Looking back at the highlights of the 17th annual Tribeca Film Festival


Taste is always subjective and, literally in the visual arts, in the eye of the beholder. Recapping the highlights of New York’s recently concluded Tribeca Film Festival, a prime example can be found in this writer’s difference of opinion with the influential New York Times in its coverage of three Tribeca films that landed in theatres on Friday (even before the Fest ended on Sunday—those fest-to-commercial-marketplace windows are closing!).

Duck Butter, from Miguel Arteta (Beatriz at Dinner), centers on two young lesbians who meet quick and fast-track their relationship by making a pact to have sex every hour for the next 24 hours. The film and its brave gimmick and good intentions got a positive Times review, while one of Tribeca’s strongest entries, Bleecker Street’s also lesbian-themed Disobedience, took some whacks. That film stars Rachel Weisz as a Brit ex-pat photographer living a bit wildly in New York but called back to her North London Orthodox Jewish community for her long-estranged rabbi father’s funeral. Rachel McAdams, her former lover before she fled west, is now married to the late rabbi’s young protégé (an also-excellent Alessandro Nivola). Acting, story and structure are all first-rate, as are the many undercurrents of suspense and desire.

With the film’s dark tones and pervasive grimness, Disobedience, at least to this viewer, comes across as an indictment of oppressive orthodoxy of any kind and the undeserved pain closed minds inflict. The largely unflattering Times review didn’t see Disobedience that way.

Nor did the paper seem to see the all-critical questions and issues raised by Laura Brownson’s gripping doc portrait The Rachel Divide, about Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who, passing for black, served as Spokane, Washington’s NAACP chapter president. When her biological race was exposed, a media frenzy exploded and provoked ethical questions. But the doc, exposing the awful dysfunction of the white family Rachel came from and the impressive one she has gone on to create, also asks the important question of what most meaningfully constitutes our racial or ethnic (or by extension gender) identity. Where do biology, genuine feeling, passion, comfort fit into this identity equation? Or are color and genes the only determinants? This doc is also a consideration of anger, prejudice and human nature at its best and worst, thus raising further questions the Times review didn’t care about.

Among the best of Tribeca’s narrative features were three winners with black protagonists. In O.G. (the letters standing for “original gangsta”), Jeffrey Wright delivers an awards-bait performance as O.G., an Indiana federal prison inmate and former killer soon due for release after decades of incarceration. Director/producer Madeleine Sackler coaxes perfect performances throughout, delivers authentic locations, and shows attention to the tiniest details (evident, for instance, in her selection of indie favorite Mare Willingham in the role of a social worker trying to bring some closure to both O.G. and the sister of his victim whom he shot and killed. There’s power and suspense here as O.G. confronts maybe bigger problems within prison during what may be or not his final days there.

Obey, written and directed by Jamie Jones, goes deep into the 2011 London riots and the troubled black youths caught up in the turmoil. Marcus Rutherford is superb in his role as Leon, who deals not just with the hood temptations to crime and violence but a trashy alcoholic mother with very bad taste in men. First love and his own decency may save him, but don’t bet on it. Beyond the authentic performances and violent era conveyed, it’s the film’s remarkably immersive cinematography that pulls viewers into this convulsive, emotionally provocative drama.

A nice surprise came by way of Nigerian Prince, with co-writer/director Faraday Okoro making his feature debut on a dramedy enabled through a new Tribeca/AT&T effort to bring unheard voices and new talent to screens (here, a $1,000,000 prize to Okoro was the budget enabler). This is a cynicism-infused tale of serial scamming in contemporary Nigeria, where a 17-year-old American of Nigerian heritage gets sucked in after his mother, now a U.S. nurse, sends him to a corrupt aunt and cousin. Abetted by memorable cinematography, the film delivers an ugly/funny portrait of the Nigerian capital Lagos and a knockout ending that could have benefited from more attention to foreshadowing. Yet even with a few other loose narrative threads to tighten (e.g., why was the teen hero deemed so troubled and sent off to Nigeria?), this is another Tribeca entry worthy of the big screen.

