I live in New York City, and despite the crowds and the ridiculous prices, it’s a great place to see a movie. Actually, it’s a great place to see lots and lots of movies, which is why, in my heart of hearts, I’m committed to a major cineaste sin: Deep down, I kind of prefer the Tribeca Film Festival to the classier, more exclusive New York Film Festival, held annually in the fall. Frankly, I’m not even sure how much attention non-New Yorkers pay to Tribeca, especially now that it’s almost 15 years out from its initial founding as a leg up to downtown Manhattan after the devastation of the 9/11 attacks. Some out-of-towners must travel here to cover it or even to attend it for fun, but it’s hard to begrudge any jet-setting film lovers who don’t bother. The New York Film Festival will offer, say, the first-ever look at Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Tribeca, meanwhile, offers the dubious ability to play literally 100 movies that aren’t as good as second-tier PTA.
Yet that grab-bag aspect of Tribeca makes it a lot more fun and a lot less pressurized than NYFF. There’s a sense of genuine chance, and also that audiences at the festival aren’t just getting a preview of awards contenders that are about to roll out to theaters everywhere. Plenty of NYFF selections aren’t awards bait, or don’t show up in theaters for months afterward, but usually the biggest titles are opening commercially not long after their festival debut. Tribeca, meanwhile, barely has any “biggest titles.” What it has instead is a lot of movies. The festival is uniquely positioned to interrupt a frequent moviegoing dead zone (though this year, April has seen the release of several terrific films, albeit mostly not wide) with a bunch of new movies sans definitive release dates.
That said, the 2016 edition of the festival did feature more glorified sneak previews than some past years. The Family Fang, Elvis & Nixon, A Hologram For The King, and The Meddler are all playing New York and other cities within 10 days of their Tribeca screenings. They’ve either been submitted to the festival to help boost their profiles in the lead-up to their commercial openings, or, more likely, snapped up by Tribeca to add some star power (via Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon, Kevin Spacey, Nicole Kidman, Rose Byrne, and Jason Bateman, among others) to the proceedings. Regardless, you can find reviews of all of those on The A.V. Club as they open (as three of the four already have). Unlike NYFF, the starrier Tribeca movies tend to be the festival’s less notable entries.
For example: What other serious festival pays much attention to comedy? Sundance has plenty of dramedies, but audiences can sometimes turn downright hostile when faced with a broader comedy like The Bronze. South By Southwest emphasizes comedies, but mostly as a high-profile testing ground for whatever summer entries studios feel most bullish about. Tribeca always has a fair number of comedies and movies starring comic actors, and this year that extended to a lot of movies by and about comedians—three, assuming I caught them all.
The least comedic and least distinguished, somewhat surprisingly, is Demetri Martin’s Dean (Grade: C), which he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. Martin spins off one aspect of his stand-up act—his simple but amusing doodles—into his character’s vocation: His Dean is a sort of cartoonist (though he never refers to his work as cartoons) who has just lost his mother when the movie opens. Eventually, in part to avoid conversations with his father (Kevin Kline) about selling the family home, Dean takes an extended trip from New York to Los Angeles, where he crashes with a friend and meets a beautiful, intriguing stranger (Gillian Jacobs). With Martin’s drawings sometimes sharing the screen with his characters, this is basically Annie Hall by way of Garden State, only not as funny or well-directed as either of those—though Martin does show a talent for staging offbeat sight gags. Martin also has an odd and potentially likable on-camera presence, but the weirdest thing about Dean is how dismissive it feels, how it appears to use grief as an excuse for rolling eyes at the cartoon dopes that compose the rest of the world. I’ve been a New Yorker for over a decade and have no interest in moving to California, yet even to me, Martin’s disdain for every character in Los Angeles not played by Gillian Jacobs feels like a bit much. Then again, he’s not particularly kind to his New York characters, either—even Kline, who finds lovely grace notes in a sympathetic character, feels shunted aside in the back half of the movie. Dean has enough laughs to not feel completely hostile, and its ending is low-key enough to not feel self-indulgent, but this isn’t a promising debut, even if it did win a narrative-feature jury prize.
At one point during Dean’s Los Angeles adventure, he meets members of his friend’s improv team. Martin captures the wearying always-on energy of young improv converts with the same vaguely sour disdain that wilts much of the movie. Dean (and perhaps Martin himself) might well shrivel up in disgust while watching Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice (Grade: B+), which jumps headfirst into the world of improv; it’s the first movie I’ve seen that’s actually about an improv group, the way that countless other movies have chronicled the dynamics of being in a band. Once the movie gets through explaining the rules of improv with a borderline-embarrassing wide-eyed earnestness, it settles into an exploration of what happens when one person from a tightly knit six-member comedy group gets close to a plum spot on Saturday Night Live (it’s called Weekend Live, presumably for permission to speak freely, but the differences pretty much end with the name). Gillian Jacobs turns up again here, with a much more substantial role, playing a gifted improviser who’s starting to realize that she may actually love this form of comedy for its own sake, rather than as a springboard to something better. Keegan-Michael Key plays her more ambitious boyfriend, Birbiglia himself plays the group’s increasingly desperate and embittered ringleader, and funny people fill out the cast, though the others aren’t always as well-drawn as Jacobs, Key, and Birbiglia. This is a niche movie to be sure, but for anyone who’s ever enjoyed good improv (or has ever reached a relatively low plateau in their chosen art form), that initially cutesy earnestness becomes a surprisingly touching tribute by the end.
