Sundance is behind us and SXSW is right around the corner, but the film festival calendar waits for no one. Today’s announcement completes the lineup for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, which offers yet another grab bag of newcomers and familiar names. While Tribeca’s particular brand of programming remains difficult to define, it continues to offer some promising documentaries, festival regulars and international titles. Here are some observations on notable selections from the program along with some insight from some of the programmers.
Sundance in the City
Since its inception in 2002, Tribeca has struggled with its placement on the festival calendar, but it has one thing going for it — the opportunity to bring movies that have already screened at big festivals earlier in the year to eager New York audiences. With Sundance kicking off the year, Tribeca is ideally situated to share some of the Park City gathering’s riches. While a lot of those titles won’t surface again until later this year, Tribeca still delivers a solid cross-section of Sundance hits.
These include the Lily Tomlin drama “Grandma,” Paul Weitz’s crowdpleaser that received strong notices for the actress in the title role. Other Sundance films that stand out include the Michael Fassbender western “Slow West,” which won the world cinema competition, and the well-received documentaries “Cartel Land” — in which director Matt Heineman risked his life exploring shady dealings south of the border — and the self-explanatory “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon.”
Tribeca also samples Sundance comedies “The Overnight,” starring Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman and Taylor Schilling, which involves a peculiar couples evening that takes an erotic turn, and “Sleeping With Other People,” from “Bachelorette” writer-director Leslye Headland. Tribeca audiences won’t get the chance to see U.S. Grand Jury Prize winner “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” but at least they can start catching up with the earlier festival’s lineup.
Tribeca’s documentary section tends to venture beyond the city’s borders, a tradition that continues this year with a number of movies that explore under-appreciated locales with striking detail. These include “The Birth of Saké,” Erik Shirai’s portrait of an ancient Japanese brewery, and the timely “Havana Motor Club,” which deals with Cuban drag racers. Even New York fixture Albert Maysles ventures beyond New York’s borders: The veteran cinema verite filmmaker will premiere “In Transit,” a lengthy project co-directed by Maysles that involves a wide variety of encounters with personalities on a train traveling between Chicago and Seattle. “He’s riding this train in Middle America and finds these really beautiful stories,” said Tribeca director of programming Genna Terranova. “It’s not as straightforward as his other recent films. He’s going back to very observational storytelling, letting the subjects tell their stories.”
The programmers also singled out “Uncertain,” an atmospheric documentary co-directed by Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands about the eponymous border town in Texas.
Other documentaries that hold potential tackle more unsettling personal issues. “TransFatty Lives” stands out as fascinating endeavor from director Patrick O’Brien, who chronicles his own experiences with ALS as the disease gradually destroys his physical abilities. “He edited the movie with his eyes on a computer,” Terranova said, noting that the filmmaker remains alive despite expectations to the contrary. Another emotionally intense non-fiction effort, Christopher Bell’s “Prescription Thugs” explores the corrupt industrial pressures behind prescription drug abuse. The hook comes from a personal place for the filmmaker: In 2007, Bell’s “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” chronicled the director’s brother as he dealt with a steroid addiction that later killed him.
Southern Newcomers and Familiar Names
While SXSW still attracts a lot of first-time filmmakers with existing connections to the scene, Tribeca seems to be catching up. The Civil War-set drama “Men Go to Battle” marks the debut feature of Zachary Treitz, but the writer-director has been working as a producer with rising New York indie stars the Safdie brothers ever since their first feature “The Pleasure of Being Robbed.” Treitz’s movie — co-scripted by the ubiquitous actress Kate Lyn Sheil (whose on-camera credits range from “The Heart Machine” to “House of Cards”)—involves a Kentucky-based couple fighting on their remote estate in 1861. “It’s a very resourceful period piece,” Terranova said. “They’re dealing very much with relationships that could be happening today.”
Another familiar face in a fresh setting: Arnold Schwarzenegger. The aging muscleman co-stars opposite Abigail Breslin in “Maggie,” a souther-friend zombie tale in which Schwarzenegger plays a committed farmer caring for his daughter after she’s bitten by the undead. The debut feature from Henry Hobson promises an unconventionally delicate riff on the zombie genre heavily steeped in mood and the lead characters’ performances in a minimalist setting.
Any festival set in New York faces the challenge of reigning its own community when New York already has so many in its place. But Tribeca has steadily found a groove with filmmakers that return to the gathering with new projects. Just a year after premiering his vampire comedy “Summer of Blood,” idiosyncratic New York writer-director Onur Tukel returns with another wacky comedy, “Applesauce” — this one involving a man who says more than he should on a talk radio show. Another Tribeca alumnus, Felix Thompson, will premiere his rural drama “King Jack,” building on resources he gained after premiering several shorts at the festival.
Tribeca isn’t a major marketplace like Sundance or Cannes, but with so many titles in the lineup lacking distribution and New York playing host to a lot of buyers already in town, it’s bound to set the stage for some commercial activity. “We never like to guess which films will sell because we’re usually wrong,” Terranova said, but still wagered a few guesses. These include “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle,” a documentary from the producers of the Oscar-winning “Undefeated” that deals with the ever-contentious topic of police using taser guns, and “Very Semi-Serious,” a documentary focused on The New Yorker’s tradition of single-panel cartoons. “We don’t necessarily think in terms of whether they get picked up, but rather finding those voices that will continue to keep working,” Terranova said.