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New Directors/New Films 2017

New Directors/New Films is practically a pu pu platter sampling of some of the more memorable titles you missed at Park City.

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New Directors/New Films 2017
Photo: Neon

Couldn’t make it to Sundance this year? Never fear, as this year’s New Directors/New Films is practically a pu pu platter sampling of some of the more memorable titles you missed at Park City. And the 46th edition of Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art’s film festival opens and closes with two of the most buzzed-about titles from Sundance this past January: Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, a coming-of-age dramedy about an aspiring rapper from Bayonne, New Jersey that was purchased by Fox Searchlight Pictures for just shy of $10 million, and Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person, a love letter to New York City by way of a seriocomic peek into the lives of a motley group of eccentrics who call the city home.

The festival’s centerpiece is Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, which according to Slant critic Sam C. Mac is redolent of Claire Denis’s Beau Travil for its “homoerotic display of male bodies mesmerizingly moving in concert.” But the film turned heads at Sundance for other reasons, and what you make of Hittman’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut, It Felt Like Love, may depend on just how snugly you feel the character at the center of the film fits into the narrative of a closeted youth and where you think he ends up.

Apropos for a festival devoted to visions from (mostly) nascent filmmakers, this year’s ND/NF lineup abounds in works featuring characters contemplating identity, tradition, technology, and more. Among our favorites: Jérôme Reybaud’s 4 Days in France, about a lonely gay man pouring the totality of his being into the sexual hookup; João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Arabia, about how the seemingly incidental moments in a young Brazilian man’s life come to entirely define him; and Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark, which, per Chuck Bowen, “earnestly and ambitiously attempts to redefine cinema’s conventional grasp of consciousness.”

New Directors/New Films runs from March 15—26. For tickets click here.


New Directors/New Films 2017

4 Days in France

Finally a film about a classical music-listening, Rimbaud-reading, sweater-wearing gay man addicted to Grindr, though to be fair, writer-director Jérôme Reybaud’s 4 Days in France is about much more than just the digital sexual compulsions that afflict so many gays. This is a kind of ode to cruising writ large, to the intransitivity of cruising: looking for no object at all, but for its own sake. And there’s something endearing, if not uncanny, about the way the film evokes universal truths about erotic wandering through the extremely specific figure of the French gay man, and Parisian white and preppy gayness in particular. Queer mobility is here a luxury and a curse, enabled by an alfa Romeo, Parisian couture, and lots of free time, but beleaguered by isolation.  >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Albüm

The prologue to Albüm functions as a kind of mise en abyme for the film as a whole. In a series of wordless scenes made to resemble a documentary, the entire process of artificial cow reproduction is shown in clinical detail. In its hyper-realistic depiction of this procedure, these scenes bring to mind the scene from In a Year of 13 Moons set inside a meat factory. In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s equally unsentimental film, unvarnished footage of meat being processed serves as an ironic commentary on a transgender woman’s sex-change operation, while also contrasting the woman’s emotional sensitivity with the brutal circumstances of her life. In Albüm, the unembellished portrayal of the synthetic reproduction of cattle serves to prepare viewers for the detached, caustic, and almost anthropological view of childrearing offered by writer-director Mehmet Can Mertoğlu. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Arabia

A carefree life on the move is steadily and exquisitely overtaken by melancholy in writer-directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Arábia, the portrait of a meandering journey fueled by song, anecdote, and landscape that zeroes in on the pressures of contemporary Brazil almost in passing. While the film is a gently fragmented road movie first and foremost, Dumans and Uchoa are never afraid to let other influences wander in at will: off-kilter social realism, the musical, the essay film, and even the (invented) autobiography. Because what else makes up the life of an individual but all the moments they’re unable to escape? >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Autumn, Autumn

If conventional narrative cinema grammar has trained us to understand scenes taking place prior to the broadcasting of a film’s title as build-up to the story proper, a whetting of the palette for the more significant events to come, then how do we negotiate the import of Ji-hyeon’s (Woo Ji-hyeon) tale, remarkably slight as it seems? This is just one of the gentle perplexities of Autumn, Autumn, a deft realist miniature that operates as both a record of everyday spaces and a document of the emotionally charged, albeit ephemeral, human dramas that pass through them. When the film abandons Ji-hyeon after its delayed title card to resume a different narrative thread, it becomes apparent that director Jang Woo-jin’s conception of storytelling isn’t linear but delicately cubist, and rooted less by human agency than by a fixed time and place. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Beach Rats

