Ailey, The Novice, The Legend of the Underground…The 20 Best Films at the 2021 Tribeca Festival

The just-concluded 20th Tribeca festival which ran from the 9th to 20th June offered signs of the industry, culture and New York City bouncing back from the coronavirus pandemic. With a mix of crowds both in person and online, Tribeca returned from a no-show edition last year with reimagined outdoor screenings in all five NYC boroughs, with social distancing and pod systems in effect.

These are the films that left their mark. Ranked in ascending order.

20. Queen of Glory

Ghanaian-American actress Nana Mensah makes the transition to directing with the modestly uneven Queen of Glory which she also wrote and stars in. Mensah plays Sarah, a brainy scientist with a messy private life who inherits a small but beloved Christian bookstore in the Bronx, NYC when her mother suddenly passes away. Mensah was adjudged the best new narrative director and also received a special jury prize for artistic expression.

19. False Positive

Broad City alums Ilana Glazer and John Lee return, this time to the big screen with False Positive, an admittedly ambitious thriller that capitalizes on some of the fears of parenthood while reframing pregnancy bliss as body horror. Featuring a starry ensemble including Justin Theroux, Sophia Bush and Pierce Brosnan, False Positive is an eerie take on the maternal process and how women are disenfranchised from a development that is mostly all about them.

18. Roaring 20’s

Thrillingly imagined and meticulously choreographed, Roaring 20’s gathers 24 actors for a visual adventure that was assembled by only 16 crew members in 6 takes. Remarkable considering Roaring 20’s is essentially one long unbroken shot that follows everyday people as they cross each other on the streets of Paris, in a single day. Directed and choreographed by Elisabeth Vogler, Roaring 20’s won the cinematography prize in the international narrative competition and the cast scored a special jury mention.

17. The Neutral Ground

Comedian, writer and director CJ Hunt scored a special jury mention for his personal- and occasionally hilarious- investigation into the New Orleans city council’s decision to remove four Confederate monuments from public grounds. The Neutral Ground confronts the so-called “Lost Cause,” the southern campaign set up to mythify the confederacy with bracing humor and a refreshing openness and works it into larger, national concerns.

16. Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story

The incomparable Jackie Collins, bestselling author, feminist icon and Hollywood dirt disher gets a documentary treatment worthy of her legend in this surprisingly tender film. Produced by CNN films and directed by Laura Fairrie, Lady Boss, named after the late Collins’ iconic fictional heroine Lucky Santangelo speaks with close family members including elder sister Joan in an attempt to tease out the real person behind the glamorous mask.

15. Mark, Mary & Some Other People

For her second feature, writer/director Hannah Marks considers the messy present of romantic relationships and wonders if the future has arrived indeed. Her titular characters are a newly wedded couple who decide to open their marriage and explore sexual relations with other partners. The results are as messy as one would expect. But there are some surprises too. Mark, Mary & Some Other People won the fest’s top screenwriting prize.

14. 7 Days

How do people find romance in the time of covid? For offspring of Indian parents, why through arranged courtships of course. As the COVID outbreak intensifies and shelter-in-place mandate is issued, a young man is forced to spend a week at a potential date’s place. Before long, they discover they have not been forthright with each other. They soon develop an unlikely bond that in the face of a heartbreaking turn of events only grows stronger.

13. Building a Bridge

Executive produced by Martin Scorsese and based in part, on Father James Martin’s bestselling book “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity,” Evan Mascagni and Shannon Post’s compassionate documentary uses Martin as an entry point into a larger discourse surrounding the relationship between the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ+ community.

12. Catch the Fair One

Executive produced by Darren Aronofsky, this blood soaked revenge thriller, which won the audience award for best narrative feature as well as a juried special mention nod for lead actress Kali Reis. Real life boxing world champion Reis plays a Native American woman embarking on the fight of her life when she goes in search of her missing sister. Catch the Fair One is directed by Tribeca alum Josef Wladyka.

11. The Ballad of a White Cow

Not to be confused with There is no Evil, the Berlinale Golden Bear anthology about capital punishment directed by Mohammad Rasoulof. The Ballad of a White Cow is a profound reflection on the devastating impacts of Iran’s brutal capital punishment system. Directors Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha quietly and powerfully demonstrate how the weight of a rigid society bears down on a widow. And how she chooses to fight back.

