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A Look Back at Tribeca 2023

For those who attend film festivals on a regular basis, there is no more exhilarating experience to be had than sitting down to check out a film that you virtually no advanced knowledge of going in and emerging afterwards practically crackling with genuine excitement over what you have just seen. Over the course of the 12-day run of this year’s edition of the Tribeca Film Festival, which ran in New York City from June 7-18, I saw roughly 50 of the 109 feature films (93 of them world premieres) that played, not counting those that I saw at earlier festivals or revivals. Some of these films were ones that I liked a lot, others not so much and there were even a couple that left me thoroughly baffled. However, there was one that absolutely knocked me for a loop—one so fascinating, audacious and clever that I cannot wait for it to get a commercial release so that all of you can be just as astounded as I was.

The film is “Cypher,” a one-of-a-kind movie from Chris Moukarbel that starts off like the kind of standard-issue celebrity-driven documentary that festivals like Tribeca love to program in the hopes of driving ticket sales and publicity. The subject is Tierra Whack, the Philadelphia-born rapper who made a big splash in 2018 with her critically acclaimed debut album Whack World and soon found herself earning Grammy nominations, appearing at Lollapalooza and Coachella and working with the likes of Beyoncé and Alicia Keys. Her triumphant rise is covered in the first 20 minutes or so. But when it comes time for her to get to work on the highly-anticipated follow-up project that could potentially launch her into the superstar stratosphere, things begin to take a turn. While relaxing with her team at a diner after a concert, she is approached by an odd woman who tries to warn her that there is a vast underground conspiracy in the music world that determines and controls those who are allowed to succeed and that she is their next target. Whack and her crew think the fan is nuts, but as her star rises, things get weird and eventually culminate with a shoot for an elaborate new video that might have more sinister underpinnings than the usual music promo.

Music stars coming up with movies that intentionally blur the lines between truth and fiction are nothing new—just recently, we have seen such examples as the gory Foo Fighters horror-comedy "Studio 666" and the loopy St. Vincent satire "The Nowhere Inn"—but in those cases, viewers were reasonably certain of where they stood in regards to what was at least semi-real and what was patently fictional. Here, Moukarbel (whose credits include the rock doc “Gaga: Five Foot Two”) does such an effective job of intertwining the genuine footage exploring Whack’s life and artistic process with the more obviously scripted material involving the unseen forces possibly manipulating her career forward that viewers will find themselves questioning everything they see with even the seemingly triumphant moments like award shows and that looming video shoot taking on a decidedly sinister tone in the process. Even amidst the more overtly hyped titles on display, a film as audacious as “Cypher” could not be ignored, and indeed, it went on to win the festival’s much-deserved U.S. Narrative Premiere prize. Hopefully, it will gain commercial release before too long so that all of you can witness one of the true knockout films of the year.

The only problem with a film like “Cypher” is that it so thoroughly twists the expected beats of the standard-issue celebrity-driven documentary that the more straightforward examples of that sub-genre, typically a key element of the celeb-heavy Tribeca lineup, wound up looking kind of puny and inconsequential by comparison. That was certainly the case with Stan Lee,” David Gelb’s largely ineffectual documentary about the life and work of the famed comic book creator and publisher. Now playing on Disney+, the film offers nothing new or revelatory in the way of information or insight and which too often feels like a visual equivalent of a Wikipedia entry that has been thoroughly scrubbed of any potentially discomfiting issues—decades of poor business decisions, legal issues and questions of his usurping credit for the creation of many of the most famous Marvel characters—so that it could play on Disney+ without a hitch. Frank Marshall’s “Rather,” a look at the life and work of famed newscaster Dan Rather, is a little more interesting—he has Rather himself to offer commentary on some of those key points. The film also works as a look at how broadcast journalism evolved during Rather’s era into what it has become now—but considering how tenacious and hard-hitting Rather could be as a journalist, I wished that Marshall had grilled him a little harder regarding some of the more contentious aspects of his legacy.

Hideo Kojima: Connecting Worlds

Somewhat more intriguing is Glen Milner’s “Hideo Kojima: Connecting Worlds,” which observes the famed video game designer as he launches his own independent studio and goes about the production of the eagerly anticipated 2019 game “Death Stranding,” for which he was able to get such notable names as Mads Mikkelsen and Lea Seydoux to take parts in it. If that isn’t impressive enough, consider that no less than Guillermo del Toro and George Miller turn up among the numerous talking heads to argue the point that he is just as much of an auteur in his field as they are in theirs. Clocking in at one hour, the film doesn’t quite land the video-games-are-art argument that it is trying to make, and some of the talking head interviews feel like filler (such as the presence of Grimes). But the scenes of Kojima and his band of workers trying to bring the game to life are intriguing and make you wish that they had been explored in more detail. Another creative process is examined in “Happy Clothes: A Film About Patricia Field,” Michael Selditch’s examination of the life and career of the famed costume designer for such projects as “Sex and the City,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “Ugly Betty.” The film, essentially a companion piece to Field’s recently published biography, is largely indistinguishable from the recent glut of fashion-related docs. Still, the dishy tone and the nifty outfits ensure it is at least easy to watch.

