What to See at Tribeca Film Festival 2018
It’s Spring in New York – the time for lovers…
of film, and narrative media of all kinds. The city’s cultural-cutting-edge gem, Tribeca Film Festival, takes place April 18 -29 and in keeping with its passion for What’s Next, this year’s 17th annual festival includes not only 99 Feature Films and 55 Short Films (from 39 countries), but also 35 Immersive (virtual reality) Experiences, 21 Tribeca TV presentations, 21 Tribeca Talks, and even Tribeca Games. If you’ve given up going to the movies and opted for streaming media in the comfort of your own home, this is the time to get off the couch and get with this extraordinary program. TFF is one of the few places you can still go to be surprised, provoked and inspired. It’s one of the few places you can go to feel your heart beat in synchrony with others who love what you love. But that’s not all.
Here is why Helen Highly recommends the TFF: Running through a field of bright and beautiful butterflies, you get a chance to catch-and-release a magical, fluttering experience that will soon fly away, never to be seen again. Tribeca is a true film festival; this is where new films and new media go to find distributers. Only at a festival such as Tribeca will you have the chance to see that brilliant little indie film or that gorgeous foreign film that will NOT find a distributer and after its brief few showings in incredibly-lucky NYC will return to its remote country of origin or its can on the shelf of unfunded films; it will NOT be coming anytime soon to a theater near you (and not even to your streaming library).
Not everything great gets picked up; distributers buy what they think will be profitable or what will reach their target market, or… who knows? But I can guarantee you that some of the most precious cinematic experiences and access to some of the most startling and thrilling and hilarious and profound and revelatory new worlds will be found only during this brief window of time – April 18 – 29 at TFF2018.
The press has been privileged to attend advance screenings of many of this year’s films, but our critical reviews are “under embargo” until the movie opens to the public. So, I am offering my just-guessing (wink-wink) guide to movies that Helen Highly recommends at TFF2018, organized by category:
Best of Fest
This is simply the best movie I’ve seen so far. (Sorry, I gotta say it.) A prison movie – not even a subject that would normally interest me, but… a great film is a great film. I will call this Shawshank Redemption of the new millennium. The thing is, this will definitely get a full, national release, so if you don’t see it now, you will get another chance. However, the unique thing the festival can offer is the documentary that was made as part of the research phase of the narrative film, which is an ideal companion piece. It’s a fascinating story, which Nick Paumgarten at the New Yorker details here. Sometimes raw and violent, sometimes beautiful and philosophical, this film ultimately is a slow-burn thriller. It’s got something for everyone:
Jeffrey Wright delivers a powerful performance as a maximum-security prison inmate named Louis, who, 24 years after committing a violent crime as a young man, finds himself on the cusp of release from prison, facing an uncertain future on the outside. He encounters Beech, a newly incarcerated young man who echoes Louis’ former self, and stirs instincts that had long been buried beneath his tough exterior. Beech badly needs a friend, although that friendship is not without dangerous complications.
Madeleine Sackler’s film is a taut prison drama that follows the seemingly mundane countdown of days before Louis’s release, until, almost imperceptibly, it transforms into a thriller, suddenly sizzling with intensity. Filmed on location in an actual maximum-security prison with inmates participating as actors, the film lays bare, with remarkable realism, the very specific complexities of existing as an incarcerated man in America. Sackler’s background as an esteemed documentarian influences her first fiction film, a portrait of a proud yet regretful soul at a crossroads. This is a heart-pounding, suspenseful drama as much as it is an existential contemplation. It operates on many levels, as only the best films do. O.G.‘s companion piece adds to the richness of this story:
It’s a Hard Truth, Ain’t It
This is an affecting and enlightening glimpse at the stories of thirteen incarcerated men imprisoned at the Pendelton Correctional Facility in Indiana. Over a weeklong workshop inside the prison, filmmaker Madeleine Sackler introduces the inmates to the art of filmmaking. She provies them with camera equipment so that they can interview each other, offering them a platform to tell their own stories. Sackler is also at Tribeca this year with O.G., a drama inspired by the work she did on this documentary.
