The Best and Worst Films of the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

Fiction films can be a trickier proposition at the Tribeca Film Festival than their nonfiction counterparts; for some time the fest had a reputation as a home for pictures that made the slate for the movie stars they’d put on the red carpet rather than the quality they’d put on the screen. That rep has fallen away in recent years, bolstered by a stronger slate of under-the-radar indies and faves from other festivals. Here’s a look at the 22 new narrative movies your film editor saw, and how they stack up.

THE CLOSE CALL

Hyena

Gerard Johnson’s British crime drama concerns a dirty London cop (Peter Ferdinando) and the crew of ruthless Albanians he’s both investigating and partnering up with. It’s carefully constructed so that he’s a bad guy, but the “bad guys” are far worse, and Johnson works up some genuine suspense as his protagonist tries to stay a couple of steps ahead of both his fellow cops and his fellow criminals (the twist of it is, he’s a smart guy and, when he wants to be, a good investigator). But the filmmaker occasionally lingers too long on the ugly business happening on the side, particularly a graphic rape scene that’s just too upsetting for what is, when you get down to it, a cop thriller.

Dianna Agron in "Bare"

GO INDIE
Studio movies are notoriously short on nuanced roles for women, but independent films like these are helping pick up the slack.

Bare

A young woman (Dianna Agron) stuck in a perpetual adolescence wanders, at the suggestion of a mysterious stranger (Paz de la Huerta), into the strip club on the edge of her small town and discovers a side of herself she didn’t know she had. I know, I know, you’ve heard this one before — but writer/director Natalia Leite has a keen sense of the rhythms of these lives, and the way that someone who’s clearly trouble can seem exciting and exotic, sometimes simply by suggesting something different. As that someone, de la Huerta is sort of terrible (she’s clearly on hand more for her presence than her hazy/mushy line readings); luckily for the movie, Agron is anything but. It’s a revelatory piece of work, full of moments small and large that are less like performance than eavesdropping.

Come Down Molly

A young mother (Eleanore Hendricks), in the midst of something resembling a breakdown, flees to a remote cabin to spend a weekend with the gang of guys she hung with in her tomboy days. They take her back, like some kind of time machine; they all enjoy some mushrooms, and the movie mellows out with them, as our protagonist airs out some weirdness and makes a few unexpected discoveries. Writer/director Gregory Kohn lets this section meander a bit too long (even for a generous soul like me), but he’s getting at some uncomfortable truths about parenthood and responsibility; his film is casually funny and thankfully wise.

MOVIE STAR MEDIOCRITY

Good Kill

Ethan Hawke is excellent in a role of tricky opacity in this story of Air Force drone operators, fighting the War on Terror like it’s a first-person shooter from behind a computer in Las Vegas. It feels like something of a spiritual sequel to writer/director Andrew Niccol’s excellent Lord of War, but without enough of that film’s moral and narrative ambiguity; you’ve seen his troubled marriage a million times before (most recently in American Sniper, whose arrival in multiplexes so close to this one is certainly a handicap), and his commanding officer, well played by Bruce Greenwood, has a touch of Sorkin-itis (entertainingly written dialogue that feels, too often, like soapboxing). There are plenty of fine scenes, the drone strikes are appropriately tense, and Zoe Kravitz is an A-plus as the newbie who quickly loses her idealism. But considering the talent involved, it’s a disappointment.

Tumbledown

Rebecca Hall is the widow of an enigmatic singer/songwriter, trying to move on with her life; Jason Sudeikis is the motorcycle-riding academic who wants to write a book about her dearly departed. You could take a guess as to where this winds up, and you’d probably be right — which is a shame, since it’s such a fundamentally nice movie, with two endlessly agreeable performers at its center. There’s a lot in here that works; Hall is terrific, Sudeikis (as we well know by now) can give even the most pat of lines a tight spin, and the music sounds exactly right. But there’s an artificiality and predictability that it just can’t transcend, no matter how hard its engaging leads try.

PARENTAL NIGHTMARE FUEL
Maybe these movies wouldn’t have have gotten under my skin like they did if they weren’t about babies and children in danger. Act accordingly!