Jumping continents, Mary Shelley provides a jolt for Anglophiles and other fans of classy, PBS-y Brit period drama. IFC is releasing this delicious bio-melodrama about Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the early 19th-century writer who, before she was twenty, birthed Frankenstein, the guy who birthed that famous monster, and began an on-and-off romance with the older, unconventional, exotically attractive poet Percy Shelley. Elle Fanning as Mary handles both role and British accent just fine and additional key characters like her younger, freethinking sister and wealthy libertine poet Lord Byron add spice. Beyond serving up characters and lifestyles that scandalized, the film also takes time to suggest what prompts and inspires creativity.

Like Nigerian Prince, All About Nina is another indie drama that pummels with a slam of an ending. Writer-director Eva Vives has fashioned a tale of struggling Queens-born stand-up comic Nina (played to perfection by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who, newly arrived in L.A., has the talent to make it but no talent for relationships. But also in her baggage is a dark secret, as the saying kind of goes, that will either kill her or make her stronger. With Common as co-star, the ever-wonderful Beau Bridges playing the mentor who “gets” her in a good way and that whopper ending,All About Nina will hold audiences as assuredly as its heroine’s comic shtick.

The light Belgian family drama The Elephant and the Butterfly leaves us with some loose threads, but with Martin Scorsese and the Dardenne Brothers lending support as executive producers, there’s plenty of quality onscreen. A big help comes from the story’s precocious five-year-old heroine, who is left at the last minute in the care of her estranged chef father when the babysitter hired by her single mom unexpectedly bails. This is a sweet, modest, honest, often-touching tale of separation and reconciliation.

Going darker and heavier in the family way but no less worthy is Blue Night, a jazzy riff on and update of the early-’60s French New Wave classic Cleo from 5 to 7. No surprise, then, that director Fabien Constant is French-born. Now a New Yorker, he delivers a very Manhattan picture of a contemporary divorced singer (Sarah Jessica Parker) so much caught up in her world and art it has cost her a marriage and less time with her gifted teenage daughter. It doesn’t help that she has been given a grim diagnosis from her doctor. But it does help that the supporting characters are played so strongly by familiar names (Simon Baker as the estranged husband, Jacqueline Bisset as the singer’s not-quite-icy mother, Common as her caring manager and Renée Zellweger as the dear pal who took the well-traveled conventional wife/mother route) and a few names sure to grow more familiar (Taylor Kinney as the singer’s neglected daughter, Waleed Zuaiter as a compassionate car-service driver). Parker’s weighty performance meshes perfectly with the atmospheric cinematography that aptly captures, as night passes into dawn, a real New York and a painfully distracted state of mind.

Egg is a contemporary drama set in loft-y, 30-something Brooklyn amongst two couples (and a young interloper) who embody various attitudes regarding giving birth, having children and the mating ritual to get things started. The dialogue-driven film betrays its roots as a stage play, but who cares when the talking, direction and performances are this good? Anna Camp as a well-heeled artist and Gbenga Akinnagbe as her partner welcome into their cool, spacious digs Mr. and Mrs. Straight, meaning a wealthy, conservative suburban couple played by Christina Hendricks (of “Mad Men” fame), Camp’s close art-school pal, and David Alan Basche (a busy TV actor who memorably played 9/11 hero Todd Beamer in United 93 and produces here) as Hendricks’ macho, sports-addicted developer hubby. When early on it’s shared that Camp and Akinnagbe will be having their first child via a surrogate mother, what’s meant to be a long-awaited, pleasant get-together turns progressively nasty and only worsens when the young, sexy, devil-may-care surrogate mom-to-be (appropriately named Kiki) shows up.

Sometimes what’s best in a film is the unexpected memory it leaves with the viewer. Such was the case with Jellyfish, writer-director James Gardner’s world-premiere drama from the U.K., which (intentionally or not) borrows from the British kitchen sink (“angry young man”) school of gritty, mostly lower-class dramas from back in the day when foreign cinema crashed our shores and woke us up to new cinema experiences. This raw contemporary tale introduces Liv Hil (sic) in a breakthrough performance as a spare-no-words angry young teen with a mother from hell (an unforgettable Sinéad Matthews) and a dead-end life in a struggling Brit seaside holiday town (the very un-festive Margate, indelibly captured).

