The annual Tribeca Film Festival wrapped up on Sunday, and I was fortunate enough to cover it in New York for the first time. Here’s a look at the 20 films I saw at the festival, some in person, and others on awards screeners.
Mystify: Michael Hutchence
The Australian rock star Michael Hutchence, of the band INXS, hasn’t gotten nearly enough recognition over the years as one of rock’s most magnetic frontmen. Directed by Richard Lowenstein, who directed many of INXS’ videos, the documentary uses home movie footage to depict Hutchence’s often troubled life. A couple of takeaways: The film doesn’t even entertain the theory that Hutchence really died of autoerotic asphyxiation rather than suicide, and Hutchence and Kylie Minogue may very well have been the sexiest couple in human history.
All I Can Say
And speaking of home movies about ’90s rock stars… All I Can Say, which premiered at Tribeca, is culled entirely from footage shot by Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon, between the dawn of his career in 1991 and his death from a drug overdose in 1995. Blind Melon wasn’t nearly as good a band as Nirvana- “No Rain” was their lone hit- but their home-movies doc is much better than Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Soon is credited as co-director, along with Taryn Gould, Colleen Hennessy, and Danny Clinch, who was responsible for Let’s Play Two, the fantastic doc from two years ago about Eddie Vedder’s Chicago Cubs fandom. The ending this time isn’t nearly as happy.
Not quite as inventive or illuminating as the other two docs about bands from the ’90s in which the frontman died young, this one, directed by Bill Guttentag, looks at Sublime, who combined such influences as ska, reggae and punk to a create a unique sound very much of its time. Probably the most memorable moment is the descriptions of the shocked look on the faces of the crowd the first time Sublime played their “Date Rape” song.
From the plot description it sounds like a rote, high-concept rom-com, but its leads are so wonderful, and so surprising, that it pushes this film to another gear. Jack Quaid (whose mother, Meg Ryan, starred in the very best of this sort of movie, When Harry Met Sally, 30 years ago) and Maya Erskine (from the Hulu show PEN15) star as a platonic couple who decide to get through a particularly painful wedding season by accompanying each other to several of them. Yes, it goes where you think it’s going, but getting there shows us that Quaid is a movie star, while Erskine is a truly outstanding comedic voice. There’s also a witty script that uses “catching up on old episodes of Bones” as a euphemism for watching porn. This film, which won the audience award, was probably my favorite of the festival.
Come To Daddy
A completely nutty film, directed by New Zealand’s Ant Timpson, about an awkward young man (Elijah Wood) visiting the remote, spaceship-like home of his long-lost father (Stephen McHattie), a grizzled old coot with seemingly nothing in common with his oddball offspring. The film spends its first act toeing the line between comedy and horror, but then spins off in a ridiculous new direction from there.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
This look at the life and crimes of Ted Bundy, directed by Joe Berlinger, makes the interesting choice to build nearly its entire narrative around Bundy (played by Zac Efron) attempting to convince everyone – judges, the media, and his girlfriends – that he’s actually innocent. Buoyed by Efron’s committed performance, this is a much better treatment of Bundy’s story than the documentary earlier this year, from the same director.
Probably the most acclaimed film of the festival, winning the Founders Award for best U.S. narrative feature, Burning Cane left me somewhat cold, and much more impressed with the backstory of how it was made than with the film itself. And it’s a hell of a backstory – the film, set among a group of troubled souls in rural Louisiana, was directed by Philip Youmans, an NYU freshman who is 19 years old. The most impressive element, to me, is the performance by Wendell Pierce as a minister, one that recalls that of Ethan Hawke in last year’s First Reformed.
Ask Dr. Ruth
At Tribeca last week, in theaters this week, and on Hulu right now, Ask Dr. Ruth, directed by Ryan White, is this year’s RBG: The somewhat worshipful documentary about an iconic elderly Jewish lady. Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a hell of a subject though, whether she’s talking about changing sexual mores or her decades-ago service in The Haganah. The first thing I always think of with Dr. Ruth is Robin Williams’ “Dr. Roof” bit, and of course there it is, right there in the opening credits.
