Best of Tribeca 2021

Delightful confections, Covid films worth watching and characters doing their best under every circumstance: our Festiville team present their ten picks from this year’s virtual and—hallelujah!—in-person Tribeca Festival.

When this pandemic is finally, finally over, we will be so grateful to bunk with pals in foreign towns and pack into crowded cinemas for festival premieres again. But we also reserve the right to miss the weirdly comforting communal online-ness of virtual fest-going.

For context, it is often a stretch for media outlets to send more than a couple of representatives to in-person festivals and, once there, it can be a lonely and hectic exercise. This past year has carried a different vibe: home-alone viewings that have still felt somehow together, with between-screening chats firing up online about what we’ve seen, and what our members are buzzing over.

We may have missed the deeply New York vibe of queuing outside the SVA on a crisp, spring evening for a gala premiere, but with its summery, socially distanced outdoor screenings and an online library of unexpected treasures, Tribeca 2021 felt pretty great.

So with the help of Letterboxd reviewers, we present our ten best discoveries (in no particular order). Capsules by Gemma Gracewood, Leo Koziol, Aaron Yap, Mitchell Beaupre, Dominic Corry, Selome Hailu and Jack Moulton. As is always the way with a festival, we also noticed fascinating thematic parallels between particular films, so we’ve curated some potential double-features for your watchlists.


The Novice

Written and directed by Lauren Hadaway—Awarded Best US Narrative Feature Film, Best Cinematography in a US Narrative Feature Film (Todd Martin) and Best Actress in a US Narrative Feature Film (Isabelle Furman)

Lauren Hadaway’s stunning directorial debut The Novice stars Isabelle Fuhrman as Alex Dall, an amateur rower who pushes herself above and beyond her physical limits in order to top her class. The comparisons to Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash are inevitable, and no coincidence, as Hadaway was that film’s sound editor. The Novice is similarly an intense sensory experience with next-level cinematography, editing and sound.

Just as Chazelle was inspired by his college hobby for his breakout feature, Hadaway’s own rowing days at the Southern Methodist University in Texas inspired Alex’s story. The Novice is by no means a retread, but a valuable sister film that adds more to the conversation. Furhman’s devastating performance digs deep into the damaging forces that her obsession drives her towards, at the very least earning her the festival’s Best Actress trophy, if not the acceptance of her fictional peers.

Alex’s journey can also operate as a modern critique of the American spirit. At a time when Boomer work ethics are rejected with a workers’ revolution on the horizon and a maturing generation that prioritizes mental health, American exceptionalism—voluntarily giving 110 percent and no room to breathe—offers an ultimately destructive path to victory. The Novice is not only the best out of Tribeca—according to this year’s jury, who gave it the Best US Narrative Feature Film prize—but the best of the year so far and will be difficult to out-match. “I never wanted it to end,” writes Claira, “and yet, I couldn’t help but let out a deep exhale of relief when it did.” JM

Catch the Fair One

Written and directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka, from a story by Kali Reis and Wladyka—Awarded a Special Jury Mention for Kali Reis’ “magnetic performance” and the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature category

Boxing champ Kali Reis, who is descended from Cherokee, Nipmuc and Seaconke Wampanoag tribes and Cape Verde, collaborated with Polish-Japanese writer and director Josef Kubota Wladyka to craft this fictional thriller based on real-life stories from America’s sex-trafficking underground. “It’s an understatement to say this film is important,” writes Anna. “Absolutely horrifying subject matter handled with striking emotional depth.”

This plot is specific to Reis’s activist concerns—she is a long-time supporter of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls movement—but as a work of art, Catch the Fair One also stands on its own thanks to the creative team’s focus on tone, color, mood and movement. As Kayleigh, Reis is all fists ready and rage contained—until she lets rip, when it matters—and much like Violation, a taut revenge horror from earlier this year, Catch the Fair One keeps its eye on the consequences of violence for the women who enact it.

While there are a few grumbles about its runtime (too short for some, not long enough for others), this is a tight package with satisfying, look-away violence and no easy outcome. “The last fifteen minutes were absolutely breathtaking,” Shashwat writes, “and quite masterful as they packaged the whole thing in a suitably feminist, and most importantly, refined manner.” GG

Poser

Directed by Noah Dixon and Ori Segev, written by Noah Dixon

Some classic Specious Clique Adoption tropes get a welcome, textured update in this stylistically confident debut centered around a subtly unsettling lead performance from Sylvie Mix that bodes well for her future prospects. In Poser, she plays Lennon, a quiet, young, wannabe music podcaster hanging around the Columbus, Ohio indie band/art scene who latches onto the cool and confident Bobbi Kitten (playing herself, sorta), lead singer of (actual) electronic witch-rock act Damn the Witch Siren.

Dixon and Segev should be applauded solely for their casually authentic portrait of “the scene” (various bands appear as themselves)—many filmmakers have embarrassed themselves attempting something similar. But Poser is also more than that, starting off like a coming-of-age story before slowly morphing into a low-key social thriller.

