The Tribeca Film Festival, founded in 2002 partly to shore up morale in the downtown neighborhood after 9-11, now has screenings that take place in midtown, in Chelsea, and on the Upper West Side. It plays host to short- and feature-length movies, family programming, concerts (this year, Sean Combs), television (“Tribeca TV”), panels (“Tribeca Talks”), online-specific work (“Tribeca N.O.W.”), a special-section partnership with ESPN (“Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival”), and storytelling experiments using the latest and weirdest in virtual-reality technology (“Storyscapes” and “Virtual Arcade”). If ever a fest overshot the expectations of “film festival,” Tribeca is it.
And yet this daunting, discipline-crossing volume of content — spread out this year, the sixteenth iteration, across a period of a dozen days — is somewhat responsible for the festival’s reputation as a puzzling behemoth. Tribeca 2017 contains, among limitless other attractions, one hundred film titles that fall within the following categories: “Documentary Competition,” “U.S. Narrative Competition,” “International Narrative Competition,” “Spotlight Documentary,” “Spotlight Narrative,” “Viewpoints,” “Midnight,” “Special Screenings,” “Special Retro Screenings,” and “Galas.”
Navigating this landscape as a critic or a reporter — let alone as a prospective attendee — is a challenge. Consensus has rightly solidified Tribeca as an elite international spotlight on documentary moviemaking, but in the other departments — feature-length narratives, especially — excellence, or even a consistency of curation, remains elusive.
But there are uncommon bright spots. Though a number of the fest’s buzziest entries have already secured distribution — including The Trip to Spain, the latest chapter in Michael Winterbottom’s comic travelogue starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, and Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin’s all-archival-footage doc LA 92 — there are many unclaimed movies worth taking a chance on. Below is a smattering of 2017 selections — none perfect, all interesting. Danny King
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Director David France’s How to Survive a Plague follow-up doesn’t boast that film’s precision but does borrow its structure, flipping from the past to the present. Activist Marsha P. Johnson took part in the Stonewall riots and founded (with Sylvia Rivera) STAR, one of the first organizations designed to help young trans people. Johnson was found dead in 1992; here, Victoria Cruz, also a Black trans woman, working for New York’s Anti-Violence Project, attempts to re-examine the case, but uncooperative police and the passage of time stymie her. Cruz is compelling, but the more recent scenes can’t compare to the shock and shame of a grainy Seventies clip in which Rivera, speaking at a Pride event, is met with resounding boos. Ren Jender
The Reagan Show
“There have been times in this office when I’ve wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor,” President Ronald Reagan, son of Hollywood, tells David Brinkley in a December 1988 farewell interview. With that, co-directors Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill are off: Their all-archival doc draws on a mix of network news footage and Reagan administration videotapes to examine the then-unprecedented media consciousness of the camera-savvy conservative’s two-term operation. The pair spend ample time addressing the creep of Cold War panic, finding in the decade’s feverishly analyzed nuclear summits (first in Geneva, then in Reykjavík) a like-minded presentational flair between Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. But the drollest bits are simply the behind-the-scenes, fly-on-the-wall beats captured by the man’s own White House Television Office — whether Nancy Reagan’s annoyed “This is not for me, honey,” as her husband cajoles her into riding horses for the cameras, or the documentation of the couple’s California-ranch mailbox, emblazoned in gold with “The Reagan’s,” that apostrophe an example of preening incorrectness that wouldn’t be out of place on the Twitter feed of the man currently profiting most off Reagan’s rhetoric. Danny King
“I’m picking up some scent here,” says Joe. Joe isn’t a perfume tester. He’s one of three subjects, profiled in Drew Xanthopoulos’s superb The Sensitives, afflicted with MCS, a condition in which electricity, cleaning products, and even book aromas can spur breathing problems and bleeding. The two other figures live in dry, secluded stretches of Arizona and Montana; unlike them, Joe can escape his low-lit, padded quarters for short walks, or welcome relatives in, but he’s the angriest and most self-pitying of the lot. Weighing whether to relocate to a complex of sterilized Texan cottages, Joe balks at this “concentration of crazies.” The Sensitives is more poignant than many docs about victims, as the oppressor is here-to-stay modern technology, a boon to most that undercuts quality of life for an unfortunate few. Sam Weisberg
In Dallas, three exonerated men who served multiple-decade sentences for wrongful convictions meet in cafés and barbecue joints to pore over letters and documents from inmates suffering from similar fates. Documentarian Jamie Meltzer’s sketch of their lives compensates for its occasional lapses into listlessness — a scene of the trio listening to an interrogation recording arguably isn’t much of a movie scene at all — with a beguiling attention to character. Christopher Scott, the main audience-identification point among the three and a sartorial genius, likes to cook chili dogs and shoot hoops with his two grown sons; Johnnie Lindsey takes to meditation and piano-playing; Steven Phillips, still wrestling with a cocaine habit, goes fishing and starts a twelve-step program. Touching on notes that range from rage to catharsis, this is a warm, tough dose of humanity from the death penalty capital of the world. D.K.
