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Relapse/Remit: Tribeca Film Festival 2009

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival, perhaps its strongest and leanest since its inception in 2001, concluded with its usual cavalcade of awards and honorees. I did not see either of the Narrative winners (the Iranian drama About Elly and North, from Norway) but I did get to see the two films that brought forward the best acting awards. Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia Kazan, rightfully won for her portrayal of an epileptic Manhattanite who finds herself falling for her best friend in between gloriously awkward phone calls from her boyfriend in Bradley Rust Gray’s lovely The Exploding Girl (). On the other side of the aisle, the great Belfast-born actor Ciarán Hinds won for his brooding lead in Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s exceedingly promising debut The Eclipse (), a classy and unpredictable ghost story with touches of literary drama and horror. Both entries had three things that were somewhat lacking in the overall programming of the last few years: form, consistency, and ingenuity.

Though lack of these faculties would seem actually to be useful in Black Dynamite (), a send-up-cum-homage to the blaxploitation era with Michael Jai White in the role of the titular bad mother-shutyourmouth, all three were clear and apparent in Simone Bittons Rachel (). This powerful and profound documentary charters the surrounding chaos that ensued after the 2003 death of ISM volunteer Rachel Corrie in the Gaza Strip when Israeli Defense Forces ‘accidentally’ ran over her with a bulldozer. An essential piece of cinema’s look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is tough, intelligent, and generally unbiased filmmaking that approaches its subject with the sobriety and seriousness it demands.

The usual ironclad doctrine of ‘stick to the documentaries’ that goes along with most festivals seemed to be secured when the credits rolled on Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi (), a blistering and engaging primer for anyone who might not fully grasp the bedlam that is modern Afghanistan. Director Ian Olds uses a singular catastrophe (the abduction and killing of an Afghani translator or ‘fixer’) to study the chaotic interplay between religion, a corrupt government, the Taliban, and the U.S. occupancy. The results are nothing short of devastating. But my faith in documentaries was shook to its very core after witnessing The Burning Season (), a 90-minute infomercial on the effects of the Indonesian palm oil market on the environment. Littered with eco-friendly martyrs and narrated by Hugh Jackman, this awkwardly scored, blithely self-congratulatory runaround seems to have been pre-made for post-midnight programming on The Nature Channel.

There was Outrage (), Kirby Dick’s much-touted exposé on closeted, homosexual politicians and what Dick describes as a ‘conspiracy’ to keep the doors closed. Opening on Senator Larry Craig’s infamous interrogation tape, Dick spends much of the film stuck in his own titular emotional mud, favoring finger-pointing and snickering over debate and discussion, making Outrage conductive but scarcely thought-provoking. Far more fascinating was Barry Levinson’s PoliWood (), a return to documentary form from the Avalon helmer. Levinson charts the activities of the Creative Counsel, a group of politically-active celebrities, as they invade both the DNC and the RNC, but his real target is the power of television and the blurring of the line between fact and opinion. Though Levinson’s liberal leanings are obvious, what emerges is a mostly bipartisan ‘film essay’ that challenges the great misconceptions that politicians and celebrities are neither part of society nor products of it.

Hirokazu Koreeda’s sublime Still Walking (), his follow-up to the equally splendorous Nobody Knows, was perhaps the only thoroughbred masterpiece in attendance. A Japanese family converges at the home of its elders and even the most minor of resentments begin to bubble up, most in the guise of cultural bullheadedness. Beautifully photographed, Koreeda has made a silk flower of a film, flowing subtly and gently with the tides of familial tension and those unexpected, heartbreaking moments of forgiveness that only one’s elders can supply. Elsewhere, the success of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (), the striking debut from 24-year-old Damien Chazelle, was completely unforeseen. Like a renegade jazz riff off of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg directed by Andrew Bujalski, the first five minutes of the film dispense with the relationship between the titular characters and then spends the rest of the runtime trying to make amends, with tap-dancing, trumpet solos, and a delicate song or two. This is the fun, energetic, and completely unencumbered indie musical I had hoped Once might have been.

Second only to Koreeda’s film was The Girlfriend Experience (), Steven Soderbergh’s timely hyper-indie that sees capitalism and the battered economy through the filter of a young, up-and-coming escort (adult film raven Sasha Grey) living in a posh Manhattan apartment with her personal-trainer boyfriend. I’ll talk more about Experience in a few weeks when Magnolia releases it officially. Let me lastly address In the Loop (), the deeply hysterical and carnivorous war satire by the great Scottish TV writer/director Armando Iannucci. On the brink of invading the Middle East, a gaggle of suck-ups, egomaniacs, and boobs working in the upper echelons of British and American government find themselves unable to control their egos, their mouths, and their hyper-ambitious staffers. Chaos reigns supreme, pitting James Gandolfini’s brilliant Colin Powell-type General against Peter Capaldi’s ferocious, bloodthirsty director of communications for the PM in a bid to silence a bumbling minister of international development (Tom Hollander). Perhaps not as timely as some would hope, In the Loop is nonetheless the most magnificently foul-mouthed comedy to come out of the UK in years and a satirical jab to the ribs of modern politicos.

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Chris Cabin’s Tribeca 2009 Top Ten List

01. Still Walking
02. The Girlfriend Experience
03. Rachel
04. In the Loop
05. The Eclipse
06. Fixer: The Taking Ajmal Naqshbandi
07. The Exploding Girl
08. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench
09. Pandora’s Box
10. PoliWood

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