Less is more: Tenth Tribeca Film Festival offers a strong and varied lineup

This year’s successful session of the Tribeca Film Festival (TFF), which ran April 20 through May 2, presented close to 100 features, and of those sampled by us mortals limited to only 24 hours in a day, the films as a whole impressed as especially strong. Is it the curating, or are filmmakers getting better? Whatever the reasons, the Tribeca Film Festival, with less Hollywood glitz, delivered more bliss with high-quality independent films for serious fans to savor.

From the most ecstatically exhilarating (Carol Channing: Larger Than Life) to the most excruciatingly depressing (Detachment) and plenty of excellence in between, the fest was a fine celebration of international cinema brought to downtown Manhattan theaters and, for a select handful, planet-wide on the Internet.

But this tenth installment was something of a paradox: While the promising line-up and the fest’s reputation and aggressive marketing assured getting film lovers out of the house, TFF this year presented a record number of options (streamed and VOD films, blogs, feeds, etc.) to keep cinephiles at home.

TFF even co-opted the term “big screen” by boasting on its posters and trailers that this year’s event was “now playing on more big screens,” specifying flat TV and computer monitor screens. (Hopefully the “giant screen” moniker has more life to it.)

Asked about TFF’s new stretch and half-joking speculation that by 2013 the festival might entirely be enjoyed at home, ex-Sundancer and current Tribeca Enterprises chief creative officer Geoffrey Gilmore responded, “You’ll be seeing more and more access for the home [in coming years]” but he assured that “it’ll still be a festival.” But one requiring audiences get to theatres? “Oh yeah!” he half-assured smilingly.

The good overriding news was that TFF suggested there’s plenty of life back in the business. This year’s session demonstrated its muscle as a market, as Magnolia, The Weinstein Company and Corinth Films made acquisitions during the fest. Magnolia, for instance, grabbed Blackthorn, a co-production starring Sam Shepard as legendary bandit Butch Cassidy exiled in Bolivia, where he hides during his final days. Weinstein licensed The Bully Project (see below), a remarkable doc about the bullying epidemic in our schools and its horrible consequences, and Corinth took the fascinating German doc Klitschko, about two highly educated, chess-playing Ukrainian brothers who also happen to be world boxing champs.

While there can never be sure bets of which TFF entries might achieve  Searchlight/Weinstein-like crossover power, plenty are in the running.

Filmmaker Michael Cuesta, who scored years back with L.I.E., directed and co-wrote Roadie with brother Gerald. It’s a terrific look back at a burned-out, Queens-bred roadie in the ’80s who, after being fired as longtime flunkie for Blue Oyster Cult, has to return home, where he hides that proverbial tail between his legs as he continues to masquerade as big-shot rocker to mom and old friends. Ron Eldard amazes as the sad rock ’n’ roll loser and gets impeccable support from Lois Smith, Bobby Cannavale and Jill Hennessy. Location shooting in the NYC boroughs drives it all home.

Another chart-bound rock ’n’ roll number was David M. Rosenthal’s Janie Jones, which stars the always-excellent Allesandro Nivola as a struggling, on-the-road rocker who is forced to take care of the 13-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) he never knew he had—the result of a brief affair with a now-desperate druggie (the also excellent Elizabeth Shue). Father and daughter hit the road with surprising but hugely satisfying results. Janie Jones is one of several films going out under the new Tribeca Film brand.

France’s The Assault, based on the true story of an actual Air France hijacking at the height of the country’s 1990s war with Algeria and the subsequent “assault” of a special-forces team to rescue the captives, is a triumph of style and execution. Filmmaker Julien Leclerq’s gripping and highly stylized work (archival footage mixes seamlessly with handheld, frantic, monochromatic scenes of the historic event) and the many convincing performances recall Paul Greengrass’ equally remarkable and engaging 9/11-themed United 93. By way of both theme and style, this gem also recalls the doc-like classic Battle of Algiers.

