The films on this admittedly non-comprehensive list were not distributed by major studios, but by smaller specialty companies. They played for a couple of weeks (or less) in big cities, maybe even just one night in a museum. They weren’t on the multiplex radar at all (none of them earned more than $250,000 at the box office, and most of them under $50,000). But to adventurous film audiences, they were a vital part of any discussion about cinema. They told complex stories ignored by major studios. The dug deeper into abstraction or discomfort. And they pushed at the edges of filmmaking practice in ways that will influence the mainstream in the future.
"Cemetery of Splendor" (2015) A makeshift hospital on an ancient royal burial ground houses soldiers overcome with a mysterious sleeping sickness. Then they begin psychically communicating with the women who work there. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's oblique, delicate story of historical memory and collective awakening that plays out like a dream.
"Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun?" (2018) Filmmaker Travis Wilkerson’s great-grandfather murdered a black man named Bill Spann in 1946. Then he got away with it. This documentary follows Wilkerson’s investigation into the truth, digging up secrets and troubling historical detail about the systemic racism that built the United States and allowed the crime to go unpunished.
"El Mar La Mar" (2017) A collage-like trip into the Sonoran Desert on the U.S.-Mexico border, one assembled by filmmakers Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki out of first-hand oral accounts of residents and crossers; mysterious, unsettling nighttime footage; and artifacts left behind by people who disappeared into the landscape. It’s a demanding film that requires viewers to confront the human misery enacted at the border, not by dispensing dry facts, but by creating a sense of true horror.
"En el séptimo día" (2017) An undocumented worker in New York City has to make choices that might compromise his job, his ability to care for his pregnant girlfriend, and his own material safety, all in the name of loyalty to his local fútbol team. A seamless fusion of comedy and anxious suspense, director Jim McKay makes a film about human beings first, their issues second, and in doing so makes the political extremely personal.
"The Fits" (2015) An 11-year-old girl training to be a boxer shifts gears and joins a dance troupe instead. She quickly absorbs not only the group's routines, but also their occasionally strange social and physical dynamic, one that pushes her to consider her own desires. Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature is a quietly economical and detail-rich examination of one young black girl’s entry into the complexities of adolescence, group identification, and finding one’s place in the world.
"Manakamana" (2013) This ethnographic documentary takes place in Nepal, inside a cable car moving up a hillside toward a religious shrine. Once Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez fix their camera in place, the trekkers -- those who speak at all -- talk about their lives, their beliefs, and why they’re going up that mountain. It’s a gentle, careful visit with people on a pilgrimage, one that takes its time explaining itself, rewarding patience with the pleasure of altitude and the joy of life.
"Milford Graves Full Mantis" (2018) Milford Graves, avant-garde jazz percussionist and martial artist (who also conducts cardiovascular experiments in his home), has had a long and fascinating career, one that’s shown and told here as though every moment of it were part of a long free-jazz solo itself. It’s a wild and jumpy documentary from Jake Meginsky and Neil Young (not the musician), as idiosyncratic as the man himself, one that never stops careening around sonic and visual corners, all the while having a wonderful time not playing by the rules, man.
"Sieranevada" (2016) Cristi Puiu's epic and absorbing Romanian family comedy takes place in a small apartment, with more than 20 significant characters -- none of whom are at a loss for words, so get ready to flex your subtitle muscles -- and revolving around the death of and memorial service for the clan's patriarch. The camera sways from room to room as personalities collide and clash, darkly comic grievances are aired, gossip is revealed, and political opinions bounce off the walls as the inhabitants try to make peace with the past.
"Stray Dogs" (2013) This sorrowful and at times nearly silent masterpiece of social realism from director Tsai Ming-liang tells the story of a homeless man and his two young children who barely survive in rain-soaked Taipei. A woman who might be able to help them enters their lives, and together they quietly work to retain their sense of dignity in the face of impossible circumstances.
"The Woman Who Left" (2016) A woman framed for murder and left in prison for 30 years is finally released. She decides to take revenge on the man who framed her, but on the long road toward completing her mission, she realizes she’s just not the vengeful kind. Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz reworks Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “God Sees the Truth, But Waits” into a deeply moving study of empathy and care.