This year’s New Directors/New Films, the annual roundup of recent moving pictures gathered by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art that starts on Wednesday and runs through April 4, pretty much looks like last year’s event — and those from years past. There are titles to treasure and those to avoid among the 27 features and 11 shorts, many of which have been cherry-picked and rather less discriminately culled from other festivals, including Cannes and Berlin. Among the bigger draws is the price of admission: if you’re a member of either institution, you can nibble or binge at $10 a pop (but you’ll have to smuggle your popcorn past the guards at the Modern).
Given how New Directors covers the world — the filmmakers in the 2010 edition have tramped on five of the continents — it seems fitting that the opening-night (and nearly sold-out) selection centers on Bill Cunningham, the peripatetic street-and-society photographer whose pictorials are the first thing many turn to in The New York Times on Sunday. Aptly titled “Bill Cunningham New York,” the documentary is something of an inside job, having been produced by Philip Gefter, a former picture editor for the paper, and directed by Mr. Gefter’s husband, Richard Press. The Times even shares the copyright, which might have made the whole thing insufferably cozy if not for the wonderfully liberated Mr. Cunningham.
Shot — as many selections in the festival’s first week were — on digital, the documentary is part biopic, part homage to Mr. Cunningham, a Harvard dropout turned milliner (he designed under the name William J.) who started snapping people on the street during World War II. Some of those life details along with some other high and low points, the hiring and firing, have been revealed elsewhere, including an autobiographical sketch he wrote for The Times in 2002. Still, the movie charms by bringing you into the private world of a man who would clearly prefer you direct your attention at the glorious, gaudy beauty embodied by the passing human parade that he immortalizes — and insistently democratizes — with lightning-fast moves and palpable joy.
Despite his proximity to fashion’s power elite (hello Anna Wintour!), Mr. Cunningham retains a remarkable innocence. Fashion is his muse, not the manufactured glamour and celebrity fetishism that often pollutes it. To watch him standing at the ready on a Manhattan corner in his customary blue jacket, smiling at the people flowing around him, is to recall St. Francis rejoicing in the grace of the birds in Roberto Rossellini’s “Flowers of St. Francis.” Like Rossellini’s saint, Mr. Cunningham has retained his faith in a world that has lost the same. It’s too bad that the documentary, which errs with a self-serving scene of employees at The Times feting Mr. Cunningham, didn’t, like its subject, stick to the streets.
It’s an index of world cinema, or perhaps the temperament of the New Directors programmers, that there’s little comparable ecstasy expressed in most of the remaining selections over the first week. Three of the programmers are from the Modern, including Jytte Jensen, Laurence Kardish and its chief curator of film, Rajendra Roy. The Film Society is represented by its program director, Richard Peña; Marian Masone; and Gavin Smith, the editor of Film Comment, who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a longtime friend. I’ve seen most of these people smile, so it might be the state of the world or the art that accounts for all the tumult and tears. At festivals, seriousness often comes in the key of misery, even when the work exalts.
All it takes are a few exalting moments to lift a film, as in “The Father of My Children.” Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love, it takes a fictionalized look at the touching and tragically true life and death of Humbert Balsan, a French producer who committed suicide in 2005. Balsan, here called Grégoire and played with allure and a respectful psychological opacity by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, began his cinematic life as an actor, appearing in Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot of the Lake,” before turning to producing the likes of Claire Denis and Elia Suleiman. To her credit, Ms. Hansen-Love doesn’t try to explain the mystery that defines everyone, including Balsan, who departs the story midway, leaving his stunned family to sort through his legacy and its sorrow. “The Father of My Children” is scheduled to be released by IFC Films on May 28.
“Northless,” the estimable feature debut of Rigoberto Perezcano, centers on a young Mexican trying and failing and trying again to cross into the United States. From its opening, with the dawn lighting up the sharply drawn hills, an image that simultaneously evokes “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Silent Light” (by Carlos Reygadas, one of the brightest stars in the new Mexican cinema), you know you’re in the hands of a real director. With a confident eye, dry humor, expansive warmth and stealth-like politics, Mr. Perezcano follows the itinerant Andrés (Harold Torres), as he makes his way to Tijuana and into the lives of a storeowner, Ela (Alicia Laguna); her helper, Cata (Sonia Couoh); and Asensio (Luis Cárdenas), a wary butcher who maintains a proprietary relationship with both women.
Making the most of his smart, spare screenplay written with Edgar San Juan, Mr. Perezcano creates a textured sense of place with his unassuming locales, including a street that dead-ends with the towering American fence that cuts Andrés off from a world of possibility. One of the pleasures of the movie, beyond its thoughtful camerawork — lighter-weight digital equipment, which inspires the shakes in too many filmmakers, has helped create an aesthetics of inattention onscreen — is how the themes emerge slowly through casual conversation, looks, exchanges. Although the movie, tantalizingly, appears to be heading into neo-noir territory (Asensio’s dark looks mass like storm clouds), it ends in more complex, inspired and subtle terrain. The finale, foreshadowed by an early, seemingly throwaway image of a truck hauling a bureau, is a knockout.
There are other, flashier titles on view this week, including Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Dogtooth,” a critically divisive exercise in style from Greece about the kind of artificial grotesques who play the usual funny games, including animal torture and incest, and exist only in the movies. Épater la bourgeoisie and blah blah blah. Equally irksome and enervating is “3 Backyards” from the director Eric Mendelsohn, whose well-regarded “Judy Berlin” (1999) helped kick-start Edie Falco’s career. Ms. Falco returns to Mr. Mendelsohn’s world with a strained smile (and one very good, emotionally nuanced scene in a car with Embeth Davidtz) to play one of the Long Islanders whose backyards are linked by a lot of atonal clanging on the soundtrack, wildly showboating camerawork and a thick fog of unearned, uninteresting suburban angst.
Far more involving if also more technically shaky is “Tehroun” (“Tehran”), one of several Iranian selections in the festival. Directed by Nader T. Homayoun, who wrote the script with Jean-Philippe Gaud and Mehdi Boustani, the movie offers a particularly pungent slice of neorealist life as it tracks the increasingly downward spiral of a struggling Tehran transplant, Ibrahim (Ali Ebdali). In its vivid, at times almost shockingly unvarnished depiction of an Iranian underworld that teams with child smugglers, prostitutes and thieves worthy of Dickens, “Tehroun” recalls films from Jafar Panahi like “Crimson Gold” and “The Circle.” (A supporter of the Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mr. Panahi is believed to have been detained by Iranian security forces in early March.)
Like those Panahi titles, “Tehroun” — as well as “Women Without Men,” which is being shown on March 30 and 31, and the April IFC release “No One Knows About Persian Cats” — is marked by a sense of despair bordering on fatalism. Directed by Shirin Neshat, an artist who’s worked in video and has made a fine jump to the bigger screen, “Women Without Men” follows four perilously independent women during the 1953 coup d’état that, backed by the Central Intelligence Agency, toppled the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh. The movie, which will likely and deservedly receive an American release, is dedicated “to the memory of those who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and democracy in Iran — from the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to the Green Movement of 2009.”