Also from France (with help from Belgium) but at the other end of the genre spectrum is the frivolous and delightful Romantics Anonymous, a loopy comedy about two emotionally challenged and pathologically shy people who (maybe) manage to connect after they fall in love. A kind of Amélie meets Chocolat (in style, spirit and originality), this tale of a gifted but fatally retiring chocolate craftswoman and the owner of a failing chocolate manufacturing business requires some tolerance for an outré slice of French humor. But the fearless direction and spot-on, assured performances (even as excess threatens), especially from Benoit Poelvoorde as the reticent but enamored factory owner, help turn this film into a metaphoric creamy rich chocolate center of the unexpected, explosive kind. Given the opportunity (and a distrib probably will jump on it), certain audiences will bite.

Surprises from France aren’t that rare, but more so from post-Fellini Italy in collaboration with France and Germany. Claudio Cupellini’s suspenseful co-production A Quiet Life (more distributor bait), starring the great Toni Servillo (Il Divo, Gomorrah), is just that rarity. Servillo stars as a Mafia most-wanted who manages an escape to rural Germany, where after many decades, he has managed a discreet new life as a chef/restaurateur, devoted husband and father. All’s quiet until two mysterious punks show up at his inn in the remote village. Beyond being immensely entertaining and a showcase of fine acting and intriguing storytelling, the film, subtle yet brutal when it needs to be, is special on a number of other fronts. It makes clear how co-productions can work really well when so much is credible. The film also reminds how important craftsmanship is to getting viewers into its fabricated world. But A Quiet Life is also a foodie pleasure, as it makes apparent how well the (anti-)hero chef has learned his new craft.

Among the slew of more modest but accomplished American indies was Brady Kiernan’s world premiere Stuck Between Stations, one of many films to show off the power and beauty of digital capture. Stunning to behold, the story has a young soldier on hometown leave in Minneapolis meeting movie-cute (or is it movie-convenient?) with a former high-school classmate, now a grad student, from the proverbial other side of the tracks. Much like Before Sunrise, the film follows the unlikely bonding couple as they prowl through a Minneapolis night and share their post-high-school lives and current tribulations. Star turns from Zoe Lister-Jones (Breaking Upwards) and Sam Rosen, cameos from Josh Hartnett and Michael Imperioli, and the sparkling nightscape and night energy of the city add much value. A touching, maybe unexpected ending pins the tail on this re-fashioned story.

Like Stuck, Maria My Love, directed and written by debuting feature director Jasmine McGlade Chazelle, shows off the potential of digital capture on a low budget. The modest story may be a little thin in its telling of a young woman, wonderfully played by Judy Marte (Raising Victor Vargas), who is in slow recovery from her mother’s death and her father’s abandonment. In L.A., she attempts reconnection with her half-sister and definitely connects with a new boyfriend. But her most compelling connection is to an elderly train wreck of a loner played by vet actor Karen Black in what is a genuine, even astonishing star turn.

When filmmaker Chazelle was asked how she got such an incredible performance, she was quick to respond that Black is so intelligent, she just got the character. Her gifts at improvising were also evident and gleefully exploited.

Perhaps two of the fest’s most important, involving and enraging films were loud wake-up calls: the narrative fiction feature Detachment and the doc The Bully Project, which The Weinstein Company will bring to theatres.

Detachment has Adrien Brody as an emotionally numbed and cynical substitute teacher in Queens confronted with more problems than a Dr. Phil show. Following the teacher’s tentative awakening, the film takes lethal aim at public schools and parents for enabling, if not incubating, a lost, angry, despairing, uncaring generation of teens. Marred only by the hairpin turnaround of one character, the film is a pile-up of painfully familiar human dilemmas. The drama is also empowered by supporting performances from James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu and Marcia Gay Harden. An emotional rollercoaster ride, the film is the antithesis of a kick-back, “let it roll over me” film; it’s a punishing experience that again proves the courage and determination of director Tony Kaye (American History X) to make movies that require our attention to real problems.

