29 features and nine shorts will be presented at the 46th edition of New Directors/New Films, opening today and running through March 26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. “Finding what’s new, scouting out the vanguard, is the festival’s raison d’être,” writes Calum Marsh in the Voice. “New York is richer as a consequence. No local moviegoing event affords so indispensable an occasion for surprise.” For the Observer, Jake Brandman talks with Rajendra Roy (Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film at MoMA) and Dennis Lim (Director of Programming at FSLC) “about the philosophy behind the programming.”
We begin with an overview of what critics have been saying about each feature, and of course, I’ll gather links to reviews as they come in throughout this year’s run.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 15
I’ve just happened to catch the opening film myself here at SXSW, fully aware that, when it premiered at Sundance, Patti Cake$ was joyfully cheered and then snapped up by Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million but also panned by critics I admire. Dispatching to the Notebook, Josh Cabrita called it a “degrading fantasy masquerading as a narrative of quasi-empowerment” that follows Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) “as she provides for her alcoholic mother [Bridget Everett] and terminally ill grandmother [Cathy Moriarty], all the while aspiring to a career as a hip hop artist…. The film is hyper-engineered to be endearing: character quirks are cranked up to a deafening decuple, amateur hip hop that is neither cute nor gritty blares on the soundtrack, and the derivative screenplay undermines its own attempts at subversion.”
Well, fine. But I’m with the New York Times’s Manohla Dargis, who grants: “On the face of it, Patti Cake$ sounds like the ultimate bad Sundance movie (or a Disney princess movie): Patti Cake$ has a dream and she follows it with a song in her heart and a charmingly kooky posse. So it’s good that its American writer-director, Geremy Jasper, has a heart as big as the Ritz and the talent to match.” And what’s more, Danielle Macdonald—an Australian!—is, yes, “sensational.”
More from Peter Debruge (Variety), A.A. Dowd (AV Club, C), Gregory Ellwood (Playlist, B+), Fionnuala Halligan (Screen), Eric Kohn (IndieWire, B+), Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter), and Jordan Raup (Film Stage, C). For Vulture, Jada Yuan interviews Macdonald and Everett.
Updates, 3/16: “This infectiously fun, rousing hip-hop tale from straight outta New Jersey overcomes its utterly predictable and overly familiar narrative arcs with its endless energy, brash brio, and the star-making central turn by Aussie emigre Danielle Macdonald,” writes Christopher Bourne at ScreenAnarchy.
“MacDonald, whose performance was heavily buzzed during the festival, has undeniable presence but she never really convinces as someone who’s spent years crafting rhymes, dreaming of a career in rap,” finds the Guardian‘s, Benjamin Lee.
THURSDAY, MARCH 16
The Challenge. Back to Calum Marsh: “Italian artist Yuri Ancarani’s singular documentary is a portrait of billionaire Qatari sheiks 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 sheiks 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.”
Update, 3/16: “The elegance of Jonathan Ricquebourg’s photography, which constantly emphasizes the strangeness of what we’re seeing—both through the enhanced richness of color and through manifestly crafted compositions—suggests video art rather than a documentary of any conventional kind,” writes Jonathan Romney for Film Comment.
Updates, 3/20: At Hammer to Nail, Nelson Kim declares that “my eyes haven’t been treated to a such an outlandishly aestheticized display of conspicuous consumption since Hype Williams’ 1990s rap-video heyday.”
“Some of it might seem a bit cheeky or even a bit on-the-nose incredulous, like scenes of a bunch of falcons cruising in a private jet or a guy taking his pet cougar for a ride in a Lamborghini,” grants Matt Lynch at In Review Online, “but there’s a quiet investigation of community and tradition here and the ways in which they bump up against modernity.”
“Nepalese director Deepak Rauniyar’s second feature White Sun follows a young man (played by Dayahang Rai) who returns to his birth village for his father’s funeral after a decade-long absence and tries to reconcile his political beliefs with those of his family members as a new national Constitution comes into being,” writes Aaron Cutler, before turning to Rauniyar himself. And Manohla Dargis calls White Sun “a satisfyingly holistic work.”
Update, 3/16: “White Sun shares affinities with the civil-minded work of Ousmane Sembene and the ensembles of Robert Altman,” suggests Tanner Tafelski at Kinoscope. “Taking a village as a synecdoche for a country juggling traditional customs with a progressive government. It’s a film in which every action is a political one.”