Probably the most entertaining of the straight celeb documentaries is “Let the Canary Sing,” in which director Alison Ellwood, who previously directed the acclaimed 2020 chronicle of The Go-Gos, examines another equally significant musical act from that era, the one and only Cyndi Lauper. The film chronicles Lauper’s life from her hard early years and initial struggles to make it in the industry through her massive critical and commercial breakthrough in 1983 with her solo debut album She’s So Unusual and its instantly iconic pro-feminist anthem “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” There is a lot of fascinating and entertaining material here—we learn how Lauper and photographer Annie Leibovitz created the cover for the She’s So Unusual album and see an incredible duet between Lauper and Patti LaBelle on “Time After Time” that is the musical equivalent of watching two boxing champions in their respective primes going at it (I mean this as a compliment, by the way.) The movie becomes less interesting as it chronicles Lauper’s commercial decline after her follow-up album, True Colors (whose title track became an anthem for the LGBTQ crowd) when she found herself unable to connect with the mass audience as she once had. Ellwood doesn’t really probe into the reasons for this. I wish she had explored how the music industry, seemingly unwilling to accept the notion that there could be more than one successful female pop star at the time, tried to pit her and Madonna against each other. That said, the film is still fun to watch, mostly for the irrepressible energy and enthusiasm of Lauper herself, who serves as our tour guide through her life.

Uncharted

Other documentaries on hand followed people as they pursued their dreams of fame and fortune or, in one case, as they tried to regain what they once had. Co-produced by David Letterman, Maggie Contreras’s intriguing “Maestra” follows five women from around the world as they take part in the only competition in the world for female orchestra conductors and weaves together their passion for conducting with their desire to break through in yet another industry that has been hard for women to make a mark in over the years—a subject that might not have been of much interest just a year ago but which has taken on new relevance in the wake of “TÁR.” The struggles of women to make it in the music world were also the subject of Uncharted,” Beth Ala’s film that is centered around a camp for female songwriters put on by Alicia Keys and observes several participants as they go through their creative processes while at the same time recognizing the incredible odds that they will be facing to get their work heard. 

Meanwhile, Morgan Neville and Jeff Malmberg’s “The Saint of Second Chances” takes a mostly entertaining and endearing look at Mike Veeck, the son of famed Major League Baseball owner Bill Veeck who literally blew up their collective legacies one July night in 1979 by devising the infamous Disco Demolition promotion between games of a White Sox doubleheader that turned into a genuine riot (one fueled in part by racism and homophobia to boot) and his efforts many years later to get himself back into the game. David Sabshon’s slight but entertaining “Copyright Infringement” details the life of up-and-coming artist Cj Hendry and how her ultra-realistic artwork saw her being sued for copyright infringement and led to her distributing her work on T-shirts randomly distributed on the streets for people to find—a movie that led to her repeating the giveaway annually on an increasingly global scale captured by fans via social media.

A number of the documentaries on hand were also dedicated to showing artists performing their craft with somewhat mixed results. “Songs About F***ing,” from James Gallagher, takes a look at Marc Rebillet, a performer whose often improvised songs earned him a sizable following on Twitch, as he goes out on one of the first major music tours in the wake of COVID. I confess that this film was my first introduction to him, and what I saw did not exactly impress me that much—he comes across more like a mostly obnoxious sketch character than an actual person or performer more often than not. His songs are little more than droning loops of noise mixed with puerile lyrics. I guess that it will work a lot better if you are a fan—and Rebillet does apparently have a considerable base of support—but those unfamiliar with him may find it as tedious as I did. 

Then again, I wasn’t particularly familiar with the work of performance artist Taylor Mac either, but I was pretty much enthralled with “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film chronicle of Mac’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated 2016 musical revue in which he took audiences on a 24-hour-long tour of American history via songs from each decade between 1776 and 2016 as a way of examining such themes as slavery, wars, the Depression, homophobia and AIDS. The performance is mostly astonishing in how Mac can negotiate between rage and horror—as is the case with the performance of “Coal Black Rose,” an 1829 song championing the sexual assault of a slave woman—and cheeky humor, such as when he transforms Ted Nugent’s “Snakeskin Cowboy,” a song that has been accused of being homophobic, into a same-sex dance party anthem. I would have liked to see more about the inspiration and development of the show—the film is almost entirely taken from the onstage performances, but as an alternate take on American history, musical and otherwise, it is still fascinating.

