by Sam Juliano
You know the routine. Every ‘ten best’ list I have ever compiled, whether it be for a year, a decade or a special event like the Tribeca Film Festival always has a caveat. My tenth place slot is regularly occupied by two films that means to accentuate the eternal difficulty in culling down a list of films to just a tenspot, but beyond that it allows me to sneak in an extra film to better frame the quality of a particular group of films or event. Tribeca 2014 was without any question the finest since Jane Rosenthal and Robert DeNiro founded the hugely-successful venture in response to the 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center towers. The festival launched in 2002, evolving from its initial base in the Tribeca section downtown to its present base in Chelsea, and the programming has steadily gained in prestige. Tribeca is one of the most comprehensive festivals for documentary fare, and some of its features are premiered here. Other films arrive from Cannes, Sundance and Toronto, and more and more each year are winning distribution a short time after there first appearance at Tribeca. As per my usual manner of preference I concentrated solely on the features that comprise better than 90% of the offerings, leaving the shorts go completely. This year’s event was mainly staged at the Bow-Tie Cinemas and SVA Theater on 23rd Street and am the AMC Loews Village 7 on Third Avenue and 11th Street. It was a challenge to criss cross Manhattan mostly by car, but in some instances by cab and subway when time was really tight. When three online viewings and two Tribeca films I watched at the Montclair Festival are factored in, the total number of films seen is 54, and it is from that vast poll that I choose my Ten Best list and honorable mention list. Like every year there are duds and some other films that fail to live up to expectations, and the frustration that accompanies a wrong decision in opting for one film over another when they run at the same time. And when its over there is frustration that a few films were inexplicably missed completely. 2014 represents the first time I am confident I managed to see nearly every must film, hence my ‘Best of’ list is presently with a degree of satisfaction. I find it hard to imagine that each and every film in my ten best will not be receiving distribution in the coming months. Though we saw nearly every single “essential” film screened (we caught two that I did miss this past week at the Montclair Film Festival) there are a few that did escape our grasp: Slaying the Badger, This Time Next Year, This is Illmatic, The Newburgh Sting, Just Before I Go, I Won’t Come Back and Night Moves. The latter opens wide in two weeks.
1. Keep On Keepin’ On (USA, Alan Hicks)
For the second consecutive year the winner of the Heinecken Audience Award for documentary feature at Tribeca was handed over to a film funded by kickstarter. But the similarities between this year’s winner – Keep On Keepin’ On and last year’s – Bridegroom do not end there. Neither of the directors of these films attended film school, and the subjects of both are profoundly emotional, with some irresistible audience appeal. Keep On Keepin On focuses on now 91 year-old jazz legend Clark Terry and his inspiring blind piano student Justin Kauflin. The charismatic Terry was the first teacher of Quincy Jones, and helped launch his career as well of fellow jazz icon Miles Davis. Terry was the first African-American musician to appear on The Tonight Show, and played alongside Count Basie and the legendary Duke Ellington. As lovingly directed by Tribeca New Documentary Director Award winner, Al Hicks (who hailed from Australia, but moved to New York City when he was 18) the gravely-voiced, charismatic octogenarian Terry is seen functioning as a kind of surrogate father to the young 23 year old Kauflin, a prodigy who lost his vision at age 11 to a progressive, hereditary disorder. The dynamic bonding between teacher and student, both who must endure adversity – Terry’s own impaired vision and the severe diabetes that leads to the amputation of both feet – brings about a common understanding and tutorial maturation for the half-Oriental, half Caucasian Kauflin, who is now working on a new CD with Jones in Los Angeles. Director-musician Hicks, who worked with Terry at New Jersey’s William Patterson University, demonstrated a natural feel for his subject and how to incorporate live performance into this delicate material, and miraculously averts suffocating sentimentality. This is one of the most genuine and heartfelt documentaries about music, and it leaves one wholly exhilarated.
