Now entering its 40th year, the annual New Directors/New Films festival teams the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the Museum of Modern Art’s cinema division to curate a line-up of new movies from up-and-coming directors.  Some of ND/NF’s past discoveries include George Miller’s The Road Warrior, Christopher Nolan’s Following and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy.  This year’s festival kicked off yesterday with the premiere of the buzzed-about Sundance title Margin Call and continues until April 3 at both Lincoln Center and MoMA.  The line-up features 28 feature-length titles from around the world along with a handful of shorts.  You can read quick reviews of four of the movies being shown at ND/NF below.  Visit the official site to read more about the rest of the films being shown and to buy tickets.

El Velador
Directed by Natalia Almada

This timely documentary, the third from Mexican filmmaker Natalia Almada, is an impressionistic look at the casualties wrought by her native country’s ongoing drug war.  Filmed almost entirely in and around an increasingly crowded cemetery in the northern town of Culiacan, El Velador (which translates to The Night Watchman) lacks the usual elements one typically expects from social-issue oriented non-fiction features, including talking head interviews, narration and lists of relevant facts and figures. And yet, the movie also doesn’t entirely fit into the no-frills verite tradition of a director like Frederick Wiseman.  Almada observes her subjects—particularly the titular watchman who keeps an eye on the cemetery where groups of mourners arrive daily to bury victims of drug related violence—but she also occasionally interacts with them; at one point we hear her addressing a builder she’s filming from off camera.  The rhythm of the film is deliberately languid and, to be honest, I found myself zoning out at several points.  (I wasn’t alone—I heard more than a few snores from seats around me during the screening.)  At the same time though, Almada’s approach lends her film a vivid sense of place that a more conventional documentary might not have captured.  In that way, its closest relative is probably Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town, the three-hour portrait of daily life in a remote Chinese village that was released here last year.  That was another documentary that occasionally tested the viewer’s patience but also rewarded those willing to stick with it with a detailed presentation of a way of life few of us will ever experience first-hand.
Screening: Sunday, March 27 @ 7pm; Tuesday, March 29 @ 8:30pm


Some Days Are Better Than Others
Directed by Matt McCormick

Portland, Oregon is the appropriately scruffy setting for Matt McCormick’s low-key dramedy about the lives of various twenty and thirty-somethings (and one middle-aged woman) wrestling with such typically twenty and thirty-something problems as bad break-ups, prolonged unemployment and a general lack of life direction.  Indie music sensations Carrie Brownstein (formerly of the band Sleater-Kinney) and James Mercer (lead singer of The Shins) are the nominal stars of this ensemble piece and deliver entirely adequate performances as, respectively, Katrina—a reality-TV obsessed oddball who can’t stop checking her ex-boyfriend’s email—and Eli, a perpetually downbeat college grad attempting to pay off several thousand dollars in student loan fees.  The film’s tone is perhaps best described as Daniel Clowes with less satiric bite.  McCormick wrings some nice observations and laughs out of his character’s unhappiness, but ultimately sympathizes with them and even romanticizes their self-involvement in a way that Clowes notably avoids.  Some Days are Better Than Others does function as an effective advertisement for Portland’s rugged beauty, but if these characters are typical of the city’s residents than I’d just as soon stay here in New York.
Screening: Tuesday, March 29 @ 6pm; Wednesday, March 30 @ 8:30pm


Directed by Paddy Considine

In many ways, the feature filmmaking debut of excellent English actor Paddy Considine (best known here for his roles in The Bourne Ultimatum and In America) resembles a dramatic version of the offbeat Paul Thomas Anderson/Adam Sandler comedy Punch-Drunk Love.  In that movie, Sandler plays a man prone to irrational rages who falls in love with a fellow eccentric (Emily Watson) that’s one of the few people to actually like him when he’s angry.  Considine’s far more serious tale casts Peter Mullan as a widower with a pronounced mean streak who kicks his dog to death in the movie’s very first scene.  It’s hard for any character to bounce back from an act like that, but the movie is committed to rehabilitating this guy, if not exactly absolving him of his many sins.  After another one of his blow-ups, he seeks refuge in a second-hand shop and is treated with unexpected kindness by the store’s proprietor, a gentle and devoutly religious woman (Olivia Colman).  Turns out that she has some experience dealing with angry men—her husband (Eddie Marsan) is a serial abuser that subjects her to regular physical and emotional torment and uses their shared faith as a way to keep her around.  Eventually, she finds the courage to leave him and moves in with Mullan, bringing his life a stability he hasn’t experienced in years.  Though Tyrannosaur’s subject matter is deeply unpleasant and its characterizations are at times questionable, the film does boast terrific performances from its lead actors, particularly Mullan who keeps the audience invested in his character’s plight without begging for our sympathy.  Still, Considine doesn’t appear to entirely trust his star and occasionally goes out of his way to stack the deck in the character’s favor.  For example, a melodramatic subplot involving a next-door neighbor—a young boy who is repeatedly terrorized by his mom’s new boyfriend—seems to exist solely so that Mullan can appear like less of an asshole.  (He may have killed his dog, but at least he doesn’t pick on kids!)  Elements like that are among the many reasons why I doubt I’ll be revisiting Tyrannosaur as often as I check back on Punch-Drunk Love, but Mullan’s performance, at least, is a keeper.                
Screening: Wednesday, March 30 @ 6pm; Thursday, March 31 @ 9pm


Directed by Daniel and Diego Vega

A prize-winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Peruvian drama Octubre is a well-acted, but otherwise unremarkable slice-of-life story about a moneylender (Bruno Odar) that unexpectedly acquires a new job: father.  It seems that one of the prostitutes he visits on a regular basis gave birth to his daughter, who she leaves on his doorstep before vanishing to parts unknown.  For whatever reason—guilt, laziness the sudden stirrings of fatherly affection—he decides against turning her over to the authorities and instead employs the services of one of his customers, a sweet, but irritatingly proper single woman of a certain age (Gabriela Velasquez) to act as the child’s nanny.  The three become an odd kind of family unit, so much so that Velasquez begins to make romantic overtures to Odar, which end up having the opposite effect that she intends.  Octubre is relatively engaging while you’re watching it, but it’s also awfully slight–a short film dressed up in feature-length clothing.
Screening: Saturday, April 2 @ 9pm; Sunday, April 3 @ 4pm