Tribeca 2009: It's a Wrap
In its eighth year, the Tribeca Film Festival finally found its identity as a medium-scaled arena for an eclectic collection of documentaries, independent films, horror movies, dramas, comedies, science fiction, and foreign fare to vie for audience attention. From a press standpoint, the festival has become a friendlier place for journalists to ply their trade. The inclusion of a screening library, while not comprehensive in its scope, provided some much needed freedom to screen films, and is a system that should be adopted by every other film festival in the world. Attracting its share of celebrities--Eric Bana, Spike Lee, and Steven Soderbergh were easy to spot--this year's festival maintained the right amount of movie biz glitz without cramping the style of Manhattan's been-there-done-that attitude.
Bette Gordon's 1984 independent psychological thriller "Variety," written by Kathy Acker, was shown in a special retrospective screening. A stunning proto-feminist noir experiment set in the sex shops of 1983 Times Square during Manhattan's economic downturn, Christine (Sandy McLeod), a Midwest transplant, takes a job as a ticket booth clerk at a Times Square porn theatre called the "Variety." Surprisingly, the sleazy urban atmosphere fires her erotic desires, and curiosities about the power of her own sexuality. Christine goes on a baseball game date at Yankee Stadium with Louie (Richard Davidson), a wealthy regular patron at the Variety with underworld connections, and secretly follows him after he's called away from their date. When she isn't stalking Louie, Christine tests the influence of her dirty imagination by speaking erotic fantasy monologues to her non-pulsed journalist boyfriend Mark (Will Patton). Daring, raw, and in tune with the social crosscurrents of the period, "Variety" achieves a cumulative effect of short-circuiting preconceived notions of taboo sexual stereotypes via Christine's journey of discovery. It's a thriller that takes poetic liberties equal to the harmonic leaps of John Lurie's evocative musical score.
With "Outrage," documentarian Kirby Dick brought the same methodical approach he applied to "This Film is Not Yet Rated," about Hollywood's shadowy ratings board, to examine the practice of closeted gay, largely Republican, politicians to systematically vote against gay rights issues as a way of deflecting attention from their own sexuality. Former closeted politicians, such as ex-New Jersey governor James McGreevey and current U.S. Representative Barney Frank candidly expound on their personal experiences of living double lives. Gay blogger Michael Rogers provides fervent discourse about the necessity of outing closeted politicians as a public service in a media environment that savors heterosexual scandals--see John Edwards--yet avoids exposing the hypocrisies of people like Ken Mehlman or Florida Governor Charlie Crist. From the film, it seems clear that Washington is full of closeted gays, some self-hating and some merely desperately frightened for their livelihoods. Either way, the winds of generational change are upon us.
In "Rudo y Cursi," writer/director Carlos Cuaron (screenwriter on "Y tu mama") told the story of rival Mexican step-brothers Beto (Luna) and Tato (Bernal) who get a golden opportunity to leave behind their impoverished lives as fruit-pickers when Batuta (Guillermo Francella), a soccer agent, discovers their skills and brings them into the fast paced world of pro soccer. Tato dreams only of achieving fame as a singer in spite of his lack of ability--he earns the undesirable nickname Cursi (Corny), while the more serious Beto, nicknamed Rudo ("rough"), falls prey to gambling leaches out to steal his soccer fortune. Bernal and Luna cherish their roles with palpable delight and play off one another with an authentic chemistry that is infectious. Both actors bring their A-game to the film, and the result is a pure delight. As prosaic as the story seems on the surface, there's plenty of heartfelt subtext in every frame.
Scott Sanders' Blaxploitation homage "Black Dynamite" had me rolling on the floor kicking and laughing with its perfectly timed jokes and sight gags. "Black Dynamite" could just be the big break that Michael Jai White deserves for his unforgettable performance as a super soul brother cut from the same cloth as Shaft and Dolomite. It's easy to get a contact high watching "Black Dynamite" as if you were sitting in a Times Square movie house circa 1976 watching the man get his comeuppance.
Mandy Stein's "Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB" was a welcome reminder of the famous East Village haunt where The Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, Wayne County, The Dead Boys, Patti Smith, and every other punk group that mattered performed back in the good old/bad old days of New York. Although Stein's film left out a lot of significant information about its martyred subject, CBGB founder Hilly Kristal, it adds yet another essential chapter to the story of New York's Punk Rock movement.
Stephan Eliott's Noel Coward adaptation "Easy Virtue" hit a lilting gallop of '20s era England with Jessica Biel playing a racecar-driving American interloper to Kristen Scott Thomas' snooty matriarch.
Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience" succeeded on the efforts of its extreme-porn-queen-cum-legit-thespian Sasha Grey as a $2,000-an-hour-call girl living in NYC with her fitness-trainer boyfriend. Former Premiere magazine Editor Glenn Kenny is hilarious in his role as a very sleazy know-it-all opportunist.
Ti West's "The House of the Devil" sent chills as an old-school horror film homage to an '80s that should have been. Even with some rumored butcher-edit job by the film's producers, it's a dark treat that ramps up suspense from three or four angles at once. Former Warhol Superstar Mary Woronov ("Rock 'n' Roll High School") is perfectly creepy.
Anders Banke's "Newsmakers" proved to be a super slick remake of Johnie To's "Breaking News," about a Russian Public Relations effort to glamorize for television a tense stand-off between some heavily-armed bad guys holed up with hostages in a post communist block apartment complex. Super action eclipses the upside of sexy.
