Here are the stars of this year's New Directors/New Films, an invaluable festival of mostly first or second features (the criteria have become rather elastic). I like the general edginess of the most inspired choices, even prefer these kinds of films, which are sometimes unpolished, but these gifted filmmakers are testing form and theme; gloss can come with their later achievements - to those of the New York Film Festival, where the inclusion of a few esoteric and/or indie titles these days feels gratuitous. (Those films should be in ND/NF; it may just be that the NYFF is trying to mask that it's otherwise the best of Cannes.)
Many of the 27 features in this edition are quite good, though I personally would not have selected such films as James Rasin's doc "Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling" (good material, shape too conventional); Dutch filmmaker Sander Burger's "Hunting & Sons" (this guy does not understand a woman's eating disorder, which he dramatizes ridiculously); the French-German production "The Father of My Children," by Mia Hansen-Love (very good classical narrative, but should be playing at the Paris Theater); Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat's "The Man Next Door," from Argentina (a silly, facile attempt to blend pretentious arty with an unsubtle class analysis); and Australian director Warwick Thornton's "Samson and Delilah" (a nicely shot film about a young impoverished Aboriginal couple that adds nothing new to the canon of movies about Aboriginal life).
To its credit, New Directors includes more and more docs - three are described below, many of which, on top of having fascinating content, are of structural interest. The festival does lack some should-have-beens (for example, two first features: Oscar Ruiz Navia's "Crab Trap," from Colombia, and Estonian director Veiko Ounpuu's "The Temptation of St. Tony," which just showed at BAM), but for the titles listed below, in alphabetical order, any film-as-art lover should head as quickly as possible to MOMA or Lincoln Center. Catch 'em while you can. Some of the 2010 crop have (small) distributors, but most, as you might expect in this climate of wary and frightened people in the biz who need a course in creative marketing, have none at all.
What irony: Eric Mendelsohn used to do costume work for Woody Allen movies and, beginning with the Edie Falco-starrer "Judy Berlin," he does for Long Island what Allen used to do for Manhattan. Without sticky sentiment, he is its cinematic laureate. Other directors take the easy way out when dealing with suburbia and go for satire: Mendelsohn, on the other hand, celebrates it, even if the take is melancholic. Falco once again plays a local motormouth without an iota of pretense who has a significant encounter with a famous, aloof visiting actress who is as closed a book as Falco's Peggy is open. This is one of three stunningly interwoven stories. Another is the tale of a businessman (Elias Koteas) in mid-life crisis, whose troubled marriage leads him to look around at, and empathize with, troubled locals not normally in his field of vision. The third is about a young girl who takes a shortcut through the woods and encounters an off-beam man whose twisted ways pierce her innocent persona. This is everything a New Directors film should be.
"Bill Cunningham New York"
In New Yorker Richard Press's doc on the legendary Times photographer, the surface feeling is light and bouncy, attuned to the eightysomething Cunningham's boyish demeanor, zest for his work, and attraction to the unusual clothes, both couture and street, that he shoots obsessively. Cunningham is a pure spirit, incorruptible, with high principles he does not like to make a fuss about. Yet as the film goes on, subtexts emerge, spiritual and personal dilemmas that lurk within. He is a New York institution, a breed of gentleman that is dying out, and even if this film does not break new ground formally, it is well made and a worthy tribute to an exceptional man.
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Were it not so stark, which here means a fixed camera and precise framing, the haute-bourgeois home in this innovative Greek film by director Yorgos Lanthimos could be out of a surreal Wonderland. A misguided man isolates his teenaged children from the world, holding them inside like prisoners and even teaching them a nonexistent vocabulary for words he does not want them to know. He even brings one of his female workers home to service his son, until she makes the mistake of leaving behind evidence of a contaminated world: a video of "Rocky." Dogtooth is as self-contained as the house itself, a parallel but challenging universe that induces us to look at our own milieu with fresh eyes.
