Discovering Indie Gems at NYC's New Directors/New Films Festival
by Alex Billington
March 19, 2015
Let's discover something new. Kicking off this week in New York City is one of my favorite under-the-radar film festivals, called New Directors/New Films. Co-presented by both the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art (two of the best places for movies in the city anyway!), the fest highlights first-time filmmakers and their incredible feature debuts. This is my second year attending, and it's really all about the films, and the spirit of discovery, and first time introductions to filmmakers we'll be hearing about for many years to come. If you want to feel like you're ahead of the class, or you want an early start learning about which filmmakers are on the rise, take a closer look at this festival and its selection. They found them.
As explained on the NDNF website: "All aspects of cinema, from production to exhibition, have changed dramatically over the years, but the spirit of innovation and the element of surprise that have always defined this festival remain intact." Indeed. This is a festival about discovery, about finding cinematic gems and talented filmmakers, actors and storytellers. From this year's line-up, I've already seen a handful (between Cannes/TIFF/Locarno) including: Charles Poekel's Christmas, Again (tiny film but endearing), Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's The Tribe (totally fucked up but brilliant), Bill & Turner Ross' doc Western (remarkable and eye-opening), and Kornél Mundruczó's White God (interesting concept but I do not like this film). As for the rest, well, I'm lucky to have the chance to catch more screenings. I've also heard good things about: Nadav Lapid's The Kindergarten Teacher, Yuriy Bykov's The Fool, and Benjamin Crotty's Fort Buchanan.
Here's the six films at New Directors/New Films I've screened (so far) and my quick thoughts on each one:
Haemoo (Sea Fog) directed by Shim Sung-bo - Dark, harrowing, remarkable film about a fishing ship that takes on a load of immigrants (teaser photo above is from this film). Produced by Bong Joon-ho, this is another Korean film that starts out quite nice and gets ultra violent and rather dark in the second half. Some of it feels a bit protracted (or perhaps cliche, dare I say), but I was still able to enjoy it for what it was - an atmospheric, well-made thriller addressing the great struggles of morality and survival in this day and age. Worth seeing, as long as you can handle the violence and are ready to have your emotions messed with.
K directed by Erdenibulag Darhad & Emyr ap Richard - I'm not sure what to make of this film, but I will say the performances are top notch, with Bayin starring as "K". It's a super-low budget drama based on Franz Kafka's unfinished novel The Castle, with the storyline relocated to present-day Inner Mongolia. It's not often you get the chance to see a Mongolian film based on Kafka, but aside from that, it was fascinating to watch just not sure I was able to take away much from it. If Kafka is your thing, then give this a look.
Court directed by Chaitanya Tamhane - A heartbreaking, frustrating but brilliant film from India. It's a story about a "folk singer" who is thrown in prison for singing a song with lyrics that, so the prosecutors claim, caused another man to kill himself. We watch, unable to do anything from our seats, as judges in the court patiently discuss logistics, technical details and paperwork problems as a man's health diminishes in prison. It's beautifully shot in wide angle, showing the grittier side of India we don't often get to see. And as frustrating as it is to watch, it really gets you thinking about the problems of this world, all over the world.
Listen to Me Marlon directed by Stevan Riley - Wonderful - loved this film. A documentary about the life of legendary actor Marlon Brando, featuring (and told entirely through) never-before-heard audio recordings by Brando himself. Utilizing behind-the-scenes footage, photography, and clips from nearly all of his films, Listen to Me Marlon is an exhilarating and engaging documentary that provides a rare inside look at the mind of a man many people admired. Once you learn about who he really was, and what he really stood for, you're going to love Brando even more than you already do. A must see for any/all cinephiles.
Goodnight Mommy directed by Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz - A twisted, brutal psychological horror film from Germany. It's good, but not great, and I actually prefer The Babadook more (which played at New Directors/New Films last year). The story involves two young twin boys tormenting their mom, who appears with her face covered in head-dressing half of the film. It's honestly kind of weird, and never really got that scary (compared to other horror I've seen), but it is effectively unsettling. For horror fans only.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl directed by Marielle Heller - I went back for a second time to see this film and loved it just as much as I did at Sundance! Diary is truly a gem of a film, an extraordinary debut for Marielle Heller, and for lead actress Bel Powley. We published a glowing review at Sundance and I'll stand behind that, since it really is one of the best films of the year. It's refreshingly original, with bold filmmaking and courageous performances, telling the coming-of-age story of a quirky girl in 70's San Francisco. Believe the hype, this is one of the best discoveries of the year and I hope it keeps playing at film festivals all over.
Other sources with great New Directors/New Films picks: IndieWire has selected 7 Hidden Gems from New Directors/New Films; see the WSJ's festival profile on how Settings Play a Starring Role; PaperMag posted about Three Movies to See at New Directors/New Films Festival; Filmmaker Magazine also listed Five Films to See; and A.O. Scott profiled the festival's Spotlight to Youth for the NY Times. There are plenty of great films to discover at NDNF, whether it's horror or drama or documentary, from The Dairy of a Teenage Girl to Listen to Me Marlon to Haemoo and everything else inbetween. The full line-up and tickets can be found on the festival's official website, or you can check in with most New York-based critics for reviews. Have fun.
You can follow and attend screenings at the fest as it kicked off this week - visit newdirectors.org for more. New Directors/New Films 2015 runs from March 18th to 29th at both the Museum of Modern Art and Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. Updates are also constantly posted to @NDNF, so follow along.