The unpredictable, occasionally thrilling New Directors / New Films fest opens in New York City today. Locals are, of course, the immediate beneficiaries of this annual collaboration between the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, which runs through April 4, though several of the films will find their way to art houses later this year. This 39th edition includes 27 feature films from 20 different countries, along with 11 shorts. Among the (foreign only) films I saw, here are the standouts:
The Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, 2009) moves from harrowing crowd shots (and sounds) of the Chinese New Year factory-worker migration (the largest human migration on earth) to focus on the Zhangs, a 40ish couple about to make the 50-hour trek home. It's their annual visit with their teenage children, whose bucolic existence with grandma the parents support. Lixin hones in on a crisis recognizable in any developed culture: though the Zhangs encourage their eldest to stick out her studies, to avoid their wearying fate, she's already dazzled by the city and eager for money. Last Train's excellent cinematography never overwhelms the Zhangs' story, detailing the contrasts of huge productivity (mountains of export-ready blue jeans), minuscule living quarters (a few curtained square feet in a dorm) and Dickensian work hours that define their lives.
Though not a documentary, Tehroun (Nader T. Homayoun, 2009) also fleshes-out images all too familiar from the nightly news. The title refers to Tehran's underbelly, where, as in pretty much any big city, anything can be had for a price. Desperate to make his way, rural transplant Ibrahim (Ali Ebdali) tangles with child-traffickers, enmeshing his friends and ultimately his pregnant wife. Despite slightly too-flat characters, Tehroun has moments that approach the force of Gomorrah (2008) or The Child (2005), all three films clear about the lethal effect on people when money alone determines value.
Money figures as well in Mia Hansen-LÃ¸ve's second feature, The Father of My Children (2009), which was inspired by the risky life of French film producer Humbert Balsan (1954-2005). Even his true-blue staff, three doting daughters and loving wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) can't chase away GrÃ©goire Canvel's sense of failure. Played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Canvel cuts a sympathetic if maddeningly distracted figure as he tries to rescue his failing production company. Fundamentally a character-study, the film offers an unusual glimpse the improbabilities of filmmaking, where one unhappy actor or one disgruntled investor can close everything down. About halfway through, Hansen-LÃ¸ve serves up a shock, a bracing reminder that no one here is working with a net. Sylvia and her two youngest girls start to let go, while teenage ClÃ©mence (played by de Lencquesaing's real daughter, Alice) has a harder time moving on. Hansen-LÃ¸ve's straightforward, observational style and sharp script result in a film both touching and resonant. (Out from IFC later this year.)
Sudden change lurks at the heart of I Am Love Luca Guadagnino's 2009 elegant collaboration with Tilda Swinton. Though a first-rate cast deftly supports her, Swinton (who stars and co-produced) drives the film. As the Russian trophy wife of Italian textile magnate Tancredi Recchi (Pippo Delbono), she epitomizes the docile chatelaine, her identity entirely subsumed by her husband's powerful family. Liberation – and terrible loss -- comes by way of a younger man, a friend of her son's. Though I Am Love suggests 1970s Italian cinema elegance, its chilling globalist characters and excellent use of John Adams's music mark it out as of our time. (June 2010 release)
On a much lighter note, The Man Next Door (Mariano Cohn/GastÃ³n Duprat, 2009) pits industrial designer Leonardo (Rafael Spregelburd) against his new neighbor, Victor (Daniel ArÃ oz). Along with his wife, daughter and maid, Leonardo lives in the Curuchet House, the only residential Le Corbusier design in the Americas. Victor's decision to build a window facing Leonardo's kitchen leads to a life-changing entanglement for both of them. Victor becomes instigator and nemesis, eventually the center of Leonardo's existence. By turns odd, sinister, The Man Next Door is often very funny and genuinely absurd.
For a heavier dose of gallows humor, there's Ben Wheatley's merciless Down Terrace (2009). Told in pithy vignettes, it's the story of the disintegration of a clan of small-time drug dealers in Britain. Father and son Bill and Karl (and played by real-life father and son Bob and Robin Hill) return to their council home from prison, only to find there's an informer in their midst. As Karl settles back in with his mother, Maggie (Julia Deakin) and Bill, coming to terms with imminent fatherhood (by his pregnant girlfriend played by Kerry Peacock), he gradually reaches a grisly solution to his problems. Wheatley's dialogue always cuts to the chase, often to the bone. A nearly total lack of exposition can feel like you're coming in at the end of a joke, but more often makes a dark mockery of crime-story conventions (not least the small-town UK settings). At its irreverent best, Down Terrace will remind you of Shaun of the Dead (2004).
Click on this New Directors link for more information.