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To begin its second decade as the largest and most aggressively marketed survey of new movies in New York, the Tribeca Film Festival (April 18–29) is raising its international profile even as it deepens its roots in the Lower Manhattan asphalt. Led by new artistic director Frédéric Boyer (formerly of Cannes’s indie offshoot the Directors’ Fortnight), it still doesn’t have as ensconced of an identity as either Sundance or South by Southwest, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Looking over the films in this year’s catalog, and judging from the 30-odd films I was able to preview, it’s apparent that Tribeca takes all kinds. Between high-profile Hollywood launches like opening night’s The Five-Year Engagement and closing night’s The Avengers, and the micro-budgeted, literally garage-made films celebrated in the entertaining documentary Journey to Planet X, Tribeca is an all-inclusive slate of contemporary cinema. Such diversity is commendable but can also be overwhelming for the casual festivalgoer. Allow us to help: Here are 14 films worth your time.
‘Keep the Lights On’
Unforgivably ignored at Sundance, this beautifully aching love story gets the hometown spotlight it deserves. Ira Sachs’s semiautobiographical, Chelsea-set tale spans a decade in the on-and-off romance between a Danish documentary filmmaker (a revelatory Thure Lindhardt) and his Yankee lit-agent lover (Zachary Booth), cutting to the bone with the gentlest of knives in its dissection of commitment, addiction, and gay sex, withholding judgment even at its grimmest displays of human frailty. Sachs’s stunner is a front-runner for best American film of the year.
The latest from the rising Danish documentary new wave (The Good Life, Enemies of Happiness), this observational portrait of competitive ballroom dancers Slavik Kryklyvyy and Anna Melnikova starts out as a phoenix-from-the-ashes comeback story before (d)evolving into something much messier and more engrossing. Competing at such a high level is hard enough—try getting through it without wanting to disembowel your partner and lover. Although impossible to please for Melnikova, Kryklyvyy turns out to be a filmmaker’s dream. Almost hyperbolically handsome, with diamond-cut cheekbones to outdo Johnny Depp, he’s a brooding matinee idol and self-destructive genius—a master craftsman undone by his own gloomy, preening perfectionism.
‘Planet of Snail’
Cinematic love stories don’t come more convincing or singular than this understated doc about married couple Young-Chan and Soon-Ho—a deaf-blind man and a physically disabled woman who complement each other body and soul in a modest Korean flat. Director Yi Seung-jun neither sentimentalizes nor heroicizes his subjects and instead lets their personalities and idiosyncrasies lead the way. What they accomplish together—and how much fun they have doing it—will put your able-bodied concerns to shame. And you’ll never look at a lightbulb the same way again.
‘Take This Waltz’
Sarah Polley’s follow-up to her moving directorial debut, Away From Her, is a modern fable about a young woman torn between her cozy marriage and the handsome artist next door. By turns sweet and salty, quirky and dirty, idealized and bleak, Take This Waltz is a deceptively candy-colored existentialist rom-com—which is to say there’s nothing quite like it. Michelle Williams plays the conflicted heroine, Luke Kirby is the unconscionably charming other man, and Seth Rogen is perfect as the Ralph Bellamy straight man. Before turning moralistic in its final minutes, it’s a democratic and quietly devastating dissection of fidelity and its discontents.
‘Postcards From the Zoo’
It takes a while for anything resembling a story to emerge from this elliptical, magical-realist spectacle, but it entrances from first frame to last. Set almost entirely in Jakarta’s sprawling Ragunan Zoo, the film wanders over the diverse community of fauna within its environs: the felines, snakes, ponies, hippos, giraffes, children, handlers, vendors, and homeless vagrants huddled like refugees at the fringes. The world beyond the zoo is far more threatening by contrast, yet no less curious.
‘Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie’
As blistering and half-cocked as its subject, this doc recounts the rise and fall of shock TV emcee Downey and the reactionary mob culture that filled his audience and never left. The disgruntled son of a beloved Irish tenor, Downey achieved belated fame in his fifties by fashioning himself into a loud-mouthed, straight-talking, chain-smoking man of the people, prone to profane tirades and belly-bumping debate opponents. The toast of the town in 1987, his show was canceled by 1989. The film features interviews with family, friends, and fans, and footage that still seems too outrageous to believe.
‘Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal’
Boris Rodriguez’s inspired first feature strikes just the right balance between camp horror and clever satire. Desperate for peace, quiet, and inspiration, celebrated painter Lars Olafssen (high-low double-dipper Thure Lindhardt of Keep the Lights On) accepts an artist-in-residence post at a small, snowbound Canadian art school. A wealthy benefactor is keeping the cash-strapped school afloat on the condition that they mind his mute, mentally challenged son, whom Lars volunteers to board in his cabin. What follows is an absurdly satisfying deliverance of the title’s promise, with Lars’s artistic spirit awoken by Eddie’s grisly impulses.
‘The Fourth Dimension’
This three-part omnibus inspired by the divergent notions of a fourth dimension is one-third OK (Alexey Fedorchenko’s computer-hacker time-traveling fable), one-third great (Jan Kwiecinski’s exquisitely choreographed punk-party-before-the-apocalypse), and one-third gloriously moronic. If Harmony Korine was put on the earth for anything, it was to cast Val Kilmer as a shamelessly mugging roller-rink motivational speaker named Val Kilmer. Dressed in Salvation Army rack trash (yellow Izod, Native American amulets, black fanny pack), popping feeble wheelies on a dirt bike, and spouting seemingly stream-of-conscious nonsense about mother ships, the gold standard, and “awesome secrets,” national treasure Kilmer is a sight to behold—and seems to be having the time of his life.
Finally tiring of all that futon-hopping, American indie filmmakers are taking up genre in droves. Andrew Semans’s Nancy, Please veers from a yuppie nesting comedy into a nifty psychological thriller—as well as a dead-on depiction of doctoral-student psychosis. In Benjamin Dickinson’s visually accomplished first feature, First Winter, freak-folk hipsters gather in a remote wintry farmhouse for rigorous sessions of yoga and fucking, only to find themselves stuck together for the apocalypse. And in the disarmingly funny bromance Supporting Characters, Alex Karpovsky and a fine Tarik Lowe play an editing duo charged with reworking a fatally flawed film.
Industrious auteur Michael Winterbottom returns with Trishna, a remarkably apt transposition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles to the entrenched classism and sexism of modern-day India (starring Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed in the leads), while in The World Before Her, documentarian Nisha Pahuja contemplates Indian modernity and female identity at opposite extremes, cutting between contestants at the westernized Miss India beauty pageant and a militant fundamentalist Hindu camp. In a similarly bifurcated look at a country in transition, High Tech, Low Life tracks two online “citizen reporters” in press-restrictive China—one a self-promoting individualist, the other a modest muckraking comrade, and each, in his way, a national hero.