Hungry Hearts

There may’ve been other films at Tribeca that were cleaner or more tonally even, but I didn’t see one more legitimately harrowing or upsetting than this deeply unpleasant and unquestionably effective drama from director Saverio Costanzo. A young, good-looking couple meet, fall in love, and get pregnant in New York City, and it all seems so lovely and hopeful — until the baby comes, and the mother (Alba Rohrwacher) becomes obsessed with keeping him “pure” in matters of food, nutrition, and medicine. The word “vaccination” is never uttered, but it’s easy to read it as a commentary on that particular movement, and the hippie-knows-best parenting surrounding it; Costanzo beautifully employs an intimate, simple, almost Dogme 95 aesthetic, and then turns it on its head to create a worthy entry in the canon of parental horror. Adam Driver is bracing as the father, trying so hard to be reasonable and kind, but driven into a dark place of desperate hopelessness. It feels like a couple of key scenes are missing and the ending is a bit of a fumble, but it packs a wallop nonetheless.

Meadowland

The subject matter is bleak — a young couple’s son is kidnapped, and a year later they’re still in a free fall — and the grayness of the story is matched by the gloomy, overcast aesthetics. It all feels a little studied (the monologues play like capital-M Monologues), and the lack of directorial restraint sometimes hangs the performers out to dry. But seriously, what performers. Olivia Wilde crafts a forceful portrait of a desperate woman’s descent into self-destruction, and Luke Wilson seems to locate the quiet sadness that’s so often lurked under his nice-guy characterizations. Supporting players are equally impressive (Elisabeth Moss plays way against type, and well); the whole movie may not quite hold, but as an actors’ showcase, it’s hard to beat.

RECOMMENDED—WITH RESERVATIONS

Franny

There’s such a fascinating nervous tension happening through the first half or so of Andrew Renzi’s character drama that you kind of don’t want to know what’s really going on; I just can’t overstate the value of the unsteady ground he puts us on, and the feeling (particularly in a key scene or two) that you don’t know where on earth it’s going. Richard Gere is in top form as an eccentric philanthropist attempting — perhaps a bit too strenuously — to reconnect with the daughter of his departed best friends. He veers from total confidence to over-sharing to whispering desperation, never revealing too much, but never seeming to withhold either. He’s a tough nut to crack, which makes both the character and the actor more interesting, and while the picture succumbs to convention at the conclusion (and thus falls apart a little), it’s still an intriguing character study and a fine showcase for a perpetually (and inexplicably) underrated actor.

Mojave

“D’you know which one of us is the bad guy?” asks Oscar Isaac, near the conclusion of William Monahan’s witty, bizarre, and expectation-thwarting meditation on masculinity, iconography, religion, and storytelling. Isaac is easily the best thing in it, coming on like some sort of campfire-philosophizing desert rat before revealing a true sociopath lurking underneath, following spoiled filmmaker Garrett Hedlund out of the desert and into Hollywood for a battle of wits and wills. Monahan’s dialogue is lyrical and razor-sharp, though the Hollywood satire stuff feels shipped in from another movie, and the flick gets a little sticky in the third act as conventional thriller elements arrive. Still, it’s a delicious turn from Mr. Isaac; I’m starting to think this kid might have a future in the moving pictures.

Bill Corbett, Michael J. Nelson, and Kevin Murphy at the Tribeca Film Festival

MOST FUN

Rifftrax Live: The Room

Former MST3K writer/performers Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett took apart Tommy Wiseau’s inexplicable psychological drama several years back, but their new live version — performed at Tribeca in advance of a theatrical simulcast in May — came loaded with new references (their Bill Cosby joke got one of the loudest “OHHHHH”s I’ve ever heard at a comedy show), a couple of event-specific shout-outs (“those are the tears of Tribeca entrants who made good movies you will never actually see”), and the energy of a wild, enthusiastic crowd of MiSTies. And if they’re repeating themselves, it’s understandable; The Room is basically the perfect riff target, thanks to its earnest solemnity, its nonsensical dialogue (which sounds like a stilted melodrama run through Google Translate and back), and the long, awkward pauses, which they’re happy to fill with some of their liveliest gags.