In their testimonial projects, the men candidly share their personal histories and provide accounts of the crimes they’ve committed. Their stories are visualized through animated sequences, illustrated by Yoni Goodman, of Waltz with Bashir, providing the viewer with remarkable access into their inner worlds. The result is an insightful and vivid collection of individual experiences that elucidate the shared narratives of the 2.2 million people currently in prison in the United States.
Tribeca is known especially for its top-notch selection of documentaries. Some of these might turn up on PBS or HBO or Amazon or Hulu, or even at your local art house, but… no guarantees, so get your brain stimulated while you can, with:
When Lambs Become Lions, Feature Documentary
I know ivory poaching sounds boring. But ivory poaching might be just the setting for this insightful and dramatic story about the tension between honor and survival, loyalty and competition, tightly knotted with complex family relationships, in an environment both magnificent and deadly. This is a film you should definitely see because it might not get picked up for distribution, due to its seemingly dull subject. But don’t be fooled; this is cinema at its best. When Lambs Become Lions is one of the most impressively crafted documentaries I have ever seen. This is what every documentary aspires to be — constructed from authentic and vivid, real-life footage (forget talking heads), and in addition manages to be a compelling narrative tale that performs as a suspenseful, action-packed drama.
This work of vérité cinema takes us to the front lines of the poaching crisis through the intertwined stories of an ivory dealer and a wildlife ranger. In a Kenyan town bordering wildlife conservation land, “X”, a small-time ivory dealer, fights to stay on top while forces mobilize to destroy his trade. When he turns to his younger cousin, Asan, a conflicted ranger who hasn’t been paid in months, we see the ways that these two men have been working both for and against each other. With each on the edge of catastrophe, they both see a possible lifeline in the other.
The story itself is exciting, but equally exciting is the appearance of a new filmmaking talent – first-time feature director Jon Kasbe. Kasbe followed the film’s subjects with his camera over a three-year period, gaining an extraordinary level of access and trust as he became part of their everyday lives. The result is a rare and visually arresting look through the perspectives and motives of the people at the epicenter of the conservation divide.
United Skates, Feature Documentary
Credited with incubating East-Coast Hip Hop and West-Coast rap, America’s roller rinks have long been bastions of regional African-American culture, music, and dance. When America’s last standing roller rinks are threatened with closure, a community of thousands battle in a racially charged environment to save an underground subculture – one that has remained undiscovered by the mainstream for generations, yet has given rise to some of the world’s greatest musical talent. We learn that an entire Who’s Who of Hip Hop was born at the skating rink. The music in the film is tremendous.
United Skates takes a deep dive into the vibrant and celebratory world of African American roller skating. The opening sequence displays dancing on skates that is as athletic and raucous as roller derby and is more delightful and entertaining than I could have imagined. The film by Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown is thrilling to watch and important to understand. It’s a slice of American life that we are lucky to witness, as it seems to be quickly and unfortunately dying out.
Blowin’ Up, Feature Documentary
When a woman leaves her pimp, it’s called “blowin’ up.” (“You can’t just walk away; you get beat up and stuff,” and by “stuff” she means things worse than you want to contemplate.) In Blowin’ Up, director Stephanie Wang-Breal zooms in on an experimental court in Queens that focuses on advocating for, rather than prosecuting, women brought in on prostitution and human trafficking-related charges, encouraging them to exit “the life.” In this courtroom, after they complete a series of mandatory counseling sessions, defendants see their charges sealed and dismissed. As the film illuminates the setbacks and triumphs they confront during this process, it also reveals the external pressures (including racial bias and immigration policy) that channel these women, some of the community’s most vulnerable, into prostitution.
