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Last updated: August 20, 2005
Copyright 2006
Michael R. Colford. All rights reserved

Film Festival Reviews

New Directors/New Films

March 18 to March 29, 2015

by Kyle Renick

The 44th festival co-presented by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, titled New Directors/New Films, was mostly neither, and should properly be called Early to Mid-Career Directors/Films from Other Festivals. The program booklet lists two programs of shorts and twenty-six features, including five labeled North American premieres and three U.S. premieres, and the remainder with the pedigree of international film festivals such as Cannes, Venice, Locarno, and Toronto. Between March 18 and 29, 2015, I attended eighteen features and one shorts program, catching up with WHITE GOD on April 6 at IFC, and admonished by friends to track down a few other titles.

In general the festival improved as it progressed, but it must be said that the members of the Selection Committee are their own worst enemies, repeatedly pronouncing films that are mediocre or worse as "exquisite" or "sweetly comic" or "passionately observed" or "quietly devastating." Marian Masone was saddled with a pretentious and off-putting Q & A on two of the worst films, Britni West's feeble semi-fictionalized documentary on small-town Montana, TIRED MOONLIGHT (U.S.), and the Ross Brothers' WESTERN (U.S.), a mendacious and nonsensical Texas border tale of drugs, money and fake neighborliness that was frankly insulting. Dennis Lim was noticeably distressed by the number of patrons who had departed by the conclusion of Yohei Suzuki's OW (Japan), having condescendingly proclaimed it a shining example of genre richness, which it wasn't. Chaitanya Tamhane"s COURT (India), a waste-of-time courtroom melodrama with contemporary Indian politics as the villain, managed to ruin an excellent photographic ending with a ridiculous coda that made a bad film worse. Even an interesting film, popular at both Cannes and Toronto, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's wordless deaf and mute Ukrainian THE TRIBE, was rendered a lesser light by Gavin Smith's tongue-tied introductory ramblings about the brutality and violence we were about to experience, when any fan of Hong Kong or South Korean cinema has seen countless examples of much worse. There is a prudishness about both sex and violence among the Selection Committee members that might be considered naive were it not so wrong-headed.

The disjuncture between the blathering by Selection Committee members, both before and after films, and the actual experience of this high-profile artistic venture, points to the need for re-evaluation of both its mission and methods. With ever increasing emphasis on selling tickets to films based on their visibility in other international film festivals, and the relaxation of criteria to include second, third, and other directorial efforts and fewer debut films, ND/NF clearly has an identity disorder. Even with the acknowledgement that film festivals are ubiquitous throughout the world, with more planned every year, there remain a lassitude and cliquishness of the selection process that excludes many actual new directors and genuine new films. Are we really to revel in the offerings of a festival whose total choices number less than a third of North American and U.S. premieres? Something is amiss, and it is not a scarcity of selection.

The Diary of a Teenage GirlThe opening night feature was Marielle Heller's THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (U.S.), the eponymous story of 15-year-old budding graphic artist Minnie (Bel Powley), who is so determined to gain sexual experience that she literally grabs the first available man, who happens to be her mother's boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Unwisely she keeps a running commentary on cassettes about sex (in cars, bedrooms, motel rooms), drugs (marijuana, cocaine, LSD), and rock 'n' roll (Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, Tom Verlaine), with predictable results. The film gets the textures and colors of 1976 color photography just right, but botches its production design of 1970s San Francisco apartments. The large and mostly responsive audience was identifiable along typical demographic lines, and when Minnie records "This makes me officially an adult!" there was a loud "HA!" from the rear of the Museum of Modern Art's Titus 2 Theater. The seemingly inappropriate even creepy sexual behavior is mitigated by our knowledge, made available through publicity information, that the young actress is actually 23, reminiscent of a similar if reverse problem on Gary Winick's TADPOLE (2000), wherein a 15-year-old boy having sex with his stepmother's best friend was rendered palatable by the information that the young actor was actually 24. Aside from the assured writing and direction by Marielle Heller, the major reason to see the film is the amoral clarity of Alexander Skarsgård's skillful performance as 35-year-old Monroe, a highlight of which is his reversion to emotional infancy during a bad acid trip, as Minnie transitions easily into understanding take-charge woman.

Two contemporary horror movies received well-deserved attention. Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz's GOODNIGHT MOMMY (Austria) -- which was beautifully produced by the great Ulrich Seidl, and clearly influenced by the works of Michael Haneke -- was the macabre but stylish story of 9-year-old identical twins who suspect that an impostor has replaced their mother during her stay in hospital, and decide to make her tell them the truth by whatever means possible. The lucidity of the performances by Elias and Lukas Schwarz is all the more chilling for its simplicity.