Update, 3/20: “Given the film’s overall accumulation of incident,” writes Lawrence Garcia at In Review Online, “White Sun at times feels both schematic and contrived, most notably in the climax, during which various story threads ludicrously converge in a violent standoff. But there’s something to be said for simply being immersed in the fascinating dynamics of this completely foreign narrative, all the way up to its satisfying conclusion—a pointed generational shift that’s at once open and resolute.”
“Jan P. Matuszynski’s The Last Family reconstructs nearly 30 years in the life of Zdzislaw Beksinski (Andrzej Seweryn), a famous Polish painter, photographer, and sculptor whose family remained perpetually on the precipice of ruin due to his son Tomek’s (Dawid Ogrodnik) chronic emotional problems,” writes Clayton Dillard for Slant. “Matuszynski stages a collection of scenes, based on Beksinski’s own home-video footage, that intimate Tomek’s manic-depressive tendencies and sexual dysfunction as a primary source of the family’s tension but stops short of interrogating these facets in order to form a meaningful argument about them. Instead, the leering approach devolves into a succession of sobering moments of grief as Zdzislaw silently reckons with his inability to help his son and salvage his relationship with his spouse, Zosia (Aleksandra Konieczna).”
Michał Oleszczyk at RogerEbert.com: “Since the film is not a biopic in any traditional sense, you never feel like you are being lectured about the importance of an artist’s output—instead, Matuszyński and screenwriter Robert Bolesto (of The Lure fame) pull you into Beksiński’s unconventional household and allow you to grow accustomed to its inner rhythms. If you can imagine Beetlejuice (1988) as directed by Mike Leigh, you’d be close to what The Last Family feels like.”
Updates, 3/16: “Cinematographer Kacper Fertacz’s static compositions match the rectilinear Plattenbau architecture within which all the action takes place,” writes Cosmo Bjorkenheim at Screen Slate, “and through cut-in camcorder footage we experience the development of recorded media technologies from the early 1970s to the mid-aughts, from VHS cameras to digital point-and-shoots, from typewriters to answering machines, from cassette tapes to dial-up. The Last Family is a compendium of the eroding memento mori of a family that didn’t shy away from death but lived with its reality and grappled with its impact from one day to the next.”
“The Last Family just goes to show you that hell is your loved ones,” writes Tanner Tafelski. “Home is where the hurt is.”
Update, 3/20: For Paul Attard at In Review Online, “The Last Family is an incredibly unpleasant experience from beginning to end, one that’s heavily misguided: signposting seriousness and introspection, as well as humor, at all the wrong times.”
“A beautifully-shot black-and-white drama unfolding across one sweltering summer in a provincial Chinese city in the early 1990s,” writes Clarence Tsui for the Hollywood Reporter, “The Summer Is Gone is a lush and melancholic ode about the end of an era—for a boy spending his last vacation before enrolling in the local junior high, and for a community confronting the changes brought about by the privatization of state-backed enterprises from which they had long earned their stable living.”
Jessica Kiang for Variety: “With a maturity beyond his experience level, [director Zhang Dalei] admires the past without revering it, with his filmmaking style, too, seeming to pay unassuming homage to the canon of great Chinese directors, while being dipped in a newness that is unique to him.”
“The Summer Is Gone echoes the ghosts of Edward Yang by locating drama in a particular moment in history, wedding personal histories to political ones,” writes Elissa Suh in the Notebook.
Update, 3/20: At In Review Online, Paul Attard suggests that “Zhang has only picked up superficial elements from [Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s] cinema: the narrative here lacks the contemplative beauty it’s striving for, leaving Zhang’s film feeling less natural in its pacing.”
FRIDAY, MARCH 17
ND/NF 2017’s centerpiece film is Beach Rats, Eliza Hittman‘s second feature after It Felt Like Love (2014). We gathered reviews when it premiered at Sundance and Critics Round-Up has an entry rolling as well. The NYT‘s A.O. Scott notes that it “could be described as a coming-of-age story set in an ungentrified section of Brooklyn…. But as a visual, sensual experience, Ms. Hittman’s film, shot in 16 millimeters on summer nights around Coney Island, Brooklyn, is something more intriguing: a lyrical, impressionistic plunge into a world defined by longing, anxiety and accidental beauty.”
Calum Marsh: “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.” And Aaron Cutler talks with Hittman.
Update, 3/20: For Lawrence Garcia at In Review Online, “the lingering impression that Beach Rats leaves with its predictably noncommittal ending is that of unfulfilled potential.”
