The Best and Worst of Tribeca Film Festival 2013

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The 12th annual Tribeca Film Festival came to a close Saturday night with a rare, special screening of The King of Comedy, perhaps the most underrated collaboration between Martin Scorsese and festival co-founder Robert DeNiro. That event ended a week and a half of premieres, screenings, and events, and while your film editor was only able to sample a fraction of the dozens of movies at this year’s TFF, all of them made an impression — for good or ill.

PLEASANT DIVERSIONS

Lil Bub & Friendz

This documentary from Vice Films is about as lightweight as they come — it runs barely an hour — but it matches the subject, which is the Internet-age phenomenon of meme cats. The primary focus is Lil Bub — and her human, Mike Bridavsky, who manages to transcend the “crazy cat lady” type by coming off as a normal, likable dude who just loves this cat (“I got Bub because I thought she was amazing”). Some of the other folks interviewed by Andy Capper and Juliette Eisner aren’t so lucky, and the film’s primary flaw is that it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to skewer or embrace is secondary figures. Still, it’s a crowd-pleaser, with some compelling theories on why felines have become so omnipresent on the ‘net.

Bending Steel

Forty-three-year-old New Yorker Chris Schoeck is introverted, withdrawn, anti-social even. But he’s got a skill: in spite of his average (almost scrawny) size, he’s wicked strong, and can bend steel bars, horseshoes, and wrenches. He aims to make a name for himself as an old-fashioned strongman, hoping to work down on Coney Island, because “what’s Coney Island without a strong man?” He’s a bit of a lug, but he’s got a good heart, and you feel for him; director Dave Carroll’s gentle documentary shows how he finds a community and family among his fellow strongmen, and generates real tension and concern by its conclusion, which smells like manipulation but works nonetheless. Almost Christmas Director Phil Morrison, helming his first feature since 2005’s Junebug, crafts a shambling, low-key comedy drama in the California Split mold. The timing is a little off in spots (particularly early on), but it’s got an off-the-cuff charm, and genuine affection for the losers at its center, played with appropriate comic desperation by Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd. (Sally Hawkins is also terrific in an odd, offbeat supporting turn.) It’s a slight but touching effort, and the stars — particularly Giamatti — get at the soul of these poor saps.

MISFIRES

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mira Nair’s story of an Americanized Pakistani driven back home by the xenophobia of post-9/11 US starts promisingly, thanks to a quietly powerful performance by leading man Riz Ahmed (and able support from Liev Schreiber and Keifer Sutherland, both revisiting familiar types, but well). But it slowly falls apart, for few discernable reasons — it’s competent but lifeless, its rote storytelling and narrative twists done no favors by an arbitrary romance (with an unfortunately cast Kate Hudson) that’s a total washout. Good scenes here and there, but ultimately something of a mess. Farah Goes Bang

An Iranian post-grad tries to lose her virginity during — incongruously enough — a summer on the 2004 John Kerry campaign trail in this mishmash of a coming-of-age sex comedy/drama. Director Meera Menon occasionally captures the admirable yet slightly irritating idealism of youth, but for the most part, the film is a mess; the narrative is aimless, the filmmaking undisciplined. It’s a half-baked effort, but star Nikohl Boosheri is a real find — she holds the screen, even when the script fails her. If she can find a better vehicle than this, she could do some serious damage.

FLAWED BUT FASCINATING

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

This slice-of-life drama, about an autistic New York kid who goes missing on the subway on the eve of Hurricane Sandy, is an utterly accurate and evocative snapshot of NYC at this moment — particularly in the loaded images grabbed (often stolen, it seems) of lives in progress on those trains. These impressionistic scenes are almost the stuff of silent cinema, and pack a real punch, even if the overlong film stretches the lightweight narrative too thin.

Sunlight Jr.

Giant swaths of our population live paycheck to paycheck, renting rooms in cheap hotels because they can’t scrape together a security deposit, crossing their fingers that the gas tank has enough fumes to last until payday. Their stories aren’t told often in American movies, and writer/director Laurie Collyer deserves credit for doing so — particularly in such a modest, muted, unsensational way. But her story starts out depressing and only descends into greater misery, which makes it a tough slog, as do some lapses in directorial judgment (the generic soft-rock score is a real problem, particularly when it transforms a scene of raw physical intimacy into Cinemax After Dark fare). But it’s a film worth seeing, with outstanding, lived-in performances by Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon.

