Hatched in 1971, “New Directors/New Films,” the joint effort of curators from MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, endures as the city’s cinematic rite of spring. This year’s roster boasts 27 features—mainly debut works and sophomore efforts (plus a few beyond) cherrypicked heavily from Sundance but also including films that premiered at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Rotterdam. New, however, does not always equal worthy: After sizing up all the contenders, the nine below stand out as the 39th ND/NF’s most essential.
3 Backyards | The definition of “new director” is stretched here—Eric Mendelsohn’s debut feature, Judy Berlin, had a berth in 1999’s ND/NF. But in his second movie in 11 years, Mendelsohn proves to be the tone poet-auteur of Long Island. His latest reverie of Suffolk County tracks, over the course of one luminous fall day, the paths of an executive (Elias Koteas); a stay-at-home mom (Edie Falco), whose act of kindness for a neighborhood celebrity (Embeth Davidtz) quickly turns into passive-aggressive warfare; and an eight-year-old dumpling (Rachel Resheff). Exceptionally acted, Mendelsohn’s portrait of L.I. suburbia goes beyond character study to encompass both the beauty (sun, sea) and ineffable mystery of a specific place.
Down Terrace | U.K. TV vet Ben Wheatley’s zingy, caustic first feature was co-written by Robin Hill, who stars opposite his real-life father, Robert, as pathetic dad-son kingpins of a two-bit syndicate in Brighton, both recently sprung and back home with constantly aggrieved Mum (an excellent Julia Deakin). Further autobiographical touches—the film was shot in eight days in the house where Robin grew up; his wife plays his pregnant girlfriend—heighten the sense in this kitchen-sink comedy that the greater psychopathological unit is the nuclear, not the crime, family.
The Father of My Children | Not yet 30, Mia Hansen-Løve follows her assured 2007 debut about a drug-addicted father, All Is Forgiven, with an even more wrenching look at another troubled, charismatic patriarch. Inspired by the life and death of French film producer Humbert Balsan, The Father of My Children is as precisely detailed in its depiction of the stress and bureaucracy of how movies get made as it is of the emotional fallout of incomprehensible loss. As the Balsan surrogate, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing shifts seamlessly from a cine-champion drowning in debt to a beloved père of three daughters—whose ease and grace onscreen confirms Hansen-Løve’s gifts for directing children and adolescents.
I Am Love | As unrepentantly grandiose and ludicrous as its title, Luca Guadagnino’s visually stunning third narrative feature suggests an epic Visconti and Sirk might have made after they finished watching Vertigo and reading Madame Bovary while gorging themselves on aphrodisiacs. Further enticement (as if any were needed): Tilda Swinton, in yet another bravura performance, stars as an unhappy, unfulfilled Russian wife of a Milanese industrialist and mother of three adult children whose passions are awakened when a man prepares her a plate of perfectly seasoned shrimp. As her impeccably arranged chignon unravels and her salmon-colored finery shucked, it’s impossible not to succumb to the operatic sweep.
Last Train Home | The mind-boggling scope of first-time director Lixin Fan’s extraordinary documentary—which captures the world’s largest migration, as 130 million migrant workers in China’s cities return to their rural homes for New Year’s—owes as much to macro-spectacle as to micro-observation about the economic forces rending a nation. Among the throngs of people crammed into trains are the Zhangs, a husband and wife making a 50-hour trek to see the family they left behind 16 years ago to work in a garment factory, including teenage daughter Qin. Still wounded from being abandoned to the care of her grandparents as an infant, she flouts her parents’ wishes and drops out of school for employment in the city, believing that 14-hour days in punishing jobs are the only way to happiness.
Night Catches Us | Still inexplicably without distribution after its Sundance premiere, Tanya Hamilton’s striking debut is the rare American-independent film to go beyond the private dramas of its protagonists, imagining them as players in broader historical moments. Set in Philadelphia in the summer of 1976, Hamilton’s examination of the failures of ’60s liberation struggles centers on former Black Panthers Patricia (Kerry Washington), now a lawyer, and Marcus (Anthony Mackie, mesmerizing, as always), returning to Philly after a mysterious four-year absence. Interspersing snippets of footage from Panther rallies though resolutely opposed to easy nostalgia, Hamilton considers the near-impossibility of disentangling the personal from the political.
Northless | A hushed, contemplative rejoinder to Lou Dobbs’s xenophobic rants and Hollywood’s border-crossing melodramas (cf. Babel), Rigoberto Pérezcano’s deceptively modest first feature is expansive enough to focus not only on the frustrations (and perils) of wanting to be elsewhere but also on the pleasures, however fleeting, to be found in transitional spaces. Thwarted after his first attempt to cross into the U.S. (rendered simply by photos of Bush II and the Governator, Border Patrol agents’ horribly accented Spanish, and a turnstile), Oaxacan Andrés (Harold Torres) bides his time in Tijuana, finding employment and tenuous friendships at a bodega run by two women, who recount their own stories of being left behind.
The Oath | The second installment in a planned trilogy on American policy post–9/11—which follows her strong 2006 ND/NF nonfiction entry on Iraq, My Country, My Country—Laura Poitras’s extensively researched, intelligently structured doc centers on Abu Jandal, a taxi driver in Yemen who was once Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard. As the intensely magnetic Jandal describes his time in Al Qaeda, the spectral presence of his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, OBL’s former driver, then still locked away in Gitmo after being the first detainee tried before a military tribunal, constantly looms over Poitras’s quietly forceful indictment of the “War on Terror.”
The Red Chapel | A (purposefully?) insufferable Danish journalist, Mads Brügger attempts a Borat-like stunt in Pyongyang when he convinces the North Korean government of the cultural value in hosting the fart-filled slapstick revue of Danish-Korean performing duo Simon and Jacob. Under 24-hour surveillance in a police state, Brügger’s attempts to “expose the very core of evil that is North Korea” are impossible to achieve, of course; the real draw of this unclassifiable doc is his two charges’ increasingly conflicted feelings—about Brügger, his deceptions, and their faux-“homecoming.” Or, as Simon responds with Scandinavian calm when his director pushes them too far: “The fondue pot has boiled over.”