Tribeca treasures: Downtown New York film fest showcases an exceptional slate


The 12th edition of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) was arguably its best yet, in terms of the quality of the many films caught and the degree to which the event offered more panels, conferences and short films that explored how new technologies, digital especially, are impacting the entertainment experience.

Even the pre-show commercials this year were all eminently watchable and re-watchable and brief. (An AT&T spot—a reminder for audiences to turn off their cell-phones and featuring Martin Scorsese as a harried director desperate for the right shot—was delicious.)

Of course, the bedrock of TFF remains great films seen on 30-foot screens by throngs of appreciative live bodies. (Well over 117,000 moviegoers flocked to cinemas in Chelsea and Greenwich Village. The Tribeca neighborhood, whose screens predominated in early years, was home to a few venues.)

That the TFF selection this year was the best ever is debatable, but many attendees felt that the 2013 crop represented the finest and most abundant selection yet of high-quality films. On tap were 89 features and 60 short films from 37 countries.

One of the fest’s best films, which also arrived as a big surprise, was the Grand Jury Prize and Heineken Audience Award winner The Rocket, a Laotian charmer from Australian filmmaker Kim Mordaunt, about a poor, scrappy kid in a rural village who is forced to relocate so a dam can be built. With a motley group of dispossessed, he wanders the area seeking shelter and food but discovers that a village’s rocket festival affords an opportunity to earn some serious money to whoever builds the best rocket. Mordaunt makes this journey (call it a muddy road pic) all the more thrilling with exotic locations (lush woods, forests, etc.) and colorful characters. With poetic magical-realism elements, The Rocket also offers a gripping narrative, a feat fatally lacking in Thailand’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner but  2010 box-office loser Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. A love of details and rock ’n’ roll are inspired additives here.

Another surprise was Tribeca Film/Cinedigm’s soon-to-open The English Teacher, with Julianne Moore as the eponymous high-school teacher in upstate New York who, so dedicated to the written word and her students, has sworn off men. That is, until she takes under her wing one of her former pupils, an aspiring writer relocated to New York and NYU, who can’t get his play produced. With Nathan Lane (playing the high school’s gung-ho drama department head who worships all things thespian), Moore’s teacher gets the school to mount the play as its annual production. Hilarious complications ensue in this love letter to theatre (as passionate as but a lot lighter than All About Eve). During TFF, the film was already available via YouTube, Amazon and VOD.

All About Eve also came to mind while viewing Sony Pictures Classics’ Before Midnight, a dialogue-driven film that marks the third installment of Richard Linklater’s trilogy in which he presents his iconic couple (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) on vacation in glorious Greece with their kids. The relationship hits some stormy waters and incites conversations, whether at dinner parties or between the couple, that address matters of love, lust, family, priorities, aging and mortality. The witty, articulate observations come close to matching the insightful brilliance of the Mankiewicz classic.

There were those who thought writer-director Lance Edmands’ lovely feature debut Bluebird was too slow and even oddly resolved. But this intensely atmospheric drama about a veteran female school bus driver (Amy Morton), living with her equally hard-working lumber industry husband (John Slattery) in rural Maine, and bumping into real trouble when a kid is accidentally left on her freezing bus, offered some of the best acting seen at TFF. Morton’s performance as the quiet, decent woman caught up in a hellish situation is Oscar-caliber and Slattery shows he can be as much Maine man as “mad man.” The intrusion and machinations of the lowlife mother of the kid, in grave condition in the hospital, recall what Sartre famously said—“hell is others”—but Bluebird also says it very well indeed.

Among the strong films from overseas was Belgium and The Netherlands' The Broken Circle Breakdown, a music-filled drama about a couple in a bluegrass band who unexpectedly must confront the unspeakable when their young daughter battles cancer. The film, awash in great music and affecting performances, honestly and humanely depicts familiar but freshly rendered complications brought on by fate, demons and the attraction of opposites.

In yet another close-up on the theatre world, Cycling With Moliere, a French gem filled with Moliere-esque satire and malice by Philippe Le Guay (the wonderful but underappreciated Women on the 6th Floor), Fabrice Luchini and Lambert Wilson star as two former greats of serious Parisian theatre. Luchini plays the unshaven recluse who, having suffered a breakdown (drama can take its toll), now lives austerely on a windswept Breton island. With a new production of Moliere’s The Misanthrope on his mind, TV sensation Wilson travels to the island to convince Luchini to co-star. Despite a verbal understanding about who will play the lead, Luchini seems game. What ensues, shot against the beautiful scenery of the Île de Ré, brings laughs, surprises and a not very pretty look at the acting profession. It’s not the producers to blame but human nature, a more familiar villain.