Another movie about comedy, Folk Hero & Funny Guy (Grade: B), bravely casts a non-comic as a stand-up comedian, something that would not have been so unusual 10 or 20 years ago but now feels downright experimental in the face of all the stand-up and sketch-comedy people available for film work. But hiring Alex Karpovsky to play a middling comic makes sense—not because Karpovsky isn’t funny, but because he projects just enough self-consciousness to make him seem vulnerable even when his character’s jokes are working. The “folk hero” of the movie’s title is played by Wyatt Russell, a successful singer-songwriter who takes his buddy the comedian on a small tour as an opening act. The movie isn’t especially hilarious or surprising—the sample improv scenes in Don’t Think Twice are a lot funnier than the sample stand-up here, albeit by design—but it is well-observed.
For good old-fashioned comic actors playing characters, not comedians, there’s My Blind Brother (Grade: B-), which stars Nick Kroll, Adam Scott, Jenny Slate, and an underused Zoe Kazan. Kroll plays a guy who’s constantly overshadowed by his brother (Scott), who hasn’t let a teenage accident that blinded him stop him from achieving myriad athletic and fundraising goals. Their slightly testy relationship encounters a bigger obstacle when they both fall in love with the same woman (Slate), who has found herself at a sort of moral crossroads. My Blind Brother could have said a lot more about the mechanics by which people consider themselves “good;” it brings up the subject a lot, only to set it aside in favor of sitcom antics (which, to be fair, are mostly diverting in a low-key sort of way). In fact, there are plenty of signs that this movie would have worked a lot better from Slate’s point of view; maybe it’s just Obvious Child afterglow, but her character feels richer and more interesting than either of the dudes with more lines. But that’s not the movie that writer-director Sophie Goodhart had in mind, and to be fair, Kroll makes a surprisingly credible leading man.
Mr. Church (Grade: C-) isn’t a comedy at all, but the reason it’s notable is comedy-centric: It features Eddie Murphy’s first non-comedic performance since his Oscar-nominated turn in Dreamgirls (it’s also the first Eddie Murphy movie of any sort in four years). Murphy acquits himself nicely, proving he can summon a quiet, even gentle presence playing the soft-spoken Mr. Church, who starts off as a cook for a single mom and her young daughter and eventually becomes more like family. Murphy also hints at a darker side to his character, glimpsed only briefly when he stumbles home from a jazz club late at night, drunk on the demon liquor. But the movie, directed by Driving Miss Daisy’s Bruce Beresford, is too busy overdosing on folksiness to give the character’s dichotomy its due (hence its treatment of a jazz club as exotic and mysterious). A shocking and stupid amount of this story is told in voice-over from the daughter after she’s grown up into Britt Robertson, and this storytelling technique smothers any genuine feeling as it works overtime to tell the audience how reflective and moving the events of the film are. That said, it’s a little surprising that this sappy, homily-level movie hasn’t scored a bigger domestic distributor; the paying audience at Tribeca seemed to love it.
Beyond the comedic, formerly comedic, and comedy-centric, Tribeca also has a rep for being a good documentary festival. This is mostly wasted on me due to my irredeemable bias toward fiction films (much like my love of fiction books). I do try to see documentaries about subjects that interest me, and as such, I intended to check out Life, Animated. But my life, actual got in the way, which meant my sole documentary choice was the coming-of-age chronicle All This Panic (Grade: B-). It follows about half a dozen teenage girls in New York City toward the end of their high school years and the beginning of whatever comes next (for some, college; for others, next to nothing). The movie is composed entirely of in-the-moment footage of the girls; no talking heads, no outside narration, not even much in the way of subtitles beyond some introductory names that flash on the screen. This gives the movie an appealing freedom and unified tone. One reason documentaries rarely drawn me in is that so few of them have any discernible aesthetic style. Here director Jenny Gage and cinematographer Tom Betterton (they share the movie’s possessive credit) use shallow focus to create a sense of intimacy around their subjects. They also sometimes use zero focus; there are many, many shots of this movie that are fully and intentionally out of focus. There are doubtless thematic reasons for this, but it feels like a pretty glaring affectation. (There’s a reason not many filmmakers used sustained zero-focus shots: They are kind of annoying to look at.) Much of the material Gage and Betterton gather is interesting and affecting, but surprisingly little of it feels New York-specific (maybe because the actual locations are usually out of focus), and the organization is more than a little scattered. Still, the tribulations, articulations, and frustrations of the girls makes it well worth watching.
