Film

The New Directors/New Films Series Offers the Year’s Best

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More than a thousand feature films were released theatrically in New York City last year. New directors, new films: We’ve got plenty of those. But the object of the
Museum of Modern Art and Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films festival, now in its 44th year, isn’t
to add to the deluge. It’s to clarify — to “separate out the impurities,” in the OED‘s
unimprovable definition of the word.
Rajendra Roy, the MoMA’s Chief Curator of Film, says that the festival affords its
attendees “the freedom to engage with the unfamiliar,” which does seem a rather
appealing proposition. Unfamiliarity has come to be a rare virtue in the contemporary cinema. Too many of the thousand features that clog our cinemas annually, whether blockbuster or microbudget, seem to emerge not from any galvanizing afflatus, but rather from a desire to reiterate inherited forms — to make a movie that resembles any other.

New Directors/New Films, at its most valuable, expunges cliché. Like previous editions, this year’s lineup emphasizes novelty and innovation; its best films
excite because they seem richly, even provocatively anomalous. This is a noteworthy quality even in work that lacks the moneyed burnish of more accomplished pictures. Take Benjamin Crotty’s frothy queer sex comedy Fort Buchanan, mesmerizing in its strangeness even if slightly uneven. Or the modest regional portraiture of Tired Moonlight, by first-time filmmaker Britni West — slight, perhaps, but a lovely thing. And I found myself fascinated by Violet, a short, beguiling drama that traces the reverberations of a teen’s death by stabbing in a shopping mall in Brussels. The debut feature of Flemish
director Bas Devos, Violet is deft and
rigorous, oblique to the point of inscrutability. (Shot in part on 65mm, it’s also
exceptionally beautiful.) But what’s
apparent throughout is that Devos sees the world in a way quite his own. He shoots BMX bikers like ballet dancers, and a heavy-metal concert like a kinesthetic trance. I don’t know if Violet is a great film. But I am sure that there’s nothing like it.

More assured greatness abounds elsewhere — most of all in Listen to Me
Marlon
, dare I suggest something of a masterpiece. It is astonishing, first of all, that this movie even exists: Drawing from several hundred hours of previously unheard reminiscences and memoranda self-recorded by Marlon Brando over many years, Listen to Me Marlon is a documentary of what can only be described as unprecedented access — to no less than the deceased subject himself, here alchemically reanimated to narrate his own story. Brando’s legacy was diminished toward the end of his career by a notorious and
often highly publicized obstinacy, reducing the actor in the popular imagination to a caricature of pugnacious misbehavior. Without the faintest trace of hagiography, Listen to Me Marlon restores to Brando his rightful genius. But the film is so much more than its headline-grabbing conceit may suggest. The director, Stevan Riley, approaches documentary form with the same ebullience and vigor that defined Brando’s method acting, whipping his
archival footage into a frenzy of sound and movement. The result is electrifying.

Sometimes innovation manifests itself in less obvious ways. So it does in English-Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar’s first feature, Theeb. A lean survival picture set in the Ottoman province of Hijaz in the throes of the Great War, Theeb seems, as its perilous cross-desert adventure gets under way, to be a sand-lashed action-
adventure epic in the spirit of Lawrence
of Arabia
, with which it shares shooting
locations. (The films have been repeatedly compared.) True, when the gunshots start cracking over the dunes, Theeb is galvanic in the classical style — but the difference
is in the sensibility. Nowar, a smart, savvy filmmaker, keeps his focus narrow and
the frame alert, eager to drink in not only
action but nuances of culture and history. The civilized Englishman deigning to
rescue primitive locals, the swarthy Arab conspiring only to swindle and kill: Theeb calls up the stereotypes of the desert epic only to flatly undermine them — a worthy corrective.

The centerpiece of the New Directors/New Films lineup, the film that most fruitfully embodies its resistance to cliché, must be Entertainment, the latest radical-comedy effort from Rick Alverson — a
director who increasingly stands among the most essential working. An obdurate “anti-comedy,” or so it is billed, Entertainment follows stand-up comedian Neil Hamburger — persona in the film and in real life of Gregg Turkington — as he tours his abrasive (and uproarious) act across the California desert, hitting every dive-bar stage littered along the Mojave. On stage Hamburger is a sneering, sputtering showman whose routine is calibrated to maximally offend. He’s also very, very funny, and over the years has amassed
an appreciative following; alas, nobody in
Entertainment seems to agree.

Entertainment is co-written by Tim Heidecker, who starred in Alverson’s excellent previous feature, The Comedy; he shows up here too, in a small role, but his presence is most keenly felt in the film’s comic hostility. Alverson and Heidecker are uniquely attuned to the ways in which modern comedy has been compromised by the need to seem broadly agreeable — the “four-quadrant,” market-friendly
insipidity that has poisoned the art’s mainstream. Comedy, in Alverson and Heidecker’s conception, has an obligation to transgress, and the film has no interest at all in being agreeable. It isn’t as overtly confrontational as The Comedy — that picture’s ferocity has been exchanged for a more plaintive, even at times ethereal register — but its creators still hope to agitate, to discomfit. This is a commendable aspiration. It’s what new films ought to strive for: to strike back against the familiar.