by Sam Juliano
For the second year in a row Lucille and I frantically criss crossed Manhattan with the resolve of people really on a mission. Mind you we received passes for a bunch of specific films for two years prior to 2012, but only with the badges that allow admission to to all screenings, did we embark on a strategy of seeing as many films as possible for the ten day duration of the twelfth annual Tribeca Film Festival. Most of the films were seen in the Claridge Chelsea Cinemas on 23rd Street, the location that traditionally stages the majority of the venues, the last day’s award-winning encores, and the one location that is most conveniently located. Indeed Lucille and I were able to find parking for all our trips in close proximity to the spacious three-floor multiplex, and took advantage of the discount offered at Lucky Burgers, where we consumed more vegeburgers in one week than any time previously. We averted any screenings at the downtown movie auditorium known as the MBCC Tribeca PAC, located on Chambers Street, as past experiences were maddening in more ways than one. In addition to the aforementioned Chelsea location, where the films were screened in six theaters, the SVA two auditorium complex was a short block away east on 23rd. The mega screens of the SVA were utilized to present most of the “spotlight” films in the festival, especially with the impressive seating capacity offered there. Meanwhile the AMC LOEWS Village 7 on 3rd Avenue and 11 Street was again the site of the second largest number of screenings at the festival in three sizable theaters in the popular east side multiplex, and the final day’s Back By Popular Demand showings. It’s always a daunting challenge to pen in a film schedule that will work, even with most of the offerings running four times over the ten-day festival. Even as holders of the permanent ‘A’ badges there were three instances we were shut out of intended screenings for arriving too close to the starting time with the respective theaters filling to capacity. Still for the vast number of screenings all went quite well, and we had a great if exhausting time at this year’s event. All told I managed 37 features, while Lucille watched 28 (we did split into two theaters on a few occasions) and young Sammy took in 6. Broadway Bob viewed 7 films, while Melanie managed 2, but we did need to make some purchases of individual seats to allow for the instances where more than two people attended. But most of the time it was Lucille and I in marathon mode, and it was an experience we’ll always remember fondly.
Like any other festival there will always be films that are best left alone without discussion, and this year the week link in the Tribeca schedule brackets were the “midnight” films which included Mr. Jones, The Machine, Frankenstein’s Army, Dark Touch and Raze, none of which I think too much of. The only one in taht series I could not work into the schedule was Raw Meat. This year the festival’s strongest hand was again the documentary category in addition to a brace of narrative films made in the middle-east and/or crafted by Arabic artists. I deliberately took a pass on a few of the high-profile films (Before Midnight, Byzantium, The English Teacher, Prince Avalanche for example) so that I could fit in more documentaries and some of the indes that were highly touted and more in tune with the spirit of the festival. Still Lucille got to see all four of those films and has in fact included a few on her own ten best list. I was in an extreme minority as far as Linklater’s “before” films are concerned, (never a fan) so I opted to wait for the May release in commercial theaters. Same with the other three, as each has a release date firmed up.
I do believe I succeeded in attending the vast majority of the high-profile and award winning films, and though I regret not working in even more, I can look back on the ten days and confidently appraise field, selecting the films I felt stood out and well deserve distribution over the coming year and beyond. Sadly, not all Tribeca films are picked up, but this situation seems to be improving every year. Without further ado here is my ten best list of the Tribeca Film Festival. As always I have a tenth-place tie, meaning the list is really eleven. I did not manage and of the shorts programs, hence the presentation includes only features, of which five are documentaries and six are narrative features. I’ve counted five other films that did not make the list as still well worth seeing: Teenage; G.B.F; The Kill Team; Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?; Floating Skyscrapers, Big Joy and Sunlight Jr.
1. Wadjda (Saudi Arabia) Haifaa Al-Mansour
Wadjda features a 10-year-old Saudi girl (Waad Mohammad in a remarkable and brave performance) who badly desires a bicycle and can’t understand why boys can have and ride them, but girls cannot. Wadjda enters a Koran-memorization contest hoping to use the prize money to buy a bicycle to race against a neighbor boy. The film such issues as child marriage, polygamy and intimidation by it’s perhaps most importantly about the first concessions by one of the world’s most conservative and repressive societies. It is the first feature-length film directed by a Saudi woman, Haifaa al-Mansour, and the first produced entirely in Saudi Arabia. It has been reported that al-Mansour wore a black hijab -the traditional Arabic head-dress, and directed from inside a van issuing instructions to the actors and craftsman from within. The film is beautifully framed, pictorially elegant and packs an emotional wallop that is both inspirational and hopeful. Even as women continue to be denied voting privileges, and all decisions surrounding travel, work, admission to a hospital and marriage and divorce must receive male approval, there are signs that changes are forthcoming. This isn’t the first film in the history of cinema where a bicycle is the central symbol, but it may be the first time the world’s most popular mode of transportation is a catalyst for change. Wadjda is a work of art.
