by Sam Juliano
Tribeca 2012 is over, but for some the memories will be deep. The nine day festival, originally founded by the actor Robert DeNiro and Jane Rosenthal, was created as a panacea for the tragedy brought upon downtown Manhattan after the twin towers fell. At a time of emotional scars, the idea was to widen the cultural options for New Yorkers who desperately needed to re-focus. Originally the Tribeca Film Festival was expected to absorb the overflow from the prestigious New York Film Festival, and serve more as a second-tier forum for new filmmakers to gain some much-needed public exposure for work that would be hard-pressed to gain theatrical release. With the ultimate goal the revival of downtown Manhattan’s economy after the devastation wrought by the terror attacks, Tribeca has evolved into one of the world’s most respected annual film events, one that generates millions and serves as a springboard for up and coming talents in the film community.
The 2012 event, highlighted by screenings of Jaws on an outdoor screen after music and dancing, and the premiere of The Avengers, offered 89 narrative and documentary features and nine extensive collections of short films, most screened three or four times during the nine-day run of the event. Some of these are screened on the festival’s final Sunday if they win awards from the Tribeca jury or the audiences. Several sessions of ‘Tribeca Talks’ with distinguished artists and directors are worked into the schedule as well, and cover a wide range of subjects connected to the film industry.
Native New Yorkers, and visitors in for the festival quickly needed to negotiate the festival’s main venues, anchored by six screens in the Chelsea Cinemas on 23rd Street, a convenient, centrally-located multiplex in the heart of Chelsea. The two screen SVA Theatre, also on 23rd Street, is barely a three minute walk from the Chelsea Cinemas. The AMC Village East 7 on 3rd Avenue and the BMCC Tribeca PAC near the World Trade Center featured some of the festival’s more prestigious screenings, a good number of which were sold out. One could successfully negotiate the daily screenings by understanding the subway system or by knowing where to park your car. Otherwise, walking in the nice Spring weather was an attractive option for many. As expected we took full advantage of our Saturday night kitchen, The Dish, which is just three blocks from the Chelsea Cinemas on 8th Avenue. ’Lucky Burgers’ next door to the multiplex offered 10% off to Tribeca badge holders.
After managing a total of 28 feature films (22 narrative; 6 documentaries) that took in virtually every must-see and highly anticipated title, I feel comfortable in assessing the festival in comparative terms, which includes presenting a Top Ten listing. To be sure I liked more than ten films of the total I watched, but wouldn’t feel comfortable examining a list that will allow for the cream of the crop. Hence, appropriately enough no film with lower than a four star (of five) rating made it into the top ten. Two films that did have four-star ratings were squeezed out in the interest of offering up a disciplined and discerning count. I won’t deny that I was exceedingly disappointed with Francophrenia, First Winter, Keep the Lights On and 2 Days in New York, but every festival will include films that don’t work for everyone. A few others like The Girl, Whole Lotta Sole, Postcards from the Zoo and Don’t Stop Believing were undeniably entertaining, and well worth the effort to see. Of the ten films that comprise The List, the first two are serious contenders for the best films of 2012 list, which the top film actually contends for the top spot. The third film also deserves serious consideration of the year-end list, methinks:
1. War Witch (Canada)
The fourth feature film by Canadian director Kim Nguyen turned out to be Tribeca’s art house masterpiece, a searing and poetic film about the loss of innocence, played out in war-torn Congo, where child soldiers are recruited by rebels set upon government forces. The devastating performance by a non-professional named Rachel Mwanza (who won the Best Actress prize at Berlin as well as the same prize here at Tribeca) gives the film a raw authenticity, even as Nguyen plays a balancing act with documentary realism and a magical strain of lyricism invoking a fable. The films is delivered as a narration from Komona (Mwanza) to her unborn child, the son of her friend an protector, an albino named the Magician, played superlatively by Serge Kanyinda. Since she was forced to commit murder at gunpoint in the opening scenes, Komona is forced to witness all kinds of brutalities, while reflecting on the terrible events that shaped her own life, and some future hope. This is a powerful, often electrifying film that is uncompromising in its depiction of strife, and fully attuned to the power of art in the cinema. War Witch deservedly won the Tribeca Award for Best Narrative Film, and is surely headed for a theatrical release later this year.
2. Wavumba (Holland)
A small coastal village in Kenya is the setting for this unusual documentary feature that straddles the narrative line to create an unusually beautiful textured film that works like an elegy and re-visits the former home of Dutch director Jeroen Van Velzen, who grew up near the fisherman whose exploits are documented in a film dominated by an acute underpinning of mysticism and the power of man’s relationship with the sea. What elevates the film well beyond the National Geographic realm is Van Velzen’s poetic narration, and rapturous metaphors that bring traditions alive with the power of language and the indomitability of the human spirit. The film is sublime and intimate, and the main character, the shark hunter Masoud, has stories to tell that even include his scarred leathery hands evoke a character out of Hemingway, even down to the spiritual context. The documentary won the Best Director’s prize in the category for Van Velzen, who purportedly was overwhelmed when he got the news.