With unparalleled access to the inner workings of the court and the diverse women behind this unusually compassionate approach to criminal justice, Wang-Breal captures the tenuous and complex ecosystem that has developed in and around this particular Queens courtroom. A shocking ending, straight from the very latest current events, reveals just how real and fragile this ecosystem is. Despite its topic, this is actually not a depressing movie. It is in large part inspiring. And the worst parts will outrage you more than depress you, which is a good thing.
Foreign-film narratives are often my favorites, because they tend to have a subtlety and sophistication and an evocative sensibility that is rare to find in American movies. You will want to see:
Bad title; it’s a mermaid movie. And it’s fantastic. Actually, it’s mostly a sweet and salty coming-of-age story, entangled with both magic and every-day desperation, set in a beautifully bleak and barren landscape, with mesmerizing performances, all of which by comparison make the Oscar-nominated movie Lady Bird seem like cliched drivel. To quote Annie Dillard, this film “looks like miracle itself, complete with miracle’s nonchalance.”
Teenage Lana whiles away the hours in her hometown Kiryat Yam, a run-down beachside community on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. She hangs out with a trio of shiftless boys, keeps an eye on her precocious cousin Tamar, and dreams of an impending move to Tel Aviv, all while waiting for the moment when her mother’s café finally bankrupts her family. But the sudden arrival of an attractive writer, Tchipi, may present a solution for both boredom and bottom lines: In between sparkling sexual tension, he spins a local myth into a news report of a mermaid sighting offshore—bringing people back to the city’s beaches. Now, the locals just need to turn this mermaid mania into an event big enough to bring hope and excitement back into their lives.
With deft elegance, director Keren Ben Rafael delivers a small but expansive and absolutely not over-wrought narrative feature debut movie, which feels impossibly true, melding elements of fantasy and simple, honest, naturalism.
Sunday’s Illness, Spain
Like the recommended film above, this is another mother-daughter movie, and there are several in this year’s Festival, but all quite distinct. Whereas Virgins evokes magic out of ordinary, drab existence, Sunday’s Illness presents existence as a tinted veil of memory and emotion, evocative of mystery and potential danger, difficult to understand and impossible to predict. It’s a gorgeous movie, and it tells an alluring and suspenseful tale.
From the outside looking in, Annabel (Susi Sanchez) would seem to have everything. She’s a successful businesswoman. She has a wealthy husband, and a place in society. But she also harbors a secret in her past, and one day, while hosting an opulent dinner party, that secret comes to call. After the dinner, Annabel is confronted by Chiara (Barbara Lennie), a member of the catering staff and the child Annabel abandoned over thirty years prior. The daughter, who was eight years old when her mother left, isn’t interested in money. She has a single, unusual request – that Annabel spend ten days with her in a remote house in the mountains, and then she will leave her alone forever, or so she claims.
Written and directed by Ramon Salazar Hoogers, Sunday’s Illness is an eerily dreamlike, sensuous meditation on an unconventional maternal bond. Featuring exquisite, austere compositions, wonderful performances from Sanchez and Lennie, and a script that allows silence to speak as loudly as words, Sunday’s Illness is a remarkably assured, consistently surprising mother-daughter drama.
Nigerian Prince, Nigeria
Technically, this is not actually a foreign film. But it’s made by a Nigerian-American and takes place and was shot in Nigeria, fully capturing a very foreign place. Nigerian Prince offers a snapshot of a world not often seen on film, introducing the reality behind all-too-familiar junk-mail scams. These scams have touched all of us, in one way or another, and we can’t really fathom what it is on the other side of the world that produces them and brings them into our American lives. This debut feature from writer-director Faraday Okoro breathes cinematic life into characters that have previously only lurked in the shadows of the American imagination.
When troubled American teenager Eze is sent away to his mother’s native Nigeria against his will, he quickly finds himself entangled in a dangerous web of scams and corruption, with his magnetic con-artist cousin Pius as his guide. This film, anchored by uniformly strong performances, seamlessly blends thrilling sequences of elaborate deception and dramatic tension with surprising moments of humor, making it much more than a fish-out-of-water tale. Newcomer Chinaza Uche is particularly brilliant as Pius, his confidence and cunning matched only by the sadness underlying his performance.