2. Bridegroom (USA) Linda Bloodworth Thomason
The Tribeca Festival’s Heinecken audence award winner in the documentary category is also the event’s most wrenchingly emotional film, and one that had the audience in tears almost throughout it’s running time. In an unprecedented arrangement the entire cost of the film was raised by Kickstarter, and from there it attracted the attention of veteran director Linda Bloodworth Thomason, who brought her A game to it’s construction. It’s the unbearably sad story of two young men madly in love who are torn apart by a tragic accident, leaving the grief-stricken survivor the victim of the parents of the deceased, who remain in denial that their son was gay. Vocationally successful, Shane (the survivor) and Tom planned a same-sex marriage, and traveled all over the world. Shane’s remarkable Mom, a talking head throughout this sensitive film, is an inspiration, and there’s no doubt an overwhelming satisfaction that the injustices documented in this film are now widely circulated. Thomason was reportedly overwhelmed when she heard the film won the audience award, and now sees the chance for wide appreciation and worldwide circulation. Bridgegroom (the title is actually Tom’s last name) is the second Tribeca feature to win an Heinecken audience award in the past two years that dealt with a vital gay rights issue (last year’s Any Day Now focused in on gay adoption and the appallingly prejudicial legal system that facilitated a tragedy) and also marks the second time a Tribeca audience gave a rousing standing ovation to it’s central player – in this case the resilient Shane Bitney Crone, who is the heart and soul of this film and a co-producer. It’s hard to imagine anyone not leaving this film completely overwhelmed. Yet for all it’s emotional power, it’s as well-crafted as any film in the festival and it was introduced by none other that former President Bill Clinton a jury screening. Now that’s class!
3. Kiss the Water (UK/USA) Eric Steel
Kiss the Water is an elegiac and poetic documentary that takes a potentially indifferent topic – salmon fly fishing and transforms it in to the most beautifully wrought documentaries on the subject yet realized. One can recall with fair appreciation the novel and film of A River Runs Through It, but Eric Steel’s film is a far more personal portrait of an almost mystical figure named Megan Boyd whose reflections are the heart and soul of this extraordinarily beautiful film set in some of ravishing locales in Scotland. The picture painted in this film isn’t only of Boyd but of the mystery surrounding the salmon themselves. The fact that they take a fisherman’s fly is remarkable, in view of the fact that they never eat anything in fresh water, only returning to the rivers to spawn. The stunningly wistful and lovingly integrated animation by Em Cooper, gives director Eric Steel a further textural perspective, one that both honors and illuminates it’s subject and achieves a natural fit for this lyrical subject. I am astonished that Kiss the Water didn’t come away with more attention, but am confident it will land a successful theatrical run. It’s truly exceptional.
4. Before Snowfall (Norway) Hisham Zaman
Following the death of his father, 16-year-old Siyar (Taher Abdullah Taher) inherits the role of master of the house and protector of his mother and two sisters. When his elder sister Nermin flees to Turkey with her true love rather than marry the son of the village leader, Siyar feels he must track her down and kill her to restore the reputation of his family and avenge the insult to her putative fiance and his powerful father. The aga goads him on, making sure the full weight of family responsibility and guilt fall squarely on Siyar. Siyar’s subsequent journey west involves the illegal crossing of many borders, aided by smugglers. The film’s unforgettable opening scene shows him in the middle of the desert, being wrapped in cellophane in preparation for submersion in a tanker full of crude oil. Before Snowfall slowly builds to a powerful emotional climax, but throughout it’s a film about stifling cultural traditions and self-discovery which inevitably comes with a stiff price. Taher is exceptional in this painful coming of age story, evicing an expressionless gaze, but changing within. Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen’s expansive snowbound cinematography deservedly won the festival prize in that category and helps to lend a harsher reality to the story.
5. Stand Clear of Closing Doors (USA) S. Fleischner
Sam Fleischer’s remarkable Stand Clear of the Closing Doors for many was the festival’s most talked about feature, and certainly the most accomplished and intriguing American narrative feature on the schedule. A cinema verite styled exploration of an autistic boy who, finding himself adrift in the New York subway, wanders the system for days during Hurricane Sandy with only his own disorder a potential danger. Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez, an amateur actor with Asberger’s) is a daunting challenge at home and at school. When his mother she skips a day to go shopping, the easily distracted boy winds up on a subway headed to Manhattan, and it is here where viewers are treated to a kind of fascinating minimalism, capturing the tone, vibes and colors of city life, as well as the inherent alienation associated with this kind of affliction. The film seemingly moves in circles, yet it’s wholly entrancing and observational, and in the end it builds some remarkable emotional power. It’s evocative and affecting, recalling Morris Engel’s seminal Little Fugitive, but the gifted Fleishner beats to his own drum.
