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Brandon’s 2009 Tribeca Film Festival Recap

In the case of the Tribeca Film Festival, less is most certainly more. Slimmed down considerably from its mid-decade girth, it’s a much easier to navigate experience than in the days when it might take three subway connections or an exorbitantly priced taxi ride to get to consecutive screenings at venues that stretched from Lower Manhattan to Kip’s Bay. Gone are the days of 18-dollar ticket prices and interchangeable Edward Burns movies. After having gone to the festival for five years, the last couple as a journalist, I’m all too aware of its programming peaks and pitfalls. Yet David Kwok and his team, amidst the pre-festival departure of Peter Scarlet (amid rumors of long time acrimony between him and co-founder Jane Rosenthal) and shocking addition of former Sundance chief Geoff Gilmore, have avoided most of them this year.

While a few clunkers surely found their way into the program of 80 or so features and just over 60 shorts, I didn’t see any. Even a film like Jake Goldberger’s Don McKay or The Polish Brothers’ Stay Cool, unseen by yours truly because they seemingly exhibited everything that has been wrong with the archetypal “Tribeca” film (tepid “indie” comedy with a cast of fading stars by a workmanlike, but uninspiring indie “auteur” that probably got rejected by Sundance), had a few lukewarm supporters among festival attendees. Regardless, the festival built on a solid ‘08 edition and one hopes they continue in this vain.

I saw about a quarter of what was on display this year and I’m happy to report that the jury, in many cases, got it right—Iranian Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, which emerged as the World Narrative Competition winner, was easily the most visceral and thought provoking of the narratives I saw across all of the festival’s various sections. A riff on L’Avventura of sorts, it presents us with a trio of upwardly mobile Iranian couples, each with a child in tow, who retreat to a broken down yet exclusive villa on the country’s northern shores. A friend of the three couples, the handsome Ahmad, has returned from Germany. The bossy and childish Sepide, who arranged the getaway, is determined to set him up with the title character, who teachers her child in nursery school. Once they arrive however, its clear that Elly has a number of other secrets as well.

To say much more would be to effectively ruin what is a fascinating and morally challenging experience, but like Mr. Antonioni’s film, someone who is deeply unhappy disappears, foisting tragedy on those who remain, mostly because of their own inability to confront the truth of their circumstances, defer to the desire of others and/or face culpability for their dubious actions.

Emerging Narrative Filmmaker winner North, by Norwegian Rune Langlo, is a pretty satisfying if derivative spin on the “road movie,” or the “loner, seemingly past his prime, must journey to reclaim something he lost/never knew he had” narrative. This timeless, mythic, episodic mode of storytelling is one filmmakers never seem to grow weary of and often find novel ways of reinventing, as anyone who’s appreciated Paris, Texas, Broken Flowers or The Straight Story, let alone The Odyssey or Alice in Wonderland, can attest to. Besides smart writing, the genre almost always depends on a strong protagonist to carry us past its hoariest clichés and Langlo has certainly found one in Anders Christensen, a burly, blonde actor of great skill who is sort of a younger, fatter Philip Seymour Hoffman type. He really makes us care about his self-medicating ski lift operator who, five years after an injury that ruined his promising skiing career, learns he has a son in Norway’s northern provinces. Langlo shows off a lean comedic style in his visuals that, despite their narrative pragmatism, make room for moments of great visual poetry in the snowy Norwegian mountains.

Damien Chazelle’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is a fun, DIY mumblemusical that, despite its rough hewn 16mm B&W aesthetic, is very much a movie of this time and moment. It concerns a relatively young, black and talented trumpet player’s pseudo-romance with a white woman he has a brief encounter with on a park bench. They spend most of the movie in the company of others—Guy takes up with a pushy girl named Elena, who pronounces herself Guy’s girlfriend at some unarticulated point, while Madeline considers moving to New York, where she has an older, persistent suitor. Never less than charming and just short enough to allow its paper-thin conceit not to feel overlong, it’s a whimsical experience, my favorite film of its kind in some time, and not just because, like the protagonists’ favorite song, “I Left My Heart in Cincinnati.”

Tribeca had some pretty lame-o midnight movie action last year (anybody remember The Objective? I thought not), but as many across the blogosphere have been more than happy to report, The House of the Devil is good fun. I have perhaps slightly less affection than Tully does for Ti West’s ’80s horror trope revue, but it’s effective in all the ways movies like this ought to be and perfectly renders the look of the period’s horror films, down to the grainy texture of its images. Scott Sanders’ blaxploitation romp Black Dynamite should have been more in my wheelhouse, but a week after seeing it and finding it often quite funny, I’m still wondering why it was made. I’m sure Sony will make a killing off of it this summer though.

Hirakazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking is a masterpiece, perhaps the only one on display at Tribeca, but you’ll get to hear more about that in August.

On the doc side, the two strongest pieces I saw were Cropsey, which I wrote about last week, and Transcendent Man, which I covered over on the Filmmaker Blog. The most fun I had, however, was certainly the Thursday night screening of Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s Soul Power. Using footage of the 1974 Kinshasa concert that was initially shot for Leon Gast’s Rumble in the Jungle documentary When We Were Kings, Soul Power shows in great detail and brisk humor how the concert, which couldn’t be postponed after the delay of the legendary Ali/Forman fight, was a central gathering of some of America’s most luminous musical and cultural figures, including The Greatest. This is a sparkling concert doc, immediately thrust up there with the all-time greats like Stop Making Sense and Gimme Shelter, and a wonderful companion piece to the late Gast’s Oscar winner.

Although I preferred Nicole Opper’s Off and Running (read my take at Cinema Echo Chamber), her wistful and touching portrait of the rocky coming-of-age that a black teen, raised by white Jewish lesbians, suffers and triumphs over in Brooklyn, Best New York Documentary winner Partly Private, by Danae Elon, which concerns one couple’s struggle with the ethical implications of having two boys circumcised, was a worthy recipient. Elon, a relatively secular person who nonetheless identifies as culturally Jewish, travels the world investigating the ancient practice in the midst of her back-to-back pregnancies, finding more and more to make her skeptical and alarmed by her more traditional husband’s desires to have their children’s foreskins removed.

Lastly, Tribeca has garnered a reputation as a great place for experimental docs and shorts; this year was no disappointment. Although a projector malfunction caused me to miss most of the Human Landscapes shorts block, which featured new work by Avant-Garde greats like Ken Jacobs and Paula Gaitan, I did catch Gustav Deutsch’s feature-length found footage film FILM IST. A girl & a gun and was largely enthralled by this erotic, color tinted reconstruction. Using large swaths of silent films (the director claims he viewed 2500 different movies in order to find material for the picture) and dozens of archived sex films from the Kinsey Institute, most from the early years of the 20th century, Deutsch repurposes them into a dreamy, hypnotic narrative involving nuclear annihilation and many peculiar forms of titillation.

— Brandon Harris

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Brandon Harris works nebulously in the world of American Independent Film as a critic and journalist, producer and director, writer and educator. The Cincinnati, Ohio native is a Contributing Editor for Filmmaker Magazine and teaches part time at the New York Film Academy. You can catch his reviews here at H2N and over on his site Cinema Echo Chamber. He resides in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which is also the setting for his forthcoming feature film debut, Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa.

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