3. Any Day Now (USA)
The winner of the Heinecken Audience Award for Best Narrative Film, the irresistible Any Day Now deserves a wide release, one that would certainly win the affections of audiences who will remember the message of tolerance the film broaches without preaching. It’s a wrenching emotional film that opens the tear ducts, but it earns it’s medals by restraint in it’s depiction of gay adoption rights at a time when such a practice was discouraged by the courts and the system. Allan Cummings as the practicing drag queen lover of a divorced attorney coming out of the closet is charismatic and delivers many of the film’s funniest lines, and the boy with down syndrome, Marco (Isaac Leyva) is heartbreaking by playing it playing it minimal at behest of Travis Fine’s exceptional measured direction. This is a film that builds to a powerful climax, and it leaves you both moved and outraged at the injustices that were perpetrated at a time when discrimination still had teeth, but vindicated after the attorney (played with appropriate reserve by Garret Dillahant) posts letters to appraise those responsible for their roles in the tragedy. The moved audience at the AMC Village 7 gave young Leyva a standing ovation when he walked to the stage after the film as part of director Fine’s Q & A, and gave thunderous applause at it’s conclusion. This is one film that earns the tears without the manipulation that it easily could have fallen to.
4. Wagner’s Dream (USA)
Susan Froemke and Bob Eisenhardt helm this glorified ‘making of’ documentary on the difficulty the Metropolitan Opera had in staging the new Wagner Ring Cycle and the seeming conspiracy that nearly derailed it’s expensive initiation. When Met stalwart James Levine was sidelined with a back issue, and a Texas tenor was brought in to played Siegfried after the lead was forced to pull out, Met General Director Peter Gelb forged ahead with ‘the greatest project of his career’ stating earlier in a meeting with associates that opera ‘must renew itself to survive in this day and age.’ The focus was a new abstract staging by Robert Lepage, which was highlighted in the film by focusing in on the mechanized planks and platforms that initially malfunctioned. There is an air of superiority in some of the discussions (I was a Met partial season ticket holder myself for 12 years, so I know this fraternity well) and the perception that these people’s problems are more important than anyone else’s but this is also part of the charm. The generous musical excerpts from Wagner’s glorious Gotterdammerung and Siegfried are highlights, as are the sequences with the lovely Deborah Voight and the eccentric Texas tenor who saves the day. Gelb offered a near-apology for his role in retiring Franco Zeffirelli’s Tosca for the new production that earned audience scorn, but stands by his revisionist mission. In scope and fascination this is an exceptional documentary, and rare in covering it’s subject.
5. Chicken With Plums (France/Belgium/Germany)
The teaming of the creators of the animated Persepolis , Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi brings their considerable skills to the story of an aging violinist, Nasser Ali Kahn (the gifted Matthew Almaric) who talks about his suicide, a device that sets the films backtracking in an array of real-life and animated sequences marked by expressionism, and an underlying sadness. There is an opium den, and his beloved instrument, always at teh center of the narrative. The film is highly stylized and it’s more complex than originally perceived, and the use of color is impressive, and the animated Angel of Death sequence is unforgettable.
6. Sleepless Night (France/Belgium/Luxembourg)
Drug lords, exceeding violence and a pulse-pounding central chase sequence dominate this taut, entertaining thrilled engineered with considerable skill by Frederic Jardin, who also penned the screenplay. The filmmaking is tight and riveting, the stage breathless and the kidnapping rescue brilliantly staged. As far as these kind of films go, this is one of the best for sure.
7. Una Noche (UK/Cuba/USA)
A real-life drama unfolded shortly after the film received the first of it’s four Tribeca screenings, when two of it’s three stars -a young man and young woman- disappeared after landing in Miami en route to New York. Speculation is that both have defected and are seeking asylum, though nothing is official yet. Lucy Mulloy’s film about the three young people who chance the treacherous ocean waters between Cuba and Florida on a small raft after some initial indecision in the set up sequences back in steaming Havana. It’s a film about hope and chance and of the inevitable tragedy that intrudes, and it’s strikingly photographed and acted by it’s trio. Understandably the film was one of the most popular with the Tribeca jurors and with audiences.
8. The Flat (Israel/Germany)
Long-concealed and shocking family secrets are unearthed by a probing young man named Arnon Goldfinger after the death of his 98 year-old grandmother in Tel Aviv in a superbly filmed and edited documentary feature that won Golfinger the Documentary Editing Award at the festival. Golfinger framed objects strikingly, and builds intrigue by pursuing a bizarre relationship that implies some Nazi and Zionist kinship involving the most unlikeliest of sources. The film is a dogged investigation into a secret that should have not persisted as long as it did, and the film is deftly made.
9. Trishna (UK)
Based on Thomas Hardy’s tragic Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Michael Winterbottom’s film is set in India, maintaining the complexities and intricacies of the story in a modern-day setting. The relationship at times seems forced, but the film builds to a stunning climax, and on the way is illuminated by ravishing sets, costumes, cinematography and music, a real wedding of visual and aural elements, and with two fine lead performances to boot.
10. Take This Waltz (Canada)
Yes there are some dramatic mis-steps, but in large measure Sarah Polley’s second film behind the camera packs an emotional wallop, and again features Michelle Williams in exceptional form. The film is basically a crisis of conscience story that included a loving husband (Seth Rogen) who is not enterprising enough for William’s character, who forges a relationship with a man who lives down the block. The boyfriend/home wrecker’s charm is mitigated by a sleazy demeanor, though this is clearly what excites Williams, and the film in sexually-charged. Sarah Silverman is impressive in a late scene that temporarily throws the narrative off-kilter. The film was shown to a packed audience at BMCC, where Williams appeared onstage afterwards.