And the film itself is a remarkable feat, shot on location in Lagos and finished in just under 12 months. It’s a feature film that often feels like a documentary. The intensity certainly feels real, and you will sincerely worry how these dramatic circumstances will end.
By and About Women
Of this year’s 96 films, 46% of them are directed by women, the highest percentage in the Festival’s history. And there are 28 female-centric feature films, which of course should be exciting news for everybody. It’s a bit strange that in today’s day, movies by and about women are considered to represent “emerging voices” that need to be championed. I will assume that Helen’s readers are more Highly conscious and don’t need to have explained to them why these films are going to be some of the freshest and fiercest and smartest. It’s truly a tough pick, but here are three of my favorite female films from TFF2018. Never mind, I can’t pick only three. Here are five:
Daughter of Mine, Feature Narrative
Yet another mother-daughter movie, this one also defines its own territory. Vittoria, a shy 10-year-old girl, spends the summer on the windswept Sardinian coast with her loving-but-overprotective mother Tina (Valeria Golino). Vittoria begins to suspect that the local slut and feckless, town drunk, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher), is her actual birth mother, a revelation that upsets her innocent childhood existence. When financial difficulties force Angelica to leave town, she asks Tina if she can spend some time with Vittoria before she goes. Tina reluctantly agrees, setting off a dramatic summer during which the young Vittoria finds herself torn between two imperfect mothers. The film poignantly displays just how immensely a girl will always want her mother.
Director Laura Bispuri’s return to Tribeca—three years after her Sworn Virgin took home the festival’s Nora Award for best female director—gives us another powerhouse film, an intimate three-hander about the bonds we make, break, and are born with. Bispuri holds nothing back – not the horrific cruelty nor improbable joy, not the selfishness nor selflessness that takes place between these three female characters.
Nico, 1988, Feature Narrative
Danish actress and musician Trine Dyrholm delivers a high-voltage performance as Christa Päffgen—better known as Nico, the Andy Warhol darling and one-time chanteuse of the Velvet Underground. At the outset of Nico, 1988, Nico is approaching 50, tumbling down the slopes of drug addiction, and desperate to regain custody of her son. Her manager, Richard (John Gordon Sinclair), sensing her need for purpose, sets her on a tour across Europe; back on the road, she’s equal parts tenacious, manic, and erratic.
Writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli gives us an unapologetic portrait of a woman who never cared about being pretty or nice; she is the antithesis of traditional female virtue. Nicchiarelli blends a tangible reverence for her subject with dark humor, crafting a riveting examination of a fragile artist constantly pushed to perform. The audience is witness to the anguished and scattered psychology of Nico’s final years. With precision, care, and grit, Nicchiarelli and Dyrholm capture the inner turmoil of a fearless icon, artist, and mother struggling to reconcile the consequences of her tortured life.
Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, Feature Documentary
I will call this the most irresistible movie of the Festival – about that doll well known to all of us, whom we so love to hate. Since her debut nearly 60 years ago, Barbie has been, at turns, a fashion idol and a cultural lightning rod, in constant conversation and conflict with the ideals and aspirations of women and girls in every era. Tiny Shoulders tells the unlikely history of the Barbie figure, as it also explores our ideas of beauty, female stereotypes, and women’s social progress, all reflected back by an 11.5-inch doll.
More than just a history lesson, the film goes behind the scenes at Mattel, where Barbie is undergoing a new transformation in order to better reflect today’s more diverse perspectives on body image and beauty ideals. We meet the women who are designing the new Barbie(s), and watch their dedicated and grueling effort to preserve and rejuvenate an iconic brand, while meeting the world’s expectations. Featuring interviews with Gloria Steinem, Roxane Gay, Peggy Orenstein, Mattel insiders, and cultural historians, Andrea Nevins’s engaging and enlightening documentary brings the doll that 98% of the world can recognize, into new focus, positioning her as the ever-evolving mirror of feminism in America and around the globe.