More from Aaron Cutler: “Indian filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia’s beautiful short Events in a Cloud Chamber creates a dialogue with history by remaking a lost 1969 film of the same name realized on 16mm by the artist Akbar Padamsee, who also appears through archival footage and audio fragments of interviews.”
And: “Greek filmmaker Loukianos Moshonas’s docufictional short Manodopera (‘Workforce’) focuses on a kinship with an Albanian worker named Andi (Altino Katro) and a young man (the filmmaker), both of whom dream of a better future.”
And: “Portuguese director Ico Costa’s short Nyo Vweta Nafta (Gitonga for Looking for Nafta) is a delicate and vibrant 16mm-shot gathering of episodes in the life of a small city in Mozambique.”
All three of these screen as part of Shorts Program 1, which also includes Sebastian Mihăilescu’s Old Luxurious Flat Located in an Ultra-central, Desirable Neighborhood and Ricky D’Ambrose’s Spiral Jetty.
Update: Brooklyn Magazine‘s Mark Asch talks with D’Ambrose, noting that Spiral Jetty “is distinguished by a heady atmosphere of intrigue against a backdrop of magisterial Manhattan intellectual culture.” Asch’s interview covers “this new short, and his upcoming, long-planned feature An Appearance, for which he’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign later this month.”
SATURDAY, MARCH 18
Shorts Program 2: Manuela De Laborde’s As Without So Within and Charlotte Bayer-Broc’s The Blue Devils. Updates, 3/20: As Without So Within “is an utterly remarkably, vividly calm work that blends sculpture and filmmaking into a cosmic exploration of physical material transformed by the flatness of the cinema screen,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman, introducing his interview with De Laborde, who talks with Aaron Cutler, too, for Brooklyn Magazine: “The film was my thesis at CalArts [The California Institute of the Arts], and it first came into my head on a plane ride to Los Angeles from my home in Mexico. I remembered specific films, texts, and thoughts, got the main thesis in mind, left the plane, went to Santa Clarita, bought plaster, and continued for two years afterward. I’m moving now in the directions of expanded cinema and installation, with material that possesses less of a need to explain itself and is more confident simply to be. Less didactic, perhaps more idiosyncratic, perhaps with a little more thrill.”
“Though largely set on the highways leading from Bamako to Dakar,” writes Clayton Dillard at Slant, “writer-director Daouda Coulibaly’s Wùlu resembles any number of North American-set films about drug running given its reliance on pat character archetypes, representations of top-down power relations, and sudden bursts of extreme violence.”
But Manohla Dargis argues that Coulibaly “has made a familiar story singularly his own.” For Pamela Pianezza, writing for Variety, it’s an “occasionally over-ambitious but constantly absorbing thriller,” while THR‘s Boyd van Hoeij considers it to be a “modest but well-executed crowdpleaser.”
Update, 3/16: Christopher Bourne: “While this Mali-set thriller clearly delves in familiar tropes—not for nothing is it frequently described as a Malian Scarface—Wùlu nevertheless impresses with its filmmaker’s confidence and skill at creating compelling suspense and tension, while deftly relating it all to the political situation of its setting, leading up to the 2012 Mali civil war.”
Update, 3/20: “Coulibaly delivers plenty of gangster-movie thrills, especially in the tense smuggling sequences, but it’s the vividly rendered cultural details that linger with you,” writes Nelson Kim.
“A carefree life on the move is steadily and exquisitely overtaken by melancholy in writer-directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Arábia, the portrait of a meandering journey fueled by song, anecdote, and landscape that zeroes in on the pressures of contemporary Brazil almost in passing,” writes James Lattimer for Slant. “While the film is a gently fragmented road movie first and foremost, Dumans and Uchoa are never afraid to let other influences wander in at will: off-kilter social realism, the musical, the essay film, and even the (invented) autobiography.”
“Arábia opens quietly but builds with tremendous emotional force,” agrees Manohla Dargis. And THR‘s Neil Young argues that it “sets a high bar for world cinema of 2017.”
Update, 3/16: For Cosmo Bjorkenheim, Arábia is a “humble dream confided to an audience hopefully humble enough to recognize its beauty.”
Updates, 3/20: “Possessing neither narrative momentum nor documentary fascination, Arábia is caught in a nebulous, painfully inert middle-ground, its larger intentions notwithstanding,” finds Lawrence Garcia at In Review Online.
