Top Picks, Tribeca Film Festival Flicks

Zhao Jun as Big Wong in “King of Peking,” which wears its film fandom on its sleeve. Photo by Angus Gibson.

Zhao Jun as Big Wong in “King of Peking,” which wears its film fandom on its sleeve. Photo by Angus Gibson.

BY SEAN EGAN | All day long and well into the night, on screens in Chelsea and its namesake neighborhood, April 19–30’s calendar marks the Tribeca Film Festival’s (TFF) “Sweet 16” — and much like a teenager hitting that age, TFF is growing in ways both expected (an ever-expanding dossier of titles) and surprising (it’s really starting to take an interest in TV, VR, and Snapchat). Still, since 2002, our venerable, homegrown neighborhood film festival’s bread and butter has been its consistently adventurous offerings, brought from both our backyard and abroad — and year-in and year-out, we have dutifully kept our readers abreast of the best of the fest (or, at the very least, what selections we have good reason to believe will emerge as winners). This year, after combing through the TFF’s massive slate of features, we’ve rounded up nine fine films that have caught our eye in advance of their festival screenings, based on premise, pedigree, or some combination of the two. Read below to find your best bets on top-tier titles.

FLOWER | If the taste of the producers of Max Winkler’s “Flower” — Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, and Jody Hill, the minds behind warped, character-based comedy opuses like “Eastbound & Down” — is any indication, it will be an unexpectedly deep dark comedy. The film certainly has a unique, playing-with-fire premise: Erica, a high schooler who seduces older men for extortion purposes, is forced to live with her mother’s new boyfriend and post-rehab son, complicating her “extracurricular” activities. With alt-comedy ringers Tim Heidecker and Adam Scott in supporting roles, “Flower” hints to be as hilarious and unflinching as its creative team’s past work.

Lindsay Burdge as Gina in “Thirst Street.” Photo by Sean Price Williams.

Lindsay Burdge as Gina in “Thirst Street.” Photo by Sean Price Williams.

THIRST STREET | Last year, Nathan Silver’s feature “Actor Martinez” earned itself enthusiastic reviews from TFF critics, praising the film’s meta sense of humor and its recursive, fact-or-fiction premise. This year, Silver returns with another movie that makes its cinematic concerns known: Playing out in the aesthetic of classic European film, the movie follows a grief-stricken woman (“Martinez” alum Lindsay Burdge) as she pursues an unrequited relationship. Her subsequent descent into heartbreak and madness (and whatever tricks Silver has up his sleeve) are narrated by Anjelica Huston. 

AARDVARK | First-time writer/director Brian Shoaf has managed to assemble a killer cast for his debut feature that would justify a ticket purchase on name recognition alone — but its premise has plenty of potential for intriguing familial drama and quirky comedy. Starring Zachary Quinto as Nathan, a man who suffers from intense hallucinations, “Aaardvark” kicks into gear when Nathan’s estranged TV-star brother (Jon Hamm, fittingly) comes for a visit, and begins to see Nathan’s therapist (“SNL”-alum and “Obvious Child” star Jenny Slate). Sheila Vand, breakout star of “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and Tribeca favorite (delivering two notable performances at TFF last year), rounds out the cast of this dramedy of emotional fragility and familial bonds.

SON OF SOFIA | “Son of Sofia” caught our eye, not just because of the dread-inducing realization that the early 2000s are now fodder for period pieces, but for its focus on the perspective of its child protagonist. Set during the highly specific milieu of Greece during the 2004 Athens Olympics, 11-year-old Russian immigrant Misha is subjected to a new living environment and father figure. In processing these changes, and the darkness of the world around him, Misha copes with fairy tales, cinematically blurring reality and dreams — a theme common to many a beautifully ambiguous film.

Shmulik Calderon, Shady Srour, Tomer Russo and Byan Anteer in “Holy Air.” Photo by Daniel Miller.

L to R: Shmulik Calderon, Shady Srour, Tomer Russo and Byan Anteer in “Holy Air.” Photo by Daniel Miller.

HOLY AIR | With a logline that reads like an unholy mix of family comedy, “Breaking Bad” and religious parable, “Holy Air” sets itself out from the pack on sheer premise originality. From the mind of Israeli filmmaker Shady Srour, it tells the story of an Arab Christian man who bottles and sells so-called holy air from Nazareth in order to support his medically-challenged family. Coming at the crossroads of commerce, faith, and family, the film’s distinct perspective holds potential.

KING OF PEKING | “King of Peking” positions itself as a cross-generational dramedy and love letter to cinema, two favorite subjects at TFF. The Beijing-set movie focuses on a father, threatened with losing custody of his son for lack of spousal-support payments. The pair (both named Wong) find a solution to their problem in the form of the lucrative bootleg DVD market, allowing them to let their cinephilic flags fly — that is, until Little Wong starts pondering the ethics of their enterprise. It’s a tale of movies and morality — a winning combination if ever there was one.

An unexpected romance complicates the life of controversial musician Shahin Najafi in the rock doc “When God Sleeps.” Photo courtesy Partner Pictures.

An unexpected romance complicates the life of controversial musician Shahin Najafi in the rock doc “When God Sleeps.” Photo courtesy Partner Pictures.

WHEN GOD SLEEPS | Finding a good subject is half the battle when it comes to documentary filmmaking — and Till Schauder has found a great one in the charismatic, genre-blurring Iranian singer/songwriter Shahin Najafi. Banned from Iran, the film follows the now-Germany-based musician in the aftermath of 2015’s Bataclan attacks, living with the life-threatening repercussions of a fatwa issued against him for his politically outspoken lyrics. An added wrinkle comes in the form of the unexpected romance blossoming between Najafi and the granddaughter of the first Prime Minister of Iran. Guaranteeing a mix of heady, topical issues and quality music, “When God Sleeps” is one to keep on your radar.

Kevin Moore films police activity in “Copwatch.” Photo by Adriel Gonzalez.

Kevin Moore films police activity in “Copwatch.” Photo by Adriel Gonzalez.

COP WATCH | “Copwatch” finds veteran journalist Camilla Hall transitioning to director, as she follows the anti-police brutality group WeCopwatch — whose ranks include Ramsay Orta, the man who filmed Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the NYPD in 2014. As she profiles members of the group — which volunteers to film police action to curtail brutality — Hall examines the on-the-ground life of citizen activists, while questioning the current law-enforcement status quo.

SUPER DARK TIMES | Appearing in the often-adventurous “Midnights” section of the festival, “Super Dark Times” intrigues with its stark, seemingly literal title. Few plot specifics can be ascertained from reading a synopsis of the feature — that is, other than the fact that the genre-straddling movie concerns itself with the violent, paranoid corruption of suburban adolescence, beginning with an incident involving a samurai sword. Combine that with alluring-looking cinematography, 1990s period trappings, and genre-oddity reference points, and Kevin Phillips’ debut feature seems positioned to be a cult film in waiting.

For info on screenings and events, visit tribecafilm.com/festival — where you can also purchase tickets ($21, evening/weekend; $12, matinee). To order by phone: 646-502-5296.

“Super Dark Times” is a ’90s-set tale of innocence lost from first-time director Kevin Phillips. Photo by Eli Born.

“Super Dark Times” is a ’90s-set tale of innocence lost from first-time director Kevin Phillips. Photo by Eli Born.

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