Fehér istenKornél Mundruczó's WHITE GOD (Hungary), which was dedicated to director Miklós Jancso (who died in January), was the tantalizing tale of a fictional Budapest in which non-pure-breed dogs "have to be reported" and are taken away to substandard facilities surrounded by fences, treated badly, and even killed or worse, sold for deadly dogfights. An adolescent trumpet- playing schoolgirl named Lilli is forced to give up her beloved Hagen, who is "not a Hungarian breed." Obvious parallels with the needs of one group to destroy another (the Holocaust, corporate greed, income inequality, international immigration, the ongoing Islamic implosion, widespread exposure of America's racist and fascist tendencies) yield to a full-scale revolution, as the dogs turn on humans. The climax is a virtuoso sequence in which a school's concert of Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" is intercut with the dogs' well-organized Hagen-led uprising, dramatically scored by composer Asher Goldschmidt in one of the few truly outstanding soundtracks featured in this ND/NF. The final scene leaves a musical question hanging in the air: Are the dogs recalling how life was before the uprising, are they responding to the calming influence of art, or is there an inspirational Hungarian "nationalism" inherent in Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2"? One writer who hated this film suggested that the answer is found in William Congreve's "Music has charms to sooth a savage breast", often misquoted as "beast". Whether that "beast" is human or canine is left properly unanswered.

La creazione di significatoThe single worst title in the entire festival, just as bad in Italian as in English, was attached to the most unforgettable work: Simone Rapisarda Casanova's THE CREATION OF MEANING (Italy/Canada), a smart and affecting concatenation of documentary and fiction tracing a history of the Gothic Line in the middle of Italy's Tuscany mountains, effectively dividing the country into North and South. This marked the last major line of German defense against the Allies in the waning months of WWII, and about 40,000 died. The elderly bear witness to a young German who died asking after his mother, or a young Italian who tried to escape a German soldier by hiding in an oven (he survived but most of his skin was burned off). Those who have lived in the mountains and farmed their entire lives host young people doing their dissertations on the types of bullets still found in the mountains, listen to profane radio broadcasts that sound very much like commentators on Fox News going ballistic over Berlusconian nonsense, and worry about having to sell their land to "scoundrels" due to abject failures of successive Italian governments and corresponding financial mismanagement. Aging shepherd Pacifico Pieruccioni sagely observes "Democracy should be more than prosperity" and "When you are ruled by scoundrels, it affects everyone". In the moving final scene, he sits at table with a prosperous German businessman to whom he has sold his land, in return for permission to live out the remainder of his life on that land. Casanova's memorable Apennine Mountains cinematography becomes a potent argument for temporary stewardship of such vast natural beauty, rather than ownership and exploitation. During the Q & A afterward, director Casanova stated his reason for making the film was "this constant obsession with the present, without any awareness of the past, or of the future."

ParabellumWhere the exquisite CREATION OF MEANING chronicled the end of a way of life, Lukas Valenta Rinner's interesting PARABELLUM (Argentina/Austria/Uruguay) documented an apocalyptic vision of all life ending, as various individuals are transported to a secret survivalist training camp hidden in the Tigre Delta, because "the world is no longer a predictable place." They take classes in botany, homemade explosives, camouflage, and survival in the water, learning that "Civilization is a spell that is cast over us: We need to see reality when it is broken". After extensive theoretical training, those who are able to become actual predators, and we bear witness to the fiery destruction of civilization at a beautiful but terrible distance. Another end of life as previously known story was Salomé Alexi's LINE OF CREDIT (France/Georgia), in which financial crises mount inexorably and shatteringly for a Georgian woman who owns a tiny shop in Tbilisi and manages to survive on a day-to-day basis, until she and various family members become victims of her manipulations, as well as the corrupt usurious post-Soviet financial system.

Listen to Me MarlongStevan Riley's fascinating documentary LISTEN TO ME MARLON (Great Britain) is largely comprised of excerpts from hundreds of hours of taping by famously elusive and tormented actor Marlon Brando. The riveting introduction is the digitization of his image as he speaks about the process and its meaning for future celebrities, echoing uncannily the use of Robin Wright in THE CONGRESS. Brando repeatedly refers to acting as storytelling, observing "I didn't intend to have that extraordinary effect" and decrying "the illusion of success -- it removes you from reality. How can you do that to yourself?" Finally he dismisses it entirely, saying "Acting is just making stuff up." Hearing Brando's own voice brings home the confused and uncomfortable feelings he had about being the most famous actor of his time. The carefully chosen excerpts from interviews and performances result in an urge to revisit his films, which I have been doing regularly since the March 27 screening. Sadly, most of the movies range from mediocre to truly terrible; but his acting in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, ON THE WATERFRONT, THE GODFATHER, and LAST TANGO IN PARIS will remain forever for discovery and inspiration by future generations.

