By William Wolf

NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS 2011  Send This Review to a Friend

Based on what I have managed to preview, I am happy to report that an impressive number of extremely worthy films were chosen as part of the 2011 New Directors/New Films series presented jointly by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center (March 23-April 3). This is the 40th year of the event.

One of the best is “Margin Call,” a chillingly dramatic financial exposé written and directed by J. C. Chandor, who zeroes in on the backroom shenanigans of an investment firm that is faced with a sudden financial crisis as a result of the kind of reckless practices that set off the past storm. The film covers only about 24 hours, and the confrontations, scheming and manipulation during this period tell the story tightly.

The strength of the drama lies in both the style and the top quality of the acting. Chandor keeps the atmosphere low key, with a hush-hush atmosphere maintained after an employee who has been fired passes along his discovery that the company is worthless as a result of overextending. The honchos devise a plan to sell holdings in a hurry before anyone catches on and thereby stick others with acquisitions that will be worthless. The scheming can be criminal.

Morals and ethics are on the table for those who must make choices immediately. Kevin Spacey has never been better as Sam Rogers, a long-time executive with the firm. Demi Moore excels in an icy role of a top company woman who has no scruples about what must be done. Jeremy Irons is superb as the chief who is thoroughly cynical and coldly calculating. Self-preservation is the name of the game. Other key cast members are Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell and Stanley Tucci.

One takes away the clear comparison between what’s happening on screen and what happened in the real-life situations that triggered the devastating crisis.

Another favorite film is “Incendies,” a Canadian film in French and with English subtitles. Writer-director Denis Villeneuve tells a searing story that follows a woman’s life through flashbacks depicting an investigation into her past by her a son and daughter in accordance with instructions left in her will. The inquiry takes place in the mid-East, but no specific country is named, apparently to make the drama more universal. The story is based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, but the film is solidly opened up beyond what would smack of stage confines.

Many topics are reflected in the film, including the treatment of women, torture, revolutionary actions, repression and the search for truth. There are twists and turns, and one might argue that the outcome is gimmicky, but the pleasure is following the developments and revelations, bit by bit, until the mosaic comes together dramatically.

Credit Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette and Rémy Girard with excellent main performances, and the supporting cast is commendable as well. “Incendies” is a haunting film supercharged with atmosphere and tension.

Another fascinating work with contemporary implications is “Circumstance,” set in Iran and written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz. It deals candidly with the repression that exists in different ways under the present regime. The morality police break up homosexual gatherings, women are forced into marriage and treated as property by their husbands and an overall atmosphere of danger prevails for those who dare to resist conformity.

The plot involves a brother who has morphed into a religious, moralistic fanatic and his sister, who develops a relationship with another woman, to whom the brother is supposed to be married. Thus a lesbian love story becomes key in addition to the brother-sister dynamics, all unfolding within privileged surroundings. There are strong performances by Nikohl Boosheri, Sarah Kazemy and Reza Sixo Safai.

The portrait painted of life in Iran is one of extensive repression, with young people trapped into following convention or risking everything to pursue lives involving freedom and self-expression.

In the film “Paraiah” a 17-year-old African-American woman in Brooklyn knows she is lesbian, but, in what is basically a coming of age story, has trouble fulfilling her quest for sexual experience and emotional ties, and making her parents face the truth about who she is. Writer-director Dee Rees based the film on her short of the same name.

Adepero Oduye, who also starred in the short, plays Alike, helped along in life by her close lesbian friend Laura (Pernell Walker). Alike’s parents are played by Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell), and there are sizzling confrontations before the drama is over.

Rees creates an earthy atmosphere that seems very real and Oduye is often touching in expressing Alike’s longings and difficulties in growing up, and more specifically finding out who she really is and discovering how to live accordingly despite the obstacles.

“Copacabana” is a family affair in more ways than one. Marc Fitoussi’s film stars Isabelle Huppert and as mother and daughter characters. They are mother and daughter in real life too.

On screen Huppert has yet another type of role, this time as Babou, a flighty, free-spirit who finds problems in life because she can’t settle down and anchor a steady job. She is an embarrassment to her daughter Esméralda (Lolita Chammah), who has a boyfriend, intends to marry him, but doesn’t want her mother at the wedding.

Babou loves her daughter and wants a closer relationship, but she can’t basically change her attitude and behavior, and the film deals with the struggle for mutual understanding. Meanwhile, Babou, in a latest effort to make ends meet, takes a job in a Belgian resort area trying to get people to look at apartments to purchase in a time-share system.

Determined to succeed, Babou is resourceful and makes progress to the jealousy of others, one up-tight saleswoman in particular. Of course, given Babou’s history, we can expect problems to develop. Chammah is excellent as the daughter and Huppert gives a fresh, effervescent performance in her mother role, including the dreamer aspect of her character, who has always longed to see Brazil.

The film is a mix of comedic and serious sides, and the director instills the story with warmth in the portrait of this mother and daughter combination coping with the world around them.

The oddest film that I saw in the series is “Curling,” set in a remote, wintry area of Quebec. (The title refers to a sport.) Directed by Denis Côté, the film involves a father who works on odd jobs and lives a hermetic life with his young daughter, who is kept at home without schooling or social opportunities. The relationship is weird. There is no hint of sexual abuse, just the abuse of total control and over protectiveness.

We feel for the daughter played with devotion rather than rebelliousness by Philomène Bilodeau. Emmanuel Bilodeau is stoic as the father. (They are also daughter and father in real life.) An eerie atmosphere is created, between the sick home environment and the outside world in which father and daughter move. The film holds our attention as we wonder where it will lead.

Another strange film is “Octubre,” set in Peru and directed by Daniel and Diego Vega. The story focuses on Clemente (Bruno Odar), who is involved in a seedy world of money-lending and is a loner who enjoys getting his sex from prostitutes. One day his past catches up with him. A baby is left at his dwelling. What can he do with it?

And a little child shall lead them. He needs someone to help care for the baby, and as a result of a new element, his life changes. With Sofia (Gabriela Velásques), who becomes his helpmate, Clemente’s emotional world opens up for him.


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