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10 Must-See Films From Emerging Filmmakers At This Year’s New Directors/New Films

Is the next Steven Spielberg, Pedro Almodovar, Richard Linklater, Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan, Laura Poitras, or Andrea Arnold in this batch of rising stars?

Dedicated to the discovery of new works by emerging and dynamic filmmaking talent, this year’s New Directors/New Films festival will screen features and shorts from 29 countries across five continents, with 10 North American premieres, 13 films directed or co-directed by women, and 14 works by first-time feature filmmakers.

The opening and closing night selections at this year’s fest feature Sundance award-winning documentaries, both celebrating their New York premieres as part of the event. Stephen Loveridge’s “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.,” an intimate long-term look inside the life of global rap sensation through her own video diaries, will open the festival, coming off its World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award at Sundance in January.

RaMell Ross’s “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” billed as “a visionary and poetic look at resilient African American families in the titular Alabama region,” will close the festival, its next big event after winning the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Vision at Sundance.

Now in its forty-seventh year, ND/NF has played home early films from such heavy hitters as Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Chantal Akerman, Pedro Almodovar, Richard Linklater, Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan, Laura Poitras, Andrea Arnold, Ben Wheatley and that is just the tip of the talent it has embraced. It’s a proving ground — and one with a proven track record.

ND/NF runs March 28 – April 8. Ahead, check out the 10 titles we are most excited to check out at this year’s event.

“An Elephant Sitting Still”

The easiest sell in this year’s program (but also perhaps the hardest film to watch), “An Elephant Sitting Still” is impossible to separate from the circumstances of its existence. A four-hour epic about a day in the life of a teenage boy who grievously injures his bully, the film is the first feature by 29-year-old Chinese director Hu Bo, and unfortunately also the last — the young filmmaker took his own life shortly after finishing the movie. Even with such a short resumé to his name, he’s left behind a remarkable legacy. “An Elephant Sitting Still” traces four different characters as their lives criss-cross into an unforgettable mosaic of isolation and pain. —David Ehrlich

“The Great Buddha+”

No, the title is not a typo — it’s a reference to a smartphone model, digital camera technology being at the cold, dark heart of Huang Hsin-yao’s morbidly funny fiction debut. Introducing us to a bored security guard named Pickle and his best friend Belly Button, the film kicks into gear when the two of them start watching the surprisingly high-quality dash cam footage that Pickle’s boss has stored in his Mercedes. What starts as a lark quickly gives way to an acidic swirl of high-class shenanigans, as the car’s hard drive is hiding all sorts of damning sleaze. Spooky and silly in equal measure, “The Great Buddha+” offers a uniquely 21st century look at the trail that corruption leaves in its wake. —DE

“The Guilty”

“The Guilty”

Danish thriller “The Guilty,” Gustav Moller’s riveting first feature, would work just fine as a radio play. We meet beleaguered 911 operator Asger (Jakob Cedergren) dealing with a real-time emergency in his claustrophobic office, juggling calls in real-time as he makes a desperate attempt to save multiple lives. No angel himself, Asger pushes back on the bureaucratic process of reporting incidents to take a seemingly dire kidnapping scenario into his own hands with mixed results.

With Cedergren’s frantic performance driving the story forward, “The Guilty” is an economical chamber piece that never slows down, and it’s only a matter of time before Hollywood snatches up the remake rights. Notably, Asger’s no hero, and he’s on shaky ground from the outset. “The Guilty” is as much about his dire situation as the one on the other end of the line. —Eric Kohn

“Notes on an Appearance”

ND/NF is often an ideal place for discoveries, including a lot of experimental narratives that make up for their lack of commerciality with genuine creative risk. “Notes on an Appearance” is one such example. Ricky D’Ambrose’s second feature runs a concise 60 minutes and never wastes a frame, exploring the measured story of a cultured young New Yorker named David who promptly vanishes, leaving a series of fragmentary details in his wake.

His pals (including perennial indie face Keith Poulson) search for him across the city, while riding the wave of their ephemeral lives in coffee shops and high-minded literary events. D’Ambrose imports the precision of Robert Bresson into an acerbic, cosmopolitan milieu, resulting in a fascinating little movie about people trapped by the details of everyday life and searching for a bigger picture that constantly eludes them. —EK

“Milla”

Two real-life mother-son pairings anchor this work of French fiction. Off-camera, teenage star Severine Jonckeere dwells in a shelter for single mothers; her young son Ethan plays her character’s child. Meanwhile, writer-director Valérie Massadian appears as an onscreen pal, scenes shot by Massadien’s cameraman son, Mel. The film begins with resourceful couple — Milla (Jonckeere) and Leo (Luc Chessel) — squatting in a home on the English channel. Preparing for parenthood, Milla loses Leo twice: he accepts a job on a fishing boat, then perishes in an accident.

