New Directors/New Films, a cinematic rite of spring in Manhattan, stakes its claim and its name on a forthright promise of novelty. Here are a bunch of movies — 28 features in this year’s edition, which starts on Wednesday and runs through April 4 at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art — that we have not seen before, from filmmakers whose names are not yet household words.
Partly a whistle-stop on the global festival circuit, gathering wares from Cannes, Sundance, Berlin and elsewhere, New Directors is also something of a weathervane, a meteorological chart of patterns and trends in world cinema. The program is geographically and stylistically diverse, as usual, but it is also unusually strong, one of the best in years. In a post-Oscar season of bloated, complacent commercialism, it is especially bracing to encounter so many movies employing modest means in the service of large ambitions.
The opening feature, J. C. Chandor’s “Margin Call,” is a good example. Shot on just a few locations and taking place mostly over the course of a single, hectic night, it is both intimately scaled and dazzling in its sweep and implication. The subject — the global financial crisis of 2008 — could hardly be bigger, but Mr. Chandor dramatizes it using a small ensemble in a confined space, the offices of a large Wall Street investment firm. The cast, including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore and Zachary Quinto (young Spock from the rebooted “Star Trek”), certainly adds luster and polish to the film, as does Frank DeMarco’s silky cinematography. But what makes it such a gripping and convincing rendition of events familiar from countless books and articles is the subtlety of Mr. Chandor’s writing, his understated, meticulous mapping of the intersections between banal workplace politics and the movements of international capital.
“Margin Call” may remind you of “The Social Network” in the way it charges the stubbornly undramatic activities of looking at screens and scrabbling at keyboards with intensity and suspense. A possible debt to David Fincher, director of “The Social Network,” can be found in the way Mr. Chandor creates an aural and visual ambience that conveys emotions not directly expressed by the characters.
New Directors, precisely because it is a bouquet of mostly first and second features, is also a catalog of influences. This is not to take anything away from the hard-won originality of the films in the program. On the contrary: in any art form, the absorption of influence is a condition of true originality.
Quite a few of the films in the first half of the program —a second batch will be discussed in next Monday’s paper — find inspiration close to home, suggesting that national and regional cinematic identities persist in an age of cultural cross-pollination.
The French-language Canadian film “Incendies,” directed by Denis Villeneuve, takes place mainly in an unnamed Middle Eastern country with a demography and political history identical to Lebanon’s, and it explores themes of identity, memory and family tragedy in a manner that recalls the work of Atom Egoyan.
Two French films, Mikhael Hers’s “Memory Lane” and Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Belle Épine,” feel very, well, French in their examination of the sexual and emotional lives of young people, whether 20-somethings on the outskirts of Paris in Mr. Hers’s film, or a disaffected teenager in a run-down part of the city in Ms. Zlotowski’s. Both directors, committed to close psychological observation and day-to-day realism, also draw on a rich and variegated native tradition that is evident in their work without being obvious. You may be reminded, from time to time, of the films of Arnaud Desplechin, Olivier Assayas, André Techiné and Maurice Pialat, but mostly you will be caught up in the specific people and places on the screen in front of you.
This is also true of films from Turkey, China, Egypt and Romania. “Majority,” Seren Yuce’s film about a sad young slacker in Istanbul, is an unsparingly insightful anatomy of how a male-dominated society reproduces itself, one young man at a time. Its concerns are at once intensely particular — rooted in old customs and modern circumstances — and universally recognizable, since Turkish society is hardly unique in its dysfunctional gender politics.
Mohamed Diab’s rousing feminist drama “Cairo 678” takes up the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and highlights the responses of three women from different backgrounds. Though it was made before the recent popular uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s government, “Cairo 678” is unmistakably a harbinger of that revolution, vividly portraying how the old system failed repeatedly to address daily indignities and frustrations suffered by ordinary Egyptians, women in particular.
Mr. Diab’s film is full of the bustle and energy of Cairo, and its social realism is enlivened (some might say undermined) by the emphatic, melodramatic emotionalism characteristic of Egyptian television and popular cinema. And Bogdan George Apetri’s “Periferic” is, like many other recent Romanian festival films, a race-against-the-clock drama of a person caught in a web of ethical predicaments and practical complications. While the movie’s plot can feel a bit forced at times, Ana Ularu’s central performance as a young woman trying to put her life back together during a 24-hour furlough from prison is nothing less than a tour de force.
This New Directors is, notably, a showcase for actors, known and unknown, professional and not. Mr. Spacey, anchoring “Margin Call,” does his best work in years. To watch Adepero Oduye, who plays a teenage lesbian in Brooklyn in Dee Rees’s splendid “Pariah,” is to experience the thrill of discovery. Ms. Rees’s film is sensitive but not sentimental, attuned to sexual and racial politics without succumbing to didacticism or piety. Like “Majority” and “Cairo 678,” “Pariah” has a point to make, and a point of view to argue, but it also, above all, wants to illuminate an individual universe of meaning and emotion.
To dip into the New Directors program is frequently to travel the spectrum from that kind of individualism to more extreme forms of idiosyncrasy. The great French actress Jeanne Balibar (“Va Savoir,” “The Duchess of Langeais”), speaking mostly in German, is a spooky, poignant presence in nearly every frame of “At Ellen’s Age,” an intriguingly peculiar film by Pia Marais. In it Ms. Balibar plays a middle-aged flight attendant reeling from personal disappointment and professional stress who takes up with a group of animal-rights militants, ambivalently embracing their cause. The status of her sympathies, and of the filmmaker’s, remains tantalizingly enigmatic.
Ms. Marais seems to be following her protagonist as much as she is impelling her on her meandering, tentative journey, and “At Ellen’s Age” is one of a handful of New Directors films that challenge conventional expectations of genre and plot. Li Hongqi’s “Winter Vacation,” from China, unfolds in a no man’s land between documentary and highly stylized comedy, assembling deadpan observations of unhappy souls in a wind-swept industrial town. Denis Côté’s “Curling,” a snow-bound feature from Quebec, gestures in the direction of horror and film noir while quietly refusing to resolve the mysteries and quandaries it puts into play.
Two documentaries also tinker with the form, addressing what might be thought of as standard historical and contemporary subjects with startlingly radical means. Göran Hugo Olsson’s “Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” is a collage of archival footage recorded in America, mostly by Swedish journalists, in the era of African-American militancy. The images, accompanied by present-day voice-over reflections from historians, rappers, artists and veterans of the era’s racial politics, offer revelations about events and personalities we thought we understood completely.
Mr. Olsson’s film reaches beyond received wisdom into the difficult and contradictory truth of the time, and in a similar vein — though in a completely different style — Natalia Almada’s “Velador” pushes beyond media clichés about Mexico’s drug war. Filmed in a cemetery full of the grotesque, mansionlike tombs of narco-casualties, “El Velador” is an unsettlingly quiet, even lyrical film about a world made and unmade by violence.
What Ms. Almada has to say about the subject is inseparable from the experience of watching her film. And while it is possible to boil New Directors down to a list of timely, fascinating topics — Middle Eastern politics, sexual and otherwise; corporate greed; economic hardship; and so on — these films are not lectures or lessons. They are efforts, variously successful but consistently interesting and serious, to show you something new.
New Directors/New Films runs through April 4 at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art; newdirectors.org.