And so we’ve reached the end of the Tribeca Film Festival. Known for its wide-ranging selection of films from all over the globe, they truly outdid themselves this year with a slate of diverse, boundary-pushing films that suggested that, outside of the most prestigious fests like New York, Cannes and Sundance, independent cinema was alive and well, flourishing in the fest’s eleventh year. We profiled twenty films at the start of the fest that might be worth discussion, and a number of those spotlight films didn’t disappoint. But the excitement of the Tribeca Film Festival is that there’s often greatness emerging from where you least expect it.
Granted, we didn’t manage to see everything at the fest this year, but our staff was able to put our feet to the pavement to collect insights on what were the best offerings at Tribeca. Below, you’ll find a collection of the eleven best films we saw at the fest, a group that includes incisive documentaries, compelling dramas and unique visions from filmmakers both established and fresh. In addition, we’ve singled out four breakout talents of this year’s festival — writers, directors and actors who hopefully will springboard from the fest to careers of great promise.
Synopsis: Chris “Wonder” Schoeck tries to help resurrect the Coney Island Strongman presentation by exhibiting his very specific skillset involving the extraordinary manipulation of steel by hand.
Verdict: It was unlikely to find a documentary as niche as this at Tribeca this year, given that not only is it focused on a peculiar subculture – the strongman world, where feats of strength are exhibited to audiences – but on an introverted neophyte with unconventional skills attempting to break into that milieu. “Bending Steel” doesn’t shy away from the very particular oddness of Schoeck’s skill, which plays to crickets at an un-amused open mic crowd and quizzical stares from Schoeck’s own parents. What it does provide, however, is a tale of inspiration, creating an unassuming everyman hero and thrusting him into an unusual world where we root for his dream to come true. Director Dave Carroll avoids either sentimentalizing or mocking this unusual world, providing a reverent treatment of a quest that mirrors Schoeck: unfussy, clear-headed and unexpectedly poignant. [Read our review here.]
“Big Bad Wolves”
Synopsis: An Israeli cop thinks he’s fingered the creep responsible for a series of vile child murders, but after cell phone footage of him roughing up the suspect turns up online, he’s kicked off the case. Later he forms an uneasy alliance with one of the murdered girl’s fathers, in a gruesome attempt at revenge and reconciliation.
Verdict: “Big Bad Wolves” has the rare distinction of being one of the best movies at the festival this year while being one of the least-talked about movies, too. Not sure why this is, exactly, since the film is very nearly flawless – a whip-smart, occasionally quite funny, beautifully photographed and deeply unsettling foreign thriller. Honestly, we haven’t felt this way about a genre movie at Tribeca since “Let the Right One In” back in 2009. And that’s really saying something. [Read our review here.]
Synopsis: A bluebird flies into the life of a school bus driver in a decaying logging-town in Maine and sets off a chain of events that will haunt two seemingly unconnected families.
Verdict: Another outstanding debut from another talented above-the-line creative turned writer/director is Lance Edmands’ “Bluebird.” Edmands got his start in the editing room, most noticeably cutting Lena Dunham’s debut feature, “Tiny Furniture.” A mature, super wise-beyond-its-years portrait of family, consequences and interconnectivity in the universe, the closest analog we might be able to find for this film is David Gordon Green’s “Snow Angels,” but “Bluebird” is more authentic and existential. On top of a thoughtful filmmaking approach, “Bluebird” also features a stellar cast. And yes, while folks you know like “Mad Men” star John Slattery and Adam Driver from “Girls” shine in supporting roles, it’s mostly the relative unknowns who really are the film’s breakout stars (more on that below). Patient, subdued and wise, you’d never guess that “Bluebird” was a first film. It’s not particularly flashy, but that’s what we deeply appreciate from this wintery and absorbing drama. [Read our review here.]
“Cutie and the Boxer”
Synopsis: A documentary detailing the contentious, artistically fruitful relationship between Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara and his much younger (but just as talented) wife, Noriko. Ushio is known for his papier-mâché motorcycles and splattered masterpieces, created by soaking boxing gloves in paint and pummeling the canvas.
Verdict: A true triumph, one in which the complexities of the couple’s relationship is only rivaled by how complicated their working life together is. Director Zachary Heinzerling brilliantly takes Noriko’s own illustrations, which weave an autobiographical portrait of her life with Ushio, and animates them. It gives us the story of their forty-year-plus relationship in a delicately dreamlike manner, full of vivid detail and emotion. Ushio always battled for international superstardom, which never really came his way, but his biggest achievement was keeping Noriko around for all these years. [Read our review here.]