2. Bad Hair (Venezuela; Mariana Rondon)
Winner of the top prize Golden Shell at the San Sebastian Film Festival, the Venezuelan Bad Hair (Pelo Malo) was one of the best films of Tribeca 2014. American film maker Todd Haynes presided over the San Sebastian jury, which included Italian actress Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, a star of Paulo Verzi’s Human Capital. Ironically titled, this delicate and affecting film isn’t at all about the style of one’s hair, but the matter of identity in a hostile, gender-fixated world. When a young boy Junior (Samuel Lange), who lives with his single mother in a Caracus housing project, begins to dance and style his hair, he invites scorn, and the belief he is homosexual. The mother must turn sexual favors to secure and regain employment, and is unable to show her son emotional support or positive reinforcement for the child’s imaginary inclinations. But even if she weren’t distracted the matter of social conditioning would still leave the mother as indifferent and even hostile as the overpopulated city around them. Some critics have suggested that the film “deals with the theme of pre-sexual queer awakening, with all its resultant confusion, shame, embarrassment” but it is impossible to determine if such character development is heading in that direction, or to a more open ended self discovery molded by upbringing. Still, I do agree with the generally prevailing perceptions of the early signs. Homophobia for sure does thrive in the unforgiving streets where poverty leaves little room for feminine traits, especially in households like this one who are struggling to put food on the table. Hence their are outside forces that prevent the mother from trying to understand her son, and the films depicts a child’s innocence with the harsh neo-realist conditions that leave no room for escape. Complicating the story further is the boy’s black paternal grandmother (the mother of his dead father), who not only understands the boy, but is making repeated offers to raise him herself. But the deeply poignant ending makes it clear where Samuel’s own sentiments lie. As the mother, Samantha Castillo gives a fierce and uncompromising performance, while young Samuel Lange is heartbreaking. Mariana Rondon uses a relentless hand held camera to document an unsentimental story set in impoverishment, and there’s a fine score and excellent use of a Latino song at the end. Bad Hair is a haunting film that left this viewer thinking about for days afterward.
3. Human Capital (Italy; Paulo Virzi)
Moving between overlapping stories is hardly an original device these days. Famed as far back as Citizen Kane, it achieved more contemporary notoriety in Pulp Fiction and Memento, and after films like Babel, Amores Perros and Crash it became commonplace. What sets apart Paulo Vierzi’s engrossing Human Capital is that the stories are far more intricate than a narrative connecting of the dots – but rather how characters caught in their own private dilemmas make some crippling errors of judgment that lead to some dire consequences. Unlike the Japanese classic Rashomon, each of the three episodes are seen through different characters with varying specifications, but in the end the cause and effect are the same. Each of the three stories presents a fascinating study of characters. Two adults – a middle-aged woman who has lost her self-esteem and a social climber who lacks pride, and a more responsible teenage girl with a far more meaningful romance than the aforementioned Celia – are integral to the central story of a road accident concerning a SUV that seriously injures a biker (he later dies) and the identity of who was driving that fateful night. The film is exceptionally acted, particularly by acclaimed Italian actress Valeria Bruno-Tedeschi, who plays the middle-age mother of the suspected driver, the impetuous Massimiliano and the trophy wife of a successful but conceited businessman who treats his wife and son shabbily. Like all the best films with interlocking stories Human Capital’s chapters add more layers and nuances to the narrative and provides a most satisfying conclusion. In its simplest moral constriction the film is a cautionary tale of the effects of greed, but Virzi’s film ,based on a well-regarded bestseller is also a unmasked satire on society, and a potent one at that.
4. Broken Hill Blues (Sweden; Sophia Norlin)
Eschewing any kind of a conventional plot structure, Sophia Norlin’s Broken Hill Blues makes superlative use of its alluring Nordic locales and some captivating metaphysical imagery from cinematographer Petrus Sjovik that seems to say more than the screenplay. But that is not meant to aim even a slight criticism, as it is clear the mode of presentation here is primarily cinematic and its easy enough for even the casual viewer to fill in the holes. The film is set in the northernmost outpost in Sweden, a town called Kiruna where the economy is fully dependent on ion ore. The earth under the town is unstable and has claimed the lives of a number of veteran miners, and some geologists have even predicted that Kiruna will eventually cease to exist. The film’s despairing tones, etched in teenage angst are partially relieved by some spectacular norther landscape vistas, but such a dreary terrain where days are short and sunlight scarce has a built in gloom that underlines physical beauty. Gratefully there is are no final platitudes, leaving this slice of life drama of a seemingly hopeless predicament to suggest some hope of relocation. The pristine digital camerawork owes at least a salute to Ingmar Bergman for it’s dreamy textures and stark close-ups, and the minimalist score by Conny Nimmersjo and Anna-Karin Unger helps to define the film’s sense of aimlessness. The young actors Sebastian Hiort af Ornas (as Marcus), who obsesses over a beat up Chevy and an indifferent girlfriend and Alfred Juntti (as Daniel) who resents his alcoholic father and his failure to engage in the violence demanded by the gang he’s joined, are an effective fit, and the lovely actress Lina Leandersson, who was last seen as Eli, the young vampire in Tomas Alfredson’s popular Let the Right One In is the happiest of the troubled teens as Zorin, the daughter of Balkan immigrants. Broken Hill Blues is proof parcel that a theme can be powerfully conveyed with character sketching and setting at the expense of sparse dialogue.
