Following up on my previous What-to-See article, which focused on Archival Movies at Tribeca Film Festival, I am listing a few more Top Picks that I could not exclude. There is really SO MUCH great stuff at Tribeca2019 (including Tribeca Television Festival and Tribeca Immersive, which I won’t even touch but are worthy of exploring), that it’s tough to pull out a short list. But here are some films that grabbed my attention during the pre-festival screenings, and which you cannot fail in seeing. I am recommending two Magic Realism films that are beautiful and dramatic, and two Activism films that are urgently important. Plus, one of the several Music Documentaries that I haven’t seen but is sure to be a winner.
Compelling, Artfully Told Stories (Magic Realism)
Our Time Machine (Feature Documentary)
How can a documentary be so gorgeous and tell such a perfectly formed narrative? It doesn’t seem possible; it’s a rare thing. Our Time Machine is a profound and poetic film that is achingly uplifting as it tells a universal story about the exquisite sadness and joy of life. Shaken by news of his father’s dementia, Chinese artist Maleonn sets off to build an intricately-designed time-machine puppet that will unite him and his father as it transports them to the memories his father has forgotten. (If you don’t understand how puppetry can be a true art form, this film will show you.)
This Chinese-language film is full of tableaus that blend the real and the surreal as Maleonn follows in the artistic footsteps of his parents; his mother was an actress and his father, Ma Ke, was a long-time director of the Peking Opera Theater. Through the lens of a father-son relationship, Our Time Machine explores what it means to be an artist in China in the 20th century and today. From the condemnations of the Cultural Revolution to contemporary financial and social challenges of putting on a complex and wholly original hybrid art performance, directors S. Leo Chiang and Yang Sun probe the artistic impulse across generations. Mixing haunting imagery with real-life moments, Our Time Machine conveys the mystery and consolation of art against the ravages of time.
Goldie (Viewpoints, Feature Narrative)
I put this movie on my Pick List because of its evocative use of animation and graphic elements (by Smith and Lee), which seem to lift the vibrancy and energy of this film off the screen and make the entire experience feel palpable and enthralling. The depressive grittiness of the story layered with the magical storytelling mechanism make for a rich film that stays with you after you’ve left the theater. Plus there is the electric actress, Slick Woods, who plays Goldie; when she is on the screen, it is impossible to look away.
Goldie is a street-wise, 18-year-old dancer with big dreams of big fame, even as she is stuck at home minding her two sisters while their mother is in jail. When an opportunity to audition for a real music video comes her way, Goldie feels the time has finally come for her star to rise. All she needs is the perfect canary yellow fur coat she has had her eye on in a local vintage store window. But with the day of the shoot rapidly approaching, and Goldie’s pockets still empty of the cash needed to purchase the coat, her desire for it—and its perceived promise of transformation—becomes an all-consuming obsession.
Sam De Jong’s second feature is a stylish coming-of-age fable, anchored by a magnetic debut performance from Woods. Against the background of the vibrant Bronx streets in the summer, viewers are invited to keep up with Goldie’s breakneck race to realize her dreams or lose it all.
Activism Films That Matter Right Now
Slay the Dragon (Feature Documentary)
After the 2008 election, a secretive, well-funded partisan initiative poured money into state legislative races in key swing states to gain control of their redistricting processes and used high-tech analytics to dramatically skew voting maps based on demographic data. The result is one of the greatest electoral manipulations in U.S. history, one that poses a fundamental threat to our democracy and exacerbates the already polarized atmosphere in Congress and state houses across the country.
Gerrymandering, the practice of redrawing electoral maps to serve the party in power, has been around for centuries. But in today’s hyper-partisan political environment it has been taken to unprecedented extremes, fueled by the elimination of corporate campaign contribution limits and the availability of vast amounts of personal information. The effects of this audacious plan have continued to bear fruit through the 2018 midterms. But voters, fed up with cynical efforts to sidestep the will of the majority, have begun fighting back. In one example, a grassroots movement led by a young woman with no political experience gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures to put an anti-gerrymandering initiative on the ballot in Michigan.
The new documentary Slay the Dragon shines a light on this timely issue, and follows a handful of citizens’ groups, outraged by what they see as an attack on the core democratic principle that every person’s vote should count equally, as they battle party operatives and an entrenched political establishment to fix a broken system.
In this film, we learn about “packing” and “cracking” and witness creative redistricting lines full of twists, curves, and squiggles to guarantee a certain majority. But we also experience hope in the form of Katie Fahey, a Michigander who forms the group Voters Not Politicians working to bring a measure onto the state’s ballot to require an independent group—not the legislature—to draw the lines. And in Wisconsin, an activist group challenges the state’s redistricting in a case that makes its way to the US Supreme Court. Directors Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance craft a detailed, infuriating, ultimately inspiring look—deftly balancing the facts and maps with the tireless work of people like Fahey to get us to act to ensure that democracy will survive. But the battle isn’t over yet; you need to be informed and vigilant.
Note: Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance have directed several films together, including Clinton for PBS’s American Experience, and the six-part series Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. Separately and together, they have won numerous Peabody, Emmy®, and Writers Guild Awards, and an Academy Award® nomination. Barak is also the director of another film at TFF this year, which I also recommend — Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation, detailed below.
Watson (Feature Documentary)
Captain Paul Watson has dedicated his life to fighting for one thing – to end the slaughter of the ocean’s wildlife and the destruction of its ecosystems. Without the ocean’s ecosystems, Watson contends that life on earth itself will not survive, and he makes a surprisingly convincing case for the urgency and necessity of his mission. Co-founder of GreenPeace and founder of Sea Shepard, Watson is part pirate, part philosopher, in this provocative film about a man who will stop at nothing to protect what lies beneath. Like a crime-fighting superhero of the high seas, Watson and his crews confront illegal whaling vessels from Europe to the Southern Ocean, seal hunters in Canada, and shark finners in Central America. Impervious to threats, with more than one nation issuing warrants for his arrest, Watson continues to intervene on behalf of the endangered ocean creatures and ultimately life on this planet.
Braiding contemporary interviews with Watson, archival footage from decades of Watson’s ferocious activism, and spectacular underwater nature footage, award-winning documentarian Lesley Chilcott (An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman) tells a story that is shockingly informative, magnificent, and deeply disturbing. Watson is a must-see for anyone concerned about the future of our planet.
Just Go See It: Music and Culture
Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (Spotlight Documentary)
When business partners John Roberts and Joel Rosenman floated the idea of hosting an opening day party with live music to celebrate their new recording studio in Woodstock, New York, they had no idea what it would eventually become: a pilgrimage of 500,000 like-minded radicals and hippies to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, where they would find spiritual reassurance and release in a celebration of freedom.
50 years later, Barak Goodman’s retelling of the three-day music festival captures the zeitgeist of the time. Structured faithfully around audio testimony from attendees, Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation focuses not just on how it all came to be, despite enormous challenges, but how it felt for it to happen: an endless traffic backup was elevated to a communal experience, and a food shortage became a collaboration rather than a disaster. Historic musical performances spotlighted in the film, from Jimi Hendrix to Joan Baez to Crosby, Stills, and Nash, form the backdrop to what is fundamentally the audience’s story. Woodstock takes us all back to a time and a place now captured in a time capsule, but also reminds us of the immediacy that love, music and shared experience can elicit.
Also see my Tribeca Film Festival 2019 Curtain Raiser article Part 1, which points to a surprising theme at this year’s festival.