Tribeca Film Festival 2016: The Highlights and Lowlights (So Far)

We look at roughly a dozen films that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this past week.

As it enters its fifteenth year, the Tribeca Film Festival is in a strange place where it’s one of the more prominent New York events each spring but still isn’t as prestigious or renowned worldwide as film festivals like Sundance, Cannes, or Toronto. Maybe part of that is due to the lack of a real industry presence bidding on films like there is at all those other festivals, although it does give the hometown crowd plenty of reasons to go out and see movies.

Often, the strongest films at Tribeca are the ones that are showing at the festival with distribution and release plans already in place, as is the case with films like Elvis & Nixon, The Meddler, and A Hologram for the Kingall three opening this coming weekend.

At about the midway point, this has been a pretty good year for Tribeca so far with a number of decent quality films and more than a few pleasant surprises. A few of those are from first-time filmmakers and some are from veterans, some with better filmographies than others. It will be interesting to see how many of these films end up being picked up.

The Best of the Fest (So Far)

Wolves

Tribeca has always been heralded for the quality of the documentaries it shows every year and that was the case in 2016 too. But there were also a number of solid comedies and quality dramas without distribution, even though the latter of which has never been the festival’s forte. Thus imagine my surprise when I saw Bart Freundlich’s new movie Wolves, and it was one of the best films I’ve seen at Tribeca this year and possibly in the Top 10 among all previous festivals.

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It stars Taylor John Smith (from the upcoming Cruel Intentions TV series) as Anthony, star of his Catholic high school team who is being eyed to play for Cornell. While trying to stay focused, Anthony is having problems at home, specifically with his abusive and alcoholic father (played by Michael Shannon), who also has a serious gambling problem. It sounds like such a standard family drama cliché and something we probably have seen many times, which is why it’s amazing how good the movie actually is.

Between the way Freundlich tells this story with an energy unlike anything we’ve seen from him before and the amazing cast he’s assembled—Carla Gugino plays Anthony’s mother—it keeps you invested and at the edge of your seat from beginning until its explosive climactic ending.

There’s a lot of basketball playing, both on the high school court and in the famed West 4th Street courts of New York’s West Village, and getting actors that can play and/or players that can act is an impressive feat alone. But it’s the stuff between Smith, Gugino, and Shannon, the latter playing another despicable character that’s still so hard to hate, that makes Wolves so special. There are a lot of other great characters around Anthony, including his girlfriend and Thelonious, a former pro player now playing street pick-up games, and the way Freundlich builds the story until the final ball game where all of these things come together is quite masterful.

I was pretty amazed by Wolves, maybe since I’ve never been a fan of Freundlich’s previous work but maybe he’s finally made a film that’s more personal to him—it certainly seems so with this exhilarating experience.

Besides being great in Wolves, Shannonis alsoa true scene-stealer in Elvis & Nixon, playing the Elvis to Kevin Spacey’s Richard Nixon, but it’s really about the build-up to that famous photo-op that makes that film so terrific. We also reviewed it in detail here.

Dean

The next favorite film so far is the first of two great films featuring Gillian Jacobs from the late sitcom Community: the feature film debut by stand-up comic Demetri Martin, Dean. It’s another Tribeca film that on paper sounds like something we’ve seen before: “Cartoonist grieving his dead mother and whose relationship has fallen apart tries to start life fresh.”

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The difference is that Martin (who I’ve never paid much attention to, for whatever reason) fills the movie with some of his funniest gags, making it feel very personal and autobiographical even if it’s not. He plays cartoonist Dean, who is trying to overcome the death of his mother with his father (Kevin Kline), as well as breaking up with his girlfriend Michelle. After attending his best friend’s wedding, a disastrous experience, he travels to LA where he meets Jacobs’ Nikki and they begin a quick romance. There probably isn’t much more that can be said except it’s a hilarious film (especially due to some of Dean’s drawings), as well as sweet and poignant, as Jacobs brings a lot to her scenes with Martin. It even spends some time following Kline’s character as he begins a romance with a realtor played by Mary Steenburgen—both of whom do an amazing job adjusting to Martin’s distinctive writing—but even that doesn’t go exactly where expected.

It’s those nice surprises and diverging away from the clichés that makes Dean so wonderful and enjoyable, and the soundtrack is exceptional to boot.

I’ve also written a separate review of Jacobs’ other film, Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, but it’s another example of the fine comedies that often show up for Tribeca. (Granted, Birbiglia’s film debuted a month back at the SXSW Film Festival.)

