New Directors/New Films 2020

The Daily — Dec 10, 2020
Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (2020)

For nearly half a century now, New Directors/New Films, copresented by Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, has “acted as a slightly chancier analog to the New York Film Festival,” as Nick Pinkerton put it in Artforum a few years ago. Each fall, the NYFF has cinema put its best foot forward, and in the spring, ND/NF shows us where it’s headed next. This year’s edition, the forty-ninth, was to have taken place in March, but of course, the pandemic has kicked it further down the calendar.

For twelve days through December 20, viewers across the nation will have an opportunity to remedy their cabin fever with a sort of worldwide tour offered by the twenty-four features and ten short films screening in FLC’s virtual cinema. One could begin relatively close to home with Anne at 13,000 Ft, the latest feature from Canadian filmmaker Kazik Radwanski. Deragh Campbell plays a daycare supervisor given to severe mood swings. “Bresson is very important to me,” Radwanski told Penelope Bartlett in August. “He’s a filmmaker I have returned to again and again throughout my life.” Reviewing Anne for Cinema Scope last fall, Josh Cabrita detected “the staunchly materialist mode of Bresson” paired with “a certain school of realism—often associated with the films of Cassavetes—which seeks to reveal supposedly knowable being through an interplay of signs that indicate ‘the truth of the moment.’”

Down to Utah for Robert Machoian’s first time out as a solo director, The Killing of Two Lovers. Clayne Crawford (Rectify) plays a husband and father struggling to cope with a trial separation from his wife, and dispatching to the Hollywood Reporter from Sundance back in January, David Rooney found the film to be “a transfixing drama without a wasted word or a single inessential scene.” It was also at Sundance that Boys State, Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s documentary about an annual gathering of a thousand Texas high school seniors who set up a mock state government, won the Grand Jury Prize.

Heading further south, Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features, winner of an audience and a screenplay award at Sundance, tells the story of a mother, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), desperately seeking her son who set out for the U.S. and has gone missing. “Subdued in tone and stoic in its approach to the dangers that can decimate an entire community, Identifying Features is admirable in its restraint, and all the more powerful because of it,” writes Wendy Ide in Screen. ND/NF’s second entry from Mexico, Carlos Lenin’s debut feature The Dove and the Wolf, is a love story centering on two factory workers, and it’s “an agitated, dark and bitter film,” writes Locarno programmer Antoine Thirion, “glacial in tone and pace,” but “burning with an inner fire.”

Brazilian director Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever also premiered in Locarno, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize and a best actor award for Régis Myrupu, who plays a middle-aged security guard showing signs of succumbing to the heat of the Amazon when his daughter tells him she plans to leave him to study in Brasilia. “This is an entrancing film, orphaned by an unspeakable longing for a place–a whole world–that will never return,” writes Leonardo Goi at the Film Stage. Camilo Restrepo’s Los conductos, winner of the best first feature award in Berlin, tracks an escapee from a religious cult in Medellín, Colombia, and it’s “a potent, angry, stylish seventy-minute rail against structural injustice,” writes Rhys Handley for Sight & Sound. Talking to Maite Alberdi about The Mole Agent for the Guardian, Radheyan Simonpillai notes that the Chilean filmmaker “set out to make a film noir documentary about a spy in a nursing home. She did not expect it to transform into an aching meditation on isolation and loneliness.”

With Window Boy Would Also Like to Have a Submarine, Uruguayan poet and filmmaker Alex Piperno takes us to a cruise ship floating off the coast of Patagonia whose doors serve as mysterious passageways to an apartment in Montevideo and a hut in the Filipino jungle. “Marrying a lo-fi aesthetic with heady sci-fi concepts is nothing new within the world of independent film, yet Piperno appears more interested in tracking the loneliness of his characters, foregrounding isolation over plot machinations,” writes Christian Gallichio at the Film Stage.

A leap over to Africa brings us to Senegalese filmmaker Mamadou Dia’s Nafi’s Father, winner of Locarno’s best first feature award and the Golden Leopard in the Cinema of the Present program. The story centers on the clash between a small town imam and his powerful older brother. “The richness and cultural specificity that Dia brings to Nafi’s Father lends it an authenticity that helps articulate all that’s lost when such towns are held under the draconian decree of warlords,” writes Derek Smith at Slant. Teboho Edkins’s documentary Days of Cannibalism focuses on a community of Chinese immigrants in Lesotho, an enclaved country inside South Africa’s borders. “Edkins’s artistic project here isn’t simply to make a documentary that feels like a genre film, but rather to use the trappings of the western to explore the power dynamics at play on the extreme margins of global capitalism,” writes Keith Watson, also at Slant.

