The Best and Worst Documentaries of the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

Falling as close as it does on the calendar to Sundance and SXSW, the Tribeca Film Festival — which ended yesterday — doesn’t always get the first picks and highest-profile of narrative movies. But for years now, those who attend and cover the fest have watched it quietly become one of the best showcases around for documentary film, and this year’s 14th annual installment was no exception. Your film editor took in 21 of the nonfiction entries, and there’s barely a dud in the bunch; here’s a brief overview of what to keep an eye out for.

GET MAD

The Emperor’s New Clothes
“Everything you’re gonna hear in this film, you already know,” proclaims Russell Brand early in his freewheeling activist op-ed (sporting the unconventional “Made by Russell Brand and Michael Winterbottom” credit) about income inequality. And he’s right. His film doesn’t break news; it’s more in the style of Michael Moore’s work, an entertaining and rabble-rousing monologue, complete with lobby ambushes and street stunts. If that idea (or Brand himself, an oddly divisive figure) sounds off-putting, flee. But this viewer found it an entertaining and enlightening plea for protest and takedown of “free market fundamentalism.” It’s got its problems (the tone is a little condescending, especially with Winterbottom’s weird habit of slapping key words onscreen as Brand says them, as if we can’t hear), but it names names, points fingers, and posits solutions — and is funny too.

Requiem for the American Dream
From the very first shot — a big, full close-up of Noam Chomsky’s weathered, cynical face — the influence of Errol Morris is almost comically obvious; directors Peter D. Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott replicate the filmmaker’s style and structure (specifically of his Oscar winner The Fog of War) to illustrate the theories of the esteemed commentator and linguist, via his “10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power.” But if you’re gonna swipe a style, it may as well that one — and it’s a good fit for this cinematic Chomsky primer, which gets bigger and scarier and more upsetting the more he talks. It’s sharply edited and convincingly argued (though some of the animations are frustratingly literal), and while it doesn’t leave you with a lot of hope, it certainly manages to inspire rage and action.

FUNNY DOCS, FUNNY PEOPLE

Live From New York
It’s not as though we haven’t heard — via endless histories, memoirs, specials, even other documentaries — the story of how Lorne Michaels and a ragtag band of sketch players created a four-decades-and-counting institution. And to his credit, director Bao Nguyen knows that we know that story. So rather than constructing yet another chronological retelling of it, he devises a documentary that’s a free-form exploration of the themes that recur through that history, and looks at not only how SNL saw the world, but how the world saw SNL. It’s a refreshing approach, and makes for a breezy, entertaining, brainy film. (Read more here.)

Monty Python: The Meaning of Live
This entertaining and informative documentary from directors Roger Graef and James Rogan uses performance and backstage footage, as well as production and rehearsal clips, to tell the story of how Monty Python got back together (live on stage for the first time since the Hollywood Bowl shows in 1980) for a series of sold-out reunion dates at the O2 Arena in 2014. They were the first ones to admit they did it for the money (paying off a pricey lawsuit, specifically) and not for the art, which causes some self-doubt; Terry Gilliam admits that they’re all afraid of coming off like “a bunch of old farts trying to scrabble away to get some money.” The filmmakers look not just at the new shows but the role live performance has played throughout the careers, so there’s priceless footage, photos, and recordings from those old shows and the tours surrounding them. And they intercut history with the present, thus lending some real pathos to the struggles of the show and the personal dynamics that come to light. (Read more here.)

FUNNY DOCS, FUNNY PEOPLE

Misery Loves Comedy
Comic, podcaster, and actor Kevin Pollak addressed the age-old question/cliché of whether you have to be miserably unhappy to be funny with this loose documentary exploration. There’s no narration or archival footage — just a series of talking heads, intercut freely in a kind of oral history style, telling the story that’s all of their stories: childhood, influences, starting out in the business, bombing, camaraderie, and competition, on the way to wrestling with the big question at the center. There are (unsurprisingly) some funny stories and keen insights, and it’ll thrill comedy nerds — currently one of our most well-served audiences, but still. Yet the talking-head-after-talking-head format means that once you notice it’s almost entirely white people (I counted exactly three subjects who weren’t), it’s hard to notice anything else. I found the film’s near-total homogeneity to be genuinely distracting; your mileage may vary.

