The centerpiece selection of the festival, Gillian Robespierre's insightful, hilarious "Obvious Child" comes to New Directors/New Films after earning raves (and a distribution deal with A24) at Sundance Film Festival back in January. It stars Jenny Slate (in a performance that should leave no question about both her talent and star potential) as a struggling stand-up comic with some considerable issues when it comes to booze and boys. But a one night stand changes everything, and "Obvious Child" evolves into a transgressive and contemporary romantic comedy that unlike its Hollywood genre counterparts, really has something to say.
"Return to Homs"
To anyone outside of Syria, the battle ranging on between President Bashar Al-Assad's armed forces and various rebel factions is mainly an abstraction. That makes director Talal Derki's "Return to Homs," which opened the 25th edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam before winning Sundance’s world cinema documentary competition, something of a revelation: It portrays the struggle from the inside, from about as far from the filter of mainstream media as one can get, capturing tense shootouts and the extremes of revolutionary spirit in unnerving detail. Centered on a handful of fighters in the largely abandoned city of Homs, with footage smuggled out of the country, Derki's angry, fragmented portrait constitutes a lonely shout in the darkness. Read our full review here.
A semi-autobiographical tale of a young Moroccan man navigating his sexuality (among many other things), "Salvation Army" is the directorial debut of Taïa, and is based on his own eponymous novel. Structured in a diptych, the first half of the film follows a teenaged Abdellah (Said Mrini) as he struggles with the social codes of Morocco. The second half, meanwhile, finds a young adult Abdellah (Karim Ait M'hand) on a scholarship in Switzerland, negotiating a whole new set of codes as a queer Moroccan man in Geneva. The two halves come together to create a subtly powerful (and gorgeously shot) film about both what it's like to be a queer person in the Arab world, and to be a queer Arab person in the Western world.
"She's Lost Control"
From the opening minutes of "She's Lost Control," it's clear that Anja Marquardt's portrait of a sex surrogate in New York City will take its subject matter seriously, using a studied manner that gives the material fresh context. With Brooke Bloom's central performance giving the movie its dramatic anchor, "She's Lost Control" — which premiered in Berlin — strikes a fascinating mood between slow-building angst and cold remove not unlike the Joy Division song that provides its title. As single Manhattanite Ronah, Bloom (last year's "Swim Little Fish Swim") initially projects an unsettling degree of confidence about her profession, going through the motions with various clients while Marquardt frames her topic with startling matter-of-factness. With time, however, it becomes evident that this unorthodox way of life can't possibly sustain the settled quality that Ronah brings to it. Bit by bit, the problems add up: Glimmers of her family issues in upstate New York, her concerns about her future, and a client for whom she might be developing feelings all slowly bear down on her, setting the stage for an alarming climax. The cryptic atmosphere yields an alluring look at the intersection of physical and psychological intimacy. Read our full review here.
"The Story of My Death"
The title of Spanish director Albert Serra's fourth feature, "Story of My Death," presents a sardonic riff on 18th century Italian Renaissance man Giacomo Casanova. His memoir, "Story of My Life," recounts his lively travels across Europe and encounters with fellow luminaries of his era like Voltaire and Rousseau. But Serra sets those recollections aside in favor of a dryly introspective (but certainly macabre) look at Casanova's dwindling command over his legacy as it starts to fray when faced with changing times, a force manifested in the form of Dracula. Unsurprisingly for the director of "Birdsong" -- a black-and-white, digital video depiction of the Three Wise Men that famously includes an eight-minute static shot of nothing but the subjects wandering across an empty desert plane -- Serra has made a slow, cryptic work heavy with metaphor and implication but also riddled with details. Yet, it's oddly Serra's most accessible work, the first with scripted dialogue and something closer to a conventional plot. Casanova is a vivid character nevertheless rich with metaphor. Serra's interpretation is something akin to an anti-biopic that turns the characters into symbols of history in flux. Casanova has remained an object of historical fascination for epitomizing the secular convictions of the Enlightenment. An ebullient womanizer who fetishized his high class existence, the Casanova in Serra's dark, intentionally murky parable (played with an eerie frozen grin by Vincenc Altaló) faces the morbid ramifications of the incoming 19th century Romanticism in the form of a scheming vampire (Eliseu Hertas) who arrives later in the film to upend Casanova's existence. Yet even as the invader is meant to represent Dracula, "Story of My Death" is far from a traditional bloodsucker drama. Before the supernatural component creeps into the narrative, Serra crafts an undead world in which the aging Casanova has already begun to fade from existence. Read our full review here.