The Best and Worst Movies of the Tribeca Film Festival

Capsule reviews of 20 narrative highlights and lowlights, including "Rock’n Roll," "The Lovers," and "Abundant Acreage Available."

As we mentioned earlier today, sometimes the safest bets at Tribeca are the documentaries, and navigating the narrative slate can get a little tricky. But if you’re willing to take some chances among those titles, you’ll often find richly rewarding experiments in independent cinema, and gutsy actors taking thrilling risks.


GO TO THE MOVIES AND SEE THE WORLD
In which I went to contemporary Spain and medieval Ireland without leaving downtown Manhattan.

The Trip to Spain

After 2014’s The Trip to Italy, it looked like director Michael Winterbottom and writer/stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon could’ve spun this series out indefinitely – taking all the eating/joking/confessing trips they wanted to as many countries as they could imagine. I’m not quite as sure the formula is durable as that after the third outing; the seams show a bit, and there’s occasionally a feeling of obligation rather than inspiration. But those moments are fleeting, and this is, for the most part, a jaunty, funny, entertaining personal and geographical journey, brushing up against moments of truth that can sting. And, yes, they do the Michael Caine bit. (Full review here.)

Pilgrimage

Well, here’s a grim little item, in which a group of Irish monks are sent to accompany their ancient relic’s delivery to the Pope, only to have it stolen by bloodthirsty invaders. It takes a while to get going, establishing its mood and the coming-of-age story at it center (Tom Holland, your next Spider-Man, is the young monk who’s never left the monastery) at a deliberate pace. But director Brendan McDowney’s found his bearings by the time they lose the relic in a grimy, bloody, scary ambush in the woods, and tees up the subsequent moral dilemmas and fights-to-the-death with a combination of emotional intelligence and gory glee.

DARK COMEDIES
Some subject matter is just a little too offbeat for mainstream movies – thank goodness.

Take Me

Last week’s unexpected death of Jonathan Demme rang particularly loud as I was taking in this brisk black comedy from director/star Pat Healy, as it seems so clearly drawn from Demme’s Something Wild – particularly in its capability for wild story turns and tonal shifts, and willingness to tap into some real darkness. Healy is aces as the owner (and sole employee) of Kidnap Solutions LLC, which creates the “simulated experience of a high-stakes abduction”; Taylor Schilling goes for the gusto as his client/victim, who turns the whole enterprise into a neat game of who’s-conning-who. The broad opening scenes make it seem like a lighter movie than it is; hang in there, because it’s a ride.

My Friend Dahmer

“No, really, Jeffrey Dahmer was kinda funny” is an odd pitch for a movie, to be sure (or for the autobiographical graphic novel it’s based on), but this is a surprisingly effective movie – a ‘70s period piece (reveling in the wood-paneling aesthetic) in which young, lonely “Jeff” becomes a kind of absurdist mascot for a group of almost-friends in high school. But there’s always sadness to him, a sense of solitude, even when he’s around other people, and star Ross Lynch is unnervingly convincing in portraying how that isolation turned deadly. Writer/director Marc Meyers, like graphic novelist John Backderf, doesn’t try to do anything as impossible as “explain” Dahmer, but the film puts his ingredients together like a recipe: Social awkwardness, familiar discord, repressed sexuality, and mental illness. It works both as drama and postmortem, and never tilts towards one at the expense of the other. I’m still not quite sure how they made this work – but they did.

TOO REAL

Flames

The cool kids on social media say “too real” quite a lot, and that’s as apt a description as any for this stylized documentary/narrative hybrid, in which visual artist/filmmakers Zefrey Throwell and Josephine Decker document their brief but intense romance, and then attempt to revisit it, via film editing and after-the-fact couples therapy, to “talk through the death of our relationship.” There’s a fair amount of graphic sex, but the most uncomfortable and intimate moments are fully clothed. The filmmakers deftly get at how the first glow of infatuation allows you to easily put aside the little tics, affectations, and oversights that are often warning signs of later trouble, and how straight-up nasty you can get with the people you say you love. At one point, in a key argument, they just take the dialogue track out – by then, the particulars of what they’re saying don’t matter anyway. We’ve all been there, which is part of what makes this seemingly insular New York artist story so universal, and so affecting.

