Spring Awakening: Tribeca Film Festival's diverse selection warms up a chilly season


In an unexpected twist, the annual April Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) is a more reliable sign of spring in New York than the chilly weather.

Now in its 17th annual iteration, the 2018 event—a vibrant Rite of Spring occurring April 18-29—arrives in downtown Manhattan to warm hearts and seats that cinephiles and tech, TV and new media fans will fill. The Fest, in sync with an age of too many options, delivers nearly a hundred carefully curated new films, a handful of retrospectives, TV premieres, awards of the cash kind, and a multitude of related events, including parties to make things “rite.”

April stars aren’t just in the springtime skies but again fill the TFF venues for many live talks, as the event has always been a schmooze-fest covering the stories behind the filmmaking and the evolution of the industry.

Launched as a way to culturally and economically recover from the 2001 9/11 Twin Towers/Ground Zero tragedy that left thousands dead and more than 15 acres of unimaginable destruction downtown, TFF continues to thrive. Venues again are Chelsea’s Cinépolis and Battery Park’s Regal multiplex, in addition to a few other downtown screens and uptown’s Beacon Theatre and Radio City Music Hall.

Additionally, in northern Tribeca, TFF rebranded The Hub (aka Spring Studios), where it showcases immersive and alternative entertainment, including cutting-edge VR and AR storytelling creations. Much, including its Storyscapes initiative, takes place at The Hub's Virtual Arcade, open April 20-28. Here also is the new Tribeca Cinema360 VR venue (April 21-28), offering 360-degree mobile content.    

With the horror of 9/11 behind it, TFF has become an unintended symbol of the saying “Ars longa, vita brevis” (“Art is long-lived, life is short”). This year’s powerful lineup of 96 new features (all but 20 world premieres) was culled from a whopping 3,406 long-form submissions. Setting a record, 44 of the 96 selected are directed by women. Additionally, TFF’s popular shorts program returns strong with 55 selections drawn from close to 4,800 submissions. (Phew! Visine, anyone?)

Most emphatic of the themes that has emerged is the strong female presence on both sides of the camera in the lineup. In fact, the Fest, with 44 women among the 96 feature filmmakers represented, has a record high percentage of female directors. Other themes characterizing TFF 2018 include the growth of activism, creators telling the story of other creators, and the strength of American pop culture, especially as a way of understanding culture more broadly.

A relatively few films come in with distribution set, but the more plentiful hopeful majority make TFF scouting ground for new talent, product and trends. While some films were pre-screened for press, early reviews and subjective commenting isn’t fair game until the Fest’s end, (FJI’s “Best of…” article will appear post-Fest.)

The highlights that follow are just a sampling of films that “popped” amidst the vast list, the result of (take your pick) intriguing premises, subject matter, themes, talent attachments or a reliable distributor already onboard. Or maybe the occasional debut or insistent publicist to prod interest.

Among the many female filmmakers represented is Lisa D’Apolito with the CNN-produced opening-night film Love, Gilda, a doc about beloved original “Saturday Night Live” star Gilda Radner featuring recently discovered audiotapes, her diary, home movies and participation from “SNL” personalities like Melissa McCarthy and Amy Poehler. Closing night brings Oscar-nominated Liz Garbus’s The Fourth Estate, which examines how New York Times journalists over the brutal first year covered Trump and his election. Proving that the Times doesn’t just get the story but sometimes is the story, this doc follows both Page One and Obit, previous critically acclaimed NYT-themed docs.

With Drake Doremus’ timely sci-fi romance Zoe, TFF for the first time adds a prestigious “Centerpiece” category. The film stars French sensation Léa Seydoux (multi-award winning Blue Is the Warmest Color) and the ever-busy Ewan McGregor. The plot unfolds in a future world where cutting-edge technologies can simulate the high of true love but drive two colleagues at a revolutionary research lab to find the real deal.

Of the 44 countries represented in the feature-film category, the U.S. with 70 films has the most (the U.K. with 12 entries is distant second). These made-in-America narrative features include Sam Boyd’s In a Relationship, co-starring Dree Hemingway (Starlet) in a drama about the strains that beset the relationships of two twenty-something L. A. couples, and also L.A.-lensed All About Nina, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, co-starring with Common and Beau Bridges, playing a foul-mouthed, funny, struggling standup comic with a habit of one-night stands who gets a big break and promising new romance but harbors a terrible secret that might sink it all. Like its besieged heroine, this one is unattached and may be hot for distribution pickup.

O.G., directed by Madeleine Sackler, stars Jeffrey Wright and other promising cast in the story of an inmate at the end of many years behind bars who must confront the uncertainties of the real world awaiting beyond.

In a cluster of Oscar-winning and nominated talent, Tully reunites filmmaker Jason Reitman (gems like Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult) with writer Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) with their Young Adult star Charlize Theron in a comedy about a mother of three whose brother (Mark Duplass) pays for the extravagance of a night nanny named Tully to help care for the sister’s newborn.

