New Directors, better films: Annual New York festival showcases emerging talent

Features

The annual New Directors/New Films Film Festival (NDNF), which holds its 40th session from March 23 through April 4 in New York City, again offers new works from emerging filmmakers. This year’s lineup is particularly strong, but also suggests the creators are more interested in exploring new directions, whether in style, subject matter, themes or genre- and gender-bending. Even plenty of new (geographic) directions are on view.

Not that this latest batch of 28 features, many culled from major festivals worldwide, impresses overall as uncommercial or inaccessible. In fact, this year’s schedule might be the strongest in years, as a greater percentage seem destined to perform very nicely theatrically.

Whatever the commercial fate of its films, NDNF rides waves of artistic clout, a sturdy reputation and consistency of always offering works of interest. Its reputation derives from discovering or giving significant momentum to one-time emerging filmmakers like Neil LaBute, Mary Harron, Darren Aronofsky and Matteo Garrone and films like Dogtooth, The Maid, The Cove and Frozen River and their creators, to cite but a few embraced by previous NDNF sessions.

After a few lackluster years, the 2011 NDNF emerges with muscle as it continues as one of the most venerable and anticipated aggregations of global independent cinema worldwide. Every street corner seems to have its own festival of independent films these days with many scores of films in each lineup. But NDNF, with a mission to discover and support rising artists with works yet to meet the marketplace, continually offers quality over quantity and manageability over chaos. This year especially, the selections—curated by NDNF co-founders/co-presenters at the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Society of Lincoln Center—aren’t just a rich trove for the series’ loyal film fans but a big nod to a business focused on selling theatre tickets to prosper and further the medium.

Thus, opening night’s Margin Call, a sublime blend of art meeting commerce, fit the bill perfectly. To be released in October, this financial thriller unfolds over roughly 24 hours largely on the floors of a large Manhattan investment bank as the global financial crisis becomes reality in the fall of 2008. The crackling drama, intent on speaking clear English regarding the crisis even as jargon like “tranches” and “models” slips in, begins with the shocking discovery—by way of leaked data smuggled by the just-fired head of risk management—that the firm is broke. The plot then follows the barely contained panic, scrambling and crises of conscience that ensue among the various analysts, sellers and executives to stanch the disaster. Loud box-office (if not Stock Exchange) bells will ring when Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate roll out the film this fall, the seasonal anniversary of the collapse and a ripe time for product loaded with Oscar bait.

Bets will be flying about how many of the stars (including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci and Paul Bettany) will make it to Oscar noms. Even lesser roles resonate big, including Susan Blackwell’s brief but indelible incarnation of the chilling corporate hatchet lady. Another “star” of the film is the Red camera that captures the magnificent imagery and allowed debuting feature director J.C. Chandor to bring in the goods for an unbelievable $3.4 million.

In quantity and quality, lesbian-themed films, hardly an NDNF staple, have burst out of the closet significantly at this year’s event. The powerful, pulsing coming-out drama Pariah, set in a middle-class black community in Brooklyn, will be looking for, if not finding, Kids Are All Right-niche box-office gold when Focus Features brings debuting feature writer-director Dee Rees’ semi-autobiographical film to theatres. The plot centers on a 17-year-old “pariah” who hides her longings and gender confusion from her family as she struggles to break away from their conventional expectations and embrace her own needs.

Comfortably sporting a boyish look, Adepero Oduye is remarkable as the conflicted lead and has the great fortune to be surrounded by a superior supporting cast (including Pernell Walker, Kim Wayans, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell and Nina Daniels) and legions of background actors who make the heroine’s world so real. Rees’ crackling dialogue (often emotionally powerful, sometimes just plain filthy), the rousing music track of underground hits, well-chosen authentic locations and dynamic pacing also contribute to a great ride. About 14 executive producers, including Spike Lee, are credited, but every frame and line of dialogue line point to a savvy, hands-on auteur daring to share her own experience.

