The Best and Worst of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival

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The 13th annual Tribeca Film Festival drew to a close in New York City last night, ending 12 days of non-stop movies across the city. Your film editor has always had a soft spot for this festival, and not just because it’s the first one I ever covered as a green and naïve Internet Film Writer; it is, after all, a hometown event, and if the young fest is still figuring out its place among a very crowded field, throwing all kinds of movies — some brilliant, some daring, some bland, some just plain bad — at the screen to see what sticks, it’s anything-goes spirit can also result in some wonderful movie-going experiences. I was lucky enough to peek at some of the best of this year’s films beforehand; here are a few more to seek out (or avoid) in the months to come.

Alec Baldwin, Barney Frank, and Jim Ready at the premiere of “Compared to What.” Photo Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

PROBLEMATIC PROFILES

Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank Filmmakers Michael Chandler and Sheila Canavan got themselves a juicy subject for a documentary profile in newly retired Congressman Barney Frank, a 20-year public servant known for his unapologetic liberalism, bullshit-free approach, and wicked sense of humor — and for being the first openly gay member of Congress. The delicacy with which he navigated his way out of the closet while in office, and his long history of raising and fighting the good fight, is well-documented by an impressive collection of clips and archival interviews. But good heavens, the filmmaking. The picture is frightfully amateurish, from the ugly videography to the messy sound (lav mics, people!) to the incompetent mixing to the overloaded (and frequently grammatically incorrect) on-screen text. Frank is endlessly fascinating, but he deserves better than this.

Super Duper Alice Cooper This portrait of ’70s rock trendsetter Cooper starts off well, with a razzle-dazzle shoot-the-works spirit and a stated focus on the Jekyll and Hyde-style split personality that separated “perfect ’50s kid” and preacher’s son Vince Furnier from “this Alice character [who] nearly killed me.” But his early years — and the formulation and development of his band’s sound and style — are more interesting than the success story, which we’ve heard a thousand times before (tension within the band, splintered friendships, substance abuse, near-divorce, rehab, redemption). The filmmakers do their best to fog up the familiarity by deploying a gimmicky, semi-animated style seemingly cribbed from the Bill Hicks doc American, but it ultimately feels like a big-screen episode of Behind the Music.

THROWAWAYS

Lucky Them Toni Collette is marvelous — hard-edged and totally believable — as a seen-it-all music writer tracking down a legendary missing musician who happens to be an ex; Thomas Haden Church is endlessly funny as the rich friend who tags along on her mission. Their byplay and peculiar energy works, in scene after scene, but Huck Botko and Emily Wachtel’s script is unfortunately pedestrian, taking predictable turns and spending too much time on an old-hat romantic angle. Sweet and funny, with great scenes here and there (including a lovely closing cameo that I wouldn’t dream of disclosing), but ultimately a touch too lightweight to make much of an impression.

Maravilla A onetime middleweight champ stripped of his title due to goofy political wrangling, Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez is one of the best boxers in the world. He’s also 38 years old, way on the far side of a boxer’s ideal age, so there’s a real urgency to the pushing, pressing, and fighting he and his team do, in the course of this documentary portrait, to get him a shot to reclaim his title. Director Juan Pablo Cadaveira does the most interesting work in the first hour, looking closely at the dirty and rather incestuous business end of the boxing world — the way TV networks, Pay-Per-View, and promoters use, exploit, discard, and string along fighters. But Cadaveira seems hard-pressed to come up with anything special cinematically once the big fight arrives. It’s a fine sports doc, but nothing special.

VERY GOOD DOCS

Virunga Deep in the Congo lies Virguna National Park, a safe haven for African wildlife and refuge for endangered mountain gorillas. And underneath it lies oil. Director Orlando von Einsidel tells the story of a civil war quite possibly financed by the British company that’s going after that oil, focusing on a handful of individuals — a park ranger, a gorilla keeper, an investigative reporter — literally risking their lives to do what’s right. The stakes are clear and the events are terrifyingly close (von Einsidel’s camera is right in the middle of this mess), but more than anything, he manages to get right to the heart of this kind of repulsive, all-or-nothing capitalism. Heart-wrenching, infuriating, and gripping filmmaking.

When the Garden Was Eden Actor/director Michael Rapaport last turned up at Tribeca with the wonderfully evocative Tribe Called Quest documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life, and this look at the golden age of New York Knicks basketball (their “seven good years” in the late ’60s and early ’70s) pulses the same kind of grinning fan enthusiasm. Evoking an era where the NBA was a small-time operation, sparsely attended and lightly funded, Rapaport finds a narrative in the building and disciplining of a team, while situating that story within the history of the city and the league. The editing is snazzy, the archival footage is impressive, and the soundtrack is terrific. But most impressively (particularly considering the picture’s slender running time), we’re left with a sense of getting to know its large, rich cast of characters, and sharing in their victories and defeats.

STAR-FILLED CHARMERS

About Alex A group of college friends reunite in a remote location, prompted by the suicide of a friend, to re-establish old connections and re-open old wounds. Sound familiar? Thought the participants are younger and the occasion is merely an attempted suicide, Jesse Zwick’s debut film is fully aware of the connection to The Big Chill (“This is like one of those ’80s movies,” one of them observes), as well as its television stepchild thirtysomething (Zwick’s father, Edward, co-created that show and is credited here as executive producer). But once you’re done playing connect-the-dots, About Alex stands on its own. The characters’ unspoken tensions and emotional backstory are revealed gradually and smoothly, and Zwick has something insightful to say about the concerns and interactions of Millennials. Most importantly, he’s got a crackerjack ensemble cast to bring his story to vivid life. Jason Ritter plays the suicidal one without overplaying the pathos; Aubrey Plaza is soulful and sexy and just plain good; and Max Greenfield, bearded and disheveled and bitter, steals just about every scene he sneaks his way into.

