Talent is generally noticed when it has company. From the French New Wave to mumblecore, new filmmakers tend to receive widespread attention when they're lumped into the perception of a movement, whether or not it actually exists. That notion was refreshingly set aside by the set of options included in the recent New Directors/New Films series in New York, which concluded its 42nd edition over the weekend. The program, a joint initiative of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of the Modern Art, provided a broad international survey of international cinema that's anything but consistent. And that's part of the reason why this was one of its strongest editions in recent memory.
With more movies being made around the world than ever before, it's harder to pinpoint emerging filmmakers who could one day become great masters. But the spectrum of voices is appropriate. Working with a wide variety of genres, reacting to all kinds of different cultural motives, paying homage to the past or pushing to tell stories in new ways, these younger directors are working in specific ways bound to hold appeal for certain audiences. In an age of customization, audiences demand a range of possibilities; fortunately, few filmmakers are sounding the same notes. Of the 17 features I saw in the 28-film lineup, hardly any shared subject matter or style. But they did echo various sensibilities about filmmaking and society that illustrate some of the nascent qualities sure to define a new generation of creators. Here are a few takeaways about these potential new masters of the medium.
Old Masters Live Again
Thanks to the proliferation of distribution outlets, cinephiles are better suited to explore more facets of film history than ever before, and the outcome shows in several first-time features that are remarkably in tune with the work of master directors. Rather than paying blatant homage, however, these new movies use their references as starting points for original narratives that also function on their own terms. In one example, Tudor Cristian Jurgiu's "The Japanese Dog" is fully in line with the tender family yarns directed by the late Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. That's especially noteworthy since Jurgiu hails from Romania, a country that has been largely associated with dreary real time thrillers like "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."
Jurgiu's delicate portrait is a refreshing contrast that's emotionally potent without an iota of overstatement. Its slow-burn plot involved an old man (longtime Romanian actor Victor Rebengiuc) attempting to put his life together after his wife is killed in a flood; when his estranged son arrives with his Japanese wife and young child, the family's troubled history gradually comes to the foreground. Jurgiu populates his story with patient long takes and quiet exchanges that make the main character's struggles utterly involving before any of his past grievances come into view. The result is a compelling portrait of poignant drama emerging from the rhythms of real life.
A similar effect is achieved with more experimental processes in "The Strange Little Cat," Swiss director Ramon Zurcher's pensive look at the frustrations surrounding domesticity. Set in a suburban household over the course of a single day, the movie stretches far beyond the exploits of its titular feline to showcase a mother at wit's end contending with her whiney young daughter and various other relatives orbiting the flat as various mundane activities pile up. The movie has a sustained hypnotic quality that elevates seemingly basic actions to a form of cinematic poetry that's at once insightful and absurd, ably calling to mind the work of Jacques Tati, whose abstract slapstick approach was clearly ahead of its time.
Then there's "The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears," Helene Cattet Bruno Forzani's numbingly intense consolidation of seemingly every stylistic quality of Italian giallo films stuffed into a single viscerally unnerving package. The filmmakers' nightmarish portrait of a man struggling through an ominous apartment searching for his missing wife applies neon blues and reds to a confounding tale told in fragmented visuals ranging from countless splits screens, slo-mo and oodles of blood. It's a terrifyingly uneven experience that successfully resurrects long-defunct techniques and transforms them into an aggressive form of pure cinema.
In the post-recession era of workplace anxieties, filmmakers have turned their cameras on the conundrums facing various characters caught between their personal and professional desires with an unprecedented mixture of anger and insight. Richard Ayoade's dystopian "The Double" turns a Dostoyevsky novella into one of the finest dark comedies involving office problems since "Brazil," with Jesse Eisenberg as an alienated young drone whose job security is threatened by the arrival of competition in the form of another man who looks exactly like him. With its dreary, poetic atmosphere and surrealist sense of uncertainty, "The Double" smartly assails the paradoxes of struggling to have value as a cog in the machine. But while Eisenberg's character mostly struggles to make his feelings count, the lead character of "Buzzard" continually attempts to defy the system, hilariously ripping off the bank that employs him with no regard for the consequences—until they catch up to him with dire results. Joel Potrykus' twisted satire is like "Office Space" on crack, featuring a wickedly twisted character with the kind of anarchic attitude that could only emerge from today's troubled job market.
Other figures in the New Directors/New Films lineup suffered from having their identities consumed by their professions. Anja Marquardt's haunting "She's Lost Control" focuses on the dilemma facing a New York-based sex surrogate who may or may not be falling in love with one of her clients. The young woman in question, played with a mixture of fragility and assertiveness by Brooke Bloom, maintains a sense of confidence about her professionalism that's destined to crack—but the movie's cryptic atmosphere makes it entirely when or how this might happen.
That same fundamental problem unfolds with hilarious results in "Obvious Child," Gillian Robespierre's giddy comedy starring standup comedienne Jenny Slate as a woman seemingly trapped in the cadences of her humorous routines to the detriment of her personal life—to the point where her boyfriend dumps her after she works him into her onstage routine. The ensuing comedy has serious bite (including a plot point that involves abortion), but "Obvious Child" glides along with the sustained goofiness of a polished studio-produced comedy…except it's a lot funnier, and more honest, than any female-centric cinema produced in Hollywood today.