Sundance is on the horizon, the Berlin Film Festival is next month and SXSW lands in mid-March, but let’s not forget The Film Society of Lincoln Center and MOMA’s New Directors/New Films fest, which is arguably the most adventurous and certainly more auteur-driven than most festivals —it’s entirely dedicated to the discovery of new works by emerging filmmaking talent. The festival has announced the lineup for the 44th edition of New Directors/New Films and in doing so has tipped its hat a little in the direction of Sundance.
Last year, ND/NF picked Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” out of the Sundance line-up, which turned out to be one of the most striking films of the year (Megan Ellison has agreed: Annapurna Pictures is financing Amirpour’s next movie). This year the festival has co-signed on two Sundance pictures from the NEXT section: Charles Poekel’s “Christmas Again” and Rick Alverson’s follow-up to “The Comedy,” “Entertainment,” starring comedian Gregg Turkington. Given ND/NF’s usually challenging but reliable taste, these two films should be on all radars heading into Sundance.
Two other films on the ND/NF list come from Cannes: the much-raved about “The Tribe” (on our Best Films of 2015 We’ve Already Seen list, here’s our review) and “White God” (our review). ND/NF runs from March 18th through 29th. Line-up below, via press release.
Charles Poekel, USA, 2014, 79m
A forlorn Noel (Kentucker Audley) pulls long, cold nights as a Christmas-tree vendor in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. As obnoxious, indifferent, or downright bizarre customers come and go, doing little to restore Noel’s faith in humanity, only the flirtatious innuendos of one woman and the drunken pleas of another seem to lift him out of his funk. Writer-director Charles Poekel has transformed three years of “fieldwork” peddling evergreens on the streets of New York into a sharply observed and wistfully comic portrait of urban loneliness and companionship. While Christmas, Again heralds a promising newcomer in Poekel, it also confirms several great young talents of American indie cinema: actors Audley and Hannah Gross, editor Robert Greene, and cinematographer Sean Price Williams.
Chaitanya Tamhane, India, 2014, 116m
Marathi, Gujarati, and Hindi with English subtitles
Winner of top prizes at the Venice and Mumbai Film Festivals, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court is a quietly devastating, absurdist portrait of injustice, caste prejudice, and venal politics in contemporary India. An elderly folk singer and grassroots organizer, dubbed the “people’s poet,” is arrested on a trumped-up charge of inciting a sewage worker to commit suicide. His trial is a ridiculous and harrowing display of institutional incompetence, with endless procedural delays, coached witnesses for the prosecution, and obsessive privileging of arcane colonial law over reason and mercy. What truly distinguishes Court, however, is Tamhane’s brilliant ensemble cast of professional and nonprofessional actors; his affecting mixture of comedy and tragedy; and his naturalist approach to his characters and to Indian society as a whole, rich with complexity and contradiction.
Rick Alverson, USA, 2015, 110m
Following up his 2013 breakthrough, The Comedy, director Rick Alverson reteams with that film’s star, Tim Heidecker (here serving as co-writer), for a hallucinatory journey to the end of the night. Or is it the end of comedy? Cult anti-comedian Gregg Turkington (better known as Neil Hamburger) stars as a washed-up comic on tour with a teenage mime (Tye Sheridan), working his way across the Mojave Desert to a possible reconciliation with the estranged daughter who never returns his interminable voicemails. Our sort-of hero’s stand-up set is an abrasive assault on audiences, so radically tone-deaf as to be mesmerizing. Alverson uses a slew of surrealist flourishes and poetic non- sequiturs to fashion a one-of-a-kind odyssey that is by turns mortifying and beautiful, bewildering and absorbing. John C. Reilly, Michael Cera, Amy Seimetz, Dean Stockwell, and Heidecker are among the performers who so memorably populate the strange world of Entertainment, a film that utterly scrambles our sense of what is funny—and not funny.
Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz, Austria, 2014, 100m
German with English subtitles
The dread of parental abandonment is trumped by the terror of menacing spawn in Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s exquisite, cerebral horror-thriller. Lukas and Elias are 9-year-old twins, alone with their fantastical playtime adventure-worlds in a countryside home, until their mother comes home from facial-reconstructive surgery. Or is she their mother? Her head entirely bandaged, and her personality radically changed, the boys begin to wonder what this stranger has done to their “real” mother. They set out to uncover the truth, by any means their childish minds can conjure. As with most fairy tales, it turns out that children can imagine and endure things that cause more mature minds and bodies to wither from fear. Produced by renowned auteur, and frequent script collaborator with Franz, Ulrich Seidl, Goodnight Mommy is an intelligent and engaging step forward for Austrian cinema. Fans of Michael Haneke’s work will find much to appreciate as well. Ultimately, this is a heartbreaking tale of love and loss wrapped in one of the scariest films of the year. A RADiUS-TWC release.