The Divine Order
For a movement that transformed the world, second-wave feminism sure hasn’t been the focus of many films. In this delightful comedy, writer-director Petra Volpe introduces us to calm, sensible Nora (Marie Leuenberger), a housewife in a kerchief living in a rural Swiss village in 1971. She campaigns for women’s suffrage (Switzerland was one of the last Western democracies to grant women the vote), leaving her family and the laundry room’s endless racks of drying socks to brainstorm with an Italian divorcée and an older widow on how they can get the town’s men to vote yes. Leuenberger looks a little like Dakota Johnson and Romy Schneider but also convinces as an ordinary person. Her breezy, deadpan Nora is both hilarious and heroic. R.J.
The “real” Gilbert Gottfried lies somewhere between the rape and tsunami jokes the squawking, squinting comedian spews onstage and the lovable — if equally cacophonous — parrots he voices for Disney cartoon megahits. Neil Berkeley’s immensely entertaining Gilbert provides our first glimpse of Gottfried as family man (his unexpectedly button-cute kids don’t find him funny), as depressive (he’s still haunted by his mother’s death), as hoarder (he stockpiles crates’ worth of hotel toothpaste), and, most surprisingly, as just plain quiet. Gilbert is larded with telling moments — Gottfried’s painfully self-conscious goodbye hugs with his clan, or his sabotaging of the Hallmark cards he gives to his wife with a scrawled “Go fuck yourself.” Like many caustic comics, he’ll never quite let his guard down, but perhaps that’s a blessing if you appreciate his “anything to offend” material. S.W.
A widow once again embracing life via an unexpected romance isn’t new dramatic territory, but Czech director Bohdan Sláma animates this story with welcome patience and a dynamic approach to scene construction. When Hana (Zuzana Kronerová) has her two sons and their families over for weekend lunches, the camera (the cinematography is by Diviš Marek) follows her, uninterrupted, between kitchen and dining area, living room and foyer, as she greets guests and carries bowls. And when Hana, much to the dismay of her bratty boys, cheers on her gruff boyfriend (Pavel Nový) at his ice-swimming races, the camera ventures calmly into the water, bobbing among the aged men and women, competition numbers scrawled on their shoulders. There’s even a rare and generous love scene between sexagenarians, frank in its everyday honesty: After a failed first attempt, Hana runs to the kitchen to rub olive oil on herself, then returns to the bedroom. D.K.
The Family I Had
One of the best documentaries in the festival is a worst-case scenario come true. Charity Lee’s son, Paris, murdered her daughter, Ella, her only other child, when he was thirteen and she was just four, a couple of years after we see the chubby blonde toddler celebrating Christmas with her attentive older brother. Other documentaries would center on Paris, but directors Carlye Rubin and Katie Green know the real question: How does Charity move forward? Many of the answers surprise and might elicit audience disapproval — in spite of Charity’s pained recollection of the insensitive second-guessing townspeople did after the murder. The saddest element of the film is Charity’s never seeming to have a decent friend — or therapist — to talk to, just the filmmakers and her remaining family. R.J.
Whitney: Can I Be Me
Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s much anticipated documentary on Whitney Houston consists mostly of footage from the singer’s 1999 world tour, captured on- and backstage for an abandoned earlier project. The Whitney we see is in good voice (though the musicians who worked with her say she lost it toward the tour’s end) but obviously high or otherwise impaired. The film, which also includes archival clips from TV appearances, is narrated in interviews, most of them with people who were not among Houston’s innermost circle, so we hear contradictory takes on what was happening in her life. But the contradictions parallel what we in the audience think we know about her and the other very famous and talented people we see on TV and in movies: The film becomes the celebrity documentary version of Rashomon. R.J.
Wasted! The Story of Food Waste
What a relief to find an ecology doc that, rather than excoriate, presents a number of feasible (and fun) solutions! Anna Chai and Nari Kye’s debut is a uniquely lighthearted, sure-footed film about potential environmental disaster, the perfect companion piece to last year’s Bugs, also crafted to persuade the world’s pickiest and laziest consumers to broaden their palate and add less invasive, polluting foods to their diet. Here, various chefs and food scientists advocate for the return of “garbage fish” — that is, fish usually thrown overboard during salmon expeditions — to global menus; for the practice of feeding food waste, a cheaper and healthier alternative to corn and grass, to livestock; and for using breadcrumbs to brew ale. This jaunty, exciting film will send you happily to the nearest compost bin center. S.W.
