The Best and Worst Documentaries of the Tribeca Film Festival

The common wisdom, particularly from its naysayers, on the comparatively young Tribeca Film Festival – this year’s fest, which concluded yesterday, was only the 15th – is that it hasn’t “found its identity” yet. And that’s easy enough to say; particularly in the festival’s early years, there seemed to be a program-everything-and-see-what-sticks philosophy. But over the past few fests, Tribeca has emerged as a go-to stop for films (and filmgoers) seeking out the best in non-fiction filmmaking. Here are some of the best documentaries we saw this year.

ARTISTES

The famous creator bio-doc has become one of the more prevalent and reliable standbys in non-fiction; a pair of high-profile titles showed how to do it right, and, y’know, less right.

By Sidney Lumet

The very first close-up of the late filmmaker Sidney Lumet, looking thoughtful and contemplative, prompted more of an emotional response than I’d expected; I miss this man, and I miss his work. Nancy Buirski’s new documentary is drawn from a previously unseen 2008 interview – and drawn only from that, eschewing (as with the forthcoming and similarly personal De Palma) other voices, in interviews or narration, to let this one man tell his own story. But it’s not a conventional cradle-to-grave biography, or even top-to-bottom survey of the work; it’s less interview then conversation, floating non-chronologically yet organically from topic to topic and theme to theme. And the more he talks, the more it becomes clear that while Lumet’s mostly invisible touch and genre-hopping made him seem less a stylist than some of his contemporaries, his style wasn’t about aesthetics – it was about the big ideas, of rebellion and authority and family and society, that run through the entire, impressive filmography.

Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg

Marshall Fine’s documentary portrait of the stand-up trailblazer should be great, particularly for us comedy geeks. And yet it’s strangely unsuccessful, for a variety of reasons: peculiar clip selections that often land on mediocre moments and ride them out; a freewheeling chronology that (thankfully) eschews the common “I was born in” march but doesn’t replace it with any organizing principle; a vignette structure that’s meant to convey a looseness, but mostly mounts to disjointedness; and, consequently, a decidedly shallow snapshot. Celebrity testimonials are trotted out, heartbreaks and tribulations are dismissed as quickly as they’re addressed, and we’re never left with any sense of what makes this talented man tick. There’s plenty that works, but most of it – casually funny commentary on his daily routines, clips from contemporary and (still) very funny performances – feels closer to a reality show pilot than a portrait of any particular depth.