Folk Hero and Funny Guy

The next big surprise at the festival was from another first-timer, Jeff Grace, and his directorial debut Folk Hero and Funny Guy, a comedy about two childhood friends,one a hugely successful folk singer (played by Wyatt Russell from Everybody Wants Some!!), the other a struggling stand-up comic (Alex Karpovsky from Girls), who go on the road together. It sounds fairly simple, but it’s the dynamics created when a pretty folk singer, played by Meredith Hagner (a breakthrough discovery!), joins them creating a love triangle that threatens to ruin things between them, where the film really excels.

Granted, Jason Black (the folk hero) wants nothing more than for his friend Paul (Karpovsky) to get his mojo going with his life and comedy career stalled, but there are many layers to their friendship that affect their trip. For instance, there is the fact that Jason’s in love with a childhood sweetheart and is doing this solo tour to try to reconnect with her. It’s a film that works so well on so many levels (and even has a five-minute moment between Russell and Melanie Lynskey that kills!). It’s one of the more enjoyable and crowd-pleasing films at this year’s festival.

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Next Best

Dreamland

Another actor who appeared in a couple Tribeca films this year was Johnny Simmons, star of Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and others. One of his films was better than the other and that was Dreamland, the directorial debut by Rooney frontman Robert Schwartzman, who just happens to be the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and cousin of Sofia and Roman Coppola, meaning there’s another film director in that family.

Simmons plays Monty Fagan, a pianist struggling both financially and with his girlfriend (that seems to be a common theme of my favorite Tribeca films this year) who starts to play at a piano bar where he meets a wealthy and super-sexy older woman, played by Amy Landecker, who seduces Monty. Before you can say “American Gigolo” Monty is having an affair with her and accepting her financial help with his planned piano bar.

Schwartzman has created a film that falls somewhere between straight noir and something akin to the films of Hal Ashby, but it’s hard to avoid comparisons to The Graduate due to the younger man-older woman relationship and some of the other things happening in the film. While the focus is mainly on Simmons and Landecker, there are other characters that keep the film interesting, but not so much when it mysteriously shifts focus to Monty’s girlfriend and her dalliances with a plumber. (But if you like awkward sex scenes done for laughs, this movie starts with a doozy!)

Junction 48

Shifting overseas, the Israeli film Junction 48 stars Tamer Nafar (who co-wrote it with The Messenger’s Oren Moverman) as Kareem, a Palestinian rapper living in the Lyd section of the city, which is pretty much the slums. It follows Kareem and his group’s attempt to make a name for themselves at the mostly Jewish clubs, facing racism and other adversity, some of it directed as his girlfriend Manar (also a singer in the group), who must go against her family to be with Kareem. I’ve seen a number of really good films about the Palestinian experience in Israel, which is such a complicated situation, but Junction 48 takes a new approach, through music, and that’s partially what makes the film work so well. But the success is also due to Tamer Nafar’s performance as he brings a lot of charm to the character, even during the more difficult moments.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

The Man Who Knew Infinity (being released by IFC Films on April 29) is another fairly decent drama, but one that wasn’t quite as immediate as it could have been. It examines the relationship between noted Indian mathematician Ramanujan (as played by Dev Patel) and his mentor GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) in the 1920s as the latter convinces Cambridge to accept the spiritual man from a poor section of India into the prestigious college to work on his advanced math theories.

If you don’t know anything about “proofs” or “partitions,” you’ll probably glaze over as they’re talked about ad infinitum. The film does eventually find some real heart and soul in the story, especially from the long-distance relationship between Ramanujan and his wife back home, and director Matthew Brown does a decent job keeping you invested in the story even with all of that mathematics babble.

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And the Rest…

The Ticket

I wasn’t quite as enamored with The Ticket, the English debut by director Ido Fluk (produced by Moverman), but it has a solid premise in which its protagonist James (Dan Stevens), who has been blind his entire life, wakes up one morning to discover he can see again. This causes waves in his household with his wife (Malin Akerman), and he also gains more confidence and starts moving up the ranks at work. It’s a slow and quiet drama with a lot of interesting ideas and decent performances, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, maybe because it’s a fairly obvious fable that’s easy to predict where things might go.

We also chatted with Dan Stevens and Malin Akerman about the film earlier this week, as well.

A Kind of Murder

Maybe a Jessica Biel double feature sounds like a good thing to some, except that neither of her movies at Tribeca were very good. Probably the best thing about both of them is that she dies fairly early on. (That’s not a spoiler as her death is integral to both plots.)

Only slightly the better of the two is A Kind of Murder based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1954 novel The Blunderer, which stars Patrick Wilson, Jessica Biel, and Eddie Marsan. It’s a film with the onus of trying to replicate the success of the recent Highsmith adaptation Carol since that it was also produced by Christine Vachon and her Killer Films.

