“You can lead a horse to water,” as they say, “but you can’t make him drink.” That’s true of a vast swath of great independent and foreign films, which rely almost entirely on strong reviews and word of mouth to gain a foothold in a competitive market. Often, they can have everything going for them and still get buried in the avalanche of movies that come out every week, especially in New York, where sometimes dozens of new releases compete for dwindling sets of eyes. We don’t forget them here at The Dissolve, however: The list below includes a diverse range of voices from around the world—from established auteurs and new talents to an exciting wave of documentary filmmakers eager to push the boundaries of non-fiction—all of which grossed under $100,000 at the U.S. box office. (Note: All totals, via Box Office Mojo, are as of December 10, 2014, and don’t take into account revenue generated by VOD, streaming, or other non-theatrical outlets.) They all deserve a second chance—if not to make gobs of money, then at least to find the adventurous viewers that missed them the first time around.
DOMESTIC BOX-OFFICE GROSS: $97,170
Child’s Pose, which won the Golden Bear at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, hails from the verdant garden of Romanian cinema, and stars Luminita Gheorghiu, best known for her unforgettable role as the mordantly funny nurse in The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu. But it came and went without getting much attention in America, even from critics. The film—and Gheorghiu’s towering performance as a bourgeois matriarch fighting for justice (which is to say, injustice) for her grown son—deserves a second hearing in the States. Gheorghiu stars as Cornelia, who reacts quickly to the news that her only son (Bogdan Dumitrache) has struck and killed a young boy after trying to speed around another car. There’s a degree to which Cornelia’s manipulations are unforgivable, an appalling expression of her privilege and moral bankruptcy. But Gheorghiu and director Calin Peter Netzer go deeper with the character, who’s displaying the instincts of any mother trying to protect her child. The son mostly rejects her intervention, which adds more complexity still, deepening a drama that mines a simple premise for powerful observations on family, justice, and social class.
DOMESTIC BOX-OFFICE GROSS: $94,080
What does it take for a documentary to find an audience these days? Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, got sterling reviews across the board, and features one of the year’s most riveting characters in fiction and non-fiction alike, but very few people saw it in theaters. But it will surely find a second life as a fascinating document of our time, a tale of Christian charity in the face of capitalist insularity and self-interest. After hearing of a new oil boom (courtesy of fracking) in the fields outside the town of Williston, North Dakota, Moss took his camera north and found Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor who decided to open his church (and its parking lot) to the hordes of displaced laborers who came to town looking for work. With the community unable (and unwilling) to accommodate the sudden spike in population, Reinke felt a moral duty to help these men, however much it alienated his neighbors and parishioners, and put a stress on his family. There’s more to the story than that—much, much more—and Moss’ camera is present for many startlingly intimate, troubling, and heartbreaking moments, all thanks to a man whose willingness to do a good deed does not go unpunished.
DOMESTIC BOX-OFFICE GROSS: $82,614
In a year that saw documentaries like Rich Hill and Actress continuing to embrace the aesthetic possibilities of non-fiction filmmaking, Lofty Nathan’s dreamy depiction of the Baltimore dirt-biking scene stands out for its ecstatic beauty. Over a three-year period, Nathan chronicled a subculture in which roving gangs of dirt-bike and ATV riders took en masse to the streets of West Baltimore, riding up as far as the tourist area of the Harbor. Though he acknowledges the tension between the authorities and the riders—and the legitimate dangers for biking enthusiasts, pedestrians, and drivers alike—Nathan is plainly smitten with his subjects. His dreamy slow-motion shots of the bikers in action—the title is a reference to the angle of a perfect wheelie, with the bike pointed straight upward—express their own temporary sense of freedom, transcendence, and empowerment in a life that’s characterized by poverty, oppression, and powerlessness. And at a time when divisions between young black men and the police are so publicly exposed, the film lays that impasse bare.
