A typically striking image from the doc "All This Panic," one of the best films pl|Tribeca1/12
A typically striking image from the doc "All This Panic," one of the best films pl|Tribeca
Mackenzie Davis in Sophia Takal's "Always Shine"2/12
Mackenzie Davis in Sophia Takal's "Always Shine"
Dig this fine dish made of insects, as seen in "BUGS."3/12
Dig this fine dish made of insects, as seen in "BUGS."
Chris Burden's 1990 sculpture "Medusa's Head" is an image of a planet overrun by t|Tribeca4/12
Chris Burden's 1990 sculpture "Medusa's Head" is an image of a planet overrun by t|Tribeca
Stop worrying and love the bomb in "Command and Control."5/12
Stop worrying and love the bomb in "Command and Control."
"Do Not Resist" opens with footage from the protests in Ferguson.6/12
"Do Not Resist" opens with footage from the protests in Ferguson.
Michael Shannon does his own curious version of The King opposite Kevin Spacey's T|Broad Green Pictures7/12
Michael Shannon does his own curious version of The King opposite Kevin Spacey's T|Broad Green Pictures
Tom Hiddleston struggles to stay cool in the crazy movie of J.G. Ballard's novel "|Magnolia Pictures8/12
Tom Hiddleston struggles to stay cool in the crazy movie of J.G. Ballard's novel "|Magnolia Pictures
"Houston, We Have a Problem!" looks at Yugoslavia's space program started in the 1|Tribeca9/12
"Houston, We Have a Problem!" looks at Yugoslavia's space program started in the 1|Tribeca
In the doc "The Last Laugh," Mel Brooks says about Hitler, "This is the guy who ma|Tribeca10/12
In the doc "The Last Laugh," Mel Brooks says about Hitler, "This is the guy who ma|Tribeca
Johnny Simmons plays a young Major League pitcher dealing with his terrible dad (E|RLJ Entertainment11/12
Johnny Simmons plays a young Major League pitcher dealing with his terrible dad (E|RLJ Entertainment
Reagan in "Shadow World"12/12
Reagan in "Shadow World"
Over its 15 years, the Tribeca Film Festival, like any of its kind, has struggled to find an identity. But one thing has locked into place: It’s a great hub for provocative and often formally adventurous documentaries. Once again, the event’s best wares are of the non-fiction breed, but don’t discount the rest. Here are 12 titles that should definitely be on your radar, some of them with actual actors and made-up stories.
‘All This Panic’
You might think you know what to expect from an intimate look at New York teens. But instead of being alarmist (like “Kids”) or reductive (like “American Teen”), Jenny Gage's doc is empathetic and even thrilling. The subjects are several high school girls perched in that in-between spot as angst dissolves and young adult life awaits. Eschewing talking heads and “Real World” confessionals, Gage shoots them expressionistically, as though their lives are a dream that will soon be spoiled by responsibilities and disappointments. They’re still figuring themselves out, and the world — not just NYC — seems boundless. (Showtimes and tickets)
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First Alex Ross Perry, now Sophia Takal — both filmmakers started with scruffy no-budgeters and have now graduated to art-thrillers on slightly less tiny budgets. Like Perry’s “Queen of Earth,” Takal’s “Always Shine” milks high tension out of very little. Following two estranged friends (Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald) as they struggle to reconnect over a Big Sur getaway, it uses precise long takes and a jittery score to chart their crumbling relationship, which isn’t helped by both being competitive struggling actors. But even when things turn Lynchian, it never loses sight of its astutely observed prickly interpersonal dynamics, not to mention two peerless performances. (Showtimes and tickets)
Simultaneously enlightening and disgusting, this doc follows a pair of hipster food scientists as they argue for bugs as the next wave of eating habits. Global population is skyrocketing, they point out, and we might as well chill to the idea that beetles and bees and crickets and ants could be the next sustainable food sources. Judging from their faces they even taste good, whether imbibed raw or as handsome high-end dishes. Not that “BUGS” only argues for chomping on locusts. As it goes on it becomes a trenchant look at the difficulty of being a do-gooder over the long haul, and not just a demented form of food porn. (Showtimes and tickets)
He had himself shot with a rifle for an art piece, he nailed himself to a Volkswagen and he once tried to explain all this to Regis Philbin. But, as this revelatory documentary shows us, even someone as volatile as Chris Burden eventually can chill out. An architect who reimagined himself as an attention-grabbing performance artist, Burden, who died last year, spent the 1970s shocking people and even scoring a shout-out on David Bowie’s “Joe the Lion.” But as he got older his work became more inclusive, while still being confrontational and angry. He didn’t sell out; he just became, it could be argued, more subversive. (Showtimes and tickets)
‘Command and Control’