There are many reasons to avoid seeing dozens of films within a short time span, although I do so repeatedly. One is impatience with bullshit. Laura Citarella and Verónica Llinâs's DOG LADY (Argentina) tells the small gentle tale of a homeless woman who lives with and cares for a pack of stray dogs, or "mutts" as the humans in WHITE GOD would label them. Quiet contemplation of this film's resonance was denied by a pretentiously self-righteous Q & A that was so off-putting as to persuade me there was much less there than met eyes and ears, or was worth remembering. Benjamin Crotty's FORT BUCHANAN (France/Tunisia) offered the experience of a new and authentic voice, with attendant deconstruction of narrative conventions, but I became increasingly annoyed listening to repetitive bloviating by characters I could not possibly have cared less about. Rick Alverson's ENTERTAINMENT (USA) was one of the very few sold-out screenings, and some excellent actors such as John C. Reilly, Dean Stockwell, Tye Sheridan, and Michael Cera appeared in it. But I could not escape audience members nodding off in stupefaction (or perhaps lack of sleep?), including the woman in front of me and the man on my left, as well as the conviction that this same territory was more meaningful in Tony Richardson's THE ENTERTAINER (1960), with every moment of Laurence Olivier's towering performance as Archie Rice more emotionally devastating than anything in ENTERTAINMENT.

Sarah Leonor's THE GREAT MAN (France) and Nadav Lapid's THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER (Israel/France) were both memorable for details of characterization, the politics of societal structure, and vivid storytelling, supported by outstanding acting and directing. The former documents the emotional intimacy of two soldiers on war duty in Afghanistan that creates a bond so strong it transcends the wrenching readjustment into "society" and ongoing problems of caring for a young boy. Director Leonor shot with a digital camera because it was possible to shoot in very low light; and in response to a question about the excellent score by composer Martin Wheeler, she stated that his music was able "to express something that is not already existing." The latter film made believable the outrageous story of a disturbed teacher who looks after but also exploits and becomes obsessed with, even to the point of kidnaping, a child prodigy poet named Yoav. Scenes of children in school and at play are beautifully observed, especially the soulfulness of Avi Shnaidman as Yoav. Sarit Larry's performance as kindergarten teacher Nira is perfectly balanced between neurotic need and false feeling.

Christmas, AgainTwo personal favorites offered complete surprise when it was least expected, and unmitigated pleasure when it was most appreciated; both may require some searching out. Charles Poekel's CHRISTMAS, AGAIN (USA) is the improbable story of a disillusioned Christmas tree salesman in Brooklyn during the holiday season that is not only a genuine New York film but also a ringing affirmation of urban living in its infinite variety. It is also a small masterpiece of American independent cinema in its writing and direction by Charles Poekel, editing by Robert Greene, cinematography by Sean Price Williams, production design by Trevor Peterson, and acting by Kentucker Audley and Hannah Gross. Those who dread another holiday showing of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE are hereby advised to seek out this title. And out of nowhere on the final day of ND/NF came Oscar Ruiz Navia's lovely LOS HONGOS, which is not translated THE MUSHROOM (Colombia/Argentina/France/Germany). This beautiful work is a portrait of two young street artists or "soldiers" from different economic strata in contemporary Colombia. One studies typography in art classes, the other steals paint from a construction site where he is temporarily employed; both are inspired by the student demonstrators of the Arab Spring. Their graffiti bring to life the idea of "public art and culture for everyone", their inchoate thinking reflecting the way humanity is destroying nature, with street art as a form of rebellion against a corrupt political system. A police assault ironically takes place on a bridge where artists paint called "The 1000 Days Bridge" (a memorial to the victims of a war in Cali between Conservatives and Liberals from 1899 to 1902), but the film is surprisingly lacking in such usual cinematic tropes as authoritarian violence and sexual opportunism. The final scenes of the two boys high in a saman tree, which they render on the concrete walls as a work of art embracing their love of art and nature, offer moments of cinematic bliss unique in this ND/NF festival.

In the March/April issue of "Film Comment" is this sentence on a recent film festival favorite: "The feeling that cinema's days might be numbered is coming from all directions, as new forms of inattention and new modes of distractions threaten to reduce movies to an afterthought, a footnote to red-carpet celebrity demolition derbies." It was often difficult during New Directors/New Films to recall why cinema matters, with half-asleep audiences and half-empty houses to suggest it doesn't. Perhaps the very idea of film festival has outlived its usefulness; it has certainly outlived its uniqueness. But this is yet again a reminder of why organizations such as the Chlotrudis Society for Independent FIlm matter more than ever -- to focus attention on recent award-winning films such as BOYHOOD, LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON, MOMMY, LOCKE, and IDA, and to recommend to friends and family relatively new works such as WHITE GOD, THE CREATION OF MEANING, CHRISTMAS, AGAIN, THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER, and LOS HONGOS.

3.5 Cats on Aggregate. Wednesday, March 18, 2015, through Sunday, March 29, 2015, New Directors/New Films at the Museum of Modern Art, and the Walter Reade Theater of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York.

Kyle Renick, April 12, 2015

Boston International Festival of Women's Cinema High Falls Film FestivalIndependent Film Festival of Boston New York Film Festival Provincetown International Film FestivalSidewalk Film FestivalSundance Film FestivalToronto International Film FestivalTribeca Film FestivalVenice Film Festival