With a more selective lineup of films and lower ticket prices, this year's Tribeca Film Festival clearly aims to please some of last year's detractors (who, us?). Yes, the-not-exactly-festival-y Baby Mama opens and Speed Racer closes, but in between, there are some pretty outstanding finds that won't be enjoying a studio ad blitz any time soon.
Because we at the Voice like nice, round numbers, here are our 13 picks.
Directed by Jay Duplass
April 26, 29; May 1, 3
A frequently bracing, lo-fi revisitation of the concept behind the 1972 zombie flick Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things—ham actors isolated in the woods can't decipher if the horror stalking them is real, or their own theatrical prankishness run amok—the Duplass brothers' latest imagines four Hollywood never-beens holed up in an isolated cabin to write themselves a breakthrough. The earmarks of a recently fashionable strain of improv-driven indie naturalism are present, including dialogue that blatantly displays every motive (though in characters whose days are filled with sitcom auditions, such banality has a plausible source). And despite the familiar fetish for sad-sack emasculation, what's resonant are the empathetic portraits of beautiful people who've watched their prospects recede each passing year: Ross Partridge as a hired jawline who might've paid a decade's rent standing in for Mel Gibson, and modelesque Elise Muller's character, who can't figure where it all went wrong, bragging that Jim Harbaugh asked her out a beat before realizing that she's dated herself. Nick Pinkerton
Even before Katrina, when most of this charming yet hard-hitting documentary was filmed, its focus was timely and essential. Once a colonial-era suburb (faubourg, in French), now a hardscrabble New Orleans section bordering the French Quarter, Tremé may be America's oldest black neighborhood. When narrator, co-director, and Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie buys a dilapidated house there, his septuagenarian Creole carpenter opens a window to the area's history of creative ferment and social resistance: how 19th-century residents created symphonies and literature; the nurturing of early-20th-century jazz; the Civil War–era founding of the country's first black newspaper; and a civil-rights movement, long pre-dating Rosa Parks, that instigated Plessy v. Ferguson's challenge to segregation. In Katrina's wake, the film's deft blend of first-person narrative and archival photos, contemporary talking heads and theatrical recreation, underscores Elie's question: "How can our past help us survive this time?" Larry Blumenfeld
Guest of Cindy Sherman, the title of Tom Donahue and Paul Hasegawa-Overacker's shambolic, weirdly compelling documentary, refers to an incident—a placecard, specifically—that was the undoing of the latter co-director's romance with the notoriously elusive artist. Tracking the beginnings of Paul H-O's dishy cable-access show, Gallery Beat, the film depicts the high-flying New York art world of the late '80s and '90s, including the year—1990—that Cindy Sherman broke big. Her wry self-portraits attract celebrities, major bucks, and the brash Paul H-O, whose persistence scores him a rare invitation to Sherman's studio. Footage from the interviews he conducted there reveal a fluttery, adorable figure whose nerves betray a woman smitten. Scores of interviews with art-scene players give dimension to the strange story of Cindy and Paul; she disappears from the film, and he disappears, quite loudly, into her haute-fabulous shadow. His lament for their relationship encompasses a greater loss—that of an art community where even the riffraff were welcomed, and occasionally loved. Michelle Orange
Idiots and Angels
Directed by Bill Plympton
April 26, 27, 30; May 3
Cult animator Bill Plympton's hand-penciled expressionism is most recognizable from his shorts, likely because his deadpan, spatial-distorting sight gags often can't sustain momentum in feature form, almost by design. Yet his beautifully creepy fifth film somehow transcends this limitation and proves his most fully realized yet, a grim fairy-tale comedy about a truculent businessman who discovers angelic wings sprouting from his back. Told without a word of dialogue, the mean bastard undergoes a spiritual awakening as his new appendages thwart his every transgression, a humiliating rise-fall-and-rise tale that affects a bar owner and his salsa-dancing wife, a conniving surgeon, and a town full of arson victims. Less concerned with gags than nimble storytelling and wide-screen aesthetics (every brooding corner of the frame is blotted in monochromatic noir hues), Plympton mines elegance from the utterly gonzo. Aaron Hillis
Concert films are dicey: You weren't there, you didn't get drunk and rubbed by those strangers, and your red Netflix envelope is no proper souvenir. But Lou Reed's Berlin is one of those rare live-performance documents that truly benefits from proper cinematic context. Reed's 1973 Berlin, the 10-song tragedy of two junkie lovers, was criminally under-appreciated at the time of its release—turns out it's nothing short of a masterpiece. Whoops. And until a five-day stretch at St. Ann's Warehouse in 2006, famously grumpy Lou had never performed the record live in full. Fellow 800-pound-gorilla Julian Schnabel showed up with sets, cameras, and ethereal druggy-people projections—pseudo-narrative scenes that end up delicately interspersed within the final cut. The result is a dreamy sepia-toned tableau of existential desolation and art-house incandescence. You weren't there, but you didn't need to be: Lou Reed's Berlin doesn't simply regurgitate a moment, it rewrites cultural history. Camille Dodero
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