By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 6, 2012 at 6:08PM
For film festival aficionados, January is often defined as Sundance month, with the first two weeks of the year dominated by speculation about potential Park City breakouts. However, New Yorkers either uninterested or unable to attend Sundance this year have a fresh alternative to the industry-fueled buzz machine, right in town -- at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.
First Look is a 14-film showcase that contains a diverse selection of international titles from the festival circuit, many of which have no U.S. distribution but played to acclaim at international festivals last year. First Look began today with the legendary Chantal Akerman's "Almayer's Folly," a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's first novel, and continues through January 15. Here's five highlights from the series.
French auteur Phillipe Garrel directs this elegant and devastating romance starring son Louis Garrel as the heartbroken Frédéric, a young man dealing with the fallout of a dead relationship. The filmmaker dives right into the drama with a jarring opener in which a car crash kills off the downtrodden character. The story then shifts into flashback mode to chronicle Frédéric's downward spiral through the perspective of his friend Paul (Jérome Robart), an actor going through his own version of relationship problems. The two couples (rounded out by committed performances from Monica Bellucci and Céline Sallette) spend a lavish vacation together talking through their troubles, a process made particularly involving because of the tragic finale constantly looming in the background.
First-time director Mark Jackson's unique sexual thriller, which audiences loved at festivals ranging from Slamdance to Locarno, follows Seattle-based house sitter Joslyn (Joslyn Jensen), a young woman tasked with staying on a barren island and caring for a vegetative elderly man while the other residents go on a vacation. Stuck in a claustrophobic house with only her own thoughts--and a few creepy locals--to keep her company, Joslyn's sanity gradually unravels and her frustrations eventually lead to twisted acts of rebellion. With its slow build and sly methods of permeating its character's uneasy point of view, "Without" burrows under your skin and simmers there right through the unnerving conclusion.
The closing night selection at Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar in 2010, this quietly suspenseful work from Russian director Andrei Zvyaguintsev ("The Banishment") focuses on an aging woman (Nadazhda Markina) committed to convincing her wealthy husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) to provide financial support for her impoverished son. Her repeated failure to accomplish this task leads to increasingly desperate measures, establishing Elena as one of sharpest agenda-driven onscreen female protagonists since Lisbeth Salander.
Documentarian Gastón Solnicki's intimate family portrait explores his multigenerational Jewish family in Buenos Aires, a vibrant clan still suffering from Holocaust trauma and tensions between the younger members' desire to move forward and the elders' tendency to look back. Loaded with subtext, Solnicki's vérité portrait does modern reality shows one better by universalizing his family's emotional connections, letting their stories creep into the narrative rather than stating his thematic focus outright.
"Buenas Noches, España"
The closing night selection of First Look is the latest (and wackiest) accomplishment from Filipino wunderkind Raya Martin ("Independencia"), an awesomely strange avant-garde experience about a drug-tripping couple who journey inside their TV set and wander around a colorful landscape. But that's not really telling you anything; "Buenas Noches is actually about the intersection of Spanish and Filipino history (the couple wander into a museum displaying the paintings of Filipino escapee Juan Luna). More generally, Martin focuses on the nature of subjective experiences and how they color (literally, in this case) individual understanding of the past and present. A must-see for anyone looking to experience something entirely new.