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by Howard Feinstein
March 26, 2009 2:34 AM
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New Directors/New Films '09: A Critical Overview

A scene from Vladimir Kott's "The Fly," Howard Feinstein's pick for the best film at the 2009 New Directors/New Films. Image courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

In his second report from the 39th edition of New Directors/New Films, Howard Feinstein gives a critical look at eleven of the films screening over the next eleven days. For his first dispatch, which looked at how most of the films in the festival bridge the connection between home and individual, click here.

"The Maid" (Sebastian Silva)
Silva gives the live-in at this excellent film's center a complexity normally reserved for the masters. He follows her with a handheld camera, displaying on-screen labor reminiscent of the housewife in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielmann. Catalina Saavedra gives a superb performance as the middle-aged woman who has, like the man in Parque Via, little experience of life outside the walls of the bourgeois household. Masking her loneliness with sociopathic territoriality, she chases new hires away but undergoes a catharsis after the arrival of a well-integrated, empathetic country girl.

"Unmade Beds" (Alexis Dos Santos)
Though technically an Anglo production, Dos Santos retains the Argentinian sensibility (and his own artfulness) so evident in Glue, his first feature. A young Spaniard stalks his biological father in London. Bisexual and reckless, the boy moves into an East End squat and frequents neighborhood clubs. One of his roommates is a French girl who has a purely physical affair with a pick-up. The two separate stories ultimately converge. The outstanding soundtrack is almost too hip to bear.

"The Fly" (Vladimir Kott)
The best film in ND/NF is a bold reworking of Soviet popular melodrama that shifts effortlessly between tragedy and comedy. Kott is a master of poetic realism, of choreographed violence, of the tangential vignette. He tracks the slowly budding relationship between a freewheeling trucker and his tomboyish teen daughter, who boxes for fun, whom he knew nothing about until after her mother's death. What begins as a road movie morphs into sedentary cinema once the strangers begrudgingly live together in a provincial town. She makes no bones about her desire for a real family, a settled life. It takes him time to realize that, as Janis Joplin put it, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

"Paper Soldier" (Alexei German Jr.)
This is as much a misfire as the Soviet rocket launches in the '60s that propel the plot. The widescreen format and masterful blocking have the feel of Antonioni at his best, but the verbosity and pretense (Chekhov is over-referenced) detracts from the foregrounded story of the womanizing doctor who takes care of the cosmonauts at a Kazakh space-race site as well as from the more inviting background tale of the happy faced would-be cosmonauts, several of whom suffer from fear coursing through the veins..

"Barking Water" (Sterlin Harjo)
By far the finest American film in the series, it follows an older Native American couple, former lovers, as she selflessly drives him to the family and home he had run away from years before. The goal: to complete a journey across Oklahoma before he succumbs to a terminal illness. This road movie is also a chamber play, with most of the action and conversation taking place between the two of them inside and around the car. Harjo shot in sequence, resulting in quietly powerful lead performances worthy of. Fred Schroeder's outstanding cinematography. For comic relief, the duo encounters some truly hilarious eccentrics on the highway.

"Treeless Mountain" (Kim So Yong)
A Korean-language film, it follows two young sisters through a Via Dolorosa of abandonment, first by their irresponsible mother in a seedy section of Seoul, then by an alcoholic aunt in a small town. The resourceful girls are ultimately invigorated by nature and love at their grandparents' farm. Kim holds her camera extremely close in on the children, but the technique becomes a little monotonous.

"Stay The Same Never Change" (Laurel Nakadate)
Renowned video artist Nakadate arhytmically arranges long takes of assorted teen girls in Kansas City as they act out their growing pains. Scenes with, for example, a blow-up boy doll that some of them mount and an old man playing multiple instruments come across as limp efforts to add texture to the film..

"Can Go Through Skin" (Esther Rots)
A major discovery from the best Dutch filmmaker since Paul Verhoeven. Vital Rifka Lodeizen plays a young woman dumped by her boyfriend, then assaulted. She tries to recharge in a remote shack in the countryside, but, increasingly paranoid, she goes bonkers. Rots not only directs, she also edits, with perfect jump cuts to heighten Marieke's mental disintegration. Occasional inserts of the flat Dutch landscape, which evoke the nation's fine documentary heritage as well as its tradition of naturalistic painting, function as counterpoint to her shattered mind. Part Repulsion with elements of The Shining, not to mention Fort Apache the Bronx, the film opts for optimism through the unconditional love of a neighbor.

"Give Me Your Hand" (Pascale-Alex Vincent)
A road film as pretty as its identical twin 18-yeasr-old protagonists. Their solid, frequently shirtless bodies do not mask the fact that this is merely a slight twist on the coming-out movie. One brother is gay, the other horrified to find out. Thin--the plot, not the boys.

"Louise-Michel" (Gustave de Kevern/Benoit Delepine)
The wild, politically incorrect quirkiness in Belgian-born co-directors Delepine and Kerven's fine Aaltra and Avida fails them in this story of a gorilla-like ex-conwoman travelling with a bumbling hitman to off a greedy factory owner. Good political premise, disappointing execution..

"$9.99" (Tatia Rosenthal)
Okay, it's from Israel, but the mentality and lifestyle of the majority there is European. Adapted from a short story by the gifted Etgar Keret, Rosenthal's stop-motion animation lacks the author's punch. Engaging puppets play various residents of a single Tel Aviv building, but that narrative trope has been done to death. Don't expect another Waltz With Bashir.

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