Lemonade, International Narrative
Ioana Uricaru’s understated directorial debut, depicts one 24-hour period in the life of Mara, a young Romanian mother and nurse who moved to the United States several months ago for work and has already become accustomed to the “immigrant” struggles and frustrations that are part of the fabric of her life in America. The film focuses on a series of encounters, both mundane and astonishing, both indignities and quiet triumphs. Each encounter with an American man, whether her immigration officer, her new husband, her doctor, a police officer, or her lawyer, begins with optimism and determination, offers some reward, and ends with either abuse or exploitation. And this is all just one day in her life.
Despite its narrow focus, Lemonade gestures to the widest, all-too-relevant themes of the ways in which immigrants are treated as “other” in this country, the ways in which they are especially vulnerable to the dangers of modern American life and the infuriating unfairness of a national bureaucracy. And yet, we see the extraordinary lengths to which Mara will go to live in America and have her son go to school here. We see the resilient, relentless spirit that keeps immigrants alive in America. But, in today’s day, will that be enough to thrive? Can Mara make it? It’s a simple story told with clarity and dispassion. It’s the story of a person (likely an “invisible person”) who you encounter every day. It’s worth watching.
Woman Walks Ahead, Feature Narrative
Based on true events, Woman Walks Ahead (A24/DirectTV) stars Jessica Chastain as Catherine Weldon, a widowed Brooklyn-based artist who journeys to North Dakota in the 1880s, with the intention of painting a portrait of the legendary Sioux chief Sitting Bull. Upon arrival, she encounters hostility and roadblocks at every turn, especially in the form of male soldiers who believe that her liberal sensibilities have no place in the Wild West. Sam Rockwell gives a stand-out performance as a U.S. Army Officer who becomes Catherine’s greatest adversary. It isn’t until she is welcomed into the chief’s world that she realizes there are larger issues at stake than merely capturing his image for posterity. And yet, Sitting Bull comes to realize the symbolic and fateful importance of that portrait.
Woman Walks Ahead offers a stirring look at an unlikely friendship, the importance of fighting for what is right, and the beginning of a movement. It tells a little-known story of a courageous woman and a key moment in American history. Director Susanna White delivers a lush, wide-screen, big-sky, American-landscape picture. It’s a pleasure to watch and an inspiration to take home with you.
There are not usually a lot of comedies at Tribeca. But when they are there, they are often very good. In 2016, one of my favorite films was the comedy My Blind Brother. This year, one of my favorite films is another comedy:
Song of Back and Neck, U.S. Narrative
This film follows Fred (Paul Lieberstein), a hapless man, on a journey to find a cure for his chronic back pain. Along the way, he discovers a very unusual talent and unexpected love, and that his feelings may have been the cause of his pain all along. The core joke is that when Fred goes to an acupuncturist, the needles in his back vibrate like tuning forks and make music. This is an odd-ball comedy. But that key joke introduces an amazing array of music into the film – from classical to folk to punk. Helen Highly anticipates the excellent soundtrack (if it ever were to be distributed). You could almost call this a music movie. And the romantic comedy component is unconventional enough to be fun and unpredictable. It’s wry, smart comedy, despite how strange the story sounds. And the film has a lot of heart, too. Plus, it has an unexpected and excellent ending, and endings are usually the hardest part of a movie to get right. The ending of this movie will make you laugh and clap and cheer.
In addition to staring in the film, Lieberstein (best known for his work on The Office) also directs and produces. And he delivers a weird, wacky, utterly delightful film.
Yeah, I’m giving fashion it’s own category. Three excellent fashion films to see. If you’re interested in art or artists, these films are for you too.
Yellow is Forbidden, Feature Documentary
Recognition from Paris’s Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture is considered the apex of the fashion industry, and Chinese designer Guo Pei is determined to reach it. With a remarkable eye for detail and exquisite blending of visual art forms, veteran documentarian Pietra Brettkelly captures Guo’s drive, artistry, meticulousness, and acumen, from the designer’s emergence on the international scene—when Rihanna wore her hand-embroidered canary yellow gown to the Met Gala in 2015—through her remarkable 2017 show “Legend,” presented at La Conciergerie, in Paris.