Woman Walks Ahead, with impressive talent attached and an intriguing premise, boasts director Susanna White, writer Steven Knight and a star cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Sam Rockwell and Ciarán Hinds. This DirecTV/A24 release tells the true story of a 19th-century Brooklyn artist who journeys west to paint a portrait of legendary chief Sitting Bull (with the hope that he truly likes to sit).

Also perking curiosity is the world premiere of Mapplethorpe, abiopic about the eponymous bad-boy photographer known for his homoerotic (some called them obscene) photos. Brit lead actor Matt Smith, best known as Prince Phillip in “The Crown” and as “Doctor Who,” makes the leap, but can he land in the very un-royal counterculture of downtown Manhattan of the ’70s and ’80s?

Another cast of interest is that of Blue Night, a U.S.-produced drama described in Fest notes as “French New Wave-inspired,“ that stars Sarah Jessica Parker, Simon Baker, Jacqueline, Bisset and Renée Zellweger. Its story of a devastating diagnosis that sends a famous singer reeling through New York streets does trigger thoughts of Agnès Varda’s early-’60s nouvelle vague classic Cléo From 5 to 7.

With Miguel Arteta (Beatriz at Dinner) directing, the Duplass Brothers among others top-billed and The Orchard distributing, Duck Butter intrigues, as does its story about two women so fed up with failed relationships they embark on something radical.

Among the many U.K. films invading Tribeca and suggesting conquest is Disobedience, which Bleecker Street releases commercially on April 27. Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola co-star in a contemporary drama set in a London Orthodox Jewish community that is rocked by a most unorthodox relationship. Renowned Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio (Oscar-winner A Fantastic Woman) calls the shots.

Also from the U.K. comes Jellyfish, a drama about a teen from a poor and troubled home (it’s that hard-drinking mom again) who works in a sleazy seaside gaming arcade but vents her considerable anger as a budding standup comic.

The Elephant and the Butterfly, from Belgium, about an estranged father unexpectedly recruited to babysit for his precocious five-year-old daughter, has some interesting caregivers off-screen in Martin Scorsese and the Dardenne Brothers, serving as executive producers.

In the Italian/German/Swiss co-production Daughter of Mine, which unfolds in rural Sardinia with Italian stars Valeria Golino and Alba Rohrwacher and German cult favorite Udo Kier featured, the fuss is over a ten-year-old girl caught between a troubled birth mother and doting adoptive mother.

Maybe John Maringouin’s USA/China co-production Ghostbox Cowboy, in which a ballsy California tech entrepreneur ventures into deepest China determined to sell some deep-pocketed Chinese mogul wannabes his loony invention, will finally prove that the two powers actually can make films together.

In Sweden’s Amateurs there’s a nifty concept that has two female first-generation teenagers challenging their small town’s professional team in a contest to produce the video that will lure a much-needed big superstore to the struggling community. (Maybe cities vying for Amazon’s second headquarters can get some pointers here.)

And, mon dieu! Paris taken over by undead zombies (or is that a code expression for American tourists?) is the hook the Gallic/Norwegian horror flick The Night Eats the World (La nuit a dévoré le monde) offers when the film’s hero awakens to these creatures after a night of hard partying. Also on the hunt for flesh-devouring zombies is “Sherlock” and Black Panther star Martin Freeman, out to save his Australian family in the thriller Cargo, being hauled to screens by Netflix following its TFF world premiere.

Among the nonfiction selections (TFF has premiered a number of Oscar-winning and nominated docs), there are several this year about well-known real-life personalities. Several focus on fashion heavies: In addition to portraits of designers like the late iconic British couturier Alexander McQueen (Bleecker Street’s McQueen) and celebrated Chinese couturier Guo Pei (Yellow Is Forbidden), there’s Magnolia’s The Gospel According to André, which gives much-deserved attention to fashion great André Leon Talley, who miraculously emerged from the Jim Crow South to become a larger-than-life, caftan-wearing fashion visionary, savant and Vogue magazine operative.

Equally promising is Every Act of Life, focusing on the great playwright/lyricist, AIDS and LGBTQ activist Terrence McNally, a four-time Tony winner, who in his six-decade career is recognized as one of America’s greatest living playwrights. Major personalities like Angela Lansbury and Nathan Lane join in this tribute. Also among the bio-docs celebrating the famous is Howard, focusing on the late Howard Ashman, who, having penned lyrics for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, helped revitalize Disney.

Unknown subjects can bring surprises. Journalist and now writer-director Assia Boundaoui’s The Feeling of Being Watched tells the story of her deep research into the massive, decades-long surveillance of her middle-class Arab-American Illinois community by snooping FBI agents and the paranoia generated on both sides both before and after 9/11.

And who wouldn’t want to drop into the A&E Studio 54 doc, especially as Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City) is director/producer and there are no velvet ropes to keep us from mingling with screen subjects like Steve Rubell, Ian Schrager, Nile Rodgers and Norma Kamali?