Besides movies about comedy and/or Gillian Jacobs, it’s hard to say what makes a “Tribeca” film, at least on the fiction side; the festival has much less of an identity than, say, Sundance or NYFF. But Always Shine (Grade: B) seems like a decent stab at it. It’s too small to make much of a splash at a higher-profile, awards-baiting festival; this is basically a vaguely Brian De Palma-like sorta-two-hander that generates tension even as it telegraphs where it’s going way early. But in a field of comedies and docs, Sophia Takal’s movie about the conflict between two actor friends, one successful (Caitlin FitzGerald) and one less so (Mackenzie Davis), looks bolder and sharper. It boasts a killer opening one-two punch: a close-up of FitzGerald reading at an audition, speaking with the offscreen creeps about nudity, and then a parallel shot of Davis angrily confronting an offscreen mechanic about her bill. The rest of the movie could have been pretty bad, and that opening seven or eight minutes would still leave an impression. Thankfully, the balance of Always Shine is also compelling (if less stylistically bold), as FitzGerald and Davis embark on a tense weekend getaway. It’s not unlike Alex Ross Perry’s Queen Of Earth, minus a performance quite as searing as Elisabeth Moss’, but plus an ear for what passive-aggressive rivalries actually sound like. Takal seems like she’s spent time around human beings before, something that’s not always immediately apparent in Perry’s work.
What keeps Always Shine from pure Tribeca status is its California setting. Wolves (Grade: C+) isn’t as good but may be closer to the platonic example of a Tribeca movie, with its New York locations, beloved character actor in a major role (Michael Shannon), and second-rate writer-director (Bart Freundlich, Mr. Julianne Moore). That “second-rate” crack is due almost entirely to his completely terrible rom-com Trust The Man; Wolves is vastly better than that movie (as is every single movie I saw at Tribeca this year). It follows a star high school basketball player through his senior year as he angles for a spot at Cornell, and while attempting to ratchet up the tension, Freundlich eventually throws too many balls in the air. But at least that involves Michael Shannon becoming progressively more Shannon-y as the kid’s degenerate gambler/college professor father, and a strong role for the frequently underused Carla Gugino as the kid’s mom. Just a tip, though: If your high school basketball movie has multiple sets of loan sharks attending the climactic playoff game, you’re probably dealing with too many characters. Come to think of it, the way Wolves holds promise before falling apart is also very Tribeca. A lot of the experiences at the festival can be classified as either good surprises or bad surprises (or sometimes good surprises that turn into bad surprises).
Maybe this burgeoning identity is why Kicks (Grade: C+) didn’t land for me the way I was expecting. Granted, I assumed a movie about an inner-city kid on a mission to retrieve his stolen Air Jordans would have more than the bare minimum glimmer of humor alongside its grit, so maybe that’s on me. As it turns out, Kicks proves there’s no reason a small-scale story of poverty can’t be just as massively depressing as something more sweeping in scope. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I’m not sure if Kicks has much more on its mind than showing how fucked its characters are at every turn. Even its gorgeous cinematography, which won a prize from the Tribeca jury, feels like less than meets the eye; the frequent use of slow motion lingers past haunting until it becomes just plain draggy (not a great quality in an 80-minute movie).
Indie distributor of the moment A24 has already picked up Equals (Grade: B-), and while it does bring to mind one of A24’s most successful 2015 releases in that it’s a relatively intimate science fiction story, it’s probably not this year’s Ex Machina. Like Ex Machina, it takes on big and sometimes familiar science fiction ideas: It’s set in a low-population future where most of humanity has gathered to a single, sterile-looking location to rebuild their society without the pesky influence of emotions. Unlike Ex Machina, it doesn’t find a new angle on its basic themes, which mostly amount to: Hey, emotions make us human! The love story between two coworkers (Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart) has enough electricity to keep the story compelling; there’s a kind of built-in old-timey chastity when a movie’s lovers aren’t supposed to even touch each other. But while the best sci-fi tells us more about what it means to be human, Equals eventually just tells us what we already knew about what it means to be human: loving people, usually.
Equals isn’t a real waste of time. Only a few movies I saw at Tribeca qualify for that distinction, which counts double in the shot-clock festival environment. But while past years have seen way worse Tribeca movies, I still left the festival wondering if the 15 or so I checked out were the right ones. I heard great things about Hunt For The Wilderpeople and Tiger Raid, but couldn’t work those screenings into my schedule on the fly. That might be the most authentically New York feeling about Tribeca: the suspicion that something amazing might be happening a just a few steps from where you’ve decided to spend your time.