Regular watchers of the Rotterdam Film Festival’s reliably sprawling Bright Future section—one of the festival world’s most optimistically titled programs—know that there’s no way to come close to pinning down its slate of films by first- and second-time directors. The selection can be expected to be as wide-ranging as it is inventive and challenging, and if the challenges aren’t always successful, the ways in which the young filmmakers in Bright Future question conventions, trends, and fashions uphold a kind of Rotterdam tradition, more effectively in recent years than the Tiger competition.

My Film Comment colleague Gavin Smith came away generally pleased with this year’s Tiger lineup, and Bright Future didn’t look too shabby either. Just so the reader knows: the films I’m addressing weren’t seen in Rotterdam, but in a mix of locales and situations: viewings at other festivals over the course of 2011 and 2012 (from Locarno on through Santa Barbara), on DVD, and via streaming video. That last viewing option, now exploding on the extraordinary website Festival Scope (and also available to professional subscribers on Cinando’s website), is only a year old, and it’s already altering the ways in which programmers and writers on cinema can partake of festival content. There’s a good case to be made (to be explored in a future posting) that the focused and intimate conditions under which one can now watch festival films on a site like Festival Scope can enhance films, freed from the sometimes distorting effect of the crazed festival setting where they premiere. In the latter regard: I was able to watch The Tree of Life in Los Angeles (in that case, on the massive screen at the Directors Guild theater) only 24 hours after its Cannes press screening, and being able to write about Malick’s film away from the madding Croisette crowd had considerable salutary effects. The distance and, from a writing standpoint, the privacy allowed consideration of the film in ways that would have been impossible on site in Cannes. Not only that, but enough festival screenings nowadays have been so marred by problems with digital download platforms such as DCP—mention those three letters to some programmers, and steam may visibly appear from their ears—that subsequent streaming-video viewings have actually rescued these same films.

A measure of the strength of Bright Future this year is that some of the films date back several months, cherry-picked from a number of 2011’s festivals. Some of the cream of Locarno, for instance: Valérie Massadian’s subtly disturbing Nana; Gaston Solnicki’s excellent, naked-before-the-world videologue of his family, Papirosen; Milagros Mumenthaler’s confidently made drama about three sisters, Back to Stay; and Alessandro Comodin’s astonishing, stream-of-consciousness, half-doc/half-narrative Summer of Giacomo. Or South by Southwest, with Ben Wheatley’s terrifying kitchen-sink-to-horror film, Kill List (since then, released in the States theatrically). Or a keeper from Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, Leila Kilani’s Sur la planche, an intense drama about young women pushing the social envelope in Tangiers. Or Venice, with Ben Rivers’s sublime Two Years at Sea and Julia Murat’s gentle and gorgeous Histórias Que Só Existem Quando Lembradas (translated as “Stories only exist when remembered”). Just as Bright Future doesn’t insist on films staying in their genre or formalistic lanes, it also doesn’t insist on an overdose of world premieres, and the inclusion of smartly curated, festival-of-festivals–style programming adds a rich dimension to the section.

One more recent such stand-out is Michel Lipkes’ debut feature, Malaventura (a premiere at the Morelia International Film Festival last October). The most thoroughly realized Mexican narrative film in the past year, it’s a sometimes droll, sometimes mesmerizing consideration of the existentialism of old age, via Samuel Beckett. Tracing the steps and sojourns of an elderly gentleman on his daily rounds in Mexico City, the film absorbs his patience and sense of protracted time, so that as much as Lipkes (who’s also a widely respected programmer) deals explicitly with the city’s outer material realities, he takes the viewer inside his character’s head while at the same time maintaining distance.

Just as Kleber Mendonça Filho’s brilliant Neighbouring Sounds in the Tiger lineup suggested that young Latin American cinema is as strong now as it’s ever been, so did some of the new films in Bright Future. Ezequiel Erriquez’s isn’t in the class of Mendonça Filho’s film, but it exudes a considerable and authentic humanity, as well as a rigorous modernism. The film’s involvement in the lives of four young suburban Buenos Aires teens during a late-1990s period when Argentine factories were shutting down at an alarming rate is supremely fluid and unaffected, and the final, third-act mystery that engulfs the film turns into something special. Another young BF Argentine, Felipe Guerrero, couldn’t be more different than Erriquez: His short feature Corta looks at three sugarcane workers in Colombia, from the start of the harvest through to a vivid nighttime burning of the cane fields—and then back to work the next day. Guerrero’s steady 16mm camera observes the cutters from behind, and shots end as the film magazine runs out. His influences, James Benning and Sharon Lockhart, are a little too obvious, but Corta is a more than respectable entry in the ever-growing subgenre of films about work.

In fact, work was the subject of all kinds of BF premieres, including Oleg Sentsov’s Gamer, about a Ukrainian high-schooler whose talents at playing the video game Quake take him to the world championship in Los Angeles, before he returns to obscurity and a dead-end life in Kiev. The problem is that depicting the work of a video gamer is like filming a writer as he pecks away at a keyboard and looks at a computer screen, and Sentsov doesn’t come up with a solution. The American indie film team of Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin get inside the little-known world of mushroom foragers in Now, Forager, and as long as they maintain their nonfiction focus—on the basics of the job, such as scouring the forest ground for exotic fungi and trying to sell it to Manhattan fine-dining restaurants—their film is quite interesting. But once a drama kicks in, about the clashing career trajectories within a married couple (he’s a grouch who wants to forage, she’s nice and wants to cook), it collapses like a sad soufflé.

More consistently than any other festival I know, Rotterdam each year shows at least one radically independent work from the Indian subcontinent, and this time it was Madhuja Mukherjee’s unclassifiable Carnival. Partly doc, partly diary, largely free-form and hampered by some annoying stylistic ticks (such as an irritating music cue during the film’s silent-movie–style dialogue intertitles), this love letter to Kolkata closely follows a young man whose lonely father continues to grieve over his dead wife, and who tries to escape from the pain by enjoying Kolkata’s annual Durga Puja festival in the fall. It’s a failed experiment, but at least Mukherjee is charting his own path in Indian cinema, a noteworthy ambition.

A complete surprise for BF and Swiss cinema is Eileen Hofer’s He Was a Giant with Brown Eyes, one of the more watchable and engaging recent films about young people made anywhere. This one was mostly financed in Switzerland but shot, gloriously, in Azerbaijan (95% of it in the rapidly transforming capital of Baku) with a real Azeri family to whom Hofer is now related by marriage. Thus, while it has all of the trappings of a fiction film about two sisters of divorced parents reuniting (one of them coming to Baku for summer vacation from Switzerland, where she lives with their mom in a testy relationship; the other living with their dad, an Azeri naval officer), it’s also a documentary about these lives, and especially about how the young people learn of the terrible history of their people during the bad days of Soviet rule. Despite the weight of that history, Hofer’s work is remarkably light and seemingly effortless, completely in tune with the vibe and attitude of the young Azeris she films. Bright Future, for sure.