With the ever-extending awards season well behind us, it’s time to look ahead without distractions and shift our focus on discovering brand new titles from emerging talents. And we’re already well on our way on that task: The 2016 Sundance Film Festival in January already broke through the noise of awards-season films we’ve been extensively hearing about for months and proved to be an excellent palate cleanser. Berlinale came and went just last month. Taking place in Columbia, MO over 4 days, the annual documentary film festival True/False has just wrapped two days ago (and from the looks of it, saw great attendance this year.) And South by Southwest (SXSW) is just around the corner.
Amid this jam-packed, early-year festival calendar nests a special New York City gem that is getting ready to bow on March 16th. Celebrating its 45th edition this year since its launch in 1972, New Directors/New Films –the joint film festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art- offers a rich slate of films from brand-new and up-and-coming voices. The festival runs for 10 days (as long as the duration of Sundance, for comparison), but its highly-selective and compact line up of 27 Feature Films and 2 Short Programs is carefully scheduled for maximum mileage: in other words, if you have the time and resources to invest in it, you could technically blaze through the festival’s entire slate without having to make tough compromises.
The festival that once gave a platform to names like Pedro Almódovar, Chantal Akerman, Kelly Reichardt and Hou Hsiao–hsien is once again full of bold, risky and idiosyncratic titles (many already played at renowned festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Venice, and Cannes) that touch upon timely social and political issues, delve into bare, emphatic human drama and induce anxiety through deeply inventive, unsettling stories. If you are highly committed, go ahead and tackle it all. If not, here are a few I am most looking forward to seeing (or, saw elsewhere and highly recommend).
Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari)
Screened in the Midnight section of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Babak Anvari’s debut feature sent several high-pitched screams across town during its premiere in Park City. The story is set in the war-ridden Tehran during the 8th year of Iran-Iraq war, and its jump scares –conjured up by wartime terror and malicious djinns that intimidate a broken family- are incredibly effective. Fun trivia: this is the second horror film in Farsi to open ND/NF, after A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night in 2014.
Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
More popular than ever this year, the New Frontier section of Sundance included veteran DP Kirsten Johnson’s debut film this year and played to rave reviews of critics and festival-goers. Cameraperson is an artistic self-portrait that moves with humanism, humor and precision through Johnson’s experiences around the globe. It screens as the Closing Night of this year’s festival – not to be missed.
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
Venice and Sundance hailer The Fits is the telling of a haunting and meditative coming of age story with an 11-year-old, dance-enthusiast tomboy (Toni) at its center. Once Toni finally joins a dance team she sets her heart on, she observes a number of the team members have seizure-like attacks, forcing her place in their company to take an unexpected turn. Royalty Hightower was one of the breakthrough actresses of Sundance in this unique film that moves with a distinctive rhythm.
Eldorado XXI (Salome Lamas)
It’s a complete mystery why this film doesn’t yet exist on IMDB, but Salome Lamas’ Eldorado XXI deserves to be on our immediate radars following its strong Berlin reception just last month. Set in La Rinconada in the Peruvian Andes against gorgeous views and billed as a “transporting experience that renews the possibilities of the ethnographic film”, Salomé Lamas’ documentary portrays the extremely harsh conditions Peruvian miners face in search of gold, and signals to be a visually rich, emotionally devastating experience.
Mountain (Yaelle Kayam)
After bowing in Venice and Toronto in Fall to respectable reviews, Yaelle Kayam’s acclaimed debut will be meeting with New York audiences at last. Following an Orthodox Jewish woman living in Jerusalem’s ancient Mount of Olives, Mountain tells the story of a female stuck within a limited, dreary life, alongside a removed/disinterested husband. The description promises “an unlikely nighttime encounter” which peaks my interest (especially given the heroine of the story lives inside a cemetery.)
Kill Me Please (Anita Rocha da Silveira)
Headed to SXSW before stopping by New York, the Brazil/Argentina co-production is said to carry traces of Brian De Palma’s Carrie and Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People wrapped inside a David Lynch-esque universe. A coming of age story set in Rio de Janeiro, Kill Me Please follows a group of teenage girls possessed by a series of murders and marks Anita Rocha da Silveira’s debut. What else do we need to add this one on to the most-anticipated titles list?
Neither Heaven Nor Earth (Clément Cogitore)
Having its US premiere at NDNF, this Cannes critical hit (previously titled The Wakhan Front) uses the Afghan battlefield as a background setting for a metaphysical thriller starring Jérémie Renier, who plays a disloyal French army officer at the brink of a nervous meltdown. The premise –wartime horror- sounds curiously similar to the opening night film. Perhaps we have a trend?
Kaili Blues (Bi Gan)
Winner of “Best Emerging Director” and “Best First Feature” prizes at Locarno, Bi Gan’s debut film is praised for its innovative vision and eerie storyline that interconnects the past, the present and the future. The short blurb of this title makes it hard for me to make heads or tails of its story. But its dreamlike description is intriguing and worthwhile at once.
BONUS: Happy Hour (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Are you up for a challenge? Do you have 317 minutes (that is, 5 hours and 17 minutes) to spare? Then Happy Hour is made for you. The lives of four thirtysomething women in a city immediately brings to mind one infamous New York-based TV show. Referred to as “compulsively watchable” in the program guide makes the undertaking of this Kobe-set story of work, domestic and romantic lives of four women less of a daunting task. So, I’ll sign myself up for the time being. The good word I got on Twitter also helps.