Also on the foreign front (with some American help) was Mira Nair’s ambitious The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which crosses countries to inform how the consequences of 9/11 motivate a Pakistani-born, Princeton-educated Wall Street whiz with an all-American sweetheart (Kate Hudson) to return home, become a university teacher and get involved with radical elements. Riz Ahmed stars as the blessed, then cursed instructor. Liev Schreiber as a journalist and Kiefer Sutherland as the hero’s Wall Street boss co-star in the unfolding intrigue that also has the CIA and a kidnapping in key roles.

Except for an opening sequence that makes little sense, Hisham Zaman’s Before Snowfall (a Norway, Germany and Iraqi Kurdistan Region co-production) provides a fascinating look at the ugly ritual of honor killing. Here, a young Kurd travels to Istanbul, then Berlin and Oslo to find his sister who bolted from a planned marriage to be with the man she loves. Along the way, the hero finds an unlikely companion in a ragged young street thug in boy’s clothing who is female. If not lust, at least the girl awakens his humanity but not before tragedy strikes. The beautifully shot film, captured by a Red Epic camera, won the festival’s cinematography award. Unusual locales, a lens on relatively primitive lives and the mores that often go with them make the film all the more entertaining, as do the elements of suspense expected of any chase film.

Documentaries at TFF were sensational this year. Among the very best was Australia’s Red Obsession from filmmakers David Roach and Warwick Ross. Picked up by Film Buff, this sensationally photographed and produced doc takes a close-up look at China’s obsession with Bordeaux wines. More specifically, the focus is how wealthy Chinese are impacting the prices and supplies of the best of these wines from the region’s five prestigious estates. Primarily shot in Bordeaux and China, the doc spends considerable time in these vineyards and with wine industry titans, whether vineyard managers, star wine critics, middlemen, distributors or Chinese billionaires. Also seen are the effects of this Chinese frenzy—China striving to build up its own wine industry, scooping up whole vineyards in Bordeaux that only produce wines for China, bidding up to many tens of thousands of dollars for a single Bordeaux bottle at wine auctions. There’s little here about the joy of wine, the tastes, the terroir, or how wines are made. Instead, Red Obsession functions as a business primer suggesting how global markets fluctuate according to laws of supply and demand, status, branding, panic, rumor and greed. And Mother Nature herself.

Personality-driven docs were also among the most outstanding. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, for which filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa followed the preternaturally talented and notoriously difficult theatre and cabaret star, is a glowing portrait. An epitome of performance dedication and brilliance, the ever-energetic Stritch is a magnetic, witty, unpredictable character who commands attention and has a near-addiction to it. Her amazing candor and quick wit also ease the way. Outspoken about matters usually left unspoken (her alcoholism), she shares stories about legends she knew well, including Noel Coward, John F. Kennedy and Marlon Brando. At 87, she’s also candid about the dilemmas of aging and mortality. Personalities like Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, Alec Baldwin and Harold Prince help fill out this colorful, rich story. Left out of this doc is that after so many years of performance, stardom and living at the storied Hotel Carlyle, she left New York for good in late April to live near her family in suburban Detroit.

Fans of the late Gore Vidal, an American aristocrat, intellectual and gadfly as famous for his literary works as he was for his many TV appearances, will have a meal and a half with Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, a fascinating look at the outspoken novelist/playwright/political pundit/essayist/screenwriter/you name it whose provocative take on American politics made him friends, enemies, admirers and detractors—and brought him fame. Those new to Vidal, who early came out without actually “coming out,” can try on for size some of his frequently articulated notions: The major religions are the three great evils; America moved from a republic to an empire; sex destroys relationships; the rich live off the federal government, and this country really has only one political party.

Following the trend in recent years of terrific fashion-themed bio-docs that are more showroom-quality than off the rack (Valentino was a big favorite on this crowded cinematic runway), The Director, helmed by Christina Voros, is a most appealing portrait of House of Gucci creative director Frida Giannini and a look at Gucci’s past and future. In addition to her sense of style (sexuality and seductiveness are part of the formula), Giannini certainly impresses with her commitment to the job, her skills at managing (many on her team have been with her for ten years), and her easy confidence and palpable love of what she does. The doc also works as a primer for those who model or aspire to and as a window into how designs and fashion shows (Milan! Shanghai!) happen. The doc certainly isn’t hurt by the presence of co-producer James Franco, who appears as both a model and interviewer.

Another worthy subject who gets worthy treatment is filmmaker Michael Haneke, presented in Michael H. Profession: Director, in which clips from Haneke’s films—whether Oscar-winners like the recent Amour and or cult favorites like The Piano Teacher and Benny’s Video—alternate with footage of Haneke interviews or him at work on the set with actors. The doc reveals the irony that, although he’s identified with graphic violence, subversion and shock value, Haneke betrays a wealth of easy smiles, good humor, candor and kindness off-screen. But as Isabelle Huppert, one of many of his stars, comments, “He has a radical nature that is constant.”

Herblock—The Black & The White, about the great and most celebrated political cartoonist of the 20th century, Herbert Block, is not just a portrait of genius but a brilliant cheat sheet of 20th-century history. Turning out daily cartoons for The Washington Post for many decades, Herblock, as he was known, got what was going on before the government or news organizations. As many among the celebrated onscreen interviewees attest, his cartoons decoded the menace of McCarthyism and the machinations of Watergate even before the media or the FBI or Woodward and Bernstein ever could. Effective re-enactments have a stand-in for Herblock sharing some of his life in the cluttered office he considered his home. But the ample archival material and shots of his brilliantly conceived cartoons make this surely one of the most enjoyable history lessons anyone could ever have.

One of TFF’s LGBT films and the winner of the Heineken Audience Award for docs was the compelling Bridegroom, about two 20-something guys from small-town flyover country who found each other in San Francisco. After depicting the challenges of coming out and finally forming a beautiful partnership (until a tragic death interferes), Bridegroom emerges as a disturbing revelation of prejudice and ignorance (even on the part of seemingly responsible, prosperous, loving parents) and the pain and injustice marriage inequality can inflict.

McConkey, from Red Bull Media, stood out for its spectacular action cinematography of skiing daredevil Shane McConkey, who was at the forefront of extreme ski base jumping over tall granite cliffs. McConkey himself, very much a Colorado outdoor dude, also enlivens the work. But the doc also sparks questions of why a family man with wife and young child would leave the downhill sport and go wild-skiing to test incredible heights and terrains—often snow-bare granite walls soaring thousands of feet into the air or unreadable slopes. As one of McConkey’s pals shares, he didn’t fear anything except having to work a nine-to-five job. It’s all about action here; logic and ethics are left on the lift.

Some 180 degrees away from thrill skiing, Kiss the Water, beautifully and quite poetically shot on Scotland’s north coast, hooks fly-fishing as its subject in a portrait of the late, legendary fly creator Megan Boyd. Living a solitary life in a modest seaside cottage, Boyd was the go-to artisan who, self-taught, created flies that salmon love (Prince Charles became one of her dedicated clients). Never boring and always stunning, lulling and magical, Kiss the Water (the title refers to how a line is initially tossed on the water’s surface) is a lovely bouquet of interviews (those who knew Boyd), animation, and stunning exteriors. It’s a celebration of simplicity that leaves behind a mystery: Since salmon don’t feed in the rivers, why do they go for the flies that anglers toss there?

Other docs that afforded considerable pleasures and rang with poignancy included Big Men, about American businessmen hoping make a killing in African oil fields; Running From Crazy, former model/actress Mariel Hemingway’s (Manhattan, Star 80) attempt to make sense of the addictions and suicides that ran through her celebrated family; The Genius of Marian, the oddly titled exploration of Alzheimer’s that afflicts the matriarch of a prosperous New England family; The Kill Team, about American soldiers accused of killing Afghan civilians for sport and telling their stories; In God We Trust, in which Eleanor Squillari, who spent a quarter of her life at a desk 15 feet from Bernie Madoff on the secretive 17th floor where Madoff did his dirty work, makes her case for knowing nothing and saved face by helping the authorities build their case against the Ponzi scheme perp who lost thousands many millions; and strictly for Pryor fans, Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, a rich, star-filled doc about the late comic and film star for those who don’t mind hearing the words “nigger” and “fuck” in every other sentence.

