Audiences tend to think of movies as a basically imaginative art — a means of expression by which, to invoke an enduring cliché, anything is possible. But in fact most movies refute the point. It isn’t merely studio genre pictures whose conventions today seem ironclad; the timely advocacy doc, no-budget relationship drama, and lyrical coming-of-age story have in their way become as derivative and predictable as the slasher or the western. Too often banality prevails. Inspiration is scarce. And thus rarely do we go to the multiplex anymore and leave astonished or surprised.
New Directors/New Films, the twelve-day festival mounted annually since 1972 by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, arrives, as it does every year, like a cinematic antidote — a potent tonic for the revival of the spirit. “At this point in its long history,” Film Society director of programming (and former Voice film editor) Dennis Lim writes of the fest, “it goes without saying that New Directors/New Films is very much about discovery and revelation.” Indeed it is: Finding what’s new, scouting out the vanguard, is the festival’s raison d’être. New York is richer as a consequence. No local moviegoing event affords so indispensable an occasion for surprise.
Here even a simple logline has the capacity to amaze. Interest could hardly fail to be aroused by The Challenge: Italian artist Yuri Ancarani’s singular documentary is a portrait of billionaire Qatari sheikhs and the amateur falconry (!) that is their peculiar pride and hobby. With recourse to neither narration nor talking heads, Ancarani offers a panoptic view of a landscape that defies reflection or commentary. The sheikhs chart upscale private jets outfitted with custom falcon seating, drive immaculate Ferraris through the desert next to well-behaved cheetahs, race (and gloriously flip) luxury SUVs in and around roadless sand dunes, and, of course, buy, trade, care for, and flaunt their killer birds. Ah, and did I mention the falcons wear GoPros? This is, needless to say, an original film. It is also wildly delightful.
Of course, this desire to pursue the truly original is not without risk. Take Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path, whose inscrutable, radically idiosyncratic style confounded as widely as it charmed when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival’s avant-garde Wavelengths program last September — an event remembered by attendees perhaps as much for its antagonistic audience Q&A (during which bewildered viewers rather angrily demanded that Schanelec explain her intentions) as for the film itself. But this time-leaping, logic-defying drama, in which connections are tenuous and communication often thwarted, always intrigues, however vague its overarching import or elusive its apparent meaning. We should in any case welcome the opportunity to be challenged and frustrated by a movie. For every answer unprovided by Schanelec, a question fruitfully lingers.
The Dreamed Path is a bifurcated romance divided obliquely across time and place, one that brings to mind the playful approach to structure favored by Korean master Hong Sang-soo. And the influence of Hong, incidentally, looms unmistakable over Autumn, Autumn, the boozy, breezy second feature from young director Jang Woo-jin. But while Jang borrows much from the vaunted poet laureate of soju and sadness — late-night beer-fueled confessions, poorly conceived trips into and out of town, even awkward discussions over barbecue — he evinces an aesthetic panache and eye for detail entirely his own. (One wide shot in particular, of a character pinned in silhouette against the Chuncheon skyline, is uniquely stunning.) The film has a searching quality, doleful and true, that distinguishes it not only from Hong’s justly cherished oeuvre, but from a whole range of delicate indie comic-dramas to which it might otherwise be superficially compared.
Comparisons of all kinds, no doubt, will soon enough dog Beach Rats, which follows the adventures of a young man doomed to root out the true nature of his sexuality in a milieu organized implicitly to suppress it. There are worse shadows to languish in than a universally beloved Best Picture winner’s, to be sure, but it would prove a disservice to director Eliza Hittman’s accomplishment to leave it at “Moonlight on Coney Island.” Much like Hittman’s superb debut feature — the exquisite and assured It Felt Like Love — Beach Rats homes in with diaristic intimacy on adolescence in flux, cleaving so closely to its teenage subject that we seem to share his emotional space.
The teenager in question is Frankie (London theater actor Harris Dickinson, outrageously good in his first film role), an indolent, dope-smoking Adonis who’s begun to develop an appetite for cruising. Hittman follows his first tentative initiatives, as well as his more perfunctory efforts to fit in and fly straight (so to speak), with a tender and utterly nonjudgmental omniscience. She’s attuned to the delights of Frankie’s self-discovery as much as to its attendant peril, and her camera — roving, caressing, gazing back on him as in a selfie — seems to identify the difference between fleeting encounters both thrilling and treacherous, even when Frankie himself cannot. It is a film about trying to find yourself. Its secret is that not everybody does.
Finally, Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person might seem an odd choice for the program, if only because neither director nor film is precisely new. Defa had a marvelous short film of the same name screen as part of New Directors/New Films in 2014, one about a charismatic Brooklyn record collector (Bene Coopersmith) and the obstinate twentysomething (Deragh Campbell) who refuses to vacate his couch; the feature is a kind of long-form expansion on the same setting, style, and themes, and though Campbell is mysteriously (and regrettably) absent, Coopersmith happily returns to reprise his (I suspect not overly fictionalized) role. The short was a charming hors d’oeuvre. The full-course feature is sublime.
This begins at the level of casting. Defa has assembled a staggering troupe: There are indie-canon luminaries (Michael Cera, Philip Baker Hall), fashionable television stars (Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson), and a number of minor actors and nonprofessionals whose obscurity and inexpertise don’t begin to suggest the prodigious volume of their talent. Indeed the film’s two standout performances come from the least likely sources: Tavi Gevinson, founder and editor of Rookie magazine, practically embodies Falconetti reincarnated, invigorating with near-miraculous depth and fervor every frame in which she appears; she is ludicrously, stupefyingly good, and Defa’s close-ups — of just her face, thinking, feeling — simply devastate. Coopersmith, meanwhile, remains a wonder. Any minute this man is on a movie screen is a minute’s more joy bestowed upon the world. Defa has found in this makeshift star a treasure.