Like every year, there’s gobs up for grabs at the 2014 iteration of the Tribeca Film Festival. Here are some we can assure you are good, or at least of debatable quality.
Ballet is traditionally depicted as a hotbed for outsized egos and shattered psyches. One of the most shocking things about Jody Lee Lipes’ documentary about the New York City Ballet is how non-shocking it is. The “star” is Justin Peck, a 25-year-old member who goes from the lowest rank to choreographing the company’s 422nd work. Lipes is a star cinematographer — he’s lensed “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Girls” — but he mostly stays loose and fly-on-the-wall. He borrows a touch from Frederick Wiseman, showing how an organization works. But where Wiseman’s films on the arts are about the financial side as well as the artistic, Lipes sticks with the latter. He painstakingly shows how much work goes into what amounts to relatively brief performance. Everyone, most of all Peck, stays calm; all the turmoil is trapped inside the constantly moving bodies.
‘Dior and I’
Like “Ballet 422,” “Dior and I” is a film about process. The focus is the arrival of Raf Simons as the new creative director at Christian Dior. The Belgian designer finds himself facing unbelievable pressure due to his relative unfamiliarity with women’s fashion, on top of having to take a prestigious mantle. Director Frederic Tcheng is a fashion-specific documentarian, who last co-made the probing “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel.” “Dior and I” finds him watching events as they occur, and like “Ballet 422” it finds creativity-in-progress as both intense and mundane. By the end, all Simons can do is celebrate surviving the gauntlet.
The latest exciting newish voice from modern Mexican cinema, director Alonso Ruizpalacios, makes his feature debut with this old school hangout picture. Set over a day during a monthlong student strike, “Gueros” finds slacker roommates tasked with watching over a teenage brother. Boredom leads to pranks, which lead to an all-night journey that, unfortunately, means some pat lessons. But Ruizpalacios has an odd sense of humor, and a black-and-white film style that, while reminiscent of 1990s indie cinema — and the work of fellow countryman Fernando Eimbcke (“Duck Season”) — has an idiosyncrasy and yen for leftfield fits of poetry and playfulness all its own.
‘Journey to the West’
With his latest, Taiwanese minimalist Tsai Ming-liang (“What Time Is It There?,” “Stray Dogs”) goes big — or at least he will be presented as such. A series of long takes that follow a monk (Lee Kang-sheng) walking very, very, very slowly in public places, it will be treated as an installation, projected onto MoMA PS1’s geodesic VW dome. It’s the perfect way to get lost in his film, which does a kind of reverse “Koyaanisqatsi”: Everything moves at regular speed, save our star. Like most Tsai films, “Journey to the West” is mind-clearing and playful, often placing the monk in “Where’s Waldo?” positions in dense frames, or even delaying his entrance till later, just to dive you batty. However you want to approach it — as a game or as a contemplation piece — it will be rewarding.
Filmmaker Aaron Katz (“Quiet City,” “Cold Weather”) used to be lumped in with the “mumblecore” indies of the aughts, but he’s always been his own type. In “Land Ho!,” which he co-directed with Martha Stephens, he goes far afield — in fact, to Iceland. There, he follows the travels of two aging, white-haired ex-brothers-in-law played by “This Is Martin Bonner”’s excellent Paul Eenhorn and, in a starmaking turn, Earl Lynn Nelson. Eenhorn is a sadsack nursing a recent split; Nelson is a boozing, toking Southern good ol’ boy with old fashioned attitudes toward women and life. They don’t fit, like most odd couples, but Katz and Stephens shape their friendship so carefully that the film always seems weirdly deep, even when it’s simply chugging along as a travelogue that alternates between chat fests and ‘80s-style musical montages. It’s at once acutely observed and also the kind of film that blasts “In a Big Country” twice.
A bizarrely obscure piece of history gets examined in Johanna Hamilton’s doc, which tells of citizens stealing FBI files — over 40 years ago. The crazier-than-fiction tale finds anti-Vietnam War protesters breaking into an FBI office in Media, Pa., an event that Hamilton captures with the usual mix of talking heads and recreations. But she never loses track of the people, some of whom question whether what they did was right. One even admits to becoming more conservative in his older age, and probably not likely to do what he once did. This puts it in the same league as the doc “The Weather Underground,” which isn’t afraid to question whether such brash actions are simply the forte of fiery youth, or if they are, in fact, justified.
Films about youth tend toward the condescending and vaguely pervy; a film that does Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” on a short story collection by James Franco should be no different. But throw in debuting feature film director Gia Coppola, and you have a film that smoothes over the problems with the source. It helps that this is a refreshingly rare youth film that’s not about nerds. One (Jack Kilmer) is a mathlete, but he’d rather bro down with his self-destructive bud (Nat Wolff). But most have modest ambitions that don’t extend past high school, including the athlete (Emma Roberts) who divides her time babysitting for and sleeping with her coach (Franco). The main comparison point here is “The Virgin Suicides,” by Coppola’s relative Sofia, though her style is grounded where that was dreamy, though both capture a time of life when blinders are firmly on.
‘Point and Shoot’
Another tall tale told from a human level, Marshall Curry’s doc hangs tight with one Matthew VanDyke, a Baltimorean who went from only child with OCD to an adrenaline junkie fighting in the 2011 Libyan revolution. Told mostly from his hair-raising footage, “Point and Shoot” gets as lost as its subject, who winds up as invested in rebellion as the friends he makes, even becoming international news when he’s taken prisoner. Most of all it’s a harrowing portrait of life among war, one where a nice, shy boy suddenly finds himself — with cameras rolling — worked up enough to almost take a life.
‘Venus in Fur’
Roman Polanski is too versatile a director to be stuck making stage adaptations, but both “Carnage” and especially his follow-up show that he can bring out the nerve-racking in the relentlessly chatty. Once again tackling a New York-set play — namely David Ives’ acclaimed two-hander — but moving it to Paris, he snoops in on a mysterious sparkplug of an actress (Emmanuelle Seigner) as she undoes a director (Mathieu Amalric) mounting a play of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s S&M-themed “Venus in Furs.” Roles reverse, the play is dismantled and put back together again, and Polanski generally has more fun depicting the slide into genuine madness, while his actors do the same.
Boredom and anxieties among young female Israeli soldiers in the desert get a very funny look in this triptych from writer-director Talya Lavie. Some are lovelorn, some are trying to shed their virginity, and others just want to keep their Minesweeper records from deletion. Lavie frontloads the film with material darker than she’s prepared to deal with, but her attempts to rebound to deceptively lighter circumstances prove surprisingly successful, especially once things have broken out into a staple gun fight.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge