Now that the Tribeca Film Festival is in its 12th year, let’s take a moment to reflect on the six words you can find in just about any account of the previous 10: “Tribeca is finally up and running.” That reasoning suggests that programming a festival is like building a machine, a network of working parts that, over time, can be tweaked to perfection.
But festivals are more like life forms than machines. The better metaphor might be sourdough starter: You’ve got to begin with something alive and go from there. This is the second year of the tenure of Artistic Director Frédéric Boyer, formerly programmer of Cannes’s Directors Fortnight sidebar, and the mix—more than 100 films—appears to be broadening and deepening. Tribeca kicks off April 17 with Mistaken for Strangers, Matt Berninger’s documentary about Brooklyn rock stars the National, followed by a live performance. And while the lineup includes festival favorites—Mira Nair, David Gordon Green, Ramin Bahrani—there’s a wealth of under-the-radar riches here. We’ve sifted through the choices to help you on your way. Meanwhile, forget all that finding-its-footing business: Tribeca lives.
Byzantium: Sure, you’ve seen enough vampire movies to last a lifetime, but don’t seal yourself into a sepulcher just yet. Neil Jordan has done the bloodsucking thing before (with 1994’s Interview with the Vampire). But Byzantium, in which Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton play vamps on the lam in a tumble-down Irish coastal town, is sexy, spooky, just a little bit grisly, and elegant in a dog-eared way.
The Rocket: Do you avoid films set in famine-stricken villages for fear of watching patriarchs kill beloved pets just to make a point and orphaned children forced into slavery or the military—all in the first scene? Fear not Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket, which features none of those things. Set (and beautifully filmed) in rural Laos and featuring mostly nonprofessional actors, The Rocket gives us a 10-year-old boy, striving to prove his merit by entering a rocket in a village competition. The picture has its share of raw emotion, but Mordaunt’s touch is delicate—he never clobbers you with feel-bad vibes.
Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton: New Yorkers need a little jolt of the West Coast now and then, and this documentary by Stephen Silha, Eric Slade, and Dawn Logsdon, about California poet, experimental filmmaker, and mischief-maker James Broughton, plugs right into that current. Broughton was a complicated guy—it’s easiest to call him pansexual, for lack of a better designation. (In the late 1940s he fathered a child with fellow Berkeley luminary Pauline Kael; Kael raised their daughter on her own.) He was also charismatic and intensely creative, and Big Joy—using clips from films like The Bed, his silly-wonderful 1968 paean to the joys of making love, en plein air and otherwise—captures his oversize spirit.
Harmony Lessons: Kazakh filmmaker Emir Baigazin wowed audiences at this year’s Berlin Film Festival with his debut picture, a stylized waking dream about a misfit who exacts revenge against bullies at his rural school. Now New York audiences will have a chance to see for themselves: Harmony Lessons is imaginative, stark, more than a little chilling.
Michael H.—Profession: Director: Michael Haneke looks like a disgruntled priest from a medieval woodcut—no wonder his movies are so merciless. But Yves Montmayeur’s lucid documentary shows another side of the notoriously precise Austrian filmmaker. He laughs, he smiles, he guides his actors gently through difficult scenes. In other words, Mr. Funny Games is surprisingly human.
Before Midnight: Some who have seen Before Midnight say they cried right at the beginning. Others report weeping at the end. It would risk breaking a code of faith to say too much about what triggers such feeling in this picture, the third entry in Richard Linklater’s romantic trilogy that began with 1995’s Before Sunrise. But it’s safe to tell you that even though Julie Delpy does most of the talking in Before Midnight (quelle surprise!), it’s Ethan Hawke—whose character is now a battle-scarred but sturdy adult—who shoulders the emotional weight. If you’ve been following along since ’95, it’s likely that Before Midnight will get to you—at the beginning, at the end, or somewhere in between.
I Got Somethin’ to Tell You: Everyone knows who Richard Pryor is (and his life and work are documented in another Tribeca offering this year, Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic). But Moms Mabley is arguably an even more important figure in the nation’s comedy history, a performer who came up in the chitlin’ circuit and crept to the forefront of civil rights activism. The performance clips in this documentary, produced and directed by Whoopi Goldberg, resonate: Moms, in her trademark bucket hat and floral housedress, knew how to bring the house down with her quips about the real lives of black folk in America—but she also brought the hammer down, so brilliantly that you could barely feel it hit.
Just a Sigh: American fans of the French actress Emmanuelle Devos (whose talents have been put to use so gloriously by Arnaud Desplechin in movies like A Christmas Tale and Kings and Queen) rarely get to see her in a leading role. Jérôme Bonnell’s Just a Sigh remedies that: Devos plays a self-absorbed actress who meets, and follows, a mysterious older man played by silver fox Gabriel Byrne. The picture’s dialogue may be clumsy at times, but the actors always tame it into submission. Devos—prickly, vulnerable, maddening and touching—reigns supreme.
Lil Bub & Friendz: You say you never look at viral cat videos, but come on: You’re a person alive now, so you do. Andy Capper and Juliette Eisner’s compact little doc explores the mystique of cat memes—mewms?—like Keyboard Cat, Nyan Cat and Grumpy Cat. More importantly, it chronicles the adventures of the Internet’s beloved dwarf cat Lil Bub who, with her winsome eyes and caterpillar crawl, is surely the pick of the litter.
Lily: Tribeca is a New York festival, so it’s fitting to cap off our list with a picture that’s pure New York. In Matt Creed’s modest, marvelous debut, Lily, the title character—played by newcomer Amy Grantham, who also co-wrote the script—fills her days by being a stepmom to two rambunctious kids, a girlfriend to a much older man, and an observant wanderer in the city. She stops to look at everyday things—an Asian woman picking through a litter basket for bottles, a crazy dude spouting bizarrely sage-sounding nonsense on the street—as if they weren’t incidental to her life. Lily, it turns out, is also finishing up treatments for cancer (the story is based partly on Grantham’s own experience), but don’t think of it as a cancer movie. It’s more about being alive to the world around you—in this case, a city that smells bad, costs too much, and teems with weird people—and never thinking for a minute you’d rather be anywhere else.