Extremely eclectic, cutting-edge and world-class programming has always embodied New Directors / New Films, the annual showcase of emerging filmmakers presented by Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. This year’s 50th anniversary edition is part of a comeback to cinema across the city, with in-person screenings Wednesday through May 13. The program will also be screened virtually (until May 8), with an online retrospective of selections from decades past. including early works by directors like Lee Chang-dong, Christopher Nolan, and Charles Burnett.
Color Me is shocked if one of this year’s contestants ends up making a Batman movie in a decade. But if I had to guess based solely on cinematic kinetics, my vote would go to Indian director PS Vinothraj for his captivating debut, “Pebbles”. It’s essentially a road movie, about a young boy and his evil, alcoholic father forced to walk home to the drought-stricken hinterland of Tamil country. Vinothraj palpably evokes the violence and oppressive nature of their relationship – and their terribly impoverished background – with tremendous intensity and visual flair.
The festival’s opening, “El Planeta”, by concept artist Amalia Ulman, is significantly lighter, but no less tragic in its own way. Drawing on a line of delicate black-and-white comedies by Hong Sang-soo, Noah Baumbach and other directors, the film is grounded in the realities of the recent Spanish economic crisis. It unfolds like a series of vignettes, each a funny and seemingly unremarkable snapshot of the life of a mother and daughter – both fashion divas – in the town of Gijón, in northern Spain. . With their fur coats and fancy dinners, the two women are obsessed with glamor and success to the point that they willfully ignore the impending threat of eviction, spending borrowed money on frivolous things rather than paying the bills. invoices. Ulman, the writer-director who also stars (opposite her current mother), gradually reveals the extent of women’s issues with deft and sly humor, a refreshing and revealing reprieve from overly dignified and forcefully portrayed poverty. that we usually get.
Overall, the program is particularly keen to dismantle a monolithic view of womanhood. “Madalena,” by Brazilian director Madiano Marcheti, is a tripartite meditation on the death of a transgender woman that culminates in a bittersweet gathering of friends, a beautifully queer fellowship. On the other side of the world, “Dark Red Forest,” by Chinese documentary filmmaker Jin Huaqing, vividly captures the unconditional dedication of Tibetan nuns during an icy, Spartan retreat.
Three films about older women stand out: there’s Ainhoa Rodríguez’s extremely serious ‘Destello Bravío’ about a group of women stuck in a dead end Spanish town with their silly male counterparts. Their sad routine, however, is interrupted by bursts of surreal eroticism, unsettling manifestations of their pent-up desires. From South Korea comes an unconventional #MeToo tale from director Kim Mi-jo: “Gull,” an infuriating drama that considers how age and class can make the pursuit of justice even more complicated for rape victims.
I was particularly seduced by Jonas Bak’s soft character study “Wood and Water”, which goes wonderfully with “Les Rencontres d’Anna” by Chantal Akerman, a film in the retrospective program which also talks about a lone traveler. In “Wood,” a retired church secretary from Germany (played by the filmmaker’s mother, Anke Bak) travels to Hong Kong to visit her estranged son, albeit her continued absence – though she remains. in her apartment – forces her to explore the city on her own. This is not a terribly eventful film, despite the backdrop of massive protests; perhaps that is why he so successfully avoids the cliché of the white woman “being” in a foreign country. Instead, it’s in the brief encounters, chatter and unspoken hurt that our heroine comes to life.
Like “El Planeta,” James Vaughan’s “Friends and Strangers” made me chuckle at its dry and joyful absurdity. Set in and around Sydney, it starts off as a sort of anti-romantic comedy, with a chance encounter between the twenties that leads to an impromptu camping trip. The movie then turns into something much stranger and ridiculous than the two sides, and we’re introduced to their interconnected little world of awkward conversations and candle-lit ignorance. It is mumblecore par excellence but mixed with a satire of white Australia and its historical amnesia.
In fact, an account with the ghosts of colonialism distinguishes a number of interesting titles: The strange Dominican drama “Liborio”, by Nino Martínez Sosa, pits a spiritual leader and a native Christ figure against an accomplice American military presence; Jessica Beshir’s ‘Faya Dayi’, a dreamy and visually dazzling black and white documentary, examines the record of the Ethiopian khat trade on a rural community across generations. (The country is the world’s largest exporter of khat, an addictive drug, a chewable leaf with amphetamine qualities.)
“Azor,” the delightfully lavish debut of Swiss director Andreas Fontana, is deliberately low-key, opting for pervasive concern and polite conversation laden with double meaning. Think John le Carré and Francis Ford Coppola, but in the world of Swiss banking elites and Argentine high society during the infamous ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s. Come for the suave personalities and impeccably tailored suits, stay for the sharp critique of modern capitalism and its ivory tower engines and shakers.
Hailing from Nigeria, but nothing like the hasty, microbudgetary productions that define the country’s film industry, “Eyimofe (This Is My Desire)” is an exciting social drama. Directed by twin brothers Arie and Chuko Esiri, this panoramic portrait of Lagos is split into two parts: In the first, a middle-aged engineer is plunged into bureaucratic hell as he struggles to pay off debts following a tragedy ; in the second, a young woman struggles to maintain her independence while taking care of her pregnant sister and fending off a scary suitor. Protagonists on both sides are united in their desperation to obtain passports – the dream of an escape hangs over them, as the intricacies of Lagosian life are captured with empathy and melancholy resignation.
At the extreme avant-garde of the program is director Fern Silva’s psychedelic mixtape, “Rock Bottom Riser”. Assembly of discontinuous moments, the film is built on an ethnographic and ecological sketch of Hawaii. Amid long, mesmerizing shots of bubbling magma, however, a tension emerges between island traditions and the commercial forces of American tourism. It’s a dense stuff, but Silva is not without a sense of humor (see: EDM-tagged interlude at a vape shop with a bunch of smoke aficionados).
Given the festival’s half-century span, I began to think of two films on the program that would be unimaginable decades ago, inundated and informed as they are by the technologies of modern living.
The first is Jane Schoenbrun’s uncategorized debut, “We All Go to the World’s Fair,” a disturbing tribute to the mysteries of online culture that is also in unique harmony with the types of intimacy and comfort that the we find in its strangest trenches. Then there’s Theo Anthony’s fascinating closing film, “All Light, Everywhere,” a visual essay on perception – in the most basic sense of the word. What are we looking at? How are we looking? What constitutes a reliable gaze? The film is a revealing and metaphysically disturbing examination of surveillance, from the origins of photography to current social media tracking and body cameras used by law enforcement. The truth, according to Anthony, is always mixed with deception, undermining our claims to objectivity. Maybe all we can do is continually expand our frames of reference.
New directors / new films
Runs Wednesday-May 13 at Lincoln Center and Wednesday-May 8 via Virtual Cinema. Go to newdirectors.org for more information. Please review the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies in theaters.