critics' picks

16 of the Best Films Playing at This Year’s Tribeca Film Festival

Over the past 12 years, the Tribeca Film Festival has shed and tried on multiple identities. But in recent years, it seems to have found one that sticks: It’s a festival where you go to see some of the most exciting documentary work around. (It shows narrative films, too, but its fiction slate is a somewhat more hit-and-miss affair.) Last year’s iteration gave us such startling docs as Let the Fire Burn, Big Men, and The Kill Team.

This year’s lineup (which will screen from April 16 through 27) is also very promising; there are even some potentially interesting narrative films. The topics range far and wide, but some themes are already starting to emerge: Many of these films follow offbeat, sometimes even troubled, individuals struggling to find their places in culture and society — whether it’s through creating a work of art, or joining a revolution, or trying to find the right girl. In short, it’s a slate that reflects the unease of our times. I haven’t seen the full lineup, but of the ones I have, here are sixteen of the best.

Improvisatory, glancing, and gorgeous, Garrett Bradley’s film is a slow-burn beauty. It follows the lives of three people making their way back to New Orleans in search of a better life, but it does so in a way that’s as much about the textured quality of the imagery — lovingly shot on celluloid, of course — as it is about character development or class conflict. Watching it, I was enraptured, though I wasn’t quite sure it was as profound as it thought it was. Weeks later, I’m finding it hard to shake.
Documentaries about well-known public figures can often feel like glorified infomercials. But this portrait of the influential writer and public intellectual somehow manages to do justice to both the breadth of her work (with passages from her writing read by Patricia Clarkson) as well as the ins and outs of her personal life, including her long-term lesbian relationships at a time when homosexuality was still seen as problematic even among the liberal intelligentsia.That director Nancy Kates manages to hit so many important pivot points in Sontag’s life and career in a cinematically engaging way feels like a small miracle.
I’d never heard of the Media, Pennsylvania, break-in, but it was, in many ways, the brick-and-mortar-and-paper precursor to WikiLeaks and the NSA files. An unknown group raided an FBI office in 1971 and distributed top secret files to Congress and various media outlets. The files revealed all sorts of unbelievable things — attempts to infiltrate antiwar groups with informants and agents provocateurs, for example — and was the first indication to many Americans that their government may not have always had their best interests at heart.   The identities of the intruders were not known until they revealed themselves for this documentary, which features both interviews and reenactments. That already gives it a certain amount of must-see cachet. But what really makes Johanna Hamilton’s film so resonant and distinctive is the way it portrays the eight activists at the center of this operation as an extended family, delving into their personal relationships and their profound disillusion at the political environment around them. It’s a film that subtly, implicitly makes you question what you would do — which in turn offers an interesting new lens through which to view the controversy swirling around figures like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.
Mark Landis is a notorious art forger, but he likes to think of himself as a philanthropist. That’s because he makes no profit from forging paintings and “donating” them to museums around the country — something he’s been doing for decades. In fact, Landis is a shy, mentally troubled elderly man who lives in a small home cluttered with pictures and regularly has to check in with his social workers and doctors. This amazing documentary follows him as he creates his fakes and gives away his work, but it also follows Matthew Leininger, the Cincinnati art registrar who has made it his personal obsession for years to pursue Landis. The access is kind of amazing — how often do you see a documentary where you see both the guy being chased and the guy chasing him? But what’s even more amazing is the surprisingly touching direction in which Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman’s film goes, as the world finally begins to catch up to Landis.
Back when mumblecore was still a thing, Aaron Katz was one of its somewhat unsung talents; I’d trade any number of that loosely defined genre’s more talked-about films for his simple, beautiful 2006 film Dance Party, USA. Here, teaming up with Martha Stephens, he delivers an old-guys-on-the-road movie that’s fresh, sincere, and understated. Two ex-brothers-in-law journey to Iceland and, amid the country’s stark beauty, discover and reflect on the simple pleasures of life and their place in the universe; their lively banter crossed with the otherworldly landscape enhances the film’s profundity.
Justin Peck, a dancer with the New York City Ballet, has been tasked with creating the organization’s 422nd original ballet — the only original piece commissioned for the season — and Jody Lee Lipes’s unassuming documentary watches this young man as he goes about the process of putting the performance together. This isn’t a sensationalistic, watch-everything-go-wrong-as-the-deadline-approaches kind of movie. Rather, it’s a quiet portrait of the amazing amount of work that goes into creating an ineffable piece of art. Peck himself seems to be a quiet man, willing to let the pros around him do their best work, but as Lipes’s camera gets closer and closer to him, we start to see the anxiety and the fear play out on his face. As opening night approaches, we start to feel as nervous as he does.