10. Souad

Ayten Amin’s Souad plays with the social media-enabled concepts of obfuscation and performativity. Using naturalistic performances and a shocking second half twist that will surely be discussed further, Souad does not shy from critiquing conservative Egyptian society’s entrenched misogyny, and narrow class mobility. Co-leads Bassant Ahmed & Basmala Elghaie were both named best actress in the international narrative competition.

9. Ailey

This Jamila Wignot profile of the iconic American dancer and educator Alvin Ailey is a lyrical, poetic evocation of the tremendous power and impact that Ailey left on the world. Wignot mines the extensive Ailey archives, presenting rarely seen footage of early performances, while also providing fly-on-the-wall access to the inner workings of today’s company displaying the continuum of movement that was Mr. Ailey’s lifeblood. Ailey is a nuanced portrait of a complex person, an apt tribute to his life and legacy.

8. God’s Waiting Room

In the sticky heat of a Central Florida summer, three different lives collide unexpectedly. A young musician with big dreams, the hustler and big city returnee whom she falls for and an ex-convict struggling to reintegrate into society. The outcome is as tragic as it is unexpected. This debut feature length attempt by director Tyler Riggs won the best actor prize in a US narrative feature- for Matthew Leone- and received a special jury mention for Mack Fisher’s bleak cinematography.

7. The Novice

The top prize this year went to Lauren Hadaway’s The Novice, a bruising, emotionally complex drama about obsession and the price of unbridled ambition. Best actress winner Isabelle Fuhrman plays Alex Dall, a queer college freshman who joins her university’s rowing team and undertakes an obsessive physical and psychological journey to make it to the top varsity boat, no matter the cost. The darkly lit The Novice also won the cinematography prize.

6. Accepted

Dan Chen’s brilliant and impactful Accepted follows four high-schoolers at T.M. Landry College Preparatory, an unconventional K-12 day school in rural Louisiana known first for sending its graduates to the country’s most elite institutions and then for the scandal that exposed its methods. Accepted is a sobering look at the limited options that exist for American kids who aren’t white or wealthy.

5. As of Yet

Films set in the lockdown have been hit and miss but the offbeat and hilarious As of yet, written co-directed and starring Taylor Garron is a breath of fresh air. Captured entirely through candidly framed video calls and digital diaries, As of yet astutely, through the relationship of Garron’s character and her roommate, captures the covid pandemic lockdown experience of many a young American.

4. Blind Ambition

Warwick Ross and Robert Coe’s documentary, Blind Ambition took the top prize in the documentary category as voted for by the festival audience. An engaging crowd pleaser, Blind Ambition chronicles the grass-to-grace tale of four friends who leave Zimbabwe for South Africa and become top sommeliers. The film follows the foursome as they form the first-ever Zimbabwe team to compete in The world wine blind tasting championships—the Olympics of the wine world.

3. The Legend of the Underground

Produced by the high powered duo of HBO and John Legend’s Get Lifted company, The Legend of the Underground explores the lives of several charismatic non conformist Nigerian youth who must choose either to fight for freedom of expression there or flee to live ‘free’ in the USA. Through social media, celebrity and creative expressions, they spark a cultural revolution that challenges the ideals of gender, conformity and civil rights in Nigeria.

2. Brighton 4th

The third fiction outing by Georgian helmer Levan Koguashvili is a gentle, austere story of parental devotion and sacrifice as told through the arc of a former Georgian pro boxer who heads to New York to disentangle his feckless son from a life of inevitable ruin. Brighton 4th is named after- and unfolds- mostly in the former Soviet immigrant enclave of Brighton Beach, New York. The film nabbed a trifecta of awards including best international narrative feature, screenplay and actor, all richly deserved.

1. Ascension

Jessica Kingdon’s instantly arresting Ascension is a riveting exploration and passing critique of contemporary Chinese culture. It is rare that one films says as many things as Ascention does within its tidy running time. Kingdon fluidly comments on issues like capitalism, consumerism, innovation, and even social class without resorting to preachy methods. Kingdon took away not only the top documentary prize but also the Albert Maysles award for best new documentary director.

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