I love film festivals, because I get to see a high concentration of work, and discover talent I wouldn’t have heard about otherwise. There’s also kind of this mystical element at a festival. You never know what experience will have the most profound effect on you. Whether it’s karma or good instincts, so much of the search for a good story is about keeping your eyes and ears open and letting it find you.
I arrived in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival having done absolutely zero research on the films I wanted to see. There were a couple of movies I had heard of, but mostly I arrived with this sort of zen attitude, ready to throw myself into the fray and see what emerged. I saw ten films in three days, many of which were very good. But there were five films in particular that had something to offer me specifically. I’m not a film critic, so I really can’t say what’s good or bad about a film from a technical standpoint, but I would love to share the top five lessons I learned from my five favorite films at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival:
1. I LOVE JULIETTE BINOCHE
Elles by Polish director Malgoska Szumowska was like getting punched in the face by feminism… in a good way. It wasn’t one of my favorite films at the festival, but perhaps the one I needed to process most. The film stars Juliette Binoche as Anne, a journalist who is writing a piece about student prostitution. Szumowska co-wrote the film after reading an article about the increasing popularity of this alarming social trend among French college females.
Anne collects material from interviews she conducts with two young prostitutes, the wholesome Lola and the explosive Alecja (played by Joanna Kulig, who gives a standout performance). At first, Anne begins her work as a concerned, almost maternal outsider seeking understanding. Gradually, as she becomes more immersed in the lives of these girls, she begins to unravel, calling into question all the relationships with the men in her own life, and distancing herself from her domestic roles of wife and mother.
Szumowska depicts human sexuality in many complicated forms. It is soft and sensual, grotesque and violent, bizarre, isolating and at times, tragic. The scenes are so explicit that the film merited an NC-17 rating when it was released in New York and Los Angeles this past weekend. Thankfully, Binoche’s performance adds humor and compassion that gives the film some balance and the viewer some relief.
We never get to read Anne’s piece once it’s finished, but one can gather it would be in line with Szumowska’s realm of thought: that prostitution is a woman’s choice, that sex for money can be enjoyed, and that men’s perception of women remains flawed. Whether or not you agree, “Elles” is worth seeing as a provocative exploration of the themes of guilt, consequence, pleasure, loneliness and the female experience.
2. SUGAR COMES TO THOSE WHO WAIT
Searching for Sugar Man was one of the only films on my radar when I showed up in New York. I had wanted to see it ever since it made a huge splash at Sundance and was quickly scooped up by Sony Pictures Classics. The documentary was made by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, who was so inspired when he heard the story of forgotten American musician Sixto Rodriguez that he knew he had to make a film about it.
The story is pretty miraculous. Rodriguez was discovered in a bar in Detroit in the late sixties by two Motown executives, and released his first album, “Cold Fact” in 1971. However, the provocative lyrics and heartbreaking melodies weren’t enough to make it a hit in the states, and Rodriguez remained in Detroit, working in hard labor and raising a family of daughters.
Meanwhile, a girl visiting her boyfriend in South Africa brought over a copy of “Cold Fact,” which spread like a virus through the apartheid-torn country. Rodriguez quickly became the voice of a generation. As one South African record store owner says, “Cold Fact was the album that gave people permission to free their minds.” To this day, he’s considered just as big as The Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel.
View the clip here:
One of the highlights of my Tribeca experience was attending an intimate concert for press at City Winery. There were about 30 people sitting at tables in front of a small stage, drinking coffee and taking notes. Rodriguez walked out a few minutes late, looking disheveled, wearing an all black suit and his signature shades, a spot visible on the leg of his pants. This guy is for real.
After a couple warm up songs, including a beautiful version of ‘La Vie en Rose,’ Rodriguez, who once ran for Mayor of Detroit, started spewing some mad truths:
“Do you want to know the secret to life? Keep breathing in and out.”
“And the mystery of life? You never know when it’s going to end.”
“And about love: don’t be a silent partner.”
“And free love? It’s too expensive.”
Once the film is released on July 27th, Rodriguez may finally get the fame and fortune that mysteriously eluded him in the 70s.
3. IF YOU MUST BREAK UP, DO SO IN A WEIN/LISTER-JONES SCREENPLAY
Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones co-wrote Lola Versus, an absolutely hilarious, mostly honest portrayal of an almost 30-year-old woman named Lola (played by Greta Gerwig) after an absolutely horrible breakup leaves her eating shit.
Wein directed the film, and Zoe Lister-Jones is so funny as Lola’s best friend, aspiring actress Alice, that you wish she was your best friend in real life. My favorite scene involved her performing in what appears to be an interpretive, abstract, and wordless version of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ She steals the show, hands down, but still, Greta Gerwig shines as Lola, who can’t seem to figure out which way is up after the demise of a relationship leaves her reeling. Lola Versus was picked up by Fox Searchlight and will hit theaters June 8th.
Here’s the trailer:
4. CUBA LIBRE ISN’T JUST A COCKTAIL
Lucy Mulloy’s feature debut as writer/director, Una Noche is about three Cuban youths who attempt to sail from Cuba to Miami on a makeshift raft. It garnered a lot of buzz last week when two of the lead actors were a no show at the festival after disappearing during a layover in Miami. Only one of the three leads, Dariel Arrechaga, showed up and accepted the award for best actor in a narrative feature on behalf of himself and his co-star, Javier Nunez Florian.
During a post-screening Q&A, Mulloy explained how she found her lead actors. After initially pursuing the traditional route, auditioning professional actors and scouring Cuban theaters, Mulloy came up empty handed. So she hit the streets, and discovered first time actor Arrechaga, as well as his MIA costars Florian and Anailin de la Rua de la Torre, who perfectly embodied the youthful, nervous desperation of her characters. You can talk all you want about life imitating art, but Mulloy’s adept portrayal of the anxiety and discontent in Cuba shows that her art is intrinsically based in life itself. Mulloy took home the Best New Narrative Director award from Tribeca.
5. GIVING COMIC RELIEF A WHOLE NEW MEANING
Remember that kid in ‘Love Actually’ that plays Liam Neeson’s son? The one with the big brown eyes, who is hell bent on learning the drums so he can woo an older girl in his class? Well Thomas Sangster is all grown up and about to knock your socks off in his incredible turn as Dublin teen Donald Clarke in Death of a Superhero.
Donald’s life is normal in every sense of the word: he’s obsessed with sketching, comics, and women. The only difference between Donald and his classmates is that Donald is dying of cancer. The film is about his own struggle with mortality, and how he helps his loved ones accept the fact that he is dying. The film boasts a terrific supporting cast, including Andy Serkis as Donald’s methodical therapist Dr. Adrian King, and Aisling Loftus as his feisty love interest Shelly.
View the trailer here:
It sort of reminded me of the 2011 cancer comedy 50/50, in that despite its heavy subject matter, it was full of lighthearted moments, like when Donald’s friends set him up with a prostitute to ensure that he won’t die a virgin. But one of the coolest parts about this film is how it takes the audience into Donald’s psyche through a series of animated vignettes featuring the superheroes in his sketches. The film was directed by Ian Fitzgibbon and hit theaters May 4th.
So there you have it. Tribeca was no Christian Bale marathon. But it was a truly energizing experience. I am constantly inspired by what filmmakers young and old are independently producing. I hope you have an opportunity to check out at least a couple of these films when they hit theaters. And the next time a film festival visits your town, make it a point to go. Let it have its way with you. And then tell me about it.
Follow Jenny on Twitter: @JennyKCRW