Writer-director Ondi Timoner’s Mapplethorpe is based on 1960s New York art student Robert Mapplethorpe, who, in the 1970s and with the help of wealthy older art collector/socialite Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) as his lover/benefactor, became the notoriously famous downtown photographer of much homoerotica (deemed pornographic to many) before succumbing to AIDS after plenty of 1980s behavior that included drugs, promiscuous “partying” and one-night stands. A terrific Matt Smith of “The Crown” fame also jumps the pond of expectations playing Queens-born Mapplethorpe convincingly. Beaucoup nudity and inclusion of others in Mapplethorpe’s arty orbit (e.g., writer/performer Patti Smith, gallerist Holly Solomon) and recreations of the era’s hipster hangouts like the Chelsea Hotel and downtown lofts and galleries add to the portrait.

A standout by virtue of its unusual but important subject was co-writer-director Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a 1990s-set story of teens who are SSA (same sex attraction) prone and sent off to become “disciples” at a Minnesota retreat to be “cured” (brainwashed, actually). Among those playing the “afflicted” is star Chloë Grace Moretz. And the ever busy Jennifer Ehle plays the creepily unctuous retreat den mother who force-feeds the retreat’s Kool-Aid.

Several docs with LGBTQ DNA were among Tribeca’s best, including Every Act of Life, a very close-up look at the great American, four-time Tony-winning playwright and librettist Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune), and Howard, an in-depth portrait of the late lyricist Howard Ashman. McNally continues to put pen to paper and many colleagues and intimates weigh in (including Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald and Angela Lansbury). Clips abound from McNally plays and there’s plenty of additional archival footage, including that of McNally’s ex-lover Edward Albee, the acclaimed late playwright whose Broadway revival of Three Tall Women just garnered several top Tony nominations. Out of the closet at a young age when it wasn’t easy, McNally battled addiction when he was younger and now struggles with his health, but continues impressively as a writer and activist for causes like AIDS awareness.

Another world premiere, Howard too goes deep into the life and work of this artist who created the musical classic Little Shop of Horrors and blockbuster Disney musicals like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before his early AIDS-related death. Including tributes from family and famous colleagues like Jeffrey Katzenberg, the doc reveals Ashman’s background as a little kid from a very modest Baltimore home who put on shows for his sister. He went on to study drama, then founded his own small theatre in New York. Fame and revitalizing Disney (with his professional partner, composer Alan Menken) followed. Ashman’s love of the musical genre comes across powerfully, as does an understanding of why music and lyrics were so integral to his storytelling.

One of the best docs with gay DNA was Matt Tyrnauer’s (Valentino: The Last Emperor) Studio 54, about the world-famous, wildly popular but exclusive club of the ’70s that was formerly a theatre and CBS studio before it was lavishly restored for the swells. Studio gives a close-up look at the birth and sustenance of celebrity culture and how to build a wildly successful business and bilk the system (or maybe how not to) to keep it and the owners thriving. With much archival material and access to many of the club’s notables, especially co-founder Ian Schrager (a true sport to participate here), Tyrnauer delivers a nostalgic rush and instructive primer. The very social, partying co-owner Steve Rubell, who later died of AIDS, gets plenty of screen time, but it’s the club’s history and clientele that really fascinate.

As if famous faces, glitz and drama weren’t enough, the many disco classics add to the momentum. Most striking is how things don’t change much: Trump’s early lawyer and mentor, sleazy Roy Cohn, was key defense lawyer for the Studio pair. Lying, manipulating, calling in favors and snitching also weighed heavily back then on the fragile scales of justice.

Also sensational among the docs was General Magic, a company begun in the late ’80s that brought the first mobile, do-it-all kind of gadget to market. The startup was an Apple spinoff that created a media frenzy, but timing, among other things, matters. Macs aren’t known for crashing, but General Magic did…spectacularly. With amazing archival footage and access to just about everyone who was involved with this startup that didn’t, it’s another business primer on how not to succeed, even as many of its top employees and engineers have gone straight to the top of tech today.