5. Regarding Susan Sontag (USA; Nancy Kates)
She was dubbed ‘the dark lady of letters, and derided by her right wing critics as a communist and promoter of leftist ideologies. She was a political activist and a critic of the Vietnam War and once stated “the white race is the cancer of human history.” She elaborated by contending that “America was founded on a genocide, on the unquestioned assumption of the right of White Europeans to exterminate a resident, technologically backward, colored population in order to take over the continent” and concluding that “today American hegemony menaces the lives not of three million but of countless millions who, like the Indians, have never even heard of the “United States of America,” much less of its mythical empire, the “free world.” American policy is still powered by the fantasy of Manifest Destiny, though the limits were once set by the borders of the continent, whereas today America’s destiny embraces the world.” One of her most published quotes is that in which she contends that “America had the most brutal system of slavery in modern times.” Yet, even while she lived abroad in Europe, leaving behind the son she has with a husband she divorced, literary icon Susan Sontag was culturally linked to America through her theories, letters, reviews and groundbreaking work like On Photography. Nancy Kates’ superlative documentary Regarding Susan Sontag takes an intimate and provocative look one of the 20th century’s most supreme intellects and greatest writers. The film moves to and from her professional output and her personal life, calling on the friend, family and colleague talking heads who give first-hand information on her her influence, passions and character flaws. One was her long time lesbian lover Annie Liebowitz, whose own admissions both revealed and confirmed aspects of Sontag’s life that were generally known but rarely discussed. The documentary is spirited and visceral, and the use of actress Patricia Clarkson to read the quotes was a terrific decision, as she brings emotional depth to the material. Sontag was rightly lauded for encouraging others, especially women to stand up for themselves. One of her most famed quotes to this end is: “Don’t allow yourself to be patronized, condescended to, which, if you are a woman, happens, and will continue to happen all the time, all your lives. ..Tell the bastards off!” Sontag was a quintessential New Yorker, and there was no better venue to feature this exceptional documentary than at Tribeca. Sadly, after Sontag had beaten cancer twice she was again diagnosed with the leukemia that ultimately killed her at the age of 71 in December of 2004. This final stage of her life -the personal devastation that consumed her- is chronicled in the final section of the film. Yet in many ways the documentary is both a celebration of her life and influence both culturally and intellectually (Sontag was one of the greatest of film critics as well) and director Kates effectively weds some arty images to frame her her iconic status. Kudos to Laura Karpman and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum for the excellently employed period-conscious musical score and to the deft, unobtrusive editing by John Haptas. “D “Don’t allow yourself to be patronized, condescended to; which, if you are
6. The Overnighters (USA; Jesse Moss)
North Dakota is now the nation’s second largest oil producer behind Texas, and this fact has been ably reflected by the spike in population and employment opportunity. The over-abundance of oil field workers provides for the basic premise of a riveting and all together stirring documentary by Jesse Moss titled The Overnighters, that has been making the festival rounds after it’s big success at Sundance. Critics have rightly referred to the film as Steinbeckian and a modern day version of The Grapes of Wrath, the screen masterpiece about migrant workers who set up camp in areas where work was temporarily available. The “camp” in The Overnighters is the Concordia Lutheran Church, located in the western part of the state that is pastored by the Rev. Jay Reinke, a happily married clergyman with a big heart and the determination to build community. The plan runs awry when workers with criminal pasts take refuge, and a Montana school teacher is found dead. Two men from Colorado are suspected, and the natives become hostile with the overnighters program and Reinke’s impassioned support for it. Reinke attends council meetings and goes door to door to allay fears with the townspeople, but eventually the wavering support erodes, especially after a shocking personal revelation the pastor makes to his “long suffering” wife Andrea. Another move creates animosity when Reinke moves a sex offender named Graves out of the church. While appeasing the townspeople it undermines his own sense of loyalty with a few others he gained confidence of.