At The Heart of Gold: Inside The USA Gymnastics Scandal
The story of the serial sexual abuse in the United States gymnastics scandal, told in a way that’s equal parts definitive and infuriating by director Erin Lee Carr. Probably the best documentary made to date about the #MeToo movement, the film debuted on HBO over the weekend. The attorney for Nassar – who states at one point that the 37,000 images of child pornography found in his possession aren’t that many, compared to some other cases – should go on any list of the most loathsome documentary talking heads of the year.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project
In case you thought your parents watched too much TV news, this astonishing documentary from director Matt Wolf tells the story of the Philadelphia woman, Marion Stokes, who taped the news, every day, for 35 years – most of that from the time before DVRs. Stokes created an amazing archive, which included a great deal of stuff that would have otherwise been lost, and we see a lot of that here.
A documentary, directed by Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller, tells the story of an indie record store in New York City, that I somehow never visited or even knew about despite living in that city during five years of its existence. It’s not the most compelling doc of its kind – ironically, Other Music was in the shadow of the Tower Records on 4th Street, and the doc eulogizing that chain, All Things Must Pass, was better than this one too.
A gorgeous, intimate documentary, shot over several years, about a group of housing project denizens in Scotland. Also a festival award winner, Scheme Birds was directed by Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin. Be ready for some heavy, heavy, Scottish accents – this is one of those movies in which there are constant subtitles, even though everyone is speaking English.
A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem
Directed by Yu Gu, A Woman’s Work is an infuriating look at the way the NFL exploits cheerleaders, often paying them next to nothing and treating them like they should be happy to be there. It’s compelling, even if much of this has been reported before, and it will give you reasons to resent Roger Goodell that have nothing to do with concussions or Deflategate.
Probably the first and only movie you will ever see about a French female bodybuilder, this film, directed by Elsa Amie, stars Julia Föry as Lea Pearl, whose son shows up on the eve of a major competition. A fascinating premise, but the cinematographer sort of put me off of it.
This film directed by Tom Harper, has an old-as-the-hills premise about an underdog who succeeds in music. But what separates this one from the likes of Purple Rain, Eight Mile, and their many imitators is that the heroine (Jessie Buckley) was born in the wrong country – a working-class Scottish woman who favors American country music. A well-told story, even if the ending feels a bit unearned.
Framing John Delorean
They could have made a documentary about John Delorean, the colorful businessman who launched a quixotic effort to create a new American car company but lost it all in a bizarre drug scandal. Or they could have made a feature film, with actors. Instead, directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce split the difference, combining a traditional documentary with reenactment scenes starring Alec Baldwin as DeLorean. It’s a very entertaining tale of the man who created the famous Back to the Future car, but it could have subtracted all of the Baldwin material and not lost much of anything at all.
The Dominican Dream
Directed by Jonathan Hock, one of the signature directors of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, this film does one of the things 30 for 30 does best, which is filling in the backstory of an athlete or team or event that you sort of remember from the ’90s. This time, it’s Felipe Lopez, the New York City basketball phenom of the 1990s who never quite fulfilled the early promise that landed him a Sports Illustrated cover as a college freshman.
With 30 minutes left, I couldn’t remember whether or not Lopez ever played in the NBA. Then I was reminded that he played a couple of years for my favorite team.
This doc, which really should’ve been called Herzog/Gorbachev, consists of footage from a series of interviews of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet premier, by filmmaker Werner Herzog. The 88-year-old Gorbachev tells stories from his rise, his premiership, and eventually of the fall of communism, and while there’s nothing especially surprising about what he says, it’s fascinating just to hear the man talk. There are not, however, any fireworks between him and Herzog.
Nomad: In the Steps of Bruce Chatwin
Werner Herzog’s other doc at the festival is closer to pure, uncut Werner. Herzog travels around to various spots visited by his writer friend Chatwin, who died of AIDS in the late 1980s. Fans of Herzog’s trademark meditative voiceover will get plenty of that here, even if they’re unfamiliar with Chatwin’s work.
Knives and Skin
Their weird suburban neo-noir, directed by Jennifer Reeder, doesn’t really add up to much, but I did enjoy the ’80s singalongs. It’s your usual scary missing-girl stuff, with some supernatural elements, though the film doesn’t explore a lot of ideas that Twin Peaks (old and new) didn’t already cover.