6. Harmony Lessons (Kazakhstan) Emir Baigazin
Clinical. Claustrophobic. Metaphorical. Hypnotic. Deftly framed. Violent. Malevolent. Detached. A striking fusion of Eastern European and Japanese cinema. The school setting in a microcosm for society. The uncompromising tone of this Kazaskh-German co-production that nearly won the Golden Bear in Berlin, this uncompromising story of survival set in a rural school starts off with scene that is easy to look away from: a goat is skinned and gutted. This is the first of several scenes that announce that survival of the fittest is the central theme, but the stark and complex Harmony Lessons is so much more. It’s essential viewing for cineastes ands one of the highlights of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.
7. Oxyana (USA) Sean Dunn
Oxyana, West Virginia, blessed with nature’s rustic appeal is actually right out of David Lynch’s playbook- it’s a town with a history of drug dependency, one where it’s afflicted residents make cringing if honest admissions about how hopeless their personal situations are, and how they are collectively, only concerned with the timing of their next fix. In Oxyana, husbands kill wives children for pills, mothers forfeit their babies and women prostitute themselves. A talking heads documentary that both horrifies and rivets, the film features a startling cast of characters who understand their dire prospects, but have invariably come to terms with their fates. The film’s tone and rhythm is driven by a haunting score by Deer Tick, and there is an unmistakable underpinning of trailer trash humor that that at least lightens the noctural proceedings. Top rank documentary.
8. Cutie and the Boxer (USA) Zachary Heinzerling
Zachary Heinzerling has fashioned a stylish documentary on creative desire, focusing on artist Ushio Shinohara, a resident of New York’s fine art scene since the late sixties, primarily indulges in a practice known as “box painting,” an aggressive technique that finds him hurtling paint-covered gloves across a massive canvas, churning out loud, stream-of-conscious abstractions in under three minutes. Heinzerling first introduces us to this arresting style in an early long take that pulls you into the film and keeps you there. The filmmaker brings this world to life with a mixture of realism and vivid imagery. Set to Yasuaki Shimizu’s smooth jazz compositions, animations based off Noriko’s drawings and subtle camerawork that explores the crevices of Shinohara and Noriko’s lives, “Cutie and the Boxer” uses each frame in expressive ways on par with its subjects’ work. An opening date is set for the end of 2013.
9. The Rocket (Australia) Kim Mordaunt
Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket pulled off what few festival films manage to achieve: it won both the Tribeca Jury prize as Best Narrative film of the festival and captured the coveted Heinecken audience award for the same category. In other words the critics love it and the audiences loved it. An enviable distinction for sure. I loved it too, though perhaps not quite as much as those who declared it Numero Uno. There’s no doubt it pulls you in, it’s a real crowd-pleaser, and it gives you a descriptive cinematic tour of a rarely glimpsed country and area. The film was directed by an Australian and it set in rural Laos, centering on a young boy who is determined to escape his fate by constructing a rocket. The eccentric members of the boys clan are worth a film all by themselves, but as is the film has narrative punch and an irresistible performance by the young boy Sitthiphon Disamoe, who was named Best Actor by the Tribeca jury. It’s a human spirit story that builds slowly but offers up a most exhilarating finale. Methinks it will get better yet on repeat viewings, and it’s surely headed for commercial release.
10. (a) Dancing in Jaffa (USA) Hilla Medalia
Renowned ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine, whose father was Irish and mother Palestinian and French, and who was born in the city where this charming documentary is set, believes that the community and power of dance can overcome political and cultural differences in a region where such a sentiment seems beyond the realm of possibility. In a magical and transformative film that practically manages a metamorphosis among the film’s eleven year-old protagonists, Dancing in Jaffa speaks a universal language, and shows it’s now 68 year-old hero as a man of both exceptional talents as a dancer and as a world statesman. Dancing in Jaffa, which is set in schools on both sides of the fence (as well as in institutions where both Jewish and Arabic students are enrolled) is wholly irresistible. In defying expectations, Dulaine optimistically opines that if we can impact the children we can change the world.
10. (b) What Richard Did (Ireland) L. Abrahamson
Based loosely on Kevin Power’s book Bad Day in Blackrock, a fictionalized account of the notorious real-life deadly assault on Irish teen Brian Murphy outside the Burlington Hotel in Dublin in 2000. What Richard Did won the Best Irish Film of the Year award at the 10th Irish Film and Television Awards and has gone on to become the most commercially successful Irish film of 2012. It has subsequently been released on DVD and blu-ray on Region 2 Artificial Eye. The film focuses on a privileged and handsome Dublin teen with supportive and doting parents, a group of rugby playing friends who think he can do no wrong, and a certain bright future seemingly imminent, the film examines social class and the moral collapse of a nation that prefers appearances to the truth. The film’s breakout star, 21 year-old Jack Reymor delivers a superb performance complete with one electrifying moment in a film that incisively documents how one foolhardy break in judgement translates into a life-changing moment.
Lucille’s Top Ten:
1. The English Teacher
3. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
6. A Case of You
7. Before Snowfall
8. Sunlight Jr.
9. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?