Top 10 Festival Films You Haven't Seen Yet

From charming zombies to pompous actors, 10 films to seek in 2019

You may be done with 2018, but 2018 isn't done with you. While festival season is just a few calendar flips away (looking at you, Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, etc. etc. etc.), we still have a few movies that did the circuit last year that are heading your way soon – or need a little help to get there. So what were our favorite (so far) unreleased titles?

1) One Cut of the Dead

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

You can't touch genius without taking some risks, and the opening 37 minutes of Shin'ichirô Ueda's comedy play out just like a cheap, straight-to-TV Japanese zombie movie. But then the whole narrative gets flipped on its head, and by the end this charming, multi-leveled satire about life on the edges of professional moviemaking is a pure shot of joy, and the year's most lovable film. (read our Fantastic Fest review.)

Odds you'll get to see it: OK, this is a little complex. A bootleg version turned up on Amazon Prime recently, which has raised some very serious questions about exactly how little due diligence the content behemoth puts into checking what's on its servers. Please do not watch this version: Wait for international sales agent Third Window Films to find a new home.


2) I'll Take Your Dead

Screened at: Other Worlds Austin

Canada's Black Fawn Films has established an amazing reputation for low-budget, character-and-gore-driven horror (cf Bite, The Heretics), but writer/director Chad Archibald hits a chilling new high in this genre hybrid about a farmer (Aidan Devine) who disposes of dead bodies for local gangsters, all while trying to give his daughter (an astounding and eerie performance from young actress Ava Preston) as normal a childhood as possible. A bleak but deeply human thriller with a twist you won't shake easily.

Odds you'll get to see it: Excellent. Shout! Factory has announced a deal with Breakthrough Entertainment that will see Shout! handle US distribution through its Scream! Factory imprint. Jordan Fields, Shout! Vice President of Acquisitions, said, “We’re thrilled to be back working with Black Fawn on what we consider to be a new artistic milestone for them. The emphasis on character and the human story elevates their always accomplished genre-craft to an exciting new level that will easily win new fans." Expect a theatrical released in 2019.


3) Starfish

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

Grief isn't about stages or processes or getting over it. Grief is a wound that never truly closes. Al White of British band Ghost Light has created a deeply personal story of surviving a terrible loss, and manages to meld in elements of cosmic horror and alien invasion without ever losing sight of that central emotional thread. (read our interview with writer/director AT White).

Odds you'll get to see it: Great! The Orchard has picked up the film for U.S., Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand. Expect a limited theatrical release in March, followed by a home release later in the spring.


4) The Dead Center

Screened at: Other Worlds Austin

Is Carruthian a term yet? Shane Carruth (Primer, Upstream Color) makes his first appearance as a lead actor in someone else's feature, as writer/director Billy Senese casts him as a doctor in a psychiatric ward, charged with the care of a John Doe (Jeremy Childs, in a fantastic, fractured performance) who seems to leave a trail of disaster and death in his wake. The Dead Center is not just a chilling supernatural thriller: Senese worked hard to make sure that he doesn't use mental illness as a cheap gimmick, and the film is receiving plaudits for its clinical accuracy as much as its shocks.

Odds you'll get to see it: Very, very good – those experts in high-quality genre, Arrow Films, had already acquired it before its OWA screening, so expect a home release blitz in 2019.


5) Undercliffe

Screened at: Austin Film Festival

Blame Guy Ritchie, but British crime dramas have become synonymous with South London and chirpy cockneys. Director Lisa Mulcahy throws that rule book out, heading to the Northern city of Bradford where a scumbag (Laurie Kynaston) wakes up with amnesia after a severe kicking. His attempts to reconstruct his life show that he's not the kind of person anyone is running to get back home. Like The Dead Center with mental health, this fusion of Memento and Get Carter takes the question of memory loss and severe brain trauma seriously (read our Austin Film Festival review).

Odds you'll get to see it: No word yet on a U.S. release: Interested parties should contact UK-based producers Open Palm Films.


6) Ladyworld

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

It's become a trope that you couldn't do Lord of the Flies with teenage girls, and writer/director Amanda Kramer blows that conceit apart with this brutal analysis of the specific ways that women turn on each other. "Feminine tedium is a big theme in my work," she told the Chronicle. "I like to think [about] where the feminine mind goes when it's bored." In Kramer's view, those places can be vicious and relentless (read our interview with writer/director Amanda Kramer).

Odds you'll get to see it: No word yet, but Film Sales Corp is handling global rights.


7) The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

With neo-grindhouse heavy-hitters like Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Bone Tomahawk, production house Cinestate has carved a bloody trail of controversy, but Standoff may be its most intriguing release yet. A unknown militia member in the Midwest shoots up a police funeral, and the other members of the group turn on each other as they try to work out who did it, and how they should respond. This is not apologia for the ultra-right, but a nerve-shredding depiction of betrayals, paranoias, and fake principles (read our interview with director Henry Dunham).

Odds you'll get to see it: Excellent. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek arrives on VOD from RJL Entertainment on Jan. 18.


8) The Heights

Screened at: Houston Film Commission Texas Filmmakers Showcase

Filmmakers Ryan Booth and Henry Proegler (aka Hank & Booth) have created a proof-of-concept short, which normally annoy the hell out of me for being deliberately incomplete. But in 22 minutes, "The Heights" is a perfect short story of two musicians (Betsy Phillips and Austin's indie Americana groundbreaker David Ramirez) prepping for the biggest night of their careers, but quickly realizing that success may not be all it's cracked up to be. This is the modern A Star Is Born that we really need, one built in the rubble of the major labels, where commerce versus art is not the simple equation it once was.