Kong observes: “because so many of us in the Millennial/Zoomer crowd have anxieties related to [coolness and authenticity] and whether or not we possess them, Lennon is uncomfortably relatable. Perhaps that is what makes Poser so haunting.” Andrew, meanwhile, writes that Poser manages to transcend its “basic set-up” thanks not only to its unique setting, but also to “committing to that setting entirely and weaving it in to every other aspect of the film.” DC

Dating and New York

Written and directed by Jonah Feingold

After years of faithless discourse about the genre “dying out”, Dating and New York is a sweet summer reminder that rom-coms will always be of the moment. Debut writer-director Jonah Feingold draws from classics like When Harry Met Sally and Cinderella, but makes those references hyper-contemporary, wrapped up in the lives of young people who struggle to believe in Hollywood love stories.

Milo and Wendy, played with wit and snark by Jaboukie Young-White and Francesca Reale, meet on a dating app. Sparks fly, and they kiss each other engulfed in absurdly warm lighting and centered between mountains of too-full trash bags. The stylistic choices grow more exaggerated as the pair ghost each other, then reconnect and find their way into a friends-with-benefits situation.

Theatricality in the cinematography, mise en scène and editing help calcify Feingold’s ethos: not just that love is real, but also that love is ridiculous and that consequently, films about love should be ridiculous. The optimism and light satire of it all, as Tarco puts it, “make the triviality of dating culture feel like an actual high-stakes game, and with the year we all had, sometimes, it really feels that way.” It’s a film for anyone who spends their nights romanticizing missed connections or friendships that could turn into more. And if that’s not you, there’s still fun to be had here: follow Michelle’s suggestion and “take a shot every time you see a turtleneck.” SH

During Tribeca, we picked Jonah Feingold’s brain about everything rom-com in this Festiville Q&A.

as of yet

Directed by Chanel James and Taylor Garron—Awarded the 2021 Nora Ephron Award

Only watch as of yet, writes Lyd, if you’re prepared for the “knot in the pit of [your] stomach that formed from recalling peak Covid times… as of yet is occasionally painful and hilariously so because I swear to god I have had every single conversation featured in this movie”. The film, co-directed by Chanel James and Taylor Garron (who also writes and stars), is a Zoom-bound recollection of the way the past year and a half felt while separated from those you love (and those you have the potential to love).

It takes a pandemic for Naomi (Garron), a Black 20-something in Brooklyn, to realize that her white roommate and best friend Sara (Eva Victor) is a touch racist, a touch hypocritical and definitely irresponsible enough to party hard at the start of a pandemic. Garron’s screenplay is soaked through with naturalism. As Naomi navigates the beginning of a friendship breakup while also trying to embrace a new Tinder romance, we get a full spectrum of confident flirtation, awkward boundary-setting and everything in between. As Nina indicates, it’s one of the rare “pandemic-era films that feels pure to the time and not a story re-accommodation to the times”. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: in the right hands, these Covid films are worth making! SH

Because we haven’t Zoomed enough, we jumped online with James and Garron for a chat about their collaborative process, and James’ Letterboxd lockdown goals.

Ascension

Directed by Jessica Kingdon—Awarded the 2021 Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director and Best Documentary Feature

Jessica Kingdon’s enthralling, impeccably constructed documentary drifts through a mosaic of modern China that’s curiously, not all that removed from the American Dream. Encompassing a wide social strata of the Chinese working class—from areola-painting sex-doll manufacturers to high-end butlers—Ascension’s assembly of astonishing, dazzlingly captured sights discovers an industrious society clamoring for the betterment of life and economic growth through hard-toiling pursuits. As Daniel writes, “If Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi had a baby, this would be it.”

It’s all told sans talking heads: Kingdon’s unobtrusive, inquisitive eye regards its subjects without judgment, while the occasional hint of smartly placed irony pulls the doc back from becoming a bleak procession into mind-boggling capitalist madness. “No commentary needed with such beautifully framed shots, perfectly chosen snippets of conversation and impressive access to factories, schools and corporate functions,” writes Careless Spine. Adding further hypnotic dimension is Dan Deacon’s score, a sonic wall of urgent, droney, string-laden electronics that, like the China of Ascension, feels otherworldly yet so hauntingly familiar. AY

All These Sons

Directed by Joshua Altman and Bing Liu—Awarded Best Documentary Cinematography

As gun violence remains a devastating crisis in the United States, the response from the criminal justice system continues to be focused on reaction as opposed to prevention, with more police boots on the ground and incarcerations, particularly of young Black men. Documentary filmmakers Joshua Altman and Bing Liu (of Minding the Gap fame) center their latest piece of empathetic filmmaking on the efforts of two community-led Chicago programs aiming to cut the violence off at its source.

By working with the folks in their communities on the south and west sides of the city, the IMAN Green Re-entry and MAAFA Redemption Project look to not only demonstrate the promise of a different future for these men than the one that’s been laid out before them, but to also break down the trauma and inner turmoil they carry from a life spent in a community that has been given up on due to systemic racism from the powers that be.

