The Lonely Desperation of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival

Tribeca Film Festival

I always go into the Tribeca Film Festival with a mixture of excitement and dread. Of the 738 (or so) features showing, how many will I be able to see? How many will be terrible? What will the little overlooked gems be this year and will I overlook them (please no!)?

This year was a little different, because I got to interview the people who made some of my favorites for MovieMaker. I’ve posted the links to them below. Other than that, it was an above average year.

I only saw a few things that made me ask, “Why would anyone program this?” and I had a great time at post-screening discussions of Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic (with panelists Tracy Morgan, Wyatt Cenac, filmmaker Marina Zenovich, gossiping ex-wife Jennifer Lee and the great Walter Mosley) and Paul Verhoeven‘s Tricked. Verhoeven, as anyone who’s heard him do a commentary track can attest, is a very engaging, wryly amusing speaker, even if his film, for which he purportedly “crowd-sourced” the script, didn’t transcend its gimmick until the second half, when we saw the actual results of his “experiment.”

Documentaries are usually a strength, and this year had a handful of good ones and a couple of stellar ones. The aforementioned Richard Pryor doc, like The Trials of Muhammad Ali, didn’t offer much in the way of new information, but both featured terrific archival footage and told their stories well. Matt Wolf‘s Teenage also contained some terrific old footage, but his use of re-enactments was ill-advised, I thought, and raised questions about the provenance of what might have been archival. Lil Bub and Friendz was all about how even hipsters love internet cats, and was passably cute until the manipulative coda, which suggests briefly that maybe the titular feline died during filming. This was particularly galling and ineffective considering the cat was there at the festival doing promotional appearances. The low point for me, documentary-wise, was The Project, an ethically-challenged film trumping up the questionable accomplishments of a mercenary anti-piracy force in Somalia, co-founded by Blackwater’s own Erik Prince. I saw it at a public screening, and I’ve noticed that people will pretty much accept whatever is presented in a well-made documentary at face value, which is worrisome, and puts a bigger burden on programmers who should know better than to promulgate this type of propaganda.

I want to point out that I missed quite a few films that I heard were worthwhile, including award winners The Rocket, Oxyana and The Broken Circle Breakdown, The Pretty One, Lenny Cooke, Lily, Six Acts, Harmony Lessons, and What Richard Did.

In approximate descending order of enthusiasm, here are my eight favorite films from the festival this year:

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  • Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

This was my favorite narrative feature, a readymade classic of urban life. This tale of an autistic boy who disappears into the subway system for days, and of his increasingly frantic mother is an immersive, empathetic exploration of New York City — my city — from a fresh and humane perspective. I interviewed director Sam Fleischner during the festival, so you can read more about it there.

  • Let the Fire Burn

This found footage documentary uses news reports, documentary clips, and official recordings to tell the story of the MOVE organization in Philadelphia, and its standoff with the police and the city government. It creates a disturbing picture of a municipal breakdown of staggering proportions, which ended with the deaths by fire of eleven people, including five children. Director Jason Osder scrupulously assembles his footage into a heartbreaking and perplexing story that is still shocking, nearly thirty years later.

  • The Kill Team

Another tale of institutional breakdown, Dan Krauss‘ searing documentary examines the moral quandary of a young American soldier whose efforts to expose the murderous abuses of his platoon go nowhere, leaving him in fear for his own life, and forcing him into a disastrous choice. I talked to Krauss during the festival about how he made this essential film.

  • Almost Christmas

It’s hard to measure this one against my expectations, which were unreasonably high. First off, it’s not nearly as original or interesting as director Phil Morrison‘s debut, Junebug. That said, it does play some surprising variations on your typical Hollywood buddy comedy. Paul Giamatti is aces, especially in the movie’s wonderfully grim, distended intro, as he gets out out of prison, and makes a sad effort to return to his wife and young daughter. The bulk of the film, with Canucks Giamatti and Paul Rudd in New York, implementing a get-barely-solvent-quick scheme to sell Christmas trees, is entertainingly loose-limbed, and abetted by the presence of Sally Hawkins as a Russian maid. Very Moscow on the Hudson, but to Morrison’s credit, there’s a grim undertone that pervades the whole thing. These are desperate men whose lives won’t be getting any easier any time soon.

  • Whitewash

Speaking of desperate French-Canadians… While the Malick-biting Hide Your Smiling Faces was a minor disappointment (but still worth seeing), this darkly comic, but pretty relentlessly grim non-thriller was one of the pleasant surprises of the fest. Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais directs Thomas Haden Church plays Bruce, a drunken widower who loses his job. But his real problems don’t begin until he stops another, equally desperate man (Marc Labreche) from committing suicide. At first, Whitewash seems like it might be a Buried-style dude-stuck-in-one-terrible-place movies, but it turns out to be a lot stranger, and Hoss-Desmarais doesn’t need the overweening metaphor to show us how trapped Bruce is.

  • A Single Shot

Speaking of lonely men driven to crime by desperation (are you sensing a theme here?)… David M. Rosenthal‘s A Single Shot, based on the novel by Matthew F. Jones, who wrote the screenplay, was another pleasant surprise. The reviews out of Berlin weren’t great, and I considered skipping it, but I figured that with Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy and Jeffrey Wright, how bad could it be. The answer turned out to be, pretty damn good. Atmospheric, sure, but also sharply written and, naturally, superbly acted. I don’t understand the lack of enthusiasm for expertly made genre films, but this one is worth seeking out.

  • Dark Touch

There are horror plots that seem so familiar. I mean, ten minutes into Dark Touch, with its tale of an abused girl (Marie Missy Keating) who can’t control her deadly psychokinetic power, I pretty much knew where it would eventually go. But writer-director Marina de Van had other, much more brutal and complex ideas. I should have known, because she made In My Skin, that her apparent grab at mainstream success would turn out to be thematically prickly and profoundly unsettling. There were horror films I enjoyed more while I was watching them (including two of four sections of the big improvement on the original V/H/S/2) but Dark Touch stuck with me more than they did.

  • Byzantium

Neil Jordan‘s fresh take on sexy vampire women (scripted by Moira Buffini) is another one that got mixed reviews, but that I found surprisingly sharp and, well, pointed. It’s lovely to look at, in no small part thanks to Gemma Arterton, a force of nature here and half of a mysterious duo (with the talented Saoirse Ronan) who show up in a remote seaside town and start wreaking havoc, while an ancient team of detectives races to track them down. There’s a beating heart and a functioning brain under the film’s appealingly slick surface.

  • Alias Ruby Blade: A Story of Love and Revolution

We don’t generally expect politically-oriented docs to leave us feeling inspired and hopeful. But this one, from Alex Meillier, about a woman who played a pivotal role in East Timor achieving its independence from Indonesia, does just that. Beyond its unexpected romance, it presents the possibility of real change in the world. I interviewed the director and his wife, producer Tanya Ager Meillier before the festival.

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