Waitress, The Musical - Live on Broadway

One of the more highly anticipated films at the festival was “Waitress, The Musical - Live on Broadway,” a filmed version of the stage musical based on the 2007 film by Adrienne Shelly about an unhappily married and newly pregnant waitress who channels her frustrations and anxieties into the pies she bakes for the diner where she works before embarking on an ill-advised affair with her obstetrician. As a record of both the production and the performance by pop star Sara Bareilles, who wrote the songs, in the central role, it is satisfactory enough, especially for those who are already fans of the show. However, while the songs themselves are pleasant enough—especially the ones that are performed by Bareilles herself—none of them are particularly memorable or make the case that this was a story that needed to be musicalized in the first place. A bigger problem is that the songs help add more than 40-odd minutes to what was a pretty slender story to begin with and which struggles to support the weight of the new stuff. After watching it, most viewers will likely come away from it with a taste for a piece of the pie and a desire to stick with the original film.

Other documentaries at the festival elected to observe social issues of all stripes, with several illustrating the past and present ways in which people have attempted to make inroads in fields that are usually thought of in strictly lily-white terms. Bethann Harrison and Frédéric Tcheng's “Invisible Beauty” takes us on a fascinating and often enraging look at the life and work of Bethann Harrison, one of the first Black models, and how she fought against racism in the industry by using her power as a model, agent, and activist to fight for diversity. Along the same lines, although in a vastly different field, Lisa Cortes and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza's “The Space Race” offers an eye-opening look at the lives of the first Black astronauts and their struggles to break barriers and prove that they had the so-called “right stuff” as well. “Breaking the News,” from directors Heather Courtney, Princess A. Hairston, and Chelsea Hernandez, tells the ultimately inspiring look at a group of journalists, mostly women and people of color, who come together in the hopes of creating a new independent media outlet that will focus on news involving politics, race, and gender in ways that established news outlets have consistently overlooked over the years—the result debuted during the coronavirus panic but soon gained enough attention, thanks to reporter Erin Haines’ coverage of the killing of Breonna Taylor, to prove that there was a market for new news voices. 

Break the Game

Two other compelling and often-touching films find their subjects using elements of popular culture as a way of helping to come to terms with their transitioning. In “Break the Game,” which earned director Jane M. Wagner the New Documentary Director award, world-record-holding gamer Narcissa Wright loses much of her online fan base when she comes out as trans. While trying to come to terms with her new life, she tries to win them back by live-streaming herself setting a new speed record for the “Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” game. “Chasing Chasing Amy,” inspired by a well-received TED Talk delivered by Sav Rodgers about how the film essentially changed his life when he saw it at the age of 12, finds him exploring the film’s complicated legacy—especially its basic premise about a gay woman falling in love with a straight guy (one written and directed by the straight Kevin Smith) and how it was produced by the now-reviled Harvey Weinstein (who took praise for the film at Sundance at the same time he was raping Rose McGowan)—and the unexpected parallels that it would share with his relationship with his own girlfriend, Riley. Although uneven in some parts, this documentary is ultimately a strong and important examination of how popular entertainment can touch and move us in unexpected and deeply personal ways.

Over on the narrative side of the festival, many films were willing to tackle important issues, albeit with varying results. Hannah Peterson’s “The Graduates,” which won the festival’s award for Best Cinematography, tackles the subject of school shootings, though not by dwelling on the act itself. Instead, it is set a year after a shooting incident at a high school (the details of which we only get in passing) and follows a group of people—struggling student Genevieve (Mina Sundwall), drop-out Ben (Alex R. Hibbert) and the school’s basketball coach (John Cho)—who all have a deep connection to the tragedy and who, as graduation approaches, are still trying to process what happened to move on with their lives. Peterson employs a low-key approach to this material, and while some viewers may find the lack of over-catharsis to be a tad frustrating, I found it to be a well-made work. "The Graduates" deserves comparison to such similar works as “The Fallout” and the current “Revoir Paris” in how they speak out about the insanity of gun violence without resorting to preaching.

