Tribeca at 13: Downtown New York film fest comes of age


The Tribeca Film Festival (TFF), which just ended its 13th edition in downtown Manhattan, began rather modestly as an event to bring quality films to fans and revitalize the area destroyed on 9/11. This baby has certainly grown in size and popularity and is experiencing the thrills and chills of coming-of-age in a time of much change and uncertainty.

“A New York State of Film” was one of many taglines and slogans that TFF relayed on screens, signage and handouts. Again there were films aplenty and many good ones (see below) and Manhattan is definitely in New York State.

But another tagline might apply: “A Tribeca State of (Low) Anxiety,” which reflects the pervasive angst and questioning coursing throughout entertainment, media and advertising about where the heck technology is taking us and what content on which screens will grab consumer and advertiser attention and dollars.

TFF, with help from its affiliated Tribeca Film Institute, stretched in many corners for answers with the Tribeca Innovation Week of events, including the TFI Interactive Day, allowing entrepreneurs to show off new storytelling and other ideas to create and engage. Not that there was near-panic, but the program and contest for six-second shorts provided a viewing experience that wasn’t exactly a film experience.

More promising was Tribeca’s Interactive Day demonstration (one of many) of a student project called “Spacewalk,” which required a virtual-reality helmet and glasses, software, a joystick and monitor to immerse users in a spacewalk. (It kinda worked but needs serious tweaking and optimistically suggested there might be applications in the doc area in the near-distant future).

These sidebars were among the many TFF initiatives meant to figure out where content and tastes might be headed, where consumers will nibble, and how Big Data and other new technologies, gizmos, trends, and twists on content might be driving this.

A more amusing TFF slogan was “Film Festivals: The Original Binge-Watching.” Well, yes, as TFF presented 89 features and 57 shorts in its main official programs, selected from over 6,000 submissions. The films and events attracted over 120,000 moviegoers over 12 days of screenings and panels. Total attendance reached around 400,000.

The many films (indoor and outdoor), events (Innovation Week, Interactive Day, etc.) and programs (indoor and outdoor, sports and family-themed, tech-themed, an online festival, etc.) all added up to that affliction everyone experiences today—content overload.

Happily, TFF was also about a lot of “talk,” including many post-screening interviews and Q&As with directors, stars and panels addressing perceived or predicted technological changes in entertainment or some bravely not giving a damn.

An expert panel followed the screening of the fascinating doc The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin, but was inconclusive about how successful that hot, new, anxiety-provoking virtual currency alternative to cold cash might be. Bitcoins move in cyberspace “peer to peer” via open-source software (meaning everyone has access to bitcoin code).

And not much regard was apparent from the Innovation Week panel “Stories By Numbers,” an attempt to assess the value of Big Data research (all the rage now) for creating content and better targeting the consumers for it. Comments about Big Data from panelists Beau Willimon (“House of Cards,” The Ides of March) and David Simon (“The Wire”) were cool (temperature-wise). Weighing in on the roles of instinct vs. data sets in the creative process, Willimon said, “I’m ignorant of data. For me it’s all instinctive.”    

Simon cares about neither data nor his audience: “I care about my stories and my characters. I’m a believer in story.” Even number-crunching data star Nate Silver didn’t provide confidence in Big Data practicality but offered the interesting thought that stories that are the timeliest (maybe news-inspired) or beyond time (say, sci-fi) work better than stories in between. And while data can sometimes be predictive in how content will perform, “it’s the media who influence the result [of audience acceptance],” offered Willimon.

Surely some kind of anxiety fueled TFF’s decision to host an odd panel on why audiences love psychos in screen stories (not addressed were the many “borderlines” in the business itself). On the panel, Terence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street, “Boardwalk Empire”) and “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston shared the spotlight with psychiatry professor James H. Fallon, whose brain scan was actually assessed to be that of a psychopath. (Fallon does in fact have hatchet-killer legend Lizzie Borden as an ancestor, but he behaved.)