Roseanne for President
Roseanne Barr’s 2012 campaign for president on behalf of the “Peace and Freedom Party” (who? Exactly!) may’ve sounded like some kind of Pat Paulsen-style joke candidacy, but she wasn’t joking around — and, to her credit, she was one of the few nominees talking about legitimately progressive concerns like single-payer health care and income inequality. But it was also a fool’s errand, and while it’s depressing that this is the fate of any third-party candidate, it’s also a little alarming to see how Barr seemed to really think she had a shot at this thing. Eric Weinrib’s documentary is a compelling chronicle and a welcome reminder of Barr’s importance, though he skirts over a few tougher questions and opportunities for closer reflection. (Read more here.)

FAME AND FORTUNE

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
So here’s a bizarre and, these days, forgotten footnote to the Elvis legacy: Jimmy Ellis was a country and rockabilly singer who bore an uncanny physical and vocal resemblance to Mr. Presley. Not long after the King’s death, his old (and now sketchy) label Sun Records swiped the story of a fiction novel called Orion and rechristened Ellis with the moniker, sending him into the studio and out on the road — in a Lone Ranger-style mask — to perform songs in the Presley style, encouraging the conspiracy theory. It’s a fascinating story well told by director Jeanie Finlay, and a poignant examination of what it must’ve been like to end up so tantalizingly close to fame, and yet (in all those high schools and dive bars and local TV studios) so far from it at the same time.

Play It Forward
Director Andrea Nevins tells the warm, intimate, and surprisingly powerful story of brothers Chris and Tony Gonzalez. Tony was one of the best tight ends in NFL history, and Chris was the older brother who taught him the game (and harbored dreams of football fame himself). Nevins follows the siblings during what might be Tony’s last season, one spent pursuing the Super Bowl shot that’s always eluded him; at the same time, Chris is attempting to pass an EMT exam that might finally set him on the road to his own life, career, and identity. By the time Chris makes the playoffs, the emotional stakes are so high that the game really matters (and Nevins’ cameras spend more time trained on the faces of his family than the field). It’s a slim film (an hour and change), but by its end, you really feel as though you’ve come to know this family — taking pride in their successes, sharing in their disappointments.

DOCUMENTARY AND DIPLOMACY

All Eyes and Ears
Vanessa Hope’s documentary examination of relations between the US and China is suitably complicated and ambitious, though sometimes at the cost of narrative clarity. Its fatal flaw is attempting to tell the story via two different lenses: that of Jon Huntsman’s time spent there as American ambassador (with his Chinese-born daughter, and the film’s eventual narrator, in tow), and that of activist and self-trained lawyer Chen Guancheng. But Chen comes off as something of an afterthought, so thoroughly is the time and access in favor of the Huntsmans; you wish Hope would have just told one story or the other. That said, there’s plenty to chew on here, and it’s not the total love letter to Huntsman that you might expect. It’s a fine introduction to the issues, but just an introduction.

The Diplomat
Richard Holbrooke was, in many ways, the quintessential public servant, putting in nearly 50 years of government week, specifically in the state department and other foreign policy apparatus. He died suddenly in 2010; this profile by his son David is an attempt to both document his staggering career, and to get to know a father who was often off saving the world. He goes through his dad’s archives and retraces his steps, using documents, journals, interviews, and a deep well of archival footage. It moves fast, both generating suspense (particularly in the long centerpiece section on his crowning achievement, his mission in Bosnia) and packing in a lot of information. But it’s most valuable in the raw, candid material about his frustrating work on the Afghanistan conflict, which becomes a portrait, and a bit of an indictment, of the role personality plays in politics and policy.