Along the way, Brettkelly reveals the myriad opposing forces that confront Guo’s ambitions: those of tradition versus modernity; acceptance versus prejudice; and ensuring a thriving business versus pursuing more expensive and exclusive techniques. She also highlights the pressures China’s economic and political rise places on its individual artisans—as Guo puts it, “I’m a designer, not a nation.” Nevertheless, Guo thrives amid these challenges, establishing herself as a singularly capable and uncompromising warrior for her art. With loving fidelity for Guo’s work, Brettkelly depicts both the process and the fashion itself, resulting in a timely examination of what it takes for an outsider to earn acclaim from one of the West’s most redoubtable institutions.
The Gospel According to Andre, Feature Documentary
André Leon Talley—unmistakable in his regal stature, his fiercely original way with words, and his incomparable historical knowledge of couture—has been a fixture of the fashion world for more than 40 years. A mentee of the legendary editor Diana Vreeland, Talley called Vogue home for years; he served as news director, creative director, and, finally, editor-at-large, until 2013. As he drifts effortlessly from the front row at fashion weeks across the globe to television appearances and New York Times assignments, one begins to wonder how such an original as Talley came to be.
In Kate Novack’s film, the viewer is invited back to his childhood in Jim Crow-era North Carolina. His beloved grandmother, Bennie, raised him, schooling him in decorum, religion, and, unsurprisingly, how to dress, sparking an early and powerful love for all things fashion. This led him to New York City, where he battled—and continues to battle—both racist and homophobic assumptions about black men in the industry. Novack pulls back the curtain on this towering icon, revealing new and vulnerable moments with Talley—as well as hilarious ones—as he discusses his storied career and the women who helped him achieve it.
McQueen, Feature Documentary
Beginning with his modest upbringing in London, Lee Alexander McQueen quickly ascended the ranks of the international fashion world. After graduating from Central Saint Martins and establishing his eponymous label, McQueen became head designer of Givenchy at age 27 and went on to win the Fashion Awards’ (then the British Fashion Awards) prize for British Designer of the Year four times. His theatrical runway shows and daring designs existed on the cutting edge of ’90s fashion, his controversial and confrontational work earning him equal attention from fans and detractors alike. At the same time, he also forged a friendship with the influential stylist Isabella Blow, cultivating an intimate relationship that would last until her death in 2007. As McQueen’s star rose, so did the pressure, and accompanying anxiety, to constantly strive for ever greater heights of genius.
Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s documentary tells McQueen’s story through the testimonials from his closest friends and family. Featuring personal archives extending back to the earliest days of his career, as well as dynamic footage of his most boundary-pushing shows and creations, McQueen offers a vivid portrait of the tortured but inspired auteur’s work and persona.
But Wait There’s More
I know this seems like an awfully long list of movies, but compared to the ginormous collection at TFF2018, these really are just the tip of the iceberg. And I haven’t even discussed all the other narrative media at the festival. I’ll just add two more notes:
The whisper is that this is The Year of the Short at Tribeca — both short animations and short films. It’s an impressive list and I have barely started watching them myself, but I highly encourage you to check out the Shorts Lineup — billed as “short films, major stories.”
And then, the big pictures of the fest are the Opening, Centerpiece, and Closing films. This year, the Opening Night film is Love, Gilda –– a Gilda Radner documentary. The Centerpiece film is the world premiere of Drake Doremus’ sci-fi romance Zoe, starring Ewan McGregor, Léa Seydoux, Rashida Jones, and Theo James. And they are closing the festival with the world premiere of The Fourth Estate, from Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus, which follows the New York Times‘ coverage of the Trump administration’s first year. Those are all movies that will not disappear, but Tribeca offers you the opportunity to be among the first to see them.