Reporting from Sundance, Sachin Gandhi wrote: A local pastor, Jay Reinke, puts up as many workers in his church as possible and helps find accommodations for others. But some of the workers are ex-convicts or felons which causes the town residents to fear them more. Reinke goes out of his way to treat every worker equally but that puts his reputation on the line. As the film progresses, the pressure of the town and the overnighters takes its toll on Jay Reinke, who is almost on the brink of losing everything, his faith and reputation. In fact, events threaten to make Reinke an overnighter as well.
Moss’ decision to maintain the trust and the intimacy of the filming by serving as a one-man crew was a stroke of genius, at it allowed for a more revealing portrait of various characters and the escalating crisis. His probing camera makes even keeled observations in featuring humanity at its best and worst. The Overnighters is powerful stuff – a shattering experience that is guaranteed to leave no one unmoved.
Note: Lucille and I saw this on Friday night at the Montclair Film Festival in New Jersey, where it showed once after screening twice at Tribeca the week before. Unfortunately I had missed both the TFF showings, but was extremely lucky to get another chance. As it did play at Tribeca I have of course opted to include it as such, having seen the majority of features in advance of my final round-up. Moss had the audience riveted during a fabulous Q & A after the film at the Montclair Bow-Tie Cinemas.
7. Starred Up (UK; David MacKenzie)
For the second time in the past few years the Tribeca Film Festival has featured a ferocious prison movie patterned after the 1979 British borstal film Scum by Alan Clarke. In 2010 Canadian director Kim Champiron won the ‘Best New Narrative Director” at Tribeca for his director of the uncompromising Dog Pound, an intense drama set inside a correctional facility in Montana that features shocking brutality and stomach-churning acts of violence. David MacKenzie’s British incarceration flick Starred Up is one of the best films of its kind, though it sometimes leaves you shielding your eyes. Episodes involving a razor blade and the prison showers do establish a kinship with other genre works for sure, but there is a spontaneous and raw authenticity -not to mention an electrifying lead performance by Jack O’Connell as a very difficult youthful offender- that elevates the film. O’Connell’s ‘Eric’ is a hot-wired volatile youth who is seen by prison staff to be beyond hope, especially after he nearly bites off a guard’s appendage. As coincidence would have it he is shepherded up a floor where his father is also serving time, and some father and son therapy becomes part of survival-of-the-fittest equation. The father soon understands that his son’s prospects for continuity are dependent on the parenting he was never able to engineer on the outside. The use of the hand-held camera in this claustrophobic environment heightens the sense of immediacy, and there are some striking turns from other actors, especially Ben Mendelsohn as the father Neville Love and Rupert Friend as the skittish prison therapist Oliver who tries relentlessly to overcome the young man’s trust issues. Written by Jonathan Asser from his own experiences as a former prison counselor Starred Up is as intransigent as its main characters and as infuriating as any film that has dealt with social injustice.
8. In Order of Disappearance (Norway; Hans Moland)
Though produced in Norway and set firmly on Scandinavian terrain the splendid, often uproarious comedy-crime thriller In Order of Disappearance owes its very existence to the American cinema that has long established this kind of film as a favorite of film makers and audiences. One harkens back to Dirty Harry for the central deceit, but it’s hard to deny that the specter of Quentin Tarantino is alive and well in the way the film is choreographed and structured. Of course Tarantino has yet to work with the exceptional thespian Stellan Skarsgard or in the specious snowy expanses that give In Order of Disappearance its unique flavor. The film’s plot is certainly over-the-top, but this is all part of the fun. Skarsgard’s son is dispatched by drug dealers who try and make it seem that he overdoses, and the actor gains revenge one by one over those who engineered the tragedy. Black humor abounds as all the deaths are announced by displaying the names of the victims on a black screen with white cemetery markers, and Skargard ropes up the bodies and sends them down a waterfall. Even the great actor Bruno Ganz shows up as a member of a Serbian cartel seeking revenge for the murder of one of their own. There is some Coenesque atmosphere that recalls the wintry Fargo, and director Hans Peter Holland impressively paces the film’s formidable running length with a chaptered construction. Skarsgard is a natural playing the quiet man pushed to the extreme, and the script contain some very funny exchanges. The acoustic fatalism of the terrific score by Kasper Kaae and Kare Vestrheim and the film’s production design turn up aces in one of Tribeca’s most entertaining features.
