The tenth annual Tribeca Film Festival came to a close last night in New York, marking the end of a week-and-a-half whirlwind of red carpet premieres, concerts, neighborhood events, and even a film or two… or 93. As the festival kicked off, we plucked the ten most-buzzed titles from the Tribeca menu, and many of them lived up to the hype (Everything Must Go, Catching Hell, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, The Swell Season). But often, the best films at Tribeca are the ones you’ve never heard of — the quiet indies, the impassioned documentaries, and so on. After the jump, we’ll take a look at ten more Tribeca must-sees.
John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard recalls In Bruges, not just in its Irish settings and the big, open face of star Brendan Gleeson, but in the snappy dialogue, quick and dirty, which moves at such speed that the filmmaker takes it on good faith that audiences will keep up. (The resemblance is not just superficial, it is fraternal — In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh is this filmmaker’s brother. They put something in the water in that house.) McDonagh’s dialogue bristles with his unique voice — a clever mix of insults, callbacks, put-ons, understatements, and cheerfully inventive profanity. It’s a smart, funny, dark little treat of a movie, and Gleeson — overflowing with vices, yet somehow also brave and honorable — is a wickedly enjoyable leading man.
Alma Har’el’s gentle, fascinating film (which won the prize for Best Documentary Feature) mixes documentary naturalism and observation with artful peculiarity and an offhandedly surreal quality. Har’el has a cockeyed way of framing events that gives them an oddball, almost Lynchian quality. Her camera is capturing rather startling poverty, and the camera dances right up to the edge of fetishizing that poverty, but it never takes the plunge. This is an extraordinary film.
Thirteen-year-old girl (Abigail Breslin) meets her mid-level rock-star dad (Alessandro Nivola) for the first time; her mom disappears, so she ends up tagging along on his tour as his band falls apart. Okay, so this isn’t the most innovative or unpredictable storytelling. But the warmth that develops between these two fine actors is just lovely. Breslin, who comes out of this one looking like a movie star, has moments that she plays with more depth and sensitivity than actors twice her age, while Nivola is absolutely convincing as the talented prick, totally unbearable one moment and imminently engaging the next. You may have seen Janie Jones before, but the picture has such a shambling charm, and the performers are so endlessly likable, that you just kind of roll with it.
Director Alex Rotaru’s documentary looks at the Drama Teachers Association of California Shakespeare Festival and Competition, in which students from across Southern California gather to present eight-minute cuttings from the Bard’s work. There are no costumes allowed; props and sets are also forbidden. All that the students — in groups of four to six— get are four chairs and a script. Rotaru tracks teams from several different schools: the inner-city charter school, a girls’ Catholic school, a competitive performing arts magnet, the team to beat from the middle of nowhere. That means a lot of characters (perhaps a couple too many), but we know them well enough to be pulling for them by the time the film arrives at the final rounds. As in Spellbound, the up-close coverage of the competition lends helpful suspense to the closing scenes.
Dori Berinstein’s documentary spotlights the 90-year-old theatrical legend, and she’s delightful — charming, funny, and a terrific storyteller. Her persona is comically over the top, and she certainly is not the most wide-ranging actor; as Bob Mackie points out, Carol was always basically playing Carol. But she played Carol awfully well. Full of great stories and priceless vintage TV performances, the picture is a cheeky treat, entertaining and skillfully crafted. The bridging animations (adapted from Al Hirschfeld’s drawings) are marvelous, and an early montage, in which Channing gets younger and younger via intercut performances of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is grin-inducing. There aren’t a lot of performers who can honestly be called “living legends,” and Channing is one of them. The film skips over some interesting stuff, but if Carol Channing: Larger than Life leaves us wanting more of her, well, that’s probably an accomplishment.
Dick Maas’s Saint opens with St. Nicholas and his goons on horseback, terrorizing a village that then raises their pitchforks and burns him alive. So yeah, right away, not your average Christmas movie. Saint has a forceful and wicked sense of humor — Maas has clearly ingested copious amounts of American horror movies, and regurgitates them with a wink and nudge. When St. Nick is stalking a family at Christmastime, he’ll give us the peeking-in-through-the-window point-of-view shot — but the windows are frosted over, and the kids inside are singing Christmas carols. It took us until about the 20 minute mark, as the three teenage girls were walking home from school (two dirty birdies and a virginal “good girl”) to realize that, up to that point, the film was a total structural recreation of Halloween. Overall, it’s good, trashy fun, and those who are in on the joke are going to love it. You know who you are.
Miguel Barros’s Blackthorn posits an intriguing notion: let’s suppose that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid weren’t killed in that famous shoot-out with the Bolivian cavalry. It finds a much older Cassidy, living quietly in Bolivia under the assumed name of Jack Blackthorn. Cassidy/Blackthorn is played by Sam Shepard, whose presence in a movie like this is the very definition of “reassuring.” He gives the character a weary, grizzled impatience; there’s not a false note in the performance. Blackthorn, a Spanish production with an international cast, has touches of artsiness and a low-budget offhandedness, but more than anything, it’s a good old-fashioned dusty B oater, and more power to it for that. (The only trailers online are in Spanish, but they’ll give you the general idea.)
The notion of acting out simply as an act of belonging to something is not a new one (it’s been a staple of juvenile delinquent films for 50-plus years), but it’s seldom been conveyed so convincingly as in Peter Mullan’s NEDS. The title is shorthand for Non-Educated Delinquents, and it tells of how John McGill (Conor McCarron) becomes one. The casual gutter dialogue — in English, but subtitled due to the thick accents and copious slang — feels less written and performed then overheard, and the brawls have a rough, messy quality reminiscent of Scorsese’s Mean Streets. What Mullan puts across — and McCarron plays to the fullest — is the sheer seductiveness of becoming a bad kid, the pleasure he takes in his toughness, the taunting way he begins to carry himself. Mullan (who also wrote the script) is not interested in easy answers, or pat resolutions. It’s a smarter movie than that; it knows that for some people, once you take a turn, there’s no going back.
Chris Paine’s 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car? was an earnest and well-meaning documentary, but his follow-up, Revenge of the Electric Car, is a far stronger picture. Given three years’ access to the powers-that-be behind the auto industry, Paine’s new film is less about full-throated advocacy and more about good, solid documentary storytelling. The access Paine is given this time around — to boardrooms, proving grounds, and auto shows — provides him with one of the most valuable of all documentary elements: interesting “characters.” The three men that become the focus of the film — GM’s Bob Lutz, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Nissan’s smart and confident CEO, Carlos Ghosn — are unique and fascinating individuals. By intercutting between them, as they nip at each other’s heels in the race to get their vehicles to the marketplace, Paine generates real suspense and real stakes.
ESPN Films does it again with Renée, ostensibly a sports documentary, but about much more than the playing of a game. Director Eric Drath profiles Renée Richards, the female tennis contender who was revealed, in the summer of 1976, to have been born Richard Raskind. A doctor, father, and amateur tennis player, he underwent surgical sexual reassignment in 1975 and toured the women’s circuit as Renée. But it’s not just the story of her fight to play tennis, or of the legal battle that gave her that right. Renée is all wrapped up in sexual identity and familial obligations, as well as the sexual politics of the 1970s and how media played into them. And it is a character study, of (warning: incoming understatement) a very complicated individual.