For 49 years, MOMA and Film at Lincoln Center have joined forces to celebrate some of the most exciting movies from emerging filmmaking talent with New Directors/New Films, and even 2020 couldn’t change that. While the original March date for ND/NF was postponed as pandemic shutdowns took hold, the series has gone virtual this year and launches this week with a diverse set of options accessible to anyone in the United States.
As usual, ND/NF selections qualify for filmmakers who have made up to three features. That means, rather than purely celebrating debuts, the festival serves to highlight active talent that may have already proven their worth but deserves more attention. That’s certainly the case in these highlights from the 2020 offering, which includes a couple of awards contenders and festival highlights worthy of wider attention. Together they prove that the future of cinema is in promising hands no matter what next year brings for it.
ND/NF runs through December 20; browse the lineup and rent films to watch here.
“Anne at 13,000 Feet”
Canadian director Kazik Radwanski has been developing his distinctive filmmaking ever since his jittery character study “Tower,” and with “Anne at 13,000 ft,” he continues his path to chronicling insecure people trapped in unstable routines. An astonishing Deragh Campbell plays the central character, a passive-aggressive young woman who clashes with her peers at a daycare facility as she careens through a series of emotional explosions.
The title takes on literal connotations with a skydiving outing that allows Anne the freedom she lacks in her queasy day-to-day existence, and Radwanski’s intentionally rough handheld camerawork excels at getting inside her uneasy headspace. The spirit of John Cassavetes is alive and well in Radwanski’s approach, and Campbell delivers as a next-gen Gena Rowlands, but “Anne at 13,000 ft” escapes the shadows of its precedents with an intimate a character study that follows its own taut rhythms — and showcases unique talent on both sides of the camera in the process. —EK
One of the higher-profile documentaries to break out of Sundance this year, “Boys State” isn’t entirely the work of a newcomer, as co-director Jesse Moss has been making insightful documentaries since 2003’s “Speedo.” However, it marks the first occasion in which his producing partner Amanda McBaine shares a directing credit, and together they’ve made a fascinating window into the future of American politics. A sprawling look at the eponymous weeklong Texas event, where 17-year-old boys create their own representational government, this poignant survey provides a revealing look at the cutthroat instincts that can inform the campaigning process, even without the future of the republic at stake.
The veterans association American Legion has assembled the eponymous gathering at states around the country since 1935, during which time alumni have included Dick Cheney and Cory Booker. That spectrum of famous leaders might suggest that Boys State embraces a bipartisan approach, but the Texas event — at least as the filmmakers’ sprawling cameras find it — unfolds more LIKE a battlefield. The 1,100 participants are left to their own devices as they assemble campaigns for a range of leadership positions, with a few ambitious kids eyeing the top role of governor.
Moss and McBaine follow four of these enterprising characters as they assemble campaign strategies and argue through ideologies. Its true hero is gubernatorial candidate Steven Garza, a kid born to immigrant parents who faces xenophobic negative campaigning designed to steamroll his ambition. The movie takes on a striking new resonance in the aftermath of the 2020 election: While it previously bemoaned the tragic of exploitive campaign tactics that can ruin the nation, it now salutes the resilience of those committed to fixing it. Steven Garza for president … in a couple of decades. —EK
“The Killing of Two Lovers”
With a movie called “The Killing of Two Lovers,” one might know what to expect from the start, but Robert Machoian’s gripping thriller plays off the prediction of its title at every riveting moment. David (a disheveled Clayne Crawford) is already at wit’s end as the movie begins, hovering over his estranged wife (Spideh Moafi) and her new boyfriend as they sleep in their small-town Utah home. A gun sits in his sweaty hand, but he has yet to pull the trigger.
From that unnerving start, the movie drifts through David’s fragile existence, as he makes repeated attempts to reconnect with the love of his life and their four children, juggling his simmering rage with the semblance of sanity still percolating in his head. This material could turn melodramatic at any moment, but Crawford’s jittery performance and Machoian’s naturalistic style joins forces with an ominous sound design that brings the fragility of its protagonist’s mindset to life. The result is a fresh and bracing new look at the dissolution of the American family that redefines edge-of-your-seat filmmaking through the sheer talent on display at every moment. —EK
“The Mole Agent”
There’s a certain immersive thrill that comes from documentaries that hide themselves, and “The Mole Agent” epitomizes that appeal. Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s delightful character study — which is also her country’s Oscar submission — unfolds as an intricate spy thriller, with a sweet-natured 83-year-old widower infiltrating a nursing home at the behest of a private detective. The plan goes awry with all kinds of comical and touching results, so well-assembled within a framework of fictional tropes that it begs for an American remake. (The rumor mill says that’s in the works.)
But as much as such a product might appeal to companies hungry for content, it would be redundant from the outset, because “The Mole Agent” is already one of the most heartwarming spy movies of all time — a rare combination of genres that only works so well because it sneaks up on you. —EK
“Two of Us”
Unfolding like something of a tender cross between “Carol” and “Amour,” Filippo Meneghetti’s “Two of Us” combines a repressed love story with a heartrending portrait of human frailty as a medical emergency threatens to expose the relationship that two seventysomething Paris women have maintained in secret for decades. Nina (Barbara Sukowa, whose credits range from “Berlin Alexanderplatz” to “Atomic Blonde”) and the more conservative Mado (Martine Chevallier) have been together through thick and thin, with the only real conflict in their partnership being the latter’s reluctance to tell her children about how close she is to the woman who lives down the hall.
When Mado suffers a terrible stroke on the eve of her much-anticipated coming out, Nina is forced to grapple with potentially losing the love of her life without letting Mado’s children know why she needs to be at their mother’s bedside, or why they might find her in their mother’s bed. An unsparing drama that still unfolds with enough grace and lightness to hit arthouse audiences where they live, “Two of Us” is a feature debut that’s told with a veteran’s touch, and it’s all too easy to appreciate why France selected Merenghetti’s moving tearjerker as its Oscar submission this year. —DE