People still try to make the claim that the Tribeca Film Festival lacks an identity. That’s a dismissal of at least its reputation for continually programming great documentaries. In addition to its annual Alex Gibney premiere (this time it was the work-in-progress debut of his untitled James Brown doc), the festival also shows a ton of exceptional nonfiction features from around the world, including some well-made domestic works about such interesting subjects as Lego bricks, bitcoin and bronies (see my review of the last one here).
These are subjects that have certain appeal to built-in audiences and could easily be the kind of film where content trumps quality, but here even the docs that don’t need to be good are still pretty good. Plus, it’s nice to see films that aren’t just about your typical, easily sold New York-centric highbrow subject matter, although I do hear the docs about ballet and fashion designers this year are wonderful, too.
I selected five Tribeca docs that I found as captivating as they come. They’re not necessarily strong Oscar contenders — although one is directed by a two-time nominee, another is codirected by a nominee and a winner and a third is codirected by a single nominee. More important than awards, they’re each entertaining enough to be enjoyed beyond a core audience already fascinated with, say, art forgery or the Arab Spring.
Unlike with some of my favorite nonfiction films of the year (or any given festival), I can just about guarantee that anyone will find something to like among the following handful of docs.
The latest doc to play like a heist film, the first half of producer Johanna Hamilton’s directorial debut features reenactments reminiscent of Man on Wire as we hear the little-known story of an FBI office burglary in suburban Pennsylvania. It took place in 1971, in case you couldn’t gather from the title, so it’s even got that retro charm. For much of the second half of the doc, we’re shown the aftermath, how uncovered documents detailing the covert crimes of Hoover’s bureau, such as the infamous COINTELPRO projects, led to changes that kept us safe from government surveillance until the Patriot Act undid everything post-9/11. Obviously there is some intention for us to draw parallels between the incident of 43 years ago and that of modern whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. But it’s mostly a riveting history lesson, aided by the real burglars coming out publicly for the very first time.
Art and Craft
Another film involving subterfuge and the full exposure of a sneaky individual, this is a profile of prolific and schizophrenic fraud Mark Landis, whose art forgery is complicated in a legal sense because he gifts his works to museums and institutions rather than profiting off them. Oscar nominee Sam Cullen (codirector of If a Tree Falls), Emmy nominee Jennifer Grausman (Pressure Cooker) and codirector Mark Becker (Pressure Cooker) offer up an engaging character study, or two if we count the lesser yet still involved focus on Landis’s nemesis, a former museum registrar leading an investigation that the FBI isn’t making a priority. And not to spoil anything, but the two men do wind up meeting again in an awkward yet satisfying climax that couldn’t be scripted more perfectly.
Beyond the Brick: A Lego Brickumentary
This sounds like the kind of documentary that you’d see succeed on Kickstarter only to come out and be a useless series of interviews with AFOLs (adult fans of Lego) not being able to state why they like Lego so much. However, this particular “brickumentary” is made by documentary short Oscar nominee Kief Davidson (Open Heart) and documentary short Oscar winner Daniel Junge (Saving Face), so it’s not too surprising that it’s produced really well. What might be a surprise if you’ve seen their depressing Academy-recognized films is that Beyond the Brick is a really fun doc. It’s kind of a feature-length ad for the toy company, but just like The Lego Movie, it’s clever and lively enough to make us forget all that. It even has a minifig for a main character, or host/narrator (voiced by Jason Bateman), and is a celebration of both kinds of Lego users, those that like to follow instructions and creative “master builders,” which is an actual profession. Beware, though, that in the middle of the film’s profiles on adult fans, kid fans, employees, artists, doctors and scientists who use Lego for some purpose is a major spoiler for The Lego Movie. So, make it a double feature, but see the doc second.
Point and Shoot
Marshall Curry, whose second Oscar nomination was shared with Art and Craft codirector Sam Cullen (for If a Tree Falls; his first was for Street Fight), has made another film about a complicated man, one whom you might not quickly decide if you like or not. The subject here is Matthew VanDyke, who famously spent almost six months in a Libyan prison while fighting for the rebels in the country’s civil war. Through his own telling and supplemented by a lot of self-shot footage, the doc traces his path leading up to becoming a freedom fighter for a nation he had no allegiance to. With directly referenced kindship to Lawrence of Arabia, it’s a film about masculinity and adventure and war and violence and love and obligation. At times I felt like a dramatized version might be the better movie, but VanDyke has seen so many things that most Americans could never believe let alone witness, and much of it was captured in some of the most powerful footage you’ll see all year. Understandably, Point and Shoot won the award for Best Documentary at Tribeca this year.
The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin
If you’re one of the hundreds of millions who still don’t know exactly what bitcoin is, even if you’ve heard of it but don’t know the details, this documentary by Nicholas Mross is a necessary introduction. What’s great about the film is that it’s not simply an informative look at the digital currency. Mross is there with miners, investors, traders, regulators, merchants and more involved with bitcoins from the beginning, having benefited by the fact that his brother was one of those on board early. And unlike a lot of docs of this sort, this one has really defined narratives for most of its characters. It’s not necessarily an open and closed story, as bitcoin isn’t dead, but it’s pretty close. Imagine if someone had been there making a documentary on Tim Berners-Lee before the world became familiar with the World Wide Web or on Mark Zuckerberg when he was first developing Facebook. Thanks to Mross’ film, which will prove to be a really valuable historical artifact one day, we’ll never need the bitcoin version of The Social Network.
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