The Best and Worst Documentaries of the Tribeca Film Festival

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The common wisdom, particularly from its naysayers, on the comparatively young Tribeca Film Festival – this year’s fest, which concluded yesterday, was only the 15th – is that it hasn’t “found its identity” yet. And that’s easy enough to say; particularly in the festival’s early years, there seemed to be a program-everything-and-see-what-sticks philosophy. But over the past few fests, Tribeca has emerged as a go-to stop for films (and filmgoers) seeking out the best in non-fiction filmmaking. Here are some of the best documentaries we saw this year.

ARTISTES

The famous creator bio-doc has become one of the more prevalent and reliable standbys in non-fiction; a pair of high-profile titles showed how to do it right, and, y’know, less right.

By Sidney Lumet

The very first close-up of the late filmmaker Sidney Lumet, looking thoughtful and contemplative, prompted more of an emotional response than I’d expected; I miss this man, and I miss his work. Nancy Buirski’s new documentary is drawn from a previously unseen 2008 interview – and drawn only from that, eschewing (as with the forthcoming and similarly personal De Palma ) other voices, in interviews or narration, to let this one man tell his own story. But it’s not a conventional cradle-to-grave biography, or even top-to-bottom survey of the work; it’s less interview then conversation, floating non-chronologically yet organically from topic to topic and theme to theme. And the more he talks, the more it becomes clear that while Lumet’s mostly invisible touch and genre-hopping made him seem less a stylist than some of his contemporaries, his style wasn’t about aesthetics – it was about the big ideas, of rebellion and authority and family and society, that run through the entire, impressive filmography.

Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg

Marshall Fine’s documentary portrait of the stand-up trailblazer should be great, particularly for us comedy geeks. And yet it’s strangely unsuccessful, for a variety of reasons: peculiar clip selections that often land on mediocre moments and ride them out; a freewheeling chronology that (thankfully) eschews the common “I was born in” march but doesn’t replace it with any organizing principle; a vignette structure that’s meant to convey a looseness, but mostly mounts to disjointedness; and, consequently, a decidedly shallow snapshot. Celebrity testimonials are trotted out, heartbreaks and tribulations are dismissed as quickly as they’re addressed, and we’re never left with any sense of what makes this talented man tick. There’s plenty that works, but most of it – casually funny commentary on his daily routines, clips from contemporary and (still) very funny performances – feels closer to a reality show pilot than a portrait of any particular depth.

THE BUSINESS OF SHOW

These documentaries focused less on individual performers than on performance itself, in its many forms and media.

Midsummer in Newtown

“The most complicated thing in the world is our reaction to the shooting,” explains Dan Cruson, historian of the city of Newtown, and none of us need to be reminded of what shooting he’s talking about. Lloyd Kramer’s documentary is two things at once: a portrait of the survivors (particularly musician Jimmy Greene and his wife Nelba, who lost their daughter that day) and a profile of how a group of Broadway theatrical types mounted a musical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to bring the community together. The trouble is, the two elements don’t quite mesh; the backstage stuff is interesting, but feels lightweight compared to the heaviness of the survivor stories. Kramer captures some incredible, heartfelt moments, but it just doesn’t quite hold together.

The Show of Shows: 100 Years of Vaudeville, Circuses, and Carnivals

The title makes it sound like some sort of talking-head-and-still-photos PBS drift through the history of the stage, but this impressionistic montage film is anything but; director Benedikt Erlingsson and his team of editors work purely in image and music (the score’s composers include members of Sigur Ros), assembling newsreels, home movies, performance shorts, and stag films via cuts that cross continents, decades, and film stocks. They cover everything from circus performers and sideshow attractions to vaudeville and minstrel shows to daredevils and escape artists, and it seems, at first, like a grinning jaunt through the good ol’ days of barnstorming entertainers. But then they cleverly turn the worm, with images of miserable strippers, abused animals, and (no kidding) toddler boxers – haunting snapshots you can’t unsee, and startling reminders of what we’ve exploited, throughout history and to this moment, in the name of “entertainment.”

THE BUSINESS OF SHOW (cont.)

The Pistol Shrimps

A few years back, Aubrey Plaza decided she wanted to start an amateur basketball team with her friends – but there wasn’t a women’s league for them to play in. So they started one. What began as a lark became an honest-to-goodness L.A. thing, with 36 leagues competing once a week and merch, sponsors, and even a play-by-play podcast. Bret Hodge’s cheery, slight feature is pretty lightweight stuff, even by celeb doc standards. But it moves fast, gets laughs, and functions primarily as an excuse to hang out with these funny, fascinating women.

Contemporary Color

Back in 2015, David Byrne assembled ten top color guard teams, paired them with ten musical artists, and had them each collaborate on an original work that he then presented at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center. And just as color guard is something of a mash-up (of dance, twirling, and cheerleading), Bill and Turner Ross’s film is a combination of performance film, backstage documentary, and movie musical. The balance isn’t always right (they too often cut away to what’s happening behind the scenes when we want to see the full performance), but their compositions and camera choreography are inventive, the music is vibrant, and the color guards kill it. This movie is just bursting with joy, and it’s impossible not to get swept up in it.

