A few weeks ago a DVD of Laurent Cantet's 2000 film Human Resources arrived on my doorstep. I hadn't seen it, but it rung a bell for me, and it took me a little while to remember: the Shooting Gallery series! I couldn't believe I had forgotten about it. It was a huge event in less-than-400-screen lore, successful as well as artistically daring. I poked around and discovered that this brave little distributor had -- of course -- gone out of business. In 2000 and 2001, the Shooting Gallery lined up three series of six movies each, releasing each one for a two-week period, usually on a specific movie screen in selected cities, and then replaced it with the next in the series. If something took off and became a hit, it could play longer. I didn't see all the films, but there were some amazing entries, and certainly some films that otherwise would never have seen the light of day.

The first series unfolded in the spring of 2000. The quirky, dreamy, black-and-white comedy Judy Berlin, starring a then up-and-coming Edie Falco ("The Sopranos"), came first. It didn't exactly break any box office records, but I wouldn't be surprised if it has a small following today. Next up came Peter Mullan's Orphans, which I didn't see, followed by Such a Long Journey, which was yet another story from India about an old-fashioned father balking at the ways of his modern children, but beautifully realized. (The great character actor Om Puri was on hand for a supporting role.) Southpaw was a snappy little boxing documentary about promising Irish fighter Francis Barrett. The sixth film, from Japan, was Adrenaline Drive, a kind of crime story crossed with a drawing room comedy. It seemed ripe for an American remake, which never came.

Indeed, none of those films made much of a ripple, but the fifth film in the series changed everything. It was a little two year-old British crime film from a nearly washed up old director, Mike Hodges, and starring an unknown named Clive Owen. Croupier had a special kind of quiet allure to go with its tense plot, set in and around a casino. Owen stars as Jack, a writer who takes a job as a croupier hoping for literary inspiration, although he refuses to gamble. The film became a giant word-of-mouth hit, played far beyond its original allotted two-week slot and placed on many ten-best lists at the end of the year. I still think about this film from time to time, especially Jack's creedo "Hang on tightly... let go lightly." Croupier saved the Shooting Gallery and kept them going.

The second series came in the fall, and for some reason I missed most of them (I think I was between jobs at the time). There were Roger Michell's IRA drama Titanic Town, Cantet's Human Resources, about a father and his more educated son working in the same factory; Jason Priestley's Barenaked in America, a documentary about the cult band the Barenaked Ladies; Tony Barbieri's San Francisco-based drama One; and the four year-old Japanese comedy crime film Non-Stop, about a very long chase. Once again the fifth film, Bahman Ghobadi's A Time for Drunken Horses, took off and made enough money to support the entire series. This was back when the Iranian New Wave was getting a lot of press and before Iran joined the "axis of evil," and Ghobadi was the only filmmaker presenting things from the Kurdish point of view. The film, about a group of orphaned siblings that struggles to care for its handicapped baby brother, is a powerful drama with unforgettable images of chilly terrain and desperate times. At the end of 2000, Croupier, A Time for Drunken Horses, Judy Berlin and Human Resources were staples on critics' ten best lists.

The Shooting Gallery managed one more series in their heyday, which ran during early 2001. The six films in the third series were all good, but not quite as diverse (four were in English). The first was Pawel Pawlikowski's Last Resort, about a Russian woman and her son who wind up stuck in England, followed by the British comedy When Brendan Met Trudy, a charming love story with a screenplay by Roddy Doyle about a hopeless movie buff. David Maquiling's Too Much Sleep, about a security guard whose gun is stolen, was another one with a bit of a shelf-life behind it, but it had an odd, appealing quality. In my review I wrote: "It has the feel of a story that took off in the direction of a sharp film noir, but spaced out and forgot where it was going." The superb The Day I Became a Woman, from Iran, was next. It was a triptych, depicting three women at three different ages, written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and directed by his wife Marzieh Meshkini. Sadly, it didn't drum up the kind of enthusiasm as the other Iranian film, although I liked it better.

Another American indie, Jamie Thraves' The Low Down was fifth; it was one of those "nothing much happens" British dramas that depended mostly on its vivid mood. But the real triumph came with the sixth and final film, Shinji Aoyama's amazing Eureka. This is a great film, but just the very fact that a four-hour, black-and-white Japanese film was released in the United States was something to cheer. I wrote: "Kudos to the Shooting Gallery for making such a losing proposition available to the few of us who care." Eureka, along with Last Resort and The Day I Became a Woman, made a handful of critics ten best lists for 2001. These films appealed to the packrat in me; I wanted to collect 'em all. Sadly, that was the end of an era. Perhaps the saddest thing is that, years later, a good number of these are still not available on DVD. Kino's release of Human Resources is a step in the right direction, but how many brave little companies are still around to take such risks?
categories Columns, Cinematical