BIGGEST PUZZLE

Dirty Weekend

Two Tribecas ago, Neil LaBute came back from several years wandering through the bad movie wilderness and presented Some Velvet Morning, a welcome return to his original scathing, ruthless, envelope-pushing form. His latest, which reunites him with his tremendous Velvet leading lady Alice Eve, is neither another “typical” LaBute nor the total departure of his other efforts. It’s a bit hard to figure out, frankly, with many of the familiar pleasures (snappy dialogue, unexpected turns, a been-there feel for the world it in habits), but at the service of a story that simmers without quite boiling over (by design, it seems). It doesn’t have the raw power of his best work, but it’s a mussy and odd picture where everything seems happily up for grabs.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Slow Learners

It’s downright tragic, how well this one starts — so smart and funny and likable — before the sound of plot gears grinding overpowers the affability and charming byplay of stars Sarah Burns and Adam Pally. They play a pair of dorky co-workers and friends (and only friends) who decide to radically revamp themselves, creating crazy/dangerous personas (“I wanna be sex-in-the-bathroom people,” she says) to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex. All the expected complications arrive, and (even worse) without any real motivation or explanation, but merely because that’s when they’re supposed to happen. Some funny scenes, and Burns and Pally have got the movie star goods, but (particularly seen the same week as the trope-skewering Man Up) this one gets clobbered by familiarity.

Aloft

There’s much to admire in Claudia Llosa’s family drama: the ambitious parallel-story structure, the direct and up-close style, the enigmatic nature of Mélanie Laurent’s character (and performance), and the work of Jennifer Connelly, which plays well into her specialty of strength through tears. But the film is so muted and low-key that it courts monotony — until the end, when a rather untethered Cillian Murphy goes so far over the top as to knock the film off its bearings. It’s not a bad film, per se, and it’s full of good scenes; it’s just oddly forgettable, especially considering how hard everyone’s trying to make an impression.

Sam Waterston and Glenn Close in "Anesthesia"

WORST OF THE FEST (RUNNER-UP)

Anesthesia

In the wake of Crash‘s 2005 Oscar win, there was a rash of similarly structured (and similarly heavy-handed) multi-story, big cast explorations of The Way We Live Now: The Air I Breathe, Powder Blue, American Gun, etc. And if you thought we were done with those, well, I’ve got bad news for you. Writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson (who, once upon a time, made great movies like Eye of God) crafts a New York ensemble piece that plays less like drama and more like a checklist: he tackles cancer, drug abuse, alcoholism, self-mutilation, teen sex, adultery, and random violent crime, all with sledgehammer subtlety and comical overkill. It’s 90 minutes of people reciting speeches at each other, and the fact that those people are played by actors as skilled as Glenn Close, Sam Waterston, Kristen Stewart, Michael K. Williams, Mickey Sumner, Gretchen Moll, and Corey Stoll makes it all the more wasteful and frustrating.

WORST OF THE FEST

Scherzo Diabolico

Look, make a movie about a depraved sociopath if you want to, but at least do it with some artistry. There’s little of that — or wit, or insight, or narrative logic — to be found in the latest from cult director Adrian Garcia Bogliano, in which a henpecked nebbish kidnaps a teenage girl and spends a few days brutalizing and humiliating her. Of course, she gets her gory revenge, but in about the silliest manner imaginable; on the way there, we’re treated to sloppy storytelling, ickily leering camerawork, lousy makeup and effects, and several inexplicable plot turns. Extreme cinema fans may well glom on to its gory aesthetic and general nihilism, but it left this viewer wanting a shower.

BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNERS-UP)

Far From Men

There’s something fascinating — and giddily devil-may-care — about the severity with which Viggo Mortensen has dispensed with the notion of mainstream stardom and gone way off the grid; other actors might slum it in a medium-budget indie or two, but this guy’s going off and making foreign films. In fact, his latest, a Camus adaptation for French director David Oelhoffen, bears a passing resemblance to this spring’s Spanish-language Juaja: a contemplative frontier journey of complicated morality, with Mortensen acting entirely in a convincing (to these ears, at least) foreign tongue. Not that the language matters all that much anyway; Oelhoffen has a wonderfully simple sense of visual storytelling, punctuating his protagonists’ arduous journey through a rubble-littered landscape with flashes of absurdist humor and scarily visceral shoot-outs where every bullet makes you duck. It’s a moody, masterful movie.