“Hide Your Smiling Faces”
Synopsis: In a summer that should be full of adventure and fun, an unexplained accident forces death into the lives of two young boys, leaving them confused, devastated and angry.
Verdict: DP turned feature-length narrative writer/director Daniel Patrick Carbone might be the festival’s biggest directorial discovery. Beautiful, yet anguished and tense, “Hide Your Smiling Faces” marks the start of an auteur in the making. The film could be described as if a young Michael Haneke directed David Gordon Green’s directorial debut “George Washington,” and there are some spiritual similarities to Terrence Malick. But Carbone, who recently worked with indie filmmaker Rick Alverson, is in the end, his own person with his own voice. “Hide Your Smiling Faces,” is unnerving and disquieting, but also possesses the curiosity and inquisitiveness of young boys at play, but figuratively and literally. A brooding and atmospheric score from one of the members of Labradford adds yet another layer of simmering mood to the picture and it’s gorgeously shot too. It’s a bit of a shock the film didn’t take any major awards (perhaps it’s missing the awards-vital ingredient of a crowd-pleasing tone), as it’s an accomplished effort, the type that rarely comes from a first film, but nonetheless, it’s easily one of the best film from this festival’s crop. [Read our review here]
Synopsis: A documentary regarding the number one high school basketball player in the country and why he seemed to vanish from professional ball as soon as he left school.
Verdict: There’s a certain heartbreaking sadness once you piece together the reality of the making of “Lenny Cooke.” It’s clear from the exhaustive footage from Cooke’s youth that directors Joshua and Benny Safdie assumed they were at one point making a film about the next big superstar. The footage bears this out, revealing Cooke as an exciting, rangy talent that traded baskets with the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in the early 2000s. But Cooke’s career never took off, as he fell off the radar following failures at home and in school; by the time he readied himself for the NBA Draft, he went virtually ignored. The rest of the footage captures a heftier, more modest Cooke at an older age, seemingly beat down from what seems like a lifetime of too-late hustle to make up for just a couple of lost years in the spotlight. Most sports stories are like this, the tale of the one-time prospect who doesn’t pan out for one reason or another, the underlying truth being that they simply did not have the intense desire to succeed in that field despite being anointed as a superstar at a too-young age. But few of those stories feature a talent as remarkable and peerless as the young Lenny Cooke and none feature the sort of candid access to Cooke’s current life and struggles as this film, which transcends the sports doc formula to produce something wholly indelible. [Read our review here]
Synopsis: A young New York City woman attempts to balance her social and professional life with the end of her cancer treatment.
Verdict: First-time director Matt Creed has made a picture of startling loveliness, capturing the feeling of having to jump back onto a treadmill long after having stepped off. As brought to life by co-writer and star Amy Grantham, Lily is a touching character, not a wallflower but not in a rush to be the center of attention either, and her lack of chemistry with the friends and lovers that clutter her self-esteem speaks not just to the awkwardness of someone hoping to rejoin the rest of the world, but of the unending momentum of New York City. “Lily” is a New York movie through and through in an age where most visions of the city are highly corporate and basically anonymous. Creed and Grantham perfectly capture the vibe of a city that seems alive and vital, demonstrating that a great New York City film should play like a musical, but without the lyrics and instruments, just the melodies. [Read our review here.]
Synopsis: A stark documentary set in Oceana, West Virginia where, after the local mining industry closed down and left the local economy in a state of desperation, a new trade has emerged – the drug trade. The locals have nicknamed the town Oxyana after the OxyContin epidemic that has seized the tiny Appalachian community — now every resident is a potential addict.
Verdict: Documentarian Sean Dunne came to our attention back in 2008 at the Independent Film Festival of Boston where his LP-obsessives documentary “The Archive” screened. The doc made an impression and later went on to become Emmy Nominated. He’s since directed the short Insane Clown Posse Juggalos documentary “American Juggalo” and “Oxyana” is his feature length documentary debut. Stark, unflinching and sometimes hard to watch, “Oxyana” is a gripping portrait of a community in crisis. Featuring a haunting, broken-down score by members of Deer Tick, “Oxyana” doesn’t editorialize outside of some key moments of music, instead eschewing drama to tell, raw-nerved stories of addiction and struggle from the people themselves. [Read our review]
Synopsis: Set against the lush backdrop of rural Laos, a young boy said to be born of bad luck yearns to break free from his ill-fated destiny. After his poor village is displaced by an Australian corporation and his mother dies in an accident during relocation, the boy, his father and grandmother set out in search for a new home in the Laotian outback. Along the way, they come across a rocket festival that offers a lucrative—but dangerous—chance for a new beginning.