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

These filmmakers dipped back into our history to tell their stories – and in doing so, made urgent connections to the present.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Documentarian Ziga Virc takes a deep dive into the history of the Yugoslavian space program, telling the bizarre tale of its wholesale purchase by the Kennedy White House, which propelled a period of prosperity and goodwill in the country – until NASA discovered it was predicated on fabricated reports and outright bluffs. But he also tells the story of Ivan Pavic, an aerospace engineer and research scientist for NASA, originally from the Eastern bloc and returning there for the first time in 50 years Here’s there to meet a daughter who thought he was dead; that was the story she and her mother were told when he was taken to America. Both strands of the story as so peculiar that large sections of the film feel strangely untethered – there’s no telling where this thing will go – but that’s ultimately to its benefit. Through this little-known side story, Virc ends up detailing nothing less than the fall of an empire.

Shadow World

Director Johan Grimonprez takes on, artfully and vividly, the very nature of war itself – and of those who profit from it – in this sharp-edged political documentary. His entry point is a shocking deal between the Thatcher government, Saudi Arabia, and British Aerospace Systems, but he uses that incident to decode the modern history of covert warfare, placing these events in historical context, connecting the dots from Chile to Iran-Contra to the Bush (and, sadly, Obama) doctrine. It’s all known information, stuff that’s out there, but seeing it put together and situated around this thesis is sort of devastating. Grimonprez can’t quite land all of his sidebars gracefully, but this is nonetheless essential viewing, sleazy and muckracking and remarkable.

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS (cont.)

Command and Control

Director Robert Kenner (adapting Eric Schlosser’s book) constructs a tense, scary tick-tock of a 1980 accident at an Arkansas facility housing a powerful nuclear warhead, but he doesn’t stop there; he uses the incident as the framing device to cue historical and scientific digressions on the nuclear age and its relatively unexamined danger not to our enemies, but our citizens. The implications of disturbances like this are downright terrifying, and Kenner captures that intensity via candid interviews, stylish reconstructions, and urgent music, creating a brisk, efficient exploration of a troubling moment in our history, with questions that are very much of this moment.

Keep Quiet

Csanád Szegedi was a founding member of the Hungarian far-right anti-Semitic nationalist group Jobbik, and rose to a position of considerable power in that country’s government as a result. He wasn’t just an ideologue, but an organizer, taking real action to advance an anti-Jewish agenda – which made the revelation of his own Jewish heritage as shocking to his country as it was to himself. What start as rumors turns into a family investigation, a total self-reevaluation that he compares to a lifelong medical misdiagnosis, but which results in Szegedi studying and embracing his newfound heritage and performing a public turnabout, which is met with understandable skepticism. Sam Blair and Joseph Martin’s elegant documentary tells Szegedi’s stranger-than-fiction story with political distance but emotional empathy; there are real questions to be asked here, about repentance, forgiveness, and trust, and they ask them all, while taking nothing at face value.

CRIMINAL INJUSTICE

It’s always fascinating to observe the accidental threads that emerge over the course of a single festival, when the pulse of the popular subconscious reveals itself via multiple films taking on similar subjects. This year, one of Tribeca’s hot topics was the criminal justice system, and how it deals with the innocent, the guilty, and the unknown.

Southwest of Salem

Deborah Esquenazi’s documentary tells the story of the “San Antonio Four,” and the echoes of that nickname (as well as the title of the film that tells their story) are deliberate. Much like the West Memphis Three, these four young women were accused of an unthinkable crime at the tail end of America’s weird Satanic cult fever- “the last gasp of the Satanic ritual abuse panic,” as one expert puts it. The story made for breathless headlines (“siblings Satan sex assault”), and it put these women away for more than a decade, until discrepancies, questions, and a recantation made clear the accusations just didn’t hold water. The film is tilted, sure (but can you blame them?), and some of the filmmaking is more than a little dodgy, technically speaking. But it’s a film of righteous anger and emotional indignation, shining a light on how easy it is for a case like this to pick up speed and careen out of control before anyone can stop it.

SOLITARY

Kristi Jacobson’s portrait of a handful of prisoners in Virginia’s Red Onion supermax prison could’ve easily gone for tub-thumping ideology – portraying these prisoners as either feral monsters or helpless victims. Instead, she raises complex issues of morality and punishment, and situates her subjects within them; she will searingly convey their claustrophobia and other effects of their incarceration mentality, but gives equal time to their harrowing descriptions of their horrifying crimes. These are scary, unstable people, but there’s an argument to be made that spending 23 hours a day, seven days a week in an 8×10 cell has much to do with the accumulation of those qualities. Her camera regards her subjects and their surroundings unblinkingly, and offers up no easy answers to its central question: Does inhumane behavior warrant inhumane treatment? Intelligent, thoughtful, and tough documentary filmmaking.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

haveababy

Every year, the Sher Institute holds an online contest to give away a free In Vitro Fertilization procedure; Amanda Micheli’s documentary tracks one year’s contestants, following its winners as well as two runners-up who decide to go ahead with the procedure. As documentary, it’s a touch pedestrian – there are stretches that play like a really well-produced infomercial for the procedure in general and the Sher Institute in particular. That said, there’s no denying the emotional potency of these stories, and our attachment to the people telling them. It’s a slight movie, and doesn’t quite pull together to a sturdy conclusion, but you certainly feel for these people and the roller coaster they’re riding.

BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNER-UP)

Betting on Zero

Maybe Scientology is just on the mind lately, between My Scientology Movie and The Invitation and the fumes of Going Clear , but it’s very hard to watch the footage of Herbalife’s epic conventions, celebrity endorsements, and slick PR materials and not think its participants must be in some kind of cult. They’re not, but they may as well be; according to Bill Ackman, the divisive head fund manager on a multi-year crusade to short their stock, it’s a pyramid scheme, with a habit of targeting immigrants, low-income communities, and other vulnerable Americans. Director Ted Braun tells Ackman’s story against the backdrop of what is to be his “death blow” presentation, finally closing the case against the multi-billion dollar company; the film is, at times, a bit much (particularly in terms of length and its manipulative score), but it’s undeniably thorough and affecting – particularly when Braun arrives at its central conflict, which comes down to betting on the morality of Wall Street. Which, you know…

BEST OF THE FEST

5. Burden

Chris Burden was a soft-spoken provocateur, a visual and performance artist who carved out a place for himself in the 1970s by pushing boundaries and crossing lines, tinkering with the idea of art that is not only confrontational but, as one observer puts it, scares the shit out of you. Directors Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey approach his work with precisely the right mixture of skepticism and reverence, particularly as he tips into the realm of all-out instability late in the decade; their final analysis frames him, via the work he’s doing and the contrast of his life now and then, as an elder statesman, someone who became a bit safe. And they leave you feeling like that’s probably for the best.

4. All This Panic

Director Jenny Gage and director of photography Tom Betterton spent three years documenting the lives of seven girls from New York, capturing the difficulty of their teenage years and their transition into young adulthood. It feels genuine, counter-intuitively enough, probably because so much of teenage life is performative anyway; they also lucked out by finding this group of women, who are introspective and smart and funny. There’s also totally self-aware and often wise beyond their years; when one speaks of a keen disappointment with a resigned, “this is what life is,” you wish, for her sake, that she didn’t already know the score. The editing is sly and their cameras capture fleeting moments of casual beauty; it’s a marvelous, absorbing film, with truth vibrating through frame after frame.

BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)

3. LoveTrue

Director Alma Har’el’s follow-up to her 2011 Tribeca winner Bombay Beach looked awfully promising at a preview screening of excerpts last year; the final product confirms the vastness and originality of her talent. She explores three stories – one in Alaska, one in Hawaii, one in New York – about ove, but none are really “romances.” Her real aim here is to reckon with the idea (and ideal) of true love, and the kind of emotional wreckage it can leave in its wake. Yet it’s not a sad or bitter film; hope springs eternal for these charismatic outsiders, who are given full room to live and breathe by Har’el’s evocative, intimate style. Her emotional openness and stylistic fluidity play like an antidote for documentary norms; it’s a hard film to describe, except by saying you’re probably never seen a film quite like it.

2. Do Not Resist

Director Craig Atkinson begins his documentary examination of police militarization by parachuting into Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, 10 Days After, his images and sounds capturing the overwhelming tension between protestors and a police force that looks better prepared for a firefight in Falujah than a demonstration in American cities. But that’s the genius of Atkinson’s forceful and frightening documentary: how he keeps widening his spotlight (to connected issues like police training, increases in warrant execution, property seizures, drones and surveillance), considering new ideas and new implications. The filmmaking is impressive – no narration, little expert testimony, mostly just cameras observing the terrifying present – and the question Atkinson ultimately asks couldn’t be more timely: with $34 billion spent on military weapons to local police since 9/11, do you feel safer?

BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)

1. O.J.: Made in America

Perhaps it’s unfair to even compare this full presentation of ESPN’s forthcoming documentary miniseries to the rest of the fest’s non-fiction films – after all, at 450 minutes, it’s roughly five times the length of anything else on the slate, which allows director Ezra Edelman (Cutie and the Boxer, Magic and Bird) a far wider canvas to work with, and many more opportunities for the kind of depth and detail that most features can’t indulge. But the expansive length also affords him five times as many opportunities to fuck up, and this filmmaker never loses the thread, weaving the compelling narrative of not only the rise and fall (and fall, and fall) of a sports icon, but the inseparable story of the city where he spent most of his life, and the police culture there that so fatefully intertwined with a crime he probably committed. But there’s nothing so simple as innocent or guilty here, just as there wasn’t in that trial – with admirable precision and spellbinding clarity, Edelman tracks how all of these elements came together in that Los Angeles courtroom, and exploded on impact. (Read more here.)