It seems to be common knowledge among critics that the best stuff at the Tribeca Film Festival is found in the documentary programs. This year was no different, especially when you compare the very strong showing of American nonfiction films versus the ever-frustrating slate of domestic narrative world premieres. I won’t claim to have seen all of the docs, but I caught quite a few of them and the overall quality was pretty impressive. A wide variety of styles and subjects, particularly in the World Documentary Competition, showed the strength that comes from smart, diverse programming. I’d recommend over half of what I saw, but these seven features rise to the top as the best documentaries of the bunch.
1. The Overnighters
The Overnighters is a film about North Dakota. It’s a film about America. It’s a film about the economy, Christianity, poverty, the justice system, human sexuality, the energy industry, xenophobia, acceptance, masculinity and the Wild West. Other documentaries can feel stuffed to the gills by too many themes but not this one. Jesse Moss has built something enormously complex but crystal clear. Every element is absolutely necessary, each thematic introduction another piece of the vast and insolvable puzzle that is contemporary America. It could be much longer, hour upon hour of in-depth reporting from the heartland. Instead, its brief 90 minutes are a stunning representation of a current but timeless national essence.
2. Ne Me Quitte Pas
Ne Me Quitte Pas begins with heartbreak. Marcel’s wife has left him. To say that he takes to drink to cope would be misleading, as the drink had something to do with her departure in the first place. In fact, the whole thing is a meditation on alcoholism, a problem shared by Marcel and his best friend Bob. Directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden break it up into chapters, structuring the lives that these two men lead in rural Belgium with the quiet pace of a European art house fiction film. The result is a sensitive, melancholy and occasionally quite funny drama of true friendship.
3. Mala Mala
The trouble with trying to capture the spirit of a community is that no community has only one perspective. Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini solve this problem by opening up their portrait of Puerto Rico’s transgender and drag communities as much as possible. Mala Mala is a symphony of voices and identities, some of which are theoretically opposed to one another. Each person is presented with a clear and, more importantly, unique dignity. Somewhere between Paris Is Burning and the human rights documentaries of the last few years (Call Me Kuchu, Born This Way), it’s a striking combination of style and identity politics.
4. Art and Craft
Mark Landis is an art forger, an artist and something of a Tennessee Williams character. He goes on what he calls “philanthropy binges,” driving across the country with homemade copies of famous works of art and donates them to museums as authentic. Yet because he doesn’t take money in exchange for the work he isn’t doing anything illegal. Filmmakers Jennifer Grausman and Sam Cullman try to find out why he does it, or at least to get a bit more of an understanding. His devotion to his dead mother has something to do with it, certainly, but there’s no simple answer. By drawing a wide net, interviewing bewildered curators and following Landis’s rise to notoriety in the art world, Grausman and Cullman find rare depth in eccentricity.
5. Dior and I
Raf Simons is the new creative director of Dior, a job with quite the history. Frederic Tcheng’s film charts his first few months at the fashion house, all in anticipation of his first collection for the legendary brand. More than a film about Simons and his struggle, however, this is a portrait of an entire company of artisans. It is also haunted by Christian Dior himself, through well-placed voiceover and a particularly impressive use of archival footage of the old master at work. Much more than pretty clothes on camera, Tcheng’s film is a refreshing use of cinema’s virtues to highlight the spirit of another commercial art form. Read my full review here.
6. Ballet 422
Like Dior and I, Ballet 422 features a new artist being given the reins of a grand institution, in this case for only a short time. Yet instead of using Tcheng’s cinematic tricks, director Jody Lee Lipes uses a more purely verite approach. The subject is choreographer Justin Peck and the development of a new piece for the New York City Ballet. He brings out the beautiful details of the process, from Peck’s initial ideas through the many collaborations with dancers, costume designers, lighting designers and others that lead to the triumph of opening night. It’s a quiet, unassuming work of marvelous inspiration. Read my full review here.
7. The Search for General Tso
Any film about General Tso’s chicken is by definition a film about America. The dish is almost unheard of in China. The way it is prepared in the United States, with broccoli and a sugary sauce, is anathema to so many elements of Chinese cuisine. And yet it is staggeringly popular here, served in practically every Chinese restaurant in the country, of which there are thousands upon thousands. The Search for General Tso is a charming history of Chinese-American cuisine and therefore, in its own way, a history of America and its tastes. Briskly paced, witty, and featuring some of the best graphics work of the year, it’s the most fun I had in the whole festival.