Verdict: Endearing, spirited and lovely, “The Rocket” balances third world hardship with the humanist story of family and a young boy who wants to prove his birth superstitions wrong. The narrative feature debut of documentarian Kim Mordaunt, “The Rocket” is an impressive drama, that’s soulful, carefully considered and crowd-pleasing. Navigating humanist and social concerns, “The Rocket” never stoops to being an enlightened third world drama, but is instead teeming with resilience, life and its myriad struggles. While it also features a feel-good tone in the last act that helped it win some of Tribeca’s major awards, including the Main Narrative Audience prize, it’s big finish is genuine and well-earned. [Read our review here.]
Synopsis: A young Israeli girl copes with the intensity of class tension and sexual pressure by becoming the girlfriend of a party-going playboy who proceeds to exploit her among a small circle of friends.
Verdict: One of the smaller films of Tribeca, this intense drama avoids the easy moralizing of stories about “wayward youth” while also sidestepping the grotesqueries of Larry Clark freakshows to keep the focus on both protagonist Gili (Sivan Levy) and the “six acts” that define her to a group of prying male deviants. What’s arresting about this upsetting narrative is that Gili is smart enough to know that these flashy partyboys are simply using her, but tries to use it as a form of social currency, an attempt by this young woman to own and control her sexuality. What “Six Acts” becomes is a study of whether one can ever fully take control of their sexual agency and if Gili is a victim by her own choosing, or at the mercy of her circumstances in a hyper-sexualized world of dominance and abuse. [Read our review here.]
“Some Velvet Morning”
Synopsis: A young and beautiful New Yorker (Alice Eve) is surprised when an old lover — that she has not seen or heard from in four years (Stanley Tucci) — appears at her door with great expectations. Guess what, he’s finally left his wife for her. This strange, out-of-nowhere bewilderment is complicated by the fact that she is now friends with Fred’s recently married son.
Verdict: Most fans were ready to shovel dirt on the coffin of Neil LaBute after the threesome of “The Wicker Man,” “Lakeview Terrace” and the appropriately-bloodless “Death At A Funeral” remake. Instead, the accomplished playwright decided to strip down his craft for this claustrophobic relationship drama that has the tension and immediacy of great theater, combined with the vision and atmosphere of superbly-fascinating filmmaking. LaBute, in his commonly cruel way, strands two actors on their own island of self-absorption, pitting pugilistic white-collar jerk Tucci against much-younger would-be paramour Eve, her defenses not prepared for his self-defeating doublespeak disguising an intense, almost uncomfortably revealing sense of self-love. Without another location nor another actor, these two actors claw at each other, Tucci’s combative romantic refugee escaping from his wife only to find the cold, unwelcoming arms of Eve attempting to escape to a lunch date with his son. It’s a portrait of the lifetime of a relationship and how sometimes we forget that that lifetime is exceedingly limited, dependent on a mutual agreement that can never realistically exist between lovers. [Read our review here.]
Five To Watch
Tom Berninger (Director, “Mistaken For Strangers“)
There’s something incredibly endearing about the scenes late in The National documentary “Mistaken For Strangers” where Berninger gazes upon a wall of disorganized notecards, attempting to piece together the narrative of his own film as if it will come together through osmosis. But that image of a bumbling goofball trying to make sense of the abstract (accompanied by his brother’s patient nodding) runs counter to the format of “Mistaken For Strangers,” a proudly revelatory documentary about what it’s like to be the brother of a rock-star. As Berninger follows brother Matt and his band The National on the road as an awkward roadie, he also captures moments of unusual serenity that exist when a major band is on-tour, hitting either far-off European countries or holding court with the President of the United States. “Mistaken For Strangers” is the rare doc that puts a face not only on a wildly popular but anonymous-seeming band, but also on the lives touched by rock stardom, in one way or another. Berninger, who shows off two previous films he’s made with splatter-horror bonafides, may have just found a more viable muse as the ultimate rock and roll outsider. [Read our review here.]
