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It’s possible that over the fifteen years of its existence, more ink has been spilled about the Tribeca Film Festival itself than about all the films that have shown there. Tribeca has a unique ability to prompt critical navel-gazing (case in point: the words you are reading at this exact moment). A festival birthed in the wake of 9-11 as a community rejuvenation project, it has had to grow up like a temperamental teenager, but before the harsh glare of the New York media. We’ve watched it make mistakes and have its learning moments. Remember the time they programmed a whopping 174 features, so that the good stuff got completely lost? Or when they turned the festival into a giant publicity machine for a new Mission: Impossible movie? Or this year, when they programmed an anti-vaccination propaganda documentary made by a discredited doctor, only to quickly pull it after a public outcry?
But here’s the thing: New York needs the Tribeca Film Festival. Sure, the fest can’t attract the same level of work as Sundance, which occurs three months earlier and whose application deadline structures many American independents’ production schedules. And yes, it suffers from the fact that it’s held a month before Cannes, so that the world’s biggest filmmakers are focused on the Croisette, not Battery Park City. And there’s no doubt that the New York Film Festival in the fall will continue to be the city’s prime showcase for the best of world cinema, especially since most Oscar contenders are holding their fire till then anyway.
But given those challenges, Tribeca has done quite well for itself. It’s become a sterling showcase for documentaries, a fact borne out by this year’s slate. And it’s also managed to highlight a wide array of more modest, smaller-scale international films, ones that don’t have the public profile or auteurist cred to make it to Cannes or Venice or New York but are still well worth seeing and celebrating. That’s no small accomplishment.
The greatest moviegoing city in the English-speaking world deserves a big, prime-time festival that is inclusive, expansive, and diverse. The good news is that Tribeca has finally become that festival. The even better news? This year’s lineup seems to be one of its strongest. Here are films not to miss at the fifteenth annual Tribeca Film Festival.
(Unless noted, reviews are by Bilge Ebiri.)
Strike a Pose
When America saw the seminal 1991 concert documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare, our attention was divided between the Material Girl’s provocations and her intense backup dancers, a group of supernaturally talented young men whose moves were like nothing many of us had seen before. This film catches up with them all these years later, but it’s not the boisterous pop-culture extravaganza you might expect. In the intervening years, these men have faced drugs, disease, death, and disappointment, and they’ve grown apart. The result is unusually tender and reflective, looking back at that pivotal moment for these dancers personally and for the culture at large.
In 2015, David Byrne staged a bizarrely wonderful event at the Barclays Center: He brought together high school color guard dance teams from across the country — complete with their flags and uniforms and, yes, fake rifles — with a diverse set of musicians, including St. Vincent, Nico Muhly, Nelly Furtado, and Lucius. Bill and Turner Ross’s film is part concert movie, part backstage doc. But its most exciting element isn’t the great music or the wonderful dancing; it’s the joy of the kids on these teams as they put on an emotional show in this surreally immense setting.
All This Panic
Jenny Gage’s dreamy, sun-streaked documentary on the changing friendships and lifestyles of several New York City teenage girls over the course of four years is so chock-full of charmingly wistful moments that it’s hard to believe they’re all contained in one movie. The central duo is Lena, whose parents are both facing eviction, and Ginger, a girl feeling about for her sexual identity. Moments that would be mere minutiae in lesser films — Lena suddenly shrinking from Ginger’s touchy-feely affection, which she’s begun to outgrow, or two feuding sisters wearing headphones to block each other out on the subway — are presented by Gage with astonishing pathos and crack timing. — Sam Weisberg
By Sidney Lumet
The spine of this Nancy Buirski doc is a full-dive, never-before-seen interview with the late New York director, conducted in 2008, when Lumet was 83. The movie coasts breezily on irresistible clips from the Lumet library, coupled with the man’s own passionate, twilight-years reflections (“He’s like an open wound up there,” he says of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon). Most shocking is the anecdote Buirski uses to frame the movie — an episode, related by Lumet, in which he saw and refused to report a group of G.I.’s raping a girl aboard a train. It’s a memory that reframes the progressive idealism and moral quandaries that defined Lumet’s work: Perhaps one reason he was drawn to heroes like Frank Serpico — people who bleed for their beliefs — is that, in this single, vicious moment, he himself didn’t answer the call. — Danny King
There has already been a momentous documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet: Frederick Wiseman’s characteristically patient, observational 2009 masterpiece La Danse. But filmmakers Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurial, following the company’s new choreographer Benjamin Millepied as he prepares to stage a new work by Nico Muhly, opt for something more stylized and breathless, almost impatient. They highlight the ticking of the clock, the days counting down to the premiere, and the sheer magnitude of the tasks that need to be managed. Thankfully, they never lose sight of the dancing itself: the practice, the physical agony, the constant working and reworking to get it right. The result is a film that is simultaneously exhausting and light on its feet.
This absorbing documentary look at the life and career of the artist Chris Burden — often known as the guy who in 1971 had himself shot and called it art — isn’t afraid to confront the issues raised by its subject’s work. Much of the film was shot before Burden’s death last year, and although he was often a terse, uncomfortable interview subject, he walks and talks us through his art here with rare eloquence. It’s a surprisingly unified and brisk movie, especially given the breadth of Burden’s work, which encompassed performance, sculpture, installation, and more.
Directors Nathan Silver and Mike Ott build this high-wire doc-fiction Slip ‘N Slide around their efforts to make a film about Arthur Martinez, a slouchy Denver “computer paramedic” aspiring to a career as an actor. Many scenes consist of Ott, Silver, and Arthur sitting around tables, drinking out of pickle jars and brainstorming the kind of movie they want to make. In others, the directors shoot Arthur from afar and whisper about tactics they can use to throw their star productively off-balance. The conceptual layers pile on — Ott and Silver eventually bring on the actress Lindsay Burdge (A Teacher) to play a role designed to echo Arthur’s ex-wife — and the low-key humor of seeing these collaborators fumble along morphs into a more sinister, interrogatory unease. — Danny King
Israeli Arab rapper Tamer Nafar stars in and co-wrote this semiautobiographical musical drama set in the Palestinian-Jewish city of Lod (or Lyd), about the rise of an Arab hip-hop artist who distills the crime and anger of his world into powerful rhymes and beats. Israeli director Udi Aloni’s film moves through some familiar plot points — the local drug dealer, the troubled friend, the girlfriend whose family looks down on our hero — but seen through the context of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, it all feels wild and new. And Nafar is an electrifying performer, both as actor and musician.
“I’m living the American Dream and it’s not over,” says Dr. Geoffrey Sher, the in vitro fertilization pioneer with multiple grandkids and a vast Las Vegas penthouse. This is a bold statement to make on camera in a documentary dedicated to the decidedly unfortunate. Sher orchestrates a contest for infertile couples, the winner of which receives a free — though certainly not foolproof — procedure (market value: $15,000). Director Amanda Micheli tracks the winners, as well as three losing applicants who go to extremes to afford the process, as they cope with devastating results. Docs this tragic are hard to pull off without manipulating the audience; Micheli’s resonates with empathy yet never turns maudlin. — Sam Weisberg
Memories of a Penitent Heart
In Cecilia Aldarondo’s intimate, moving documentary, the filmmaker looks into the life and death of her uncle Miguel, a gay actor whose sexuality put him at odds with his Catholic family until he embraced his faith soon before his death from complications due to AIDS. As she probes further, Aldarondo uncovers a whole other world, one that involves not just her beloved uncle but also other members of her family. It’s a touching little mystery, one that never lets its revelations overshadow the very real human pain at its core.
Dan Stevens makes the most of a chance to demonstrate his range in the role of a blind man, James, who wakes up one morning having regained his sight. Long after teaching himself to be happy with his lot in life, James suddenly must deal with a host of new feelings and impulses: restlessness, ambition, opportunism. Ido Fluk’s film has to tread a fine line between sensitive drama and moral fable, and Stevens’s delicate performance is the key to making it all work.