With Beach Rats, writer-director Eliza Hittman continues to chronicle roughly the same type of burgeoning teenage sexuality she captured so frankly and unsentimentally in her debut feature, 2014’s It Felt Like Love. What’s deflating about this film is its generally more familiar approach to its subject. It Felt Like Love benefitted from its bold portrayal of the female gaze, as Hittman was less interested in character study than the theoretical idea of a character, someone who simulates sexual desire for the sake of maintaining a social expectation. Beach Rats, though, falls much less excitingly into the stereotypical narrative of a closeted gay youth. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Boundaries

Chloé Robichaud’s Boundaries rather formally advertises the unique personalities of its main characters—Danielle (Macha Grenon), Emily (Emily VanCamp), and Félixe (Nathalie Doummar)—via three successive shots as they stare directly into the camera. Subsequently, Robichaud continues to gently attest to how these women manifest the uniqueness of who they are through situations, big and small, that threaten to crush their will. The snippets of the women’s daily lives that illustrate their respective backgrounds suggest how their experiences have shaped their personal and professional lives, and through this Robichaud creates an honest and frequently moving study of the challenges women face while juggling these separate lives. That Boundaries features jarring and experimental shifts in tone, making for what appears on the surface to be a disjointed construction and pace, only reflects the untidy side of life that the three women find themselves in. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

By the Time It Gets Dark

Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark is obsessed by prismatic motifs, in which images are embedded within other images. One of the film’s first shots is of a window in a country home, composed of opaque panes that block out a view to the outside, except for a square in the top left that’s missing a pane, affording one a glimpse of a lovely tree. In this context, the tree suggests a hidden world, barely in sight, obscured by human-forged bric-a-brac. Later, a filmmaker observes to her interview subject that their reflections in the TV are beautiful, commenting on another prism. Mushrooms are a recurring symbol in this film as well—and what’s their nature? They’re industrious fungi, which grow and tunnel through a variety of surfaces, and some kinds are known for their hallucinogenic properties, which suggest yet another expansion of worlds within worlds via altered consciousness. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

The Challenge

Contemporary tropes of luxury and ancient rituals coexist throughout The Challenge, Yuri Ancarani’s documentary about the art of falconry. Here the organic and the frivolously material aren’t oppositions or rivals, but partners in a spectacle for men’s eyes only. The centuries-old practice of falconry involves very expensive birds (a falcon can sell for up to $24,000 in televised auctions) and is partaken by unspeakably wealthy Qatari sheikhs, who are prone to bringing their pet cheetahs for rides in their Lamborghinis, zipping across the desert in their gold-plated motorcycles, and filling their private jets with falcons strapped with mini cameras. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Diamond Island

An unearthly neon glow emanates from the Phnom Penh street lights at night in Diamond Island. A similar luminosity was glimpsed throughout Wong Kar-wai’s depiction of Hong Kong nightlife in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, though director and co-writer Davy Chou’s aesthetic touch is less jazzily impulsive than Wong’s, more Tsai Ming-liang-like in its surface sobriety. Still, there’s a near-surreal quality to Diamond Island’s images—lensed by cinematographer Thomas Favel—that infuses the film with a woozily intoxicating dreaminess that grips the audience’s attention, even when Chou’s loose coming-of-age narrative goes in fairly predictable directions. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

The Dreamed Path

With seven features already to her credit, Angela Schanelec can’t exactly be designated a “new” talent, but her latest, The Dreamed Path, certainly feels like something brazenly, mystifyingly new in international cinema. On one hand, the film wears a skin of Bressonian austerity—dutifully withheld character exposition, an emphasis on pared-down bodily gestures as opposed to dialogue, sturdily selective Academy ratio framings—that’s been more or less in vogue in the highbrow factions of the festival circuit for some time. On the other, the particular articulation of these tropes in The Dreamed Path operates so unapologetically on Schanelec’s own wavelength that the film risks, even invites, utter bewilderment on first pass from even the most discerning of viewers. That the film adheres, upon close scrutiny, to the rough shape of a classical romantic tragedy—a seemingly intuitively understandable genre—only confirms the extreme degree to which Schanalec’s idiosyncratic manner of storytelling skirts and frustrates expectations. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

