At first it was about neighborhood. Then it was about stars, parties, and supersizing. But finally, for its 10th incarnation, the Tribeca Film Festival (April 20–May 1) seems to be about movies. Gone are the superfluous, attention-sucking Hollywood premieres (Tom Cruise on a Jet Ski, anyone?), and few are the big-name, low-quality vanity projects. Several years into a vital slimming of the slate—the fest topped out at 176 films in 2005; this year, it’s a manageable 93—TFF remains New York’s largest film survey. But like the city itself, this year’s festival is enhanced and defined by voices imported from afar. Here are seven films (one domestic, six par avion) to seek out over the next 10 days.
That it documents rural poverty in the American West without exploiting or sanctifying its subjects would be cause enough for praise. But this doesn’t begin to approach what Alma Har’el pulls off with her hybrid doc knockout Bombay Beach, which bundles vérité nonfiction with abstract visual poetry and choreographed dance numbers (scored to music by Beirut and Bob Dylan). In the sparsely populated community of the film’s title, near California’s once enticing but now fetid Salton Sea, Har’el tracks three main characters—a ponderous elderly man who resells individual cigarettes for a quarter; a self-possessed, love-struck high school football star; and a frisky seven-year-old who’s already on a bucketful of behavior meds. They give of themselves to Har’el’s camera as exuberant collaborators, playing themselves for real and for play.
You don’t need to know anything about Icelandic politics to know that Jon Gnarr is an unconventional candidate for the Reykjavík mayoralty. He declares himself head of “The Best Party,” promises citizens a polar bear and Disneyland to call their own, and vows to not work with anyone who hasn’t watched The Wire. Discontented Icelanders, rattled by their acute experience of the global economic collapse, rally behind the sketch comedian’s gonzo campaign, documented here in all its slack, improvisatory glory. With his infectious laugh, absurdist wit, and stealth intellect, Gnarr deserves to be an exported star; I’d take his politics, too.
The Journals of Musan
For his devastatingly assured debut feature, Park Jung-bum writes, directs, and stars as Jeon Seungchul, a mop-topped North Korean defector struggling to earn a living, make friends, and stay out of harm’s way in rough-and-tumble Seoul. Far from a preachy socialist-realist vessel, the film plays more like a shaky-cam noir, tumbling Jeon from choir practice to back-alley beat-downs, and drilling deep into his inscrutable psyche to mine our empathy and revulsion in equal measure.
The emergence of yet another talented young Mexican filmmaker, Yulene Olaizola’s first feature sketches a platonic triangle between an old man, a young woman, and the vices that help them cope with their lives. While ostensibly telling a story of addiction—weather-beaten laborer Salomón is a hash smoker who tries to help beautiful Luisa score and later kick smack—Olaizola has no judgments to offer or invite, privileging presence over consequence, tactility over action. She shoots her actors with the same fascination as she does the lush Gulf Coastal landscape, and gives it all time and space to breathe.
White White World
It may not be an easy sit, but Oleg Novkovic’s wildly ambitious, ugly-beautiful Serbian soap-opera musical thriller is impossible to disregard. A teen beauty and her ex-con mother vie for the same strong, silent, explosively violent ex-boxer barman in the dying mining town of Bor. Punches are thrown, noses are smashed, families are broken, and no one ever says or does anything remotely redeeming, but when such misery is counteracted by Miladin Colakovic’s majestic cinematography and Boris Kovac’s off-centered song-cycle, White White World nears the epic tragedy to which it aspires.
The Good Life
Considering all the working people who have lost their jobs in recent years, it’s hard to work up much sympathy for spoiled ex-socialites Mette and Annemette Beckmann, an elderly mother and her middle-aged daughter who are living off a small pension in Portugal after squandering their wealth. But damnit if Danish director Eva Mulvad doesn’t make us walk a mile in their shoes, turning car-wreck rubbernecking into existential sorrow. The Beckmanns aren’t reclusive eccentrics like Grey Gardens’ Bouvier Beales, but rather infantilized adults incapable of fending for themselves or enduring each other. They’re not victims, but they’re trapped just the same.
Mila Turajlic eulogizes a defunct society by exhuming its once-thriving film culture in this elegantly constructed memory machine. In the years following World War II, Yugoslavia built an expansive, mostly propagandistic film industry from scratch, pumping out one partisan war film after another. Turajlic harmonizes contemporary reminiscences—with actors, directors, and even the private projectionist to leader and noted cinephile Tito—with clips from dozens of forgotten Yugoslav films, contrasting the region’s fractured present reality with its exuberantly fictional past. The culture scattered along with the nation, a Croatian festival split from a Belgrade studio; the latter is now a cobwebbed ghost town. “Until recently, we all fought to keep this going, because it was headed for ruin,” says a worker. “But I guess it’s ruined anyway.” Cinema, like the state that commissioned it, was a magnificent illusion, but is mourned all the same.
Six more not to miss: In The Miners’ Hymns, Bill Morrison elegantly arranges archival footage to eulogize a lost way of life for English laborers and their communities, while Nancy Buirski combines vintage footage with reflective interviews to tell The Loving Story, the interracial romance that defeated America’s miscegenation laws. Turn Me On, Goddammit is a Norwegian coming-of-age comedy about a sex-ready teen girl, while She Monkeys refracts those same life changes through a moody thriller; and as doc The Bully Project gives a gut-wrenching eyewitness account of the evil that today’s American school kids do to one another, Peter Mullan’s NEDS is an unsparing fictional journey back to the ceaseless corporal brutality of the Glaswegian ’70s. Mullan offers no false hope in the end, but rather a lovely little allegorical flourish, a brief moment of beauty after all that horror—which is the least we can ask for from life, or film festivals.