New Directors/New Films 2018 #1

“Forty-seven years young,” writes the staff at Slant,New Directors/New Films—programmed by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art—is an eclectic, geographically far-flung survey of bourgeoning filmmaking talent, and more than ever, this year’s lineup suggests a willingness on the part of the programmers to celebrate works made under the most defiantly independent of conditions. The festival this year is chockablock with more mysterious contemplations of identity, tradition, technology, and more—and ones that more daringly straddle the line between truth and fiction.”

ND/NF 2018 will present twenty-seven programs over twelve days (March 28 through April 8). In this first entry, we’ll have a look at what the critics have to say about the films screening from today through Sunday. As always, check back for updates.

One more note before we get started. Throughout the festival, I’ll be pointing to entries at Critics Round Up. James Kang has announced that he’ll no longer be updating the site, which for five years has been an outstanding guide to hand-picked reviews of new releases, classics, and overlooked films worthy of rediscovery. James Kang stuck to the critics he admired, and he had a keen eye for a quote that’d reveal the crux of a critic’s argument. I’ll miss CRU, but I’m grateful to have the archive, which I hope to be dipping into regularly for years to come.

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (Stephen Loveridge)
March 28 and 29

And right off the top, here’s the entry at Critics Round Up.

“Since Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. premiered at this year’s Sundance, its subject—Sri Lankan refugee turned global pop star M.I.A.—has repeatedly thrown shade at director Stephen Loveridge,” writes Sam C. Mac at Slant:

M.I.A. is generally uncompromising, uniquely combining dogged political intentionality and an aesthetic informed by absorbing different cultures’ sensibilities and making a self-determination that art might as well be borderless. All that, along with a natural facility with pop music that very few iconoclasts can claim, and a certain form of techno-paranoia that turned out to be prescient, make M.I.A.’s body of work as enthralling and vital as that of any contemporary artist. That she’s struggled to explicate the various impulses that inform that work to those who’ve had difficulty wrapping their heads around her biography, and that she’s often defaulted to provocation as a coping mechanism, seem to be themes that Loveridge is grappling with as he works to narrativize and contextualize M.I.A.’s life and career.

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. draws from over 700 hours of footage M.I.A. personally recorded at different stages of her career to offer an intimate pre- and-post-stardom bio-doc that feels just as magnetic as the artist it brings and dissects on screen,” writes Leonardo Goi at the Film Stage.

Dispatching from Sundance, Rolling Stone’s David Fear noted that Loveridge is primarily interested in “her dad's history with the Tamil Tigers, her experience as an immigrant, her relationship with the nation she was forced to flee, her own political awakening and her frustration over the media expecting her to just sing, look pretty and and shut up instead of, y'know bringing up genocide. Yes, there will be truffle fries—the infamous Lynn HirschbergNYT magazine profile gets a lot of screen time, as does the Super Bowl incident involving her televised-to-millions middle finger. The result is a fascinating and insightful mess that puts Maya, rather than M.I.A., front and center.”

“The code-switching she’s accused of is her lived life, moving between worlds as perpetual outsider, proving herself,” writes Danielle Burgos at Screen Slate. “Yet that doesn’t automatically gift her with depth—too many moments reveal an art school casualness, even as her irritation at not being taken seriously is justified.”

At IndieWire, Jude Dry predicts that this “will be one of the most controversial films at New Directors/New Films.”

Updates, 3/30: The first time I saw it at Sundance, I was in shock,” M.I.A. tells Daniel Dylan Wray in Huck Magazine. “The second time I really liked it.”

Devika Girish interviews Loveridge for Film Comment.

3/4 (Ilian Metev)
March 29 and 31

Critics Round Up.

“When this delicately observed story opens,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, “Mila is practicing for a piano recital that will take her abroad, her younger teenage brother is mostly just being a boy, and their father seems content to drift along in his own head. A mother is mentioned in passing, but her absence nevertheless fills the air, shaping the family’s exchanges and each member’s discreet solitude. With unforced realism and a graceful visual style—punctuated by a series of fluid, intimate walks—the Bulgarian director Ilian Metev beautifully captures the ebb and flow of one family’s everyday life. He finds the singularity of ordinary being, its notes of harmony and discordance.”