The Future Perfect

German director Nele Wohlatz’s The Future Perfect addresses the increasingly complicated challenges of intercultural communication. Divided into three parts with each meant to correlate with the linguistic structure of past, present, and future, the film chronicles Xiaobin (Xiaobin Zhang), a Chinese teenager trying to learn enough Spanish to hold a job in Buenos Aires. The opening scenes represent Xiaobin’s failure on this front, as she cannot remember the names of deli meats well enough to handle cashier duties in her uncle’s supermarket. Wohlatz depicts Xiaobin’s ineptitudes as seeming flashbacks from the questions asked during an oral exam in a Spanish course. Thus, each successive line of questioning moves the narrative further into the future, until arriving at the titular tense. It’s an ingenious structuring device, one that Wohlatz utilizes for intriguing questions about the need to constantly reform the definition of culture, whether for interpersonal relationships or theorizing the contemporary state of global migration. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

The Giant

One of the many strengths of The Giant is that it pays homage to the everyday courage of the physically and mentally disabled without ever condescending to their struggles. There’s no patronizing, self-congratulatory pity on display throughout this film, which is both a sensitive account of one handicapped man’s efforts to lead a normal life, and a grotesque comedy of pain that exposes the cruelty that lingers in modern European society. Set in contemporary Sweden, the film begins as a kind of faux documentary of a local pétanque club and its eccentric members. Pétanque is a variation of lawn bowling, and thus a modification of an already niche sport. In choosing this particular game around which to craft his story, writer-director Johannes Nyholm emphasizes the outsider status of his characters, particularly the film’s protagonist, Rikard (Christian Andrén), an autistic and severely deformed man whose life revolves around pétanque. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Happiness Academy

New-agey folks gather for a retreat at a hotel in Kaori Kinoshita and Alain Della Negra’s documentary-fiction hybrid Happiness Academy. Among these “super consciousness” enthusiasts are at least one real-life actress (Laure Calamy, who plays Lily) and one singer (Arnaud Fleurent-Didier, who plays Arnaud), both of whom work as conceptual moles aimed to extract a dramatic story from the setup. What initially promises to be a fly-on-the-wall look at the events staged by the Raelian Church to coach candidates on how to live better lives soon gives way to a love triangle of sorts, as Lily and Dominique (Michèle Gurtner) fight for Arnaud’s erotic energy—and his body. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Happy Times Will Come Soon

In Happy Times Will Come Soon, Alessandro Comodin tries to work out a new filmic vocabulary that merges realistic fiction with fable—fracturing time, tracing out just the barest outline of each character and situation, sometimes mixing realism with surrealism, and lingering so long on shots in which the action barely changes that he all but forces us to be in the moment with him. But while the director creates many individual moments of beauty, his film is a mélange of gorgeous tiles that never quite comes together as a mosaic. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Lady Macbeth

William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is an adaptation—and a calculated streamlining—of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The novella is a relentlessly miserablist parade of abuse, adultery, and homicide, but the changes that Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch have made to its plotline all but ensure that their Lady Macbeth is also essentially sexist. Leskov’s Shakespeare-inspired antiheroine—a wife who plans and carries out multiple murders—is transformed from a character driven by desperation into one who’s seemingly animated by an innate wickedness. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

The Last Family

Jan P. Matuszynski’s The Last Family reconstructs nearly 30 years in the life of Zdzislaw Beksinski (Andrzej Seweryn), a famous Polish painter, photographer, and sculptor whose family remained perpetually on the precipice of ruin due to his son Tomek’s (Dawid Ogrodnik) chronic emotional problems. Matuszynski stages a collection of scenes, based on Beksinski’s own home-video footage, that intimate Tomek’s manic-depressive tendencies and sexual dysfunction as a primary source of the family’s tension but stops short of interrogating these facets in order to form a meaningful argument about them. Instead, the leering approach devolves into a succession of sobering moments of grief as Zdzislaw silently reckons with his inability to help his son and salvage his relationship with his spouse, Zosia (Aleksandra Konieczna). >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

