Zoe Kazan and Jake Johnson star in "The Pretty One," a Tribeca… (Tribeca Film Festival )
NEW YORK--The Tribeca Film Festival that ended Sunday occupies an odd niche in the movie-confab calendar, which among its oddities includes a large number of posts about the odd niche it occupies in the movie-confab calendar.
But amid all the hand-wringing about what the festival is (or was, or should be) is the fact that, these days, there are some pretty solid titles making their premieres here. In some cases these are world premieres. In others, they are North American premieres -- which, given how many Americans don’t make it to the Berlin Film Festival, where many of these movies first appeared a couple months ago, is basically a distinction without a difference.
Perhaps because Berlin puts only slight emphasis on documentaries, or perhaps because there are more documentaries than ever, nonfiction films have tended to be Tribeca standouts in recent years. But there is worthiness amid the scripted too -- as indie features get a little easier to finance via Kickstarter, as a group of fine actors from cable make forays into cinema, and as a generation that grew up with a camera in its pocket and a storytelling-in-miniature social-media site on its laptop begins to come into its own.
PHOTOS & VIDEO: Movie Sneaks 2013
Here, then, are nine movies selected from the more than 85 that debuted here over the past 12 days that you’ll likely be hearing about in the year ahead, or should be seeking out if you don’t. Some have TV or theatrical distribution in place; others are still looking for ways to get the word out. In many cases, they’ll sneak up on you. But like all festival discoveries, that’s sometimes the best way to see them.
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.” Tribeca this year was filled with documentaries about the famous -- Richard Pryor, Michael Haneke, Muhammad Ali. But none captured audiences’ and critics’ attention like Chiemi Karasawa’s look at the cabaret legend Elaine Stritch. “Shoot Me” is a detailed portrayal of a fiery octogenarian who’s seen and done it all (JFK, anyone?) as she prepares to leave New York for semi-retirement in Michigan. It’s also a look at aging and what happens when that occurs to very successful people living in the semi-spotlight. Younger audiences know Stritch largely from her “30 Rock” appearances in recent years. If this film is handled well, they could know her for a lot more.
“McConkey.” A friend raised her eyebrows when told of the title to this extreme-sports documentary. But don’t be fooled by the name. This story of an extreme BASE skier named Shane McConkey is serious, eye-opening stuff, the kind that allows you to forgive the Red Bull-commercial overtones. (And given that the film comes from Red Bull’s media arm, there are a few.) Media reports recently have focused -- rightly -- on the ethical concerns raised by the culture of extreme sports. But those watching this movie have come away simply being moved by the guts and the athleticism, not to mention McConkey’s wrenching personal story.
“Bluebird”/”Stand Clear of the Closing Doors." Sundance has long prided itself on quiet dramas. And it still does that rather well. But there are a growing number of other places to look for these types of narratives. Tribeca is one of them, and few films better represent the form than this pair. Lance Edmands’ “Bluebird” stars some good actors (theater veteran Amy Morton and “Mad Men” star John Slattery) doing some subtle work in a Maine-set tale about a school-bus accident in which several are complicit. Sam Fleischner’s ultra low-budget “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” looks at a mother and son on and below the streets of New York in the days before Superstorm Sandy. Both films offer human stories set in particular places, and the ways tragedy can play havoc on that humanity.
“The Rocket." If any Tribeca film this year merited the term breakout, it’s this one. Kim Mordaunt’s Asia-set story won both the top jury and the top audience prize this past weekend, a rarity at any festival. The Australian production tells of a boy in tribal Laos who is believed to have brought bad luck to his family and is now looking for redemption as he leads a ragtag group through the mountains to find a home. It may be the first-ever road-trip movie set in a place without roads. If its can-do story -- the boy must ultimately build a rocket in a local competition to save his family -- and its staples like the American-pop-culture-obsessed foreigner (let’s just say James Brown figures in) have been seen in global cinema before, the movie's quiet charms and lush visuals will no doubt help it build an audience. Don’t be surprised if this one’s in the foreign-language Oscar conversation next year.