The Tribeca Film Festival still seems unformed. And for the most part, that’s good. Founded in 2002, it’s not old enough yet to take on the identifying quirks of its bigger and older competitors, like Cannes, Berlin, Toronto or even Sundance. The Festival has been refining its lineup, paring it down from year to year until it stands at a manageable 85 features from 36 countries, almost half what it was a couple of years back. At that size, this year’s Tribeca—which ran 22 April to 3 May—increased the quality quotient, cutting the number of embarrassing failures that once studded the schedule like a minefield. The venues now are also pared down: if most are still not in Tribeca per se, they’re at least clustered closer to downtown than other installments, which had ticketholders running all the way to the Upper West Side.
Some things never change, of course, such as the beside-the-point opening and closing night films—Woody Allen’s Whatever Works and Donald Petrie’s My Life in Ruins—and a predilection for sports films (which cynics could be tempted to regard as a naked ploy for ESPN sponsorship) and issue documentaries. The result is a solidly enjoyable and well-run experience, offering a few near misses and at least a couple outright gems.
Near Misses and Gems: 2009 Tribeca Film Festival
One of the most memorable films was Ian Olds’ Fixer, focused on the dilemma of reporters filing dispatches from overseas trouble zones, as they increasingly depend on the native-speaking “fixer” (who arranges everything from transportation to interviews). The movie provides a spare, horrifying account of the death of fixer Ajmal Naqshbandi in Afghanistan in 2007. Olds—who won the Festival’s award for Best New Documentary Filmmaker—feeds evocative footage of the Afghan countryside into two parallel storylines about Ajmal, each churning with an inescapable momentum. In one, Ajmal is leading The Nation‘s Christian Parenti into Taliban country, while the other shows how, six months later, Ajmal was kidnapped with Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo. The Afghan government released prisoners to free Mastrogiacomo, but did nothing to help Ajmal; he was ultimately beheaded. Coproduced by Parenti and scheduled to premiere on HBO in August, Olds’ film portrays a smart and charming but fundamentally naòve young striver lost in a corrupt, battle-scarred land. Much like his country, he became a political football, kicked about and discarded at whim.
The Polish brothers’ Stay Cool is about as different as could be. Shot in slaphappy dayglo colors in some anonymous Western McMansion burbland, the movie is a tedious amalgam of writer-goes-home clichés and preening would-be edginess. Michael Polish stays behind the camera while writer Mark stars as novelist Henry McCarthy, who returns to his high school after 15 years to deliver a commencement address. He meets up with the obligatory goofy buddies (Sean Astin and Josh Holloway in high camp mode) and falls in love with his teen crush all over again (Winona Ryder), while a frisky tween (Hilary Duff) tries to seduce him and the principal (a twitchy Chevy Chase) busts his chops. The film’s few germs of good ideas are lost amid synthetic writing and saggy direction, as is some halfway decent comic acting. Zombie-like Mark Polish, however, is so devoid of emotion that one wonders if he even realizes he is being filmed.
And yet—even as the Polish brothers’ misfire shows why one should avoid Tribeca narrative features with name stars, The Eclipse disproves that rule. An Irish haunter in the classic vein, playwright Conor McPherson’s film is a taut and sublimely handled piece of work. This even though the story contains few real surprises—with the exception of one nerve-shredding scare that sent half of one audience’s popcorn frighting into the air. Ciarçn Hinds (winner of this year’s Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film award) plays Michael, a recently widowed schoolteacher in the seaside town of Cobh, where he helps out with the local literary festival. Things appear to be looking up for him with the arrival of a London author of spooky stories (Iben Hjejle, radiantly intelligent). But their romance is complicated by her former lover (a preening ass played to smarmy perfection by Aidan Quinn), as well as the possibility that Michael is being haunted by his father-in-law, who’s still alive. McPherson (who also co-wrote) plays to his strengths, conversations casting a spell of brief warmth against a deathly gothic gloom. Quinn, Hinds, and Hjejle are all casually excellent, and the western Irish coast resplendently beautiful, in a grey-green, rain-soaked, and eerie sort of way.
In the Danish psychological spook story, Fear Me Not, onetime Dogma 95 barnstormer Kristian Levering keeps a cool distance from Mikael (the excellent Ulrich Thomsen), a workaholic white-collar something who has abruptly taken a leave-of-absence to get his head screwed back on straight. Drifting and glum, he volunteers to take part in a trial for a new depression drug. The results are quick and astonishing, though the side effects have something of a kick. The film traces his shifting highs and lows, as he meanders foggily, trying to reconnect with his family, happy only that the drug seems to be helping. But it soon seems obvious that the opposite is true. With a bleakly blue, wintry palette that helps to convey a brisk tension, Fear Me Not furnishes psychodrama aplenty in its spacious-feeling 95-minute running time. Levering’s memorable stranded-in-the-desert film, The King is Alive (2000), seemed a black comedy that didn’t know it was supposed to be funny. Fear Me Not is more like a domestic horror film that fails to realize at some point the knives are supposed to come slashing out. Nevertheless, it leaves you with numerous wounds that may take some time to heal.
Libby Spears’ documentary Playground is also hard to get out of your system. Because it refuses to traffic in the exotic thrills of most nonfiction films about the child sex trade, this film will also have a hard time getting into theaters. The film underlines a crucial, often overlooked point concerning cases of older male offenders and young girl victims: for all the catharsis assumed by the criminals’ capture and incarceration, the victims must endure long, painful realities afterwards. Spears’ film pointedly ignores the expected locations like Thailand and the Philippines to focus on cities around America, where most of these predators live. It’s an effective tactic: Bangkok is neverland; Atlanta is just down the road. Tracking the story of one horribly abused girl, Playground also asks unsettling questions about the normalization of sexual violence and the internet’s apparently unstoppable flood of barbaric imagery. Though skillfully constructed and leavened with an unusually artful aesthetic (the moody, dream-like interstitial animations are by Yoshitomo Nara, and the A-list soundtrack includes tracks by Bjork, Radiohead, and Cat Power), Spears’ film might bite off more than it can chew, raising too many intriguing points of view. This is brave filmmaking, however, and shows how hysterical responses to the issue make it impossible to deal with it coherently. This is brave filmmaking, however, tackling the worst of subjects in a commendably forthright manner.