This weekend, I took a brief virtual stop at the Tribeca Film Festival to see if there were any standouts among the award winners. Although there was no big interactive platform, the simplicity of accessing the screening room was much appreciated during a busy couple of days. I was able to see seven films. Please enjoy my ranking of them and the respective reasons why.
7. Mark, Mary + Some Other People
dir. Hannah Marks
This was my first movie of the festival, and while I enjoyed it at the time, it frustrates me in retrospect. It’s so helplessly attached to its tropes that even the endlessly fresh presence of Hayley Law cannot counteract the forces of its predictability. At its best, it rings of underrated rom-com Sleeping with Other People. At its worst, it becomes the amalgamation of Band-Aid-like, Joe Swanberg-esque festival darlings that add nothing to the millennials-who-complain subgenre of indie romances.
Basically, Mark (Ben Rosenfield) and Mary (Hayley Law) fall in love and get married. But, when things get a little boring, Mary asks if they can open up their marriage. It’s an intriguing idea at first: I admire a film that is willing to get into messy sex politics. But the set-up is just. So. typical. Two best friends on the male and female sides who coach them through life while seemingly having nothing else going on for them. Colorful transitions that add nothing but a faux sense of structure to a pretty straightforward story. Some drug sequences. Too many familiar comedic faces (Joe Lo Truglio, Gillian Jacobs, Lea Thompson) in brief cameos that remind you that the other actors are far less interesting. The leading man is boyish and insecure while the leading lady is cool as a cucumber. You wonder why they even got together at all if they can both pull this many people once they decide to open up their marriage.
My point is, although I don’t think this is an awful movie, thinking about it too hard embittered me. In every way possible, it is mid.
Award: Best Screenplay in a U.S. Narrative Feature
6. Queen of Glory
dir. Nana Mensah
Whereas I found Mark and Mary grating, my reasoning in putting Queen of Glory so close to the bottom of the list is more on the grounds of disengagement. Nana Mensah directed, wrote, and starred in this film about a Ghanaian-American doctoral student who inherits her mother's Christian book store in the Bronx. She is tasked with planning her mother’s funeral all the while surrounded by a slew of quirky individuals either entering into her life or sticking right where they were. The comical aspects of this film are more of the endearing, poignant kind, and while there are a couple of zingers here and there, I’d say it falls into its dramatic mold more successfully.
Mensah had to make this film with next to no funding, and while I wouldn’t say that in itself is a glaring weakness, I will say that, in combination with her directorial inexperience, it makes for a slightly awkward final product. The editing is a little gauche here and there, which is enough to take me out of any well-written scene. I have little criticism for the story itself, which appears to have come straight from the heart (as do the colorful supporting characters), but my takeaway from the movie is a vague memory of the charismatic Nana Mensah and a very sweet final scene. If this gets more steam for Mensah in the next phase of her career, then that's good enough for me. It's just not my standout,
Award: Best New Narrative Director (Nana Mensah),
dir. Jessica Kingdon
The winner of the Best Documentary award, Ascension is not at all like a documentary in several ways. Firstly, there are no talking heads. In fact, there is no narration. Director Kingdon takes you on an upward journey through the Chinese economy. It takes place in three stages: the factory work, the middle class, and the high-tech elite. Through simply watching the everyday business of these different components of a capitalist hierarchy, we are caught in a strategically organized observational study. It makes no distinct commentary: Kingdon wants only for the viewer to reflect. What do we assume about people based on our social class? Does sitting right in the thick of someone’s livelihood make us uncomfortable?
I know, as a middle-class person, I felt odd both in the factories and in the extreme luxury of the hotels and water parks. It needn’t be said that it looks amazing. Kingdon has a way of capturing all the right angles to make the viewer feel either big or small at her leisure. The auditory experience is similarly compelling, with the humming of the machinery or the room tone of the empty halls telling a story of its own. Normally, I am not big on documentaries without facts to share, but I was transfixed by this. Fingers crossed it becomes available on a streaming site.
Awards: Best Documentary Feature, 2021 Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director (Jessica Kingdon)
4. Roaring 20’s
dir. Elisabeth Vogler
Enjoy a jaunt through Paris with a Slacker-style cast of bantering French people in a single take film that’ll make you say, “damn, that must’ve been hard to coordinate.” I was completely tuned in to about 90% of the conversations, if that’s any indication of its dialogue quality. I really wish I could’ve seen this in the cinema because I’m sure I would’ve soaked it up, only to walk out of the theater with that glazed-over look that occurs after a particularly poetic film. My laptop screen was enough to keep me involved, regardless, just as the Before trilogy and Russian Ark have done before. Please excuse my brevity on this particular movie, as I have little more to say than “see it to believe it.” It’s relaxing, in essence. Even if not consistently profound, it certainly gives you the impression that it is.
Award: Best Cinematography in an International Feature Film
3. as of yet
dir. Taylor Garron & Chanel James
I completely understand why this movie might bother some people. Covid-themed movies are deemed a societal no-no at this point in time. “Too soon,” some might say. But if we wait any longer, we might start to blur the details. as of yet is excruciatingly accurate, and just plain funny. As much as the general public might want the media to only portray the pandemic in its gravest light, it’s verifiable that privileged hypocrisies depicted in this film are true-to-life. Basically, Gannon does triple-duty in the writer, director, and star’s chair as a woman quarantined to her apartment in New York City. Day 83. Her roommate is in Florida with her parents, due to return soon. Everyone she converses with is, of course, in their own homes.
It’s a zoom-movie (soon to be a more popular term, I hope), wherein the story is told, for the most part, through video diaries and Facetime. Exteriors begin to unravel amidst talk of pandemic protocol, the BLM protests, and general relationship malaise. I fell right into the rhythm of the many outgoing calls, instantly recognizing the outward processing and incessant repetition of Garron’s Naomi as quite like my own. I have had all of these conversations before, and I would be shocked if others hadn't. It’s a dark comedy in the sense that you’re rooting for Naomi to make the bad decisions simply because she’s comparably better than her foil, her friend Sara. Is it too soon to recreate these moments? Maybe for some. But for me, it just struck a close chord. I ate it up.
Award: The Nora Ephron Award
2. The Novice
dir. Lauren Hadaway
From the sound editor of Whiplash comes a similarly themed film about pushing oneself to their limit for the simple satisfaction of being the best in their trade. Isabelle Fuhrman stars as Alex, a young woman who joins the rowing team at her prestigious university. Her curiosity leads to obsession, pitting her against her teammates and leading to dangerous isolation. Lauren Hadaway outdid herself in the technical department, pulling out all the stops to make this film as visceral an experience as possible. Her blisters gave me blisters, and her frustration became my anguish. Between the tightly shot boat scenes and Fuhrman’s remarkably committed performance, I found myself quite captivated by this directorial debut. I think it’s enough to scar my perception of both the physical toil required of rowers as well as the claustrophobic nature of fancy east coast colleges.
Fuhrman should get major awards talk for this if life is fair (which it often isn’t), as should the occasionally spellbinding cinematography. Tribeca appears to agree with me on which aspects to commend. I can understand how some of the writing can come off as cheesy from time to time, but damn if it doesn't get you in the headspace of someone who might actually utter such words. I would be surprised if this doesn’t get some sort of theatrical release.
Awards: Best U.S. Narrative Feature, Best Actress (Fuhrman), Best Cinematography in a U.S. Feature Film
1. All These Sons
dir. Joshua Altman & Bing Liu
If you’ve seen Bing Liu’s earlier feature, Minding the Gap, you’ll already know that you’re in for a humanistic treat with his next feature. I had my doubts about this one surpassing the quality of his 2018 doc, but I didn’t need to. Comparisons are unnecessary. All These Sons hits the sweet spot of building character, tracking the lives of several young men in southwest Chicago who have been afflicted by gang violence. The IMAN (Inner-city Muslim Action Network) and MAAFA Redemption Project seek to rehabilitate these young men from the violence they were born into in order to guide them to a brighter future. Most striking are the leaders of the organizations. For example, Billy Moore (IMAN) served 20 years in prison for killing a man before coming out and attempting to change his whole life, as well as others'. It doesn’t get much more real than that. Seeing the organic interactions between the instructors and their pupils, knowing that all of them have grown up in this environment and are thus able to relate on the basis of genuine empathy makes the tragedy cut that much deeper.
Liu and Altman are brilliant in how they eliminate judgment from the equation of these men's growth. All the standard interview questions were put aside because they just don’t apply here. Instead, the men are given space to talk freely about what they are passionate about in this life, while still addressing their dark pasts with as much truthfulness as they can muster. A key theme of this documentary is forgiving oneself, which is a complex topic for anyone with regrets. The nature of these regrets put a lot of things into perspective.
The main gripe of critics is that this movie is too brief, at just under 90 minutes. I don’t see that as a flaw. I could very easily see there being a Part 2 to these stories, and I would eagerly seek it out. Liu and Altman have another hit, and I’m keen to be its advocate. Let’s hope that this documentary draws in a greater crowd to these organizations.
Award: Best Cinematography in a Documentary Feature
That's it for Tribeca 2021! I hope you've found a couple movies to anticipate in the coming year.