In The Cloud in Her Room, a twenty-two-year-old woman very much like director Zheng Lu Xinyuan returns to Hangzhou to discover that it no longer feels like home. At the Film Stage, Leonardo Goi finds that a “curious kind of sadness percolates through Zheng’s enigmatic universe.” Heading westward, ND/NF offers two features from India. Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs is a “small but splendid” fable that “takes the viewer deep into the heart of northwest India, where a young nomadic bride plays with her desires and toys with the lust of a young ranger,” writes Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter. Arun Karthick’s Nasir, “a slice-of-life look at a Muslim fabric shop salesman steeped in an ever more toxic atmosphere of Hindu nationalism,” is “a superb example of what can be done on a tiny budget when the vision is strong, the script is low-key, and the performers privilege rapport and naturalism over dramatic flourishes,” finds Jay Weissberg in Variety.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a look at Alexander Nanau’s Collective, which tracks an investigation into the ways the Romanian government sabotages its own healthcare system. In Atlantis, winner of the Orizzonti award in Venice, Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych imagines the dystopian aftermath of the war in Donbass in 2025. “The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions sometimes calls to mind Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism,” finds David Robb at Slant. 

Ivan Ostrochovský Servants, set in a Czechoslovakian seminary in 1980, “owes a debt to directors like Dreyer and more specifically Bresson,” writes Josh Brunsting at In Review Online. “Servants is a frigid film, but it’s also an endlessly captivating one, an engrossing tale of two young men and the crisis of faith that may or may not destroy them.” Austrian director Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born, which centers on an adolescent android programmed to please, started picking up awards in Berlin and hasn’t stopped since. For Jessica Kiang in Variety, the film “inspires nothing but strange feelings, from unnerving horror to shocked admiration to visceral disgust to that specific type of disorienting nausea that comes from the fractional delay between your eye processing a well-composed image, and your brain comprehending the implications of the actions so coolly depicted.”

With Kala azar, centered on a couple working for a crematorium service, filmmaker and video artist Janis Rafa “conjures a free-form tale drenched in bleak Greek New Wave surrealism,” writes Leonardo Goi at the Film Stage. A diver working off Spain’s Galician coast becomes convinced that some sort of monster is hunting for people along the short in Lois Patiño’s Red Moon Tide, “a work of unmistakable horror,” finds Jake Cole at Slant, “one predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force.” Portuguese filmmaker Catarina Vasconcelos explores her family’s past in her first feature documentary. “The film’s themes are commonplace, from a seamen’s nostalgia to how patriarchy has frayed over decades, and yet the sheer beauty of its compositions makes The Metamorphosis of Birds one of this year’s most memorable debuts,” writes Ela Bittencourt for Hyperallergic.

Filippo Meneghetti’s Two of Us, winner of the outstanding first feature award at Frameline, San Francisco’s LGBTQ film festival, stars Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier as neighbors in the south of France who have been carrying on a secret affair for decades. This is “a smart movie that starts from a relatively simple yet captivating premise and then steadily gains in complexity as it develops,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. French filmmaker Nadège Trebal stars in her first fiction feature, Twelve Thousand, as a babysitter caught up in “a fatalistic, politically charged romance that is underpinned by a sense of the financial pressures and human casualties of a globalized economy,” writes Screen’s Allan Hunter. Trebal “takes a Dardennes brothers-style premise and invests its central couple with some of the heat found in a 1980s Jean-Jacques Beineix classic.”

In Anna Sofie Hartmann’s Giraffe, an ethnologist, Dara (Lisa Loven Kongsli), arrives on the Danish island of Lolland to document the lives and traditions of its people before their homes are torn down to make way for a tunnel to Germany. “It’s a film of big themes on an intimate scale that lovingly acknowledges the unimaginable wealth of stories inside everyone we encounter, while also looking at how we negotiate the place of memory in our lives,” writes Jay Weissberg in Variety. At Another Gaze, Missouri Williams notes that the “presence of Maren Eggert as a contemplative ferry worker signifies that we are in [Angela] Schanelec territory, and the cryptic mood of the film as a whole bears this comparison out. Like Dara’s documentation, Giraffe is mournful—the receding of the past is also the receding of the natural world as we know it.”

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