DOCS THAT WILL GIVE YOU EVEN MORE REASONS TO WORRY ABOUT COPS

Thought Crimes
One of the biggest recent New York tabloid sensations was the story of Gilberto Valle, the “Cannibal Cop” who allegedly planned to kidnap, murder, and eat several young women. Erin Lee Carr’s unsettling documentary rescues the case from its sick-joke resting state, revealing the complicated questions at its center: defining the line between online fantasy and IRL acting-out, the trickiness of online interactions, the perhaps subtle differences between stopping crimes and policing thought. There are a few stylistic bugaboos and a couple of cheap edits, but this one really gets under your skin, re-examining the case from multiple perspectives, making one persuasive argument before turning it over and reframing the whole thing. Chilling, gripping, and tough.

Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle
If you’re like me, the extent of your knowledge about TASERs is probably limited to three things: 1. “Don’t tase me, bro!”; 2. Easy comic device in movies like The Hangover; and 3. effective law enforcement tool. Nick Berardini’s complex and insightful documentary takes a good, hard look at the third presumption, examining how “TASER-happy” police and rather dishonest training and research have resulted in over 300 TASER-related deaths. Sifting through promo materials, dash-cam videos, recordings of encounters, and (surprisingly riveting) videotaped depositions, Berardini mounts a searing, direct, thought-provoking case; his film is meticulous and fascinating.

RECOMMENDED—WITH RESERVATIONS

CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap
The subject of Robin Hauser Reynolds’s documentary is so vital — the absence of women in tech, and specifically in the growing and vital work of coding — that it’s a shame it’s so stylistically slavish to the most irritating tropes of the activist documentary form. Yes, all your old favorites are here, from the pre-title thesis sequence to the animated factoid inserts to the closing “call to action” web link, and boy, when you’re aware of those clichés, it is some job to let them slide. But if you can, there’s much to learn and value here, as Reynolds takes this hyper-specific area and uses it as the window in to a wider discussion of sexism, perception, bro culture, and stereotype breaking. The intentions are good and the urgency is genuine; I just wish filmmakers would try to find a new way to approach and address these topics. (Read more here.)

WORST OF THE FEST

Prescription Thugs
Among the profound insights shared by filmmaker Chris Bell (Bigger, Stronger, Faster) in this mind-blowing exposé of the prescription drug industry: “They’re destroying families.” (GET OUT.) “These doctor seem to be more concerned with profit than with healing.” (YA DON’T SAY.) “For Big Pharma, money is good.” (ALERT THE MEDIA.) These and other insights may come as a surprise to someone who knows absolutely nothing about this story — or who doesn’t watch Last Week Tonight, where John Oliver took down the industry with more wit and precision in 15 minutes than Bell can muster in 90. Along the way, he leverages a family tragedy and his own addiction to score cheap dramatic points, conveying it all in a stock-footage-and-naïve-voiceover style swiped wholesale from Michael Moore. One of his interview subjects sums it up best, answering one of Bell’s asinine and obvious questions: “Everybody who’s watching this knows the answer to that.”

BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNERS-UP)

Among the Believers
From the opening scene of a schoolboy (five years old, six tops) reciting the incendiary proclamation he’s learned at his madrassa — “We will destroy you in the name of jihad,” that kinda thing — there’s plenty to be disturbed and frightened by in this documentary account of the bloody and horrifying battle for the soul of Pakistan. Filmmakers Mohammed Naqvi and Hemal Trivedi are granted extraordinary access to the Red Mosque madrassa network, which teaches its young pupils to learn the Quran and then die for it. The film doesn’t scrimp on the scary details, though some hope is offered in the counterpoint of one poor educator trying to build and run a real school, and the stories of those who are speaking out against the system. A remarkable peek behind this seldom-lifted veil.