“At once a time signature and an allusion to missing pieces, 3/4 is an aptly chosen title for a gracefully understated drama about a dysfunctional family struggling to find harmony.” writes Leonardo Goi at the Film Stage. “Premiering at the seventieth Locarno Festival, where it nabbed the top prize in the Cineasti del Presente sidebar, 3/4 welcomes Metev’s directorial comeback five years after his festival darling Sofia’s Last Ambulance, yet feels like a debut of sorts, marking the thirty-six-year-old documentarian’s first narrative feature to date. Calling it an abrupt shift from reality to fiction, however, is a bit of a stretch. Narrative as it may be, 3/4 retains a distinct documentary-like vibe, a naturalistic feeling amplified by Metev and co-scribe Betina Ip’s screenplay as well as Julian Atanassov’s cinematography.”

Update, 3/30: “Befitting the incompleteness suggested by its title, Metev’s film is a beguiling experiment in isolation and negative space, an attempt to find the ‘infinite’ in absence,” writes Lawrence Garcia at In Review Online.

Update, 4/1: “Despite potentially being lulled by the languid pacing and extensive, meditative walking of 3/4, there’s an excellent short within Ilian Metev’s feature,” writes Danielle Burgos at Screen Slate.

Ava (Sadaf Foroughi)
March 29 and April 1

Critics Round Up.

“Iranian-Canadian filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi was born in Tehran, studied film in France, and now lives in Montréal,” notes Jude Dry at IndieWire. “After making ten short films, Foroughi’s debut feature arrives fresh from its TIFF premiere, and after winning Best First Feature at the Canadian Screen Awards, the country’s Oscars.”

Ava is a quiet force of a film, not terribly unlike its title character,” writes Jeva Lange at Screen Slate. “Determined to prove to her friends that she can win over the attention of her crush, spirited schoolgirl Ava (Mahour Jabbari) lies about where she is going to her mother only to get caught wearing bright red telltale lipstick when returning. This would perhaps not be such a problem if it were not happening in Tehran; wracked with anxiety, Ava's mother (Bahar Noohian) forces her daughter to undergo a humiliating examination by an OB-GYN to assure she is still a virgin. As the walls close in around Ava—her parents don't understand her, the school seems out to get her—she lashes back in recognizable, universal teenage rebellion.”

Fouroughi “often uses shallow focus that leaves Ava (Mahour Jabbari) blurred into the background,” writes Steve Erickson in Gay City News. “Her emphasis on melodrama and lack of grounding in the documentary realism that powered much ‘90s Iranian cinema, especially art films about youth, suggests the influence of Asghar Farhadi. . . . Despite the film’s main interest in Ava, it ultimately reveals itself as a multi-generational portrait of an Iranian family.”

Updates, 3/30: “For a feature whose budget only allowed a mere eighteen shooting days, the way Foroughi designs and composes her shots is spell-binding,” writes Leonardo Goi at the Film Stage.

For Lawrence Garcia at In Review Online, “coupled with the film’s overdetermined stacked-deck of a narrative, the parade of symbolism (a ladybug being perhaps the most galling) eventually reveals a narrow interest in stoking righteous indignation.”

Winter Brothers (Hlynur Pálmason)
March 29 and 31

I put together an entry when Winter Brothers premiered in Locarno, and here’s the collection at Critics Round Up.

“Shot on desaturated Super 16 mm film in a Danish limestone quarry, Winter Brothers is one of the more aesthetically idiosyncratic directorial debuts in recent memory,” writes Carson Lund at Slant. “Icelandic visual artist turned filmmaker Hlynur Pálmason, who decamped with his crew to the film's inhospitable setting for the duration of the production, approaches his chosen location like Michelangelo Antonioni did with that of Red Desert, transforming a place of grim labor and scant sunshine into a punctiliously designed cinematic space. Where Antonioni painted trees and grass to achieve his pallid industrial dystopia, Pálmason creates his by coating the scenery in calcite, dressing his cast in filthy faded denim jumpers, and partitioning the world into a careful visual system, with each location treated to its own rigorous compositional scheme. If nothing else, the film is a feat of formal conception and craftsmanship.”

“Brothers Johan (Simon Sears) and Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove, who deservedly won best actor at the Locarno Film Festival for this role) live in a small mining village in Denmark, a place so remote and alien that it is seemingly adrift from the rest of the world,” writes Jeva Lange. “Together they steal chemicals from the mine to make an amber-colored homebrew that they sell to colleagues—until the mixture ends up poisoning one man, landing Emil in dangerous trouble with the boss. Winter Brothers is a film that excavates manhood, certainly, but also the adolescent impulse that makes us pull the trigger of a rifle, if only to hear how it sounds.”

