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10 Top Docs at the Tribeca Film Festival

10 Top Docs at the Tribeca Film Festival

There were many more documentaries to see at Tribeca than the 10 (plus 1) I’ve listed below. But I’m a highly targeted viewer, seeking out only films that I think I will appreciate. As always, I missed many (and will have to catch up at a later date to "Havana Motor Club," "Songs of Lahore," "Palio," "All Eyes and Ears," and others), but I was fairly satisfied with the bunch that I saw. Below, an alphabetical list of mostly World premieres, and one more that I can’t forget.

The Birth of Sake – Erik Shirai’s beautifully crafted and contemplative non-narrative portrait of sake makers working in the fading age-old traditional fashion may sound a bit like "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." But the film is very much its own creature. Patiently told and exquisitely photographed, with an array of refreshingly warm characters, the film’s only drama unexpectedly comes when that close-knit family of artisanal workers is wrenched apart by a random event. 

Crocodile Gennadiy – Director Steve Hoover ("Blood Brother") finds a rich and complicated subject in its longitudinal study of a Ukrainian pastor-turned-activist named Gennadiy Mokhenko. The pastor (who looks more like a Russian hockey-player) rescues drug-addled homeless kids by forcibly, sometimes violently, grabbing them off the streets, throwing them in a van and taking them to a shelter, where he offers them tough love, a home, and in some cases, even an adopted family. A riveting and disturbing film, which skillfully balances the story of one individual trying to save his town and its future.

Democrats (North American premiere) – With extraordinary access and a compelling story, this bittersweet verite story follows the complex process of democracy-making in a dictatorship. It’s also a subtle and revealing dual character portrait of the two very different men–one buoyant and volatile, the other quiet and controlled–at the center of the negotiations.

Fastball — What could have been a bland look at fast-throwing baseball pitchers becomes a more engaging and revealing look at subjectivity and the science of measurement.

In My Father’s House – This tender and moving portrait chronicles Chicago rapper Che ‘Rhymefest’ Smith’s quest to reconnect with his father, an alcoholic who lives on the streets. An unlikely entry from Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg ("The Trials of Darryl Hunt," "The Devil Came on Horseback"), the film avoids sentimentality and predictable happy-ever-after family reunion storytelling for a more bracingly real depiction of everyday life

Roseanne for President – Surprisingly moving, and with its election-doc structure, mostly compelling, the film charts groundbreaking comedienne Roseanne Barr’s bid for the Green Party nomination for President. Barr comes across as a passionate and refreshingly crass individual, speaking truth to power, while America’s third-party system is proven to be dysfunctional and ineffectual. 

Thank You for Playing – In its profoundly moving story of a father creating a video game about raising his terminally ill son, David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s remarkable film accomplishes the impossible: It avoids easy sentimentality. It’s a full half-way into the film before someone cries, and when they do, the tears will undoubtedly flow along with them. But its patient and careful approach, along with the process of video-game design itself, creates a fascinatingly distant space to explore the film’s ideas about death, loss, parenthood, God, and bereavement.

Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle – A straightforward, but highly effective expose about the police’s use of TASER stun guns, the film spreads the blame around, from the police who misuse the tool to the fledgling corporation that has spread misinformation about its product. 

Uncertain — With its beautifully photographed images of thickly vegetative waterways along the Lousiana-Texas border, this evocative portrait of the small backwoods town of Uncertain, TX risks overly aestheticizing its subject matter. But ultimately, its focus on three different men surprisingly and welcomely has a sensitive side, with an underlying story of personal redemption and survival at its core. The quest of one man with a dark past to hunt down and kill a boar with a horse’s head is story enough alone to drive this atmospheric bayou-based journey.

Plus 1:

Stranded in Canton – I want to give another shout-out to a wry hybrid fiction-doc about a Congolese t-shirt seller stuck in Guangzhou, which I saw at CPH: DOX. I had called the film "just the kind of oddity that would never get a center stage platform at other festivals" (and true to form, the film was programmed in a Tribeca sidebar). Directed by Swedish director Mans Mansson, and conceived in collaboration with Chinese filmmaker Hongqi Li ("Winter Vacation"), the documentary has a central protagonist that is pure fiction, but the entire project was improvised. At times feeling like a mix of Claire Denis and Jia Zhangke, the result is a strange, sad, funny and revealing portrait of displacement, and a new kind of globalization: East meets African.

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