“$18 a damn ticket?” was a common refrain heard during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and when you consider it’s a higher chunk of change than nearly any North American festival, one wonders why the excess should be allowed. But on further review, one realizes it’s just in the spirit of New York, where everyone pays regularly twice for about half, and it’s all about the bragging rights. And the great news is that this year, sprawling its tentacles out to practically the entire Manhattan island, the films on the whole were actually pretty worth it, netting a possibly even better hit-to-miss ratio than the tonier New York Film Festival in the fall.
Documentaries seemed to be the thing this year, with an incredibly wide array of subjects covered, and in the case of A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory, it was proved that even well-covered territory could yield fresh results. A moody, haunting look at Andy Warhol’s lighting designer, with whom the pop artist had an affair, the film is tantalizingly opaque in design; director Esther B. Robinson (the niece of the late Williams) finds just the right tone for the picture, which is often startlingly like Warhol’s.
Alexis Arquette could have easily been a Warhol groupie back in the day, and the most revelatory aspect of Matthew Barbato’s Alexis Arquette: She’s My Brother is the naked narcissism of its subject. Chronicling the actor’s desire to pursue changing his sex (a lifelong goal for the boy in the famous acting clan), it rivals only Madonna: Truth or Dare in its garish self-adulation, and is every bit as revealing, thought-provoking and memorable as that film has become, all neatly compacted into 70 completely purposeful minutes.
Indie veteran producer Ben Barenholtz’s Music Inn could have taken brevity cues from the aforementioned pictures, which is awfully daunting at 112 minutes. Rich in texture and background, highlighting a summer retreat in 1950s Massachusetts, which created a forum for such folk and jazz legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, the film is unmissable for enthusiasts of this era and music history. But for the rest of us, it’s more than a tad academic.
Speaking of academia, The Third Monday in October shrewdly follows several junior-high students through their shot at winning President in the student council elections, and how 7th-grade politics are every bit as maddening and unnerving as any adult in the same arena. Spellbound is the film’s obvious point of reference, and it’s an apt one, but the movie truly captivates in the surprising humanity shown for its subjects, even the ones destined to be loathed by many, and it eerily pinpoints in this day and age, how the young seem to have religion, politics, showmanship and entertainment all duking it out for a permanent space in their future.
The future is hopefully dim for the abysmal, nearly unwatchable doc The Workshop, which follows has-been performer Jamie Morgan through a California spiritual workshop designed to release one’s inhibitions and free them sexually. The film raises about 100 interesting points and proceeds to deal with absolutely none of them, instead concentrating on the whiny day-to-day of its dull, insipid subjects. And for a movie so concentrated on liberal sex, it’s the filmic equivalent of blue balls.
John Dahl thankfully found his balls again with the scrappy, fun indie You Kill Me, with Ben Kingsley in delightfully rascally form as a drunken hit man exiled to California for a botched job who takes up AA and a relationship with a daffy West Coaster (Tea Leoni, finally back in dry, spiky Flirting with Disaster-style form). It ends up on the slight side, but damn if it doesn’t feel like a true Angelika tweener from years ago. Criminals also run amok in Michael Kang’s West 32nd, a kind of goofy yet confidently made crime drama about an ambitious lawyer (John Cho) embroiled in a Korean underworld murder scandal. I’m not sure what its theatrical prospects are, but expect a big video life, as it has scenes of blue-lit debauchery and gunplay sure to entertain 14-year-old boys everywhere.
A few actors stepped behind the camera for their debut features, with vibrant results. Mary Stuart Masterson sensitively makes a new name for herself with The Cake Eaters, a quaint family drama that’s no great shakes as a fresh story (family is reunited after a tragedy, wounds open, you know the drill), but she elicits lovely work from the talented ensemble, especially Bruce Dern, touchingly cast against type as a guilt-ridden but loving patriarch.
It seems everyone from the HBO series Entourage wants to direct now (Adrian Grenier completed a documentary that screened at Toronto last year), but Kevin Connolly’s Gardener of Eden shows that a filmmaking future is in the cards. The pacing needs work, and there are derivative scenes of slacker layabouts shootin’ the shit, but there’s a wonderfully caustic energy about his first-time effort, a superhero metaphor centering on a New Jersey misfit (Lukas Haas) who becomes an unlikely town hero after inadvertently capturing a rapist. It owes a little to M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable in design, but swirls with so many captivating ideas one wonders if a second viewing might unearth even more of them.
Longtime editor Jon Poll’s Charlie Bartlett is unfortunately just the kind of festival movie we don’t need anymore, a contrived, tedious Rushmore/Thumbsucker/John Hughes wannabe that seems to have taken all of its cues from other high school movies and absolutely none from actual life, and wastes the presence of Robert Downey Jr., doing his ironic, eye-rolling shtick right into the ground here. And while we’re at it, let’s throw Taxidermia on the refuse pile, a film clearly designed for faux shock and disgust, until it finally (and pointlessly) crosses over into real disgust with its flaming penises, obese men eating and puking, and toilet-laden mind, all of which are never shaped into something tangible. This is John Waters for pinheads, plain and simple, and anyone who tolerates it clearly needs to rearrange priorities in life.
International cinema was a little spottier than expected, especially in the form of The Last Man, an intriguing but ponderous modern vampire tale set in Beirut, following a physician’s downward spiral as a creepy neck-biter starts attacking the men and women of the region. The nation’s unrest is clearly meant to be the link to its horror roots, but it remains less than enveloping. Ditto for Falafel, noted as a Middle Eastern After Hours, the movie is never bold enough to take its screwy all-nighter premise to a higher plane, and as a result, a lot of its whimsy falls flat.
The Tree is called a documentary in most places, but it resembles an impressionistic feature, as an elderly couple decide what to do with a dried-out tree that has resided outside their Buenos Aires home. If that sounds boring, believe me, it is. Beautifully expressive at times, but the longest 65 minutes ever. Amexicano, a truly good-natured and super cheap DV dramedy about a hefty, affable Italian guy’s unexpected relationship with a Mexican co-worker in the U.S. illegally is sweetly involving in its first half, with a relaxed charm to spare, until the movie sadly (and unconvincingly) becomes a grim cautionary tale, erasing its laidback goodwill in favor of Babel-style platitudes about immigration and the like.
For the greatest examples of the human condition, one only needed to really look in two places (again both documentaries), one in the least likely place imaginable. Who would have ever thought that a documentary chronicling the subculture of Donkey Kong champions could be so gut-bustingly funny and thrillingly humane? But The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a sharp, cheeky look at the world of classic arcade gamers and their bitter rivalries and competitive natures, is something of a miracle. Fun as hell to watch, until you realize how penetratingly astute it is about the nature of gamers and the duality of their man/boy personalities, it allows the subjects their own misunderstood voice (some of which use it to a great disadvantage), and if you don’t recognize every preteen boy you ever met in your life somewhere in this film, you must have been home-schooled.
And one can’t pretend to imagine a greater way to end a film festival about New York City than with The Gates, the heaven-sent documentary chronicling the famous Central Park installation of 2005 by Christo and Jean-Claude, which took three long decades and an eventual pass by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to see fruition. Directed by Albert Maysles and Antonio Ferrara with economy, grace and a blessed lack of talking heads and narration, it lyrically follows the project from genesis to exhibition with the same extraordinary eye as that of a conceptual artist. Often breathtakingly poetic in its use of imagery, its greatest achievement is how the film becomes such a stirring metaphor for life as a New Yorker, and how its anger, its beauty, its resilience, and its random evolutions all color our lives within it.