First Look 2012: Our recommendations

MoMI's inaugural film festival brings brave new works to the outer boroughs and beyond.

  • Almayer's Folly

  • Nana

  • The City Below

  • Without

Almayer's Folly

Gotham cinephiles often joke that, should you pick up a rock on any day of the year and randomly throw it, you will almost certainly hit a film festival in progress. Those of us who live in one of the five boroughs and harbor an obsession with the seventh art are consistently well served by movie smorgasbords great and small, from overarching roundups to region-specific roundelays. Hence, in a city with beaucoup annual fests playing at one (or several) of a half-dozen reliable repertory venues, numerous art houses, microcinemas and macro-chain theaters, it's a sure bet that every film worth seeing ends up playing in New York. Right?

Wrong, as any number of boldly unique (read: unclassifiable) and undeniably mind-blowing movies gracing major U.S. and international festivals may simply not fit within the programming parameters of the usual gajillion NYC offerings—which is where the Queens-based Museum of the Moving Image's "First Look" comes in. Devised by MoMI film curators David Schwartz and Rachael Rakes, as well as Moving Image Source editor Dennis Lim, the institution's bid to mount a new must-see event in the yearly filmgoing calendar is dedicated to showcasing, in Schwartz's words, "films that tend to fall through the cracks." The description covers a good deal of ground, with the inaugural edition offering up everything from low-budget Amerindie thriller Without to Portuguese director Gonalo Tocha's three-hour, free-form doc on the tiny island of Corvo, It's the Earth Not the Moon. Other than new entries from Chantal Akerman (Almayer's Folly) and Philippe Garrel (That Summer), there's a distinct lack of recognizable names on display; most of the 13 features are making their New York premieres, and only one has American distribution at the moment.

What all of the Look-ers have in common, however, is a dogged sense of pushing aesthetic boundaries and coloring outside of the narrative lines. "The picks certainly share an emphasis on formal experimentation," says Schwartz says. "And a number of them play around with notions of fiction and documentary styles, avant-garde and classical filmmaking. But there was a never any discussion as to that hybrid idea being a criteria. Our programming philosophy was essentially: There have been a lot of films we'd seen over the past 12 months that weren't easily categorized, that were trying to do something new and that may not make it to New York screens unless we gave them a chance to be seen."

Here's a quartet of "First Look" films you shouldn't miss:

Almayer's Folly
From the opening sequence—involving a murder and a shell-shocked dancer mournfully singing to the camera—Chantal Akerman's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel plunges you into a lush fairy-tale world of curdled colonial breakdown. As the titular French trader conspires to manipulate his interracial daughter's life and hold on to his dwindling fortune, the Jeanne Dielman director patiently, persistently chips away at empire fixations; that she updates the drama to the 1950s only makes her shivving of Europe's midcentury manifest-destiny daydreams that much sharper. Who cares that everyone in "Malaysia" oddly speaks Cambodian? Akerman's jungle-love tragedy still strikes right at the jugular regarding the end of an era's hubris. (Jan 6, 7pm)

The City Below
Another former critic turned filmmaker, German director Christoph Hochhusler uses a love triangle between a financial worker, his restless wife (Nicolette Krebitz) and the man's boss (Robert Hunger-Bhler) as the starting point for a takedown of globalization entitlement and the international 1 percent. In this forbidding steel-and-glass landscape, predators in designer suits prey on their peers, and corporate overlords think nothing of sending underlings to dangerous outposts in order to conduct affairs with their lieutenants' spouses. Though the adulterous affair is the engine that powers the movie's boardroom shenanigans and hotel-room panting, Hochhusler is less concerned with those who fuck on the sly than in those who fuck others over for a living. And per a surreal, cryptic ending, The City Below posits that a real rain is about to come and wash all the scum out of the skyscrapers. (Jan 15, 5pm)

Any movie that begins with a pig actually being slaughtered in real time (on your marks, PETA members, get set...) is bound to put squeamish audience members on red alert, but filmmaker Valrie Massadian saves her true uh-oh trump card for later. Having followed a French farmer going about his business and a mother tending to her four-year-old daughter, Nana suddenly focuses solely on the youngster—who, it becomes clear, has been left to fend for herself. It's a testament to this neophyte director's talent that the long scenes of extraordinary child actor Kelyna Lecomte's play-acting, profanity-spouting and purposeful survivalism go from hilarious to horrifying to strangely liberating, and that Massadian's willful ambivalence about filling in the narrative blanks feels less like film-school precociousness than an attempt to distill everything down to the emotional basics. It's a stunner. (Jan 14, 5pm)

Say, have you heard the one about the twentysomething female who takes a remote job caring for a catatonic old man, only to gradually lose her mind? Of course you have—which only makes the extraordinarily nerve-racking thriller Mark Jackson mines out of this material all the more impressive. Though he's clearly studied the Polanski playbook with Talmudic-method intensity, Jackson demonstrates a facility for finding dread that goes beyond mere cover artistry; he's helped immensely by actor Joslyn Jensen, giving the sort of slow-unraveling performance that bypasses histrionics (mostly) in favor of sublimely scaring the shit out of you. The less you know about Without's specifics, the better; suffice to say, check out this indie-fest favorite while you can, as distributors don't seem to recognize a lo-fi gem when they see one. (Jan 7, 5pm)

First Look runs from Jan 6 to 15 at Museum of the Moving Image.

Visit the museum's official schedule for showtimes and tickets

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear