10 Under-the-Radar Tribeca Films You Have to See

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The 11th Tribeca Film Festival opened last night with a screening of the Judd Apatow-produced Jason Segel comedy The Five Year Engagement, and will close next Saturday with the summer’s most anticipated movie The Avengers — neither of them the kind of flick that leaps to mind when contemplating independent film. But in between those two big-budget, big studio summer movies, the festival will unspool 89 independent features (and 60 shorts) from all over the world. That’s a smaller and more focused group of entries than in years past at Tribeca, one of the changes made by a new programming team, and speaking as a bit of a veteran of the festival (this is my fourth year attending), it has resulted in the strongest slate I’ve seen there. After the jump, we’ve assembled ten of the best films playing at Tribeca — and information about how you can see some of them too, whether or not you’re in New York.

Babygirl

This heartbreaking story of a 16-year-old girl from the Bronx has an authenticity and aesthetic reminiscent of early-’90s low-budget, coming-of-age New York movies like Straight Out of Brooklyn and Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. Writer/director Macdara Vallely looks at her protagonist’s sexual (and moral) awakening with a sense of nuance and perception that pushes beyond the normally simplistic emotions and motivations of the genre. But as savvy as Vallely’s writing is, she just plain struck gold with leading lady Yainis Ynoa, a young actress of astonishing gifts. Babygirl is a little rough around the edges, but it is honest, and heartfelt, and true.

Babygirl will stream for free as part of the Tribeca Online Film Festival following its premiere at the festival tonight.

Booker’s Place

Filmmaker Raymond De Felitta goes back to Mississippi, 1967, where his father Frank (an NBC News documentarian) shot a film called Mississippi: A Self Portrait. In that film, Frank interviewed a man named Booker Wright, a waiter at an all-white restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi, and his interview stood in stark contrast to everyone else in the film, because he told the tragic truth about the state of race relations in the South. Here, the younger De Felitta examines the story of Booker Wright from several angles: by looking at how his father made the film, and why; by creating a portrait of that particular time and place; and by investigating Wright’s life before it intersected with his father’s, and what happened to him after. The results are effortlessly moving and endlessly powerful; this is an exemplary documentary. (Booker’s Place will be available on demand, via the usual outlets, beginning April 26.)

Caroline and Jackie

This portrait of the strained relationship between two adult sisters is a deeply felt and frequently unnerving portrayal of mental illness and sibling rivalry, one which transcends its occasional markers and dreary subject matter to create something sharp and direct. Writer/director Adam Christian Clark is especially skilled at capturing that moment when a stray comment or inappropriate gesture turns a room, when suddenly an agreeable situation becomes weird for everybody. Caroline and Jackie seems to know these situations from the inside out, which gives it an advantage over your standard family melodrama or pedestrian examination of mental illness. It’s easy for a film to make sweeping generalizations and gin up heavy drama. What’s tougher is what this film does, to examine the minute-to-minute feeling of being around that, in it, and unable to escape it.

Elles

Juliette Binoche is one of those actors who, yes, gets better looking with age, but there’s more to it than that — she also gets more interesting, both to look at and to watch work. The idea of lines on one’s face betraying “character” may be a cliché, but it feels true with her; she’s still achingly beautiful, but those lines give the sense of a life lived, and she carries that air in her acting, which has never been more economical or direct. She stars in Malgorzata Szumowska’s Elles, a film which tells a story that is not difficult to predict, but none of what Binoche does seems predetermined; her spontaneity infects the film, and both are better for it. This is an actor who can make the attempt to get a refrigerator to close into an absorbingly raw, bravura bit of acting, who can make a failed attempt at opening a bottle of wine into an aria. Hers is a brave piece of work, and at its best, Elles matches it.

Graceland

Ron Morales’ Graceland is centered on an idea so astonishingly clever, it almost presents a challenge; he risks not living up to the promise of his premise. The story of a corrupt, rich, and perverse politician and the driver who first lies for him and then lies to him, it unfolds as a series of mistaken identities, false assumptions, and outright deceptions that Hitchcock would have been proud to capture. It’s a film that (like 2006’s Tell No One) serves to remind American filmmakers that they’d better keep their thriller chops in shape, because they’ve no longer got a monopoly on that particular market.

Headshot

Another excellent thriller, this time from Thailand, in which director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s uses familiar, even cliché, elements of film noir (the unlucky hero wrongfully accused, the beautiful girl who’s way out of his league but is inexplicably drawn to him, the would-be victim who turns out to be tougher and wiser than she looks — they even throw in a hooker with a heart of gold, God bless ’em), but fuses those noir components with a decidedly Eastern action aesthetic. The result is a film of high style and assured cool.

The Revisionaries

The ideological antagonists facing off in Scott Thurman’s bracing documentary The Revisionaries may not agree on much, but they could certainly concede this: today’s political battles, contrary to the narratives that take hold on the national stage, are very much being fought on the local level. The culture wars aren’t being fought on the presidential campaign trail — they’re being fought over the “personhood” bills in the state Senates, the union-busting initiatives in the Wisconsin state capital, and at the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education. Thurman’s film gets a front row seat at the latter, where the teaching and textbook standards were bitterly fought in 2009 and 2010, determining exactly what Texas students would learn about science and American history — and consequently (due to the state’s powerful influence over textbook manufacturers) how those topics would also be taught to students across the country. It is a bitterly partisan issue, and as presented in this engrossing, well-crafted documentary, it is a genuinely compelling debate. There aren’t as many easy answers as you’d think here, no matter where you line up, and The Revisionaries must be commended and applauded for being not only thought-provoking but fair. And infuriating, at least for this viewer.

The Russian Winter

For such a collaborative medium, and one that combines so many different art forms into one smooth broth, films detailing the collaborative process are in disturbingly short supply; whether it’s the act of making music, creating theater, or crafting dance, most filmmakers either shuttle the actual act of creation off-screen, or presume it’s voodoo that arrives via methods unexplained, like some sort of divine intervention. If The Russian Winter offered nothing else, it would present several refreshingly straight-forward glimpses into the act of making music — an act that, for those of us not in possession of the gift to do so, seems like a miracle. But the film also has a redemption story to tell, and a powerful one: that of the musician John Forté, who worked with the Fugees (he co-wrote and produced two songs on The Score, and performed with the group as well) and recorded a well-received if commercially flat solo album before he was arrested with $1.4 million worth of liquid cocaine at the Newark airport. After several years in prison, Forté ended up touring Russia in the winter of 2011, crossing the country, performing, recording, collaborating with musicians from there and elsewhere, donating profits to charitable organizations, and documentarian Petter Ringborn’s cameras came along.

The Russian Winter will be available for free streaming as part of the Tribeca Online Film Festival starting tomorrow. But if you’re in New York, join your film editor at the film’s 7pm screening next Wednesday (at the AMC Loew’s Village) and stick around for our “Flavorpill Drink and Discuss” post-film conversation with director Petter Ringborn—brought to you by our good friends at Heineken.

Side by Side

The motion picture itself has been an attractive subject to documentary filmmakers for years, but Side by Side may be the most “inside baseball” movie-about-movies to date — and that is its strength. Ostensibly a look at the current struggle (and transition) between traditional photochemical film and digital moviemaking, it is actually an exhaustively detailed “state of the cinema” thesis. For those of us who care about this stuff, it’s a fascinating 100-minute think piece, and the arguments are well articulated by exactly the voices you want to hear from: name directors (Scorsese, Lucas, Soderbergh, Cameron, Nolan, Fincher, Linklater, Rodriguez, Lynch, Boyle), famed cinematographers (Michael Chapman, Ellen Kuras, Vittorio Storano, Dick Pope, Michael Ballhaus, Vilmos Zsigmond), editors, actors, and technicians. The result is an overview of the filmmaking process that’s remarkably comprehensive; they’re not just talking about shooting and editing, but visual effects, color timing, projection, archival, the whole nine yards. It’s brisk, lucid, and a lot of fun (especially for us movie geeks).

I’ll also be at this film’s 7pm screening next Thursday (also at the AMC Loew’s Village) for a “Flavorpill Drink and Discuss” post-film conversation with director Chris Kenneally — brought to you by the fine folks at Heineken.

Supporting Characters

If there’s one complaint about the indie film scene that genuinely holds water, it’s that there’s too damn many movies about making movies; it betrays an insulation, a bubble mentality, the notion that the only life experience these people have to draw from is the act of creating a film. The complaints are legitimate, and often valid. This is not reason enough to dismiss Supporting Characters, which is a comedy/drama about a pair of mid-level film editors; limitations of the (ostensible) subject aside, it’s a droll and knowing little film that doesn’t get bogged down in the specifics. It’s more about their relationships than their jobs, with some uncomfortable truths conveyed — the presentation of any relationship, one character insists, is “an illusion that couples create when a third party enters the room.” Dark? Maybe. True? Sometimes. Supporting Characters isn’t a groundbreaking movie — it doesn’t do anything altogether new. But it’s a smart and sophisticated effort, and as a snapshot of New York relationships (and filmmaking), it couldn’t feel more authentic.