The Last of Us

An eccentric mix of documentary-like observation and head-trippy experimentalism, Tunisian director Ala Eddine Slim’s wordless feature-length debut, The Last of Us, tracks a nameless man’s odyssey into the heart of nature. The film’s opening sees the man—played by street artist Jawhar Soudani and identified in the credits as simply “young man”—and his companion (Jihed Fourti) making their way across the hazy swelter of the Sahara, and for a moment it seems as if Slim will deliver a straightforward migrant drama along the lines of Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea. Soon, though, the complete lack of dialogue and character names reveals the project to be something much more peculiar. By the time the man, now separated from his fellow traveler, sets out across the Mediterranean only to find himself in a mysterious forested land populated solely by a grizzly old man (Fathi Akkari) clothed in animal furs, and who may or may not be an older version of himself, the film has submitted to pure abstraction. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Menashe

Joshua Z. Weinstein’s feature-length directorial debut is built around the magnetic character of Menashe (Menashe Lustig), a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who’s trying to hold onto his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski). Menashe, though, isn’t just trying to keep the boy out of the hands of his late wife’s brother, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus); he’s also trying to assert a level of individuality away from the rest of his Orthodox community. He’s been a widower for about a year and, as we glean from the reluctance he displays on dates arranged by matchmakers, isn’t in a rush to get married again anytime soon. Menashe is the story of a man grappling with the possibility that the Hasidic tradition that requires his son to be raised in a household with both a mother and a father may not square with the life he wishes to live. His rebellion is evident in his refusal to wear the hat and jacket required by his faith, but it’s most ardently felt in his desperate desire to not raise Rieven in an environment as loveless as the arranged marriage that led to the boy’s birth. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

My Happy Family

Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’s My Happy Family navigates the aftershocks of a breach of a society’s restrictive codes of female conduct when 52-year-old Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) moves out of the cramped house she shares with her large family. Her refusal, perhaps even inability, to explain or justify her abrupt decision to leave vexes and frustrates her friends and family, especially given that she insists that her husband, Soso (Merab Ninindze), neither abused nor cheated on her. Rather than focus on the reasons for Manana’s departure, the film homes in on how everyone’s imperious reactions to her choice are rooted in deeply sexist expectations of maternal sacrifice and a wife’s undying subservience to her husband. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Patti Cake$

Making someone who looks like Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) the star of a film—and not a self-loathing victim but a resourceful heroine with talent, self-confidence, and a handsome and supportive boyfriend—is a gutsy opening move in our fat-shaming world. Even more provocative is how Patti’s defiant rhymes, which Macdonald spits with gutsy brio, draw a parallel between the casual contempt Patti encounters daily because of her size and the racism that’s the implicit or explicit subject of the music she loves. When Patti raps about the grievances of an overweight white girl stuck in strip-mall suburbia, is she a legitimate artist stretching the boundaries of her chosen form? Or is she, as her idol, O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), puts it after she gives him an impromptu audition, a contemptible “culture vulture” who’s trying to be something she’s not? >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Pendular

Júlia Murat’s Pendular abounds in exquisite displays of negative space, reminding one that there’s few artistic elements as inherently appealing, visually, as a symmetrical image. The film is set in a sprawling, largely abandoned industrial complex that serves as a loft and an artists’ colony—an enormous structure that’s principally populated by two people, a dancer, Alice (Raquel Karro), and an unnamed sculptor (Rodrigo Bolzan). Alice and the sculptor are in a romantic relationship, and she’s recently moved into the building. At the beginning of the film, the couple tapes off portions of the primary loft, demarcating “his” and “her” sections for their individual work. They play with one another and soon retire to their respective half of the space, each isolated and puzzled. In this instance, the vast emptiness of the setting serves a pronounced metaphorical purpose, signaling that the relationship between these intensely insular artists is doomed. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Person to Person

Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person started as a short film by the same name, a pungently detailed portrait of a certain slice of pre-gentrified New York in which Bene Coopersmith played more or less himself as a quietly charismatic Brooklyn record-store owner. The feature film is a collection of interwoven, sometimes overlapping character studies that encompass a wider swath of characters and locations with varying degrees of success. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Quest

Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest follows an African-American family in North Philadelphia over a pivotal course of American history: from 2008, when Barack Obama first ran for president of the United States, until the presidential election last autumn, capturing, in the process, a microcosm of the country as its hopeful mood curdled. Late in the documentary, we see the Rainey matriarch, Christine’a, watching Donald J. Trump’s plea for blacks to vote for him, asking, “What the hell have you got to lose?” By this point, Olshefski has taken us so deep into this family’s world that the entitled ignorance of Trump’s boast stings with newfound universality. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Sexy Durga

Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga generates a steady thrum of dread that builds to cringe-inducing levels as it follows a couple, Durga (Rajshri Deshpande) and Kabeer (Kannan Nayar), over the course of a night in the southern Indian state of Kerali. Though their body language and occasional urgent exchanges speak to the tender intimacy between the two, their minimal dialogue tells us almost nothing about them except that she’s a Hindi-speaking northern Indian, he’s from Kerali, and they’re trying to hitch a ride to a railroad station so they can catch a train north. This pointed lack of detail makes the story of one couple’s journey gone horribly awry feel universal, an allegory about the violent misogyny that plagues India. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Strong Island

Yance Ford’s Strong Island unspools with a procedural-like seriousness as it investigates the 1992 killing of the filmmaker’s older brother, William Ford Jr., a 24-yeard-old African-American teacher and police officer-in-training who was shot by a white auto-mechanic while unarmed. The documentary builds, out of an outlet for discussing the tragedy of one family, into an emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically complex work of essay and memoir. With an astute sense of both the personal and the sociopolitical access points of his premise, Ford looks deeply at the trauma of black life in America. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

The Summer Is Gone

Zhang Dalei’s The Summer Is Gone is told through the perspective of Xiaolei (Kong Weiyi), a boy in the midst of the summer vacation before his first year of junior high in Inner Mongolia. Contrasted with Xiaolei’s more or less carefree days, his mother (Guo Yanyuan) and father (Zhang Chen) are embroiled in their own separate dilemmas: Xiaolei’s mother is concerned with getting her son into a respected school, while the father loses his job at a state-run film studio after the government begins to break down its properties. But as this film is seen through Xiaolei’s eyes, the current problems facing his parents are portrayed as moments within a broader, and purposely incomplete, portrait of growing up, and which take far less precedent than a transient feeling or sensation felt by Xiaolei as he whiles his summer days away. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

White Sun

Deepak Rauniyar sets White Sun in Nepaltra, a small Nepalese mountain village that becomes a closed-off space for him to examine various sociopolitical tensions in Nepal’s post-civil war period: chiefly, tradition versus modernity, and the conflict between the political and the personal. Accordingly, the characters sometimes feel like little more than allegorical signposts, with Chandra (Dayahang Rai) standing in for the political progressivism that the many Nepaltra elders flat out reject, and a slew of supporting characters representing everyone caught in the middle of the fraught Nepalese peace process. These include Chandra’s ex-wife, Durga (Asha Maya Magrati); his resentful brother, Suraj (Rabindra Singh Baniya); and Durga’s daughter, Pooja (Sumi Malla), who thinks Chandra is her father. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

The Wound

In John Trengove’s debut feature, The Wound, passage into manhood is steeped in violence both physical and psychological. The film investigates the Xhosa practice of ukwaluka, a ritual endurance test in which young men on the cusp of adulthood undergo circumcision (during which they’re implored to shout “I’m a man!” as an elder tribesman slices their genitals), fasting, and weeks of isolation from their families. But despite the specificity of this subject matter, the film’s themes of socialized masculinity and intolerance of non-conformity resonate far outside of this South African community. >>


New Directors/New Films 2017

Wulu

Though largely set on the highways leading from Bamako to Dakar, writer-director Daouda Coulibaly’s Wùlu resembles any number of North American-set films about drug running given its reliance on pat character archetypes, representations of top-down power relations, and sudden bursts of extreme violence. Coulibaly constructs one intriguing deviation from this formula in the form of Ladji (Ibrahim Koma), an ex-con whose decision to transport large shipments of cocaine across national borders is one of necessity and relative silence—a useful contrast to the typically loud-mouthed or boisterous figures of films such as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and Brian De Palma’s Scarface. Nevertheless, Coulibaly suffocates the film’s potential insight into the collapse of the Malian state in 2008 with an overdetermined air of existential dread by placing Ladji on a literal crash course toward inevitable tragedy. >>

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