New Directors/New Films Series at Film Society of Lincoln Center Opens

christmasagainArriving soon after the Oscars, in the first two weeks of Spring, the 44th edition of the “New Directors/New Films” series remains an excellent way for New York film lovers to warm up to a fresh year of film discoveries. Co-curated by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the series of 26 international features and 16 short films is ripe with debuts, as well as new titles by promising directors. As always, the selection amounts to a expertly-informed survey of audacious world cinema today: five of the feature films are from the U.S., six from France, two from Argentina, and one each from the UK, Italy, Colombia, South Korea, China, India, Japan, Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Israel, Jordan, Belgium/Netherlands and Hungary.

The opening night film, a sensation at this year’s Sundance Festival, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”, is based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s much-loved semi-autobiographical graphic novel about her sexual awakening in 1970s San Francisco. British actress Bel Powley delivers a remarkable performance as Minnie Goetz, an aspiring cartoonist/illustrator whose debaucheries start by sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård). Writer/Director Marielle Heller, who previously adapted the book for the stage, is a perfect match for Gloeckner’s story. Never moralistic, the film is tender, funny and wise, with great period locations and gorgeous animations that perfectly adumbrate the narrative. Kristen Wiig gives a standout performance as Minnie’s free-spirited mother. Read more

An Online Chris Marker Retrospective

CA.0822.secondlookAvailable this May from the SundanceNow Doc Club, an online documentary subscription service programmed by Thom Powers, is “Chris Marker and His Legacy,” a series of films either by, about or influenced by the prolific French filmmaker. Many admirers know Marker, who died in 2012 at the age of 91, for his haunting 1962 short “La Jetée,” a sci-fi story composed almost entirely of still photographs. (It would later be adapted into the Terry Gilliam-directed feature “12 Monkeys”.) But documentary was his principal genre and he made dozens of them over his long career. Many of them took the form of personal essays and his much-loved 1982 doc “Sans Soleil” is considered a masterpiece of the sub-genre. That film is available in an excellent edition from the Criterion Collection, but most of his films are difficult to find.

The five Marker films in the Docs Club series display his wide range of interests. He was a political activist, and in “Sixth Side of the Pentagon”, co-directed with François Reichenbach, he captured the 1967 anti-war protests that Norman Mailer wrote about in his “Armies of the Night.” For the political Marker, I also recommend “A Grin Without a Cat,” a fascinating portrait of the rise and decline of new left politics in the ‘60s and ‘70s, available on DVD from Icarus Films.

Marker excelled at portraits of artists and the creative process. He filmed Akira Kurosawa shooting “Ran” and Andrei Tarkovsky fans will want to check out “One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich,” his portrait of the great Russian director at work on his last film, “The Sacrifice.” Read more

NYFF51: The Stats

NYFF_c__130819192922The upcoming 51st New York Film Festival is the first in a quarter-century not helmed by programmer Richard Peňa, who retired last year, replaced by Film Comment critic Kent Jones. Is there any obvious shift in direction? Peňa is credited with taking a largely Eurocentric festival and making it more international, introducing the world to little known filmmakers from other continents, including the third world.

Looking at the 36 main slate films by country, there are 11 from the U.S., eight from France, four from the UK, three Japanese features and then a single film each from: the Czech Republic, Romania, Chile, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, China, South Korea, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. (That’s two films from Eastern Europe, two from the Middle East and eight Asian films. And only one Spanish language entry–Chile’s Gloria.)

So, geographically diverse, but still with plenty of films from France and the U.S. (including some from large studios). Twelve of the main slate titles screened at this year’s Cannes Festival, always a major source for NYFF entries. And at least ten of them are screening at the Toronto Film Festival just weeks before they come to New York. Is the New York festival losing its bidding power? It’s no secret that Toronto–also more of an industry event than the NYFF–has eclipsed New York as the fall film festival event. Indeed, only three NYFF films (all U.S. titles) are making their world premieres this year: Captain Phillips, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Her. In defense of the New York event one needs to point out that it is part of a year-round presentation of intelligently-curated films, not a once-a-year competition.

