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5 Tribeca Film Festival Must-Sees

Of the dozens of titles surveyed from the 92 on view during the ninth edition of the Tribeca Film Festival, unspooling April 21 through May 2, docs trump narratives, as the five highlights below suggest. Two are coming to a screen (big or small) near you soon; the rest are currently without U.S. distribution—but hopefully not without new NYC fans.

{a} The Arbor

An exemplar of fact-fiction hybrid filmmaking, Clio Barnard's debut feature traces the life of British playwright Andrea Dunbar (1961–1990), whose work chronicled her grim existence in the West Yorkshire housing project where she grew up, and the fallout of her notoriety, horrible choices in men, and alcoholism for her family, particularly her oldest daughter, Lorraine. Barnard seamlessly blends archival material and a live staging of Dunbar's play of the title on the writer's home turf. But her boldest intervention in the bio-doc is having actors lip-synch the words of the actual interviewees—a deliberate distancing device that nonetheless draws viewers in closer.

{b} Lola

The prolific Brillante Mendoza, one of the few internationally acknowledged auteurs in this year's Tribeca, follows up Kinatay, the gang-rape-and-dismemberment outrage from last year's Cannes, with a gentle ode to two resilient Manila family elders linked by a crime. The title is Tagalog for "grandmother": Sepa (Anita Linda) tries to raise money for the funeral of her grandson, killed during a cell-phone theft; the murderer's granny, Puring (Rustica Carpio), dutifully brings mango and rice cakes to the boy in jail while mollifying Sepa's anger with pesos tied up in a dirty hankie. Though arthritic and weary, these two gray panthers offer a sharp, unsentimental portrait of cunning and determination.

{c} The Woodmans

C. Scott Willis's probing, nonjudgmental documentary on the complex responses of the titular family of artists to the suicide and posthumous acclaim of photographer daughter Francesca, renowned for her black-and-white, frequently nude, self-portraits, reveals grief supplanted by fierce competition with a ghost. Older brother Charlie, a professor of electronic arts in Cincinnati, largely remains unconcerned with art-world attention, yet parents George and Betty change their practices dramatically after their daughter's death, in 1981, at age 22. Dad stops making abstract paintings to take up photography very similar to his daughter's, but with young models; Mom abandons pottery for "objects that aren't functional," responding, somewhat peevishly, to her child's continued fame: "Wait a minute—I'm an artist, too."

{d} Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work IFC Films

Previously exposing the inequities of the U.S. justice system and the horrors of Darfur, nonfiction vets Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg turn their clear-eyed attention to celebrity senescence—specifically, to the masochistic refusal to retire of the comedian now best known, in the words of her former manager, "as a plastic-surgery freak." Filmed as Rivers, self-deprecatingly honest about her desperation to keep busy, was turning 75, A Piece of Work shows the Celebrity Apprentice '09 winner getting heckled at a gig in Wisconsin (prompting a furious retort) and enduring endless humiliation during a Comedy Central roast (karmic retribution?)—grateful that her monthly planner remains full.

{e} The Two Escobars ESPN Films

The sordid legend of drug lord Pablo Escobar—immortalized by Vincent Chase and the subject of an upcoming biopic by Oliver Stone—may have eclipsed that of upstanding fellow Colombian (though no relation) Andrés Escobar, the captain of the national soccer team, but Jeff and Michael Zimbalist's illuminating doc links the two through the sport's former dependence on narco-funding. If the filmmakers festoon their project with a brain-numbing score and intermittent slickness, the testimony of Andrés's former teammates—particularly their memories of the 1994 World Cup game against the U.S., in which their captain accidentally scored for the opponent (leading to his murder 10 days later)—restore the gravitas.

 
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