A look back at Tribeca's bounty of docs and features

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Again this year, New York City's Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) delivered a high percentage of high-quality, thought-provoking docs and narrative fiction films amongst the approximate hundred long-forms offered. (The also well-regarded shorts program received 500 more submissions this year, according to Short Film Programming head Sharon Badal.)

TFF’s lineup each year seems to get better and better as the Fest goes less and less Hollywood. Some brave soul might venture a correlation therein.

Having launched in 2002 and riding the waves of a rapidly changing leisure environment, TFF continues to offer a vast array of related movie events, but it’s the film selections of wildly varied works that remain its core. Each year and reflected in its selections, TFF registers a greater focus on quality, sociopolitical issues and diversity. (The occasional unusual venue like the Meatpacking District’s Whitney Museum, where the celebrated big-screen production designer Kristi Zea’s classy doc Everybody Knows…Elizabeth Murray, about the late contemporary artist, screened, is another reflection of TFF’s embrace of diversity.)

TFF’s film choices have everything to do with the fest’s fastidious curating, as teams of programmers do the heavy lifting (heavy-sifting, really) through many thousands of submissions. If a couple of duds sneak through each year, so be it. As in real life, reel life has a history of the occasional stinker rising to the top in the public’s eye.

In addition to some docs already streaming to the public, a handful of TFF features (including A Hologram for the King, The Meddler, The Family Fang and Elvis & Nixon) have already opened in theatres and their box-office numbers will tell a story. A few raise questions. Why, in the case of Elvis & Nixon, didn’t Kevin Spacey, excelling in the Nixon role with his body language and speech, have his hair dyed Nixon-dark and get the kind of jowl-enhancement that Brando got in The Godfather? And why in A Hologram for the King didn’t star Tom Hanks, as a Boston guy who as a kid vacationed in the New Hampshire woods, suggest any hints through dialogue of his New England character? (It tisn’t haahd!)

What follows is one mortal’s attempt to highlight some of the better films of the batch, “better” meant here to flag films that, in an unreliable descending order, stand a good chance at the box office (beyond a sole marketing play), or comfy-cozy status in homes and on small screens, or won’t waste valuable viewer time. Some might even provide lessons in how or how not to achieve any of the above.

Taking a cue from speed-reading, speed-dialing and speed-dating, some titles are speed-reviewed, a truncation meant to leave no (worthy) film behind among those seen.

TFF also delivered a surprise breakthrough star—young, seductive and showing strong signs of maturing in the right direction towards a very bright future. (More about that later.)

Poverty was captured and served as poignant backdrop in two of the very best TFF films caught, all the more notable because both filmmakers were making their long-form debuts. Director Justin Tipping (also co-writer with Josh Beirne-Golden) delivered Focus World’s often shocking, raw, remarkable Kicks, a slick and wholly entertaining adventure involving young teen hero Brandon (Jahking Guilloryin a standout performance), a skinny kid from San Francisco’s East Bay who with his two pals—a macho but loyal a-hole (Christopher Meyer) and a comical sidekick (Christopher Jordan Wallace)—tries to retrieve his beloved retro Air Jordan high tops that were stolen by some ambushing young thugs. The trio race to the Oakland area, and their trek amounts to a pummeling, pulsating, sometimes punishing journey that takes them through rotting, disadvantaged cityscapes and shabby homes and into some unsavory activities that serve as fun in this hard-pressed milieu. If the premise of stolen shoes rings lame, the film is anything but. It’s explosive entertainment loaded with hip-hop music, filthy dialogue, fine acting throughout, plentiful action and masterful cinematography. Some relief from the frenzy comes by way of dollops of humor and flights of fantasy that intermittently take Brandon, abetted by an imagined astronaut, into space high above the harsh realities below.

Deb Shoval’s AWOL marks another impressive debut (adapted from her short film) and another immersion into challenged lives in challenging places. The story unfolds in a remote area of northeastern Pennsylvania, where 18-year-old tomboyish lesbian Joey (Lola Kirke) works dead-end menial jobs but dreams of much better. The Army might be her way out, so she signs up but all too soon falls for older, poor white trash Rayna (Breeda Wool), estranged from her truck-driver husband and saddled with a couple of sweet kids. The two begin a torrid affair, but duty calls Joey into the military service. When released on furlough and back home, she encounters plenty of complications and surprises. The romance continues, although Rayna’s lowlife husband has returned and eyes the pair suspiciously. Joey’s decision to go AWOL and take off with Rayna to Canada may not be the smart solution. Again, the authenticity of squalid settings and marginal characters pay high rewards here, as do the exceptional performances of all players, especially the two leads. Like the indie hit Frozen River, herein lies another harsh and indelible cinema-scape of challenged hopes and deprivation.

