New York is populated by such a large number of fervent film lovers, that the New Directors / New Films festival of the Lincoln Center [www.filmlinc.com] and the MoMa [www.moma.org] was sold out while the press screenings were still in full swing. Several of the city’s more fanatic cinephiles have been portrayed by the documentary Cinemania, shown at last year’s German Film Festival in London. New York has a voracious appetite for films. Curiosity knows no bounds. Subtitles? Yes please! Central Asian cinema from the ’70s? A Bicycle Film Festival? Bring them on!

The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art have been curating this festival for 32 years, focusing on emerging talents and overlooked artists. Since then, they have been crucial in launching the Stateside careers of Wim Wenders, John Sayles, Spike Lee, Sally Potter, Pedro Almodovar, Chen Kaige and Peter Greenaway. Last year, the festival showed several heavyweights such as The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk), Late Marriage (Dover Kosashvili) and Dog Days (Ulrich Seidl).

A tough act to follow, then, and this year brought less titles of that stature. But the festival did produce that elusive beast: a US indie film unafflicted by post-Slacker navelgazing. Raising Victor Vargas [www.raisingvictorvargas.com], by first-time filmmaker Peter Sollett, is an affectionate portrait of the Latino part of the East Village, with not a twitch of middle-class white neurosis in sight. Victor is the teenage Romeo of the neighbourhood. To counter the gossip that will erupt after he sleeps with the fat girl upstairs, he goes after Juicy Judy, the hottest girl on the block. There is only one thing that can stop his raging hormones: Grandma.

After opening the New Director’s festival, Raising Victor Vargas went on to glowing reviews and a commercial theatre release. The film’s trajectory is a fine example of the myth that up-and-coming talent and strong debuts just pop out of nowhere – waiting to be plucked from obscurity by those in the know. Peter Sollett (28) made an impression with his short Five Feet High And Rising in Sundance and Cannes in 2000. This portrait of Latino kids in the East Village, fuelled by the talented young actors who played them, inspired him to write a feature – which eventually turned into Raising Victor Vargas. For two years, he spent time with those kids, getting to know them personally and developing the script for Raising Victor Vargas at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and at the Cinéfondation programme of the Cannes festival.

Grandma rules her little family – Victor, his younger brother and sister – with an iron fist, trying to be mother and father at the same time. Her husband had been a formidable Don Juan and she does everything in her power to stop her puberty-hit trio from entering the sexual arena where she incurred quite a bit of damage herself. Thanks to Dogme, much has been made of improvising with partly non-professional actors, often with mediocre results, but Peter Sollett has truly done an impressive job.

He didn’t give his actors a script, but he gave them the parameters of each scene as they went along. The actors playing Victor (Victor Rasuk) and Judy (Judy Marte) are trained professionals, whereas the grandmother (Altagracia Guzman) is a former dressmaker. The chemistry between them is palpable, especially since their banter is infused with a warm humour that would have been very hard to write word by word. Raising Victor Vargas was first shown in Cannes, where it became a sleeper hit, and subsequently moved on to Toronto and the London Film Festival. The film will be released in the UK by Momentum.

Other international festival pickings made their way into the New Directors festival, such as Angel on the Right, a Tadzhik film by Jamshed Usmonov, and the Italian film Respiro (Emanuele Crialese) both to be released in the UK by Tartan. The Brazilian documentary about a hijacking, Bus 174, was shown in Sundance and Rotterdam, where the Hungarian Hukkle also played.

The search for overlooked talent is more difficult. Unless a festival offers world-class prestige or a film production initiative (such as in Rotterdam, where the Cinemart market and Hubert Bals fund for non-western cinema help projects get off the ground) it is hard to discover truly hidden gems. New Directors burrows deeply into dark corners to come up with films that may not have received any attention elsewhere.

In some unfortunate cases, there is a perfectly good reason for that. Take the Slovenian film Guardian of the Frontier by Maja Weiss, which pretends to be a multi-layered drama about outer and inner borders. Three gorgeous, high-cheekboned actresses go on a canoeing trip down the river that separates Slovenia from Croatia. Director Weiss throws in a sprinkling of politics (right-wing nutcases) and suspense (Croatian war criminals), but the film is really a softer-than-softcore romp in the water. Another film that I had trouble sitting through was Black Tape, an Iranian film about a Kurdish girl who is being kept prisoner by an ex-military goon turned real estate tycoon. The story of her imprisonment is recorded by a Digicam lying around in the house. The cinematography is so shaky I had to go to the lobby to recover from motion sickness.

Thank the Lord, then, that Tony Leung came to the rescue. Infernal Affairs [www.infernalaffairs.com] by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak is a shot in the arm for the flagging Hong Kong movie scene. It harks back to Hong Kong cinema in its heyday, and with Wong Kar-Wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle on board as visual consultant, it makes for a giddy ride. Tony plays a cop who has gone undercover in a HK triad and Andy Lau plays a career cop who is actually a mole for that same triad. Their paths cross during an operation and it becomes apparent to both parties that there are stooges in their camp. Andy gets promoted to Internal Affairs to find out who the mole is, and Tony is under pressure from triad boss Sam to do the same. Both men are tired of the cat-and mouse-game they’ve been playing for so long. In a way, they are soulmates, two sides of the same coin.

As in the films of John Woo, there is a sense that the two are challenging each other to something beyond brotherhood. The actors’ charisma – with Tony as the good guy and Andy as the feline predator – does the rest. Infernal Affairs was first shown outside of HK at the latest Berlin film festival. At home, it hijacked the HK Film Awards with statues for Best Actor (Tony Leung), Best Director, Best Film Editing (The Pang brothers, filmmakers in their own right), Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Song and Best Supporting Actor. It’s a shame that no Western release dates for this film have materialised yet.

New Directors/New Films closed with another strong US title. Camp is the delightful tale of a summer camp ("Ovation") for teenage wannabe musical stars. Think that’s scary? Filmmaker Tod Graff went to that camp, which exists in real life. He has already cut his teeth as a writer/actor (he wrote the US version of The Vanishing) and this is his debut as a director. He takes the overambitious, teenage groupies of Stephen Sondheim seriously, but at the same time does not ignore the camp elements. A perfect feel-good movie to round off the festival, Camp was recently picked up by Momentum, and should reach Britain’s shores later this year.

Though a bit short on international entries, New Directors/New Films has nevertheless managed to open with several films that have an appeal far beyond the parochial Sundance audience. Hopefully the films and their makers will go on to better things on a much bigger scale.