NEW YORK — EVERY year about this time, a festival called New Directors/New Films makes a strong impact on the American movie scene - by introducing a carefully chosen list of new pictures from filmmakers who are just beginning their careers. Some of these fledgling directors still show more promise than actual achievement. Yet the importance of showcasing their works cannot be stated too strongly - especially since many of them are likely to be ``discovered'' by critics and distributors during the festival, and go forthwith into commercial theaters.
New Directors/New Films has less clout than the New York Film Festival, its close cousin in the same city; it's less picturesque than the Telluride filmfest in the Colorado Rockies; it shows fewer films than the bustling Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto festivals. Its focus on emerging talent makes it as valuable, however, as it is unique. And its track record is excellent. During its 19 years, it has introduced filmmakers as commercial as Steven Spielberg and George Miller, as experimental as Peter Greenaway and Wim Wenders, as unclassifiable as Spike Lee and John Sayles.
This year's edition runs through April 1 at the Museum of Modern Art, which joins the Film Society of Lincoln Center in sponsoring the event. The distinguishing characteristic of the 1990 selections turns out to be their sheer variety. The festival itself says ``diversity'' is the keynote, along with a tendency to move toward ``the outer limits of realism'' and then some. I'm not sure I agree that pictures like ``China, My Sorrow'' and ``Plainlands'' are as adventurous as all that. But they reflect a level of quality that speaks well for this festival and for the international film community it ably represents.
Also apparent this year is what Richard Pena, one of the festival's programmers, calls ``an international network of film influences'' that leaps across national boundaries. The selections, as Mr. Pena put it in a recent conversation, include an Iranian film strongly influenced by American documentarist Robert Flaherty; a Japanese film influenced by Latin American author Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez; a Finnish film influenced by Japanese movies of the '60s; a Brazilian film influenced by Hollywood film noir; and so forth. Cinema may not be the universal language its more utopian supporters would like it to be, but many of its practitioners are clearly tuning into the same wavelengths as colleagues they admire, regardless of geographical origins.
In another trend, which the festival itself hasn't stressed, children and young people play key roles in some of the strongest offerings. These films come from Australia, China (via France and West Germany), Italy, and Finland. [See descriptions in box at left.] This could signal a new cinematic interest in conditions and challenges facing youth around the world.
Special mention goes to ``My 20th Century,'' which won the Camera d'Or prize for best first feature at last year's Cannes filmfest. Written and directed by Hungarian filmmaker Ildiko Enyedi, it takes as its subject the period just before and after 1900, beginning - in a superb opening scene - with Thomas Edison's world-changing electrical experiments. The main characters are twin girls born in Budapest but soon surrounded by adventures in far-flung lands. The movie fails to maintain the brilliance of its early episodes, but has a zest and charm that go well with its radiant black-and-white cinematography.
Other films in the festival hail from many countries, from Sweden and the Soviet Union to Luxembourg (in partnership with West Germany) and the Ivory Coast, with some American works to round out the program. In all, 14 nations are represented by feature-length entries, making for a rousingly international bill of fare.