More than a thousand feature films opened theatrically in New York City in 2016. It may seem daft, in light of this deluge, to fancy yet more of them. But for every four-walled mediocrity with the gall to squander the city’s time and attention — every self-financed vanity project, every trust-fund-backed student opus, every Indiegogo’d advocacy doc — a more serious or ambitious film, a film more deserving of an audience, languishes unscreened. We’d like to think the cream rises. Alas, talent isn’t the only prerequisite for enjoying a place on the marquee.
The Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look Festival may be regarded as a corrective to this perennial imbalance. Now in its sixth year, the festival privileges audacity over elegance, novelty over finesse, and intrigue over scope or scale; in short, it favors what is interesting over what is merely accomplished, an invaluable mandate. The latest edition in particular is wildly exciting in this respect. If you want a true account of how cinema’s contemporary vanguard looks beyond the limits of the weekly release calendar, authentically challenging, radically unfamiliar, frequently disturbing, you won’t find better in New York than right here. It is a glimpse of all the weird and wonderful movies we don’t ordinarily get to see. One look, and you’ll want more of them.
To wit: Fear Itself, the smart, shrewd, and surprisingly scary new essay-film by Beyond Clueless director Charlie Lyne, who is swiftly proving a virtuoso of the form. The subject is horror movies — what they’re after, how they operate, and why we can’t help but be seduced by them — and the approach is direct: This is a feature-length collage enriched and deepened by a narrator’s probing voiceover, in the tradition of Mark Rappaport and Thom Andersen. The latter’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, still the exemplary work of its kind, seems a touchstone for Lyne, who aspires to Andersen’s insight and easy wit, and indeed quite often measures up to them. His deep knowledge of the genre and the inspired connections he suggests make this an indispensable piece of film criticism as much as it is, more simply, a fresh and compelling film.
Lyne is a mite better known in his native Britain than he is in America, as can happen with even English-speaking filmmakers working exclusively abroad; milieus can be difficult to escape. In Canada, similarly, Kazik Radwanski has availed himself of considerable success, having become a recent fixture of the Toronto International Film Festival, a favorite of domestic awards bodies, and a mainstay of local critics’ year-end lists. His last feature, the uproarious loser-comedy Tower, premiered in New York as part of MoMA’s New Directors New Films festival in 2013 but never found distribution; his latest, How Heavy This Hammer, may be fated to remain in the same limbo. That would be a shame: Striking, clear-eyed, and very, very funny, it’s been justly celebrated as one of the best Canadian films in years.
Distributors sometimes also neglect what’s nearby. John Wilson, for example, could hardly be closer: The Brooklyn-based director makes a sort of hyperlocal cinema utterly immersed in his neighborhood. His marvelously idiosyncratic shorts, by turns irreverent and profound and as charming as they are (deceptively) slipshod, are unlike anything being made today in the United States. First Look has programmed a collection of Wilson’s work as a 75-minute survey and revue — including my personal favorite, the comic anti-travelogue How to Walk to Manhattan, as well as the brand-new quasi-epic The Spiritual Life of Wholesale Goods, which finds Wilson visiting a heartbreaking trade show in Las Vegas. This is an essential introduction to an important voice in independent cinema in New York, and nothing short of a revelation.
As for the disturbing: It may be found in Helmut Berger, Actor, which has emerged from the furthest reaches of propriety and taste. Ostensibly a portrait of the aging Austrian actor and much-decorated star of The Damned and The Romantic Englishwoman, now an out-of-work septuagenarian with a drinking problem, the film turns out to be rather like a turbulent, unseemly romance, with the director himself serving as unlikely paramour. Confessions, tirades, and quarrels abound, and by the time the picture ends — with a final scene so indelicate that “climax” becomes a double entendre — the question of ethics has not so much been posed as unapologetically obliterated. Is it improper? Perhaps. But then documentaries tend to be more intriguing the more unethical they deign to be.
Lastly we venture to Cleveland. There we discover Nathan Truesdell’s Balloonfest, whose brisk six minutes boast more awe and gaiety than most ninety-minute features. This perfect short tells the story of a notorious publicity stunt organized by United Way in the fall of 1986, in which a world-record 1.5 million helium balloons were loosed into the skies in a bid for Guinness glory — only to be redirected by inclement weather toward catastrophe. Using only archival footage sourced from local television news stations and a few expository intertitles, Truesdell captures beautifully the essence of the fiasco, and especially the familiar confluence of civic pride and self-consciousness that inspired it. Of course a six-minute short will never be destined for prosperity at the multiplex, no matter how delightful. So in this case you ought to seize the chance for a first look, lest it also be your last.