Men Go to Battle

The hipster comedy of awkwardness meets the Civil War drama (yes, you read that right) in this shambling, impressionistic, and absurdly funny film from director Zachary Treitz. It’s almost off-putting in its obliqueness, and eschews a conventional narrative build for something looser and more vignette-based, frequently switching gears and focus but never its specific, peculiar tone. The result is an odd but invigorating movie, and an intoxicatingly gutsy and personal take on historical fiction.

BEST OF THE FEST

5. Maggie

Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t traditionally make what we think of as “film festival movies” — quite the opposite, in fact. But as he closes in on 70 and finds his mainstream commercial appeal waning, you can understand why he might wanna take a shot at something a little riskier. What’s interesting about Henry Hobson’s zombie thriller/family farm drama mash-up is how it meets him halfway; he’s still working in genre movies, just one with a bit more complexity and heart. John Scott 3’s script is clean and efficient (though some of the dialogue clangs with cliché); Hobson’s direction is warm and evocative, at times calling up visions of a Malick horror flick. Maggie‘s ultimate audience is hard to guess at — it’s probably too slow for horror fans, and too gross for indie drama types. But it’s a surprising and moving picture, and an interesting new direction for a star who stopped surprising us quite some time ago. (Read more here.)

4. King Jack

Felix Thompson’s modest indie drama pithily evokes the humiliation parade that is the teen years via the story of Jack, an outcast, semi-delinquent, and general asshole. Thompson remembers what it feels like to be this age and alone; he also captures the difficulty and desperation of trying to interact naturally with the opposite sex (there’s a “truth or dare” scene here that’s so accurate, I could barely watch). It’s a tough, honest movie that takes a naturalistic approach to some admittedly familiar material.

BEST OF THE FEST

3. Man Up

A self-described “sad, single loser” (Lake Bell, sublime) is mistaken for a blind date by a giddy fellow (Simon Pegg, likewise) and decides to roll with it, which sounds like a fairly typical romantic-comedy setup. But then, the wildest thing happens: about a half-hour into the movie, she fesses up, diffusing the Roger Ebert-branded Idiot Plot. And then things get really interesting. Screenwriter Tess Morris and director Ben Palmer manage to create both a clever deconstruction of the romantic comedy and an ace representation of it; it reverses the traditional first-hate-then-love trajectory, has a wildly improvisational spirit that flies in the face of the genre’s set-in-stone ethos, and features the finest Duran Duran dance scene this side of Donnie Darko. And the duo at its center couldn’t be better together; you want them to get together, and are glad that the movie doesn’t want that to happen in the traditional, trite way.

2. Grandma

Lily Tomlin hasn’t had a leading role in a movie in nearly 30 years (since 1988’s Big Business, for God’s sake), and maybe that’s a commentary on the state of the work available to Women of a Certain Age — or maybe she was just waiting for a role as good as this one. As a once “marginally well-known” poet trying to help her granddaughter dig up a few hundred bucks for an abortion, Tomlin is sharp, funny, and slightly (but not in a maudlin way) poignant. Writer/director Paul Weitz builds a swoony, shaggy picture around her, as this monetary search becomes something of a journey through her past. An excellent supporting cast shines; this one is mellow, kind, and just plain good. (Read more here.)

BEST OF THE FEST

1. Slow West

“Once upon a time, 1870 to be exact…” So begins Michael Fassbender’s narration for this stirring, moving, and thrillingly eccentric Western from writer/director John Maclean. That opening frames it as a kind of fairy tale, and it’s best approached in that spirit; it’s a myth, full of archetypes and oddness and surprising wit, yet as tense and alive as the best frontier pictures. Performances are top-notch across the board, particular Fassbender’s lived-in work as an outlaw with a conscience, and Ben Mendelsohn’s show-stopping turn as an outlaw without one. Vivid, sparse, and frequently stunning.