Even as the Specialty film universe shifts its focus this weekend to Park City’s Sundance Film Festival and then next Wednesday to the Oscar nominations, new limited releases are still making their way into theaters across the country. Saban Films/Directv is rolling out Small Town Crime, which Octavia Spencer executive produced, tapping fellow veteran actors to join the cast of a title that had its debut at last year’s SXSW Film Festival.

Magnolia Pictures’ documentary A Final Year recalls what feels like an era long ago. Directed by Greg Barker, the feature goes inside the Obama Administration over its final year in office. Sundance Selects rolls out Italian-language feature A Ciambra, which it picked up at Cannes in May. And Oscilloscope, which will be celebrating 10 years since its founding in Sundance, will open doc The Road Movie, which it sees as appealing counter-awards programming.

Other limited releases this weekend include Abramorama’s doc Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story at Village East in New York and Laemmle Music Hall in L.A. Also, GKIDS is opening Japanese animated feature Mary and The Witch’s Flower by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

Saban Films/Directv

Small Town Crime
Directors-writers: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms
Cast: John Hawkes, Anthony Anderson, Octavia Spencer, Clifton Collins, Jr., Michael Vartan, Daniel Sunjata, Don Harvey, Jeremy Ratchford, James Lafferty, Dale Dickey, Caity Lotz, Stefanie Scott, Robert Foster
Distributor: Saban Films/Directv

Filmmaker/brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms had the idea for Small Town Crime while driving home from visiting their parents in California’s Central Valley. The long stretch of farmland, dairy farms and oil fields inspired what would become a future project.

“We had this idea of what if someone found a body out here,” said Ian Nelms. “We created a character of an alcoholic ex-cop and then from there we worked on it off and on.”

Small Town Crime centers on ex-cop Mike Kendall (John Hawkes) discovers the body of a young woman and, in an act of self- redemption, becomes hell bent on finding the killer. While his uncouth and quirky detective style helps break open the case, his dogged determination unwittingly puts his sister (Octavia Spencer) and best friend (Anthony Anderson) in danger.

The Nelms brothers worked on the script over three years, pausing intermittently to work on other projects, including Lost On Purpose and Waffle Street. Octavia Spencer hired the pair to adapt a book, and about the same time, they had finished a trailer for Waffle Street.

“We asked her if she’d like to check out the trailer, and when she saw we had Danny Glover she was impressed,” said Nelms. “She asked what we were working on and let her know about this crime thriller.” Spencer read the script within 24 hours and came right back to the filmmakers offering to executive produce the project. She also asked about who they felt would be possible cast members.

“We let her know about John Hawkes,” said Eshom Nelms. “He’s not so into technology, so she wrote him a letter. He read the script and then sat down with us. The first thing he said was, ‘I’ve only read this three times.’ He was super-prepared and had a lot of questions. He built a reservoir of information about his character.”

The brothers and Spencer also reached out to Anthony Anderson. He came on within a week. Their D.P. Johnny Derango knew a woman who had worked with Clifton Collins, Jr. who they also wanted for the cast. The acquaintance passed the script along and he joined after a Skype call with the directors.

Shooting took place over 35 days in February and March, 2016 in Utah. “They are enthusiastic there about filmmaking,” said Ian Nelm. Added Eshom Nelms: “The weather can throw you some curve balls, but those are the hurdles of making movies.”

Small Town Crime debuted at SXSW, filling the Paramount Theater with an enthusiastic audience, according to the brothers. Five companies approached them about the film, causing a bit of a bidding war. “Saban Films rose to the top,” said Ian Nelms. “It has been fun working with them. We’ve collaborated on the poster etc.”

Saban Films will open Small Town Crime at Village East in New York as well as Los Feliz 3 in Los Angeles today.

Magnolia Pictures

The Final Year
Director: Greg Barker
Subjects: Barack Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

Just in time for the first anniversary of the inauguration of Donald Trump, Magnolia Pictures is opening The Final Year, which recounts the last year of the Obama Administration. The idea for the documentary came just as the filmmaking team were finishing up a previous project.

“Greg Barker, Judy Goldman and I had made six feature docs together for HBO,” said producer John Battsek. “As we were coming to the end of [a film], we started to talk to them about another project. We had established a relationship with [then U.N. Ambassador] Samantha Power. Greg had the ambition to make a film about an administration leaving power — so the opposite of The War Room. He started talking to Samantha about the possibility of doing it two years ago.”

The doc gives a look at the inner workings of the Obama Administration as they prepare to establish a legacy upon leaving office after eight years. The film revolves around Obama’s foreign policy team: Secretary of State John Kerry, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, Deputy National Security Adviser and presidential confidant Ben Rhodes, as well as National Security Adviser Susan Rice and President Obama himself. Over the course of 2016, they travel the world attempting to advance and solidify policies that they believe will define their legacy, promote diplomacy over large-scale military action, and fundamentally alter how the US government confronts questions of war and peace, as they prepare to hand over the machinery of American power to a new administration.

“HBO has been supportive of us and what we do, so we rapidly did an early pre-production,” said Battsek. “We were finding out what channels we needed to [tap] in order to tell the story. Ben Rhodes was the gatekeeper, and we negotiated to get the kind of access we needed.”

Greg Barker traveled to 21 countries, with the main crew, while two other skeleton crews did more filming throughout the time they were embedded in the administration.

