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.

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.

What follows is even stranger, more unsettling, more weirdly operatic than it sounds. Both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris admitted to being shaken by an early cut of the film and offered their services as executive producers—that alone should tell you all you need to know. The Act of Killing raises many questions about the ethical boundaries of documentary, the role of the director as puppeteer, and the possibilities of art-making as catharsis, all worth arguing over deep into the night. Even after seeing The Act of Killing twice—in its theatrical and longer director's cut (both will be screened at ND/NF)—I don't have a fully settled mind about it, except that it is essential viewing.

Along with Upstream Color, this year's love-it-or-hate-it Sundance brain-teaser from multihyphenate wunderkind Shane Carruth, Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing have U.S. distribution and confirmed release dates. Thus ND/NF remains most valuable as a showcase for deserving titles that won't be coming soon to a theater near anybody. They include Canadian director Kaz Radwanski's sandpaper-coarse comedy Tower, about a 34-year-old Toronto man (hangdog Derek Bogart) whose level of social awkwardness makes Ben Stiller's Greenberg character seem like Mr. Congeniality. Still living home and working part-time in his uncle’s construction business, Derek (also the character's name) spends his spare time inching along on a computer-animation project that his mother anoints "as good as Shrek," and making fumbling attempts to pick up women who seem as lonely and defeated as he does. A crowd-pleaser this isn't, but Radwanski has an eye for revealing human moments, ultimately earning a grudging sympathy for his misfit protagonist—a Sisyphus for the Asperger's era.

For sheer aesthetic brio, little in the ND/NF program can rival People's Park, in which directors Libbie D. Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki bring the Russian Ark approach—a single, continuous, 78-minute steadicam shot—to a public park in Chengdu, China. The shoot took place on a July afternoon in 2011, as children and parents, students and seniors strolled, exercised, sipped tea, danced—oh, how they dance. Some engage with Cohn and Sniadecki's camera as it winds its sinuous way through plazas, footpaths, and overlapping spheres of activity. Others blithely ignore it; still others seem not to even notice. At every turn People's Park captures something ineffable—everyday life transformed into cinema.

Last but hardly least is Rengaine, a film from France unlike any other. The title roughly translates as "refrain," in the musical sense, which is fitting for a film that seems at once modern and mythic, like an oral epic that echoes across the ages. In outline, Rengaine recalls Romeo and Juliet, if Romeo were a young black actor trying to get a toehold in the French film industry and Juliet a North African Muslim with 40 (count 'em) brothers. The eldest brother, Slimane, has a face like cracked leather and a hunched posture that suggests the weight of tradition on his shoulders; he's determined that his sister, Sabrina (Sabrina Hamida), not marry outside of her religion—no matter that Slimane himself is in a long-term relationship with a white Jewish lounge singer. From there, Rengaine cuts across a vibrant, multicultural Paris, as Slimane tries to rally his brothers, while Dorcy (Stéphane Soo Mongo) navigates his own gantlet of dead-end auditions and intra-African prejudices.

Rengaine is the first narrative feature by Rachid Djaïdani, a novelist, actor, and former boxer who spent a decade preparing this no-budget film. The result crackles with the fire of necessity—a movie that seems to have poured out of its maker, that could no longer be contained. It is searing, honest, funny, and lyric—a rush of short, sharp scenes shot with a whirring handheld camera, and rhythmic dialogue that is at once conversational and poetic ("I'm dead already. Dying a second time won’t bother me"). Djaïdani ends Rengaine with an on-screen dedication: "Dear cinema, I love you." Judging from the evidence here, the feeling is entirely mutual.

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