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The 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

The 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Complete Coverage by Jason Bailey

It's no slam to note that, among the high-profile film festivals, Tribeca doesn't tend to get the same respect as Sundance, South by Southwest, and the New York Film Festival. Part of it is simply a matter of age--it''s only been around about a decade--and part of it the festival's continuing struggle to find its specific festival identity, a process that's bound to take some time and patience. Its other problem, from this observer's point of view anyway (this is my fourth year attending), was the fest's unreliable quality standards. As a young festival trying to get publicity, there was an unfortunate tendency in previous years to program less-than-stellar pseudo-indies solely because of a recognizable face or two in the cast; if those folks would come to the festival premiere and get their pictures taken, well, everybody wins. Except the viewer.

Much was made this year about the introduction of a new programming team, and from these eyes, whatever they did worked; this was far and away the strongest slate I've seen since I started covering the festival in 2009. There were only two films I loathed outright--Struck by Lightning and Francophrenia (Or Don't Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is)--and even those that were lacking had something (a performance, a unique style, technical proficiency) that made them worth a glance.

But most of the films I saw at Tribeca this year were good, very very good, combining unique voices, important subjects, and masterful acting. Here's my ten favorites from the fest--but I clearly could have found ten more that were equally commendable.

THE BEST FILMS OF TRIBECA 2012:

1. Take this Waltz: Actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley writes and directs this bittersweet story of a marriage jeopardized by attraction in small moments and loaded silences, in longing looks and observed behavior. The situation is not presented as simple, nor is it motivated or rectified by big dramatic scenes (in fact, they're studiously avoided, sidestepped or kept off-screen). It's an intimate, deeply felt, incredibly movie portrait of a relatable, believable marriage, and how it crumbles almost in spite of itself. Another brilliant performance by Michelle Williams, along with impressive serious turns by Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman.

2. The Zen of Bennett: You don't have to be a fan of Tony Bennett to be intoxicated by this stylish documentary portrait--I wasn't, though I never disliked the guy either. Even before this film, I was impressed by his effortless sense of cool, and if The Zen of Bennett has a real topic, that's it: that particular quality, and how it manifests itself in his life now. Hanging out with the living legend in his home, on the road, and in the studio, the film's atmosphere is charming, mellow, and low-key; you just want to bathe in the warmth of his glow, to soak up the vibe in those rooms, to find this life as much a treat as he does. What a lovely film this is.

3. Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story: Raymond De Felitta's riveting documentary looks back at his father's 1967 NBC News documentary, Mississippi: A Self Portrait, and a black man named Booker Wright who gave an astonishingly candid interview about how the races really interacted in that state, at that time. De Felitta examines the story of Booker Wright from several angles: by looking at how his father made the film, and why; by creating a portrait of that particular time and place; and by investigating Wright's life before it intersected with his father's, and what happened to him after. In doing so, he gives us the entire story of the civil rights movement, writ small: injustices finally exposed, in the voices of ordinary people. Booker's Place is effortlessly moving and endlessly powerful; this is an exemplary film.

4. Chicken with Plums: The opening credits of Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Chicken with Plums are rendered in a black and white animation style familiar from their previous collaboration, the international art house hit Persepolis. And then the credits end, fading to reveal (gasp) live action. Yes, their new picture--though based, as Persepolis was, on one of Satrapi's graphic novels--has boldly transitioned into the world of flesh-and-blood actors, while maintaining her distinctive voice and style. What they come up with is, I think, an even finer film: haunting, powerful, elegiac, and enchanting.

5. Babygirl: This New York coming-of-age story from writer/director Macdara Vallely has an authenticity and reality that's admirable, and increasingly rare, transcending the normally simplistic emotions and motivations of the genre to look at a confused and perhaps ill-advised young woman, without judging or explaining. Some of the scenes are so familiar and real that they're a bit difficult to watch, and leading actress Yainis Ynoa is so present in them that she lends a real urgency to the enterprise. A little rough around the edges, but honest, and heartfelt, and true.