Yet instead of surrendering to grief, she begins working in a hotel and carving out a corner of content domesticity, complete with a scene-stealing cat. A two-time Locarno International Film Festival prize-winner and 2017 AFI Fest selection, Massadien’s second feature after the well-reviewed “Nana” needs little dialogue, thanks to lush cinematography. “Milla” comes courtesy of Grasshopper Film, the distributor behind a pair of recent Academy-feted titles (Documentary Short Subject winner “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” and Documentary nominee “Last Men in Aleppo”). Jenna Marotta

“Closeness”

“Closeness”

Kantemir Balagov’s debut feature film inspired a slew of walkouts when it premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, walkouts inspired not by the old-fashioned Cannes tradition of just not liking a film, but having serious moral reservations with its content. The film, set in Russia’s North Caucasus, is bleak enough from the get-go, chronicling fraught familial dynamics in a closeknit Jewish clan, which only get more complex when two of their own are kidnapped and held for ransom (that they definitely don’t have).

But by its midpoint, its darkness bleeds right into the real world, as a group of characters watch actual footage from the 1999 Dagestan massacre, featuring Chechens torturing and cutting the throats of Russian soldiers, all caught on video and played on-screen to a mostly unaware audience. Still, the film was good enough to win the FIPRESCI Award in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar and even reviews that balk at its content can’t help but single out breakout Darya Zhovner’s riveting performance as the film’s greatest strength. —Kate Erbland

“Our House”

It may not be in the middle of the street, but “Our House” sounds worth a visit nevertheless. Yui Kiyohara’s feature debut takes equal inspiration from David Lynch, Jacques Rivette, and Bach’s fugues — a unique combination matched by the film’s odd premise, which concerns parallel stories taking place in the same house at the same time (but not necessarily in the same reality). “Our House” previously screened at the Berlinale and, if it’s as compelling as it sounds, both it and its director demand attention. —Michael Nordine

“Black Mother”

The photographer-turned-director behind the striking “Field Niggas” and who supplied the New Orleans documentary imagery and audio for Beyonce’s “Lemonade” has been exploring and working out his own unique approach to nonfiction filmmaking for the last few years and this project is one, big refined step forward. Allah explores Jamaica, his mother’s home country, as he captures fleeting, poetic moments of a wide cross-section of its residents to paint a spiritual and almost musical portrait of the island’s rebellious soul. Chris O’Falt

“Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.”

Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam appears in <i>MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.</i> by Steve Loveridge, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Steve Loveridge. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Matangi / MAYA / M.I.A.”

Sundance

In addition to having one of the most tongue-twisting titles of the program, this documentary about the musician M.I.A. arrives from Sundance via a paper plane heaped with controversy. The film pushes beyond the limits of traditional documentary, using intimate video footage taken by the artist herself, given name Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam.

Directed by a schoolmate from university, Stephen Loveridge, the movie focuses less on the music and more on the enigmatic person making it. In post-screening talkbacks and interviews during Sundance, there was a palpable rift between filmmaker and subject, who is vocal about regretting handing over her footage to Loveridge. Nevertheless, she promoted the film alongside him, despite the measurable discomfort between the two friends. Keeping all this in mind, “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” will be one of the most controversial films at New Directors/New Films. As long as viewers know the full story, it’s sure to be a fascinating watch. —Jude Dry

“Ava”

Iranian-Canadian filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi was born in Tehran, studied film in France, and now lives in Montréal. After making 10 short films, Foroughi’s debut feature arrives fresh from its TIFF premiere, and after winning Best First Feature at the Canadian Screen Awards, the country’s Oscars. Set in Tehran, “Ava” follows an upper-middle-class teenage girl who dreams of a career as a classical violinist. Following a strict daily routine, she begins to feel feel stifled by parents who seem more concerned with social optics than with her happiness. As Ava loses trust in the adults around her, she acts out in more rebellious ways that could have long term repercussions on her life. Foroughi wraps a searing social critique in carefully composed frames and a swelling classical score, announcing herself as a vital new cinematic voice. —JD

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