Hounds of Love

Ben Young’s feature debut is a marvel of construction, both narratively and visually – he tells the story of a serial killer couple’s last crime by deliberately withholding information and details, slowly revealing more layers of depravity, and uses chilling close-ups and point-of-view shots to put us uncomfortably close to these people, and then to the young woman they’ve kidnapped and brutalized. Thankfully, Young portrays the horror of her ordeal but dodges exploitation; he’s more interested in the dynamics of these three people, and lingers on reactions, quiet moments alone, and disturbing details. All three actors shine – under grueling circumstances – though Emma Booth is particularly impressive as the most complicated (and, perhaps, tragic) of them all.

Permission

The practicality of monogamy is a question that’s bound to rear its ugly head at some point in a long-term relationship, and the nicest surprise of Brian Crano’s romantic drama is that it treats a couple’s decision to have a little side sex not as a kink or a joke (odd coincidence: Jason Sudiekis, who appeared in dumb comedy called Hall Pass with the same premise, turns up here in a small role). It’s treated as a thing that could happen, and has, and Crano dives into that sticky psychological territory: the tiny half-moment when the lovers (Rebecca Hall and Dan Stevens) both really contemplate the arrangement for the first time, the adorable way they initially encourage each other, how their subsequent conversations become a minefield things not said and half-said. The pieces don’t all quite fit together, but this is nonetheless a thoughtful and credible movie that handles grown-up issues in a grown-up manner.

GREAT PERFORMANCES
The movies are great to meh, but all of them let their four-star casts shine.

The Boy Downstairs

Zosia Mamet was one of Girls’ irrefutable highlights, but she’s never really found a comparable big-screen showcase – until now. She’s likable, engaging, and terrific in this sweet romantic comedy/drama, and her comic timing is sharp as a tack; she plays a young writer who moves back to New York and realizes, after she’s already moved in, that her downstairs neighbor is the guy she broke up with (painfully) just before she left. She gets to play emotions of all shapes and sizes (charming neuroticism, stuttering awkwardness, confident drunkenness, shattered tenderness) and never skips a beat; it’s a wonderful performance, and writer/director Sophie Brooks has a good ear for everyday wit, and a good eye for lived-in detail.

Flower

Zoey Deutch is an actor of boundless charisma, terrific in Everybody Wants Some!!, even good in trash like Dirty Grandpa and Before I Fall. And it takes a skilled performer to pull off the tonal swings and complex relationships of this biting comedy/drama from director Max Winkler; it’s a whip-smart script with a scrappy, nasty sense of humor (it’s exec-produced by the East Bound and Down/Observe and Report crew, which should give you some idea of what you’re in for). It’s a tricky picture, and Winkler doesn’t quite stick the landing. Yet it’s full of great lines and small pleasures, particularly the performances, including yet another layered and memorable Kathryn Hahn turn.

GREST PERFORMANCES (CONT.)

Chuck

New Jersey club fighter Chuck Wepner briefly achieved celebrity status, twice: when he was plucked from obscurity to fight Muhammad Ali, and when that fight was used as the inspiration for Rocky. So this story of “the real Rocky” dodges familiarity by making familiarity part of the text, which is sort of genius. It also has the good sense not to take itself too seriously; Jim Gaffigan and Jason Jones turn up in supporting roles, and one of the four screenwriters is Jerry Stahl. One of the others is star Liev Schreiber, who’s flat out excellent at not only conveying Wepner’s neighborhood-guy charm, but at delivering his wry narration, which borders on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang levels of self-awareness. It’s less successful when it gets more serious, but when Chuck finally drops the bravado and talks straight, it has power; he hits a point when charm and semi-celebrity aren’t good enough, and that’s a real redemption arc.

