As usual, 2015’s Tribeca Film Festival was a two-week mash-up of films across the spectrum. There were special-event public screenings of classics like Lady And The Tramp, for crowds and kids. Grave, adult-oriented international imports looking for American release. First-peek looks at upcoming studio releases. Indies featuring unknowns, and indies featuring major stars. Conventional melodramas, experimental films, and trashy midnight cult-films-in-the-making. But even at a festival with something for everyone, and too much of everything for any one viewer, there were still standouts atop standouts. Here are a few of the festival’s highlights:
The feature-film debut of director British TV vet Ben Palmer (The Inbetweeners) is a conventional rom-com, except that screenwriter Tess Morris is well aware of the genre’s conventions and pitfalls, and does what she can to dodge and lampoon them without going arch and meta. Nancy (Lake Bell) and Jack (Simon Pegg) meet cute via a consciously gimmicky romantic-comedy misunderstanding—he mistakes her for his blind date because she’s carrying a smarmy self-help book (which his actual intended date pressed on her in a spirit of Good Samaritanism), and she decides to play the role—but rather than stretching this nonsense out to the end of the film and turning it into a barrier to their relationship, Morris and Palmer dispense with it early, then find new ways to play havoc with the budding relationship. It’s still a bit saccharine, and artificial as bubble gum, but it’s relentlessly good-natured, handing out little kindnesses even to its minor characters. No one gets unfairly dismissed or vilified in this perky, sweet, lively story. Better yet, it’s actually funny.
Lily Tomlin’s welcome return to a starring film role for the first time since the 1980s comes via this acerbic comedy about a snappish senior poet (Tomlin) whose hapless granddaughter (Julia Garner) needs an abortion. This is a pretty grandma-safe comedy—Tomlin hands out cute-misanthropic one-liners and thumps her granddaughter’s jerk boyfriend in the nuts with a hockey stick when he mouths off to her—but it’s also a surprisingly Bechdel-friendly story, with plenty of bonding moments between three generations of estranged women, and Tomlin and Garner on a quest together that encompasses plenty of old acquaintances, including Judy Greer, Elizabeth Pena, Marcia Gay Harden, Orange Is The New Black’s Laverne Cox, and in a strikingly touching role, a mustache-free Sam Elliott. Some of the dramatic beats are facile, and Garner is a weakness both in the writing and in the acting, but there’s plenty of balance in the rest of the cast, and Tomlin is just pure enjoyment throughout, in a role that lets her do the puckish sourness she does best. Picked up by Sony Pictures Classics at Sundance, it’s due for release later this year.
The Alien and Jaws references get too thick in this entertainingly over-the-top horror-thriller, which has giant mutant wasps turning a garden party into a bloodbath. (And more significantly, an ichor-and-gobbets-of-flesh-bath—this is one messy, drippy movie.) But strangely, Party Down and angsty indie romances are touchstones as well. Matt O’Leary and Jessica Cook star as caterers starting a budding business, and the first stretch of the movie feels like a lost, pre-Adam Scott Party Down pilot, as she angsts about finances, and he angsts about how he has the hots for her and she doesn’t reciprocate. Then her problems get sidelined when her clients start turning into giant, screaming, exploding eggs for giant monster wasps—but his problems remain, as she still doesn’t seem to be falling for him, no matter how many times he saves her. The gender politics of this film are mighty weird, and so is the shifting tone, but it’s certainly distinctive, and surprisingly funny. Clifton Collins Jr. and Lance Henriksen have major roles, sort of to class things up, but mostly to make them appreciably more bizarre.
One of the few films in this feature to have already secured American theatrical distribution, the U.K./New Zealand co-production Slow West is a quirky-to-the-point-of-twee Western delivered in an ultra-sincere deadpan, as if Wes Anderson was remaking the Coens’ True Grit. In the inevitable Jason Schwartzman role is The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee, as a lovelorn teenage Irish boy chasing his girl across the wilds of America, after she emigrated to escape the consequences of a fatal accident. Michael Fassbender co-stars as a gruff bounty hunter and mercenary, playing the role as if he’s in a much grittier and graver film, one without solemn Andersonian sight gags. He comes across as an actor lost in time—in some alternate dimension, he was clearly born 50 years earlier and became a Westerns star to rival Alan Ladd and Randolph Scott. This is an oddball movie, as concerned with over saturated color and vivid dioramas as with character its movement, but it’s a good kind of weird. It’s due in theaters May 15.