Amy Grantham (Writer-Star, “Lily”)
As the title role in the comedy-drama, Grantham is arresting as soon as she appears in front of the camera. Whether it be in a thick set of bangs, her eyes shining through an elaborate chemo-wig, or her short pixie cut highlighting her lithe physicality, Grantham immediately puts viewers at ease; this may be a film about cancer, but Grantham’s easy smile and sweet nature conveys that she’s a survivor. Despite her girlish glee, there’s hardness to Grantham, a worldliness that reveals an inner toughness, pivotal to this film considering that given Lily’s cancer treatments, personal troubles and difficulty finding work would suggest she’s a victim. It’s a beautiful performance from a writer-actress whom we hope to see more of very soon.
Maxine Peake (Actress, “Run And Jump”)
“Run And Jump” earned attention during the fest for being the first dramatic role for comedian Will Forte as Dr. Ted Fielding. While he acquits himself well as the role of a humorless doctor with a secret love for the sticky icky, it’s impossible for viewers of the film to keep their eyes off Ms. Peake. As struggling wife Vanetia, Peake has to balance a natural effervescence and upbeat nature with the everyday disappointment that comes from coping with a post-stroke husband who has lost most of his motor skills (an also-excellent Edward MacLiam). Peake has a natural vitality and joy onscreen, and it’s not hard to imagine the exceedingly-devoted Dr. Fielding shirking his professional responsibilities and spending the evening hours lighting up and dancing to old 45s with this beacon of Irish joy. [Read our review here.]
Tomasz Wasilewski (Director, “Floating Skyscrapers”)
Befitting its vague, elliptical title, “Floating Skyscrapers” places a strong emphasis on the elaborate exteriors of gyms, apartment buildings and offices, turning wide-open spaces into claustrophobic set design to emphasize the closing worlds of the illicit homosexual lovers within the narrative. But “Floating Skyscrapers” isn’t just an airless observation of humans amidst architecture, but also a surprisingly sharp domestic melodrama that plays off a small cast of characters consistently bouncing against each other in an attempt to cope with a massive change in the life of Kuba, the swimmer that everyone is counting on to produce. “Floating Skyscrapers” carries an obvious plotline involving tragedy befalling gay lovers, but it doesn’t neglect the blisteringly explicit lovemaking scenes between lovers both gay and straight, moments where bodies collapse and collide into each other like crashing buildings, leaving the impression that director Wasilewski captures the human body like no other, powering this drama with the lust and focus of messy, borderline irresponsible love. [Read our review here.]
The Women Of “Bluebird”
Like we said above, “Bluebird” is a terrific debut film picture and yes, “Mad Men” and “Girls” stars don’t hurt, but there’s exceptional female trio in the cast that are all mostly unknown and they are all stellar. The women are Amy Morton (Tony winner for “August: Osage County,” also George Clooney’s sister in “Up In The Air”), Louisa Krause (the bitchy, scene-stealing hotel clerk in “Young Adult“) and Emily Meade (“Fringe,” “My Soul to Take“). As the devastated mother who inadvertently creates a tragedy (and true lead of the film) Morton is fantastic and someone we hope to see on screen all the time. Krause plays the dysfunctional, alcoholic mother of the boy whose life is hanging by a thread, and Meade plays Morton’s disaffected and alienated daughter. In a movie about how we’re all connected yet emotionally divided, these three exceptional female talents bridge a world of deep pathos, confusion and longing. They’re all outstanding performances and they are now, forever on our radar moving forward.
We wanted to say something about the handsome Jack Reynor of “What Richard Did” though we doubt he needs the extra dap given that he’ll appear in the next “Transformers” film. Both Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens brought a strong emotional intensity to “The Broken Circle Breakdown” (with the latter winning an award at Tribeca) while Tribeca’s Best Documentary award went to Dan Krauss for “The Kill Team,” an honor that we cannot dispute. Andrea Suarez brought a toughness to her lead role in “Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors,” while the Lynch-like direction on “Taboor” makes us think director Vahid Vakilifar might be one of our next great surrealists in the vein of Elia Suleiman, and even surrounded by a collection of hokey plotlines, newcomer Saxon Sharbino brought a Tatum O’Neal-like maturity to her role in “Trust Me.” Jenée LaMarque, the writer/director of the quirky, but emotionally substantial “The Pretty One” definitely has personality and we’ll clearly keep seeing good things from her in the future. Laurie Collyer, the director of “Sherrybaby” knows the downtrodden well and while this year’s Tribeca entry “Sunlight Jr.” was a bit too unrelentingly bleak, it is a strong effort nonetheless and features impressive performances from Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon. And yes, they’re mentioned above, but director’s Lance Edmands, Sean Dunne, Daniel Patrick Carbone and Kim Mordaunt all having exciting careers ahead of them and we can’t wait to see what they do next. – Gabe Toro, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor