New York’s annual Tribeca Film Festival has a reputation as an event in flux, lacking a clear core mission, and constantly redefining itself from year to year. In past years, the festival has screened big blockbusters like The Avengers side by side with micro-budget midnight movies, foreign art films, American indies seeking distributors, and mid-budget studio comedies. This year at TFF, Alec Baldwin, Michael Douglas, Ron Howard, Kevin Spacey, Bryan Cranston, Isabella Rossellini, and Lee Daniels were all present for post-screening Q&As or programmed interviews about the industry and their work; meanwhile, other festival venues were screening bargain-basement horror films about asshole vampires and zombie beavers. The lack of focus or distinct, selective personality has drawn criticism and dismissal, but it’s hard to see a problem with a festival this dedicated to doing everything—except that it’s impossible for attendees to similarly do everything. TFF contains multitudes, and it’s up to attendees to pick which multitude they want.
The festival helps the process along; the press lounge offered dozens of individual summary lists, organizing this year’s features and shorts by subtopics ranging from genres to racial and cultural groups to queer themes to “women’s issues” or “technology issues.” Someone only interested in world premières, or films directed by women, or directorial debuts, could easily program their own TFF with a single coherent identity. But the festival’s messiness is part of the appeal. Keeping up with the 80-some films that screened over the course of April 16-27 was impossible, especially given other concerns, like the interactivity experiments and technological advances of Innovation Week—which will get its own separate report—but here are a handful of standout films from this year’s festival. (More info, or trailers where available, at the header links.)
THREE STRONG FILMS TO WATCH FOR
These films—one TFF world première and two Toronto vets—are already on their way to theaters.
John Carney’s raw, wistful 2006 breakthrough Once was about love and longing expressed through music; his latest is about longing for music, particularly the kind that comes from the heart, with no concerns about commercial value, ancillary products, promotion strategy, or image-building. Keira Knightley stars as a New York musician with a recently broken heart; Adam Levine is the newly fledged musical superstar who broke it. Mark Ruffalo is the fallen-from-grace music-label founder who discovers her and wants to record her. But the key to the whole story is that he doesn’t want to use her to salvage his disintegrating career—he’s an idealist who just wants to show the world what he sees in her music. Begin Again (which premièred at Toronto under the significantly worse title Can A Song Save Your Life?) is polished and calculated where Once was naked and simple, but it has some of the same passion, particularly about performance, which makes up large chunks of the film. As Noel Murray noted after seeing the film at TIFF, the moral about making art for its own sake is ladled on too thickly. Knightley’s otherwise beautifully handled character is at her least convincing when she’s grinning impishly while shooting down one attempt or another to gloss up her music for a pop audience—but her musical performances are infectiously joyous, and so is the film’s rapturous swooning over the New York setting. This feels like a Woody Allen New York film with the quaintness and neurotic fussing replaced with riotous rock energy. Expect the film’s idealized version of a first date—involving two people wordlessly sharing their mp3 players, and letting the music they love speak for them—to become a fad among the young and pop-culture-obsessed when the film hits screens on July 4.
The latest from Megan Griffiths (Eden) premièred at Toronto, but Tribeca was its first festival screening since it was acquired by IFC, which plans to release it May 30. It’s a strange, mildly uneven film: essentially a road movie that spends relatively little of its time on the road. But the roles are so perfect that they give some longtime character actors room to find their strengths, and the performances are accordingly terrific. Toni Collette, quite possibly in her strongest film role, stars as down-and-out music-magazine writer and inveterate groupie Ellie, whose usually tolerant editor (Oliver Platt) gives her an ultimatum: Write a blockbuster, front-cover story about a mysterious musical superstar who disappeared a decade ago, or get fired. The first twist is that she was in a relationship with the superstar at the time; the second is that he was a presumed suicide when he disappeared, and she’s one of the few who’s convinced he’s still alive. There are plenty of twists after that, many of them comedic and involving Ellie’s exaggeratedly boorish, rich buddy Charlie (Thomas Haden Church), and some of them dramatic or romantic and involving Ellie’s latest fling (played by The Blacklist’s Ryan Eggold). What’s fascinating about the film—besides Church, who initially seems like a Judd Apatow-level comic creation, then becomes the film’s biggest asset—is how well it moves from mode to mode, and how it stays focused on Ellie’s loneliness and confusion while ramping up the humor throughout the story instead of winding it down.
