By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 29, 2013 at 11:57AM
The Tribeca Film Festival concluded its 12th edition this weekend with an announcement of its winners in both the documentary and narrative sections. That wasn't the whole story: Finalists were selected from a pool of two dozen titles representing 14 countries -- only a sliver of the 89 features included in this year's lineup, which remains relatively small compared to other big festivals but still a lot to take in.
Continually struggling with a difficult time on the festival calendar and a cluttered program, Tribeca has never been an easy festival to analyze as a single event. Aside from its availability, what defines the ideal Tribeca film? This year's top winners suggest a potential answer in the form of first-rate documentaries, small character studies and international cinema buried overseas. If this quartet could define the entire festival, it might be on to something.
Tribeca always offers a strong heaping of documentaries, due in part to the fact that there's always an overabundance of quality non-fiction films in need of exposure these days. With so much to choose from, however, it's refreshing to see that two of the best selections from the competition section won it.
"The Kill Team," one of innumerable military exposés produced in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, delivers a blistering indictment of U.S. army protocol rooted in the travails of a deeply sympathetic protagonist. The winner of Tribeca's Best Documentary Feature award focuses on Private Adam Winfield, the whistleblower who exposed the morbid antics of his platoon in 2010, when it came out that the group had repeatedly murdered innocent Afghanis for sport.
Rather than getting thanked for his efforts, Winfield wound up the subject of military prosecution for not acting soon enough. Krauss captures this icy tragedy with a remarkably intimate look at his family -- particularly his ex-military father -- as they cope with the possibility of their son doing time in spite of his apparent innocence.
The filmmaker expertly cuts between these tender moments and Winfield's harrowing account of the kill team's infuriating antics, which the men themselves documented in a slew of grisly photos that deepen the impact of each ghastly anecdote. As it builds toward a wrenching climax in which Winfield appears resigned to his fate, "The Kill Team" is especially unsettling because of the minuscule sampling of soldiers it involves, leaving open the possibility that the hard evidence of their terrible acts may point to countless more like them.
Overseas wars aren't the only incursions casting dreary shadows on American society. In "Oxyana," which won Tribeca's Best New Documentary Director Competition, Sean Dunne captures the despair of virtually every resident in Oceana, West Virginia, a town that has adopted the nickname of the movie's title as long as it has been crippled by an outbreak of oxycontin addiction. Beautifully shot to accentuate the elegiac focus, "Oxyana" combines a somber atmosphere with the testimonies of locals, some of whom shoot up on camera, as they explain how the isolated world and lack of opportunities surrounding them feed their addictions. Dunne wisely lets his forthcoming subjects lead the way, their stories ranging from statements of frustration to startling recollections of violence, all traced back to drug addiction. The pileup of tales ultimately add up to a generational howl.
A similar form of desperation hovers over "Whitewash," the winner of Tribeca's Best New Narrative Director Competition. Thomas Haden Church delivers one of his most intriguingly off-beat performances in this cryptic deadpan story of lonely, alcoholic widower Bruce as he wanders Quebec's snowy forests in the dead of winter. In a murky opening sequence, Bruce accidentally kills a man with his snowplow, establishing the first of several instances in which the downbeat anti-hero finds himself in a situation where he has no one to support him. After burying that secret, he spends much of the movie traipsing about the blank terrain in a series of misadventures that lead to one dead end after another.
Constantly dreading the possibility of facing repercussions for his actions, Bruce rehearses his responses to an interrogation that never arrives. Meanwhile, he forms a curious bond with an equally depressed local (Marc Labrèche) and ponders his oddly claustrophobic state to the point where it's hard to tell if anything actually takes place outside of his eerie headspace. First time writer-director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais directs the material with an eye for ambiguity on par with fellow French-Canadian director Denis Cote, whose "Curling" would make a good companion piece to the small town oddities captured here. For Bruce, the bland whiteness surrounding him and his plow form a self-made purgatory to which he can never truly escape. "Seriously," he says aloud to the empty forest, "why am I being kept here?" That's a mystery "Whitewatch" leaves unresolved, resulting in an experience both difficult to comprehend and wholly fascinating, not unlike Bruce's perspective on life.
Not every standout entry at Tribeca was a complete downer. "The Rocket," which won both Best Narrative Feature and an audience award, brings a crowdpleaser mold to an unconventional setting -- the impoverished communities of rural Laos. The movie, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, follows adolescent boy Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) through a series of tribulations when his mother dies and the remaining family is displaced by a dam.
Forced to wander the countryside in search of shelter, Ahlo befriends a young girl and her crazed, pop culture-savvy uncle as an escape from their grim surroundings, while coping with his grandmother's belief that he's cursed. Despite the sad backdrop, "The Rocket" eventually turns into a coming-of-age tale in which Ahlo decides to enter a rocket-building competition in a desperate bid to save his relatives. Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt delivers an affecting drama that at times suffers from its obvious progression toward a triumphant finale, but even then, it's elevated by the uniqueness of a familiar mold applied to a drab setting.
Certain to generate Oscar buzz as a foreign language film contender if it finds a distributor willing to play that game, "The Rocket" has the familiar uplift of a Spielberg-certified plot. Without breaking any rules, its capacity to work within that vein in spite of the grimy, hopeless environment where it unfolds makes "The Rocket" worth singling out, as its placement at Tribeca this year managed to do. As long as the festival can unearth titles like these from the clutter of new cinema unleashed within the first few months of each year, its battle to remain relevant may have a genuine direction.