Abundant Acreage Available

Angus McLachlan’s low-key character study is a bit of a throwback, reminiscent of those ‘80s save-the-farm movies, but “old-fashioned” isn’t exactly an insult here; this is a modest story, but one rooted in big emotions. (It’s also kind of a hoot that it sports an executive producer credit for Martin Scorsese – it’s hard to image a story further removed from his wheelhouse.) Amy Ryan and Terry Kinney, two of the finest character actors on the planet, turn in grounded and heartbreaking performances as brother and sister farmers, still mourning the recent loss of their father when three older men show up to lay a claim to their land. McLachlan’s absorbing script knows the sound of rural chit-chat and formality, the tensions and assurances of these interactions, the things they’re all dying to say but are just too polite to manage. Some of the plot turns stumble, but the mood is rich and the performances are excellent – particularly Ryan, who sounds notes that are quietly dazzling in their complexity.

BIG DISAPPOINTMENTS
Art isn’t math, and sometimes great cast plus gifted filmmaker don’t equal a great movie.

The Dinner

The tone and thrust of Oren Moverman’s adaptation of Howard Koch’s novel is damn near impossible to pin down, which can be a compliment, but isn’t here. What first seems a comedy/drama of manners – in which a smooth politician, his neurotic brother, and their wives meet for dinner at a comically fancy restaurant – descends into a complex web of interlocking narratives, flashbacks, and flashes-sideways. And within that wobbly construction, Moverman keeps going off on long, winding, borderline-inexplicable detours. Ultimately, they all amount to backstory the film doesn’t need. It’s a shame they didn’t trust the audience enough to just Virginia Woolf it, to lock us in with these four characters, and not let us out. Instead, it’s an choppy movie that’s somehow both too experimental and too safe.

Aardvark

A therapist – excuse me, “licensed clinical social worker” – finds herself awkwardly positioned between a patient and his TV-star brother in this odd, sometimes darkly funny, sometimes utterly stagnant comedy/drama from writer/director Brian Shoaf. He attracted a terrific cast – Jenny Slate (doing a very restrained, button-down kinda thing), Zachary Quinto (with misdemeanor-level bangs) and Jon Hamm (who sparks this picture to life whenever he shows up) – but there’s not much more to recommend; he’s trying to do something unexpected and audacious, but just doesn’t quite land it. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s so minor, it all but drifts away.

WORST OF THE FEST (RUNNER-UP)

My Art

Visual artist Laurie Simmons plays a socially awkward artist and teacher (as she presumably told daughter Lena Dunham, write what you know) and she displays, predictably enough, a striking eye for compositions and visual moods. Her feature debut is less successful when people are talking to each other. The dialogue is stilted, full of clumsy exposition, clumsily staged; it veers unsteadily from banal to overly “written,” and her actors don’t know what to do with it, so most lean broad. The second half is all but taken over (aside from a cheap crisis and barely half an ending) by her character’s recreations of famous film scenes, like A Clockwork Orange, Jules & Jim, and Some Like It Hot, which are like Max Fischer Players productions we’re supposed to believe are Serious Art. It’s an unfortunate move, tactically speaking – dropping in so many scenes from great movies just makes you wanna go watch those instead.

WORST OF THE FEST

Rock’n Roll

There’s a scene in this inside-showbiz comedy from writer/director/star Guillaume Canet, in which he rebuffs the idea of making a movie about his (real life) partner Marion Cotillard in favor of one about himself. “All about you?” asks his producer. “That’s a lame idea.” You see, it’s funny because it’s true! This tepid mid-life crisis flick finds Canet getting older and not feeling great about it, so he embarks on a series of hijinks to prove he’s still “rock ‘n roll.” But he’s mostly an unsympathetic asshole (and sorry, but good luck getting an audience to feel sexually sorry for a guy who goes home to Marion Cotillard). She gets a couple of good moments – an announcement, as she prepares for a role, that “I feel the character entering into me,” or her confession that “A good role needs an accent or a disability” – but she’s mostly reduced to a single joke that gets very old, very quickly. There’s probably a fair amount of this that’s just lost in translation, suffering from its unclear references or unfamiliar style, but as a filmmaker, Canet leans into the obvious most of the way, and then takes a bizarre closing turn to outright farce that sinks whatever goodwill we had left for this singularly distasteful piece of work.

