"Forty-one years young, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art's annual New Directors/New Films festival is committed to compiling a slate of artistically diverse films from every corner of the world," writes Ed Gonzalez, introducing Slant's collection of reviews. "Twenty-eight countries represent the 29 feature films (24 narrative, five documentary) and 12 shorts that make up this year's program, which kicks off on March 21 with a screening of Where Do We Go Now?, Nadine Lakaki's follow-up to Caramel, and closes with a special surprise screening that won't be revealed to the audience until it screens at Film Society on Sunday, April 1. Any guesses?"
Not from this corner, though the wish-list runs pretty long. "We weren't planning to do a surprise for New Directors," Richard Peña tells the FSLC's Jonathan Robbins, "but there is a unique situation with this film." As for ND/NF as a whole, Peña says that the "difference with the New York Film Festival, and obviously there's a lot of overlap, is that the audience there comes to see 'works' that are conceived and done; they don't appreciate roughness. They want the work to be fully realized, and they have a right to that. Whereas I think they come to New Directors they come to it with a more generous palate: 'OK, that film's not perfect, it may have some rough spots, but I can't wait to see that director's next film.' That, I think, is the spirit of New Directors."
Peña is one of six members of the selection committee, the other five being Marian Masone and Gavin Smith from the FSLC and, from MoMA, Rajendra Roy, Laurence Kardish and Jytte Jensen. Jonathan Robbins also recently spoke with "the MoMA troika" about the selection process and "this year's potential sleeper hits."
So here's how we'll be going about this. Each day, I'll post a roundup on the films screening the following day, updating previous roundups as we roll along. And we begin, of course, with tonight's opener, which "takes place in a village in Lebanon threatened by sectarian strife between Christians and Muslims." AO Scott in the New York Times: "The local women, hoping to prevent violence among their husbands and sons, adopt a kind of reverse-Lysistrata strategy, importing a busload of Ukrainian strippers to inflame the nonpolitical passions (and thus calm the rage) of the menfolk. Ms Labaki… brings an appealing humanism to what might be… an unrelentingly grim topic. Like a British village comedy of a certain style and vintage, Where Do We Go Now? is plucky, whimsical, mildly naughty and blithely sentimental, giving tragedy its due while holding to an optimistic belief in the goodness and fallibility of ordinary people."
"Labaki's conception of men as rampaging hotheaded animals is no less broad than her depiction of females as logical, coolheaded, and more or less uniformly united compatriots," writes Nick Schager in Slant, "though the film convincingly captures the volatile perils of attempting to maintain peace in an environment so wracked by death and hatred that any misconception or accident imperils it. What it can't do, however, is locate a consistent tone that might emotionally ground its melodrama, with the material eventually relegated to an uneven portrait of sectarian rage — and the selfless sacrifices required to stifle it — that never achieves either the seriousness or playfulness that it alternately seeks."
Melissa Anderson in the Voice on Las Acacias: "Winner of the best first feature at Cannes, Pablo Giorgelli's minimalist, gentle road movie traverses 900 miles, from Asunción, Paraguay — where terse truck driver Rubén (Germán de Silva) picks up Jacinta (Hebe Duarte) and her five-month-old baby girl (a delightful dumpling with an incredible mop of thick black hair) — to Buenos Aires, where the unmarried mother hopes to start anew. Although confined mainly to the cab of Rubén's vehicle, Las Acacias is generous and expansive, subtly registering how these three strangers eventually become at ease with and grow attached to one another. Even through its initial long stretches of silence, the film never feels clinical or cold, but rather compassionate and curious."
"Las Acacias is as humble as it is brilliant," writes Howard Feinstein for Filmmaker. "There are no recognizable urban clichés here, no scenery chewing, no stars. Giorgelli makes deceptively simple the journey from loneliness to attachment, from misanthropy and hopelessness to trust and optimism. That this is a first film by a bar owner in his mid-forties is mind-boggling."
For Slant's Ed Gonzalez, Las Acacias is an articulation of something "at once simple and universal: the discontent of traveling through life with sad resignation." And the FSLC has a few questions for Giorgelli.
Update, 4/8: More from Megan Ratner in Film Quarterly.
Time Out New York's David Fear on The Raid: Redemption: "Gareth Evans's insta-classic Indonesian crime flick is leagues above every kinetic bullet-ballet and martial arts epic of the past decade…. The premise is simple: A drug lord [Ray Sahetapy] rules from atop an apartment complex in Jakarta. A rookie cop [Iko Uwais] and his SWAT-team cohorts storm the building; the kingpin then locks down his fortress. The only way out involves fighting their way through an army of thugs. Using a video-game-like narrative (get through boss fight, move on to next level), the plot proceeds with a built-in momentum, all the better to showcase one inventive set piece after the next: a siege in a cramped room involving a makeshift fridge bomb; two cops hiding in a crawl space between apartments that's being repeatedly punctured by machetes; Uwais's relentless hand-to-hand combat scene in a hallway; a two-on-one silat showstopper that's a virtual philharmonic of pain. There are moments when The Raid: Redemption doesn't feel like an action movie so much as pure action itself, delivered in strong, undiluted doses and with the sort of creative one-upmanship capable of rejuvenating a stale, seen-it-all genre. A sequel is currently in the works. It can't come soon enough."
For Ernest Hardy, writing in the Voice, this one "lives up to its viral hype," but in Slant, Jaime N Christley writes, "There are about 139,560 instances in The Raid: Redemption where a character, good, bad, or ugly, is struck by an object, a piece of scenery, or someone else's foot or fist. I enjoyed the first 100,000 — after that, and this is going to sound like sacrilege to some, it gets a bit samey."