Cranston admitted that playing evil is “catnip” and Fallon offered the obvious: “Psychopaths are more interesting. Period.” There were some interesting thoughts about the roles that genetics, experience, narcissism, lying and rationalization play in psychopathic make-up and behavior, but it was Winter who allayed some anxiety by suggesting that “no one is purely evil or purely good. It’s a mélange.” Phew!

Back in the comfort zone, TFF, as it rolls with technological punches and anxieties of change, remains stronger than ever a festival of films—you know, those short and long entertainments that forged one of the world’s most enduring industries well over a hundred years ago. But reflecting today’s “State of Convergence” and marketing anxieties, many TFF features opened theatrically less than a week after the fest ended or even earlier or are about to be released (Bright Days Ahead, NOW, Ida, Decoding Annie Parker, Beneath the Harvest Sky, Palo Alto, etc.).

Even the TFF’s film shorts (e.g., Coy Middlebrook’s beautifully crafted drama “For Spacious Sky,” Kelly Hucker and James Fleming’s haunting “Ghost Train”) were indicative of a new digital age allowing lower barriers to entry and higher quality. Noting that the shorts were “much better this year,” Sharon Badal, the fest’s longtime director of short film programming and initiatives, explained that it’s not just that the new filmmaking tools are cheaper and easier to use but that “more and more the filmmakers are doing it for the fun.”

Fortunately, there was fun and more to be had at many of the TFF features. Foremost was Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur, starring his wife Emmanuelle Seigner (In the House) as the frazzled, seemingly vulnerable actress who struts in late into a Paris theatre to audition and French star Matthieu Almaric as a self-important stage director who really has no time for her. But then… Adapted from David Ives’ hit Broadway play, Venus in Fur is a hilarious turning-of-the-tables tale in which honest and nasty truths about people and the profession seep through. Seigner, whose character more and more hints at lowlife origins but scary wiles, delivers an Oscar-caliber performance and Almaric, also excellent, eerily resembles a younger Polanski.

Another theatre-originated film is Match, a witty, suspenseful drama starring a brilliant Patrick Stewart (the Oscar season begins early this year) as a Lincoln Center ballet instructor. With his feverish ’60s past as a world-traveling dancer and frisky bad boy behind him, he now lives quietly in a modest Washington Heights apartment in upper Manhattan until ghosts from his past come unexpectedly knocking.

The gripping Colombian drama Manos Sucias came out of nowhere (well, Film Independent, the San Francisco Film Society and executive producer Spike Lee helped it along) but must be labeled, forgive the cliché, one of TFF’s revelations. So well-written, acted, paced and shot, with a backdrop few have seen, the film, with a final image not to be forgotten, is the story of two very poor and desperate young men who embark upon a dangerous job smuggling cocaine up the Colombia coastline in a rickety fishing boat in order to make some money.

Sony Pictures Classics’ beautifully told and acted Love is Strange, from Ira Sachs, is a poignant gay love story set in Manhattan. Acting vets John Lithgow and Alfred Molina star as the newly married Manhattan couple that has to downsize and temporarily separate as age and the economy take their toll. They find more measures of discomfort than comfort with immediate family or close friends in their temporary homes while they search for affordable housing in a city not known for that. Marisa Tomei plays a writer/sister-in-law and Charlie Tahan shines impressively as the hostile teen nephew who will add some emotional surprises to a story already packed with emotion.

Alex of Venice, which marks actor Chris Messina’s directorial debut, serves up another colorful ocean locale (here, it’s the more benign Venice, California) in the story of the eponymous environmental workaholic attorney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who, ditched by her husband (Messina), must contend alone with her kid and pot-loving actor dad Don Johnson, and a possible romance with a real estate guy who is on the other side of the fence in a case she’s fighting. Venice chews the scenery and performances are all fine, especially Johnson in a role that surely hasn’t taken him far from home.

Several films from afar stood out. From Norway came In Order of Disappearance, a stylish and nasty genre piece about an upstanding snowplow driver in a remote mountain region who, after learning that his son has died of a heroin overdose, takes after the rival drug gangs to avenge the death. The film has the advantage of Stellan Skarsgård being in the driver’s seat and his character has an advantage in that giant truck he drives through huge drifts. The film is a dark spin on the “Ten Little Indians” tale as the hero takes after the bad guys on his way to confrontations with their powerful drug-lord bosses (a slick sociopathic hipster in bespoke suits and ponytail and the Serbian drug rat played by the wonderful Swiss-German vet Bruno Ganz). Viewers are also rewarded with beautiful cinematography (that sweeping, snowbound countryside) and a surprise that might get a few heads scratched.

