Plagues, Power, and Paranoia: The Best of New Directors/New Films
Now in its 41st year, New Directors/New Films—the highly curated festival of primarily debut works and sophomore efforts—attempts to ward off middle-age stagnation with a few innovative (some might say gimmicky) twists. The closing-night movie of the series, a joint collaboration between the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MOMA, won't be announced until just before the lights go down at the screening. And "new" means "old" with the inclusion of Stanley Kubrick's 1953 debut, Fear and Desire, among the roster of 29 films. (Unavailable for preview before deadline—as was, obviously, the closing-night selection—Kubrick's film will be discussed in next week's issue; another ND/NF entry, Gareth Evans's The Raid: Redemption, is reviewed on page 40.) Yet however retooled, the festival's worthy mandate—to showcase promising filmmakers from around the globe—remains unchanged. Of the 27 titles made available, here are eight that stand out.
Crulic: The Path to Beyond
Anca Damian's lean, astute animated documentary, her second film, tells an outrageous true story dispassionately: that of Claudiu Crulic, a 33-year-old Romanian who died in a Polish prison while on a hunger strike after being wrongly accused of stealing a judge's wallet. As Crulic (voiced by Vlad Ivanov) narrates from beyond the grave, recounting a short life that "could be told in 100 photos," the muted color palette and the variety of animation techniques—hand-drawn, cutout, stop-motion, and collage—indelibly convey the bureaucratic horrors the young man faced, whether behind bars or not.
How to Survive a Plague
In his filmmaking debut, journalist David France, who wrote the first story about ACT UP for this publication, assembles a thoroughly reported chronicle of that direct-action advocacy group's most vital era, from its founding in 1987 (six years into the AIDS epidemic) through 1995. Expertly compiled from hundreds of hours of archival footage—depicting fractious meetings, infamous demonstrations like 1989's die-in at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and hospital visits with the gravely ill—France's documentary searingly captures the fury and unflagging commitment of ACT UP to target those in power who did nothing to stop the disease. Present-day interviews with members who in 1987 doubted they'd live to see their 30th birthday deepen the film's impact as an essential document of queer history.
Winner of the best first feature at Cannes, Pablo Giorgelli's minimalist, gentle road movie traverses 900 miles, from Asunción, Paraguay—where terse truck driver Rubén (Germán de Silva) picks up Jacinta (Hebe Duarte) and her five-month-old baby girl (a delightful dumpling with an incredible mop of thick black hair)—to Buenos Aires, where the unmarried mother hopes to start anew. Although confined mainly to the cab of Rubén's vehicle, Las Acacias is generous and expansive, subtly registering how these three strangers eventually become at ease with and grow attached to one another. Even through its initial long stretches of silence, the film never feels clinical or cold, but rather compassionate and curious.
"Politics is a wound that never heals," admits Bertrand Saint-Jean (the redoubtable Olivier Gourmet), beleaguered head of France's ministry of transportation in Pierre Schöller's deft examination of power. Plagued by weird Sadean nightmares involving hooded black figures, naked women devoured by alligators, and his own asphyxiation, Saint-Jean inexorably transforms from a man of principle to a pizza-scarfing, hectoring tyrant—who then reverts, after a horrific accident, to someone slightly more humane. Schöller's second feature forgoes moralizing for a more complex (and rewarding) approach: uncovering the thin line that separates altruism from narcissism.
Set in a well-off, oceanfront neighborhood in Recife, in northeastern Brazil, Kleber Mendonça Filho's stunning first fiction film, the revelation of this year's festival, keeps the viewer slightly off balance—much like the bourgeois characters in Neighboring Sounds, who are gripped by an unarticulated though ever-present sense of dread about invasion and assault. After the elder statesman of the block gives the approval to hire a small security detail to patrol the streets, class resentments simmer while paranoia haunts a prosperous young girl's dreams. The excellent multigenerational cast is matched by masterful formal elements, particularly a sound design that uncannily captures the eeriness of even the most banal ambient noise.
Oslo, August 31st
Joachim Trier makes his second appearance at ND/NF with his graceful sophomore film, freely adapting the same novel on which Louis Malle's 1963 film, The Fire Within, is based. Nearing the end of his drug-rehab program, 34-year-old Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a once-promising writer and self-described "spoiled brat who fucked up," tries to end it all, fails, and then sets about revisiting his past—and blowing a chance for the future. As in his first feature, Reprise (2006), which also starred Lie, Trier proves to be unparalleled in exposing the foibles and delusions of all the sad young literary men.
A droll, empathic doc-fiction-reenactment hybrid, Alejandro Landes's second film recounts the frustration that led Colombian rancher Porfirio Ramirez Aldana, paralyzed by a stray police bullet—and fearlessly played by Aldana himself—to hijack a plane to Bogotá. Dependent on his indolent teenage son (played by Aldana's real offspring) to assist in even the most private of daily functions, the wheelchair-bound man, who now makes his living selling minutes on his cell phone, remains spirited—and horny. Fed up with the lawyers who have been promising him indemnity payments for years, Porfirio finds an excellent use for his adult diapers.
"All these fine young lives wasted on film and whatnot," complains a mother in Lee Kwang-kuk's witty debut of three time-toggling, interlocking sagas involving suicidal directors and actresses. The influence of fellow Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo in both theme and structure is undeniable: Lee previously worked as an assistant on Hong's Hahaha and Tale of Cinema. Yet Romance Joe impresses not only with its complex stories nesting within stories—labyrinthine plotting that eventually makes sense—but also an emotional heft that's never diminished by the narrative gambit.
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