King of Peking
Father-son duo Big Wong (Zhao Jun) and Little Wong (Wang Naixun) enjoy a routine projecting blockbuster movies for rural communities around Beijing; they set up the chairs, test the sound, and communicate, often via walkie-talkie, using the names of the heroes from Lethal Weapon. But a confluence of troubles — a reputation-busting fire at one screening, an ex-wife demanding either greater custody or larger child support payments — forces the worried father into the morally suspect business of DVD bootlegging. Writer-director Sam Voutas (an Australian who grew up in China) sticks mostly to a crowd-pleasing template (complete with lighthearted narration bookending the movie), but he knows how to evince a love for the medium without shoving it down the audience’s throat: A quiet scene of father and son slurping down noodles in the tucked-away rafters of a giant movie palace, the light from the screen hitting their faces, is King of Peking at its most pleasantly lovely. D.K.
A smutty, over-the-top attempt at mythically enhanced black-and-white village portraiture, Rainer Sarnet’s narrative feature, set in a not-quite-real nineteenth-century Estonia and based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, is a sort of training-wheels Hard to Be a God — which is to say, a pretty unclassifiable piece of work. Here everyone wears ragged garments, has crooked teeth, and chews on meats in close-up; they also coexist with antsy animals, roaming spirits, and “kratts,” a strange species of sentient helpers (living in the form of sticks, bones, axes, and other tools) on the hunt for odd jobs. This is mostly an anthology of nuts-for-nuts’-sake anarchy (one man asking for the recipe for a “love potion” is told, “Mix your sweat and armpit hairs with your shit”), but it’s frequently compelling to look at, and there are some inspired comic riffs — like the scene in which a briefcase of underpants belonging to a German baron sends a local villager into a dizzying rant on the origins of Estonian rule. D.K.
One Percent More Humid
Not bad at writing but none too articulate, perpetually stoned and sullen, and unapologetic in her lust, Iris (Juno Temple) regards her tumultuous summer fling with her married professor/thesis adviser (Alessandro Nivola) as requited love. But it’s really a desperately needed distraction from a car accident that killed her classmate. Her best friend, Catherine (Julia Garner in spectacularly acidic form), who drove the vehicle that sorry night, pursues an equally doomed tryst with the victim’s furious brother, but at least knows it’s a masochistic, temporary cure for pain. Though sometimes stilted and not particularly weighty as a paean to wasted youth, Liz Garcia’s One Percent More Humid is nonetheless simmering and erotic. It plays like a fervently written college-course short story, one you wouldn’t be ashamed to reread after digging through your closet a decade later. S.W.
Bad things seem to follow flight attendant Gina (Lindsay Burdge), the distraught American-in-Paris at the center of Nathan Silver’s suave thriller. Her precious Paul (Damien Bonnard) hangs himself after a period of bliss; the previous tenants of the Parisian apartment to which she absconds “jumped out of it”; and her new lover, a disheveled bartender named Jérôme (also Bonnard), passes to her an outbreak of conjunctivitis, leaving her left eye swollen and inflamed. Thirst Street finds Silver, a committed explorer of emotional extremes, wallowing in sordid unpleasantness; in many scenes, women — trapped underneath a probing camera and gaudy shocks of color — are seen stripping or fielding insults from men. But when Gina’s obsession drives the action, the movie sparks to life; the concluding act, in which she transforms into an amateur sleuth, following Jérôme around in the name of misguided love, is a riveting and oddly freeing cringe-fest. D.K.
Ittetsu Nemoto, the 44-year-old Buddhist priest and Tokyo native chronicled in this documentary by Lana Wilson (After Tiller), has a nearly full datebook, a busy Gmail inbox, and a phone constantly pinging with texts and missed calls. His vocation is suicide prevention, and the messages he receives — “I want to die,” “I feel like my life has no meaning” — bestow a heavy burden. The subject of a 2013 New Yorker profile that inspired Wilson to seek him out, Nemoto counsels people both informally (say, over a home-cooked meal) and with directed structure, in group sessions that he leads with commendable calm. Applying a gently enveloping observational style, Wilson attests to Nemoto’s effectiveness as a listener and an empathizer partly by unsparingly noting the deficiencies in his own life — a history of drinking and an all-night lifestyle has left him, at a young age, with a heart condition necessitating regular hospital visits. It’s this out-in-the-open vulnerability that makes him such a compelling and flawed character, seemingly doomed to commit the same virtues and mistakes over and over again. D.K.