Lee Hirsch’s The Bully Project, a world premiere, is an alarming doc that focuses on several young people, among the estimated 18 million, who are bullied by schoolmates. The film provides intimate portraits of the victims and their families, all residing in small American towns. All of the tormented kids are sensitive and generous of spirit; some are gay, on that path, maybe creative or somehow physically challenged. Some withhold reporting abuses, some have been driven to suicide. Thankfully, as the film shows, some parents are getting proactive about the problem even as school administrators seem stuck in denial or passivity.

In the inevitable film fest category of “You gotta respect it” (even if commercial prospects seem iffy) was the accomplished German/Dutch/South African co-production Black Butterflies, from Oscar-nominated Dutch director Paula van der Oest and starring Carice van Houten (Black Book), who took a TFF prize for acting. Van Houten stars as Ingrid Jonker, a renowned South African poet and anti-apartheid sympathizer who took her own life in the ’60s and was known as that country’s Sylvia Plath. Jonker, whose most famous poem was inspired by the shooting of an innocent black child, is depicted here as a bit of a mess (her severe daddy problems only partially explain her fatal self-destructive nature and problems with men), but also as an important voice in helping wipe out apartheid. Rutger Hauer, as her severe right-wing father, and Liam Cunningham, as a lover and fellow writer, add heft to this handsome film. But it’s the off-putting Jonker character as depicted here that challenges, inspiring “Get a grip, girl!” frustration.

Reflecting the (film) world at large, female filmmakers of narrative fiction were few and far between at TFF, but actor Vera Farmiga made her directorial debut with Higher Ground, a much more modest work than Butterflies but also one that begins in the ’60s and features a poor, sensitive, creative heroine (here a farm girl) as victim. Farmiga plays the character as an older woman who uses revivalist religion as a way to survive her troubled past and marriage to a struggling rock ’n’ roller. There’s a whole lotta prayin’ goin’ on here as God, Jesus and the Bible permeate the drama. Farmiga shines here, and delivers some charged scenes, including a startling bus accident. But there are also attenuated moments that serve the actors more than the audience.

Many of the top films at TFF were what could be called “Wikipedia magnets,” meaning they provoked viewers to go straight to Wikipedia for more information about their intriguing subjects.

One of the best of these was the totally captivating and surprising Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, directed and co-written by Dori Berinstein. While many of us know Channing as the Broadway star (not the movies!) of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly! and a perennial inspiration to drag queens, the doc reveals her as a consummate humanist, comedienne, performer and survivor. It also surprises as an amazing love story that brings Channing back together after 70 years with her early teen boyfriend. The Wikipedia pull is only to get more information about her family (A Jewish mother? A son? A wicked first husband?) that the movie couldn’t include. Above all, Channing comes across as an inspiration, a reminder of what people at their most generous and gifted can be.

Sending us to Zagat rather than Wikipedia is A Matter of Taste, one of several TFF foodie pleasures that might prove alluring on theatre menus. The doc follows young, hyper-modern Rhodesian-born/U.K.-raised chef Paul Liebrandt from 2001 to the present as he struggles with bringing his daring dishes to New York restaurants. It’s an insider’s view into the city’s restaurants, its esteemed food critics, the power brokers, and, of course, Liebrandt’s modus operandi as rogue chef.

Besides A Matter of Taste, foodies could also dive into Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a portrait of 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, whose restaurant won the holy grail of three Michelin stars. The doc also provides a look at the master’s sons, his assistants, customers and, very important, the workings of a tuna auction where the essence of great sushi begins. Magnolia picked this one up during the festival.

LGBT-themed docs were also strong at TFF. Among the best (and pick-upable) were Gone, about an ex-police officer mom, Kathy Gilleran, from upstate New York who must investigate the disappearance of her gay son in Vienna. The film unfolds not only as a mystery into what could have happened to the son, a gorgeous and accomplished man who worked for a U.N. unit, but as a close-up look at the homophobia of the Viennese authorities charged with solving this mystery. Interestingly, it’s not so much the resolution that matters but the surprise that Gilleran emerges such a natural for the camera.