9. Chef (USA; Jon Favreau)
Winner of the Heinecken Audience Award for Best Narrative Film, Jon Favreau’s irresistible Chef can certainly be regarded as one of the festival’s most entertaining films. But the film is no guilty pleasure at all, and has deservedly won across the board acclaim from the critical fraternity for its depiction of male camaraderie in the kitchen and how an insatiable thirst for creativity can pay sturdy dividends as a confidence builder as well as a business boon. Favreau steps in front of the camera as well, to play Carl Casper, an ace chef at a restaurant overseen by Dustin Hoffman’s controlling owner. After he publicly berates a famous food critic who trashes the ‘safe’ menu Hoffmann insists on, Casper quits his job and at the urges of his wealthy divorced wife he makes his new kitchen an old food truck that he uses to tour across country, inevitably attracting enthusiastic foodies at every stop. Even his old nemesis, the blunt critic (wonderfully played by Oliver Platt) who was responsible for Casper’s vocational fall out, makes a surprise road appearance and offers his former sparring partner a sweet deal. Bringing along his young son helps enrich the father-son bonding and the film’s charm, and both Bobby Cannavale and John Leguziamo are on hand to further liven up the proceedings. Food lovers will also be salivating over all the delectable dishes that are seen in this culinary delight. Yes, there a few minor plot-related flaws, but anyone not connecting to this is being mightily stubborn.
10. Black Coal, Thin Ice (China; Diao Yinan) -TIE-
A bleak but riveting impressionistic Chinese film noir and crime thriller, Black Coal Thin Ice, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival this past year, and the decision (it edged out Wes Anderson’s Budapest Hotel for the top prize) perplexed a lot of people, some of whom thought the Chinese film was opaque and contained a number of plot holes and unanswered questions. To be fair, some of these reservations are not completely off the mark, but director Diao Yinen was more concerned with employing some wry humor to his pessimistic tale of human body parts and the resurfacing of a crime committed a decade earlier. Stylistically this visceral film is altogether dazzling and the central performance by the comical Liao Fan (as Zhang) is fabulous. The film is set amidst neon lights, tall builds and snow covered roads that harken back to Hollywood noir. The fact that it appeals as much as it does despite a seemingly incomprehensible story is testament to the power of cinematic imagery.
10. Brides (Georgia; Tinatin Kajrishvilli) -TIE-
Despite its third place audience narrative win at Berlin, I’ve seen a few complaints against the Georgian drama Brides that the subject matter is too irreproachably personal and parochial to appeal to wider audiences. Yet I found its thrust quite affecting and well within the realm of universal truth. Claustrophobic and filmed in appropriately drab tones the film concerns a 30ish woman and mother of two children, who marries her partner in prison so that she can gain the right to visit him once a month while he is behind bars. The film’s atmosphere contributes powerfully to the theme of loneliness, and there is an inevitable hopelessness, accentuated when the offer of a bribe to a local prosecutor leads to the latter’s arrest on fraud. The director’s debut film was drawn upon her own experiences with her husband when he served time, and they have collaborated on the enveloping screenplay. Slowly and inexorably Brides paints a picture of gloom amidst societal oppression.
Five Star (USA)
Dior and I (Frederic Tcheng)
Gueros (Mexico; Alonso Ruizpalacios)
All About Ann: Governor Richards (USA; Keith Patterson)
Manos Sucias (Columbia/USA)
Zero Motivation (Israel)
Point and Shoot (USA)
The Kidnapping of Michele H. (France)
Silenced (USA; James Spione)
Gabriel (USA; Lou Howe)
Mala Mala (Puerto Rico; Dan Sickles, Antonio Santini)
Venus in Fur (France; Roman Polanski)
Electric Slide (USA; Tristan Patterson)
Miss Meadows (USA; Karen Leigh Hopkins)
Traitors (Morocco; Sean Guilette)
Beneath the Harvest Sky (USA; Aaron Gaudet, Gita Pullapilly)
Glass Chin (USA; Noah Buschel)
Alex of Venice (USA; Chris Messina)
Lucille’s Tribeca Favorites
- Keep on Keepin’ on
- In Order of Disappearance
- The Overnighters
- Human Capital
- Regarding Susan Sontag
- Point and Shoot
- Bright Days Ahead
- Five Star