Update, 4/4: “Even when Winter Brothers strikes recognizable chords—echoes of David Lynch and the Coen Brothers are tough to miss—the director’s distinct worldview keep the beats fresh and engaging, giving the impression that only Pálmason and his collaborators could have brought this story to the screen,” writes Bradley Warren at the Playlist.

The Guilty (Gustav Möller)
March 30 and 31

Here’s a first round from Sundance.

“The most commercial movie playing in the festival’s first week, this tight, showy thriller gives it a much welcome blast of genre filmmaking,” writes Manohla Dargis.

“We meet beleaguered 911 operator Asger (Jakob Cedergren) dealing with a real-time emergency in his claustrophobic office, juggling calls in real-time as he makes a desperate attempt to save multiple lives,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “No angel himself, Asger pushes back on the bureaucratic process of reporting incidents to take a seemingly dire kidnapping scenario into his own hands with mixed results. With Cedergren’s frantic performance driving the story forward, The Guilty is an economical chamber piece that never slows down.”

Updates: “The action is sweat-inducingly tense, and Möller has fun exhausting the creative potential of his desk-bound setting,” writes Calum Marsh in the Village Voice. “It may amount to little, but it’s sleek, deft, and lively.”

“Möller’s careful manipulation of form and duration turns his lab-grown thriller into a gripping study of genre,” writes Devika Girish in the Notebook. “Leveraging the plot’s dependency on phones, he builds tension using a simple, but addictive call-and-response structure: the brrr of Asger’s vibrating mobile and the red flash of his emergency hotline become Pavlovian jolts of suspense, punctuating the cop’s festering anticipation inside the dim, claustrophobic call center.”

Azougue Nazaré (Tiago Melo)
March 30 and 31

Azougue Nazaré is an electric jolt of a film, set in the small northwestern Brazilian city of Nazare de Mata,” writes Jeva Lange. “While some movies might be said to have soul, this eighty-minute debut by writer-director Tiago Melo has an unrestrained spirit, with the naïve, loveable cross-dresser Tiao (Valmir do Coco) serving as its heart. . . . Azougue Nazaré is more than just colorful high jinks, though—the film is a patchwork of tones, at times even employing a kind of eerie Lynchian sound design (a job well done by Guga S. Rocha and Marina Silva) as it phases into the magical realist realm of the sugar cane fields on the edge of town.”

Until the Birds Return (Karim Moussaoui)
March 30 and 31

“Algeria’s troubles both past and present come home to roost,” wrote Jordan Mintzer for the Hollywood Reporter when the film premiered in last year’s Un Certain Regard program at Cannes. “Separated into three stories that are less connected than they are complementary, the film features various characters from different backgrounds searching for a form of attachment in a country left divided by years of sectarian conflict—most notably the civil war that engulfed Algeria throughout the 1990s. While some parts are stronger than others, through its twists and turns Bird gradually builds into a tender portrait of a place, and a people, looking for ways to come together.”

“On paper,” wrote Fabien Lemercier for Cineuropa, which also features a video interview with the director (7’57”), “it’s a hard act for a first-time director to pull off, but Moussaoui reveals a great skill for sidestepping the potential pitfalls, aided by a superb script (co-written by the director himself with Maud Ameline) and a high-quality mise-en-scène that works beautifully with the striking exteriors we see as the protagonists’ car continues its journey throughout the film.”

“There’s an observational authenticity that is refreshing in an audiovisual culture whose attempts at self-analysis are too often skewed by melodrama,” wrote Lee Marshall for Screen.

Update: “Guided by a wonderfully ambulatory storytelling impulse, Until the Birds Return traverses the country from north to south, offering a lateral survey of its landscapes as well as its diverse social classes,” writes Devika Girish in the Notebook.

Shorts Program 1
March 30 and April 1

The program: Arash Nassiri’s City of Tales, Yassmina Karajah’s Rupture, Sebastián Pinzón Silva’s Palenque, Farnoosh Samadi’s Gaze (Negah), and Sarah Friedland’s Home Exercises.

Closeness (Kantemir Balagov)
March 31 and April 1

Critics Round Up.

“Balagov’s debut feature film inspired a slew of walkouts when it premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, walkouts inspired not by the old-fashioned Cannes tradition of just not liking a film, but having serious moral reservations with its content,” notes Kate Erbland at IndieWire. “The film, set in Russia’s North Caucasus, is bleak enough from the get-go, chronicling fraught familial dynamics in a closeknit Jewish clan, which only get more complex when two of their own are kidnapped and held for ransom (that they definitely don’t have).”