Part rarefied aesthetic experience, part lyrical reverie, Andrew Renzi’s documentary about calving season at a Montana ranch is somehow both amazingly old-fashioned and wondrously new, as a consciously mythologizing Harry Dean Stanton voice-over accompanies the immersive, observant images. Gorgeous on every level, and occasionally quite powerful, this is the kind of movie students of the avant-garde and fans of arthouse docs like Leviathan can take their Clint Eastwood–loving dads to. 
Documentaries about government and law enforcement’s overreach and abuse of power are a dime a dozen at any self-respecting film festival, but here’s one that genuinely introduces information that will be new (and shocking) to most viewers. In 2009, many of us were disturbed to learn of a plot involving four American Muslims in Newburgh, New York, who had planned to blow up Jewish centers. Directors David Heilbroner and Kate Davis don’t just offer an exposé of what really happened — revealing how the alleged terrorist plot was in fact cooked up by law enforcement — but they also utilize hidden-camera footage and eyewitness accounts to create a present-tense, cinematic experience of what went down in this desperately poor, forgotten corner of America.
Following the creation of Raf Simons’s first couture line for the House of Dior, Frederic Tcheng’s documentary is a detailed look at both the high-stakes world of modern fashion as well as the history of the Dior name and brand. As Simons battles against time to create something that will make an impact, archival footage (and thoughts read in voice-over) from Christian Dior himself helps to create a kind of poetic context for the contemporary designer’s journey. There have been a glut of fashion documentaries over the past few years — some of them quite entertaining — but none of them have quite come close to matching the terse perfection of Douglas Keeve’s 1995 masterpiece Unzipped. This one comes close.
The very premise of this documentary tugs at your heartstrings — ailing jazz trumpet icon Clark Terry mentors young blind prodigy Justin Kauflin — but director Alan Hicks’s film has integrity and passion in equal measure. It’s not so much about disability as it is about the way jazz can help turn both emotional and physical pain into something joyous and beautiful. As you watch, you realize that the touching mentor-pupil relationship at the film’s heart could be anyone, really.  
A baby disappears in a small New York town, and two young girls are convicted of the crime. Years later, they return home, and suddenly another child disappears. Documentarian Amy Berg’s first fiction film was written by Nicole Holofcener (adapting Laura Lippman’s novel), and as you might expect with that creative team, this is less a mystery and more a diffuse character study, a look at how the past can continue to haunt those broken by it. The cast is uniformly excellent, but Diane Lane, playing the mother of one of the convicted girls, stands out: She turns this efficient, suspenseful little drama into something downright Shakespearean. 
A group of computer engineers in Helsinki become part of a study by a colleague attempting to crack the code of love. That is to say: They’re going to use scientific methods to try to find love, and he’s going to study them. Tonislav Hristov’s documentary could have gone in so many wrong directions: The engineers are an awkward bunch, of course, and it would have been easy to make a movie about a bunch of nerds trying (and failing) to meet girls. Instead, Hristov opts for a more ethereal approach: The movie becomes an attempt to discover just what it is that makes love so unknowable, and why all the science in the world can’t unravel its mysteries.
Director Marshall Curry makes movies about seemingly small stories that turn out to be bigger stories: His 2009 documentary Racing Dreams started off about young go-kart racers and wound up being a meditation on the cosmic power of ambition; his 2005 doc Street Fight followed a heated Newark mayoral race (featuring a certain newcomer named Cory Booker) and transformed into a small epic about American politics. And now, he gives us the story of Matthew van Dyke, a young, OCD adrenaline junkie and photographer who decided to travel the Middle East on a motorcycle and found himself joining the Libyan resistance. Along the way, the story turns from one man’s unlikely journey into a look at an entire generation’s pop-culture-fueled idea of manhood and heroism. An odd bird — reserved but articulate, self-aware yet profoundly impressionable — Van Dyke makes a fascinating guide to his own adventures.
On the surface, this looks like your typical Italian family melodrama — about the ways in which a middle-class family insinuates its way into the world of an impossibly wealthy one. But it’s a far slippier film than that. By telling its story in fragmented fashion, going over the same events from different characters’ perspectives, director Paolo Virzi actually calls into question the audience’s own assumptions about class, privilege, love, and loyalty. It’s a strange film — constantly hovering on the knife edge between comedy and tragedy — but a riveting one. Photo: Loris T.Zambelli/Loris T.Zambelli
David Mackenzie’s unflinchingly brutal prison drama looks at a tough young inmate who struggles with his violent impulses even as he has to contend with sadistic officials and his own father, a fellow prisoner. This is not a new genre, of course, but Mackenzie, the underrated director of such moody character studies as Young Adam and Hallam Foe, is a master of atmosphere and finding telling bits of human detail. The result is incredibly well-acted, emotionally crushing, and occasionally hard to watch.
Here’s a strange one. Director Onur Tukel (full disclosure: I know the guy) stars as a nebbishy Brooklyn motormouth with commitment issues who, still reeling from a recent breakup, is bitten by a vampire and becomes an undead sex machine — with commitment issues. Deliriously weird and discomfiting, and very, very funny, it’s like what might happen if Woody Allen and Lena Dunham found themselves collaborating on a Roger Corman movie.
16 Great Films at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival