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The 10 Best Films of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival

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Another Tribeca Film Festival has come and gone, and now we’re left to pick up the pieces. When you’re grappling with a festival that plays host to nearly 100 features (among any number of other events and oddities), it can be unusually valuable to take a deep breath at the end of it and sift through the mania. Of course, when such a festival is less of a destination for you than it is a wrinkle in your daily routine, it can be nearly impossible to get a meaningful grasp of the art that was suddenly, and briefly, made available to you. You follow the buzz, but – as the festival continues to improve and bolster an ever stronger line-up of films from around the world – it can be hard to pinpoint the source of the noise, and it becomes clear that every good experience comes at the expense of several more. Of course, there are far worse problems to have at a film festival.

So with that in mind, here is what our intrepid team of local writers managed to make of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Below, you’ll find our collective picks for the 10 best films we saw at the festival (“Before Midnight” was ineligible, if only because we’ll be raving about that one plenty over the course of the next few weeks), and links to our full reviews. On the second page, we’ve provided a comprehensive guide to our spotlight features, including looks at revelatory LGBT cinema, a focus on the fest’s female directors, a profile of two biographical documentaries, a glimpse inside the multimedia Storyscapes event and links to the interviews we’ve run on the site.

Enjoy, and we hope we’ll see you there, next year! Judging by the way the fest is growing, you won’t want to miss it.

THE 10 BEST FILMS OF THE 2013 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL:

1.) “CUTIE AND THE BOXER”

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Among the truer cliches out there is “behind every great man is a great woman.” It’s also the most backhanded of compliments. The increasingly dated implication is that staying behind a man is, in some way, necessary for the world to exalt in his greatness. “Cutie and the Boxer,” the spectacular new documentary from Zachary Heinzerling, is about one woman’s realization that being a mere support system for her husband is not a fulfilling life. More excitingly, she does something about it.

Noriko was a 19-year-old art student from a wealthy family when she came to New York in the late 1960s/early 1970s. She met fellow ex-pat Ushio Shinohara and quickly fell in love with his total dedication to art. He was a well-regarded pop artist and action painter, known for strapping on boxing gloves dipped in paint and fighting his canvases. The two quickly hooked up and Noriko idealistic dreams of a creative life side-by-side with this whirlwind were soon put aside when she got pregnant. Once her parents cut her off she was living in squalor with a hard-drinking husband twenty years her senior.

The emotions the Shinoharas’ story inspire are all over the road. It is at times triumphant and warm, then sad and even enraging. Eventually you stop wishing his attitude would change and simply worry “is she happy?” Luckily, Noriko Shinohara is an extraordinary enough woman that, in time, we realize we don’t need to worry about her at all.

Read our full review of “Cutie and the Boxer”

2.) “WADJDA” 

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Writer/director Haifaa al-Mansour is the first Saudi woman to write and direct a feature film. She’s actually the first director ever to make a feature film entirely in Saudi Arabia. She directed some scenes from inside of a van, using walkie-talkies to communicate with her crew, because of regulations around women in public. But even if it wasn’t agroundbreaking movie in these respects, “Wadjda” would still merit critical acclaim all on its own.

Read our full profile of “Wadjda”

3.) “LILY”

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“Lily” is a beautifully rendered portrait of a young woman preparing to take the next step as she finishes treatment for breast cancer, a film that’s tiny but true, as precise as it is universally relatable. Indebted to the free-flowing spirit of John Cassavetes and inspired by lead actress Amy Grantham’s fight with cancer, “Lily” is the kind of movie that proves – among other things – that there’s hope for indie film beyond the likes of Sundance and SXSW, and that Tribeca is full of buried treasure if you know where to look.

No review, but watch an exclusive clip from the film.

4.) “THE ROCKET”

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Ahlo is bad luck.

Born in tribal hut in a region of Laos seemingly untouched by modernity, he is half of a set of twins. When his sibling is stillborn, his grandmother Mali insists he be killed as well. Twins, so tradition holds, either bring a blessing or a curse, and since the other infant is dead it stands to reason that little Ahlo must be bad news. The mother stands up for herself and nurtures the boy for ten years or so, until trouble indeed finds its way to their village. A dam is being built (by an Australian company) and their area will be flooded. There are promises of cash and dream houses with running water and uninterrupted electricity. Mali is convinced, of course, it is Ahlo’s fault and things only get worse when a freak accident that takes a page from Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” kills Ahlo’s mother.

It’s hard to tell someone “you really need to go out and see this exploration of third world poverty” but “The Rocket,” while certainly accomplished in making you feel guilty, is just a well told yarn. The kid performances are impressive and the subtext of a region still shaking off the effects of a long-ended war gives seed to some much needed discussion.

Read our full review of “The Rocket”

5.) “BLUEBIRD”

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Simple, human distraction – a pause for natural beauty – shows its lasting, cruel effect in “Bluebird.” Leslie (Amy Morton) is a hardworking schoolbus driver, and during her final cleanup before parking the vehicle for the night she turns to watch a bluebird fly in and out of the bus. Then she locks up before the temperature dips well below zero in this desolate Maine town.

She inadvertently locks in young Owen, who must have been sleeping in a back seat. He suffers hypothermia and spends the rest of the film in a coma. But Leslie is not solely culpable. Owen’s mother Marla (Louisa Krause, in a role Jennifer Jason Leigh would have done 20 years ago) was supposed to pick the kid up at the bus stop. She forgot, because she only looks after him once every two weeks, and instead she got drunk and sang sad karaoke and fell asleep in the tub. If she’d been with it, she would have made a call and maybe the kid would have gotten rescued.

“Bluebird” is undoubtedly a remarkable achievement, especially for a first-time filmmaker.

Read our full review of “Bluebird.”

6.) “HARMONY LESSONS”

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There are three clear-cut dream sequences in “Harmony Lessons.” However, when our lead character Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) snaps out of his reverie, his reality is still strange enough for this film to feel as if it is being beamed down from some distant planet.

It isn’t a distant planet, but it is the seldom represented rural landscape of Kazakhstan, alternating between hot sands and endless snow. Once you make your way past the veneer of weirdness you’ll find that “Harmony Lessons” can boil down to the fairly traditional plot of an intelligent though timid boy confronting a brutal bully with a violent conclusion. It is to writer director Emir Baigazin’s credit that it’ll take you some time to realize this is the direction in which the film is headed – and along the way you will be wowed by the artful framing of the situational peculiarities.

“Harmony Lessons” is an odd duck and a bit of a hard sit. Parts of it are glacially paced, parts of it are just gross. For those who look for films where each shot comes loaded with a clearly defined aesthetic, this is a movie for you. If you are looking for a more straightforward narrative in which to get all raged-up about school bullying, stick with The Weinstein Company’s documentary.

Read our full review of “Harmony Lessons”

7.) “HIDE YOUR SMILING FACES”

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The group of young, mostly unsupervised boys at the heart of Daniel Patrick Carbone’s “Hide Your Smiling Faces” have a rough season ahead of them. After a day spent wasting time in an abandoned house and playing with dead birds, brothers Eric (around 14) and Tommy (around 9) head over to Ian’s house. Ian, aged somewhere in between, shows off his Dad’s gun that is stashed in the barn.

Carbone and his DP Nick Bentgen have a knack of catching nature in evocative ways. The landscape is a definitive presence throughout the film, which has almost no music and very little dialogue. The film is short (approximately 80 minutes) and maintains a good sense of dread throughout. You just know another bomb is about to drop somewhere – and each scenario that could end in harm has you wincing. It is, indeed, a striking way to convey the nervousness of a kid whose blanket of safety has been torn off forever.

It is no pejorative to call “Hide Your Smiling Faces” a small gem. I suspect the budget was quite low and this will do for Daniel Patrick Carbone exactly what it is supposed to do – get his name out there as a bonafide talent who will likely follow-up with a larger and even more striking film. He is, indeed, one to watch.

Read our full review of “Hide Your Smiling Faces”

8.) “FLOATING SKYSCRAPERS”

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Tomas Wasilewski’s crepuscular and deeply affecting “Floating Skyscrapers” comes to Tribeca from Poland, a deeply Catholic country where homophobia remains prevalent. Progress is being made, of course, and in 2011 the first gay MP was elected to parliament. Yet their cinema is only beginning to deal with homosexuality in a meaningful way, and Wasilewski’s new film is therefore a major contribution.

Read Daniel Walber’s profile on “Floating Skyscrapers.”

9.) “SOME VELVET MORNING

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If the mark of a film’s success is to invoke empathy with the characters, then Neil LaBute’s “Some Velvet Morning” is wildly and unorthodoxly successful. The empathy in this case isn’t a mere “oh, how I feel for that person on the screen,” but a visceral connection, a chemical reaction beyond storytelling that, since Neil LaBute’s work has long had a proclivity toward sadism, left me feeling flushed, a little dizzy and even a tad nauseous.

“Some Velvet Morning” is a horror film with no blood, with words the only weapon for 98% of the picture. Alice Eve, shattering any perception of being a mere Kidman 2.0, and Stanley Tucci, strikingly toxic and repulsive, spend 90 minutes on an emotional see-saw, weaving back and forth through a protracted argument in an uncluttered brownstone. It is very much a “filmed play,” a subgenre of cinema that frequently seems difficult to justify.

Read our full review of “Some Velvet Morning.

10.) “TRUST ME”

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F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said there were no second acts in American lives. Clark Gregg’s film “Trust Me” shows just how few people like to listen to F. Scott Fitzgerals.

The bulk of “Trust Me” is a very fun inside-baseball look at how deals are made in Hollywood. (Or, at least, how deals are made in movies about Hollywood.) Alison Janney plays an associate of a major producer and she talks fast, so how in this could, in any way, be bad? There are also some benign digs at the culture’s obsession with franchise films, particularly amusing when an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is talking about T-shirts and action figures. As the film moves to its second half there are a number of twists that shed some light on both Howard and Lydia’s darker past. While some of the story mechanics are a little clunky, by and large the film keeps you in its grip.

Read our full review of “Trust Me”

OTHER TRIBECA REVIEWS:

Our review of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

Our review of “Taboor”

Our review of “Almost Christmas”

Our review of “At Any Price”

Our review of “Before Midnight”

Our review of “The English Teacher”

Our review of “V/H/S 2″

Our review of “Prince Avalanche”

OUR TRIBECA ROUND-UP CONTINUES ON PAGE 2!


Categories: Features

Tags: 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, Bluebird, Cutie and the Boxer, Hide Your Smiling Faces, Lily, Some Velvet Morning, The Rocket, Wadjda

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