Closeness is the sort of film you hope to discover at New Directors/New Films, a neon arrow pointing at a stunning new talent: In this case, a disciple of Alexander Sokurov, director Kantemir Balagov.” Jeva Lange: “While ND/NF’s description for Closeness warns of a scene ‘of documented violence,’ it is essential to stress this not be taken lightly: Balagov incorporates truly horrific actual footage from the 1999 Dagestan massacre, including extremely graphic clips of Chechens brutally torturing and murdering Jews as they beg for their lives—an artistic decision many critics have argued crossed a line. Be it as it may, Closeness is a powerful, chilling, nauseating movie about the sacrifices one must make for one's family—and oneself.”

Manohla Dargis notes that “Balagov crams his frame with people—a celebratory dinner is a bravura example of his use of cinematic space—a choice that captures the existential push and pull of identity.”

Update, 4/3: “Darya Zhovner is really mesmerizing in the film,” Devika Girish tells Balagov during an interview for Film Comment, and the director agrees: “She has a rebellious spirit. I think she is familiar with most of the problems between mother and daughter in this film. I think that’s why she has mesmerized people. I truly believe that ninety percent of the film is based on her performance.”

Scary Mother (Ana Urushadze)
March 31 and April 2

First, that’s an image from the film at the top of this page. And second, of course: Critics Round Up.

“Virginia Woolf’s iconic aphorism that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ comes to life in the most allegorical of ways in Scary Mother,” writes Diego Semerene at Slant. “Set in the country of Georgia, writer-director Ana Urushadze’s film follows the aftermath of a middle-class housewife’s literary emancipation. Manana (Nato Murvanidze) has been painstakingly, and furtively, writing an autobiographical novel that’s being hailed as a masterpiece—the birth of a new literature and a sexual revolution, no less—by an editor friend, Nukri (Ramaz Ioseliani), who owns a stationary shop. The problem is that she fears that, once her relatives get a hold of the book, she’s doomed to shatter the fantasy of familial bliss that she’s been groomed to accept as inevitable and might be kicked out of her own home.”

Scary Mother is a “dreamlike take on the unraveling housewife trope, more Yellow Wallpaper than Jeanne Dielman,” suggests Jeva Lange.

“With her terrific star, Nato Murvanidze, the Georgian director Ana Urushadze opens up one woman’s life with dark laughter, great feeling and truth,” adds Manohla Dargis.

Update, 3/31: “Mindia Esadze’s cinematography paints in rich reds, a creepily Lynchian womb-like cradle that stands in contrast with the drab looks of suburban Tiblisi,” writes Leonardo Goi at the Film Stage.

Makala (Emmanuel Gras)
April 1 and 2

Makala won the Grand Prix at last year’s Critics’ Week Awards in Cannes, and here’s the entry at Critics Round Up.

“Set in the harsh bushlands of the Congo, Emmanuel Gras's documentary Makala opens with a young man, Kabwita, walking toward a massive, twisting tree,” writes Derek Smith for Slant. “For the audience, the tree may stand out as the aesthetic pinnacle of this patch of land, but for Kabwita it represents the raw materials for his and his family's very survival. . . . Gras consistently employs tight shots that follow Kabwita's every repetitious and exhausting move as he chops down the tree, burns it to create charcoal, and delivers the charcoal by foot to the closest town over fifty kilometers away. Loosely forming three separate acts—the first focusing on labor, the second on distribution, and the third on sales—Makala meticulously details how Kabwita goes to nearly superhuman lengths to potentially eke out just enough of a profit to purchase medicine for his child and metal slates to fix his leaky roof.”

Update, 4/1: “Towards the end of Makala, a church service with parishioners loudly praying to make a living invokes Job, but the entire documentary is Sisyphean testament,” writes Danielle Burgos.

Milla (Valérie Massadian)
April 1 and 2

Critics Round Up.