In All These Sons, the filmmakers focus on three young men in particular— Charles, Shamont and Zay—taking a vérité approach to show us the impact of these programs on their day-to-day lives. The result is a film “packed with both emotion and a genuinely urgent message,” writes Paul, one which takes the weight of gun-violence statistics and shows us that each one of those numbers is a human being with the capacity for change, even if those structures want to abandon them. As Micah puts it, All These Sons “doesn’t instil dignity; it shows that it’s already present in each life.” MB

We chatted with Altman and Liu about forgiveness, trust and getting out of town.

Werewolves Within

Directed by Josh Ruben, written by Mishna Wolff

Batten down the hatches and prepare for a night full of shrieks of terror and hilarity with this genre-bender adapted from the Ubisoft video game of the same name. How did writer Mishna Wolff and director Josh Ruben break the dreaded “video-game movie curse” with Werewolves Within? Step one was the flexibility granted from taking on an IP that doesn’t have legions of fanboys insisting on adherence to the source material.

Taking the basic premise of a group of townsfolk tasked with uncovering which of them is a ravenous werewolf, Wolff (last name coincidental, we’re sure) has created an experience melding the ice-cold isolation horror of The Thing with the quirky small-town eccentricities of Twin Peaks. Ruben’s knack for drawing from his love of cinema and the kinds of movies he wants to see on screen leads to each viewer having their own experience with this one. Todd draws similarities to Edgar Wright and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, while Mega_MovieZ is one of many to notch a Clue comparison in their review.

The hook comes in the way that, akin to Wright’s work, Werewolves Within pays reverence to genre history while also subverting some of its more antiquated tropes involving toxic masculinity and manic pixie dream girls. It’s all done with a knowing splash of humor, aided by a stacked cast of comedic character actors giving everyone the chance to choose their own favorite of the ensemble. Arianne writes that Michaela Watkins is the MVP while Jordan picked Milana Vayntrub as the standout. The good news is that everyone can be right with a roster this loaded with talent! MB

Brighton 4th

Director Levan Koguashvili—Awarded Best International Narrative Feature Film and Best Actor in an International Narrative Feature Film (Levan Tedaishvili)

An “immigrant drama [that] succeeds on its authenticity”, according to Shane, Brighton 4th explores aspects of masculinity and fatherhood not often enough covered in cinema. This engrossing film traverses genres from tragedy to comedy in deadpan fashion, as an ageing Georgian wrestler travels to New York (Russian enclave Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, to be exact) to help out (save?) his gambling-addicted son.

Levan Tedaishvili is a wrestling legend back in his home country, and he steals the movie in his acting debut at age 74. A couple of madcap subplots both distract (kidnapped Kazakh!) and entertain (horny grandma?). A deeply original film where the stubbornness and stupidity of the masculine ego is traversed in story, song and tradition. “The build up is slow,” writes Jim, “but the last few scenes knocked me on my ass, so I guess they did something right!” Sometimes honor outweighs lucre in a romp that is a joy from start to finish. LK

The Legend of the Underground

Directed by Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey

Having to identify as gender non-conformists to avoid arrest sounds like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale, but this is reality, not fiction, in current-day Nigeria. Identifying as anything else—or gathering in large groups for a dance party—and you end up facing criminal charges under this nation’s harsh laws. But after WF_JamesBrown spoke out on social media when a non-conformists gathering resulted in arrests, they became a ‘they done not caught me’ social-media sensation in a rare reversal of hate prejudice.

Humor is one means of survival in Lagos, as is being meme-savvy, fashion-forward and doing all you can to live the best possible life under the shadow of constant oppression and fear of arrest. Some non-conformists have escaped to the US, and can visit home, but there is no easy route out (detention camps when seeking asylum is common). Spanning countries in its focus on several non-conformists, The Legend of the Underground is an engaging, heartfelt window into another world, and will find a wider audience on HBO thanks to a producer credit for John Legend. An important and seminal work—and it’s gorgeous. LK


Our Tribeca 2021 double features

  • Catch the Fair One and My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To: films that seethe in a backwater America in which the most vulnerable members of society exist solely for the satisfaction of others barely a few rungs up the rickety ladder.
  • The Perfect David, a crazy, obsessive foil to The Novice.
  • Poser and Love Spreads: because music and girl bands.
  • Queen of Glory and India Sweets and Spices: both deal with first-generation American daughters rebelling against and learning to honor their mothers’ values.
  • as of yet and Dating and New York: millennial, Covid-set comedies that make big use of social media, texting and dating apps. Plus, Eva Victor supremacy. (Throw in 7 Days for a triple feature.)
  • The Legend of the Underground and Being Bebe: perfect twins.
  • False Positive and Ultrasound: how many pregnancy-related psychological thrillers does one festival need?
  • Roaring 20s and Italian Studies: because we miss roaming around cities.

Follow our Festiville HQ for regular film-festival coverage by the Letterboxd team.

Tags

Share This Article