There was something for everyone at the Tribeca Film Festival. Just witness the two most memorable star turns: on the one hand, Clint Eastwood, charming and thoughtful, interviewed on stage by Darren Aronofsky; on the other, Lil Bub, the tiny cat with the huge eyes and protruding tongue, who attended Tribeca in the arms of her person, Mike “The Dude” Bridavsky, a hunky Midwestern sound engineer. Lil Bub and Bridavsky star in Andy Capper and Juliette Eisner’s Lil Bub & Friendz, which won the festival’s online competition. The fact that it was streamed for 10 days didn’t stop people, who wanted to see Lil Bub live on stage, from packing the four theatrical screenings. I think that much of the pleasure in viewing all things Lil Bub has to do with Bridovsky’s nurturing relationship with the vulnerable creature who wouldn’t have survived without his constant attention. They are inseparable, which doesn’t mean that the cat didn’t relish her photo op with Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro.
Lil Bub & Friendz
Has this critic lost her mind? Not exactly. After all, even the chill Steven Soderbergh mentioned, in his much-quoted address at the San Francisco International Film Festival, that he didn’t want to risk being shot for running his mouth because “I love my cats.” Which is to say that the reasons the TFF, now 12 years old, has become a New York institution—with a 95 percent attendance at screenings and panels this year—has to do with seductions other than the greatness of the films in the lineup. Of the 30-odd movies I saw (89 features were screened), there are only two that might show up on my end-of-the-year top 10, and one of them, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, is opening in theaters next week. The other, Sam Fleischner’s Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, is a New York movie as surprising and inventive in showing us the city through the eyes of a runaway boy as Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive must have seemed to audiences in 1953. The winner of a Special Jury Mention, it deserved better.
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
As Engel did 60 years ago, Fleischner uses the latest advances in portable motion-picture technology to capture a real, highly populated heterogeneous location—the NYC subway system—thus seamlessly mixing documentary and fiction. Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez), a high-functioning autistic 13-year-old living in Rockaway Beach with his undocumented family, follows a magical image of a dragon onto the El and gets lost for more than a week in the subways. Almost no one pays him notice, but he sees with the eyes of a poet, and increasingly out of necessity, a pragmatist. Fleischner deftly weaves together two parallel storylines—Ricky’s odyssey and the determined efforts of his mother (Andrea Suarez) to find him. The leading actors, including the Mexican star Tenoch Huerta Mejía, are marvelous, as are the people who ride the subways, some of them caught unaware on camera only for seconds, some performing in short scripted scenes. Hurricane Sandy struck during production and Fleischner allowed this “Act of God” (as it would be referenced in contract law) to carry the movie in slightly unexpected directions. In its depiction of fragility and resilience, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors rings true from beginning to end without a trace of sentimentality.
The same cannot be said for Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket, which took the Award for Best Narrative Feature, the Audience Award, and a prize for best acting, won by its young Laotian star, first-timer Sitthiphon Disamoe. Bertolt Brecht would have been able to put a framework around Mordaunt’s liberal colonialist narrative to reveal its mendacity. Determined to prove to his father that he is the bearer of good luck rather than misfortune, a pre-adolescent boy wins a local rocket-building competition—and prize money sufficient to build his impoverished, displaced family a house—by harvesting gunpowder from the unexploded bombs and land mines that still litter the lush countryside of Laos. Lucky indeed! Over-produced and shamelessly manipulative, The Rocket employs a cringe-inducing score that cues every desired audience response, including unalloyed uplift at the end. Earlier this year, the movie won Best First Feature in Berlin, proving that Americans are not unique in their willingness to be led around by the nose.
Hide Your Smiling Faces
A far more talented movie, Daniel Patrick Carbone’s Hide Your Smiling Faces depicts two brothers (ages perhaps 11 and 13) hanging out with their dog and their friends, exploring the deep woods and turgid waters around their house, in some unnamed place in rural America. It’s an ordinary summer that will put knots in the stomachs of overprotective parents. There are dangers everywhere—in guns left lying about, in an angry neighbor who has it in for the boys’ dog, in the predatory creatures that inhabit the wilderness (in an early sequence, the brothers watch a snake slowly swallowing a small animal), in the decaying bodies of cats, dogs, and wildlife that the boys poke and prod and carry about. Every sequence could be the prologue of a horror flick minus the spooky music and other overt signals of the genre. The boys’ fascination with violence and death is all the more horrifying for being perfectly normal. Then one of the group dies in circumstances that are never explained to anyone’s satisfaction, bringing the older brother’s potential suicidal impulses into the open. Potential is the crucial word here. Hide Your Smiling Faces is remarkable for the dread it keeps at a slow simmer from the first shot to the last.