Felix Thompson’s writing and editing feature debut King Jack has the kind of bare-bones plot that inspires potential audiences to think “been-there-done-that”: The film focuses on lonely, weedy small-town 15-year-old Jack (Charlie Plummer), who’s trying to dodge bullies and his overbearing big brother, and carve out a little emotional satisfaction in his barren world. Then his 12-year-old cousin Ben (Cory Nichols) visits, and he briefly has someone he can play the big shot with, dispensing wisdom or laying down rules. Everything that follows from there happens naturally and inevitably as an avalanche, but it’s still gripping and horrifying. Thompson’s chilly yet intimate direction, with its luminous images and close-framed faces, is thoroughly accomplished, but Plummer and Nichols make the movie with naturalistic performances that convey a lot of complicated layers. These are boys who naturally present one set of emotions to the world while feeling a different set that they lack the sophistication to fully conceal, and the young actors both bring across all the nuance necessary to reveal what their characters are failing to hide.
Twenty-three-year-old first-time South African director Sibs Shongwe-La Mer left plenty of rough edges on his debut feature, with a storyline that’s too sprawling to feel disciplined, and some experimental touches that are more distraction than expression. But it’s beautifully shot, filled with poster-worthy black-and-white images of young, affluent, disaffected South Africans partying, philosophizing, bullshitting among themselves, and trying to explain to a pushy young documentarian how they feel about a friend of theirs who live-streamed her suicide for an avid international audience. Mer, who acquits himself nicely in the film as his protagonist’s gifted-with-gab best friend, captures a sense of aimlessness among these kids, who live in a luxurious post-apartheid environment and don’t fully know what to do with themselves, or with real emotion and problems money can’t fix. The individual scenes don’t fully hold together, but taken individually, they have a bouncy, nervy rhythm that’s distinctive and lulling at the same time.
This Icelandic/Danish drama about a lunkish, immense, balding fortysomething feels like a typically frosty, low-key Danish character study. It certainly piles on the signifiers of Fúsi’s status as an overgrown, isolated boy: He lives with his mother, eats Cocoa Puffs, buys himself expensive toys, plays out elaborate miniature combat simulations with his only friend, and knows a great deal about historical battles, but nothing about how to talk to other human beings. Relentlessly bullied at work, painfully shy, and at a loss in new situations, he finally starts trying to emerge into the world when he meets Sjöfn, a woman who will actually talk to him. There are some queasy elements to Virgin Mountain, mostly in how it deals with Sjöfn’s depression. (She isn’t quite a pixie, but she’s one of those manic dream girls who is literally manic.) But it’s easy to simultaneously root for Fúsi and understand how people react to him with distaste or alarm, and writer-director Dagur Kári (The Good Heart, Noi The Albino) understands the rhythms of isolation, and how a hint of escape in a dreary life can be worse and more unsettling than the monotony of unbudging limitations. Gunnar Jónsson’s performance as Fúsi is wryly funny and ego-free, but sympathetic and memorable.
Crystal Moselle’s instantly riveting, unmissable documentary delves into the homelife of the Angulo brothers, six young men raised in New York in near-complete isolation, in a high-rise apartment they were rarely allowed to leave. Home-schooled and endlessly warned about the terrible dangers of the outside world, they coped by immersing themselves in popular culture and attempting to re-create it. The film is packed with amazing sequences of them casting themselves as the stars of their favorite movies, creating elaborate costumes, memorizing all the dialogue, and re-shooting those films, Be Kind Rewind-style, at home. But what starts out with a bit of a freakshow vibe, bringing their household’s bizarre rituals (their familial Halloween rite has to be seen to be believed) and alien assumptions to light, turns into a touching real-world drama, as they mature, rebel, escape their dictatorial father, emerge into the world, and reveal themselves as surprisingly well-adjusted and capable. It’s a deeply strange success story, but it’s self-aware and humorous, and full of frankly amazing revelations. Look for it in theaters on June 12. (And look here for a full-length interview with Moselle around the same time.)
There are some amazing stories behind Camilla Nielsson’s feature-length documentary debut, Democrats, which documents three and a half years of behind-the-scenes drama and chicanery in Zimbabwe as a cross-party coalition attempts to draft a new constitution under the watchful eye of a newly free press and dictator Robert Mugabe. But the most amazing stories are onscreen, as the committee co-chairs, Paul Mangwana and David Mwonzora, jockey for their points of view and learn to work together in spite of their fundamental disagreement on not just what’s good for the country, but what’s good for their own day-to-day survival. Just the prospect of two men standing up for their beliefs in a country where they can be disappeared at any moment is endlessly fascinating. Watching them try to do it with the country’s liberty also hanging in the balance, and with a new twist in every scene, is mesmerizing.
