Normally, the year is laid out with strategic marketing logarithms. But traditional thinking, as I understand it, is to load the 'good films' (i.e. potential award winners) at the end of the year so those casting ballots will be likely to remember the critical, popular or promotional swell of a film. 'Good films' released at the beginning of the year, regardless of reception, are often forgotten about. (The best example of this happening recently is Scorsese's Shutter Island from last year, which I would contend was a great film that had award potential. But it didn't even register at the Golden Globes or Academy Awards. Further proof that those voting need to take better notes.)
What's different this year? Well, first of all, I think we can all agree that distribution tactics have been thrown up into the air with no clear understanding of how things will land. Studios struggling to make heads or tails of the benefit of various modes of attack—theatrical, on-demand and physical home formats—have started to break free from what we expect. This is especially true with distributors who specialize in foreign films or smaller independent films like IFC or Magnolia. They are aggressively exploring what it means to release films by non-traditional means: sometimes on-demand, sometimes in theaters and sometimes both.
Maybe even more prophetic to the stellar first six months of 2011 is a handful of even smaller distributors such as Kino Lorber, Cinema Guild, Oscilloscope, and Strand seem to have a much more radical approach: acquire the best films you can and release them. Period. And that's not to say they don't have a plan, but rather they work far outside of the confines of the majors and have quite a bit to show for it, especially in the first half of 2011. A look at my loosely arranged favorite 18 films of year so far reveals that 13 come from these smaller distributors: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Strand), Meek's Cutoff (Oscilloscope), Le Quattro Volte (Kino Lorber), The Arbor (Strand), Aurora (Cinema Guild), Putty Hill (Cinema Guild), Love Exposure (Olive Films), Poetry (Kino Lorber), United Red Army (Kino Lorber), Nostalgia for the Light (Icarus), Film Socialisme (Kino Lorber), Leap Year (Stand) and Tuesday, After Christmas (Kino Lorbor). Of the remaining five, four still come from modestly sized companies: Cold Weather, Certified Copy , Cave of Forgotten Dreams (all IFC) and 13 Assassins (Magnolia/Magnet). And only one, Tree of Life, bares the emblem of a large distributor, Fox Searchlight.
Of course, this all kind of makes sense. Many of the films that will land in the Fall that see both popular and critical success will be from some of the larger distributors who hold the line on cashing in on the awards season. The small distributors own the first half of 2011, and they may likely be the unsung heroes at the end of the year, as I don't see the lock they have on my attention wavering too much in the next six months. If that is true and if the majority of my favorite films so far end up being on my top 20 of the year, it means that many will be available if not on DVD or Blu-ray then some sort of VOD which could make the eventual lists of 2011, even the esoteric ones, more accessible than ever before.
So I say, long live the adventurous small distributors—fearless and inspired in their aquisitions—making 2011 extremely exciting! As distribution systems shift, morph and break down and as the most savvy consumers are just as willing to rip a movie from the internet than support the companies that champion them, Stand, Kino Lober, Cinema Guild, Oscilloscope, Olive, Icarus, and even back-from-the-dead New Yorker doggedly keep fighting the good fight to bring films to theaters and, more important to those not living in a major market, to home distribution.
Below are eighteen favorites, loosely arranged by preference, that hit US screens in the first six months of 2011 with notations on DVD/Blu-ray release dates if available and links for titles that I've actually written a little somethin' somethin' about:
- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand (DVD/Blu-ray July 12)
- Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami, France (Available on demand through some cable providers)
- Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt, USA (DVD/Blu-ray Sept 13)
- Le Quattro Volte, Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy (DVD/Blu-ray Sept 13)
- The Arbor, Clio Barnard, UK (DVD Sept 6)
- Aurora, Cristi Puiu, Romania
- Cold Weather, Aaron Katz, USA (DVD Aug 2)
- The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick, USA
- Putty Hill, Matthew Porterfield, USA
- Love Exposure, Sion Sono, Japan
- Poetry, Lee Chang-dong, South Korea (DVD/Blu-ray Aug 23)
- United Red Army, Koji Wakamatsu, Japan
- Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán, Chile
- Film Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard, France
- Leap Year, Michael Rowe, Mexico
- Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog, France
- Tuesday, After Christmas, Radu Munteau, Romania
- 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike, Japan (DVD/Blu-ray available now)