Ahead of NYC's indie festival, we round up past winners to watch at home
by Amber Wilkinson
The Half Of ItPhoto: Netflix/KC Bailey
Tribeca Film Festival returns to New York on June 8. Founded in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in a bid to rejuvenate the area of the city, it has continued to grow in size and become a regular part of the festival calendar. As we look forward to bringing you coverage from this year's edition, we're getting in the mood by rounding up a selection of previous winners that you can screen from the comfort of your own home.
It seems like a fresh adaptation of Cyrano De Bergerac turns up every couple of years or so, with Joe Wright's musical version last year, just the latest in a line that also includes Steve Martin's Roxanne and Jean-Paul Rappenau's traditional retelling with Gerard Depardieu. This smart reworking from Alice Wu - which was named Tribeca's Best Filom in 2020 - throws sexual and cultural identity into the mix. Nerd- for-hire Chinese-American Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is living in podunk town Squahamish with her widowed dad, whose lack of English has stymied his career, when money woes lead her to start writing letters for nice-but-less-than-eloquent football jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) for Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire)... the twist being that both Paul and Ellie have a crush on her. The film - which starts with an animation about Platonic love, of all things - begins a bit stodgily with so much voice-over you could almost be reading a book, but loosens as it goes, probing at unrequited desire and the importance of friendship in ways that feel fresh and relevant for the modern world.
Jennie Kermode writes: A lonely trophy wife isolated in an elegant home, Hunter (Haley Bennet) seeks comfort where she can find it and develops a curious addiction to swallowing small, unlikely objects. It's a habit which could have serious consequences for her health, but it marks a growing awareness that she's in an unhealthy situation to begin with, as her husband and his family seek to exert more and more control over every aspects of her existence. Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis was inspired by his grandmother's experiences to create a film which explores the relationship between traditional expectations of women and mental illness. It takes a sharp left turn halfway through, and there's an inspired cameo from Denis O'Hare which reshapes Hunter's understanding of the world once again. Exquisite photography by Katelin Arizmedi really draws us into Hunter's world, making the objects of her desire look irresistible, and Bennet's performance - which won the Best Actress award at Tribeca in 2019 - is a triumph.
Sitthiphon Disamoe and Alice Keohavong in The Rocket
This Best Film winner at the festival from 2013 may have a serious framework concerning population displacement and the threat of undetonated bombs in Laos but it also takes us into the joyous world of childhood of little Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), who faces a tough time from birth, given that he is one half of a set of twins - one of whom dies - which means his gran believes he is cursed. As his family face an uncertain future thanks to a hydro-electric dam, he sparks up a friendship with young Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), who has lost all her family with the exception of her Uncle Purple (Suthep Po-ngam) - an alcoholic former soldier with a James Brown fixation. Kim Mordaunt weaves together the everyday threat of 'sleeping tiger' bombs with more magic realist elements. A warm-hearted film that has the same sort of playful approach to childhood as the work of Hirokazu Kore-eda.
Alma Har'el's avant-garde film - which won best documentary in 2011 - sees the director collaborate with her subjects using choreographed dance sequences to explore the lives of the marginalised community who live on the shores of the super-salinated Salton Sea in the Californian desert. Once a rich man's playground, it now has an almost post-Apocalyptic vibe, with the the local community described as the "misfits of the world". Har'el's film offers a heady mix of life exploration and expression to a set of people - most notably a little boy called Benny Parrish, a teenager named CeeJay and an old-timer, Red. The dance catches you off-guard. Initially, it seems dance may just be happening by chance but as the film progresses you realise she has worked with these people to add an emotional truth to the film that digs deep. "The idea just came to me because I just find dance to be beautiful and fascinating," Har'el told us.
Another experimental doc that triumphed at Tribeca the year before Alma Har'el's, Clio Barnard's hybrid film explores the life and legacy of Rita, Sue and Bob Too! playwright Andrea Dunbar. Rather than simply hold Dunbar's own life up to the light, she explores the way that Dunbar used elements of her life in her fiction but also playing with the real and the constructed. This means that she uses lip-synching actors to portray everyone in the film but the words are spoken by the real people. The end result not only reveals the slippery nature of what documentarians like to present as "truth" but allows the director free rein to reimagine scenes from the past in ways that bring home the emotional impact. Not just a snapshot of a life but an exploration of societal change, or lack of it, this is a remarkable and influential piece of work.
This Tribeca Best Film winner from 2008 is an enticing mix of vampire horror, coming of age drama and teenage romance, John Ajvide Lindqvist proves adept at adaptation converting his book to a tight script, shot with a chilly realism by Thomas Alfredson, who balances the mood of mystery, dark comedy and revenge horror with a chilly prowess. This story of a bullied boy's love for a girl with a dark secret is full of surprises and shot with a realism that melds its more fantastical elements almost seamlessly with the grit of real life, helping them to hit home all the harder. The sound design also contributes much to the horror of what is unseen, from the thrum of a knife to ragged breathing. The English-language remake, which strikes a different tone is also worth a look (and available on Amazon) but the original remains the best.
I had to sneak a British fiction film in here somewhere, and Shane Meadows' lovely tale of a boy who goes up to London in search of his fortune is a treat, not least thanks to the pair of charming central performances from Thomas Turgoose and Piotr Jagiello - who jointly shared the Tribeca Best Actor award in 2008. Turgoose plays 16-year-old Tomo, who is heading to The Smoke and after a battering of an introduction to the city strikes up an unexpected friendship with Jagiello's teen son of Polish immigrant. There's a lovely spark to the kids' relationship that blossoms in a spirit of gentle optimism. Meadows told us it really helped that they shot the film chronologically, as Jagiello's English was improving by the day and we also spoke to Perry Benson about his comic supporting turn.
And we're staying with British film's for this week's short No More Wings, which won Best Short in 2020.