NOW: In The Wings On A World Stage
This documentary about the yearlong, worldwide tour of a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III should feel like a vanity project for Kevin Spacey, who co-founded the theater company that produced it, starred as King Richard in the play, executive-produced the film version, and is at the center of the story. It should also feel frustratingly exclusionary, since it touts the quality of a show that’s ended its run, and the fun of being an intimate part of it, in a way no viewer can ever be. Instead, it comes across as a frenzied yet clubby ode to all the things that are specific to, and special about, live theater: The bonding among the cast, the immediacy and variability of performance, the opportunity to improve and find nuance over time. It’s also a more swooning ode to theater audiences the world over, with eye-popping looks at theaters from Beijing to Qatar to Greece, and plenty of conversations with the cast about what it feels like to be on these stages, in front of these people, night after night. There’s a little of the awe of rubbing shoulders with an actor of Spacey’s level of fame worked in (when he takes the troupe on a yacht excursion during a day off, one cast member says, a little awestruck and a little tongue-in-cheek, “I really need to get more rich friends”), and a little sense of melancholy for the ephemerality of theater. But mostly, it’s a passion project about theater, brought to the screen with all appropriate passion, and a good deal of fun, too.
THREE STRONG FILMS TO HOPE FOR
All three of these films are currently seeking an American distributor, and there’s good reason to believe they’ll eventually find one.
I Won’t Come Back
Estonian filmmaker Ilmar Raag (The Class, Estonia’s biggest-ever film export) again proves his skill at working with children in the road film I Won’t Come Back. Much like the recent American YA adaptation How I Live Now, I Won’t Come Back puts a lovelorn, selfish young woman (here, Russian graduate student Anya, played by Polina Pushkaruk) on a cross-country trek with a precocious younger girl (Kristina, played by Vika Lobacheva), who’s become a burden that can’t be shrugged off. But where How I Live Now became strangely shrill as it focused on its protagonist’s selfishness and blindness, Raag’s film uses the same idea to get at some painful truths about both girls. When Anya gets into legal trouble, she looks to an older, married man—the professor she assists at her university—to fix the problem, and becomes sullen and confused when his help isn’t forthcoming. She takes some of her resentment out on Kristina, an expressive but streetwise fellow orphan who’s determined to get to Kazakhstan, where she believes she has family waiting. Both girls are remarkable performers, and while the dynamic between them is exasperatingly familiar (curmudgeon, meet lively orphan with life lessons to offer), their closeness in age highlights the fact that they’re both really children—one older than her years, one younger, both because of their harrowing orphanage experiences. Both have been raised to be capable, distrusting, and ruthless, but both have a raw layer of neediness just below the surface. Their shared story ends with an arbitrary abruptness that’s hard to fathom. But the film continues, long enough to find a satisfying, heartbreaking conclusion that puts a meaningful cap on what’s otherwise largely a tremendous acting showcase and an effective emotional wringer.
Even though Lou Howe’s feature writing-directing debut, Gabriel, isn’t remotely a twist-driven movie, it’d be unconscionable to reveal too much about it, since it’s so reliant on its protagonist’s point of view, and on the gradually unspooling story of who he is and what he’s all about. Rory Culkin gives a breathtakingly intimate, painful performance as the title character, a young man with a troubled past and a series of goals that just guarantee more trouble to come. First seen alone on a bus, with his origin point and future goals equally unclear, he comes across as a sweet guy who isn’t remotely in touch with how other people see him. As his intentions, and then his history, come to light, the film deepens in pathos and tension. It’s never fully clear what he might be capable of if pushed the wrong way, and while the film telegraphs that it’s unlikely to come to a happy end, it keeps its options open about just how not-happy things are going to get. Part close-up character study, part exploration of mental illness, Gabriel is a stunning small-scale gem, directed with a chilly blue palette and written with an intelligence and economy that suggests Howe has talent in abundance. While it deserves wide release for its own sake, it’d be particularly disappointing if it was lost to audiences and Howe and Culkin didn’t get the career boosts that should accompany work this accomplished.
Fans of Offside, Jafar Panahi’s fantastic 2006 feature about a group of young women breaking gender-segregation laws by trying to sneak into a key soccer match, will find some of the same energy in the Israeli feature Zero Motivation. Talya Lavie’s writing and directing debut follows a group of young women groaning their way through their mandatory military service. Stranded on an Army base with lax discipline and few work requirements, they still neglect their duties, eye the male soldiers, and cling to each other or push each other away. The film, which won Tribeca’s top narrative competition prize, lacks Offside’s sense of reckless comedy, but it’s similarly specific and intriguing about the role of young women within a single culture—not just Israel’s, or even the military, but within this particular Army base, with its complicated relationships and low expectations—while commenting on gender as a larger construct outside these individual walls. It’s a worthy award-winner and a tragic but still playful film that should play well with a larger audience.
