The 2011 Tribeca Film Festival
by Jason Bailey
This was my third year covering the Tribeca Film Festival, and here's how I can tell you it was their best year yet: I had a very hard time putting together the top five list below. In previous years, there were only five or so really great movies--that I saw, anyway (I often made the amateur mistake of picking movies based on who was in them, unaware of Tribeca's occasional habit of screening mediocre vanity projects for the sake of a good red carpet). But this year was solid all-around; of the 36 festival films that I saw, there were only a couple of real dogs.
And, as usual, I apparently missed a lot of the good ones--that is, presuming the awards were on the mark. I did well in the documentaries; I saw (and loved) Best Documentary Feature Bombay Beach, as well as Best Documentary Editing winner Semper Fi: Always Faithful; the latter took second place in the Heineken Audience Award competition, ahead of Carol Channing: Larger Than Life (which I saw) but behind Give Up Tomorrow (which I didn't). I was way off in the World Narrative Competition, however; I missed Grey Matter (Best Actor, Special Jury Prize), Artificial Paradises (Best Cinematography), Turn me on, goddamnit (Best Screenplay), and The Journals of Musan (Best New Narrative Director). I saw Best Actress Carice Van Houten's performance in Black Butterflies, but loathed the film so much that I barely noticed her work in it; and as for She-Monkeys, Best Narrative Feature winner, I must confess to watching it but not reviewing it because, frankly, I couldn't make heads nor tails out of the damn thing.
So I guess what I'm giving you is more of a Joe Moviegoer's overview of the festival, focusing on American independents and documentaries--where there was still plenty to praise. In my areas of choice, there was a particular emphasis this year on pop music, both in documentaries (The Swell Season, The Union, God Bless Ozzy Osbourne, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest) and fiction films (Janie Jones, Roadie). I'm not sure if this was a conscious decision or a wild coincidence, but whatever the case, it made this year's festival a real treat for music buffs.
Anyhoo, here's a quick look at what stuck my fancy this year at Tribeca:
TOP FIVE FILMS OF TFF:
1. Catching Hell: No single entity is producing more great documentaries these days than ESPN Films, and no filmmaker is directing more great documentaries than Alex Gibney, so it should come as no surprise that their collaboration, Catching Hell, is so unabashedly terrific--a potent stew of everything that is great about both parties. The primary subject is Steve Bartman, the Chicago Cubs fan who became an object of the city's derision when he reached for a foul ball in game six of the 2003 National League championship and screwed up a potential easy out. But the real subject is the psychology of fandom: Why do we get so invested in these teams, in these games? Why do they mean so much? And when those teams fail, what determines where we place the blame? Gibney's thoughtful mediation on those questions is thrilling, compelling, and marvelous.
2. Bombay Beach: Alma Har'el's gentle, fascinating picture mixes documentary naturalism and observation with artful peculiarity and an offhandedly surreal quality. She has a cockeyed way of framing and capturing events that gives them an oddball, almost Lynchian quality; her camera is capturing rather startling poverty, and the camera dances right up to the edge of fetishizing that poverty, but it never takes the plunge. This is an extraordinary film, stylish yet true.
3. Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest: In its breathless play-by-play of the inner turmoil of the groundbreaking rap group, director Michael Rapaport has made something akin to a hip-hop Let It Be, but the gossipy Tip-said/Phife-said stuff is far from the film's primary attraction. Rapaport assembles a remarkable group of artists to comment on the Tribe, those they influenced and those who influenced them, discussing with keen insight exactly what it was that made the group so fresh and new. And in just a few minutes of screen time, Rapaport (and his editors and subjects) wonderfully evoke that period of rap music that these guys came up in the heart of. The picture taps into the excitement of that moment in hip-hop music and hip-hop culture; it remembers what it is to crouch near your tape deck ready to hit pause when a good jam comes on. Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is a breathlessly entertaining movie; it moves quickly and nimbly, conjuring up a wonderful moment and letting us enjoy it one more time.
4. Last Night: This romantic drama starring Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, and Eva Mendes looks--at first glance--like a mannered and overwrought examination of white people problems. But Massy Tedjedin's directorial debut is a complicated and nuanced examination of a married couple attempting to resist temptation; contrary to the monsters and angels normally created for cinematic takes on infidelity, it's not a matter of good and bad relationships, or easy choices. It's a smart, nuanced movie, with moments so honest and penetrating, it's almost uncomfortably personal to watch.
5. Everything Must Go: Writer/director Dan Rush's adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story "Why Don't You Dance," is a lovely, melancholy little picture--it's a small film, in scope and ambition, but unexpectedly rich. It is anchored by a first-rate performance by Will Ferrell, doing a variation on the unassuming work he did so well in Stranger than Fiction a few years back; there's a delicacy to his performance, a grace that prohibits him from reaching for effect. The film could have been self-satisfactorily whimsical; instead, Rush (and Ferrell) look this fundamentally silly situation dead in the eye, and play it without the cloying preciousness that we might expect. It's a quiet little charmer, and it sticks with you.
WORST FILM OF THE TIFF: Black Butterflies, an uneasy meshing of sex drama, political tract, and father/daughter melodrama that tries to do everything, and does nothing well. It is ostensibly a biography of Ingrid Jonker, the South African poet whose most famous piece was read aloud by Nelson Mandela in his first speech to South Africa's first democratic parliament in 1991. Director Paula van der Oest plays that Mandela audio at the end of the film; it gives the picture a credibility that it otherwise doesn't earn. Until then, the picture is basically a pretentious bore. As Jonker, Carice van Houten is good, but by the end of the film, we're simply tired of her. She's an insufferable protagonist, but not in a compelling or even diverting way. She's just a brat--a gifted brat, perhaps, but not enough that we care about her, or the soap opera entanglements and breakaways of her and her beaus. We need not always have a likable or sympathetic lead, particularly in biographical films (see the finest biopic ever made, Raging Bull). But in lieu of that, we must have a filmmaker with something interesting to tell us about that character, or their time. Here, the Apartheid politics are mostly window dressing. In spite of the plentiful nudity, there's not much happening of interest; the film is handsomely mounted, painfully sincere, and just dull as toast.
GREATISH PERFORMANCES: Chris Evans in Puncture, Dennis Farina in The Last Rites of Joe May, Keira Knightley in Last Night, Zoe Lister-Jones in Stuck Between Stations, Brendan Gleeson in The Guard, Abigail Breslin and Alessandro Nivola in Janie Jones, Sam Shepard in Blackthorn, and Bobby Canavale in (the otherwise tepid) Roadie.
Thanks again to all of the nice folks at Tribeca for making DVD Talk so welcome, and for putting on this big ol' beast. See you next year!
FULL LIST OF TRIBECA REVIEWS:
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