"The Happiest Girl in the World"
Romanian director Radu Jude's The Happiest Girl in the World takes place almost entirely in a small outdoor spot in the middle of downtown Bucharest, where a harried film crew is making a commercial for a car and a bottled drink. A "Day for Night" with sarcasm and dry humor, the film, in which one camera set-up is used over and over again, is shot in long takes. An awkward provincial teen had won the car in a raffle, and her position at the center of the tv spot is part of the bargain. Jude patiently films the dynamics among crew members, as well as the odd relationship between the girl and her pushy parents, with an eye and ear for the revealing comment or action.
"How I Ended This Summer"
In Russian filmmaker Alexei Popogrebsky's "How I Ended My Summer" - by far the best movie at this year's Berlin Film Festival- two men work taking readings from their partly radioactive surroundings at an isolated meteorological station on an island in the Arctic, in the far east of Russia. One is in his fifties and has adjusted to this life where 24-hour daylight is the norm and the only connection to the rest of the world is radio. The other is his new partner, a young, eager man who surrounds himself with video games and other new technologies. One day the older man goes fishing, and the younger guy screws up the daily report, then covers it up. He also receives a tragic message for his colleague that he does not have the strength to convey. Tension builds between the two. The plot may be simple in terms of narrative, but the film is complex: Rugged wintry landscape and industrial parts, often abstracted, are the film's prime movers. Everything: acting, cinematography, editing, and sound design are top-notch.
"I Killed My Mother"
This wonderfully raw film, directed by, and starring, Xavier Dolan, a young man from Quebec, stretches the disconnect in a mother-son relationship to its outer limits. A high-school student, whose coming out as gay parallels the disintegration of the maternal bond, does not hold back in his condemnation of the traditional woman. More than anything, she is guilty of boring him silly. To compensate, he gets close to a female teacher. Yet his problems with Mom affect everything he does and everyone he knows, including his lover. Both satirical and naturalistic, this is a daring first feature from a promising filmmaker.
"Last Train Home"
No country has a mass holiday exodus as large as China's. All migrant workers, as many as 130 million, journey to their hometowns for the Chinese New Year. Train stations are packed, difficult to maneuver. In this excellent, highly affecting Canadian-Chinese documentary, Chinese filmmaker Lixin Fan wisely spotlights one couple caught up in the pilgrimage, garment laborers in South China who hail from poor Sichuan. He charts their tribulations attempting to purchase tickets, and their mixed emotions at seeing the children they left behind. (The kids have no emotional investment in their absent folks.) The Chinese economy depends on these provincials to go to large cities and expend most of their energy in factories, even if they have to give up what is most dear to them. Few of us will ever know the frustration these people endure in order to keep their families afloat.
A convenience store in Tijuana is the setting for much of Mexican director Rigoberto Perezcano's unforgettable first feature. It is not the most exciting spot around, and Perezcano does not pretend that it is. Yet there is drama under its roof. A naive young Oaxacan who can't manage to cross into the U.S. finds not only work there but two lovers. All three are failures at marriage: the fellow is cheating on his wife back home, and both women have lost their husbands to the lure of the dollar. All three realize that he must get into the States in order to send money to his family, so they concoct a novel way to smuggle him over the border, one that has to be seen to be believed.
As she showed in "My Country, My Country," in which she interviewed a Sunni physician in Iraq, New York-based documentarian Laura Poitras -- among the top docmakers anywhere - peers into lives and issues missed by both the mainstream and alternative media. Here she ventures to Sana'a, the unsanitary capitol of Yemen, to speak to Abu Jandal, Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard and a jihadist; and to sterile Guantanamo, where she is denied direct access to Abu Jandal's well-known recruit, Salim Hamdan, bin Laden's ex-driver, now on trial for terrorism. (Denied access to him, she has someone read in voiceover his prison letters.) Abu Jandal is conflicted: He has been "rehabilitated" by a Yemeni government program, but he also expresses ideas sympathetic to Al Qaeda. Now he has reinvented himself as a taxi driver. Poitras keeps the film moving by stressing the tension between these formerly close friends. More non-fiction films should be as beautifully photographed.