DOMESTIC BOX-OFFICE GROSS: $59,424
E.L. Katz’s aptly titled Cheap Thrills makes a virtue of economy. Its cast is largely limited to four principal actors: the great character actor Pat Healy as a good family man with a dark past, speeding toward one of the worst days of his life; Ethan Embry as a low-life criminal whose willingness to do anything for money is sorely tested over the course of one fucked-up night; David Koechner as a creep whose just-one-of-the-fellas bonhomie masks a deep streak of sadism; and Sara Paxton as his bored wife. The film similarly limits its locations to a bar and a home where Healy and Embry’s willingness to degrade themselves for money soon threatens to become fatal. It’s a morality tale of sorts, without a self-righteous bone in its body, a lean, mean, darkly comic thriller that favorably recalls similar dark-night-of-the-soul sleepers like Stuart Gordon’s Stuck and Edmond. That economy also extends to a running time of 85 minutes, which leaves no room for this wicked little dark comedy to wear out its welcome.
DOMESTIC BOX-OFFICE GROSS: $54,915
The latest from Young Adam director David Mackenzie follows indomitably tough and violent 19-year-old offender Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) as he’s remanded to an adult prison, where his longtime-absentee father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is also incarcerated. There are enough plot threads here for a season of Oz, as the story whisks through Eric and Neville’s fencing for control and familial intimacy, the various leadership struggles among the prison administration and the inmates, and the difficulties faced by a volunteer counselor (Rupert Friend) running an informal group-therapy program. But the story doesn’t hit home as thoroughly as the ferocity these men bring to their dominance battles, and the tension and beauty Mackenzie and his team bring into the mix. Starred Up is both visually striking and impeccably acted; between this and his starring role in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, O’Connell has become one of 2014’s most buzzed-about young actors. The sight of him stripped down, oiled up, and roaring as he brandishes two table legs as makeshift weapons is one of the most startlingly primal, intimidating images to hit film screens in 2014.
DOMESTIC BOX-OFFICE GROSS: $43,174
Born in England and raised in America, Ana Lily Amirpour nonetheless turned her writing-directing debut into a Farsi-language fantasy filmed in California but set in Iran, where a vampire (the unnamed “girl” of the title) haunts a small town, preying on the men who prey on women. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night touches on Amirpour’s Iranian heritage, but moreso on her cinematic background. Heavy doses of Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch fill out the film, a stylish black-and-white hangout movie with Eraserhead-esque creepy, oppressive sound design and a Jarmuschian love of brooding music and brooding characters. This isn’t a film about vampirism so much as a film about youth culture and the signifiers of cool. There’s a lot of posing and posturing, but it’s all beautifully shot posturing, an appealing flashback to a cultural idea of long, hot nights cruising the strip and looking for just enough trouble to make life interesting.
DOMESTIC BOX-OFFICE GROSS: $30,312
It isn’t unusual for big Hollywood stars to dabble in the low-budget, low-pressure world of mumblecore. But it’s hard to recall a major movie star who made as immense or infectious an impression working with the Joe Swanbergs of the world (or, in this case, Joe Swanberg himself, who wrote, directed, and co-stars) as Anna Kendrick. Kendrick ambles sideways into Happy Christmas as an adorable fuck-up looking for some direction in her rudderless existence. When she hooks up with sexy part-time pot-dealer/babysitter (Mark Webber, whose character thankfully keeps those two gigs separate), she causes her more conventional sister-in-law Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) to question her life as a stay-at-home wife and mother. Happy Christmas is an utter charmer, small-scale but with a big, rambunctious heart. Yet somehow, not even the star power of Pitch Perfect star Kendrick and supporting player Lena Dunham (whom you may have read about literally everywhere in the known universe) could push the film past the $100,000 line. Oh well: Much of the film’s charm lies in its grungy intimacy and modesty, so it should do a lot better on home video and streaming.
Domestic box-office gross: $27,738
Filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab constructed Manakamana from a simple idea: They placed a camera on different ends of a cable-car as it took 10-minute journeys up and down a Nepalese mountain to a Buddhist temple. Some of the passengers sit in silence. Some chat about the scenery, or about their experience at the mountaintop. Regardless, the camera stays fixed, and the audience is asked to contemplate a variety of human faces (and one carload of goats) as they seem to glide through the air. Manakamana is a meditative experience in and of itself—quiet and focused—but there’s an element of tension to it as well. Because each trip has a definite starting point and a definite conclusion, and because Spray and Velez don’t cut away, finality always looms. At the beginning of each scene, there’s plenty of time to look at these people and take in their immediate surroundings. Around the eighth or ninth minute, that calm is replaced by a dawning awareness that everything ends.