Only one Italian film made it into TFF this year and it was a dramedy gem. Perfect Strangers (Perfetti sconosciuti), from director and co-writerPaolo Genovese, puts viewers in a comfortable Rome apartment with well-off young couples and a lone bachelor on the prowl, convened for a dinner party. To have a little fun, the friends all agree to toss their call-ready mobile phones onto the center of the table, a game that leads not so unexpectedly but very cleverly and teasingly to an array of revelations and skirmishes. Play-like with one setting but rich enough to broaden for an English-language remake (Nancy Meyers, Roman Polanski?), the film, which is a hit in Italy and received many David Di Donatello Award nominations, is blessed with exceptional performances and sizeable servings of twists. Tutti a tavola a manger (or something like that)!

James Lapine, best-known for his Tony and Pulitzer award-winning theatre work, delivers Custody, an engrossing drama (after a slow start) that takes viewers into New York’s overloaded children’s court and child-services operations as experienced by a cross-section of individuals on all sides of yet another troubled corner of any big city. The dialogue, personal travails and performances are what make this gnarly excursion so gripping.

In this pile-up of overworked, frustrated individuals at the mercy of a justice system that is too often unjust are Viola Davis as the New York Family Court judge and wife to Tony Shalhoub as the husband who goes astray; Catalina Sandino Moreno as the innocent single mother who unjustly loses her children; and Hayden Panettiere as her inexperienced defense lawyer newly minted from Yale Law, who has another mess in her own family to deal with. Also in the mix are an uncaring lawyer and social worker and Ellen Burstyn as Panettiere’s rich, WASPy grandmother with a gift for cover-up.

Directed and co-written by Halkawt Mustafa, El Clásico, as covered in an earlier FJI TFF article, is in its delightful story of tiny people in a tiny town a big surprise. The two main characters, two brothers who love soccer, are small people in a Kurdish Iraq town where one is already married and the other courts a young woman who loves him but whose father is reluctant to let her marry a small person. To win the guy over (he’s a big soccer fan), the brothers embark on a challenging road trip to Spain, where their encounter with a soccer star will impress the father. Direction, performances and cinematography are exceptional and the film’s mix of charm, humor and suspense deliver feel-good vibes long after the film ends.

Another charmer but much rougher is The Orchard’s New Zealand import Hunt for the Wilderpeople, directed and written by Taika Waititi. This beautifully lensed family adventure (almost Disney goes into the New Zealand wilderness, were it not for the occasional violence) has a neo-Dickensian flavor in its story of troubled, untamed, hip-hop-loving orphan Ricky (Julian Dennison), a young teen left in the care of a struggling farming couple on the edge of wilderness bush country. When the caring farmer’s wife dies, it’s up to the very reluctant and incapable farmer himself (Sam Neill’s Uncle Hec) to take charge, but the unruly kid runs away with his dog. Neill is terrific in the scenery-chewing role of the thoroughly unlikable curmudgeon, although the breathtaking rustic scenery of thick forests and massive hills requires tough chewing. And Dennison as the kid is every bit up to the work of being the great actor’s co-star.

On the doc side, one of the many standouts was The Happy Film, a very personal film described as a “graphic design experiment” but accessible and entertaining to its core. This is Austrian-born, New York-based designer Stefan Sagmeister’s brilliant mash-up of psychology, philosophy and especially dazzling visual pyrotechnics in an intimate but generously shared search for his personal happiness through a trio of possible solutions—meditation, therapy or drugs. Visual splashes of animation and the subject’s own designs make this doc as much spectacle as it is brain-teasing and rich in adventure. The doc is mostly a happy affair, in spite of some heart-rending tragedies within. Big assets here are the suspense arc propelling Sagmeister’s search—will he indeed find the formula to happiness?—and Sagmeister himself, a charismatic, smart and talented host who, addressing the camera in close-up, makes viewers his inescapable cohorts in an investigation that is universally compelling.