Eric Schlosser’s terrifying 2013 expose of nuclear weapons becomes a terrifying documentary, zeroing in on one near-mega-catastrophe: a 1980 incident in which old and easily set-off arms almost bloomed into a mushroom cloud in Arkansas. It’s a “Strangelove”ian dark comedy in which a series of minor mishaps almost destroyed part of the world, and a fun reminder of how the sins of the foolish fathers may doom us all in amusingly unpredictable ways. (Showtimes and tickets)
‘Do Not Resist’
An activist doc that’s as formally exciting as it is blood-curdling, this study of the growing militarization of the police doesn’t need to lecture us to get under our skin. Starting with hair-raising footage from Ferguson, director Craig Atkinson patiently tracks through a new problem that’s already well out of control, with localized police forces cheerfully taking federal money and military do-hickeys to combat the citizens it should be protecting, not attacking. The issue reaches its darkly comic apex with no less than Rand Paul asking why small town police forces have added bayonets (!!) to their arsenals. (Showtimes and tickets)
‘Elvis & Nixon’
As Elvis Presley, Michael Shannon does a fantastic Michael Shannon. That’s not a knock: Embodying The King during one of the stranger chapters of his life — his Oval Office hoe-down with Tricky Dick (Kevin Spacey) — the great actor gets at what his sometime director Werner Herzog calls an “ecstatic truth.” Like Elvis, Shannon follows his own eccentric paths, as though he was an alien walking among us. Shannon doesn’t do the voice or even a twang, and he only busts out (spot-on) moves when he really feels like it, which is rarely. He’s being himself, and in its way it’s perfecting casting. Oh, and there’s the rest of the movie, which is padded out but not worthless. After all, it knows Shannon’s Elvis is enough. (Showtimes and tickets)
A phantasmagoric ten-course buffet of insanity based on a phantasmagoric book, this take on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 classic drinks in the sights and sounds of a London high-rise apartment building as its inhabitants turn beautifully feral. Tom Hiddleston is the well-dressed center of the storm, struggling to keep cool as a star-studded cast of neighbors take up orgies and beatings and tribalism. Director Ben Wheatley (“Sightseers”) isn’t terribly interested in the class aspect of Ballard’s tome, but he makes up for that with a neverending parade of crazed images and his own brand of coal-black humor. (Showtimes and tickets)
‘Houston, We Have a Problem!’
Remember the former Yugoslavia’s spastic and often absurdist attempts to hatch their own space program? No? There's a reason for that: It never happened. A disorganized but cutting mockumentary, "Houston" charts the Eastern European country’s hapless but invented attempts at putting the first man on the moon. Along the way we see how governments try to create self-images, often out of whole cloth, and not just countries that would eventually gift the world with the sad Yugo car. Heady even when it doesn’t feature Slavok Zizek babbling, “Houston,” fake and all, winds up incriminating everyone, especially the U.S. (Showtimes and tickets)
‘The Last Laugh’
A serious movie about comedy, this doc soberly examines the positive side of gallows humor, plus the times it’s negative and misjudged. The focus is the Jewish penchant for jokes about deeply unfunny subjects, from Mel Brooks putting Hitler on Broadway in “The Producers” to Joan Rivers’ infamous 2013 one-liner connecting Heidi Klum to Auschwitz. For a movie with a lot of sickeningly hilarious quips, this is a disarmingly straight-faced affair, not even busting out a jaunty musical score against talking heads like Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman and a sometimes humorless member of the Anti-Defamation League. It’s still gut-busting. (Showtimes and tickets)
The indie filmmaker Noah Buschel (“Glass Chin”) makes tiny and precise dramas that use a minimum of shots to say loads. His latest is a baseball saga about a struggling young pitcher (Johnny Simmons) wrestling with the influence of his emotionally abusive father (Ethan Hawke). But it’s downright minimalist and heavy on digressions and sarcastic exchanges. Not even the subplot in which our hero chats with a paternal psychologist (Paul Giamatti) never even threatens to devolve into “Good Will Hunting.” Like its characters, it’s defiantly and enjoyably eccentric. (Showtimes and tickets)
As you can probably tell, Tribeca is a gold mine of hair-raising and darkly comic non-fiction looks at awful situations that long ago took on a destructive life of their own. Here’s another. Director Johan Grimonprez examines the genesis of the arms industry and the way it mutated into the indestructible hydra it is today. Journalists like Jeremy Scahill and Chris Hedges are on tap to point out that we now live in a constant state of war, while archival footage shows Cheney and Rumsfeld smiling as they plant the seeds. Enjoy! (Showtimes and tickets)
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge