On Friday, the first day of screenings for the latest edition of the Film Comment Selects series at New York’s Lincoln Center, a stillness dominated the Walter Reade Theater. Chinese auteur Ji Zhangke’s muted cine-essay “I Wish I Knew,” a distended survey of the country’s historical identity through the lens of a World Expo commission in Shanghai, played to a pensive audience. There were soft mutterings in the lobby afterward, as the showing—which did not sell out—reverberated among a mainly older bunch of moviegoers who seemed engaged, if not thoroughly enlightened, by the director’s dense visual collage of modern Chinese culture.
A few hours later and all hell broke loose.
“Let’s burn this place down!” shouted a giddy heckler in the same room, moments before the next entry in the series, “Hobo with a Shotgun,” played to a packed, boisterous crowd. Young Canadian director Jacob Eisner, fresh from premiering his feature-length debut at the Sundance Film Festival, distributed “Hobo” hats to his welcoming viewers, some of whom already had a few drinks in them. And then Rutger Hauer’s greasy smile filled the screen, his homeless onscreen persona dispensing hyperbolically bloody justice to all the ne’er-do-wells in his path.
So goes the schizophrenic nature of the Film Comments Selects lineup, an unapologetic hodgepodge of high and low art primarily united by its collective status on the fringes of contemporary cinema. Programmed by the editors of Film Comment magazine, the series has launched its eleventh year by boasting “sixteen films not seen in theaters,” which is its greatest asset. (There are 27 films in total).
By and large, the program provides an enticing look at top-notch filmmaking from around the world as an alternative to virtually everything in wide release. (It’s also a nice escape from the 24-7 inundation of Oscar season madness.) The opening weekend alone provided a dense package of international works unavailable anywhere else—at least in this configuration.
A movie about death with no hobos or shotguns, Baran Bo Odar’s German “The Silence” delivers a “Zodiac”-style murder mystery about two grief-stricken killers and the cop obsessed with tracking them down. Leisurely paced and impeccably acted, Odar’s story revolves around a small town wrecked by the killings of two 14-year-olds several years apart. The director takes the focus off whether or not the crimes will be solved and instead invests in the emotionally draining effect they have on everyone drawn into the intrigue, including the two deranged men responsible for creating it.
Equally understated but less overtly unsettling, Patric Chiha’s supremely talky “Domaine” follows the ongoing dialogue between a gay teen (Isaie Sultan) and his enchanting aunt (the remarkable Beatrice Dalle), an alcoholic mathematician. The French Chiha has a penchant for philosophical ruminations that puts him in league with early Eric Rohmer, although occasional stylistic dalliances (including a slo-mo dance scene) take the movie into stranger terrain. As the bond between the two characters grows curiously intimate, and then suddenly falls into peril, “Domaine” becomes less a coming of age story than a story about the struggle for people of all ages to maintain stability in their lives.
Klaus Kinski dealt with that struggle more than virtually anyone. His snarling, maniacal tendencies literally take center stage in the concert movie “Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ the Savior,” a hilarious, exasperating document of the actor’s 1971 one-man show in Berlin. Directed by Peter Geyer, the movie captures Kinski in close-up as he delves into his rambling monologue and routinely goes off-script to deal with hecklers in the crowd. (His unhinged madness makes it clear that longtime colleague Werner Herzog, whose documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is also playing in the series, must have assumed the role of a lion tamer when directing Kinski in his most memorable roles.) Kinski’s frenzied dialogue with the crowd gives the movie a fierce biographical edge as his personality merges with his art.
His eyes like saucers, Kinski routinely opens the mic to his restless audience and shouts them down, appearing alternately tragic and farcical. (“The crime movies are better!” someone belts out. Kinski’s rejoinder: “I didn’t make those crime movies for a moron like you.”) When not assuming the audience’s perspective, Geyer cuts to their complex reactions. Intermittently amused, fascinated and trembling with rage, their wide range of responses probably resemble the spectrum of experiences by the audiences at Lincoln Center this weekend.
Film Comment Selects continues at the Walter Reade Theater through March 3.