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12 Films and VR Works to Catch at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival


Shuttered last year by the pandemic, the Tribeca Film Festival returns this year with a large program (many of last year’s selections are included) and hybrid format full of large outdoor events and stay-at-home screenings. The festival opens with the premiere of Jon M. Chu’s exuberant In The Heights, and there’s new work by Steven Soderbergh, a film about and live performance by Blondie, and talks with Amy Schumer, M. Night Shamalayan and others. But as usual, though, we’ll point you here to films by emerging makers that might have flown beneath your radar. Here are 12 picks from Vadim Rizov and myself.

Ascension. From sex doll assembly floors to wealthy dinner parties and all the economic spaces in between,Ascension was shot at 51 locations across China. The debut feature film by Jessica Kingdon (a 25 New Face of Film in 2017) promises to bring her characteristically disciplined, often tableau-based eye to a sweeping look of hyper-capitalist China in transition. — VR

The Neutral Ground. Comedian, filmmaker and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah field producer C.J. Hunt expanded what he once thought would be a five or 10 minute comedy riff on the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans into a documentary feature that chronicles “the absurd hold the confederacy still has in America.” As a filmmaker, Hunt describes himself as “falling somewhere between Marlon Riggs and Sacha Baron Cohen.” Produced by Darcy McKinnon, one of our 25 New Faces last year. — SM

Bernstein’s Wall. Bradley Cooper’s long-promised Bernstein biopic is reportedly still in the works from Netflix, a project he took over at producer Steven Spielberg’s suggestion. Spielberg’s own West Side Story arrives this December. Meanwhile, Doug Tirola’s new documentary (on which he shares a co-writing credit with Bernstein himself) re-examines the composer, conductor and classical music popularist’s life, with narration in Bernstein’s own words. — VR

Larry Flynt for PresidentSlamdance-winning filmmaker Nadia Szold (Joy de V) makes her documentary debut with this archival doc telling the story of Hustler founder Larry Flynt’s quixotic and characteristically irreverent run for president in 1983. With access to never-before-seen footage, Szold (full disclosure, a friend who has worked at my production company, Forensic Films) deftly allows the historical parallels and uncanny associations inspired by Flynt’s campaign-as-spectacle to build in viewers’s minds, making this a doc that’s as much about the present as it is about a more visibly licentious past. — SM

Roaring 20s. When it comes to pandemic-themed films, and the bounty of which that will be hitting the festival circuit over the next several months, I’ll take the camera-roving, large-cast, multi-location “after reopening” ensemble drama over the stuck-in-an-apartment coronavirus two-hander any day of the week. In the former category is Elizabeth Vogler’s Tribeca premiere Roaring 20s, which, from the trailer, crosses a large number of Paris neighborhoods in, reportedly, one single shot. — SM

Italian Studies. Adam Leon (Gimme the Loot, Tramps) marries his engrained urban wanderlust to a tale of psychological mystery in which a suddenly amnesiac woman, played by star Vanessa Kirby, traverses the streets in search of her own identity. — SM

All These SonsCo-directing with his Minding the Gap editor Joshua Altman, Bing Liu examines community-based efforts to combat gun violence in Chicago through two organizations. On the Westside, the MAAFA program operates as part of a Baptist church’s initiative; on the Southside, similar efforts operate under the auspices of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). — VR

No Man of God. After two independent films exploring female identity with women protagonists, Amber Sealey changes things up with her latest, No Man of God, about the relationship between serial killer Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby) and his FBI analyst Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood). Based on actual transcripts, the film assembles around Sealey an illustrious team of contemporary genre filmmakers and supporters, ranging from screenwriter C. Robert Cargill (Sinister), the sales team of XYZ, and Wood’s own Company X and distributor RLJE (Mandy). — SM

Catch the Fair One. 25 New Faces Josef Kubota Wladkya follows up his riveting tale of two Black Colombian men escaping the drug trade on the open sea, Manos Sucias, with a revenge thriller set in the worlds of boxing and human trafficking. Nomadland’s Mollye Asher, The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s Kim Parkerand Wladkya produce, Darren Aronofsky leads an illustrious team of executive producers, and the lead is played by real U.S. boxing champion Keli Reis. –– SM

Insight Goliath. Learning that the latest VR work from ANAGRAM Studios (here, director Barry Gene Murphy and producer May Abdalla) will plunge viewers in the experience of schizophrenia and psychosis both excites and somewhat terrifies me. Their earlier Tribeca piece, Door into the Dark was one of the best works of any kind I saw that year while also being one that contained one heart-stopping moment of terror. Not to be missed. — SM

Queen of Glory. Actress Nana Mensah, who did strong work in the feature Farewell Amor as well as the Netflix series Bonding, makes her directorial debut with this dramedy about a Ghanian-American molecular neuro-oncology doctoral student whose life plans are upended when she inherits a Christian bookstore in the Bronx and must reconnect with her community and as well as her mother’s legacy. — SM

On the Divide. Directors Maya Cueva and Leah Gallant received Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund,  TFI Network and TFI/A&E Storylabs support for their debut documentary, which captures the lives of three Latinx residents of McMallan, TX as they intersect at the last abortion clinic on the U.S./Mexico border. Sadly, all three of the aforementioned programs are now gone, shuttered alongside the Tribeca Film Institute last year. Filmmakers are currently feeling the loss of these programs — a loss that will be more visible when fewer first features like this one are found in future editions of the festival. — SM

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