Duncan Jones' "Moon" is the best Sci-Fi movie to come along in a generation or two. Sam Rockwell gives a pure tour de force performance as a lonely astronaut worker on the moon in this must see sci-fi thriller. I'll give you a clue--there's a clone involved. "Moon" was my favorite new film of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.
"In the Loop" could be the most hilarious British political satire of the past 20 years. Based on the BBC TV show "The Thick of It," about the wonky inner workings of US and British politics during an unintended build-up to war, the movie was a crowd favorite.
2009 Tribeca Film Festival Awards:
Heineken Audience Award: City Island
Raymond De Felitta's "City Island," a comedy about a family of misfits staring Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Alan Arkin, and Emily Mortimer, won the Heineken Audience Award of $25,000 at this year's festival.
Best Narrative Feature: About Elly
Asghar Farhadi's Iranian mystery on the Caspian Sea captured the hearts of World Narrative Feature Jurors Bradley Cooper, Uma Thurman, Todd Haynes, Meg Ryan and Richard Fischoff: "The universality of the characters and themes and the director's riveting grasp of this story make About Elly a film that collapses barriers and deepens our understanding of the world we share.”
Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film: Ciaran Hinds
Magnolia Pictures picked up world rights to writer/director Conor McPherson's psychological drama "The Eclipse," staring Ciaran Hinds as a recently widowed husband and father who sees ghosts in the Irish seaside town where he lives.
Best New Narrative Filmmaker: Rune Denstad Langlo for North
Rune Denstad Langlo's first narrative feature, after working in the documentary format, is a wry road comedy about a ski lift operator making his way to the north of Norway, to meet a son he never knew he had. The jurors have noted that Denstad's "consummate vision, strong grasp of story and command of the language of cinema make him a standout amidst a strong pool of candidates."
Best Actress in a Narrative Feature Film: Zoe Kazan in The Exploding Girl
After a smattering of small roles here and there, Zoe Kazan has truly broken out with her performance in Bradley Rust Gray's The Exploding Girl, a film about a young woman during a summer home from college. "Zoe shines in this understated role," the jurors comment. "Every component of this brilliantly restrained performance displays a command of her craft that stunned and moved this jury.”
Best Documentary Feature: Racing Dreams
Marshall Curry's documentary is a gripping tale about young go-karters who one day dream of driving in the big leagues of NASCAR. "We reacted with unanimous, unquestioned affection for Racing Dreams," the jurors state, "and found it a completely compelling, entertaining film of incredible quality.”
Special Jury Mention: Defamation
Yoav Shamir's documentary analysis of anti-Semitism existing today has earned him a Special Jury Mention in this year's Festival. Examining the issue from a wide variety of angles, the accolade for this open-minded film is not surprising. The jurors state that the award is for "lifting the veil on a subject so openly discussed."
Best New Documentary Filmmaker:
Ian Olds for Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi
Olds' film about the murder of a kidnapped Afghani hired by news organizations to work in Afghanistan is a mesmerizing tale, as horrifying as it is fascinating. According to the jurors, the work is “a film about an unsavory world, and its unsavory characters, which through its superb direction, shines a light on a world unfamiliar to many Americans."
Best New York Narrative: Here and There
Darko Lungulov's debut narrative feature about a New Yorker who travels to Belgrade is as geographically diverse and sensitive as the city of New York itself. The jurors were pleased by the fact that "it gave us not only New York, it gave us great characters, a great story, it gave us the world.”
Honorable Mention: Entre nos
Paola Mendoza and Gloria LaMorte's beautiful film is based on Mendoza's real-life experiences as a child, when her family moved from Colombia to New York City. Their sensitive depiction of issues ranging from immigration to poverty to single motherhood earned them an Honorable Mention in this year's Festival.
Best New York Documentary: Partly Private
Documentarian Danae Elon's look at the practice of circumcision in the modern-day world, especially modern-day New York, is a gripping look at the ancient practice, as well as so much more. "There were moments in this film that brought the whole world back to New York," the jurors said. "They were uniquely New York moments."
Best Narrative Short: The North Road
Actor Carlos Chahine steps into the role of director for the first time to make a touching short about a man driving his father's remains back to his hometown. The jurors feel that "The director, Carlos Chahine, portrays the absurdities and contradictions of how we deal with grief through humor, freshness and subtlety.”
Best Documentary Short: home
A touching work that deals with how Hurricane Katrina affected the house he grew up in, Matthew Faust's home seems a natural pick to win the Best Documentary Short award. "It tells a post-Hurricane Katrina story in a new, inventive and poignant way.”
Special Jury Mention: The Last Mermaids
The runner-up for Best Short Doc is this fantastic short, a film about female deep-sea divers off of the Jeju Island. The film's glimpse into a lost world is particularly eye-opening, and the jurors said that "the filmmaker provides a glimpse into a closed sisterhood—proud of their traditions, yet accepting the disappearance of their way of life.”
Student Visionary Award: Small Change
A film about a six year old girl hoping for the Tooth Fairy to arrive, Australian filmmaker Anna McGrath's student film Small Change is deceptively simple. The jurors state that "The filmmaker uses minimal storytelling to achieve maximum emotional impact and we commend the terrific performances of the young actors.”
Special Jury Mention: Oda a la Piña
This homage to a famous Cuban poem deals with a struggling cabaret dancer. Helmed by student filmmaker Laimir Fano, the film "captures the cultural rhythms and unmistakable sounds of the city to artistically portray a sense of poverty in what remains of old Havana and its beauty.”