PROFILES

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

“It’s wonderful to be almost 87,” confesses Elaine Stritch. “I’m tellin’ you, you can get away with murder.” An honest to God living legend, the grand dame of stage, television, and film is here seen in rehearsal, at work, and holding court, all the while battling her progressively declining health. She’s famously grouchy and sharp-edged, but filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa also captures her rawness and vulnerability. She tells some great stories (her brief almost-fling with JFK is a howler), visits her hometown, and puts up her cabaret show; she’s seen in rehearsal for a big performance at Town Hall struggling with (and losing to) her memory, but when it comes time to deliver in performance, she does, beautifully. Tina Fey, James Gandolfini, Nathan Lane, John Turturro, and executive producer Alec Baldwin all show up to sing her praises — they love her, and after the film is over, you can see why. Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic

Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanksi: Wanted and Desired) takes on the rich subject of the 20th century’s finest comedian in this excellent documentary. She moves fast (it could frankly run a bit longer than its trim 90 minutes), but the film isn’t shallow; the construction is inventive and the editing is tight, deftly intercutting film clips, album drops, archival interviews, news clips, and new testimonials to create a mosaic-like portrait of a man who, as he says, “wanted to test you to your motherfuckin’ soul.” There’s footage that’s new to even this lifelong Pryor fan (the Sunset Strip outtakes are amazing), and the clips from his later years are heartbreaking but fascinating. A rare bio-doc that genuinely captures the essence of an iconic performer.

I Got Somethin’ To Tell You

Whoopi Goldberg’s documentary tribute to the great, groundbreaking comic “Moms” Mabley is properly reverential, mixing a treasure trove of archival clips, album lifts, and testimonials from an impressive slate of interviewees (Cosby, Poitier, Belafonte, Cavett, Eddie Murphy, Quincy Jones, Tom Smothers, and the filmmaker herself). But the film is too heavy on what she did and too light on who she was, with fascinating information about her past (and especially her sexuality) briefly mentioned but not explored. Worth seeing as a tribute, but frustratingly superficial as a documentary.

BEST OF THE FEST

3. Some Velvet Morning

After a decade spent on films mostly bad (The Wicker Man) or baffling (Death at a Funeral), writer/director Neil LaBute makes a naked play to go back to his talky, nasty roots with this battle-of-the-sexes two-hander, shot in eight days. The reach for former glory may be obvious, but it works; it’s merciless, unblinking, and occasionally shocking, as Alice Eve and Stanley Tucci (as, respectively, a call girl and the man who fell for her) talk, and talk, and overthink, and take offense, and talk some more, with the possibility of psychological and/or physical violence perpetually in the air. Those who loathed LaBute’s breakthrough works will find nothing new to love here. Those of us who found him a bracing and effective rabble-rouser will be glad to hear he’s made such a punchy return to form.

2. Trust Me

Clark Gregg’s second film as writer/director (after the flawed but fascinating Choke) talks fast, thinks fast, and moves fast, telling its story of a bottom-rung agent for child actors with the expected acidic humor. But it’s not as cynical as most Hollywood satires — as you’d expect from a film made by an actor, he loves actors. And reinforcing that point is a star-making performance by an astonishing young actress named Saxon Sharbino; her real, lively talent is what centers the story, and the picture. (The perpetually underused Amanda Peet is also very good.) Gregg bites off a bit more than he can chew in the third act, and the film gets a bit out of his control. But its final scene is ballsy and brilliant, bringing this sharp and entertaining film to a rousing conclusion.

1. The Kill Team

Director Dan Krauss crafts a chilling, unforgiving, and vividly effective documentary account of a platoon of soldiers murdering Afghans for sport, mutilating corpses, and engaging in other ghastly activity in the name of “combat.” Motivated by resentment, blood lust, or (worst of all) sheer boredom, the “kill team” took graphic video and pictures as shocking as anything at Abu Gharib, and nearly got away with it. Krauss focuses on the trial of Spc. Adam Winfield, who tried to blow the whistle and failed; his helplessness grounds the tale, while Krauss and editor Lawrence Lerew’s sharp-edged cutting keeps the storytelling hard and jarring. Excellent documentary filmmaking, and infuriating viewing.