TFF also had its share of wonderful, small American fiction indies. A standout—in spite of what any logline can suggest—was Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, which features autistic young teen Ricky, who wanders away from his struggling Latino family in Rockaway, Queens when his sis neglects to retrieve him from school and ends up for days on the New York subways before Hurricane Sandy strikes his seaside area. Cutting between Ricky’s dilemma, his mother’s frantic search and an attempted reconciliation with an absentee father, the film leverages an ever more involving story, terrific acting, and all-around terrific production values (cinematography and sound design especially) to deliver a tale of desperation and hope in a haunting but minimalist environment of muted colors.

A Birder's Guide to Everything is a coming-of-age charmer about three 16-year-olds, the proud and only members of their high school’s Young Birders Society, who head to upstate New York determined to find a rare bird. The likeable trio—a brainy Asian, a horny Jewish kid who eventually confesses to never being kissed, and the third, troubled by his mother’s death and father’s imminent marriage—first consult with a bird expert (Ben Kingsley, adding star power) for advice. A female school pal joins the trio as they discover in their state park lessons and people welcome and unwelcome. This celebration of the outdoors is sweet but never goes sappy.
Several very watchable indies further suggested a sub-genre of snowbound thrillers. (Frozen River, Deadfall and Germany’s Snowman’s Land laid the frozen ground for this trend.)  Entertainment One’s Canadian production Whitewash has Thomas Haden Church, a snowplow driver in northern Quebec, accidentally running over and killing a local lowlife. He hides the body, but paranoia grows with his fears of discovery. There’s a murky ending, but what precedes is a blast of snow and chilly suspense. Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais copped the fest’s award for Best New Narrative Director.

A Single Shot, another film about an accidental killing and attempted cover-up that goes bad, gave indie stalwart Sam Rockwell a field day as a West Virginia hunter who suffers the consequences of hitting the wrong thing and hiding the body. There’s plenty of atmosphere (the film was actually shot in Canada) and intense acting that, in addition to Rockwell, comes by way of Brit star Kelly Reilly, again convincing as a Southerner not so belle (she was the Atlanta druggie in Flight). The film also boasts one of the better endings the fest afforded.

A number of LGBT offerings besides the Vidal and Stritch docs (the latter simply by virtue of the audiences who adore her) are theatre-worthy. Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton is an entertaining and informative film that examines the fascinating life of the Bay Area poet and filmmaker who, after World War II and a liaison with Pauline Kael, came out late but made up for lost time. HBO’s The Battle of amfAR, from filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is about the founding of the country’s first AIDS research foundation, the major personalities behind it (Dr. Mathilde Krim, Elizabeth Taylor, et al.), the horrific impact AIDS had on both the gay and straight population, how the mystery behind the workings of the HIV virus was solved, and how cures and preventive medications in addition to the current containment drugs are in sight. Taiwan’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? is an utterly sweet, charming and surprising romantic comedy with fantasy flourishes and dreamy ’50s musical references that examines the fragility of the marriages and relationships of some contemporary 30-somethings and their sexual ambiguity. The very California comedy G.B.F. seizes upon the beguiling premise of an accidentally outed high-schooler who ends up being fought over by the most popular girls in the class; it’s “Glee” often gone giddy and over-the-top, but there’s a lot of fun here, in addition to a terrifically moving ending. Finally, the Polish Floating Skyscrapers takes an Antonioni-like approach to the story of a gifted swimmer, living with his waitress girlfriend and working-class mother, who realizes he’s gay after becoming attracted to an upper-class fellow swimmer.

A number of other TFF fiction narratives represented good work except for more attention that needed to be paid to their characters. Greetings from Tim Buckley, already in theatres, shortchanges both Tim and son Jeff Buckley, each a music personality for his generation but neither of whom sufficiently engages as screen incarnations.

The Weinstein Company’s Haute Cuisine, inspired by the female cook from the French countryside hired as personal chef to the French President because of her reputation for simple and authentic dishes, provided many foodie delights. But the cook onscreen, a tad too rude and arrogant, is an undercooked character who is served a bit cold. Still, there is plenty to nibble on here (sorry), including both the dishes and Elysée Palace politics stirred up with her arrival.

Reaching for the Moon is Brazilian filmmaker Bruno Barreto’s take on the 1950s lesbian love affair between Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop and acclaimed Rio architect Lota de Macedo Soares, which ensued after Bishop paid a visit to her former Vassar roommate who had been the architect’s previous partner. Some heat emanates here from a lot of kissing, but not enough to thaw the cold Bishop character.