In the animation genre, the R-rated nasty-as-hell and often hilarious or disturbing  Hollywood-skewering Nerdland is the mischief of filmmaker Chris Prynoski and writer/partner-in-crime Andy Kevin Walker, who serve up two L.A. creeps, a wannabe screenwriter and a wannabe director who, on the threshold of 30, are desperate to find fame and jobs (not necessarily in that order) in the biz. Paul Rudd and Patton Oswalt give wonderful, pathetic voice to these losers whose manic striving enables, even in its cartoony broad strokes, a vivid and ugly picture of L.A.’s underbelly of places where career-hungry incapables hang and hope. Lust, sexual perversion, excess and plain luck also have their just roles in this this perverted A Star Is Born-like ride to the heights.

A far more sober look at the road to fame unfolds in Mike Birbiglia’s excellent Don’t Think Twice, a doc-like, fly-on-the-wall-style look at a tightknit troupe of Manhattan improv actors hungry to make it and what the work entails. When one in their group actually wins a gig on a “Saturday Night Live”-like show, other, less admirable qualities surface that complicate what were once loyal and loving relationships. Birbiglia also co-stars alongside the other hugely talented comics he directs.

Hip-hop hopped around several TFF films, including the engrossing Arab-Israeli drama Junction 48, an Israeli-German-U.S. production directed by Udi Aloni and written by Oren Moverman and Tamer Nafar. The hero here is a Palestinian rap artist struggling like others in Lod, a small Israeli town with a largely Palestinian population, and winning a much-coveted gig in a popular Tel Aviv club. The music here flows as steadily as the politics do. The beautifully crafted production and fine performances do justice to the all-powerful political message that permeates the work and makes a case for a two-state solution even as there is bad behavior on both sides.

Among TFF’s bounty of neo-noirs and mysteries was The Fixer, which takes place in a rural Northern California town as rough-and-tumble as the Afghan battle areas where the film’s hero (Dominic Rains) worked as a “fixer” for the California soldier still serving there. Rains has become a journalist and, newly arrived in the U.S., is given shelter in the soldier’s hometown, where the sheriff (Melissa Leo) welcomes him as he searches for work. He finds a small reporting job which opens his eyes to the area’s hillbilly-like criminals and its war zone which looks not unfamiliar to Afghan eyes. The film is a standout, thanks especially to the roles and dialogue given Leo and to James Franco, who co-stars as one of the unruly, scruffy dudes in the area who, apparently lifting grooming tips from Charles Manson, may or may not be another of the town’s bad guys.

An exotic locale and stunning camerawork and acting added to the appeal of Children of the Mountain, writer-director Priscilla Anany’s TFF award-winning debut. The poignant drama tells the story of an unmarried Ghana woman who gives birth to a deformed and sickly child whose father wants nothing to do with the creature.

Whiffs of a quaint Miss Marple-like British mystery tale with its de rigueur country setting arise in Mother, a light but involving Estonian drama involving a small-town mom juggling a husband, a secret lover, and a near-comatose son whose incapacitating shooting she may or may not have been involved with.

James Franco is everywhere, so why not another TFF selection? In King Cobra, a hugely cynical non-porn programmer for aficionados of the gay-porn genre (and no doubt many who are curious), he’s one of two sleazy Southern California porn filmmakers (Christian Slater is the other) competing for a gorgeous, eager teen actor on the brink of hardcore stardom. In spite of the its sunny California sheen, the fact-based film provides a dark, close-up look at a dirty corner of a dirty business, even without the money shots. Alicia Silverstone and Molly Ringwald are also featured.

TFF was a thicket of terrific docs, including Obit, about those on The New York Times’ obituary desk. The work also serves a must-see primer for good reporting (the writing, researching, fact-checking).

Foodies and pleasure-seekers generally will delight in The Orchard’s recently acquired Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a bio-doc about the hugely successful, colorful and influential chef who apprenticed with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, went on to great fame (the storied Stars restaurant in San Francisco was his pinnacle), then pretty much disappeared from sight to a simple life in Mexico, where he still lives. That Anthony Bourdain executive-produced the film is a big clue to Tower’s charisma and charm. Tower himself inspired the title as he uses “the last magnificent” to describe his idol, the openly gay boulevardier, writer-journalist and high-living patrician Lucius Beebe of the 1930s, who worked as hard as he lived high and coined the term “café society.”

Exceptional in a very different way is David Feige’s Untouchable, an exploration of the legal and social system’s harsh treatment of sexual offenders in the U.S. and the fanatic Florida father-daughter pair who rally for their continued ostracism from society. The father, one of the scariest guys to hit the screen, is a top lobbyist living large in Florida; the daughter, who had some kind of terrible childhood experience with an abusive nanny, has developed a business from their manic mission to oppress offenders. Together, the pair and their relationship deserve their own documentary. But that would really be “untouchable.”