Lest you think Tribeca was exclusively a boys club, two strong films both by male directors depicted the dangers of growing up female from the unsparing perspectives of young women with the decks stacked against them. In Israeli filmmaker Jonathan Gurfinkel’s psychologically complicated Six Acts, a teenage girl hooks up with a popular classmate she has a crush on. He has no use for her but takes advantage of the situation by offering her to his friends. When she reluctantly complies in an attempt to impress her crush with her cool and how far she’ll go for him, the guys exploit the situation and she becomes an object of contempt. It sounds like a cautionary tale from the Fifties, but Gurfinkel deftly demonstrates how institutionalized misogyny is as virulent as it ever was.
Old-fashioned, that is 19th-century, misogyny pushes a mother (Gemma Arterton) and then her daughter (Saoirse Ronan) to save themselves and each other by becoming vampires in Neil Jordan’s affecting, delirious Byzantium (opening June 28). Arterton and Ronan’s characters have the determination and brio of true heroines. The latter satisfies her need for blood through assisted suicides, the former with serial killings of male meanies and narcissists that no one will miss. Jordan’s passionate belief in stories within stories and in the reality of fantasy overcomes a few clunky moments, and he gives a feminist twist to an ancient and ever popular folktale genre. Good to the last bite, Byzantium is far more resonant and subtle than his 1994 blockbuster, Interview with the Vampire.
Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic
Tribeca showed a flood of terrific documentaries, many of them soon to show on a cable station or in a theater near you. Among the most notable, Benny and Joshua Safdie’s Lenny Cooke, which follows the titular high-school basketball prodigy, who in 2001 was ranked above his peers Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, but lacking their confidence and emotional resilience, allowed himself to be badly represented and never played a day in the NBA. Cooke was at the screenings, and if he goes out on the circuit with the movie, audiences are in for something special. Another riveting portrait, Marina Zenovich’s Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic (slated for Showtime on May 31) chronicles the rise and fall of the genius performer and radical political activist (one of the few entertainers to totally merge art and politics in every word and move), who years before his death literally burned out on drugs and booze. The movie is packed with articulate people who knew Pryor well, but the clips of the Man himself will leave you weeping for more.
The Kill Team
The Best Documentary Feature winner, Dan Krauss’s focused, understated The Kill Team follows the trial of a U.S. soldier who in 2010 was court-martialed for not blowing the whistle hard enough against his platoon leader and a couple of other “bad apples” when they killed Afghan civilians for sport. Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn employs existing footage to reexamine the notorious 1985 seemingly police-authorized firebombing that took the lives of members of the African-American cult-like collective MOVE, as well as destroying 65 adjacent homes in a black working-class neighborhood where MOVE had been unwelcome from the day they arrived.
The Kill Team and Let the Fire Burn are tough, fairly argued movies that, like most of the documentaries in Tribeca, fall within nonfiction conventions. Matt Wolf’s Teenage, adapted from Jon Savage’s monumental Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture 1875-1945 is, formally, more adventurous. Wolf combines existing clips with expert forged portraits of emblematic adolescents. The footage of Oswald Mosley, the future head of the British fascist movement, cavorting with friends in Pre-Raphaelite drag, like denizens of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, is extraordinary, as is its polar opposite—color home movies of the Hamburg Swing Kids, the German teenagers who were executed for their political opposition to Hitler. The movie is loaded with such treasures, all of them lovingly examined and edited. The problem is that Savage’s book needs a series to fulfill the expectations it raises, and Wolf’s cinematic refinement is at odds with the hormonally driven chaos of adolescence.
This Exquisite Forest
Tribeca’s determination to be on the Transmedia cutting edge yielded the translucent blue and silver Bombay Sapphire Lounge where the gin flowed freely as festival participants networked and hooked up and new-media devotees explored five attractive installations, of which the most interesting were Aaron Koblin and Chris Milk’s This Exquisite Forest, a Web-based collective animation inspired by the Surrealists’ “Exquisite Corpse” drawings and poems, and A Journal of Insomnia, a restless dead-of-night distraction I’ve already bookmarked on my laptop.