Shot in Venezuela, Bad Hair amounts to a charming tale about an attractive but struggling and homophobic single mother with a considerable sex drive and her ten-year-old son who shows signs he might be a budding gay hairdresser. Taking place in a huge, blocky concrete apartment project for the poor, the film provides relief from the grim setting by way of terrific acting, especially from the kid who loves to cross-dress and dance and is obsessed about his straight hair and a handsome teen he tastefully stalks in the project.

From Italy came Paolo Virzì’s Human Capital, yet another attempt to understand the country’s economic and class problems. The focus here is on two families—one middle-class and struggling, the other a wealthy clan also feeling some economic pain. Business, romance, and a tragic car accident bring the characters together in a story of desperation, real estate and true love. Italian stars Valeria Golino, as the middle-class wife and mother, and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi represent two poles of the Italian experience depicted here.

There seemed to be an unusually large batch of well-made American indies in this year’s TFF line-up, including a number from young directors with Hollywood ties. Among the best of these was Life Partners, about the longtime friendship of two women nearing 30, one straight, the other gay, that grows shaky with the arrival of a male suitor. Leighton Meester, Gillian Jacobs and Adam Brody brighten this warm comedy and help sweeten the message that gayness is no big deal but friendship is.

Not so out of the closet (whether or not the metaphor is apt) was Jesse Zwick's (director Ed Zwick’s son) otherwise excellent About Alex, a contemporary Big Chill spin that has a gaggle of late-twentysomethings gathering at the upstate New York home of their buddy at college who recently attempted suicide. Jason Ritter stars as the mysteriously troubled man who melted down because of some kind of rebuttal from a member in the clique who’s fighting writer’s block (the wonderful Nate Parker, who caught our attention in Arbitrage). The film is nicely done—well-acted by an ensemble cast and well-written—but nice too would have been some meaningful hints to why the Ritter character went to such an extreme.

IFC’s Lucky Them, set in Seattle’s music scene, boasts a top-notch cast and a worthy concept that sets star Toni Collette, a seasoned rock reporter, and co-star Thomas Haden Church, her wealthy and dorky pal, on a mission to find a reclusive rock star for a much-needed article. Oliver Platt as the demanding magazine editor administers pressure to get that story. (It’s not easy not being Rolling Stone.)

Loitering With Intent, directed by Adam Rapp, best-known as a New York playwright and director, provides an amusing look at the upstate New York-Williamsburg axis of arty hipsters forging acting, writing and the like careers but fumbling with personal relationships. Sam Rockwell and Marisa Tomei provide much energy and sparkle to this arty scene which unfolds in a shabby Victorian country house where two aspiring screenwriters escape to smash-write a script in peace and quiet. No such luck.

Jon Favreau’s Chef, which he wrote and directed and in which he stars as a high-end chef destroyed by a nasty food critic’s write-up, was an audience favorite and Heineken Audience Award winner. And no wonder. This Big Man of Film in real life also has a big appetite for food and love of cooking, so the movie cooks up plenty of mouth-watering close-ups and a deep passion for food, haute and basse. The story takes the ousted chef on a visit to relatives in Miami after the critic’s unfair words. There, he learns the joys of cooking the Cuban way in the city’s Little Havana and returns home to start up a food-truck operation. Favreau keeps things light as a soufflé but has heavies as supporting cast (John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr., Dustin Hoffman, and Oliver Platt). As a side, the film also serves up a nice message about family and determination.

TFF came up this year with other slogans, dubbed “New Rules of Film” that might serve both filmmakers and film-watchers. “Fix it in Pre Pro” is a favorite as some films, otherwise worthy, could have used that fixin’ before cameras rolled. From Cinedigm comes Kelly Reichhardt’s Night Moves, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as radical activists who plot the bombing of an environment-endangering hydroelectric dam in the Northwest. There’s considerable suspense, committed acting and good intentions, but no ending.