The Circle

The staginess and artificiality of James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Dave Eggers’s novel seems, at first, like a choice – it’s set in the cult-y culture of the tech world, so much of the first act finds people spouting slogans and being their best version of themselves. But gradually, that stiffness reveals itself as just the way this movie is. Eggers and Ponsoldt (who co-wrote the script) clearly have Big Ideas they’d like to put across, and they have their characters articulate them, frequently, in language so blunt, they may as well be wearing sandwich boards. It’s a shame, because this is an enviable cast, and the occasional good scene hints at the social thriller or topical satire this could have been. Instead, it’s just kind of a mess. (Full review here.)

BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNERS-UP)

Thirst Street

The Tribeca film guide pushes the influences of European cinema of the ‘70s here – particularly Rainer Werner Fassbinder – and they’re right; director Nathan Silver’s hot colors, big emotions, and unapologetically flawed characters are right out of the playbook, not to mention the novelistic narration, wryly voiced by Anjelica Huston. But this isn’t just a game of spot-the-reference for cinephiles; Thirst Street works on its own terms, spinning the delicate and ultimately troubling tale of an American flight attendant and her ill-advised rebound relationship with a scuzzy Parisian. It’s one of those movies that starts uncomfortably close to a character and then drills down deeper, and star Lindsay Burdge is more than up to the challenge, crafting a performance that’s all of a piece with the film: fragile, sad, difficult, and yet strangely exhilarating.

Saturday Church

Writer/director Damon Cardasis’s feature directorial debut gets at something vivid and intense about the adversity of being young and closeted – to feel utterly alone and ashamed in this world, and to desperately search for permission to become comfortable in your own skin. In doing so, he shines a light on a subculture we don’t really see in mainstream cinema, as his painfully shy hero, Ulysses (Luka Kain) befriends a group of trans women and realizes a community is out there for him, beyond the tight boundaries of the life he knows. Some of the dialogue is awfully tinny, and more than a few scenes are half-baked. But even when dramatics are cluttered, the emotion is unassailably genuine; this is a film of great warmth, humor, and love.

BEST OF THE FEST

Blame

Quinn Shephard. Write that name down, commit it to memory, you’ll be hearing a lot more about it – particularly once people get a look at this brutally intelligent and dazzlingly visceral high school drama from the 22-year-old auteur, who writes, directs, stars, and edits. Yet she has the confidence and skill of a seasoned filmmaker, boasting a sharp sense of film rhythm, a mastery of mood, and clearly defined characters – the protagonist, the antagonist, and shaded in-betweens. She uses those assumptions as shorthand, and then spends the movie complicating them; the shiftiness of these inter-personal dynamics give the movie its drumbeat. On top of all that, her leading performance is a monster, with Shephard pulling off the nearly impossible task of convincingly playing a great actor. Then again, it doesn’t look like it was much of a stretch.

The Lovers

Writer/director Azazel Jacobs (Terri) drops into this story of a disintegrated married couple, and the affairs that are about to finally end their union, at the point in their story when most other films would end, and that’s part of its genius; it’s the old saw about every unhappy family’s differences, and there are telling contrasts between not only the marriage and the affairs, but between the affairs themselves. And then Jacobs flips the entire script, throwing their countdown to separation into an upheaval with the marvelous premise of a couple accidentally rediscovering their passion, and cheating on their lovers with their spouse. Yet even this isn’t played as the dopey comedy it could’ve been; Jacobs and his enviable cast (which includes Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Melora Walters, and Aiden Gillen) play the humanity of the situation, its tenderness and its sadness, with an evenness and purpose that’s sort of astonishing. It’s a quiet little movie, but it lingers.