Basically, Wilson plays Walter Stackhouse, a mystery writer who learns of a murder of a woman at a diner in the boonies and starts to investigate the case himself, particularly the woman’s bookseller husband (Marsan), who is the prime suspect. When Walter’s wife Clara (Biel) gets suspicious he’s having an affair and starts going crazy, her own death close to the initial murder is thought to be suicide.

The rest of the movie involves a detective questioning both men while trying to solve the cases. The ’60s setting is also an opportunity for Andy Goddard to attempt Hitchcock era noir visuals (Hitchcock also may have been influenced by Highsmith’s writing), but it makes the whole film feel dated and redundant. Eddie Marsan gives the best performance by anyone in the cast (and it’s not his best work), but what this movie is missing is a better script, a better director like Todd Haynes, and performances that don’t seem overly stylized and even phoned-in at times. This was pretty disappointing.

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The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Jessica Biel could also be considered one of the primary draws for The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, another drama playing at Tribeca where the story revolves mostly around her character’s death. Written and directed by Bill Purple, it stars Jason Sudeikis as an architect whose pregnant wife (Biel) dies in a car crash, after which he ends up befriending a troubled teen (Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones) and they build a raft together. It’s not good when you walk out of a movie and immediately forget what it was about, but this movie goes with one of the most cliché-filled indie plots possible with an adult suffering from grief who finds solace by befriending a younger troubled person, allowing each to find a way to help the other. I don’t think I’ve ever been more bored. (Oh and in case you care, Biel’s husband Justin Timberlake composed the movie’s score, which is okay but nothing that special.)

However, our film editor was able to sit down with Sudeikis, Williams, Biel, and Purple for a roundtable interview last week.

The Phenom

Another case of a great concept that’s poorly executed is The Phenom, the latest film from Noah Buschel (Glass Chin) that stars Johnny Simmons as a hot-shot pitcher experiencing problems that gets him sent to a therapist (Paul Giamatti). His problems actually started as he dealt with an abusive, drug-dealing father (Ethan Hawke) who is a failed pitcher himself, and the movie bounces around using a non-linear storytelling technique that doesn’t work at all. I don’t know why, but Buschel has so much potential as a filmmaker, but it seems like he drops the ball every time (no pun intended).

The movie just has so many problems, the main one being that there are a lot of decent dramatic scenes, but the story is impossible to follow and Buschel just doesn’t seem to be able to make movies that connect with an audience. Comparing this to Wolves makes it really obvious how Buschel hasn’t been able to grow and improve as a director in the same way that Bart Freundlich has.

Top Docs

Obit

As mentioned earlier, the Tribeca Film Festival is known for its fantastic docs, many which have gone on to Oscar nominations and wins. I’ve only seen a couple docs this past week, but one of the standouts is Vanessa Gould’s Obit. It takes a look inside the New York Times’ obituary section and the writers who have to come up with interesting ways to honor the dead. Anyone who has ever tried to come up with the perfect intro to a story they’re writing can relate.

Win!

Win! Is Justin Webster’s inside and unprecedented look at the formation of the New York City Football Club, which played their first season at Yankees Stadium last year (it didn’t go so well for them), and it’s an impressive documentary for showing us something we’ve never had a chance to see from inside.

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Team Foxcatcher

Fans of Bennett Miller’s 2014 film Foxcatcher may want to check out Jon Greenhalgh’s Team Foxcatcher, when it premieres on Netflix on April 29, as it fills in some of the gaps in the story behind the murder of wrestler Dave Schultz by billionaire John Du Pont in 1996. It’s interesting that there’s almost no mention of Dave’s brother Mark (as played by Channing Tatum in Miller’s film) but that’s because he had left Foxcatcher Farms before Dave showed up to coach Du Pont’s championship wrestling team. The timeline was changed to make Miller’s film more interesting, apparently.

I was a little more mixed on Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist, which looks at the militarization of the police to deal with terrorist threats, angry rioting citizens, etc. It was a decent doc but the topic made me angry.

Lastly, I quite enjoyed my friend and colleague Marshall Fine’s doc Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg, which takes a look at the life and career of the comic and actor who has been entertaining audiences for 50 years. If you want to know where comics like Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, and Billy Crystal got their inspiration than this is worth checking out whenever The Weinstein Company releases it.

The Tribeca Film Festival continues through Sunday, April 24.  You can also read my review of Thomas Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King, starring Tom Hanks, which opens Friday, April 22 after its Tribeca premiere, right here