Documentarian Amy Berg’s narrative fiction debut Every Secret Thing, written by Nicole Holofcener from Laura Lippman’s novel, is a tale told over seven years of two stolen children and two girls related to the crimes who serve time and are released from prison for taking the first child. Two detectives track the new case of a second missing girl. The story, set in a dreary Baltimore suburb, is messily told and some miscasting doesn’t help. A notable ensemble cast (Elizabeth Banks, Diane Lane, Nate Parker, et al.) does its best, but the film needed a captivating character at its center rather than a so-so mystery at its dark heart.

Other films with ensemble casts should also have wrangled in at least one character to care about. MIA any meaningful points was Palo Alto from Gia Coppola (Francis’ granddaughter), about upper-middle-class California kids gone wild. And Zero Motivation, which zeroes in on a unit of young female Israeli soldiers serving in the desert, provides plenty of little dramas involving romance, jealousies and promotions, but doesn’t give us one soldier to care about.

Sony Pictures Classics’ much-anticipated Paul Haggis film Third Person, with an all-star cast (Liam Neesom, Olivia Wilde, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, etc.), dared an intriguing concept—how do writers find their plots and characters and feed imagination with reality—but ends up more confusing than entertaining (although cast and foreign locations provide nice eye candy).

But concepts can also be a film’s undoing. An example is The One I Love, starring Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass as a couple with a marriage in trouble who follow a shrink’s (Ted Danson) advice and go to a gorgeous country retreat to rekindle the fire. What they find are their doubles, their better selves, and they carry on accordingly to repair the relationship. Viewers who buy in will help spread the word, so others might buy tickets. But the concept is rickety.

Gabriel, from first-time writer-director Lou Howe, has faulty-hero syndrome. Rory Culkin has the lead role of a mentally disturbed twenty-something just sprung from an institution and obsessed with finding his old girlfriend. There are hints that his WASPy, upper-middle-class family has something to do with his demons and his need for daily medications, but Howe only has us guessing. And the charmless, superficial Gabriel just isn’t good enough company to warrant out interest.

Reflecting the times, TFF was again oh so strong in the documentary category.
Politicians reigned as Compared To What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank and All About Ann, about the colorful late governor of Texas, were among the best. Both films are a welcome antidote to so much cynicism surrounding our politicians. Both portraits convey the best that our elected officials can be and prove that intelligence, confidence, hilarious senses of humor and genuine concern for the 99% have everything to do with it. And let’s not forget the ability to get things done.

There were also exceptionally strong doc portraits of writer/scholar/icon Susan Sontag (Regarding Susan Sontag, which HBO will air this fall), Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir (The Other One), and super-manager and rock ’n’ roll legend Shep Gordon (Supermensch), quite a character and guy’s guy who will fascinate, if not charm everyone.

Three other riveting docs not to be missed (1971, The Newburgh Sting and Silenced) came down on the government (especially the FBI) for the way the authorities sometimes entrapped or went after whistleblowers and other political activists. Not pretty pictures, but the victimized in all three docs, especially in 1971 and Silenced, emerge heroes.

Among the other docs that must be seen (whatever the screen) are The Search for General Tso, about the history of the Chinese dish so popular in America, and A Brony Tale, a tour de force and weird especially for those who think they know what makes a man a man.

The anxious tech frenzy aside, it was the super film lineup that again resonated at TFF and supported some wise words from New York/Hollywood heavyweight writer/producer Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “Newsroom,” The Social Network, the upcoming Steve Jobs biopic, etc.), who spoke at another Tribeca Innovation Week Future of Film discussion and suggested that “storytelling hasn’t changed and it’s never going to change.” He also offered that “no matter how much entertainment we have in our homes, nothing will ever replace the theatre experience.” Amen.

Sorkin’s comments brought things back down to earth and might inspire another slogan—an anxiety-reducing one!—for next year’s TFF: “The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Editor's Note: Manos Sucias was primarily backed by Film Independent and the San Francisco Film Society, not the Sundance Institute as earlier stated.