DOMESTIC BOX-OFFICE GROSS: $20,093
In Happy Valley, Amir Bar-Lev brings his typically measured, thoughtful approach to the recent Penn State scandal, looking into the culture of one football-crazed university—and of sports fandom in general—to ask how an abusive pedophile could run amok in the athletics department for so long. Arriving on campus after the Jerry Sandusky story breaks, Bar-Lev captures the evolution of the local student body and alumni reactions: from shock and dismay to a defiant refusal to let the Sandusky business sully the legacy of longtime coach Joe Paterno. Happy Valley isn’t really a procedural doc. It’s less about the facts of the case, and more about the aftermath, and how so many Penn State fans have been eager to get back to cheering on their team and forgetting about sex crimes and cover-ups. Like Bar-Lev’s documentaries My Kid Could Paint That and The Tillman Story, Happy Valley is about how communities rush to hammer a complicated situation into an easily understood narrative, with clear heroes and villains—even when the truth is much messier.
DOMESTIC BOX-OFFICE GROSS: $19,339
Edet Belzberg’s ambitious documentary Watchers Of The Sky probably didn’t benefit from a title that makes perfect—and moving—sense in the context of the film, but out of context suggests a movie about astronomy. Then again, a doc about genocide as a concept was always going to be a tough sell, whatever the movie was called. Watchers fully, thoughtfully engages with that task, however, tracing genocide from its early manifestations through the coining of the term—which gave definition to a crime that previously had no name—through the stories of those who fight against it in all its many forms today. It’s a bleak topic, and one Belzberg in no way shortchanges, while still making hope the defining quality of the struggle.
DOMESTIC BOX-OFFICE GROSS: $7,496
The latest (and reportedly final) film from Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang isn’t for those who demand nonstop action—one ardent fan determined that 27 of its 138 minutes (including one epic 14-minute shot) are devoted to characters staring silently at a mural in a ruined building. For those who can get on Tsai’s intensely sedate wavelength, however, Stray Dogs serves as a powerful closing statement, recapitulating many of the themes that have obsessed him for the past two decades. For all intents and purposes, his onscreen alter ego, Lee Kang-sheng, has played the same basic character in all of Tsai’s films; here, he’s a desperately poor father who spends his days standing in the pouring rain holding a sign advertising luxury apartments, and his nights trying to scrounge up food and shelter for his two young children. What might play as empty miserablism in other hands takes on a surreal tinge here, from a scene in which Lee’s dad sobs for several minutes while molesting a cabbage to a single role played by three different actresses. If this does turn out to be Tsai’s swan song, it’s as beautiful and melancholy a tune as one could wish.
DOMESTIC BOX-OFFICE GROSS: $7,170
A documentary character sketch that’s both artful and insightful, Robert Greene’s Actress follows Brandy Burre, a housewife and mother who’s ready to resume her acting career after taking a long break to start a family. (Her most prominent gig prior to the layoff was a recurring role on The Wire.) But during the time that Greene’s filming Burre, her marriage falls apart, making it harder for her to get away from her New York small town and go out on auditions. Actress can be seen as an impressionistic portrait of the various “characters” one woman plays in her life—a theme Greene underscores by shooting dreamy interludes of Burre dressed up as a perfect old-time TV/movie wife and mother. But Actress is also, in a real way, about the diminished choices some women have when it comes to pursuing their passions, either because of age, responsibilities, or social expectations. With each decision, and each passing year, more doors close.
DOMESTIC BOX-OFFICE GROSS: $5,885
Forget the cat—let’s talk about this strange little film. Made as an assignment for a seminar taught by the great (now retired) Hungarian director Béla Tarr, the debut feature of Germany’s Ramon Zürcher depicts an ordinary day in the life of an ordinary middle-class family, observing as Mom putters around the kitchen and kids of various ages amuse themselves. (Yes, there’s also a cat.) Zürcher’s formal approach is anything but ordinary, though. Sounds become oppressive long before their source is identified; compositions carve up space into disorienting fragments; domestic scenes are interrupted by flashbacks that explain nothing, merely adding mystery. More than any other movie in recent memory, The Strange Little Cat is a virtuosic exercise in rhythm, creating meaning almost exclusively through precise cuts and contrapuntal bits of business. At times it’s funny, at other times ineffably sad. And it’s over in a brisk 72 minutes, leaving questions tantalizingly unanswered—first and foremost, what will Zürcher do next?