“Valérie Massadian's Milla begins with a stylistic bait-and-switch that neatly summarizes the film’s overall sense of formal balance,” writes Jake Cole at Slant. “The delicate first shot, of two entwined lovers lying in the woods, is filtered through a gossamer-like haze and brings to mind a romantic painting for how it emanates a vastness around the carefully lit and positioned characters. The subsequent shot reveals that the silky glow of the previous composition originated from the fogged rear window of an old, cheap car. In effect, artifice is reined in by the quotidian. The rest of the film is an exploration of the space between these aesthetic poles of painterly formalism and direct realism, tracking the relationship of two teen lovers, Milla (Severine Jonckeere) and Leo (Luc Chessel), through the emotional mechanisms that make them human and allow them to deal with each other and their crippling poverty.”

“A two-time Locarno International Film Festival prize-winner and 2017 AFI Fest selection, Massadien’s second feature after the well-reviewed Nana needs little dialogue, thanks to lush cinematography,” writes Jenna Marotta at IndieWire.

Update, 3/30: Massadian has “found a rich middle ground between placing herself at a remove, so as to comment on the circumstances of her subjects, and attempting to render their experience wholly immersive,” finds Alex Engquist at In Review Online.

Updates, 4/3: For Film Comment,Devika Girish talks with Massadian about “her casting process (which she compares to ‘falling in love’), the role of poetry and nature in her cinema, and why she can’t watch ninety percent of the films produced these days.”

Mark Asch talks with her as well for Kinoscope: “‘Actors, you pay them, they do their thing,’ she told me, ‘but you come into someone’s life, someone who doesn’t have much, with this world that’s completely foreign to them, and they trust you and give you things. And you have to protect them, you have to give something back, otherwise you’re just a vampire.’”

An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo)
April 1 and 8

Critics Round Up.

“The easiest sell in this year’s program (but also perhaps the hardest film to watch), An Elephant Sitting Still is impossible to separate from the circumstances of its existence,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. This is “the first feature by twenty-nine-year-old Chinese director Hu Bo, and unfortunately also the last—the young filmmaker took his own life shortly after finishing the movie. Even with such a short resumé to his name, he’s left behind a remarkable legacy.”

“Set in contemporary China, this elegant, sensitive, at times wrenching movie plaits together the lives of four characters who over a single day set down separate, difficult paths that finally converge,” writes Manohla Dargis. “A high school student struggles at home and at school, where he is savagely bullied; an elderly neighbor faces eviction from his own apartment by his family; and so on. The writer and director Hu Bo puts these lives into motion with compassion, a restlessly moving camera and an intricate narrative that never feels overdetermined. As day edges into night, each character’s life comes into crystalline view, and the ordinary becomes profound.”

“So unremitting is the film’s focus on (shifting of) feeling through length of shots, proximity of camera to faces/bodies, and the camera’s constant mobility that perhaps its most astounding aspect is the way in which mood and feeling assume such prominence that they take on material, bodily form and thereby constitute space,” writes Rowena Santos Aquino for VCinema. “An Elephant Sitting Still, then, can be described as an investigation of emotion-as-space, space-as-emotion. Correction, then: the spectator is not so much deprived of the spatial layout of the town than presented with an emotional one that becomes so thick in its accumulation that it becomes spatial, with the body poised as a delicate bridge connecting the two.”

Richard Brody in the New Yorker: “There’s nothing arch or artificial about Hu’s drastic distensions of cinematic time; his volatile silences and wild outbursts unflinchingly reveal the raw survivalism, feral aggression, selfish depravity, and poisonous rage of a society abused by brute force and ruthless indifference and yielding to despair. An Elephant Sitting Still, with its chilling sense of a suspended time in which history, culture, beauty, and even memory seem erased, is among the greatest recent films.”

Updates: Hu “works mostly from two kinds of shots, iterated throughout,” notes Vadim Rizov at Filmmaker. “The first is a series of walk-and-(optional)-talk shots that trail along pretty functionally—not the compositionally hyper-precise precise walking of Gerry, but something more trudging and pleasure-denying. The other kind of shot places one character in the foreground, either left or right, with one or two other people out of focus in the variably-far-back background on the other side of the frame. . . . It’s a compositional strategy that, refined and honed over several more films, might show more of what it could accomplish in different contexts. Obviously, this will not be happening.”

“The tragedy of the whole thing is intensified by the venue,” suggests Calum Marsh in the Village Voice. “At New Directors, we are made all the more aware that the loss of Hu Bo dashes any promise of the artist thriving in future—as so many of his peers on this program are fortunate enough to do.”

Update, 3/30: For Luke Gorham at In Review Online, “while the film toes the line of miserabilism, Hu’s commitment to intimacy makes it feel far more like an emotional and psychological audit than a cudgel used against its audience.”

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