Among the docs in a whole other zone is White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, which follows a desperate victim of the Great Recession who goes for broke in his search for a hidden $2 million hidden cache of coke buried on a remote Puerto Rican island.

For filmgoers who were girls (and boys) who liked to play with dolls, there’s Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, about the nearly 60-year-old icon and the lifts, snips and tucks she’s had to endure as her makers try to appeal to younger generations.

There are a number of LGBTQ-themed films, including the world premiere doc Call Her Ganda, which follows the brutal murder of a Filipino transgender woman and those who passionately pursue an investigation that even confronts U.S. imperialism.

Sports too are important and inform several docs, including the award-winning Zimbalist brothers’ surfing-themed Momentum Generation and Dyana Winkler’s United Skates, about America’s disappearing roller rinks, which over the years helped birth East Coast hip-hop and West Coast rap.

For filmgoers drawn to exotic, unknown or ridiculously faraway places, Gabrielle Brady’s Australia/Germany/U.K. world premiere Island of the Hungry Ghosts might do the trick. Shot on Australia’s remote Christmas Island, the doc reveals a place that is home to both one of the largest land migrations on earth—that of 40 million crabs journeying from jungle to sea—and to an infamous high-security facility that detains asylum-seeking migrants of the human kind.

Like late legendary doc master Albert Maysles’ last film In Transit, Jeroen van Velzen’s Netherlands world premiere vehicle Tanzania Transit is a road movie that goes on the rails. It follows a train’s physical journey across the flat and impoverished country of its title, but—like the Maysles film—reveals unexpected intimacies and aspects of the confined passengers.

For filmgoers with an interest in technology and the anatomy of a tragically failed start-up, General Magic is a good bet. A late-’80s offshoot of Apple, no less, the eponymous company began in Silicon Valley with dreams of glory and backing from companies like Sony and AT&T. But even some of the Valley’s smartest young tech brains of the time failed to develop and bring its smartphone-like product to market. Why did it crash?

TFF docs also go gritty, as Madeleine Sackler’s It's a Hard Truth Ain't It no doubt shows. Given unprecedented access to a maximum-security prison, the filmmaker worked with a group of inmates to tell their own stories.

Beyond this peek at select titles, the Fest offers many more new, undiscovered films. For full details regarding the entire lineup of 96 new features plus all things TFF 2018, visit www.tribecafilm.com.

Again, TFF’s Retrospectives sidebar honors some of cinema’s greatest, beloved or lost films. This year brings three restored selections: Steven Spielberg’s classic Schindler’s List, in recognition of its 25th anniversary; the Al Pacino gangster classic Scarface, celebrating its 35th anniversary; and the premiere of a 4K restoration of the resurrected indie Steve Buscemi-starrer In the Soup on its 25th anniversary.

While the retrospectives prove the remarkable durability of great cinema, today’s more technically savvy cinephiles and media watchers also crave a look forward. Hence, the TFF Immersive programs reflect the view of programmers that “passive viewing is so passé” and the need to push the boundaries of storytelling.

With TV and streaming becoming a much bigger presence on the storytelling landscape, the Fest, coming off its first Tribeca TV Festival last September, is presenting a number of new narratives, doc series and independent pilots in its Tribeca TV sector. Notable is a premiere episode of NatGeo’s “Genius” series about Picasso (played by Antonio Banderas), which follows last year's award-winning Tribeca entry “Genius: Einstein.”

Moving further to the cutting edge of entertainment creation, TFF again offers its N.O.W (New Online Work) program, launched five years ago to recognize storytellers emerging from the online space. And as the frontiers of possibilities widen, intrigue and seduce (even as mass adoption remains elusive), TFF pioneers into newer storytelling territory, upping its game with more games programming. This year, there are previews of “Tomb Raider” and “God of War” and a “game jam” where developers will build new games.

In a continuing celebration of traditional filmed entertainment, TFF again comes on strong with its annual “Tribeca Talks” conversations with directors and storytellers. Among the many to be heard and observed are Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, mega-musician John Legend, Alec Baldwin speaking with Spike Lee, Bradley Cooper with Robert De Niro, Dick Cavett with Alexander Payne, HBO’s Sheila Nevins with Laura Poitras, Jacob Reitman with Tamara Jenkins, and Leslie Linda Glatter with Claire Danes.

Plenty of talk will also animate a Time’s Up-hosted inaugural one-day New York event with conversations featuring activists, filmmakers, lawyers, et al., and including early supporters like stars Ashley Judd and Julianne Moore.

Music continues as a big Fest component with live performances following docs celebrating Patti Smith, jazz label Blue Note Records, the Air Jordan sneaker and Ellis Haizlip's trend-setting late-night “Soul!” TV show.

As the Fest curtain rises amidst low temperatures, so does blood pressure in the politically and morally battered real world beyond. Which explains why an oasis of entertainment, escape and discovery like TFF 2018 is all the more necessary this year.