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15 Films to Anticipate at the 15th Tribeca Film Festival

All this Panic

“How to make sense of the Tribeca Film Festival” was the altogether appropriate headline of the New York Times preview of the Tribeca Film Festival. Even as the festival is only a third of the size of most larger festivals — statistic courtesy of Festival Director Genna Terranova at yesterday’s Robert DeNiro and Jane Rosenthal-hosted press lunch — it still unveils itself with a dizzying shock and awe. There are films, but also talks with people you don’t want to miss, from Patti Smith to Emmanuel Lubezki, as well as master classes by filmmakers like Catherine Hardwick. As with most festivals today, cinema’s diminishing cultural clout is compensated for by a kind of programmatic future-proofing that leads to even more film-competing events. Said Rosenthal at yesterday’s event, “We keep our eye — and our AI — on tomorrow.”

That means this year there is not just the perennially well-curated new media highlight Storyscapes but also, a Virtual Arcade boasting the latest in VR; a competition for branded content; a multi-media 360 degree film with live music; and, returning to Tribeca, Hacked, a hacker-centric program hosted by hacker conference DefCon and hacker cable TV drama Mr. Robot. (Complimentary zero day exploits can be found in the gift bags.) Of course, there is also the day-long TFI Interactive Day, which continues this year at Tribeca’s Spring Studio space, dubbed a “vertical Main Street,” by Rosenthal at the press conference. (After attending several events in the space last year, I’d call the bureaucratically oppressive space more of a Skinner Box, with the events and free drinks the rewards offered to jostled, confused, wrist-band wearing filmmakers and viewers. Here’s hoping the space’s harsh edges are sanded down this year.)

Reading all the above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Tribeca is not so much about what we call “the movies,” but, as Terranova emphasized, you’d be wrong. “The future is bright, and the future is bright for film,” she said yesterday. “Film is our core…. We’re here to amplify films and filmmakers.” And, at 15, Tribeca’s role in the independent film ecosystem is secure. The independent film business needs a festival that, like Tribeca, knows how to put on a show. And one that, as Terranova said, “makes it easy for industry.” Indeed, as I’ve written before, Tribeca’s press and industry outreach is second to none, with the P&I office’s hard work for filmmakers a differentiating factor for the festival when compared with less-helpful fests (like SXSW, for example).

As for the programming, well, when it came time to compile a list of 15 films I’m looking forward to, it was hard not to draw my selections solely from Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces alumni. A couple of the films below I’ve seen, and a couple more have been seen by our correspondents or trusted colleagues. The others, like the headline says, I am anticipating. But they are all by filmmakers who matter, and the challenge in the days ahead is to carve out time away from the parties, talks, and headset-wearing to see these works in a theater.

The Fixer. Filmmaker put Ian Olds on our 25 New Faces list in 2009 on the basis of his pioneering Iraq war collaboration with the late Garrett Scott, Operation Dreamland, and then his follow-up documentary, The Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi. Originally a film about “the mechanics of war journalism,” The Fixer turned into something more haunting when its subject was kidnapped and murdered by the Taliban. Now, nearly seven years later, we’re highlighting Olds’ dramatic feature debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, also titled The Fixer. Birthed from the aftermath of his documentary film is this drama inspired by another real-life fixer and set in the woods of Northern California. A thriller dealing with issues of immigration and crime, The Fixer stars Dominic Rains, James Franco and Melissa Leo.

Always Shine. Sophia Takal — another 25 New Face — makes her long-awaited to follow-up to her microbudget stunner Green with Always Shine, which takes the abstracted psychological thriller aspects of her debut and warps them into, well, a crafty, intelligent and altogether satisfying psychological thriller. It’s Persona meets Mulholland Drive meets Single White Female as a weekend getaway between two old actress friends goes horribly awry. Caitlin Fitzgerald is the demure starlet who is suddenly successful after a string of love object roles while Mackenzie Davis is her friend, who is perhaps even more talented but doesn’t have the “right look.” What she does have, though, is that self-sabotaging whiff of desperation, and Takal’s direction hits all the requisite genre beats while perceptively honing in on these actresses’ insecurities, unthinking betrayals and wounding microaggressions.

the bomb. A 360 degree immersive film, the bomb is Kevin Ford, Smriti Keshari, Eric Schlosser’s multi-media evocation of the threat of nuclear war, all with the band The Acid playing in the middle of the space (Gotham Hall). Four shows only, April 23 and 24th.