The aptly titled Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four is a contemporary witch-hunting exposé of the long horrific ordeal that began in 1994 when four San Antonio women, all lesbians, were tried, wrongfully convicted and ultimately jailed for an alleged crime—molesting two sisters in their care—that they did not commit. With the help of some dedicated lawyers, they are finally exonerated and released, but their torn-up road to justice made for a very long and bumpy ride. Justice and decision-making have often been suspect in Texas. And fear based on prejudice, ignorance and machismo is almost a state motto. Like the lawyers, the women draw immense sympathy, as does the allegedly molested sister who told the incriminating lies but who, now grown up and having grown a conscience, embodies redemption in finally sharing the truth.

Making a radical turn to the sublime is the aesthetically stunning doc Reset, a must-see for balletomanes that features the renowned choreographer and dancer Benjamin Millepied (also known for choreographing the dance sequences in Black Swan) as he attempts to rejuvenate the Paris Opera Ballet (Opéra de Paris) as its new directorand very caring supervisor and teacher of the young dancers in his care. The doc also affords a close-up look at the details involved in preparation for the world premiere of Millepied’s ballet piece at the Opéra de Parisand his work with valued collaborators.

Among TFF’s other excellent docs were films dealing with important sociopolitical issues (law enforcement, war, refugee problems, weaponry). Robert Kenner’s Command and Control chillingly tells the real Cold War tale of an accident in 1980 at an Air Force Arkansas secret missile storage site that came very close to catastrophe.

National Bird, thorough its three young military whistleblowers, chillingly reminds that the U.S. drone program commits excessive collateral damage with its long-distance targeting of enemies who too often are innocent civilians. The doc serves as a fine complement to the recent fiction features Good Kill and Eye in the Sky.

Also chilling is the doc Shadow War, in its sometimes discursive exposé of the role the leaders and some business cronies among the world’s great powers (the U.S., the U.K.) or the merely very rich (Saudi Arabia) have in deriving billions in profits as arms traffickers to assure the revenue-generating wars that forever percolate globally. Among the villains here are Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair, but especially the oily (pun intended) Prince Bandor, Saudi Arabia’s slick and silky wheeler-dealer. A policy option for world powers to just respect national sovereignty (or fix it, in the case of Palestine) and let civil wars be civil wars is not addressed.

Other worthy TFF works addressed the gay experience and AIDS (Strike a Pose, Memories of a Penitent Heart, Women Who Kill), unfamiliar settings (Icaros: A Vision), and some nostalgic mystery and noir excursions (A Kind of Murder).  

Regarding TFF’s aforementioned “breakthrough star,” it is most assuredly virtual reality (VR), whose designated arcade presented some eye-popping/mind-blowing short programs that made a lot of noise (inside and outside headsets). 3D, extra-paneled screens and giant screens don’t come close to the immersion that VR offers. VR doesn’t so much blow the mind as empower it to interact with the “reel” world much the same as interacting with the immediate real world.

One program, the 20-minute “Allumette,” (the longest of the all-short VR lineup) is a sweet mother-daughter animated adventure-melodrama set in a magical Venice-like canal village floating atop the clouds. The multitude of perspectives for viewers triggered not just acrophobia but, going from reel to real, ideas for a theatre setting (easy retrofit required) for a longer, similar presentation. The big fix this piece needed was better storytelling, but that’s the easier part.

The live-action “Killer Deal,” affording viewers the pleasure of being in the middle of a seedy hotel room as a very bloody machete massacre unfolds, was a revelation in spite of visuals that needed better resolution. The piece stirred thoughts for VR’s assured place in the horror genre, provided the format continues to evolve and improve.

From Baobab Studios’ and director Eric Darnell (Antz and Madagascar) came the charming animated “Invasion,” an involving tale of an adorable bunny threatened by aliens that made viewers, looking down at their own rabbit feet, become the bunny’s pal. The short suggested VR as a magnet for kids and families.

TFF’s laudable efforts to explore new ways of storytelling and story-experiencing with its Storyscapes and, especially, its VR sidebars could use some streamlining, so audiences might better appreciate and understand how technology and digital capabilities are changing the entertainment landscape. Or is that train just running too fast? How about TFF parent Tribeca Enterprises throwing some money at the development of miniature, comfortable headset-headphone combos (but, remembering Google glasses, leaving the fashion hook behind)?