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handyguy on: Where's the Cream in New Directors' Crop?

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The Reeler Blog

Where's the Cream in New Directors' Crop?

By S.T. VanAirsdale

The annual New Directors/New Films Directors Party is coming up a little later tonight, when the default question to revive every stalled conversation in the room will be: "So what have you seen that you like?" It's one I'm nervous about and only slightly wanted to address after the festival kicked off last Wednesday at MoMA with Courtney Hunt's Sundance-winning drama Frozen River, probably my 15th or 16th film viewed in the program and one of only four or five I'd recommend.


The Best (maybe): Giorgos Symeonidis in Correction, one of the two excellent Greek entries featured in this year's New Directors/New Films program (Photo: Thanos Anastopoulos)

In fact, if you had told me two weeks ago that the Greek tandem of Correction and Valse Sentimentale would likely be the duo to beat in this year's crop -- rich with festival alums out of Park City, Berlin and other high-profile berths -- I would have asked if you wanted another drink. But it's a sobering year that way, with Correction, director Thanos Anastopoulos's near-silent class-war Odyssey, utilizing fantastically modulated performances by Giorgos Symeonidis and Ornela Kapetani as a Greek ex-con and the Turkish woman whose distance upon his release belies the excruciating proximity of their pasts. A little too earnest in its humanism (soccer hooligans have never been easier targets than they are here) and pat in its ending, Correction nevertheless possesses a remarkable objectivity regarding society's long odds on rehabilitation.

It tentatively shares that quality (and only that quality) with Valse Sentimentale, featuring Thanos Samaras and Loukia Mihalopoulou as a wounded pair of Greek 20-somethings vexed by love, independence and compulsive viewings of Carrie. It's a post-postmodern romance with bad courtship and worse sex, all refracted through low-fi digital imagery and a consistently counterintuitive narrative arc; think of it like a nihilist Me and You and Everyone We Know, refreshing despite a staggering ugliness gleefully compounded by the minute by director Constantina Voulgaris.

I quite liked Wonderful Town and La Zona as well, a pair of alternately pitched melodramas from Thailand and Mexico that carry on the year's class-conscious spirit. Wonderful Town in particular is a marvel of landscape and tone, tracing the journey of a big-city architect to the coastal site where his firm's latest project -- a luxury hotel built among the ruins of the 2004 tsunami -- stokes a simmering (and ultimately tragic) gentrification backlash. An almost identical existential crisis befalls the residents of the eponoymous gated community in La Zona, whose cover-up of a break-in results in a feverish manhunt for the lower-class scofflaw trapped behind their walls. Perhaps too didactic for its own good, La Zona is redeemed by a corrosive final act that, paired with Wonderful Town, delivers the program's most devastating one-two punch.


The Worst (definitely): The strained, soggy quasi-lesbian-teen-melodrama Water Lilies (Photo: Koch Lorber Films)

The general mediocrity of much of the remainder of the ND/NF selections I viewed (the Ozu-goes-to-Sundance tweefest Megane; the admirable if overrated Munyurangabo; the beautiful, angry vacancy of Eat, For This is My Body; the mystifying anti-buddy movie A Lost Man) has been pretty disappointing, with the titles packing the most buzz -- particularly domestic faves Momma's Man, Sleep Dealer and Trouble the Water -- leaving the bitterest taste. The latter film's oppressive political workload smothers an otherwise compelling glimpse of survival during and after Hurricane Katrina, with co-directors (and Michael Moore disciples) Tia Lessin and Carl Deal lapse of imagination exploiting their subjects' extraordinary you-are-there footage for the sake of just another facile Bush-damning screed. At least 15 or 20 minutes of the film are something you haven't seen played out a dozen times (and a dozen times better, starting with When the Levees Broke) since 2005. Both Momma's Man and Sleep Dealer, meanwhile, lack the narrative muscle to sustain their thematic heavy lifting; the acclaim for the former, with its largely repellent man-child retreating into the gimmick Tribeca loft of his folks Ken and Flo Jacobs (also, conveniently, the parents of writer-director Azazel Jacobs), totally baffles me. The acclaim for the latter is another convenient receptacle for liberal white guilt, rewarding a garish spin on The Matrix that reduces the problems of globalization, immigration and the War on Terror to an unsightly mix of stereotypes and bad visual effects.

Nothing is worse than Water Lilies, though; leave it to the French to foist upon us the cinema's first synchronized-swimmer coming-of-age drama with the most egregious, stupid lesbian subplot since Gigli. It all but wrecks me that Myna Joseph's instant-classic short film Man is the opener for this dog shit, but even the $10 you'd assume you're blowing by skipping the feature is a steal for Joseph 12-minute stunner alone, so don't call off your trip just yet. It'll make for a dynamite conversation starter when you hit a wall at that closing-night party (for which tickets are now on sale) to come. But enough about me -- what did you like?

Posted at March 30, 2008 6:02 PM

Comments (1)

I liked:
Moving Midway
XXY
and
Frozen River

Also Trouble the Water, although I agree it wasn't as devastating emotionally as When the Levees Broke. The two main protagonists are so compelling that they carry the film.

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