Equally strong but for other reasons is ESPN Films’ transgender doc Renée, the story of alpha male/tennis ace/eye doctor/husband/father Dick Raskind’s transition in his 40s to female Renée Richards, who went on to play in the U.S. Open on the other team, so to speak. Even Hollywood couldn’t have dreamed up this one.

Also a must-see, which licensor Sundance Selects will facilitate, is the doc L’amour fou that features Pierre Berge as he shares thoughts about his late lover Yves Saint Laurent, for whom he also ran the designer’s hugely successful fashion businesses, and prepares for the dispersal of their vast art collection at a London auction. There’s archival footage of the two, footage of their residences in Paris, Morocco and Normandy and the designer at work. It’s a feast for fashion trendies and those who can stand watching how others live so much better (materially) than we do.

Comparisons are apt for previous Saint Laurent docs and those featuring Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld. What sets L’amour fou apart is its restraint. Saint Laurent’s addictions and remarkable success are only touched upon and his death is not up for discussion.

It’s not an LGBT doc, but watch how the extraordinary HBO project The Loving Story, about the 1967 landmark Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia decision that struck down bans on interracial marriage, will impact the legal drive to bring marriage equality for all to this country. Nancy Buirski’s wonderful film, using much archival footage dealing with this landmark case, presents a beautiful, quiet but brave Virginia couple—Richard Loving and his African-American wife Mildred—who, because they were married, could not live in their home state. The other upfront heroes of this amazing story are the two young lawyers who persevered to bring the case to the top court and finally get anti-miscegenation laws throughout the country overturned. The Loving Story, which deserves a spin in theatres, will provoke a re-think of what marriage really is.

A number of worthy docs featured people buffeted by today’s political realities but revealed that even marriage today faces problems with the authorities. Love During Wartime follows newlyweds Jasmin and Assi, she an Israeli and Assi a Palestinian sculptor, who are forced to live in exile because their respective homelands do not view their marriage as a right to settle in either country.

Flowers of Evil is the romantic story of Gecko, a North African hotel bellman in Paris, and Anahita, an Iranian student who escapes to Paris after the controversial 2009 elections. The story may be slim, but the film is enlivened by an upbeat, hip view that affords a close-up of youth culture and gives it a techno spin by way of the music, social networking and other Internet byways that preoccupy the young generation. Gecko has special gifts as a dancer/acrobat and the film shows off his skills as he twirls around the city. And Anahita tracks progress in her home country through YouTube and Twitter.

A rush of energy, pop culture going way back, and flat-out enjoyment also comes from When the Drum Is Beating, about the 20-member Haitian band Septentrional that has been making big-band music for 62 years. (Its lead vocalist has been on the job for more than four decades!)

A doc of other stripes (make them very bright colors) is Billy Corben’s Limelight, a sure bet for theatrical life that Magnolia is making with its Tribeca pickup. Visually exciting and narratively charged, the film presents the story of New York club impresario Peter Gatien’s rise, fall and banishment to his native Canada after one of the most successful careers ever in running venues during the city’s drug-fueled, celebrity-crazed, music- driven dance-club heydays of the late ’70s and ’80s. The film touches upon a wealth of sundry subjects—the elusiveness of justice, pop-culture history, the drug scourge, human weakness, celebrity and accountability, and also gives a close-up look at some remarkably unsavory people in addition to smart, clear-headed legal eagles and politicians with various agendas. Improbably, club-meister Gatien, sitting out his years across the border, almost emerges a hero.

Another powerhouse doc is Chris Paine’s Revenge of the Electric Car, the follow-up to his Who Killed the Electric Car? Well, she arose and is now being pushed by Nissan, General Motors and Tesla Motors, which all get a generous amount of screen time, as do their execs and champions (Bob Lutz, Elon Musk, Carlos Ghosn). The cars work, they are super-cool, environmentally friendly and all’s good except that damn price. Next up should be the real success story: Many Are Buying the Electric Car Because It’s Finally Affordable!