Other facts: Norte, The End of History (from the Philippines) is the longest at 250 minutes and France’s Jealousy is the shortest (only 77 minutes). There is one animated feature (Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises), four documentaries and no films in 3D. Read more

DOC NYC 2012

In this year’s DOC NYC —its third season— the festival runs from November 8-11 and will showcase 61 feature-length documentaries as well as many shorts and panel discussions by leaders in the field of documentary filmmaking. Standouts include opening night’s “Venus and Serena,” a portrait of the tennis stars the Williams sisters; “Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp,” about the life of the writer who vividly captured street life in the ‘60s; and “The Central Park Five,” the eagerly-awaited film about the controversial Central Park Jogger rape case, co-directed by Ken Burns, which closes out the festival. Go here for more information and a full schedule.

The team behind 2006’s entertaining and thought-provoking documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema have followed up with a new essay doc investigating how films influence our collective beliefs and practices by helping to shape our dreams. The style of “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” is exactly like the earlier film: the colorful, heavily-accented Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek uses scenes from films to illustrate intellectual arguments; these are punctuated by Slavoj continuing his narration in costumes and sets which pay homage to the films.

Clips from John Carpenter’s 1988 cult film “They Live” are used to explain Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s concept of ideological interpolation, in which our subjectivity is addressed (and partially created) by the social structures we inhabit. A drifter has discovered a pair of sunglasses that reveal the hidden instructions behind the surface of everyday life. An ordinary billboard advertisement turns into the text “OBEY” when viewed with the glasses! Read more

New York Film Festival: Frances Ha Ha, or Frances Weird?

Over the next few weeks I’ll be blogging about the 50th New York Film Festival, based on press screenings and films seen during the actual festival (September 28-March 14). In addition to the 33 main slate films, this year’s festival features many interesting sidebars, including a rich selection of episodes from the French TV series “Cinéastes de notre temps.” There are also gala tributes to Nicole Kidman (accompanied by the premiere of her new film “The Paperboy”) and to Richard Pena, who is leaving after 25 years as the head of the festival.

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Noah Baumbach’s exhilarating new film Frances Ha, co-written with and starring Greta Gerwig, is stylistically a love letter to the cinema of early Truffaut and Godard and even ‘70s Woody Allen. The story is ultimately about a deep friendship between two women (played by Gerwig and Mickey Sumner) in their late twenties —actually a rare subject for an American film— as Gerwig pointed out herself during the Q&A immediately following a recent press screening. Gerwig plays the titular character Frances (you don’t learn why it’s called “Frances Ha” until the end), a 27-year-old dancer in New York whose financially poor, but emotionally rich life is turned upside down when her best friend and roommate Sophie (Sumner) moves out of their apartment and in with her yuppie boyfriend. A search for work and cheaper lodging follows; she moves in with two hipster guys (one played by Adam Driver, best known as Lena Dunham’s inattentive lover in “Girls”), flies home for a Christmas trip to Sacramento (Gerwig’s real birthplace), takes a ruinously spontaneous two-day trip to Paris, and endures a stint as a dorm counselor at Barnard College. Read more

HERMAN’S HOUSE directed by Angad Singh Ballah

Anyone who cares about social justice surely knows about the sad story of the Angola Three. A new documentary, “Herman’s House“, which is having its New York premiere Wednesday night at the Harlem International Film Festival, powerfully states the case against prolonged solitary confinement and how one activist made a huge difference in the life of Herman Wallace. Wallace has been in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola prison for 40 years, longer than anyone ever has been in the U.S. There are doubts about his guilt–the widow of the guard he is charged with murdering even has her doubts. And one can’t help but suspect that his involvement in the Black Panther chapter at the prison is why he still remains in solitary, rather than being in the general prison population.

“Herman’s House,” directed by Angad Ballah, tells the story of New York artist Jackie Summell’s unique artistic response to Herman’s fate. She began writing and phoning Wallace and asked him to imagine the type of house he would like to live in instead of the six-by-nine-foot cell he has been in since 1972. This communication was the basis of an art installation she built, which included a life-sized model of his prison cell, plans and models of the dream house he imagined, and a timeline of his life. (You can see more documentation of the show at her website.) “The best activism,” Jackie says, “is equal parts love and equal parts anger.” Her outrage is matched by her rich friendship with Herman and her devotion to his cause extended after the installation (which she put on twelve times in various countries); she moved to New Orleans and began working to realize Herman’s dream of a house built to help troubled children. Read more