March 29, 2006

The Good The Bad The Ugly

It's always gratifying to find fresh voices, but even the greatest filmmakers don't always hit the ball out of the park with their first film, as viewers of Hitchcock's The Pleasure Garden (1925) and Kubrick's Fear and Desire (1953) will attest.

Even so, if another Citizen Kane or Breathless or Shadows should ever turn up, the annual New Directors/New Films program — co-sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center — may well be the showcase that puts it on the map. Culling together the best in world cinema from unestablished directors, New Directors (playing through Sunday) skims Toronto, Sundance, Rotterdam, and other festivals and dredges up the cream of the crop — superior small films that, in the frenzy of a festival context, are often difficult to take a chance on.

This year, the find of New Directors (and not incidentally, the toast of adventurous cinephiles at Sundance) was Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, sort of a naturalistic version of Gus Van Sant's Gerry. Two old friends — one married with a child on the way (Daniel London), the other an aging hippie (Will Oldham, a/k/a Bonnie Prince Billy) unable to set down roots — wander a Pacific Northwest forest in search of a hot spring, and en route almost imperceptibly begin to understand why their friendship failed. Projected digitally at MoMA because the filmmakers are trying to save on the costs of 35mm prints, the film will look absolutely stunning when someone buys it and shows it on film.

A different example of doing more with less, Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart has its own special bleakness. Former Pakistani pop star Ahmad (Ahmad Razmi) tries to get by selling bagels and coffee from a Manhattan pushcart — and yet the melting pot refuses to take hold: New York, for a change, is depicted not as cruel so much as indifferent, and Ahmad's greatest antagonist is actually a wealthy Pakistani (Charles Daniel Sandoval), who passive-aggressively hires Ahmad to paint his apartment, and who views himself as Ahmad's romantic rival for a Spanish newsstand operator named Noemi (Leticia Dolera) — even though Ahmad can't bring himself to accept her advances. With a sallow shimmer that looks in every way professional, the movie captures the distinct visual qualities of New York just before sunrise.

Of course, no festival would be complete without a film endeavoring to capture the true banality of human existence, and this year New Directors offered Amat Escalante's Sangre, which served as a companion piece to Carlos Reygadas's more ambitious (if equally pretentious) Battle in Heaven, which came and left theaters last month. Largely plotless, Sangre gradually spins the story of cross-eyed Diego (Cirilo Recio), a security guard whose wife, Blanca (Laura Saldana), who forbids him from seeing his daughter (Claudia Orozco) by a previous marriage. The monotony of Blanca and Diego's squalor-prone living makes for hypnotic viewing, although Sangre (like Battle in Heaven) falls apart with a pointlessly cryptic ending.

The opening-night film, Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson (due for release in August), was more fervently middlebrow. Telling the story of a dynamic social studies teacher (a terrific Ryan Gosling) who's secretly a crack addict, the movie never overcomes its extreme implausibility. But Gosling makes his character's breakdown utterly believable: Just like the kids, we come to see the teacher as an icon — and then watch, with mounting horror, as he loses his grip on real life.

Then there were the gimmick films, like Géla Babluani's 13 Tzameti, a gritty black-and-white Georgian thriller with one good twist but no real movie preceding or following it. Michael Cuesta's Twelve and Holding (to be released in May) takes a marginally less miserable view of suburbia than his L.I.E. (2001), following a fat kid who starts eating healthy after losing his sense of taste, a nerdy girl who develops a crush on a (much older) construction worker, and a young boy determined to murder the bully whose arson prank resulted in the death of his brother. The film has moments of dark humor similar to those found in the films of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness), but the sudden rush of humanism at the end feels less like a statement on family living and more like a stunt designed to upend expectations.

The most resonant film at New Directors was actually a documentary, Ashim Ahluwalia's John & Jane Toll-Free. Chronicling the lives of Indian telemarketers from the inside out, the film creates an indelibly surreal impression of people who live out of sync with their world — when you're getting a call from India, remember, it's most likely the middle of the night there. The movie is also an illuminating examination of a difference in cultural values: The telemarketers find their ideal vision of America shattered whenever a lonely curmudgeon turns up on the other end of the line, which happens often. It's a film that attempts to start a dialogue between two worlds that otherwise collide without sticking — and incitement to discussion is one quality shared by all the best films at New Directors.

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