Albert Maysles’ final film brought in four much younger documentarians to co-direct and shoot their own sequences aboard Amtrak’s heavily trafficked cross-country Empire Builder line. Unsurprisingly, they find a lot of people in the middle of big journeys, but many of the trips the directors focus on are life transitions as well. The directors interview colorful characters, from an older woman reinvigorated by a visit with her daughter (and coming away with shocking-red dyed hair and a temp tattoo at the daughter’s urging) to a strange, sweet loner in a hand-knit fox-eared hat, and they listen patiently as people describe who they are, where they are in life, and what their travels are about. But just as often, the directors play fly-on-the-wall during shockingly intimate conversations between fellow travelers and family members. It’s documentary as voyeurism, in a positivist, life-reaffirming way that celebrates the excitement of change, and the simple pleasures of being in motion, in body and in life.
The directorial debut of cinematographer Reed Morano (Frozen River, The Skeleton Twins) is perhaps predictably gorgeous, a shiningly beautiful film with an ugly story. Luke Wilson and Olivia Wilde both give terrific performances as a couple whose young son mysteriously disappears at a rest stop, à la The Vanishing. With no idea whether he’s alive and under what circumstances, their characters start disintegrating, in ways familiar from similar films (Gone Baby Gone, Rabbit Hole), but still as distinctive as individual grieving processes are. Phil (Wilson) goes to a grief support group and dutifully provides his fellow cops with answers as they pursue the case; Sarah (Wilde) simply starts to lose her mind, fixating on a neglected kid at her elementary school, stalking his unpleasant parents, and pursuing a dangerous relationship with Phil’s substance-abusing brother (Giovanni Ribisi). The acting and Chris Ross’ script are pure melodrama, so it’s up to Morano to rein things in both as director and as her own DP; she brings some restraint, and plenty of vivid images, to a film that’s all about the grotesquely intimate process of juggling mourning and anger in a child-abduction case. It’s miserabilism, sometimes to an over-the-top degree, but she and her cast make it evocative, moving, and shocking.
Stephen Fingleton’s feature writing and directing debut, The Survivalist, opens with a breathtaking sequence and keeps up the tension from there. It’s an intimate apocalypse movie—intimacy seemed to be a theme at Tribeca this year, though it’s a natural choice for movies made on a shoestring to limit themselves to exploring one world or one emotion—about an unnamed, half-mad survivor (Martin McCann) getting by in the woods on his own, until two strangers (Olwen Fouere and Mia Goth) show up and offer sex for shelter. It’s remarkable how much tension Fingleton yanks out of a story with few real surprises: Yes, he takes them in, and yes, there are consequences, and yes, Fingleton makes good on the constantly looming threat of violence and disaster. But the question is always just how bad it can get, and Fingleton proves adept at making the answer seem apocalyptic even after the apocalypse has already happened. The Survivalist is visually sumptuous, with some ambitious camera work and a beautifully verdant color palette, but it’s also edge-of-seat alarming as a simple but perfectly written three-handed push-and-pull story. It’s grim, but it’s the best kind of grim: convincing, and shocking, and fully absorbing.
Laura Bispuri’s debut feature, Sworn Virgin, adapts a novel by Albanian author Elvira Dones, into a movie that’s simultaneously emotionally layered and simple as a flat horizon. There are no big rise-and-fall action moments in the story of Hana, an Albanian mountain girl who becomes a “sworn virgin”—in local custom, essentially a trans man, who has sworn to remain chaste for life, and in exchange is allowed to live as a male, escaping the poisonously burdensome strictures of her gender in her place and time. (Just as an example, her father at one point shows her sister Lila a bullet, explaining that it’s a traditional part of her dowry; if her husband ever has a complaint about her, he’s expected to shoot her, with her father’s bullet and his blessing.) But while Hana lives for years as Mark, with her breasts bound, her hair short, and her place in her village seemingly accepted, she doesn’t necessarily identify as a man, and when she seeks out Lila again 14 years later in Italy, upon their mother’s death, she starts re-exploring how she defines herself. This may be an unsettling film for authentic trans people, who may see it as suggesting that transsexuality is political and mutable, rather than personal and fundamental. But Hana’s situation is more complicated: It comes from resisting the identities that have been forced on her, and slowly learning to discover her own. It’s a gorgeous film, particularly in the sere, snowy Albanian sequences. And Bispuri lays on the thematic significance with a light hand, filling the screen with male and female bodies and focusing on Hana/Mark’s gaze in trying to find a sense of self. The emotion doesn’t come from yelling or declarations of self, but from a deep, slowly building well of feeling, particularly long-suppressed feelings working to come into focus.
Next week: A look at this year’s StoryScapes exhibit at Tribeca, with new virtual-reality stories attempting to redefine film projects for interactivity. And the Tribeca 10 series of short director interviews from the festival continues in Newsreel throughout the week.