“We wanted to tell a common story in an epic way,” the filmmakers tell Aaron Cutler. “When we wrote Arábia’s script, we took as reference the work of writers like João Antônio, Oswaldo França Júnior, and Graciliano Ramos, all of whom made a point of writing in sympathy with Brazilians who were leading marginalized and anonymous lives.”
Slant again, naturally. Here’s Chuck Bowen: “Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest follows an African-American family in North Philadelphia over a pivotal course of American history: from 2008, when Barack Obama first ran for president of the United States, until the presidential election last autumn, capturing, in the process, a microcosm of the country as its hopeful mood curdled. Late in the documentary, we see the Rainey matriarch, Christine’s, watching Donald J. Trump’s plea for blacks to vote for him, asking, ‘What the hell have you got to lose?’ By this point, Olshefski has taken us so deep into this family’s world that the entitled ignorance of Trump’s boast stings with newfound universality.”
A.O. Scott finds that it “shows a kinship with Hoop Dreams and Boyhood in the way it makes subtle and powerful use of the passage of time.” Stephen Saito calls Quest “one of the most beautiful, moving portraits of a family committed to the screen in recent memory.” More from Jude Dry (IndieWire, B+); and Critics Round Up‘s got three reviews so far.
Update, 3/16: “The strongest and most affecting film I saw while previewing this festival was this true-life family saga,” writes Christopher Bourne.
Update, 3/20: Yes, grants Nelson Kim, “it’s 2017 and we’re all properly skeptical about white filmmakers telling black stories, and about movies that depict the struggles of poor folks for the edification of upwardly mobile liberals, and so forth. But go ahead and watch Quest—a film that celebrates the loving bonds of family and community—and you just might be reminded of an earlier model of wisdom: that documentaries can expand our powers of empathy, allowing us to enter lives that aren’t ours, if only for a time.”
Nele Wohlatz’s The Future Perfect won the Swatch First Feature Award at Locarno last summer. “In El Futuro Perfecto, a Chinese immigrant girl struggles to both learn a new language and adapt to a new culture,” writes Gustavo Beck, introducing his interview with the director for the Notebook. “Xiaobin can only express herself with the Spanish she learns at her language class and so her life in Buenos Aires becomes shaped by the limited vocabulary she can understand and use. The film takes an unexpected turn when Xiaobin renames herself, Beatriz. The act creates a new space within which she can rehearse her new life.”
You’ll find half a dozen reviews and more at Critics Round-Up.
Update, 3/16: Carlos Rentería interviews Wohlatz for desistfilm.
Updates, 3/20: Nelson Kim: “The Future Perfect is light on dramatic tension and punctuated by gentle bursts of comedy; the viewer, lulled by the film’s unassuming approach and unhurried pacing, may be slow to realize, as I was, that it’s also a work of considerable formal daring.”
For Paul Attard at In Review Online, “until its denouement, Wohlatz’s film shows promise in understanding how fragile language—and the language of cinema—really is, by addressing it on its most human level possible.”
“Language determines your thinking, and when you start to live in another language, you also have to reconstruct yourself and translate your thinking inside it,” Wohlatz tells Aaron Cutler.
For Film Comment, Devika Girish talks with Wohlatz, who “aptly renders the affectless speech and constricting alienation of an immigrant, with plain, naturalistic photography and a functional mise-en-scene. It is a deceptively simple but layered enunciation of what it means to find oneself—as a speaker, actor, and director—within a foreign language.”
SUNDAY, MARCH 19
“There are few filmmakers with eyes as generous as those of Anocha Suwichakornpong,” writes Aaron Cutler. “Her remarkable second feature, By the Time It Gets Dark, takes as its starting point a forest-bound encounter between a young filmmaker (played by Visra Vichit-Vadakan) and the subject of her next work—an older female writer (Rassami Paoluengtong) who bore witness to a 1976 massacre by police of university students protesting the return of an exiled Thai former dictator, and who has committed to describing her experiences for the other woman’s camera. The past comes to life before, during, and after her stories, with characters embodied by several different performers as real and imagined history blend together and dissolve apart.”
“The film’s overall destabilizing effect speaks to the sheer impossibility of fully capturing a historical moment or person,” writes Ela Bittencourt for frieze. “As the protest leader remarks, ‘I’m not living history. I’m a survivor.’ An eerie remark, perhaps reminding us that, given Thailand’s political climate, with its legacy of prolonged strife, corruption, and suppressed protests—first under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, followed by his ousting in 2007, and then, by a military coup in 2014 – we can’t be sure its tor