Mountains

Monica Sorelle’s “Mountains,” which earned a Special Jury Mention, explores gentrification and its impact on the working class in a strong and precise manner. It stars Atibon Nazaire as Xavier, a middle-aged man living with his wife and adult son in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami who dreams of earning enough money to move into a bigger and ostensibly better home. However, he is employed as part of a demolition crew that takes down houses that once belonged to people who could no longer afford to live there and replaces them with buildings meant for wealthy homeowners. Although he preaches the importance of community, he is essentially helping to destroy his own tight-knit community to get ahead. Not all of the film works (there's a subplot about the son secretly trying to make it as a stand-up comedian that doesn’t quite fit), but the film makes its points about the perils of gentrification in a smart manner, aided immensely by the outwardly calm and inwardly volcanic performance by Nazaire.

Family conflicts were at the center of many films as well. “Bucky F*cking Dent,” adapted by writer/director David Duchovny from his own novel, tells a familiar and increasingly tedious 1978-set story about a failed writer (Logan Marshall-Green) trying to connect at last with his cantankerous father (Duchovny) after learning that he is dying. When he discovers that his father’s health rises and falls in conjunction with the output of the Boston Red Sox, he employs friends and Dad’s grief counselor (Stephanie Beatriz) to help him fake a Red Sox winning streak. On paper, this might have worked, but it quickly develops into largely implausible schmaltz that is nowhere near as touching or outrageous as it thinks. 

Meanwhile, Bill Oliver’s “Our Son” blatantly tries to come across as the LGBTQ version of “Kramer Vs. Kramer” and unfortunately succeeds all too well at doing just that. In it, Luke Evans and Billy Porter play a married couple whose marriage is on the rocks—the former is too obsessed with his career while the latter is having affairs. When they finally decide to split up, they try to keep it civil at first, but when their eight-year-old son's custody issue comes up, things quickly become acrimonious. The performances from the two leads are just fine, but the screenplay by Oliver and Peter Nickowitz is so determined to make sure that neither of the characters are perceived as bad guys, despite their behavior towards each other. The dramatic tension is reduced to nil before arriving at a conclusion that is so crushingly obvious that you will wonder why you bothered with the whole thing in the first place.

You'll Never Find Me

As it turns out, two of the festival's most effective narrative films largely abandoned social issues, at least overtly, to present viewers with cleverly constructed and executed thrillers. “You’ll Never Find Me,” co-directed by Josiah Allen and Indianna Bell (Bell also penned the script), opens on Patrick (Brendan Rock), a man who lives in seeming isolation in a trailer park that is caught up in the middle of a violent storm. In the middle of this, a knock at his door turns out to be an unnamed woman (Jordan Cowan, billed as “The Visitor”) who says her car has broken down and asks to use his phone. He invites her in and offers her a drink and some warm clothes before informing her that the only phone is at another part of the park and that she’ll have to wait for the storm to abide before he can take her. We are immediately fearful for her, but as she tells how she ended up at his place, enough red flags rise to make us question which of the two is actually in danger. Allen and Bell keep the mystery going creatively and stylishly for the first hour before laying their cards on the table—or do they?—for the eventual confrontation. While the slow burn approach may make some viewers fidgety, I was increasingly taken by the quietly gripping narrative and two performances. And while it may stumble towards the end, the results are still impressive enough to make me curious to see what comes next from this debuting filmmaking duo.

A similar narrative plays out far above the Earth’s surface in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “I.S.S.” As the title suggests, it takes place aboard the International Space Station, currently manned by a six-person crew consisting of three Americans—leader Gordon (Chris Messina) and new arrivals Kira (Ariana DeBose) and Christian (John Gallagher Jr.)—and three Russians—headed by Alexey (Pilou Asbaek) and including Weronika (Maria Mashkova) and Nicholai (Costa Ronin). Their camaraderie is strong until a cataclysmic event between America and Russia occurs on Earth, and their respective countries secretly contact Gordon and Alexey with orders to seize control of the station by any means necessary. Things quickly spiral violently out of control as none of the crew members are entirely sure of who to trust (with the romance between Gordon and Weronika adding complications to the mix). It becomes entirely possible that they may destroy themselves entirely in their efforts to get home to a world that may no longer even exist for them. The script by first-timer Nick Shafir is tight, efficient, and makes its points about just how fragile our notions of humanity are without being too preachy. Cowperthwaite (whose last film was the vastly different “Our Friend”) keeps the proceedings moving along in a suitably tense and relentless manner, and the performances are all quite strong, especially DeBose in her first major big-screen turn since her Oscar-winning work in “West Side Story.” The result is the kind of intelligent low/mid-budget adult thriller Hollywood always came up with but has become an increasingly rare sight in recent years. Hopefully, "I.S.S." will get the theatrical distribution it deserves instead of being sent to a streaming service and getting lost in the vastness of the algorithm. 

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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