Two of Tribeca’s fashion themed-docs are sure to shine on the big screen: Magnolia’s The Gospel According to André, about the still-vibrant, wise, charming fashion legend and whirlwind André Leon Talley. A poor, marginalized boy from the deeply segregated South who stuck with what he loved with a mantra to “create your own universe,” he went to Brown University, made his way to Paris and New York, and befriended the right people (including the iconic Diana Vreeland and Anna Wintour) to become “in Vogue” big-time. As one of today’s great fashion and taste arbiters, Tally, on the move with his hallmark capes, embodies the passion, smarts, fearlessness and decency that are at the heart of the unspoken lesson this doc reveals.

Yellow Is Forbidden is a visually dazzling, fascinating close-up look at the famous Chinese couturier Guo Pei, who having built her business and reputation in China, travels to Paris hoping to wow the masters of haute couture, including the gatekeepers of its highly selective commission. Best known for designing the brilliant gold gown Rihanna wore to the Met’s 2015 Ball, Guo, as the doc reveals, displays remarkable fine taste, pays near-preternatural attention to details and observes everything in her manic search for beauty. But Guo’s quest goes beyond the red carpet and taps into global power dynamics and the perpetual tension between art and commerce.

Jazz lovers will go ape over Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, about the birth of the fabled label founded by two German-Jewish refugees in the late 1920s. The performance and music-packed doc, with many mini-portraits of great Blue Note artists through the years, also shows the company today. For jazz lovers worldwide, this Swiss doc is heaven-sent and heaven itself.

The American Meme is a fine doc that’s a hoot and maybe a warning, as it profiles a handful of young social-media stars who, achieving sticky presence on the Internet with their usually trashy content, have attracted millions of followers who in turn have attracted big brands and their money. (Heiress Paris Hilton, credited with igniting this explosion and being its iconic founder, was already rich before she hit social media’s big time.) Kids addicted to Instagram and the like love this stuff, and the doc slyly suggests that these fans won’t fare better with all this lame content and time wasted.

Among the Fest’s more trippy films was Momentum Generation, the award-winning Zimbalist Brothers’ doc about a generation of surfing buddies who bonded, peaked sensationally as world-class competitors in the 1990s and, after death wiped out a star in their midst, went their separate ways. The abundant surfing footage here packs a kinetic wallop, perfect fodder for the cameras, but so are the tanned surfers who are easy on the eyes and seem decent, likeable fellows who bond as they surf.

Trippy with its fascinating visuals but also with its loopy story is writer-director John Maringouin’s Ghostbox Cowboy, starring David Zellner as an unimpressive California guy who goes to China to get funding for his absurd invention. This often creepy film, as it goes deep into Chinese life, is like a fever dream stirred up by obsessions with celebrity/wealth/pleasure/self and taken to Wagnerian heights of mystical empowerment and excess.

A big surprise was the resurrection of the 1992 indie In the Soup, afunky, fun story about an impoverished downtown Manhattan filmmaker wannabe (Steve Buscemi) who hooks up with a goofball con guy (indie legend Seymour Cassel), who buys his 500-page script. Sparkling black-and-white cinematography and early performances from other notables (Jennifer Beals, Will Patton, Carol Kane, Stanley Tucci, Debi Mazar, Sam Rockwell) deliver a lot of movie and indie dream nostalgia for a time when cameras were not just a phone away.

Retrospectives were hardly limited to indies, as mega-budget classics like Scarface and Schindler’s List got the Tribeca treatment they deserved with bigger venues and post-screening panels with big talent. Scarface star Steven Bauer, not even overshadowed by fellow panelists like Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino, was the most talkative, friskiest participant, and Schindler’s List director Steven Spielberg reminded that in the same year (1993) he was juggling past and future, working on both the heavy Holocaust drama that would garner multiple Oscars and the futuristic franchise-to-be Jurassic Park. How’s that for multitasking?

The best news about Tribeca 2018 was that a record 46% of its long-form new works came from female filmmakers. Also notable was the huge presence of black filmmakers, subjects and characters, and the klieg lights shone on important issues that have more urgency today than ever.