For one reason or another, the 35th Annual New Directors/New Films Festival was my first time in the Museum of Modern Art’s film section. Huge vintage posters of classics like La Dolce Vita are hung right where the escalators lead to the two Titus theaters which will be used to screen the 25 feature-length films and 7 short films that are laid out in the festival’s immaculately constructed guides. With reports that this year’s Sundance festival was over-populated by pre-sold, star-powered films like Nick Cassavetes’ drug-thriller Alpha Dog and Nicole Holofcener’s fantastic Friends with Money, ND/NF has quickly become one of the most well-attended showcases for first-timers to show their talent with no competition for attention besides each other.
First up was 13 Tzameti (), a stunningly rendered Melville-does-Hostel nerve-fryer from Gela Babluani, who shot the French thriller (although he himself is Georgian) in rough, gritty black-and-white. The film follows a young man who steals an invitation to a mysterious game when his employer kills himself, only to find out that he has walked into a gambling circle based on men randomly shooting each other. What becomes so interesting in the film is its fascination with the process of the game; more time is spent on how the betting is handled and how the men betting act with each other than the sweaty-palms inducing game itself. Though it loses its steam in its finale, the film summons the dark side of humanity with more vigor than Eli Roth’s cold, horror contraption.
On a more surreal note, there was John & Jane Toll-Free (), a documentary about telemarketers in Bombay who make many of the vilified solicitor calls that we get here in the States. Disorienting in its use of Steadicam work and sometimes staged, this lingering look at American dreams seen through an Indian filter leaves its marks where you least expect it. Using the American names that companies like Dell give them for the phone calls, we see the gamut of opinions from Glen, who hates his job and despises his bosses, to Osmond and Nikki, who find strong beliefs through their jobs (for Nikki, it’s Christianity; for Osmond, it’s financial success). At times dizzying and dreamlike, director Ashim Ahluwalia’s film could be called anything but conventional in its radical, haunting imagery and its beguiling subjects.
In the realm of personal drama, there was Ryan Fleck’s Sundance underdog Half Nelson (). The film is well-trodden territory: A young, favored teacher (Ryan Gosling) spends his off time snorting coke and coaching the girls’ basketball team. He makes friends with one of the players (Shareeka Epps) and a friendship blooms that ends up helping him with his drug habits and her with Frank (Anthony Mackie), a drug dealer and friend of her imprisoned brother. The script has enough clichés and predictable outcomes to constitute a Lifetime logo in the bottom right corner of the screen, but the material is saved by the acting and Fleck’s directing. Gosling fills the screen with a rousing sense of wit and urgency, while Epps, a newcomer reprising the role she created in Fleck’s original short Gowanus, Brooklyn, holds her scenes with Gosling with striking intensity. Fleck sets a formidable atmosphere of woozy camera movements and he works excellently with the actors to give the somewhat stale dialogue a refreshing twirl.
Cavite () recently won co-directors Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana the Independent Spirit Awards’ ‘Someone to Watch’ Award. There’s good reason: Gamazon and Dela Llana’s film is a potent blast of jarring hand-held camera dizziness and tense, real-time thrills. Direction-wise, the film was one of the standouts of the festival, especially on a budget that most of us would use up on Q-tips in a year. The film concerns Adam (Gamazon), a man who returns to his birthplace in the Philippines for his father’s funeral, when he is suddenly becomes a pawn for a terrorist group when they give him a cell phone, bark orders at him, and begin chopping up his mommy and sister . A no-budget, DV nightmare in the vein of Cellular and Phone Booth, Cavite actually makes the timetable work without boring the audience, but Adam’s dialogue never sounds authentic or true, and Gamazon, left to carry an entire film, isn’t up to the challenge.
Director Ramin Bahrani prefaced his excellent Man Push Cart () by saying that the film was inspired both by George W. Bush’s bombing of Afghanistan and the work of Albert Camus. In structure, it’s not quite as existential as Camus but there is a vast amount of thought going through the mind of Bahrani’s hero and the titular Man Ahmad (Ahmad Ravzi), as he struggles to keep his anonymity as a New York City push-cart owner. He accidentally befriends a rich man from his native area of Pakistan, where Ahmad was a well-known musician, and falls for a Spanish beauty (Leticia Dolera) who runs another push cart. It sounds conventional, but Bahrani, who also wrote the script, doesn’t play anything like you think he will, and along with cinematographer Michael Simmonds, he finds a distinct yet familiar flavor of the city that hums along to his film. The kiss that Ravzi and Dolera share is a moment of pure swelter that this movie year has been sorely missing.
Saving the best for last, Michael Cuesta’s Twelve and Holding (), the follow-up to 2001’s L.I.E., should make Disney parents run for the Atlantic. Where L.I.E. was grounded, tight, and tense, Twelve & Holding is a loose, but no less powerful, multi-narrative about four 12-year-old friends who must go through the awkward plight of unaided childhood when their parents won’t listen and one of the friends meets with a tragic end. Cuesta doesn’t bother the audience with easy love and the dream of first romances (remember Little Manhattan?). Instead, he unveils all the terrible neglect and embarrassment, all the misguided thoughts and skewed logic that childhood holds. The performances are stellar, with special nods to the three lead children and a shockingly good Jeremy Renner. Cuesta is a director who has shown his ability to grow from his first film, feeling much more at-home with actors and his story and finding humor in the dark places that he used to play for such seriousness.
Regardless of what came in as a heavy favorite, there was undeniable, fervent talent being dished out by the spoonfuls by
the filmmakers on display. Sadly, I missed out on the two biggest talks of the festival, Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Quinceañera, but it is clear that ND/NF’s screening process must be more rigorous than Julliard’s. No wonder that Center Stage wasn’t accepted.