Burden. Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey’s documentary about the late performance artist and sculptor Chris Burden is both a great artist doc as well as a canny piece of programming on the part of Tribeca. Those of us here on the East Coast remember Burden primarily for his protean ’70s live art — pieces which include Shoot, where Burden was shot in the arm by a rifle, and Trans-fixed, where he was crucified on the body of a Volkswagen Beetle. These pieces are well represented through archival footage and commentary in Burden, along with just the right amount of commentary on Burden’s cocaine use, non-monogamy and gun fixation. But what’s a revelation for a New Yorker like me is the movie — and the artist’s — third act. The most confrontational and at times inscrutable of artists, Burden becomes an almost lovable Los Angeles resource with large-scale sculptures that take a child-like glee in things like toy racing cars, propeller planes and, in one long-running and much-adored public sculpture, a bank of antique streetlights.

The Tenth Man. Returning to Tribeca after his 2011 drama, All In, is Daniel Burman with The Tenth Man, a father-son reconciliation drama set in the Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires that has a lot of critical buzz so far.

Southwest of Salem. The true stories behind the Satanic abuse trials of the 1990s have yet to be fully chronicled, which makes Deborah S. Esquenazi’s documentary about four convicted women who still assert their innocence a necessary installment in today’s collection of ’80s and 90’s true crime tales

All this Panic. Jenny Gage’s portraits of female adolescence — realized in collaboration with her husband Tom Betterton — have attracted attention throughout both the fine art and fashion world. Now, with Gage directing and Betterton shooting, they have transferred the energies of their still work into film by following a group of teenage girls these two parents knew from their Brooklyn neighborhood.

Memories of a Penitent Heart. We liked Cecelia Aldarondo’s doc mystery about her uncle, a gay Puerto Rican man who moved to New York in the ’80s, when we saw it out of the IFP Documentary Lab last summer. On the basis of its rough cut, we picked Aldarondo for our 25 New Faces. Now, we’re excited to see the final cut and how Aldarondo has completed her non-fiction chronicling of family history, faith, and the AIDS crisis.

The Happy Film. On the basis of its catalog description, this documentary about the self-help journey of provocative New York designer Stefan Sagmeister as he tries to change his conception of happiness could skew towards Tony Robbins or, alternately, Lars von Trier. With another of our 25 New Faces, Ben Nabors, at the helm, here’s hoping for something on the more irreverent side.

The Return. With Clinton-era justice policies under new scrutiny by not just Black Lives Matter but voters in general, the timing is right for Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s documentary about two lifers, who return to society after their sentences are shortened as part of California’s repeal of its state’s “three strikes” sentencing law.

Holidays. There’s Halloween, Silent Night, Deadly Night, My Bloody Valentine and the St. Patrick’s Day staple Leprechaun. Yet a horror film about the horror of not specific holidays but holidays in general is a new one, I think. Kevin Smith joins directors like Matt Johnson and Sarah Adina Smith in an anthology film for the holiday-loathing among us.

Last Laugh. I had a great time interviewing Last Laugh director Ferne Pearlstein last year at IFP Film Week on a panel about filmmakers working in celluloid. Pearlstein stuck with 16mm for her doc about that most taboo of comedy subjects, Holocaust humor. Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks and other comedians appear in Pearlstein’s exhaustively researched film alongside Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone.

Women who Kill. Another 25 New Face, Ingrid Jungermann has mined her personal life for two acclaimed web series — the Brooklyn lesbian relationship comedy, The Slope, and her “homoneurotic” follow-up, From F to 7th. With her latest, Jungermann drops the neighborhood-and-transit-referencing titles as well as the web format. Inspired by true-crime podcasts like Serial, Women who Kill is a full-on feature about amateur Park Slope investigators and, yes, modern relationships.

LoveTrue. Another 25 New Face returning with a long-awaited follow-up is Alma Har’el, whose visual invention and conceptual ambition is multiplied in LoveTrue, a hybrid documentary exploring the meanings of love. I saw about 40 minutes of this last year when it screened as a Tribeca work-in-progress and wrote about her choice of follow-up subject matter, “Har’el has eschewed what might have been an easy route (a simply conceived or rendered subject or issue) by instead tackling the largest, most unwieldy of topics — love — in, again, a searching, cinematically ambitious fashion. Once more, there is play and an emphasis on self-invention — or, perhaps, simply deep introspection and a willingness by her subjects to go on a journey with Har’el.” Shia LaBeouf is executive producing.

National Bird. Wim Wenders and Errol Morris executive produce Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary about America’s use of drone warfare, told through the viewpoints of three American veterans — nameless operators who carry with them the psychological aftereffects of having participated in this most impersonal form of warfare.

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