Life Partners Susanna Fogel’s story of two best friends, one straight and one a lesbian, is a bit self-conscious in its opening passages — it feels like a construct, and an easy one at that. But once it settles in and establishes its characters, it’s a sunny, likable treat. Fogel and co-writer Joni Lefkowitz have a good ear for conversational dialogue, and they manage to deftly avoid many of the annoying sitcom traps that such stories so often fall into. The themes are clear without being clumsy, as the picture quietly becomes a poignant snapshot of growing up and letting go. And the cast is uniformly strong, particularly the always-wonderful Gillian Jacobs (and Abby Elliot, a sly scene-stealer as the kind of girl who first seems cool and creative, and gradually reveals herself as utterly insufferable).

ODDITIES

In Your Eyes We approach a Joss Whedon screenplay with certain expectations: subversion of genre, meta-commentary, sly wit, rakish intelligence. He all but jettisons those trademarks at the service of this bizarrely earnest romantic melodrama, which seems less in the vein of Buffy or Firefly than the forgotten Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock snoozer The Lake House. It’s all here: syrupy dialogue, overdrawn antagonists, and not one, not two, but three Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interludes. You keep waiting for Whedon’s script or Brin Hill’s direction to turn this goofy metaphysical claptrap on its head, but that moment never comes. Instead, it’s a rare misfire from one of our most distinctive screenwriters. (Full review here.)

Young Bodies Heal Quickly Writer/director/editor Andrew T. Betzer wears his Terrence Malick influence on his sleeve — much of this moody road picture is shot in the magic hour, and dialogue is used sparingly throughout (there’s barely a word spoken in the first 20 minutes). This portrait of two young brothers fleeing an accidental death tries the patience a bit, but the wandering, episodic narrative has a free-wheeling spirit and a deadpan sense of humor (in its best moments, it recalls Jerry Schatzberg’s great Scarecrow). And I’m still not quite sure what to make of its third-act turn, which is either refreshingly unexpected or just plan bananas.

WORST OF THE FEST

Summer of Blood This one-joke Brooklyn comedy opens with a promising scene that finds a dynamite actress named Anna Margaret Hollyman dumping her clueless, self-important, man-child boyfriend, so imagine my surprise at the inexplicable decision to follow that schmuck around for the rest of the movie. Writer/director Onur Tukel badly overestimates the tolerability of his direly unlikable protagonist (played, aha, by Mr. Tukel), veering the movie dangerously close to The Comedy territory, even after it turns into a blood-soaked vampire movie at the end of the first act. There’s a good line here or there, and a couple of winning performances, but even the most promising joke (that this guy’s such a dick that becoming a vampire makes him a better person) is fumbled and eventually abandoned altogether.

BEST OF THE FEST

Every Secret Thing Documentarian Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil, West of Memphis) makes an impressive transition to fiction with this adaptation of Laura Lippman’s book, scripted by Nicole Holofcener (herself working well out of her comfort zone). On the surface, it’s a kidnapping story and police procedural, but the emotional stakes are much higher; Berg is exploring how human personalities are set and locked early on, and how those definitions affect the transactions between the past and the present. It is, when you get down to it, a horror movie, filled with uneasy dread and everyday terror, crisply told and emotionally gutting.

Five Star Writer/director/Editor Keith Miller crafts this Brooklyn gang drama with an offhand naturalism, filling it with conversations that feel overheard and scenes that seem captured without preparation. As a result, some of the scenes run on a bit too long, sacrificing dynamism for the sake of reality, and the familiarity of the narrative results in some unfortunately clichéd dialogue (“Sad to say, it was just business”). But nonetheless, this is a forceful and bracing ground-level portrait, contrasting a young man working his way into “the life” with an older power player longing to get out. And first-timer James “Primo” Grant is astonishingly good in the leading role, suggesting but never insisting on either his power or his complexity.

BEST OF THE FEST

Love is Strange The two men dress quietly, muttering to themselves and each other, and head out the door, and though they’re nattily attired, you might not guess from their low-key manner that they’re getting married. Their matter-of-fact approach mirrors the homey, unfussy style of Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On follow-up, which is less about gay marriage than it is about the woes of New York real estate and the burdens of family. The storytelling is trim and the drama isn’t overdone; it’s a movie where everyone is trying be kind and accommodating, and in doing so, they discover what their limits are. It’s a knowing film, with wit and sadness in equal measure, and stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are convincingly comfortable, sharing a wonderful chemistry and easygoing tenderness that warms the center of this modest tale.

Manos Sucias Josef Wladyka’s award-winning drama starts off mysterious, tense, and more than a little scary, and never looks back. Telling the story of two young men taking a hundred kilos of cocaine up the Colombian coast, Wladyka’s sophisticated storytelling and visceral filmmaking recalls City of God — the violence is sudden and terrifying, the flashbacks and exposition are smoothly integrated, and the closing scenes are knotty-stomach intense. And under its flashy surface is an existential hopelessness, a tacit understanding that such dangerous work is only a temporary fix for the pain and heartbreak in these young men’s lives. Potent, powerful, and searing.