Each year, the NYC festival endeavors to show excellent new work from some of the film world’s brightest rising stars. This year, they’ve done it again.
Before the summer movie season consumes the local multiplex, discerning cinephiles and festival fans can bone up on some of the best films of the year, thanks to the always-excellent slate on offer at this year’s New Directors/New Films festival. Over the course of the New York City festival, it will play home to films from 41 directors, including 27 features and 11 shorts.
As ever, this year’s ND/NF features a variety of films from around the festival circuit, Sundance to Cannes, Venice to Berlin, and more. The 52nd edition of the festival kicks off this week with Savannah Leaf’s A24 drama “Earth Mama” and concludes with Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s trans coming-of-age story “Mutt.” In between, film fans can see projects from rising stars, fresh voices, and finally (finally!) get to check out gems like “Joyland,” “Totem,” and “Disco Boy.”
The 52nd edition of New Directors/New Films will run from March 29 — April 9, and more information about the festival can be found at its website. Here are 9 movies from the 2023 lineup that reflect why the festival is more essential than ever.
Jude Dry, Ryan Lattanzio, Ben Croll, and Siddhant Adlakha also contributed to this article.
Indonesian critic-turned-filmmaker Makbul Mubarak arrives on the scene with a daring, challenging first feature. Billed by the festival as “a chilling, elegantly shot portrait of the seductiveness of power,” “Autobiography” follows young Rakib (Kevin Ardilova) as he “falls under the spell of his new boss, Purna (Arswendy Bening Swara), a retired military general running for local office.” While Rakib is initially tasked with odd jobs, from errands to driving the general around, he soon finds himself enthralled by other, darker aspects of the gig.
ND/NF will serve as a capper on an enviable festival tour for the film. It premiered at Venice (where it won the FIPRESCI critics’ prize for the Orizzonti section), before screening at BFI London Film Festival and the Busan International Film Festival. Mubarak himself terms the film a psyschological study, and it seems as if the rising director has entered the fray with pure intentions: he truly wants to understand people and their stories. Among his influences? Lucrecia Martel, Elia Kazan, Michael Haneke, Alfred Hitchcock, and Asghar Farhadi. Not too shabby! —KE
It might be reductive to call “Disco Boy” a kind of club kid cousin to “Beau Travail,” but the comparisons aren’t entirely off. Like Claire Denis’ Sight and Sound chart-topper, here is a tour with the French Foreign Legion, another dissection of colonial roleplaying spent among a taciturn lot who find best expression in the rhythms of the night.
So let’s dispense those comparisons up front, and with a degree of military efficiency befitting both films: While director Giacomo Abbruzzese does indeed pay homage to a direct artistic forbearer, his debut film stands (and writhes and shimmies) all on its own. Pushed and pulled by another intensely physical Franz Rogowski turn, “Disco Boy” follows a man ever on the move, a paperless migrant whose name, identity, nationality and, it seems, spiritual sense of self remain constantly in flux. —BC
Learn the names Savanah Leaf, first-time feature filmmaker, and Tia Nomore, first-time feature actress, right now, because their debut film “Earth Mama” is a shimmering stunner. A former Olympic volleyball athlete, Leaf has a canny eye for locating the subversion and beauty within a welfare-system drama about a single mother fighting for her life and children. What sounds, on paper, like a challenging sit is actually a wondrous 97-minute feature, whose director and star are obviously poised for greatness.
Any film tackling the petty and punishing bureaucracies of the foster care system risks wading into melodrama or cliche, but “Earth Mama” largely avoids those rookie traps, and with an unpredictable and fiercely focused actress at its roots. Leaf searched far and wide for a Bay Area non-actor to embody Gia, a young Black mother whose son and daughter from an all-but-nonexistent father are in foster-care limbo while she recovers from drug addiction and has barely a dollar to her prepaid cell phone credits. Tia Nomore, frequently seen on the Bay Area freestyle battle-rap circuit, had been training to become a doula for Black families when she was cast, and her personal connection runs through the material. —RL
“Have You Seen This Woman?”
Serbian directing duo Dušan Zorić and Matija Gluščević brought their feature debut “Have You Seen This Woman?” to the Venice critics’ week last year, and they count Michael Haneke, David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, and Stanley Kubrick among their influences — which means we’re in for something dark and twisted, or at the very least, something that’s not quite what it is on the surface.
