Diversity is not exactly a hallmark of American film festivals. During the early part of the year, in particular, cinephiles were greeted by the homogeneity of Sundance and South by Southwest in quick succession, where even the toasts of the programs tend to distinguish themselves by degree rather than type. These festivals have gradually cultivated a brand in harmony with the mainstream — a strategy that has yielded no shortage of lucrative crossover hits. Quite often these films are good. Rarely do they surprise or confound.
This uniformity is an ailment for which New Directors/New Films, co-curated by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, provides a much-needed remedy. The festival has long been committed to celebrating the bold and unfamiliar, a mandate reflected in this, its 43rd lineup. These 27 features are heartening in part for how unlike one another they seem. Indeed, these films may share only one defining characteristic: deeply original visions. Here are some favorites.
Story of My Death
Speaking before the Locarno Critics Academy last year, Albert Serra infamously described his films as “unfuckable” — a term he later clarified: “The films are so radical and special in themselves,” he explained, “that there are no weak points: They are impossible to criticize.” Needless to say, this is the sort of statement that critics become eager to prove wrong. But here’s the thing: Remarkably, and quite irritatingly, he’s right. Serra’s latest, Story of My Death, proves every bit as radical and special as he claims; it is a singular achievement and, perhaps, something of an esoteric masterpiece. As in Serra’s earlier work, the subject is a historical figure: Casanova (Vicenç Altaió), the world libertine, in whose seemingly endless indulgences we’re left to delight for the better part of an hour. Conflict arrives with the appearance of none other than Dracula (Eliseu Huertas), conspiring to partake of a more fatal indulgence, and before long gothic fantasy threatens to eclipse the period piece to which we’d grown fondly accustomed. Serra’s approach to this material is one of violent defamiliarization. He writes, shoots, and edits in a manner entirely his own, and the result is a film whose greatness seems both obvious and elusive. There’s only one word for this: It’s unfuckable.
Marty Jackitansky, sprawled across fresh hotel linen in a complimentary bathrobe, dials room service: “I just wondered if I get any free stuff.” This is Marty’s purpose in life. It is also, in essence, the premise of Buzzard, a modern picaresque that follows this sunken-eyed young grifter as he pillages the world of its gratis pleasures. Marty is played, or rather embodied, by Joshua Burge, whose astonishing performance harnesses an almost feral intensity, like a young Denis Lavant. He works as a temp in a banking office, where his grifting reigns unchecked: We find him enjoying two-hour lunch breaks, ordering expensive office supplies on the company dime so that he can return them for cash, and, in his most devious coup, signing outbound checks over to himself and depositing them in his own account. The director, Joel Potrykus, hardly seems interested in the twists and turns of the conman film, and indeed, Marty recalls not so much a slick Mamet–esque swindler as the urban vulture suggested by the title. But around this unlikely hero Potrykus has fashioned a vigorous and strangely compelling character study, a sustained burst of punk-rock ferocity, and one of the most original American films to emerge in some time.
Dear White People
Like all great satire, Justin Simien’s Dear White People is fueled chiefly by anger — at the everyday racism which endures across the United States, but also at the ignorance and complacency that encourages its persistence even among those who consider the problem more or less solved. In other words, this is a satire about racism among those least inclined to regard themselves as racist: The target is the kind of insidious micro-aggressions that, in the words of the press material, make it difficult to be “a black face in a white place.” The place is that most enlightened of institutions, the Ivy League school, where absurdly over-privileged white kids blare trap rap and unironically ask their rare black friends about weaves. Simien, widening his satirical sweep, splits the story among four very different black students, who together represent an eclectic cross-section of contemporary black experience. A uniting crisis arrives in the form of an “African-American themed” frat party housed on campus, in which white students are encouraged to show up in blackface — an outrageous idea, you might think, until Simien inserts photographs to remind us that this has actually happened. Simien has a sharp ear for comedy, and the film is certainly hilarious. But it’s anger that gives Dear White People the charge lifting it from funny to great.
To Kill a Man
Chilean director Alejandro Fernández Almendras has little patience for waste. His superb dramatic thriller To Kill a Man makes every one of its lean 81 minutes count; there’s not an ounce of fat on it. The story is simple: Jorge (the excellent Daniel Candia), a meek family man and caretaker of a local park, finds himself at the mercy of Kalule (Daniel Antivilo), a local bully whose casual brutality quickly becomes a reign of terror that makes life for Jorge unbearable. As its title flatly suggests, To Kill a Man revolves around a murder: Finding the law unable or unwilling to intervene and seeing no other recourse, Jorge ultimately takes matters into his own feeble hands, and the main action of the film concerns his attempts to take the life of his tormentor. Almendras here poses a simple, unpretentious question: What does it take to kill a man? And then, just as simply and unpretentiously, he sets about answering it.
Also highly recommended: Ramon Zürcher’s exquisite and bizarre comedy The Strange Little Cat, in which a German family convenes for an evening of comic tableaux worthy of Jacques Tati; A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a collaborative feature by avant-garde filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, which conjures something quasi-mystical from solitude and a bit of black metal; Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart, a partly nonfiction portrait of evangelicalism in the Bible Belt and a work of deep empathy and intelligence; and mysterious experimental feature The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga by Jessica Oreck, which is as mesmerizing as it is strange.