It was more a performance than main character problem that came through in
Sony Pictures Classics’ just-released but disappointing At Any Price, directed by Ramin Bahrani. In the role of an aggressive, successful but corrupt seed salesman in Iowa farm country, Dennis Quaid, one of the country’s best screen actors, goes overboard to portray a villainous caricature not even seen in old westerns or silents. Should blame be put on Bahrani (known for breaking through with subtle indies like Man Push Cart and Chop Shop) for not reining in Quaid? The film is truly entertaining, helped by production values that belie its reported $5 million budget. Action scenes involving Quaid’s racecar driver son (Zac Efron) are mighty exciting and Efron himself is again fun to watch. Blame also lies in that “tweener” curse where indie and genre values clash and disappoint audiences.

Several TFF titles with unpleasant young people at their center (Ali Blue Eyes, Six Acts, Deep Powder, even What Richard Did) inspired the Norman Bates/Sammy Glick/Adolf Hitler lesson: If your characters are unlikable or flat-out bad, at least make them interesting.

Other noteworthy TFF films, several of which will reach theatres, include the doc Cutie and the Boxer, which focuses on an unlikely couple of struggling New York artists—an 80-year-old former alcoholic and painter who punches his canvases using foam-covered gloves dipped in paint, and his considerably younger wife, a talented illustrator who puts up with it all; Magnolia Pictures’ Prince Avalanche, a quirky and sometimes fanciful tale that has Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as an odd couple of outdoor workers painting road lines in a Texas woods (inspiration came from an Icelandic film that made the festival rounds but also benefited from the “odd” genes endemic to its native country); Raw Herring, a Dutch doc for those curious about herring fisherman and happy to go to sea with Discovery Channel productions that travel similar waters; and Odayaka, a pretty interesting drama—seen through the eyes of several Tokyo women—about the paranoia generated by the tragic 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami and how people helping people is so therapeutic.

As TFF went more digital this year, it went deeper and wider in its investigation of how content, distribution and consumption are evolving. On the consumption front, the Tribeca (Online) Film Festival allowed participants across the country to watch festival films, panel discussions, red carpet fluff, etc. across their personal devices.

TFF’s “alternative programming” broadened the fest’s activities beyond the usual big screen and the even bigger screen for its drive-in series by the Hudson River (The Birds and Beetlejuice were among films shown). And the now traditional Tribeca/ESPN Sports Day and Family Festival Street Fair again drew crowds.

But “alternatively,” attendees could sample TFF’s inaugural Bombay Sapphire installation “Storyscapes,” which showcased innovative new-media projects with cross-platform approaches to storytelling (that decades-old urge to have audiences fashion their own film endings doesn’t end); the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards at NYU’s Stern Business School where an interview with conservative media mogul and self-described “former alcoholic and dirtbag” Glenn Beck (one of the “innovators” and “game-changers” the event honors) talked about his influences from the film business; and the Tribeca Film Institute Interactive Day, which furthers the propaganda that everyone’s a filmmaker.

Yet, veteran director Paul Verhoeven (The Fourth Man, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, etc.) got close to making a case. On hand to show and talk about his crowdsourced experiment Tricked, a juicy drama about a cheating Dutch executive and the family and colleagues who exact some revenge, Verhoeven developed the script by culling the best ideas from 700 submissions the public sent on the Web. His “trick” worked!

Even the TFF panels and talks were more digitally focused this year. A panel titled “Brand New Studios” addressed companies like Red Bull Media, GE, Vice Media, ESPN which have slipped away from their traditional businesses and into digital back doors to create and deliver content (such as long-forms for theatres and shorts as promotional tools for consumption on digital platforms). Again, all execs stressed the importance of good storytelling in what they do. And of course, the importance of branding a partnership entered the conversation.

A panel covering “Big Data and the Movies” reminded that while companies in this business (Rentrak, MoviePass, Filmtrack, etc.) amass statistics valuable to marketers and distributors, “big data” has yet to meet the challenges of the all-important creative and green-lighting processes.

But, with its Closing Night event, TFF reminded that the same old/same old still works big-time. The fest ended with the restoration debut of the brilliant and prescient 30-year-old comic masterpiece King of Comedy, a 4K digital upgrade by Sony Colorworks, followed by a post-screening talk with its director Martin Scorsese and stars Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro.

Yes, screen greats, great movies and great stories also disrupt! And, yes, they can do it with a little help from digital technology.