Here, a door-to-door vacuum cleaner saleswoman finds her reality upended when she finds a dead body while making the rounds in working-class Belgrade. They shot the film with actress Ksenija Marinković over a period of five years, meaning that the actor, the directors, and the story all shaped in real-time. “We wanted to make a film that constantly reshapes itself, mirroring the changes of the main character. It should be as unpredictable an adventure for the viewer as for the protagonist. So don’t overthink it, just enjoy the ride,” they told Film at Lincoln Center. —RL
The first Pakistani film to premiere at Cannes (and, eventually, the first film from the country to be shortlisted for Best International Feature Film), Saim Sadiq’s Un Certain Regard selection “Joyland” rides a fine line between sweet and foreboding right from its opening shot, in which an unseen adult man waltzes mischievously with his nieces while shrouded in a bedsheet. His life, and his liveliness, are carefully concealed; he exists as if between the worlds of the living and the dead.
This is Haider Rana (Ali Junejo), a soft-spoken husband to an outspoken wife. The film revolves around him and uses him as its magnifying glass to zero in on social rigidities — gender and sexuality in particular — and the quiet, often painful ways in which they manifest.
“Joyland” is, on one hand, a kind film. It paints even Haider’s quietest moments in bright, living colors. He and his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) — to whom he was betrothed before they met — have a playful, personable understanding of each other, and of his unconventional role as a homemaker while she works as makeup artist for Lahore’s economic upper crust. They live with Haider’s elderly father (Salmaan Peerzada) who, along with his gruff older son Saleem (Sohail Sameer), grumbles at the fact that Saleem’s wife Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) has only given birth to daughters. The stern patriarch hopes his younger son will pick up the slack, but despite the family’s invasive expectations, Haider and Mumtaz make the most of their marriage in delightfully friendly fashion. —SA
Dubbed an “anti-patriarchal epic,” this sprawling family crime drama has been likened to “The Godfather” — only set in Tehran. The film took home the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes last year, an International Critics’ prize meant to uplift new talent while honoring the best film in main competition.
The story follows a young woman named Leila, played by “The Salesman” star Taraneh Alidoosti in another powerhouse turn, as she battles to save her family from ruin while managing her four inept brothers and a narcissistic father. Her plan to pool their financial resources and open a shop are thwarted when her father accepts a position as head of the extended family, requiring a financial contribution they can barely afford.
Delivering 169 minutes of dense dialogue and shifting points-of-view, the film is a Hollywood-sized departure from the intimate dramas that have come to define contemporary Iranian cinema for the world stage. —JD
Romanian director Alexandru Belc cut his teeth working on the script department of Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and Corneliu Porumboiu’s “Police, Adjective” — meaning we ought to expect a similar sort of beautiful bleakness from his feature film “Metronom.”
Belc’s first feature since profiling one of Romania’s last remaining movie houses with “Cinema Mon Amour” follows 17-year-old high schooler Ana (Mara Bugarin) over one tense, emotionally ravaging day and night in 1972. The Communist-era coming-of-age drama won Belc Best Director in the Cannes Un Certain Regard last year, and it looks closely at how even the most rebellious and idealist youth are easily susceptible to authoritarianism’s march. Born in 1980, Belc draws on his own memories of fallen Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu’s bitter rule for “Metronom.” —RL
Though queer and trans visibility does have its limits, there’s no denying that trans men and transmasculine people have traditionally been sidelined in the fight for trans representation. Through no fault of queer and trans storytellers, mainstream media and the culture at large only had so much space for trans stories it found understandable and digestible.
Now, coming up on almost ten years after what Time Magazine dubbed “The Transgender Tipping Point,” film and television is finally starting to tell trans stories that trans viewers and queer community can recognize as their own.
Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s “Mutt” follows a day in the life of Feña (Lío Mehiel), a young trans guy living in New York City. Over one sweltering and sometimes rainy day, Feña navigates the in between stages of transition, adulthood, and relationships, all while just trying to get through the day. Anchored by a charismatic performance from newcomer Mehiel, “Mutt” keeps a tight focus on its dynamic protagonist, who graciously rolls with the punches of being broke and heartbroken in the city that never sleeps. —JD
Mexican writer-director Lila Avilés follows her lauded 2018 debut “The Chambermaid” with this elegant drama about a family dealing with nothing less than the looming specter of death. But that’s not the only thing at play here, as Avilés also embraces a streak of childhood wonder, care of young star Naíma Sentíes.
Taking place over the course of a single day, Avilés introduces the central drama (and potential trauma) early: it’s her father Tonatiuh’s (Mateo García Elizondo) birthday, but Sol is the one with a wish: She doesn’t want her father, ill with cancer, to die. While we wait to meet him (and spend plenty of time with other members of Sol’s sprawling family), we’re also plunged into the worldview of the young lead, wise beyond her years but also wonderfully attuned to the small dreams and pleasures of being young in the world, even an unkind one. —KE
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