What happens when a leading white supremacist learns that he’s a Jew whose grandparents fled Auschwitz? This fascinating film follows Csanad Szegedi, once a prominent firebrand in Hungary’s notorious far-right Jobbik party, as he discovers his past and reconsiders everything he’s based his life on. As he visits Auschwitz, learns about Judaism, and becomes more devout, new questions arise: Is his conversion genuine, and can he be forgiven? Although the film is told from Szegedi’s point of view, it’s to directors Joseph Martin and Sam Blair’s credit that they allow the uncertainty to linger in this troubling, open-ended film.
“The sad thing is, we never get to meet them,” a New York Times obituarist says of his subjects. But the obit writers do get to play god, weighing, often at the last minute, how much column space to devote to recently deceased scientists, presidential makeup artists, stunt pilots, screen sirens, and other key figures. Vanessa Gould’s smart, fast-paced documentary is a vivid but never ostentatious flipbook through the job’s glories and trials: regular access to the Times’ morgue for fraying, unpublicized records; scandalous factual mistakes; zero-hour assignments on prematurely departed giants (Michael Jackson, for one). It will kill the longstanding notion that these wry researchers and history buffs are morbid bores. — Sam Weisberg
Director Alma Harel’s emotionally charged, eclectic 2011 documentary Bombay Beach, which also premiered at Tribeca, divided many critics, and this one is sure to do the same. Following three different real-life stories that question the nature of true love, the film is simultaneously earnest and self-aware, utilizing a variety of methods that blur the line between fiction and truth. How interesting that a movie this constructed can feel so raw — Harel connects with the exhilaration and agony of her subjects to an almost unbearable degree. I watched this as I might a horror movie, unsure of whether to lean in closer or turn away.
Bart Freundlich’s drama is a good example of how a film that could be a mess of clichés — a high school basketball star has to contend with his abusive alcoholic/gambler/professor/novelist dad (Michael Shannon) — can be saved by excellent performances and a generous approach to character. Big-hearted but never simplistic, Wolves makes time for a surprisingly exciting story about basketball, even getting into the minutiae of the game, while also delivering an absorbing family drama. Shannon and Carla Gugino (playing his loving, long-suffering wife) bring complexity to these characters.
Demetri Martin’s directorial debut is so deadpan and gentle that its laughs may come out as hushed chuckles until hours later, when you fully grasp the absurdity of, say, a man angrily kicking his suitcase into a lake then frantically running after it. As in Garden State, Dean’s hero (Martin) is a floppy-haired, aloof struggling artist with a recently deceased mother, a father (Kevin Kline) obsessed with twelve-step psychology, and a crush (Gillian Jacobs) who helps him snap out of it. But Dean is devoid of that film’s precious musical montages and overkill of quirk: It’s a more unflinchingly honest look at grief and disconnection. Jacobs, the new indie darling, imbues her muted, unremarkable character with radiance. — Sam Weisberg
Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis), best friends and actresses, abscond to Big Sur to escape the demeaning grind of L.A. auditions. Once there, a bitter rivalry takes over: The two spend their vacation belittling each other, and shots of waves crashing ashore and ominous headlights tearing into the darkness hint at further turmoil ahead. Inside-baseball lingo (“before pilot season”) positions the movie’s autopsy of gender roles within the world of Hollywood, but director Sophia Takal also has harsher ideas in mind. Both characters’ first scenes open in close-up, the actresses looking right into the lens; Beth’s is set in an audition room, while Anna’s is a heated argument with her mechanic. The juxtaposition suggests that, for these women, the role-playing expectations of a slasher-movie tryout might not be that different from those of their real world. — Danny King
In a little house in small-town Estonia, a mother takes care of her comatose son, a local teacher who was shot under mysterious circumstances. Different figures from the young man’s life come by to visit and speak to him in the deafening quiet of his room. As these people ask questions and confess their own worries, the mother becomes pulled into her son’s world. Kadri Kousaar’s claustrophobic thriller rarely leaves the confines of the house, but it manages to be both playful and tense. And it builds to a hell of a twist.
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