New Directors/New Films Offers a Festival ‘Cheat Sheet’ for Cinema Lovers

Rory Brunner
The Reel Breakdown

"The great thing about New Directors/New Films is that most of the films we select come from larger festivals. We're the perfect cheat sheet for the cinema-loving public," Rajendra Roy, chief curator of the Film Department at the Museum of Modern Art, told Yahoo! Movies on the eve of the festival's opening. A joint program between MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the annual event, now in its 42nd year, highlights the work of up-and-coming filmmakers. Last year, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" closed the festival. The year before, "Margin Call" played opening night.

This year's fest premieres tonight in New York City with "Blue Caprice" and runs through March 31 when "Our Nixon" screens. It includes 25 features and 17 shorts from 24 countries. "We're looking for the most exciting new voices, and we're distilling it down," continued Roy. "If anybody wants to know the future direction of film, we've sorted it out -- there's a comedy ("Les Coquillettes"), drama ("Blue Caprice"), avant-garde ("Emperor Visits the Hell") and documentary ("Our Nixon," "Stories We Tell")."

Here are five to watch for when they break out of NYC and open at a festival or an art-house cinema near you:

Opening-night drama: "Blue Caprice"

For anyone who remembers the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks in Washington, D.C., during which pregnant women, children, old men, and young were mowed down apparently at random, it's surprising how debut writer-director Alexandre Moors's "Blue Caprice" turns the ripped-from-the-headlines story into a riveting, sensitive character study of two black males who would be murderers. The film, which had its world premiere at Sundance in January, finds the mystery less in the climactic heinous crime than in the birth and growth of a nonbiological father-son relationship between an angry divorced man, John (Isaiah Washington), and a fatherless boy, Lee (Tequan Richmond). John befriends Lee in the Caribbean, brings him home to the Pacific Northwest, and then takes him on a road trip that ends in repeated rifle fire and imprisonment. Washington seems bound for the best-actor short list, and Richmond pops, but what lingers is the way the men's raw emotions rise to the fore, as a father made impotent by his child-custody woes finds a substitute in a boy thirsting for a strong paternal figure. When the pair finally goes hunting for human prey, they're bonded as father and son -- a frighteningly mundane death-dealing duo.

Avant-garde: "Emperor Visits the Hell"

The great thing about a festival like New Directors/New Films is sitting down in the dark to see a movie with no expectations and no sense of how to navigate what's coming. And so it is with Li Luo's Chinese-Canadian no-frills co-production. "Emperor Visits the Hell" updates a 16th-century mythic novel about Emperor Li Shimin handling the cosmic fallout after the Dragon King tries to change the weather and loses his head as punishment. The movie is as slyly black-and-white as an early Jim Jarmusch film, and it portrays the emperor as a contemporary urban bureaucrat dealing with the headaches of supernatural screwups as if they were budget overages that can be smoothed over with a well-placed bribe or a doctored document. A quietly mind-blowing window into contemporary Chinese culture that will surprise audiences accustomed to lavish period action adventures.

Comedy: "Les Coquillettes"

MoMA's Rajendra Roy describes Sophie Letourneur's comedy about a filmmaker named Sophie and her friends attending the Locarno Film Festival as a Gallic version of Lena Dunham's "Girls." Letourneur herself stars along with Camille Genaud and Carole LePage in the adventure of three sexually liberated 30-somethings looking for like in all the right places. The kisses! The catfights! The tears! And, of course, the nudity!

Documentary: "Stories We Tell"

The daughter of actors, the Oscar-nominated actress-writer-director Sarah Polley grew up before the camera in the Canadian TV show "Avonlea," starred in "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Dawn of the Dead," and directed the fiction features "Away From Her" and "Take This Waltz." Now, she directs a documentary in which she unravels a startling secret about her family history, blurring the line between fact and fiction in a movie that was one of the hits of the Toronto International Film Festival and is aiming for the Oscar doc short list. It opens in theaters on May 17.

And another documentary: "Our Nixon"

In her first feature, which premiered at SXSW and will close New Directors/New Films, Penny Lane used found Super 8 footage filmed by three of Nixon's closest aids -- all of whom went to prison for Watergate. The assembled moving images create an insider portrait of Richard Milhous Nixon. Roy calls it "the original reality show, 'The West Wing' before 'The West Wing.'" What struck Roy was how "innocent and stoked the original filmmakers were to be in the White House, how they worshipped the president. They're giddy, and then the guy throws them under the bus."