie is about the sound of gory movie violence, presented in the context of an overwhelmed British effects expert (played by Toby Jones) working on a soundtrack. But it becomes clear fairly early on that Strickland is more interested in playing around, as a way of proving how easy it is to create an atmosphere of suspense by toying with the audience’s imagination. Strickland uses sound, words, and the reactions of actors to suggest something horrific, even when nothing that’s happening on-screen is “real.” As the movie’s hero begins to feel more alienated by his surroundings and confused by what’s expected of him, Berberian Sound Studio takes on the quality of a nightmare, in which cinema itself becomes the villain, assaulting both the people who make it and the people who watch it.
Domestic box-office gross $99,665
Those who heard Jia Zhang-ke was making a wuxia might have been surprised at the lack of swordplay in A Touch Of Sin, but the neat head shots that take down several would-be bandits in the film’s opening minutes served notice that this would be a Jia film unlike any other. Inspired by several widely publicized incidents that spread across his native China via social media, Jia’s movie consists of several lightly overlapping vignettes that all lead toward the same conclusion: Modern China drives people to violence, and in some cases even rewards it. It’s a startling departure, and yet perfectly in keeping with the spirit of Jia’s earlier films, a Platform for the Twitter age.
Domestic box-office gross $67,414
In a year with Leviathan and These Birds Walk, Lana Wilson and Martha Shane’s portrait of the four U.S. doctors who openly perform late-term abortions seems downright conventional. But with a subject so explosive, there’s strength in familiarity, and the people and situations they captured are anything but stock. Although critics tended to evaluate the film in terms of “balance,” After Tiller is less an advocacy documentary than a documentary about advocates, and the varying mixtures of determination and self-righteousness that allow them to carry on knowing that their practice puts their lives in danger. There’s no question the movie is pro-choice, but it explores how difficult and sometimes awful those choices can be as no other film does.
Domestic box-office gross $9,417
The micro-budgeted sleeper Zero Charisma doubles as a sly, subtle allegory about the co-option of geek culture and geek obsessions by mainstream culture, but the film is first and foremost a knowing and insightful character study. Directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews get uncomfortably close to their complicated protagonist Scott Weidemeyer (Sam Eidson), a chubby misfit who channels a lifetime of frustrations and disappointments into running an ongoing, multi-year role-playing game with an iron fist. Scott’s dominance and sense of self are challenged by the unwanted arrival of a friendly seeming hipster with sinister motives, and while the film doesn’t stick the landing, it nails the details of its grubby milieu in ways that are both hilarious and sad. As the first film distributed by Nerdist Enterprises, Zero Charisma had the might of Chris Hardwick’s empire behind it, but its simultaneously affectionate and withering take on the insecurities and delusions of nerds might have hit a little too close to home for geeks used to being portrayed in more sentimental and less caustic ways.