Serious film buffs will get a serious charge out of Cinema Komunisto, a Serbian doc about Yugoslavian president Tito’s obsession with movies, the international film industry he helped build in the Communist country and the personal projectionist in his employ for 32 years. With many clips, glimpses of international film celebrities, and archival material covering local studios, execs and film fests, the doc is a pig-out for cinephiles. Of course, the industry is gone, just as the country is gone and chopped into tenuous entities. The doc is really a hagiography of Tito; says one vet film programmer who spent much time in Yugoslavia, the repression of certain kinds of film during his long tenure is never broached. Also, the picture never attempts a guess at what might explain the deterioration of so film-crazy a country into the horrific wars and violence perpetrated by their Balkan factions. Does Yugoslavia’s mania for war movies infused with patriotic fervor provide a clue?

Other wonderful docs provided more clarity. Literary types and those who enshrine the Beat Generation will really dig the Swedish film Love Always, Carolyn, about the England-based Carolyn Cassady, who was the wife of beat icon Neal Cassady (said to be the subject of Jack Kerouac’s signature On the Road) and the lover of Jack Kerouac. Carolyn is candid, witty, honest and modest and serves up some extraordinary personal surprises in this portrait that suggests it’s she who should have been in the driver’s seat on that iconic road into ’50s bohemia.

Humor was in top form at TFF. Anarchists, libertarians and the very giggly among film fans will have a wonderful time at Iceland’s Gnarr, about comedian Jon Gnarr’s insane bid to be mayor of Reykjavik. We can’t say whether he wins because it’s too much fun getting to the final count, but the journey includes much soap-boxing about his party’s agenda. Dubbing his organization the Best Party, Gnarr advocates fun, fun, fun as the key to power politics and promises things like more polar bears for the local zoo, a new Disneyland for the area, and a prohibition from his circle of anyone who doesn’t watch “The Wire.” (Who can argue with that?)

Also on the humor track is IFC’s The Trip, which reunites comedians Steve Coogan and bud Rob Brydon in a dream doc (for them but not entirely for audiences) as they storm Britain’s picturesque Lake District countryside where Coogan, on assignment from The Observer, researches an article on fine dining. Coogan and Brydon phone in this delish assignment, but who doesn’t enjoy long-winded, self-involved calls from witty friends who go on and on and back and forth? Director Michael Winterbottom again makes them oh-so-watchable. And listenable.

From silly to serious and more substantive comes Koran by Heart, Greg Barker’s HBO doc that, like the kid countdowns of Spellbound or Akeelah and the Bee, follows several young hopefuls from places as remote as Tajikistan and the Maldives as they compete in an annual Cairo-held contest requiring the memorization and reciting of the entire Koran. While the doc demonstrates the remarkable gifts of these youngsters, it also poses the questions: Is the effort required really the best use of time for these gifted young from Third World countries? And do those hours and days amount to a kind of indoctrination and brainwashing? More cynical viewers may even be prompted to question the integrity and value of organized religion in a competitive world so full of possibilities.

For filmgoers who crave schadenfreude (delighting in the misery of others), TFF offered a number of docs that fit the bill. Bombay Beach, winner of the World Documentary Competition, is an impressionistic look at the decaying, barren and battered Salton Sea area of California that has attracted many desperate and destroyed people who somehow continue to eke out an existence there. Among these beachheads are a struggling football-playing teen who has escaped gang-ridden L.A. after the murder of his cousin, an impoverished family that includes a bipolar son who needs extensive medication, and a former hippie bootlegger now in his 80s and still smoking like a chimney.

More schadenfreude came from Despicable Dick and Righteous Richard, which serves up a former bad-boy North Dakota alcoholic who spent his salad days hurting people and hunting animals. Dick/Richard tries to make amends as he pays visits to the ex-wives, ex-mistresses, ex-business associates and his kids to apologize. His dead, defenseless animal victims are, of course, unreachable. This is a doc that fascinates in a cheesy kind of way and raises questions about the sanctity of forgiveness. Plus, this American male archetype doesn’t really get a reboot here.

Also providing subjects who maybe deserved their fate is the doc The Good Life, a look at a formerly privileged mother and daughter who, with mucho family money and status, raised hell in their lavish lives in previous decades but have fallen on very bad times. Now living in Portugal in near poverty and each other’s hell, they squabble and struggle in this far less appealing variation on Grey Gardens.