Also lesbian-themed and music-filled is P. David Ebersole’s terrific documentary Hit So Hard, also destined to hit high b.o. notes. His subject is the up, down and up again life of Patty Schemel, who hit the percussion skins in the early ’90s as drummer for Courtney Love’s punk band Hole before hitting the skids and streets of L.A. as an addict. Music and celebrity insanity vie with drug and alcohol addition for screen time here, but what emerges is an honest and rewarding look at rock ’n’ roll life back when Rolling Stone covers, triumphant world tours, suicides and overdoses all characterized the scene.

Schemel’s roller-coaster ride from Microsoft employee to fame to hell and back is hugely inspirational, as she forthrightly shares her extraordinary story (her love life is discreetly left out). The doc provides an abundance of footage of Hole in its prime, including concert gigs worldwide and home movies of Love and her late husband, Kurt Cobain. Much of the archival stuff unflinchingly conveys the extravagances of band life, not least of which were the massive intakes of drug and alcohol.

Nicely accessorized with some cool animation and many split-screen sequences (four is the max), Hit So Hard also affords an inside look at how nasty the business itself can get, especially how a Hole record producer doing what producers can do maneuvered Schemel out of the band and onto a downward spiral. Through interviews and archival footage, the film also pays homage to gay rockers and famous female rock ’n’ roll drummers of the past (members of The Bangles, GoGos and Runaways).

But it’s Schemel’s show as she, her mom, friends and colleagues share stories. Most significantly, her own candor about her sexuality, addictions, rehab stints and overall bumpy journey is riveting. Now sober, her life is in sync with her love of dogs and looks a whole lot sweeter in the slow lane.

Yet another lesbian-themed feature, but one fraught with politics, is Maryam Keshavarz’s Sundance Audience Award-winning sensation Circumstance, NDNF’s closing-night selection. The Iranian film, which Roadside Attractions will be bringing to theatres with Participant Media support, follows two wealthy beauties indulging in too much fun and mischief in Tehran’s vibrant youth culture of hip music, cool films, and packed clubs to suspect that the country’s new shadow regime—by way of a recovered drug addict brother’s extremism—will impact their growing intimacy and change their lives.

Yet another surefire hit from NDNF is French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, robbed (some will argue) of what should have been the recent Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. The intriguing political mystery-drama from Sony Pictures Classics involves two Montreal twins, a young man and woman, who, in accordance with their Middle Eastern-born mother’s will, travel to the old country (never specified) to track down the father and brother unknown to them. Without pointing fingers at specific countries and religions, the film, with the mother’s horrendous Old World experiences at its core, is a remarkable indictment of the sectarian violence, fighting and massacres that are chronic to the region. Messages matter, but it’s the outstanding writing, performances and knockout ending that audiences will take home.

Like Incendies, many of NDNF’S better films also focused on female protagonists, including writer-director Marc Fitoussi’s delightful comedy Copacabana, which has the nonstop Isabelle Huppert in one of her strongest performances to date. The ubiquitous French star plays a coarse but loving working-class mother (though work is anathema to her) to a stuffy and conventional daughter embarrassed by her mom’s tacky, adolescent behavior and over-the-top, devil-may-care personality.

Determined to win her daughter’s respect, slacker/good-time gal/motor-mouth Huppert takes a job selling timeshares in a grim high-rise condo at a Belgian seaside resort. Against all odds and again playing loosey-goosey with rules, she excels after some false starts (an assigned imperious roommate is no help) and re-emerges victorious on even unexpected fronts. Although still without a distributor, Copacabana, propelled by its free-spirit heroine, is a comic gem that will surely land a deal in the near future and pull a good number of those proverbial derrieres into theatre seats.

Perhaps theatre-bound (an IFC spokesperson declined comment on how Sundance Selects, the film’s distributor, differs from IFC Films’ theatrical release strategy) is the richly informative doc The Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975 from Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson. The film largely utilizes never-before-seen interviews with Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, et al. from the late ’60s to mid-’70s that a Swedish filmmaking team captured for their chronicle of the black-power movement in the U.S.