THREE STRONG FILMS WITH LITTLE HOPE
These films are also seeking American distributors, but their chances seem slim. Look for them at regional festivals or special-event screenings.
Co-writer and first-time director Josef Wladyka won Tribeca’s Best New Narrative Director award for this tremendously immersive Colombian feature about two brothers hired to help deliver an immense cocaine cargo, hidden in a submerged torpedo shell they drag behind their boat. When things go wrong early on the trip, elder brother Jacobo (Jarlin Javier Martinez) and younger brother Delio (Cristian James Abvincula) are left to manage on their own, with the question constantly hanging over their head of whether, when they reach their destination, they’ll be rewarded for loyally completing their mission, or summarily executed for the mistakes made en route. Variety dismissed the film as “unlikely to find traction in the American market” because of its tonal shifts, particularly in the long stretches of downtime where the long-separated brothers bond and rediscover each other. But these are some of the film’s strongest sequences, as Martinez drops his near-feral menace to reveal what drives him, and Abvincula offers a class-clown approach to life that eases the tension of what they’re doing together, and the desperation that pushed them into such dangerous work. Manos Sucias is a taut, effective thriller in its fast moments, but hopefully distributors will see its fine performances and beautifully drawn specificity, and be more tolerant of its non-chase-scene downtime. The lovely, emotional, near-a cappella soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission.
Granted, maybe Katie Holmes in the lead role will give this caustic, creepy, surreal little horror-fantasy the boost it needs, but the sheer weirdness of the story, and particularly the too-pat ending, seems designed to drive marketers away. Holmes plays the titular Miss Meadows, a beyond-perky, manners-obsessed substitute teacher with a prim sweetness designed to cause cavities, but her Julie Andrews exterior hides the fact that she’s a vigilante who calmly guns down offenders to her propriety. It’s possibly a little regrettable that she finds so many deserving targets—she has a strange knack for stumbling across murderers and being approached by rapists—as opposed to killing to neaten up a world that generally doesn’t conform to her Disney standards. (She literally has CGI bluebirds and deer following her around, and she wears tap shoes everywhere so she can break into spontaneous dance; she’s a subversive, poisonous version of a Disney heroine through and through.) Holmes’ performance is note-perfect, but Miss Meadows gets its weird appeal from the sharp juxtaposition of her character’s disturbing chipperness and the world around her. Writer-director Karen Leigh Hopkins (Stepmom) positions Miss Meadows somewhere between laughable and tragic, half Amy Adams in Enchanted, half Michael Douglas in Falling Down. The results are strange and offbeat in a way that seems hard for marketers to pin down. Then again, the similarly surreal An Invisible Sign—with a similarly perky heroine and a much less coherent sense of message or self-awareness—made it to DVD, so maybe it’s worth holding out hope for this oddball production.
One of the most remarkable—and most remarkably deranged—films at Tribeca almost certainly doesn’t have a prayer of getting picked up for American release, due to its lurid sexuality, extreme violence, and thematic trickiness. The writing-directing debut—and graduation project!—of German film student Till Kleinert, Der Samurai plays like a delirious fairy tale, on the order of The Company Of Wolves, but more soaked in blood and sexual effluvia. Shortly after small-town cop Jakob (Michel Diercks) becomes obsessed with a wolf haunting the nearby woods, he encounters a savage, feral transvestite (Pit Bukowski, credited only as “der samurai”) wielding a katana to devastating effect. The two of them chase each other around the woods in a mixture of fevered excitement and dread. There’s always the question of whether Jakob’s experience is real—the samurai unquestionably represents his repressed and destructive sexuality, but Bukowski’s terrifying performance makes him seem as much like an inadvertently summoned demon as a symbolic, imagined id—but Kleinert makes the action erotic and desperate enough that the reality doesn’t matter nearly as much as the emotions, and the spellbinding nightmarishness of it all. It’s a gawp-inducing horror film that American audiences are unlikely to see, except possibly at horror festivals and cult screenings.
And that’s the fascination of Tribeca: its willingness to put trashy but exhilarating, grotesque horror like Der Samurai on the same screen as a documentary about Bob Weir, or Jon Favreau’s new Audience Award-winning crowd-pleaser Chef, without seeing any contradiction or conflict. As Tribeca Enterprises CEO Jane Rosenthal recently told Bloomberg Media, the festival’s operating principle is that it’s just interested in good stories, in any form. That’s a big-top tent large enough to encompass virtually anything from superheroes to tenderly observed Russian coming-of-age stories to zombie beavers, but no matter how chaotic it gets inside that tent, it’s always thrilling to be there.
The Dissolve’s lodging for Tribeca 2014 was kindly provided by Hilton New York Fashion District. We gratefully acknowledge their sponsorship.