Film

Your Best Bet at Tribeca This Year: Avoid Celebrity Fare

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Fourteen years in, the Tribeca Film Festival has taken a step back to look at the bigger picture, and finally realized what was making it hang cockeyed. In previous editions of the sprawling,
populist-skewing showcase, the original mission — to stimulate economic growth in downtown, post–9-11 Manhattan — was forgotten in an increasingly decentralized event with programming as far away as the Upper West Side. But suddenly, all eleven theaters of Battery Park’s Regal Cinemas will now play host to premieres, and Varick Street’s 150,000-square-foot Spring Studios serves as a communal hub — a new home to fest lounges, panel talks, immersive installations that deconstruct storytelling, even a restoration of the Sinatra-starring 1949 musical On the Town. Welcome back to Tribeca, Tribeca.

Over 200 films are on this year’s menu, nearly a hundred of them features (and 30 directed by women, a welcome step forward), all of which can be overwhelming to navigate at $21.50 a ticket, though weekday matinee shows are reasonably discounted. Opening night will cost you quadruple that just for Beacon Theatre cheap seats for Bao Nguyen’s Live From New York! — a doc companion to February’s 40-year celebration of Saturday Night Live, this time focusing on the political and cultural context of the show’s early years. Other tentpole galas include the recording-studio snapshot Mary J. Blige: The London Sessions (followed by a live stage performance from the hip-hop soulstress), and a weekend of silliness attended by Britain’s sketch-comedy legends in honor of Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘s ruby anniversary. On closing night, go get your shinebox for a post-screening, 25-year reunion with the cast and crew of the always rewatchable Mafia classic Goodfellas, moderated by Jon Stewart — who is all but guaranteed to trot out his “mook” voice.

Foodies can fill up on choice cuts like the comprehensive, gourmet sirloin tour Steak (R)evolution, or The Birth of Saké, an artful rumination on a family-owned Japanese brewery’s devotion to preserving traditions and quality. Ambitious world-building runs high in modestly budgeted indies like Men Go to Battle (an authentic tale of backbiting brothers in Civil War–era Kentucky) and Jackrabbit (an intriguing hacker thriller set in a post-apocalyptic landscape of outmoded technology). Flexing more avant-garde muscles, the improvised docudrama Stranded in Canton places a fictional Congolese dreamer in a very real China to tragicomically explore globalism, and the visually arresting, religious-themed curio Lucifer demands the big-screen experience in order to absorb director Gust Van den Berghe’s wide-angle, circular “Tondoscope” format.

Tribeca tends to court bold-face names, New York stories, and the maximum possible number of world premieres, so the best tip for the quality-minded consumer is that if you’re choosing between a celebrity-powered, Gotham-centric narrative of unknown quality and something else entirely, stick to the latter. One holdover from Toronto that’s not to be missed is the tense drone-warfare drama Good Kill, the thinking person’s answer to American Sniper. A terrific, understated Ethan Hawke re-teams with Gattaca writer-director Andrew Niccol as a former Air Force pilot who has been grounded in the Las Vegas desert, where he now obliterates Taliban with joystick clicks from an air-conditioned trailer half a world away. Worse than just shellshocked, Hawke’s major has become a bored, self-pitying suburbanite (and baby-daddy to January Jones’s kid) whose excessive boozing isn’t the result of wartime horrors, but the detached, impotent feeling that there’s no more fear, adrenaline rush, or bravery in his battles. Aside from unnecessary mirror-punching as emotions run hot, this smart and piercing film raises questions about how technology can further dehumanize soldiers, why following orders can still make one criminally complicit, and — much like in Gattaca or Niccol’s The Truman Show — how life in the modern age can be claustrophobically inauthentic.

As has been the case for years, however, the most consistently accomplished films at Tribeca overall are its nonfiction features. In a newly tightened cut since winning a special jury award at Sundance, (T)ERROR presents a rare and occasionally riveting opportunity to experience a counterterrorism sting from an FBI informant’s perspective. Proving that the sexy espionage of Homeland and countless movies is far removed from reality, directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe offer an unpretentiously straightforward profile of 63-year-old Muslim and former Black Panther “Shariff,” a brash ex-con who reports and tattles on suspected jihadists for the feds. The money’s apparently nice, which is the first tipoff that Shariff’s claims aren’t always reliable. He’s told to befriend a white Protestant-turned-Muslim named Khalifah al-Akili who has made incendiary statements on Facebook. But then, unbeknownst to Shariff, the filmmakers daringly and controversially interview Akili in secret; what quickly becomes clear is that both sides are being victimized by the security state. Watching a spy sit on the couch waiting for text messages from higher-ups may not sound as compelling as a le Carré novel, but it’s a necessary build to a pulse-pounding third act that reveals how lives are destroyed by half-truths and hearsay.

The moral ambiguities continue to stack up in — stand aside, Marvel Comics! — the best superhero vigilante movie of the year, Crocodile Gennadiy. In a smoky, industrial wasteland of post-Soviet squalor, Ukrainian pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko is fed up with his streets being overrun by gangrenous-limbed youth addicted to codeine, krokodil, and other cheap skag. With no help from the ineffectual, even corrupt regime, this self-appointed savior has become a one-man, two-fisted rehabilitation center: He beats up dope peddlers and drops them off at the police station, and abducts junkie kids from sewers and beneath cars to scare them straight. But isn’t that vigilantism? a talk-show reporter asks. Then why does God keep strengthening my fists? he replies. Blood Brother director Steve Hoover, aided by an apocalyptic synth score by Atticus Ross, paints a robust, social-activist portrait that’s as intense and infuriating as it is fist-pumpingly enthralling. Mokhnenko himself will be at the screening, so shake his hand (but don’t piss him off).

Finally, from the home front, two of the strongest and most entertaining films in the World Documentary Competition are Leah Wolchok’s Very Semi-Serious, and In Transit, co-directed by vérité master Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), who passed away last month at 88. The former feature treats audiences to a breezy insider’s ride through the process of how the New Yorker selects its trademark single-panel cartoons from an eccentric herd of optimistic freelancers (most of whom will be rejected), placing the magazine’s editorial voice in the timely context of modern politics and the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. Always in motion, as its title suggests, Maysles’s swan song embeds itself with the huddled masses on Amtrak’s Empire Builder line, where strangers chat intimately, poetic moments are caught, and cross-country adventures are had by all. Nobody could mine the humor, humility, and humanity in the mundane like Maysles, for whose many fans this film will serve as a fitting elegy. It’s beautifully moving, and not just on rails.

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