“[The administration staff] saw that we were there for the long haul,” explained Battsek. “We wanted to get a perspective that others haven’t had. We’d put in request after request. Sometimes we’d be granted [our requests] and other times we wouldn’t.”

By the end of the election, Battsek said that Trump’s possible win had begun to penetrate the administration and the crew. The filmmaking team became worried. “It seemed increasingly terrifying,” he said. “None of us saw it coming really, but the specter of Trump got larger and larger. It was nerve-racking. We then knew the film we were making would have an extra resonance that we hadn’t anticipated.”

The Final Year debuted at the Toronto Film Festival and also opened DOC NYC. Magnolia Pictures, which opens the film in 32 cities this weekend, picked up the title in the fall. In Los Angeles, it will play The Landmark and in New York it will be at IFC Center and The Landmark 57 West. It will also be on-demand via Amazon Video and iTunes day and date. The Final Year will bow on HBO later this year.

Sundance Selects

A Ciambra
Director-writer: Jonas Carpignano
Cast: Pio Amato, Koudous Seihon, Iolanda Amato, Damiano Amato
Distributor: Sundance Selects

The adolescent boy at the center of filmmaker Jonas Carpignano’s Cannes premiere, A Ciambra, was a supporting character in his previous feature, Mediterranea. Carpignano’s connection to Pio Amato and his family — and subsequently the creation of his next feature, A Ciambra — deepened when he was making a short film.

“One of Pio’s brothers stole our car,” said Carpignano during a post-screening Q&A last month at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. “We went to the village to try and get it back. It was our first encounter with that community. We thought it was a very vibrant place so we wanted to get to know them. There was never an idea to make a film initially, we just wanted to get to know them. But as time went on, we thought maybe we could develop something with [Pio] there.”

A Ciambra centers on 14-year-old Pio who wants nothing more than the respect of his older brother, whom he emulates in every way – including his career as a petty criminal. When both his father and brother are arrested, Pio is determined to prove that he can step up and be the head of his sprawling Romani family. But a fateful night and a wrenching decision soon test just how ready he is.

Carpignano shot a short version of A Ciambra in 2014. That experience gave the filmmaking team faith in the young Pio Amato to carry a feature. “When we saw that he had that charisma we decided to make a feature film with him,” said Carpignano. “So all of that was a process of getting to know him and developing the details of his life inside a structure we had written before.”

Pio Amato’s family was also recruited for the film. Carpignano spent time having dinner with the Amato family and crafted the characters as versions of themselves. “I wrote the film as if it was a documentary. I had the structure of the film in place. After spending time with the family, I’d fill in details based on [my observations].”

Shooting in the community posed its own challenges. Electricity was not reliable, and on some occasions, community members preferred sabotage when they didn’t feel like having a production team around.

“For us it was important not to impose our filmmaking structure on them,” said Carpignano. “We wanted to flow with their rhythms. We were shooting in their houses and they were wearing their own clothes… [The town of] A Ciambra has no lights, so we had to deal with that. And, every once in a while, they would put water in our generators to keep us from shooting if for some reason it wasn’t convenient for them.”

IFC’s Sundance Selects label picked up A Ciambra out of Cannes where it debuted in Directors Fortnight. It later went to a number of festivals North America and overseas including Toronto, Reykjavik, Hamptons, Mill Valley, Denver, Dubai and Palm Springs. A Ciambra will open exclusively at Lincoln Plaza in New York today, followed by IFC Center the following Friday. The title will continue to expand to the Royal in Los Angeles and additional cities on February 2. It will also be available on-demand beginning January 26.

Oscilloscope

The Road Movie
Director: Dmitrii Kalashnikov
Distributor: Oscilloscope

Oscilloscope is hoping to exploit audiences fatigued by awards titles with the release The Road Movie. The Russian-language doc plays like a “montage of YourTube clips on acid,” according to Oscilloscope’s Andrew Carlin, adding: “It’s not surprising that the trailer was a massive hit on social media. It had over half a million views in just a couple of weeks. There’s a huge potential audience for this – not just people with suspended drivers licenses.”

The documentary is a compilation of video footage shot exclusively on dashboard cameras that populate Russian roads. It is styled as “a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it documentary.” The Road Movie captures a wide range of spectacles through the windshield – including a comet crashing down to Earth, an epic forest fire, and no shortage of angry motorists taking road rage to wholly new and unexpected levels – all accompanied by bemused commentary from unseen and often stoic drivers and passengers.

The Road Movie on the big screen with an audience is one of the most mind-blowing theatrical experiences you’ll ever have,” noted Carlin. “You watch it, peeking through your fingers, terrified of what’s coming next. Each new clip has the viewer on the edge of his and her seat, waiting for the inevitable insanity to unfold. It’s a totally one-of-a-kind experience and the type of movie that O-Scope excels at releasing.”

Carlin said that the feature will go out “slightly wider than usual,” opening New York and LA along with most of the top 15 markets this weekend. It’ll be a traditional theatrical release, though the digital window is slightly collapsed.

Oscilloscope is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It was founded by Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys and David Fenkel, who now leads A24. Carlin said the company will likely release 10 to 12 films in 2018 and that it plans to partner with indie theaters across the country to present retrospectives of their catalog in honor of its first decade. Teased Carlin about the catalog: “We’re calling it ‘Awesome, We’re F*cking 10: An Oscilloscope Retrospective.’”