There’s also plenty of archival material covering SNCC, the Black Panthers (Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, et al.), Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and many more boldface personalities of the era. The archival and newly uncovered found footage of the interviews is expertly woven into new material mainly comprised of voice-over commentary from a variety of black artists, activists and academics today (from Harry Belafonte to Erykah Badu). The overall effect makes for an exhilarating ride through a key portion of civil-rights and black-empowerment history that impresses with the giant strides made. Less clear is the context to be understood by the lengthy sequence focusing on Harlem’s out-of-control drug epidemic (a metaphor for black despair as a marginalized race?). What this engaging doc does put across is how much the black-power movement accomplished and how it inspired the fight for women’s and gay rights.

Another doc deserving theatrical play is Australian Matthew Bate’s Shut Up Little Man!, inspired by the questionable taping of two foul-mouthed, abusive, forever squabbling alcoholics (at least one gay) who were the San Francisco neighbors of the two audio-taping perps (straight guys) next door. Apparently, the tapes of the vicious arguments became viral and forged an underground cult of fans, disc jockeys and artists. The not-unexpected upshot was that this questionable material actually turned into stuff Hollywood covets.

Thus, Shut Up Little Man! entangles the eavesdropping pair into a showbiz web of eager producers and wannabe hangers-on, all eager to turn the tapes into big box office. Happily, filmmaker Bate is also interested in tracking down the two “stars,” the forever feuding, cursing, abusing duo.

As a metaphor for big movie (or showbiz) ambitions gone off the rails—rather like Lost in La Mancha—the doc certainly amuses. Also, the wholly off-putting, noisily bickering roommates, heard and not seen, grow more intriguing and habit-forming in spite of their crassness, making the disturbing point that maybe we’re all closet snoopers. Also disturbing is the possibility that the taping of the two alcoholics is at heart a despicable exploitation of these sad souls.

NDNF this year offers an abundance of middle-of-the-road and very watchable features, including Sameh Zoabi’s impressive debut feature Man Without a Cell Phone, a sweet comedy about a girl-crazed, cell-phone-dependant young Palestinian living in Israel near the border, where his village must endure the ugly, towering cell-phone antenna the Israelis installed. The hero gently locks horns with his determined father, who becomes an activist against the tower because he believes it harmful to the region’s olive trees, honey production and health of the locals.

Another worthy effort is brothers Daniel and Diego Vega’s directorial debut Octubre, a New Yorker Films release that might otherwise be called, in homage to the French hit of years past, One Man and a Baby. Beautifully shot and unhurriedly observed, the film tells the story of a small-time Peru money-lender who spends too much time with prostitutes and one day finds a baby—his—left in his care. His enlistment of a neighbor to help in this crisis brings unexpected rewards to all concerned.

Also strong but dealing seriously with a serious subject is Mohamed Diab’s Cairo 678, about three Cairo women caught up in the crowded city’s epidemic of sexual harassment. The film quite skillfully weaves together the stories of the women, each from a different economic background and victimized differently. As in women’s movements worldwide, the answer to the abuse—here seen as rampant on the city’s crowded buses—comes by way of collective action that brings this unlikely trio together. End credits assure that laws are now in place to counter the harassment but curb our enthusiasm with news that few legal cases have come to light.

A number of films take new directions by fooling with genre expectations or embracing unusual subject matter. The documentary El Velador offers an unusually leisurely, sometimes maddening approach to examining in long takes and close-ups “El Jardin,” a vast cemetery in Mexico’s drug heartland that not surprisingly has expanded stunningly to accommodate more and more victims. The film gives us the gaudy mausoleums to honor many of the dead and too caringly shows the dreary work of the masons, coated in plaster and paint, who build them.

Beyond these showy, even offensive structures, the doc doesn’t spare viewers the many more humble graves, the numerous cemetery workers and visitors, and the ancillary businesses on the periphery that offer fast food and flimsy toys to keep stomachs full and kids happy. The pace is slow, perhaps in deference to the pace of the afterlife.

Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg is a Greek genre mash-up of drama, comedy and documentary elements, New Wave homage, soft-core nods and “women’s film.” Overall, it’s eccentric and seems bent on taking the French New Wave style in a new direction. Godard seems to be the main influence as nonlinear cuts, offbeat antics not integral to what there is of story, a renouncement of real emotion, detached dives into sexuality, and goofy dialogue attest. Even the title is eccentric in its awkward reference to real-life naturalist David Attenborough, with whom the heroine is obsessed. Eccentric from the first frame which kicks off a long sequence in which the heroine’s female friend tries to teach her to French-kiss, the film, also fraught with nudity and some graphic if unsexy sex scenes, does manage a slight story about the heroine’s sexual growth and its possible relationship to the slow death of her father.

Koji Fukada’s Hospitalite, set in a cramped apartment and printing shop in downtown Tokyo, takes dramatic comedy into an absurd new direction in its story of a shop owner who lives a quiet life upstairs with his wife and offspring. Quiet, that is, until a man claiming to be a former business associate arrives for a small favor—temporary housing—before bringing in his sexy Western wife and dozens of foreign tourists. An orderly and simple life is upended as viewer unrest sets in to question what all this craziness is about.

Taking a new direction in storytelling, Denis Côté’s French-Canadian drama Curling teases with a ton of nascent story threads (an eye disorder, mysterious deaths, a disappearance, an incarceration, a broken marriage, a coming of age, a romance, etc.) that never go anywhere but are left frozen in the snowy, desolate landscapes of rural Quebec. The film follows a single father eager to protect his apparently backward adolescent daughter from the cruel outside world. It’s all story fragments and lots of snow. But the rich atmosphere does impress.

Also giving the finger to genre conventions, but a cut above the lesser NDNF features, is Deron Albright’s almost detective/procedural Ghanian yarn The Destiny of Lesser Animals, about a Ghanian police inspector, kicked out of the U.S. after over-sensitive New York cops just after 9/11 rough him up, who teams up with a more senior investigator in Accra to nail the perp responsible for serial thefts and murders. If the film leaves us high and dry in an important way, it delivers emotionally via the hero’s care for a little girl and politically by giving insight into Ghana’s recent history and challenging recovery from rampant poverty and corruption.

Vladimir Kott returns to NDNF with Gromozeka, a well-done Russian drama that follows three guys who used to play together in a high-school rock ’n’ roll band. They are now middle-aged men in different walks of life—surgeon, police officer, taxi driver—and living at different levels in Moscow’s socioeconomic structure. Each man, with big family and personal problems, confronts crises that they never could have imagined as carefree rockers. Gromozeka is often effective but never shies away from how ugly life can get—which may or may not be to its advantage.

Rebecca Zlotowski’s feature directorial debut Belle Epine is yet another female-focused NDNF film. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young Parisian woman of Jewish heritage who falls in with a group of bikers. For those viewers who choose to excuse the aimless heroine for her anti-social behavior, blame seems to lie with an absentee father. Or that’s how the filmmaker seems to want it. But next time out, she’ll have to be more convincing.

Palisades/Tartan has Matt McCormick’s debut feature Some Days Are Better Than Others, a film about some Portland, Oregon sad sacks who either resist work or get the worst jobs in the world. Set in the darker corners of the usually more vibrant city, the film reeks of good intentions but is pervasively grim until some hope emerges in the final frames. Yes, nice things can come from the tiniest gestures, but the message is no massage here.

Film fans will be lured by well-known actor Paddy Considine directing fellow acclaimed actor-filmmaker Peter Mullan in Tyrannosaur, another Irish drama about a drunken, off-the-rails guy who may find salvation. But many may not get past the opening sequence of this Strand release, which has aforementioned guy stumbling and cursing from the local pub, then violently kicking his sweet pooch…to death.

Tyrannosaur, at least, moves in a direction. Not so the German film At Ellen’s Age, about as strange a film as NDNF offered. The story has an aimless, phlegmatic, tight-lipped stewardess bolting from her job after spying a leopard on the runway (huh?). She dumps her cheating boyfriend, then ends up burrowing in with a scruffy bunch of drinking, partying animal activists. An unexplained, mind-boggling jump to the heroine in Africa hardly clarifies. Apparently, her new pals in Africa are fighting animal poaching, but the heroine, who seems never to have even owned a gerbil, displays no compassion whatsoever for animals. Or humans.