Steven Spielberg. Spike Lee. Kelly Reichardt. Christopher Nolan. All of these filmmakers premiered their early works at the New Directors/New Films series, which has a long track record for heralding fresh talent. This year’s edition, which runs March 16 – 27, is no exception. A joint production of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, the series opens Wednesday with “Under the Shadow,” Iranian director Babak Anvari’s eerie period piece about a young woman and her daughter haunted by a demonic presence in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War.
Allegorical horror at its finest, “Under the Shadow” is a unique genre hybrid that showcases yet another promising newcomer. But it’s not the only one. Here’s a look at some of the highlights from this year’s 11-day event.
Kirsten Johnson opens “Cameraperson” with a note describing the project as “my memoir,” but it’s safe to say there’s never been a memoir quite like this one. Cobbling together footage from her 25 years of experience as a documentary cinematographer, “Cameraperson” offers a freewheeling overview of the people and places Johnson has captured over the course of a diverse career. More than that, the two dozen projects showcased here alongside original footage confront the process of creation. This is a collage-like guide to a life of looking. Read the full review from Sundance here.
The obnoxious man-child is a common trope in American comedies, but few recent examples can match the hilariously unsettling presence of Donald Treebeck, the obnoxious central figure played by writer-director Kris Avedisian in his effective black comedy “Donald Cried.” Avedisian’s feature-length debut builds on the distinctively off-putting persona first seen in his short film, a bespectacled pariah stuck in perpetual arrested development. While hardly reinventing the wheel, “Donald Cried” spins it faster than usual, taking cues from its memorably irritating protagonist. Beneath its entertainment value, the movie also hints at the tragedy of aimless adulthood.
While the story technically unfolds from the perspective of his old teen pal Peter (Jesse Wakeman), who returns to their Rhode Island suburbs from his Wall Street career after his grandmother dies, Donald welcomes his reluctant friend back to their world and won’t leave him alone. Avedisian gives Danny McBride a run for his money in this pitch-perfect embodiment of a wannabe charmer all too eager to remain the center of attention. Read the full review from the SXSW Film Festival here.
French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s follow-up to “Innocence,” her debut, blends dreamy storytelling with body horror of the best kind. Ten-year-old Nicolas (Max Brebant) spends his days in an isolated seaside hospital, along with several other children, all of whom are subjected to an alarming medical process. His mother, and the other women who tend to the boys, obscure the reasons behind the confined setting. When Nicolas spies on them after dark, he gets no closer to answers. But the puzzle pieces gradually congeal into a strangely consistent world of transgressive sexuality, body horror and laboratory birth. Nicolas doesn’t piece it all together, but as he develops his individuality, he takes action against the ominous events around him. It’s the year’s wildest coming of age story.
Anna Rose Holmer’s first feature is a surreal portrait of an unlikely young heroine. Eleven-year-old Toni (breakout Royalty Hightower) aspires to be a boxer while making her way through boring dancing routines at her Cincinnati middle school. As a convulsive disease begins to affect several of her classmates, “The Fits” gradually transforms into a “Twin Peaks”-like look at communal alienation. Hightower’s extraordinary subtle performances meshes perfectly with the movie’s rhythmic portrait of the mysteries and alienation of adolescence.
Many filmmakers obsess over characters living on the margins of civilization, but Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro has the rare ability to burrow inside their experiences. In two narrative features and a handful of documentaries, Mascaro’s filmography blends an textured storytelling with anthropological investigation. The newest of them, “Neon Bull,” offers startling proof of this talent. Mascaro’s vibrant depiction of Brazilian cowhands delivers a detailed look at a nomadic universe that’s simultaneously flamboyant and gritty. While technically a fictional narrative, it provides a bridge to Mascaro’s nonfiction background by emphasizing the sights and sounds of a contained environment. Lyrically involving and deeply sensual, “Neon Bull” showcases a full-bodied artist in command of his form. Read the full review from the Toronto International Film Festival here.
The travails of ultra-Orthodox judaism don’t get more twisted than “Tikkun,” the unsettling black-and-white drama from Israeli filmmaker Avishai Sivan. Set in an insular religious community, the story revolves around a young man whose near-death experience sends him on a path toward secularism that puts his family on edge. Swearing off meat and running away from home, he gets his first taste of sexual freedoms while contemplating the nature of his rebellion. Sparse dialogue and visionary dream sequences (beware the talking reptilian deity that emerges from the toilet!) endow “Tikkun” with a frightening expressionistic quality. But it’s not without numerous contemplative moments, including a beautifully poetic scene in which the young man compares his shifting mindset to staring directly at the sun. A subversive riff on ideological restrictions, “Tikkun” is bound to start conversations among genre aficionados and religious scholars alike.
The second downfall of Anthony Weiner, during his disastrous New York mayoral campaign, became a national joke for obvious reasons. But the public couldn’t see the sheer mayhem of the Weiner campaign as the politician faced one of the greatest public humiliations in recent history. “Weiner,” which won the grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance and closes this year’s New Directors/New Films, pulls back that veil. Co-directed by former Weiner chief of staff Josh Kriegman with Elyse Steinberg, the movie captures Weiner and his beleaguered wife, Hilary Clinton adviser Huma Abedin, through a series of cringe-inducing circumstances as the media continually preys on the family’s hardships. Weiner’s attempt at pressing ahead against impossible odds results in a lively farce about the pratfalls of modern celebrity and the hubris involved in chasing power in the political arena. Read the full review from Sundance here.