The Great Man
Sarah Leonor, France, 2014, 107m
French with English subtitles
When we first meet Markov (Surho Sugaipov), he and fellow French Legionnaire Hamilton (Jérémie Renier) are tracking a wild leopard in a desert war zone, at the end of their posting in Afghanistan. An ambush results in an abdication of duty—despite it stemming from an act of fidelity. We learn that Markov had joined the Legion as a foreign refugee, hoping to gain his French citizenship and provide a better life for his young son. Ultimately, the complications of immigration and legal status seem petty when compared with the primal urge to do right by those who have committed their lives to saving others’. The intrinsic struggle between paternal/fraternal responsibility and unfettered mobility takes on a deeply moving dimension in Sarah Leonor’s alternately heartbreaking and empowering sophomore feature.
The Kindergarten Teacher
Nadav Lapid, Israel/France, 2014, 119m
Hebrew with English subtitles
Nadav Lapid’s follow-up to his explosive debut, Policeman, is a brilliant, shape-shifting provocation and a coolly ambiguous film of ideas. Nira (Sarit Larry), a fortysomething wife, mother, and teacher in Tel Aviv, becomes obsessed with one of her charges, Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), a 5-year-old with a knack for declaiming perfectly formed verses on love and loss that would seem far beyond his scope. The impassive prodigy’s inexplicable bursts of poetry—Lapid’s own childhood compositions—awaken in Nira a protective impulse, but as her actions grow more extreme, the question of what exactly she’s protecting remains very much open.The Kindergarten Teacher shares the despair of its heroine, all too aware that she lives in an age and culture that has little use for poetry. But there is something perversely romantic in the film’s underlying conviction: in an ugly world, beauty still has the power to drive us mad.
Naji Abu Nowar, Jordan/Qatar/United Arab Emirates/UK, 2014, 100m
Arabic with English subtitles
A quietly gripping adventure tale that’s perhaps intended as a corrective to the romantic grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia, Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb is classic storytelling at its finest. The year is 1916, the setting is a desert province on the edge of the Ottoman Empire, and it’s a time of war. Seeking help, a British Army officer and his translator arrive at an encampment of Bedouins, who, according to their traditions, provide hospitality and assistance in the form of a guide. The guide’s younger brother Theeb (Jacir Eid) follows and then tags along with the three grown-ups, who soon find themselves threatened by hostiles. As a boy who learns how to survive and become a man amidst the violent and mysterious agendas of adults, Eid carries this concise and unsentimental film on his young shoulders with amazing assurance.
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, Ukraine, 2014, 132m
A silent film with a difference, this entirely unprecedented tour de force was one of the must-see flash points at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Why? Because its entire cast is deaf and mute and the “dialogue” is strictly sign language—without subtitles. Set at a spartan boarding school for deaf and mute coeds, The Tribe follows new arrival Sergey (Grigory Fesenko), who’s immediately initiated into the institution’s hard-as-nails culture with a beating before ascending the food chain from put-upon outsider to foot soldier in a criminal gang that deals drugs and pimps out their fellow students. With his implacable camerawork and stark, single-minded approach (worthy of influential English director Alan Clarke), first-time feature director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy overcomes what may sound like impossible obstacles to tell a grim but uncannily immersive story of exploitation and brutality in a dog-eat-dog world, delivering a high-school movie you won’t forget. A Drafthouse Films release.
Kornél Mundruczó, Hungary, 2014, 119m
Hungarian with English subtitles
Thirteen-year old Lili and her mixed-breed dog Hagen are inseparable. When officials attempt to tax the mutt (a law that didn’t pass in Hungary, but was actually attempted), Lili’s father dumps Hagen on the street. While Lili tries in vain to find her dog, he goes through numerous trials and tribulations, along with other cast-off pets that wander alleyways looking for food and avoiding the pound. Hagen is taken in by some no-goods and trained to be a fighter, losing his domestic instincts in the process. When Hagen finally escapes with an army of canines in tow, they set out to take their revenge on the humans who wronged them, taking no prisoners. Kornél Mundruczó’s shocking fable, which won the Un Certain Regard prize in Cannes, captivatingly weaves together elements of melodrama, adventure, and a bit of horror in order to pose fundamental questions of equality, class, and humanity. A Magnolia Pictures release.