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The great thing about giant film festivals like TIFF or Hot Docs is that you usually get a good mix of way off the radar films mixed in with all of the mainstream and popular fare. While some of those small films get a good boost from making the fest rounds and go on to achieve critical acclaim or a little bit of box office success, there are still a great many that never get the wide theatrical release they deserve. Here are just a few excellent but underseen festival films that have played in Toronto:

Black Dynamite

Opening the Toronto After Dark Film Festival in 2009, this brilliant (and incredibly quotable) spoof of the  blaxploitation  genre  (think classics like   Shaft , Dolemite and Black Caesar ) got the full to capacity crowd at the Bloor Cinema so hyped up  that it  seemed destined for success as a smartly-written crowdpleaser in a cinema landscape dominated by Judd Apatow and Will Ferrell-type comedies.  Unfortunately, after an only semi-successful “vote to see this film in your city” campaign, the film  opened in a handful of US cities  and was then released on DVD in 2010. It’s since been spun off into a cartoon series, but it’s still a shame that if you were to walk into a crowded room and say “Doughnuts don’t wear alligator shoes!” very few people would know what you were talking about. “Kung fu treachery!”

The Hole

Anyone who grew up in the ’80s probably saw just about every film that Joe Dante directed. Movies like Gremlins ,   Explorers and (my personal favourite) The “˜Burbs took their fantastical concepts and made them relatable. As a kid you want to believe there really are magical creatures you can’t feed after midnight, or that you can build a spaceship that actually flies, or that your creepy new neighbours really are traveling serial killers or in the case of The Hole , which played at TIFF in 2009, that the boarded up crawlspace in your basement may just be the gateway to hell. Despite its warm festival reception, its nostalgic feel and the fact that it was shot in 3-D making it on trend with the way the film exhibition business was headed, the film had trouble finding a North American distributor until just recently. Thankfully, it’s headed for DVD release in October after a very limited number of US screenings.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Yet another pitch perfect throwback to ’80s cinema, this film also enjoyed great word-of mouth when it debuted at TIFF 2010 yet failed to become the Christmas classic it deserves to be (move over It’s a Wonderful Life , evil Santa and his roving band of elderly naked elves  are taking over your territory!). This loopily absurd, wonderfully twisted film by Finnish director Jalmari Helander (best known for his short faux nature-style docs about hunters capturing wild Santa Clauses), invokes the spirit of innocently sinister kids’ films like The Monster Squad . At least it was released in a splashy DVD  package last year so you can  do your part to make sure every kid you know spends the weeks leading up to Christmas checking for ominous  Santa footprints on the roof and insisting to their parents that this movie is way better than the boring, old Grinch or that sadsack Charlie Brown.

Anything by Steve James

For my money the very best documentary filmmaker working today, you may have seen James’ much-hyped (deservedly so) 1994  film   Hoop Dreams , but did you know that he’s released 5 feature-length docs since then and that each one of them is even more brilliant than the last? His look at the effectiveness of  capital punishment  through the eyes of a former Texas death  row chaplain,     At the Death House Door , screened at Hot Docs 2008 and wowed the crowd with its deft and even-handed approach to the hot button topic. Hot Docs 2011 saw the premiere of his next film, The Interrupters ,  a moving look at  inner city violence and the people within the endangered communities who insert themselves into the centre of the danger in order to put a stop to it.  Neither film received a theatrical release even close to what a Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore film would receive despite critical acclaim ( The Interrupters won Best Doc at the Independent Spirit Awards last year) and quite frankly, being a whole helluva lot smarter and well-made. That’s okay though, all of Steve James‘ wonderful films are available on DVD. Make it your business to catch yourself up.

Sweet Land

Okay, this one’s a bit of a cheat because it’s never screened at a Toronto festival (akthough it did play several other international ones) but it’s one of my favourite films and I wanted to include something for movie lovers who aren’t in the mood for a genre or documentary film. Sweet Land is a  movie that truly lives up to its name,  celebrating the subtleties of falling in love and its language of glances and half-smiles bubbling with unspoken words. First-time director Ali Selim creates an extraordinarily tender old-fashioned romance directed with a light-comic touch that quietly doubles as a comment on the immigrant experience in America. It’s slow moving and deliberately so since most of the magic is derived from the gentle way that the characters dance around one another. The film was never released theatrically and isn’t super easy to find on DVD – definitely give it a try though, even the most die-hard anti-romantic will be charmed.

So there you have it 5 films (really 10 if you take my advice and watch Steve James’ entire filmography) that have never been as appreciated by the movie-going public as they should have been. Do you have any past festival favourites that you wish would have been shown more love? Let us know in the comments!

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