Tribeca Dispatch: Of Nonfiction and Noblemen

I’ve been covering the Tribeca Film Festival longer than any other — since 2009, when I was simultaneously dazzled by the absolute wealth of viewing possibilities, and sort of shocked that many of them were not very good. This has always been the puzzle of Tribeca, a festival run by savvy and smart folks (chief among them its most famous co-founder, Robert De Niro), yet with little sense of quality control, and that sense has only increased in recent years, as the fest’s novelty has worn off and led to such desperate measures as an AI program and a DeNiro fan-con sidebar

I’ve discovered some truly great movies at Tribeca, and also some of the worst cinema I’ve ever seen, at a festival or otherwise. But once you learn the ground rules, you’ll be fine. The ground rules, for the record: anything with big stars that premieres there instead of Sundance is probably terrible, anything by an actor-turned-director that premieres there is probably terrible, and you’re usually pretty safe with the documentaries.

I’ve seen, over the years, an especially noteworthy number of documentary films about films at Tribeca — understandably, it’s a receptive selection committee — and this year’s slate includes several fine additions to that tradition. Chief among them is Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger, from one of the fest’s frequent boldfaced names, Martin Scorsese. To be clear, Scorsese did not direct (that credit goes to David Hinton); he is the executive producer and, per the credits, “presenter” in the best British tradition, which means he appears on camera to narrate and frame the picture in his own experiences and history with the subjects, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

But it feels like an extension of his ‘90s cinephile documentaries A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy; he adopts a similarly hybrid position of professor, filmmaker, and fan, walking through the Powell and Pressburger filmography picture by picture, breaking down themes, narrative, technique, specific choices, and (most intriguingly) the explicit connections to his own work – how their films influenced his, in detail. He doesn’t just cover the highlights and classics; he’s just as intrigued by their deep cuts and occasional misfires. Throw in well-curated interview and film clips, and you’ve got straight-up catnip for the #TCMParty crowd.

Classic movie fans should be similarly delighted by Nanette Burstein’s Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes, which finds the icon, in effect, narrating her own story, via recently discovered interview audio dating to 1964. Burnstein (American Teen, On the Ropes) moves through her life at a rapid clip, and while the various romantic entanglements, scandals, and tragedies have been well-documented, what’s of note here is Taylor’s tremendous candor and self-awareness. Of the split personality she had to develop between private life and public persona, she notes, “One is flesh and blood, and one is cellophane”; of her notoriety, she explains, with admirable directness, “I am not illicit, and I am not immoral. I have made mistakes, and I have paid for them.”

The only drawback of the lost audio is that it can only take the story so far, so the picture suffers from an inherent lopsidedness due to the source materials, hustling through the last several decades of her life in a minutes-long montage with only a comparatively surface Dominick Dunne interview from 1985 to provide a bookend. But that’s a small complaint; this is a fine film, giving us new food for thought about a figure about whom it might seem everything has been said.

Less directly cinephile-friendly, but still of keen interest to those who love nonfiction filmmaking, is They’re Here, Daniel Claridge and Pacho Velez’s exploration of UFO culture in upstate New York. Claridge and Velez’s approach is witty but not condescending; they know exactly how seriously to take this stuff, and that there’s not necessarily a direct line between that and how seriously to take their subjects. In passages, especially early, it recalls the Errol Morris of the Gates of Heaven era, in which he would just point his camera at quirky people and give them space to exist (“They were nice,” says a woman who claims to have been abducted by aliens over a dozen times, “I can’t complain about ‘em”). But then the filmmakers take a little leap, in faith and style, in the closing sections, and pull it off with grace. 

This is not to say that the only films worth seeking out at Tribeca are the documentaries. (Just the safest, but I KID.) The tale of Henry VIII has been told plenty of times over the course of cinema’s history, though rarely with as much urgency and verve as in Karim Aïnouz’s new telling Firebrand. The focus here is on his sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr (Alicia Vikander), whose progressive ideals are ignited by the Tudor court’s persecution of a radical friend; power machinations and power struggles abound as Henry (Jude Law) lays on his deathbed. Law does not play Henry subtly, nor should he; he makes a meal of the character’s considerable madness and sickness, and when he harnesses his fury, it’s legitimately scary. 

That rattles Katherine badly, and the script (by Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth) adroitly addresses his psychological hold on her, the pall of their abusive relationship, as one more hurdle she must overcome. This is the best work Vikander’s done in years, capitalizing on her ability to say things she doesn’t really mean, and telegraph that deception with a subtlety other characters wouldn’t pick up, but the camera does. Aïnouz’s staging is convincing — it feels lived-in, no small achievement in the kind of movie that could have easily been a museum piece — the psychosexual dynamics keep it from getting too stuffy, and it has the kind of ending that can only be summarized by the Arrested Development “good for her!” meme. 

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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