New Directors/New Films showcases new worlds in its 46th year

ScreenerBlog

Blockbusters like Logan and Beauty and the Beast may dominate the box office, but true movie lovers rely on series like New Directors/New Films to find up-and-coming artists with new and distinctive voices.

Now in its 46th year, the series runs March 15–26 at New York's Museum of Modern Art and The Film Society of Lincoln Center. With 29 features and nine short films from around the world, this year's ND/NF provides a snapshot of changing and often turbulent societies.

Titles are selected by members of both organizations, based on screenings at festivals in Rotterdam, Venice, Locarno and other sites.

This year's opening-night movie is Patti Cake$, a critical favorite at Sundance. Indie director Geremy Jasper assembled an unlikely cast of newcomers like Danielle Macdonald and veterans like Cathy Moriarty, putting them in a musical premise as old as the medium. A part-time bartender and caterer, Patti Cake$ (Macdonald), or Killa P, is determined to break into the music business. But just like Eminem in 8 Mile or Judy Garland in A Star Is Born found out, it takes more than talent to succeed.

Fortunately, Patti finds help with a pharmacist/rapper and a runaway who calls himself Basterd. Although their New Jersey is a dark, depressing wasteland, the movie itself is surprisingly droll and upbeat.

Closing the series on March 26 is another Sundance entry, Person to Person, the second feature from writer-director Dustin Guy Defa. Running a crisp 84 minutes, and featuring an indie who's-who cast (Abbi Jacobson of "Broad City" fame, Superbad star Michael Cera, fashion blogger and Broadway vet Tavi Gevinson, Will Eno fave Steve Urbanski, etc.), it follows disparate characters across New York City as they pursue a murder mystery, a rare record album, their own sexuality and other plotlines.

Screening March 16 and 18, The Last Family is a loose biography of real-life Zdzisław Beksiński, a self-taught Polish painter famous for the extreme sadism of his surrealist canvases. Director Jan P. Matuszyński's last film, Deep Love, was a documentary about a deep-sea diver's attempts to recover from a stroke. In an interview, he said that The Last Family was his attempt to shoot fiction as if it were documentary. "I wanted to make a film in which every shot is a new scene." This approach translates into extended master shots that explore the dynamics of a dysfunctional family with precision and empathy.

Beksiński lives with his ailing mother and devoutly Catholic wife. His suicidal son Tomek occasionally bursts into their lives. Matuszyński's use of humor resembles Toni Erdmann, but with a much darker outlook. (Beksiński's life was filled with tragedy.) Veteran Polish actor Andrzej Seweryn won a Best Actor award at the Locarno Film Festival for his uncanny impersonation of the painter.

Shot in glistening black-and-white, The Summer Is Gone (March 16 and 17) is a period drama about a family coping with change in Mongolia as the government loosens its hold over the economy. Jobs are no longer secure, upending the tenuous balance in a middle-class family. Director Dalei Zhang's style is quiet and measured, allowing drama to emerge from low-key acting and high-contrast settings.

From Nepal, Deepak Rauniyar's White Sun (March 16 and17) also finds its roots in the past. Its protagonist left home to fight with the Maoists during a civil war against the Nepalese monarchy. Returning home for his father's funeral, he uncovers old wounds and faces new responsibilities. Details of day-to-day life in a spectacular but harsh landscape ground White Sun, a modern-day equivalent to Italian neorealism.

One of the purposes of ND/NF is to introduce viewers to new worlds as well as new voices. This year 32 countries across five continents are represented. None may be so exotic or bizarre as that found in The Challenge (March 16 and 19). Yuri Ancarani's documentary depicts a gilded life beyond the imagination of all but the wealthiest, and does so with a sly wit worthy of the great satirists. The Challenge received a special jury prize at the Locarno Film Festival.

A portrait of the sport of falconry as practiced in Qatar, the film presents its jaw-dropping details in a smooth, beguiling style. A private jet ferries hooded falcons to a competition. Dozens of SUVs speed across a desert valley floor, their tire tracks forming abstract patterns like petroglyphs. A motorcycle with gold detailing leads a pack of easy-riding sheiks down a road tinged amber by a setting sun. Scores of falcons circle a room the size of a gymnasium, waiting for robed workers to bring food. The meticulously composed cinematography (by Ancarani, Luca Nervegna and Jonathan Ricquebourg), spare score and Ancarani's patient editing give The Challenge a deceptively serene tone.

Yet as the examples of excess pile up, The Challenge will strike some viewers as a charged take-down, an angry witness to the spoils of an unjust society. The fact that the sheiks are willing participants in the filmmaking is one more confounding aspect of a very smart movie.

The Townes Van Zandt song that opens Arábia (March 18 and 19) places the film firmly in the tradition of Woody Guthrie Dustbowl ballads, King Vidor's Our Daily Bread and other Depression-era accounts of poverty, injustice and hard work for low wages. But this drama, written and directed by João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa, unfolds in modern-day Brazil. A teenager discovers a diary describing the life of an ex-con looking for work. Despite his harsh lessons, Cristiano (played by Aristides de Sousa) remains improbably upbeat and optimistic. The movie bobs and weaves, spins off tangents, stops for tall tales and brings to life memorable characters. And like Cristiano, Arábia itself finds hope in a bleak world.

Some of the films in this year's ND/NF—Beach Rats, Eliza Hittman's coming-of-age, sexual-awakening drama set in Brooklyn; Lady Macbeth, a re-imagining of Nikolai Leskov’s play Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in Victorian England; Menashe, a comedy about a Hasidic widower forced to become a parent; The Wound, about a South African adolescent undergoing a painful rite of passage—will receive theatrical releases. But the best time to see them is now, when many of the filmmakers will be present to talk about their work.