It's been a season of change for two of New York's august film institutions, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. Both saw the retirement of longtime senior curators (Richard Peña and Laurence Kardish, respectively), followed by the abrupt resignation earlier this month of Peña's successor, Robert Koehler. Fortunately, none of this seems to have had an impact on the two organizations' annual New Directors/New Films festival, which returns this week with a particularly robust edition, its 42nd.
That makes ND/NF a decade older than Sundance and twice the age of Austin's South by Southwest, both of which have eclipsed their seasonal New York competitor as zeitgeist-y discovery zones for vital new filmmakers. Chalk that up to Lincoln Center and MoMA's aversion to institutional chest-thumping, but also to ND/NF's privileging of world cinema above the American indie echo chamber. (This year's 25-film lineup includes just five U.S. productions.) In short, if you're looking for a terse Turkish police procedural with political overtones, you've come to the right place. The latest Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie? Not so much.
Bookending this year's festival are two films torn from the Washington, D.C., headlines. In the opening-night selection, Blue Caprice, the French-born, Brooklyn-based director Alexandre Moors dramatizes the 2002 "Beltway Sniper" attacks from the perspectives of the perpetrators: John Allen Muhammad (played with steely impassivity by Isaiah Washington) and his teenage protégé, Lee Boyd Malvo (excellent newcomer Tequan Richmond). The shootings occupy only a small part of Moors's disquieting and supremely assured debut feature—a Sundance standout—which spends most of its time exploring Muhammed and Malvo's surrogate father-son relationship, the latter's gradual indoctrination into the former's cult of paranoid delusion, and the creation of the custom-modified Chevy that would become the duo's snipermobile.
'New Directors/New Films'
Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA
Moors's style is one of detachment and slowly constricting tension. Shooting in muted colors and shallow-focus widescreen compositions, he finds a visual language that perfectly encapsulates Muhammed and Malvo's increasingly hermetic world. And like In Cold Blood and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Blue Caprice doesn't beg sympathy for the devil so much as an understanding that goes beyond the simplifications of the evening news. Raging against the perceived betrayals of his ex-wife, and of society as a whole, Washington's Muhammad isn't a lip-smacking, Lecter-esque psycho, but rather a calculating sociopath assured of the righteousness of his actions.
Another Beltway criminal takes center stage in ND/NF's closing night. Our Nixon, a sly essay film, is composed largely of 8mm home-movie footage shot in and around the White House by three of the 37th President's closest advisors: Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Domestic Affairs advisor John Ehrlichman, and Deputy Assistant Dwight Chapin. The mostly silent footage, supposedly liberated after 40 years in a government vault, has been playfully layered by director Penny Lane with period TV interviews, excerpts from Nixon's audio tapes, and puckish musical cues (starting with Tracy Ullman's bouncy '80s anthem, "They Don't Know"). She creates a polymorphous subjective reality: all the president's men as seen by themselves, and then re-seen (with much irony, and even occasional nobility) through the prism of time, memory, and film editing. The footage is YouTube avant la lettre: often crudely filmed and banal, sometimes impressionistic (birds flitting about the trees seen from the Oval Office windows), and always a reminder of the curious things people feel compelled to document when they have a camera in their hands, forging a record of their brief time upon the earth.
Home movies also play a crucial role in actress-director Sarah Polley's terrific Stories We Tell, one of several ND/NF titles that traverse that borderless terrain between "pure" documentary (if such a thing can truly be said to exist) and fiction. That this is the locus for many of the most interesting films being made in the world today seems undeniable, just as one might propose that, having made three previous features, Polley is no longer anyone's idea of a "new" director. But by any measure, Stories We Tell is her most daring, formally inventive work—a shape-shifting film inspired by the adult Polley's discovery that the man she grew up calling "dad" might not be her biological father. That much is true, but much of what follows in Stories toys with our belief in the validity of moving images (and the sounds that accompany them) as Polley sets out on a trans-Canadian quest to unravel the mystery of her parentage. The less you know the better, for Stories We Tell is a work of many surprises, brilliantly deployed. As the title suggests, everyone in the film has a story, all the more in that these are theater and movie people disposed to self-dramatization—not least the filmmaker herself.
If Polley's real father had turned out to be Pol Pot, then her film might have resembled Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, one of the most debated movies on the festival circuit since its premiere last fall at Telluride. Over six years, Oppenheimer, an American expat based in Denmark, ingratiated himself among a coterie of aging Indonesian war criminals—men who once ran death squads for the Suharto dictatorship. Oppenheimer entreats his subjects—led by a smiling, camera-ready sadist named Anwar Congo—to revisit, and even act out, their violent pasts in a series of dramatic scenes, a genocidal burlesque scripted and performed by actors with an ocean of blood on their hands.
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