Not for GreenCine's Maian Tran, who finds that Uwais "almost makes Tony Jaa's Ong Bak look like a pansy. Between Uwais, colorful supporting players (especially a fantastic, ultra-crazy 'Mad Dog' who relishes in the hand-to-hand destruction of others, and a seemingly endless list of 100+ extras) and some unbelievable hand-to-hand-to-head-to-wall thrills, The Raid: Redemption is a must-see spectacle."
See the original before it gets remade, recommends indieWIRE's Eric Kohn. More from Ed Champion, David D'Arcy and Gabe Toro at the Playlist, where Drew Taylor interviews Evans. Earlier: Reviews from Toronto.
Updates, 3/22: "Evans has his genre fundamentals down and, to judge from some scenes and setups in The Raid, he's watched his share of movies by masters like Johnnie To and cult figures like Park Chan-wook," writes Manohla Dargis in the NYT. "Mr Evans doesn't approach the imaginative and technical levels of those better-known directors, but he seems to have an ace up his sleeve with pencak silat, the explosive Indonesian martial art that's the main draw here. Yet while pencak silat may be unfamiliar to some Western viewers, the way that Mr Evans visually exploits it in combination with the unimaginative rest — the mousetrap setup and tight fight spaces, the bad blood and cruel deaths — soon makes the movie grindingly monotonous, a blur of thudding body blows."
But for Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, "The Raid is a witty, pulse-pounding instant midnight classic… It offers some of the best Asian martial-arts choreography of recent years and an electric, claustrophobic puzzle-palace atmosphere that’ll leave you wrung out and buzzed."
More from AA Dowd (Time Out Chicago, 4/5), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 1/4), Bilge Ebiri (Vulture), Gary Goldstein (Los Angeles Times), Trevor Link (Spectrum Culture, 3.5/5), Noel Murray (AV Club, B+) and Alison Willmore (Movieline, 7.5/10). Interviews with Evans: Susan King (Los Angeles Times), Jeremy Kirk (FirstShowing), Mekado Murphy (NYT), Noel Murray (AV Club) and Peter Sobczynski (eFilmCritic).
Updates, 3/27: "Few modern actioners have delivered set pieces with anything approaching the ferocity of The Raid's signature moments, which culminate with a two-on-one skirmish of such prolonged choreographic excellence that it overshadows not just everything that came before it, but virtually every other martial arts movie since the heyday of Jackie Chan and Jet Li," writes Nick Schager or Box Office.
Ray Pride talks with Evans for Newcity Film.
David Fear (TONY): "Facing possible imprisonment and a 20-year ban on filmmaking for 'subversive activities,' Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof (The White Meadows) did what most of us would do: quickly make a movie on the sly."
"An air of resignation hangs prominently over Goodbye, a sense of despair so oppressive that it seems to invade the world its main character, Noora (Leyla Zareh), inhabits," writes Kenji Fujishima in Slant. "There's no joy to be found in the Iran depicted in the film, especially on a visual level, with cinematographer Arastoo Givi's color palette dominated by drably industrial grays. Is it any wonder, then, that Noora — a recently disbarred human rights lawyer forced to separate from her husband, exiled to the desert of southern Iran as a result of his activities as a political journalist — is so desperate to flee Iran that she would go so far as to get pregnant as part of a complex scheme to do so once and for all?"
"Goodbye is Rasoulof's first work with a female protagonist," notes Howard Feinstein at Filmmaker. "Rasoulof says he was filming 'not about a woman battling the system, but more about a person's final fall without any control of the situation.' He constructed the film around its impressive sound design…. On account of past interference with his film shoot by authorities, Rasoulof filmed Goodbye with a small camera and a minimal cast and crew (most of them unpaid). The nearly clandestine nature of the project provides a functional reason for the claustrophobic spaces and overall cold atmosphere that are formally integrated anyway with the script and mise-en-scene."
Earlier: Reviews from Cannes.
Updates, 3/23: Aaron Cutler talks with Rasoulof for Idiom: "He has consistently spoken out through his five films, which mix personal stories with larger social metaphors. Whether documentary (2008's Head Wind) or mythology (2009's The White Meadow), the films become stories of individuals emerging from within oppressed groups. He also speaks out in person, as he did at this year's edition of Rotterdam."
And this is notable; from Salon's Andrew O'Hehir: "Shahab Hosseini, who played the working-class hothead husband in A Separation, is also in the supporting cast here."
Once again, Howard Feinstein: "Rita (Lisa E Fávero) is a young contemporary photographer who might as well have entered a reverse time machine, once you see the tiny remote village she ends up visiting. The 18 residents are mostly old people repeating the same rituals day after day and just waiting to die. She ends up befriending and staying with old Madalena, who meets every morning with the same man while he bakes bread and lectures her, after which they share a coffee at exactly the same spot. Life for them is little more than this."
"The first narrative feature from native Brazilian Julia Murat, Found Memories has all the makings of a turn-this-town-upside-down banality, its plucky drifter softening the crusty locals with her fresh breath of vitality," writes R Kurt Osenlund in Slant. "But Murat holds the reins on blatant convention about as tightly as she does the gaze of her static camera, which, like Rita, is most often a curious visitor of a sleepy haven forgotten by time. In this film of patient, carefully placed compositions, whose subjects leave and return instead of being followed, common metaphors are at once clearly framed and left unforced, resulting in a shrewd dance that continually tiptoes past built-in clichés. Of course, that same dance also yields a slightly troublesome glazing-over of themes, which sometimes seem as fleeting as the moments photography aims to freeze, but Murat knows how to create a sense of accumulation, with all roads leading to a pleasing end despite their disparate setbacks."
"Julia Murat's sensitive, leisurely storytelling style reminds me of magic realism in Latin American literary tradition," writes Dustin Chang at Twitch. "One of my favorites in the series."