Genres at TFF were also well-represented. Some of the best included the super-charged Point Blank, a ticking-clock actioner that stars Gilles Lellouche as a student nurse (yes, and he’s a straight hunk) forced to rescue his kidnapped pregnant wife. Another action winner was the Hong Kong/Chinese production Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, an action-adventure/costumer/mystery yarn hugely reminiscent of the Indiana Jones franchise. This lavish movie from vet Chinese director Tsui Hark is awash in a plethora of flashy set-pieces, exciting fight sequences and elaborate visual effects. A good bet for the action crowd, provided subtitles and the exotica don’t get in the way.

Beyond the cornucopia of films, the fest had its usual sidebar events, including outdoor events, one-on-one and panel discussions. Several of these talks, focusing on the industry, served up some bon mots from well-known players. At the “Business of Entertainment” gathering, Time Warner chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes told Charlie Rose that Warner Bros. continues to be a good business for the company, which has been selling off units, but “we’ve never been tempted to spin it off.” He also conceded that HBO has become the place for “what were [a certain kind of] art-house films.” Looking ahead, Bewkes, who noted that Russia has become the world’s fifth-largest theatrical market, sees TW becoming more global and, in addition to Russia, is already eyeing territories like South America, Eastern Europe and India.

In another conversation with Rose, producer (recent blockbuster Alice in Wonderland), former two-time studio head (Disney and Fox) and Morgan Creek founder Joe Roth reiterated his belief that every good film “starts with the story.” Over 30 years, he said he’s read about 300 scripts and it’s the good ones that, taking him into the material, he reads straight through. In a surprising statement, he opined that because the 60-year-old Consent Decree is outdated, studios should be buying theatres in order to help sell their products. “100% of the [film’s] value is created there, but the studios have no control,” he complained. Premium VOD doesn’t scare him because “the history of media is that it’s additive,” with the implication that it won’t destroy moviegoing. Roth blamed the “top of the system” for so many bad movies because the studios are required to produce a minimum number of films. But Roth sees “big potential” in art films because “there’s a gigantic worldwide audience for them.”

On the “Digital by Design” panel, Cinetic Media founder and lawyer John Sloss downplayed so much positive talk about business done at the recent Sundance Fest because “about 80% of this year’s deals were driven by the VOD model.”

IndieWire founder Eugene Hernandez, now The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s director of digital strategy, credited new digital cameras like the Red and Canon’s for the abundance of good docs reaching the marketplace. “The technology is good for these kinds of productions, but not so good for the business side.”

Sloss noted the trend of former art/niche distribution execs like Tom Ortenberg and Bob Berney “now going for 2,000 screens” through their new companies, but was puzzled by why the “distribution market is really challenged.”

Paramount Digital Entertainment president Tom Lesinski noted that “it’s too easy to watch pirated movies” and that “content will have the best chance in this space if ad-supported.” Other panelists discussed the potential in correctly marrying brands or sponsors and movies, financing films through crowd-sourcing as Kevin Smith did with his latest picture, and using social media and talent to build awareness for movies.

Lesinski, whose studio is not participating in premium VOD, addressed the “sensitive subject” by giving credit to Hollywood for its willingness to “experiment.” Miramax CEO Michael Lang assured that “as an industry, we want to protect exhibitors…but we have to find a win-win.”

Panelists predicted that in the next few years Netflix will amass about 350 million subscribers, more social-media sites will become destination movie sites that will also get Hollywood more involved, and the traditional cable business will deteriorate as new ways to get broadband grow.

One final bright spot at Tribeca 2011: Even the Ogilvy-produced pre-show trailers soared, especially a hilarious one featuring an alpha-male jerk getting his due after using his cell-phone in a theatre, and a total charmer about making it in New York that had a 35mm film reel rolling confidently through Tribeca streets to Nick Drake’s classic “Rider on the Wheel.” Talk about a wonderful story, simply told. And it can even happen in less than a minute.