Dream/Killer
Andrew Jenks directs (and former MSNBC personality Dylan Rattigan produces) this fascinating, meticulous, and ultimately moving documentary account of an innocent man, wrongly accused — catnip for this viewer, admittedly. Ryan Ferguson was convicted of a random 2001 murder, almost entirely based on the account of a friend who said he was there, but whose testimony (savvily intercut with his interrogation tapes) is questionable at best and manufactured at worst. Ferguson’s father Bill spent the next nine and a half years tirelessly working to get that conviction overturned, and though an ace true crime documentary (bracingly told via interviews, police tapes, trial footage, and the like), Dream/Killer is, at its heart, the story of a father’s persistence, dedication, and love.

Promotional image for "(T)ERROR"

BEST OF THE FEST

5. (T)ERROR
Saeed, aka Shariff, doesn’t like to be classified as an FBI informant, explaining, “I consider myself a surveyor/operative.” Whatever the semantics, this former Black Panther and convicted thief now works for the feds, going undercover in Muslim communities to root out would-be terrorists. He justifies the work by claiming to be a good Muslim protecting the faith, but more often than not, he mentions the money, and if Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s fly-on-the-wall documentary were just a personality profile of this endlessly contradictory and frankly delusional man, it would be worth seeing. But it goes further than that in the back half, taking several unexpected turns as the investigation Saeed is conducting goes up in smoke. A truly thoughtful film, and a troubling one.

4. Democrats
Director Camilla Nielsson spent three years in Zimbabwe, documenting the drafting of a new constitution following decades of unrest, corruption, and political protest. She focuses on the two negotiators from the ZANU-PF and MDC-T factions, providing a ground-level view of the messy, difficult, and even dangerous business of fixing a country. Unobtrusively yet painstakingly detailing the dirty tricks, negotiation, and violence that unfold, Nielsson deftly demonstrates both the large implications and the personal (sometimes petty) interests that motivate them.

Still image from "The Wolfpack"

BEST OF THE FEST

3. In My Father’s House
Rapper and writer Che “Rhymefest” Smith and his wife were looking to buy a home in Chicago when they found the house his father — who’d abandoned him as a child — lived in. They bought it, and then discovered (in a twist so neat a screenwriter would be afraid to float it) that his father was homeless. So Smith tracks down his estranged father, who’s a warm guy, a big hugger, and a hopeless drunk, and decides to try and help him get his life back together. What follows is complicated and emotionally fraught, with no easy roles; there’s a real tension as you wait for something to go wrong (and, with alcoholics, something always does). And Che isn’t always a model father himself, and seems at times to push his father to screw up. Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; The Trials of Daryl Hunt) capture scenes of extraordinary candor and quiet intensity, creating a work of real depth and heartbreaking inevitability.

2. The Wolfpack
In many ways, the Angulo family are ideal documentary subjects: their father keeps them shut in and homeschooled in their Lower East Side public housing unit, aware of the world around them only via the movies that they vociferously consume. So they’re open to her camera; they only know the world through its lens, and since they spend all of their time escaping their reality by recreating those movies, there’s no worry of them falsely “performing” for the camera. They’re always performing. Their lo-fi, Be Kind Rewind-style reenactments of Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight are charming, sure, but director Crystal Moselle treats them as the respites that they are. Around them, she uses unsettling music, home movies, and interview snippets to create a sense of unease — appropriately, as this is, for all intents and purposes, a hostage situation. Impressively assembled and ultimately empowering, Moselle’s film is both a tribute to the power of the movies and a reminder that a fictional escape is no substitute for the real thing.

Still image from "In Transit"

BEST OF THE FEST

1. In Transit
The Empire Builder is the busiest long-haul passenger train route in America, a three-day journey from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest (or the other way around). The final film of the late, great Albert Maysles is a chronicle of the people on that route. They pass the time by playing cards, singing songs, conversing, and confessing. There are bits of mini-drama here and there (chief among them a young woman whose baby was due three days ago), but Maysles doesn’t get hung up on any of it. He just settles in to the rhythms of those long nights and bleary-eyed mornings, and gets into the get-up-and-go spirit of these trips, best summarized by a line employee’s memory of understanding the trains as a child: “It was just amazing to me that all these people were going someplace that I’d never been.” And in his own quiet way, Maysles captures that wonder. This is a lovely, perfect film.