Odds you'll get to see it: You already can, over at www.shortoftheweek.com, but keep an eye out for the feature version that Hank and Booth are working on; it could be one of the best music industry films ever made.


9) Ghost Light

Screened at: Austin Film Festival

If it was 1996, then this uproarious and slightly sinister comedy about a summer theater troupe misguidedly adapting Macbeth would have been an arthouse smash hit, especially with Carol Kane trading her trademark youthful ditziness for a sad but sensitive take on the theatrical dame. Quirky, charming, with old-fashioned chills mixed with some excellent backstage laughs that theatre kids will find particularly funny/poignant.

Odds you'll get to see it: Still in the middle of its festival run, this delightful stage romp is still looking for a kind studio to give it a home.


10) Also Starring Austin

Screened at: Austin Film Festival

It's no secret that Austin is one of America's great indie film cities, and Mike Blizzard's exhaustive and fascinating visual history of how Austin makes movies, and what those movies say about Austin, is a one-of-a-kind treat. From the earliest silent reels to the new wave of lo-fi creatives, and even the straight-to-video cheapies that we all try to forget (read our interview with director Mike Blizzard).

Odds you'll get to see it: There'll be special cast and crew screenings Feb. 22-23 (the latter paired with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II) at AFS Cinema. Pick up tickets at austinfilm.org.


Honorable Mentions

Gary and the Underworld: OK, this is a bit of a cheat, because it's not technically played a festival in Austin. But co-stars/writers/directors Amy McCullough, and Jimmie Buchanan Jr. have pulled together one of those weird little miracle movies that inadvertently invokes offbeat precedents – a little bit Jacques Tati, a little Doris Wishman – to create something that can best be described as Quentin Dupieux's Orpheus. A sweet, strange, silent tale of a man at the end of his rope that ends up rescuing a woman from the Devil. I've seen home movies with bigger budgets, but you can't buy heart, charm, or creativity.

Empathy, Inc: Speaking of small budgets and big concepts, Yedidya Gorsetman's caustic sci-fi headbender is part eXistenZ, part In the Company of Men (read our review).

Deadtectives: Another OWA title, and another comedy, but this riff on Ghostbusters and Ghost Hunters (directed by Tony West, a former editor for E! evil/brilliant satirical news show The Soup) is gut-laugh funny.

Piercing: Nicolas Pesce's follow-up to his Jack Ketchum-esque debut The Eyes of My Mother is equally stomach-churning, and again deals with extreme psycho-sexual pathology, but it's also the year's most unlikely romance, with Mia Wasikowska and Chris Abbott in a sado-masochistic scenario that will either kill them or give them the happy ending they never thought possible. Watch for a limited theatrical release later this spring (read our interview with Pesce).


And, as always, here's what happened with last year's previously unseen gems :

1: Anna and the Apocalypse: Against all odds, this Scottish zombie high school musical got its Hollywood ending, with a theatrical release putting it deservedly on the fast track to cult status (read our interview with director John McPhail and producer Naysun Alae-Carew here, and our review here).

2: Junk Head: Sadly no exact details on a release of Takahide Hori's incredible homemade stop-motion sci-fi epic, but the creator of this beautiful, tragic work promised a theatrical release in 2019 on Twitter, plus a sequel (read our review here).

3: The Endless: Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson added Lovecraftian elements to the narrative-warping scenario they set up in their first film, Resolution, and the darkly hilarious timeloop family drama finally made it to theaters and a chart-topping iTunes release in April (read our review, and our interview with Benson and Moorhead here).

4: Tuftland: No word on a U.S. release for Roope Olenius' Finnish folk horror, but for those of you with a multi-region player, there's an import Blu-ray available.

5: Thoroughbreds: Social satire has rarely been more biting than this captivating three-way dance between Anya Taylor-Joy as the spoiled princess, Olivia Cooke's high-functioning killer-in-training, and the late Anton Yelchin as a born loser. After a theatrical run in March, courtesy of Focus Features, it's on VOD and Blu-ray now (read our review here).

6: The Laplace's Demon: Math, noir, and predetermination versus free will blend in this extraordinary and exquisite Italian device, which has been picked up by Reel Nightmare Films for North American distribution.

7: Chappaquiddick: Originally scheduled for a release almost immediately after its local premiere at Austin Film Festival 2018, this retelling of the famous car crash that changed American politics finally saw screens in April (read our review here, and our interview with scriptwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan here).

8: Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death: Veteran documentarian Helen Whitney's examination of how America approaches death screened on PBS in March (read our interview with Whitney).

9: Gnaw: Wondering why you couldn't find this disturbing tale of a woman choosing between two horrors – one domestic, one supernatural? That's because it arrived on VOD as Apartment 212. Definitely check in on that address.

10: Curvature: Time travel is always a head-scratcher, but you'll have plenty of chances to unfurl this tale of a woman constantly chasing her own future self since Screen Media Films released it on VOD.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Top 10s 2018, One Cut of the Dead, I'll Take Your Dead, The Dead Center, Starfish, Undercliffe, Ladyworld, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, The Heights, Ghostlight, Also Starring Austin

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