This was my first official year covering the Tribeca Film Festival, but I’ve dabbled in years past. While many applauded its genesis — De Niro et al reviving a post-9/11 downtown with a world-class cultural event — it remains a puzzling festival. It falls between Sundance and Cannes (not to mention after Berlin and SXSW), leaving it fewer world premiere options (a close reading of the fine print reveals many North American premieres). The screening venues have hopscotched around town, this year settling primarily in Chelsea and the East Village, confirming Tribeca as a brand rather than a geographically precise title. It boasts high-profile corporate sponsors (sometimes problematically so), but there are upsides to 10 minutes of pre-film ads, like free digital distribution of competition films, and programs like TFI All Access, which supports underrepresented filmmakers. Tribeca seems to be constantly evolving, and with some careful curating there are wonderful and surprising films to discover in their lineup.
When culling my Tribeca best-of list, I immediately noticed almost all are directed by women, and heavily foreign in scope, if not origin. Even as Girls chatters its way to popularity on HBO, there seems to be a push in independent film away from the “talky white people” genre. Emerging digital technologies, from camera gear to distribution models, are beginning to free up filmmakers to travel further in their pursuit of stories worth telling. My picks include a French film by a Polish director, a Cuban film by a British director, and a New York film by a French director — eros, drama, and comedy, nimbly done by talented women. The outlier is Andrew Semans’ Nancy, Please, but his wimpy man-child is notably sandwiched between two strong women. This was entirely coincidental, but a happy accident nonetheless, which could describe my Tribeca experience as a whole.
Una Noche (Lucy Mulloy)
Inspired by travels to Cuba, the Oxford-educated Lucy Mulloy traded Politics for Film Studies, using her Tisch MFA to launch Una Noche. Based on real events, the story follows three teenagers who attempt to flee Havana for Miami. Mulloy spent six years in Cuba, auditioning actors, scouting locations, and building her crew, even writing a song for the film’s original score. The result is a potent debut, energetic, visually lush, and strong with detail, and honest without being preachy or humorless. The camera work is especially notable, including several tracking shots Mulloy says were inspired by the classic I Am Cuba. After a premiere in Berlin the film swept the awards at Tribeca, but in a strange life-imitates-art coda, two of its lead actors disappeared en route to New York to apply for political asylum. Such are the challenges of working in Cuba (blackouts! defections!) but Mulloy is undeterred, already developing two follow-up films for what she intends to be a trilogy.
This 2011 Cannes winner is a compelling piece of work. To gather material, the model-esque Maïwenn (who wrote, directed, and acts in the film) actually embedded with a Child Protection Unit in Paris, drawing on true stories to craft her verité-styled film. If there is a plot it’s minimal, most of the momentum given over to the tense, charged confrontations between the cops and the perpetrators of child abuse. The team of cops encounters everything from pickpockets to incest to internet porn, an onslaught they cope with in various ways. They are brusque with the victims — detectives and enforcers rather than psychologists — yet are fully dedicated to their work (often leaving their own families to bear the brunt). The film is surprising, far more crass, loud, and swiftly tragic than expected. For a drama grounded in realism, with a handheld camera that barely keeps pace with the dialogue, its pathos is well-earned.
2 Days in New York (Julie Delpy)
This sequel to Julie Delpy’s sleepy rom-com 2 Days in Paris catches up with the breezy blonde Marion several years later. She’s had a son with her Paris beau Jack (now her ex-husband), and exists in quasi-domesticity with her new boyfriend Mingus, played with surprising subtlety by Chris Rock. Their boho New York life is interrupted by the arrival of Marion’s pervy father and catty sister, the latter of whom unexpectedly bringing Marion’s ex-boyfriend along. Hilarity ensues! The film is light as merengue, but so good-natured and funny it’s hard to resist. Zany cultural misunderstandings abound, but the jokes are witty and specific, and nicely capture both Parisian and New York nuances. The supporting cast has terrific timing, but Delpy’s frazzled, charming heroine carries the film. For a writer/director/star, Delpy has a remarkable lack of vanity, which is of course what makes her super-cool.
Elles (Malgorzata Szumowska)
This dense film finds its core in the lead performance of Juliette Binoche as a journalist writing a story on prostitution. The film unfolds over the course of a day, where we watch Binoche strain between her duties as wife, mother, and writer. As she rushes to meet her deadline and prepare for a dinner party, her mind circles back over the stories shared by her young confidantes, impatient beauties willing to sell their bodies to pay for their education and lifestyles. Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and built on documentary footage with Parisian prostitutes, this debut by Polish director Szumowska nicely reverses expectations. The sex scenes are so transactional they are stripped of eros, at least for the young women, who trade the anonymity of their flesh for a sweaty palm full of cash. But for Binoche, bound to bourgeois convention and her husband, this vicarious knowledge unsettles. She swells with anger and grief, aroused and sickened by what she imagines. The men come off as caricatures, and some may find the womblike intensity of the film off-putting, but fans of Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay will appreciate its rhythms.
Nancy, Please (Andrew Semans)
The premise may be as skinny as Semans’ white boy protagonist, but an odd creepiness and ferocious performance by Eleanore Hendricks give the film heft. Said white boy is a sweater-wearing graduate student who moves in with his girlfriend, but falls several notches short of domestic bliss. He’s underwater with his thesis, and has forgotten a crucial novel in his old apartment. This should be cheerfully resolved in, oh, five minutes, but then there’s Nancy, his ex-roommate, with whom he has a weird, inexplicable (psycho-sexual?) tension, and who refuses to return his book. His gerbil-y attempts at resolution only escalate the problem, until we are no longer talking about a book, but the unraveling of his sweater-clad life. It doesn’t all make sense, and certain scenes lull, but Semans’ film has some nice jolts and surprising turns, none more so than Hendricks’ terrifying cameos. For the lone male wolf among the female directors in my list, Semans betrays an impressive comfort with emasculation.