6. Cut: Amir Naderi's story of a fanatical cinema lover who subjects himself to brutal physical punishment to pay off a filmmaking debt is a masterful realization of the all-too-commonly invoked notion of suffering for one's art--and drawing strength from it. The result is a polemical essay film in the best tradition of Godard; it packs vulgar, dirty thrills, but does so within the construct of genuine thought about what cinema is and what it has become.

7. Supporting Characters: Perhaps the most purely likable film I saw at Tribeca, this droll and knowing romantic buddy comedy has a sharp, fast, funny dialogue style that allows co-writer/director Daniel Schechter to smuggle in some darkly truthful material about the nature of relationships and the struggle with temptation. Smart, sophisticated, and very, very funny.

8. The Playroom: Julia Dyer's melancholy period family dysfunction drama will remind many of The Ice Storm, but for all the right reasons: it's emotionally wrecking, keenly felt, and beautifully detailed. Molly Parker is fierce and nasty as the alcoholic matriarch, but the find here is a young actress named Olivia Harris (in her film debut), who inhabits the picture's most complex character with grace and nuance.

9. The Revisionaries: Scott Thurman's bracing documentary focuses on the small stages where the so-called "culture wars" on being fought--in this case, at the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education, where the teaching and textbook standards were bitterly fought in 2009 and 2010. It is a bitterly fraught issue, and as presented here, it is also a genuinely involving debate. There aren't as many easy answers as you'd think, no matter where you line up, and The Revisionaries must be commended and applauded for being not only thought-provoking but fair. And infuriating, at least for this viewer.

10. Graceland: Ron Morales's kidnapping thriller is centered on an idea so astonishingly clever, it almost presents a challenge; he risks not living up to the promise of his premise. But he does--this is gripping, taut filmmaking, where the events unfold with cold logic and punchy precision. Blunt, brusque, and unpredictable, and barely the best of the fest's many fine thrillers from other shores (including Sleepless Night, Headshot, and Polisse).

DOC RUNNERS-UP: Tribeca has established itself as one of the preeminent showcases for documentary filmmaking, and there were dozens of great ones at this year's fest. In addition to those in the top ten, I'd also recommend Burn, The Russian Winter, Searching for Sugar Man, Side by Side, The World Before Her, Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, Journey to Planet X, Knuckleball!, and Let Fury Have the Hour.

GREATISH PERFORMANCES: Among the best acting I saw this year was Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen in Take this Waltz, Yainis Ynoa in Babygirl, Marguerite Moreau and Bitsie Tulloch in Caroline and Jackie, Olivia Harris and Molly Parker in The Playroom, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Hysteria, Juno Temple in Jack and Diane, Joeystarr in Polisse, and Alex Karpovsky in Rubberneck and Supporting Characters.

COMPLETE LIST OF TRIBECA 2012 REVIEWS:

As Luck Would Have It

Babygirl

Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story

Broke

Burn

Caroline and Jackie

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

Chicken with Plums

Cut

Deadfall

Elles

El Gusto

Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie

Fairhaven

First Winter

The Fourth Dimension

Free Samples

The Giant Mechanical Man

Graceland

Headshot

Hysteria

Jack and Diane

Journey to Planet X

Knuckleball!

Let Fury Have the Hour

Lola Versus

Mansome

Planet of Snail

The Playroom

Polisse

The Revisionaries

The Russian Winter

Rubberneck

Searching for Sugar Man

Sexy Baby

Side by Side

Sleepless Night

Struck by Lightning

Supporting Characters

Take this Waltz

Trishna

The Virgin, the Copts, and Me

Wagner's Dream

While We Were Here

The World Before Her

Xingu

The Zen of Bennett

Thanks, as usual, to the friendly folks at Tribeca for having me--see you next year!

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