The 13th Tribeca Film Festival opens with Time Is Illmatic, celebrating the 20th anniversary of rapper Nas’s groundbreaking 1994 record (with a Nas performance to follow), and closes with Begin Again, a narrative feature starring Keira Knightley as a budding songwriter. In between, the festival once again offers, through nearly 90 fiction and documentary films, an overwhelming menu of subjects for the tough-minded: third world communities’ livelihoods threatened by modern development; unraveling families; teenage depression.
Three of this year’s finest films are gritty accounts of doomed drug dealers, be they in the East Brooklyn projects (Five Star, featuring real-life Blood members in key roles), the poverty-lined streets of Myanmar (Ice Poison), or the perilous swamps of rural Colombia (Manos Sucias, produced by Spike Lee).
Keith Miller’s Five Star is a dizzying tour-de-force, with the camera often as jittery as its conflicted teen protagonist’s gun-wielding hands. Midi Z takes the opposite approach in the gorgeous and grim Ice Poison, laying out 10 or so static panoramas in which unspeakably sad things happen (most chiefly, the prolonged shot of two self-employed taxi drivers, a father and son, trying in vain to draw customers at a bus station.) Meanwhile, Manos Sucias‘ close-up of a sobbing 19-year-old drug runner, as he drowns a petty thief, will throttle even the most desensitized viewer.
Several of the bleakest works are set in more affluent but no less dysfunctional milieus. In Lou Howe’s unnerving Gabriel, a young mental patient (an outstanding Rory Culkin) returns home to his Hamptons family, but keeps sneaking out to search for a long-lost love, with disastrous repercussions. Paolo Virzi’s Human Capital borrows some elements from American Beauty — unscrupulous or unloving fathers, philandering mothers, and somber daughters lusting after unstable boys — but is overall a far more searing, scathing story of greed and familial self-destruction, told from multiple viewpoints.
The comedies are likewise often dark and dense, deliberately messy takes on divorce, cheating, and the temptation to cheat. In Ryan Piers Williams’s stylishly gloomy, New York City–set X/Y, a quartet of emotionally stunted twentysomethings (among them Ugly Betty‘s America Ferrera) engage in ill-fated trysts, usually in public restrooms. On the other coast, the lovesick characters of the bittersweet Goodbye to All That — the directorial debut of Junebug writer Angus MacLachlan — are a little older and calmer, but equally confused. Otto (Paul Schneider) finds himself suddenly estranged from his brittle, unfaithful wife and mature young daughter, but he’s so earthy and handsome that he’s granted nonstop sex with a succession of embittered single moms, kooky fetishists, and no-strings-attached starlets. As Otto weighs arrested hedonism versus parental responsibility, the film is by turns heartbreaking and breathlessly erotic.
Even the lighter comedies border on the perverse. Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love presents Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass as sparring spouses who, during a would-be idyllic retreat, encounter funnier, more level-headed replicas of themselves, with delightfully loopy results. And even if you’ve never heard of the controversial, Islam-mocking French author Michel Houellebecq, whose lengthy disappearance after a 2011 book tour spurred rumors that he was abducted by Al Qaeda, Guillaume Nicloux’s breezy mockumentary The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq is essential viewing. Nicloux imagines that the perpetually lugubrious Houellebecq was seized not by radicals but by three rustic buffoons, who end up treating him more like an adopted pet than a captive. Houellebecq, whose droopy-lipped nonchalance could rival Peter Bogdanovich’s, is a marvel of self-loathing in his debut screen appearance.
As always, the documentaries range wildly in tone, content, and setting. Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’s mesmerizing Mala Mala devotes equal time to several spritely yet bruised entertainers and streetwalkers in Puerto Rico’s transgender community, who gradually band together to fight for civil rights. It is a surprisingly optimistic film, with a bouncy score by Flavien Berger. On the other hand, viewers will surely share the indignation flooding The Newburgh Sting, a long-overdue indictment of the FBI’s alleged entrapment of four men from economically depressed Newburgh, New York, now serving 25 years for attempted terrorism.
For a happier slice of recent politics, check out Kevin Gordon’s buoyant True Son, chronicling 22-year-old Michael Tubbs’s painstaking, victorious run for Stockton, California, city council in 2012. All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State is another uplifting ode to an unlikely champion, fondly recollecting a brief but resonant era in which Texas was actually progressive.
Quirkier but no less enticing docs include The Search for General Tso, an exhaustive history lesson on how the fiery Taiwanese chicken dish hit America and started to lose its pep; and Art & Craft, which slyly questions whether Mark Landis, who forges other artists’ work for his own pleasure, is really all that damnable. With his Truman Capote–like chirp and innate shyness, Landis will charm you even as he’s giving you the creeps.
To its credit, Tribeca continues to showcase unknown actors and directors, but for the star-hungry, there’s Courteney Cox’s directorial debut, Just Before I Go, with Seann William Scott, as well as new films from veterans Paul Haggis (Third Person, an international love story and tragedy), Jon Favreau (Chef, a sweet-natured father-son bonding film set mostly within a ramshackle traveling food truck and peppered with wry patter), and Roman Polanski at his kinky, demented best in the theatrical adaptation Venus in Fur.
My favorite festival film, though, falls outside all these categories. It’s not war-torn, drug-laced, or even macabre. It’s a sassy, sunny confection from newcomer Susanna Fogel called Life Partners. The characters — a picky, immature lesbian (Leighton Meester), her straight, equally finicky best friend (Gillian Jacobs), who has less time for her after falling for a gentle nerd, and the neurotic or overly praising friends, parents, and lovers who drift in and out of their periphery — are remarkably insightful and fleshed out. The comic timing is impeccable, whether the characters are squabbling about The Big Lebowski or staging fake fender benders for kicks. Life Partners is the festival’s most resplendent good time.