Happy sweet 16, Tribeca Film Festival. You’ve reached that age where you’re still young and impressionable enough to take risks—especially in the realm of documentaries, always a fest highlight—but you’ve got enough history to stand behind a classic or two. (This year, it’s Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather gangster movies, screened back to back with an epic Q&A afterward.) Our picks this year demonstrate your compassion: to the cause of trans rights with The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson; to cringe-inducing standup comedians with Gilbert; even to a serial killer with My Friend Dahmer. And if you’ve got a pimple or two, we won’t mention it. All of the titles below are worthy of attention. Visit the fest’s official site for tickets and more.
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Best Tribeca Film Festival movies
If you grew up on Long Island in the early ’80s and wanted to be cool, you listened to WLIR, the groundbreaking Garden City radio station that tipped kids off to new wave and New Romantic bands way before MTV. Ellen Goldfarb’s long-in-the-making doc is a nostalgic wave of hair gel, synthesized rebellion and the most perfect pop music ever (don’t fight us on this). After the first screening, enjoy a miniconcert from WLIR mainstays A Flock of Seagulls, the Alarm and the English Beat’s Dave Wakeling. Don’t know those bands? We’re sad for you.
Tribeca Festival Hub, 50 Varick St, sixth floor (tribecafilm.com). Apr 27 at 8:30pm. · Regal Battery Park, 102 North End Ave (844-462-7342, tribecafilm.com). Apr 28, 29 at 9:45pm; Apr 30 at 3:45, 9:45pm. · $23.88–$43.45.
Director David France knocked it out of the park with his 2012 feature debut, the landmark AIDS-activism doc How to Survive a Plague. His heartbreaking latest is equally as galvanizing: both a murder mystery and a celebration of the uncompromising spirit of Marsha P. Johnson, a Village drag icon and fighter for trans rights (she was at the Stonewall riots) who was found dead in 1992 floating off Chelsea Piers. France’s gift for turning archival footage into sequences of choking rage is strongly in evidence, making this doc essential for anyone interested in learning how to make a loud-and-proud stink.
Burt Reynolds delivered a knockout comeback performance in Boogie Nights. Now, 20 years later, he has another one up his sleeve. Writer-director Adam Rifkin’s gentle late-in-life redemption comedy uses clips from its star’s own filmography—including Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance—to tell the tale of fictional former box-office champ Vic Edwards (Reynolds). After his ancient pooch is put down, Vic begrudgingly emerges from his Beverly Hills seclusion to accept a lifetime achievement award in Nashville. Always too smart for his own good, Reynolds remains a complex hero, and this film shows him at his most mortal.
That’s Gilbert as in Gilbert Gottfried, the shouty stand-up who’s either obnoxiously endearing (as the parrot in Aladdin) or obnoxiously offensive (many people found his 9/11 and Japanese-tsunami jokes “too soon”). Neil Berkeley’s intimate profile reveals the soft-spoken man behind the big mouth: a deep thinker with a close family and a doting wife. Hearing Gottfried in this sensitive mode is its own sort of shocking; fans of his patented whine will find plenty to love here as well.
Francis Ford Coppola’s red-sauce Mafia epic—both the first film and its dark, Nixonian sequel—is the towering achievement of ’70s American cinema. It’s also the perfect way to spend a Saturday. And that’s exactly what the fest is doing during its final weekend, screening a doubleheader at regal Radio City Music Hall to a reverent crowd that knows every line of dialogue. Sealing the deal: Coppola and his cast—including Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire and Robert De Niro—appear for a Q&A that should be as punchy as the previous five hours.
Here’s the definitive Tribeca movie: an off-kilter antiromance that will have you arguing about it for hours. Akin to a series of wryly comic vignettes—think of it as the indie version of those one-panel New Yorker cartoons—The Lovers chronicles a disenchanted couple (Tracy Letts and the mighty Debra Winger) stuck in a stalled marriage. Almost magically, their mutual infidelities lead them back to each other, lustfully. Writer-director Azazel Jacobs (Momma’s Man) makes some unusual choices, but he’s single-minded in his pursuit of digging into the unpredictable rules of attraction.
Keanu Reeves, call your agent: You need to remake this movie into your next soulful action franchise. Written and directed by one-named Japanese weirdo Sabu, Mr. Long follows the unlikely trajectory of a Taiwanese hit man (A Brighter Summer Day’s boyish Chang Chen) who hides in a small, hopeless town while the heat cools. To pass the time, he opens a noodle cart and becomes an unlikely culinary sensation. Filled with nods to everything from Charlie Chaplin to Witness, the film also boasts dazzling knife fights that put the gun-fu battles in John Wick to shame.
Okay, so maybe he’s not your best friend. But graphic novelist Derf Backderf did go to high school with future serial killer and ’70s teen loner Jeffrey Dahmer, who, back then, who was just another Ohio kid with a fetish for dead animals. Writer-director Marc Meyers turns Backderf’s celebrated book into an absorbing, dramatized portrait of casual cruelty and teenage desperation, equal parts The Virgin Suicides and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This movie isn’t an apology. It’s better than that—a window into the making of a monster.
What’s a film festival without a little bleeding-edge horror? Mickey Keating is making a name for himself as a serious student of the gory classics: His previous film, last year’s Carnage Park, was the 1970s-retro sniper thriller of your most disturbed fantasies. Keating’s latest is about not one, not two, but multiple serial killers who get to business over the course of a single night. Fans of Italy’s stylish giallo nightmares: There’s no excuse for you not to be here.
Doesn’t the idea of a “Hollywood president” seem quaint now? We should be so lucky. This masterful doc is built entirely from Ronald Reagan’s press and TV appearances (and the steady throb of Beethoven’s ominous Seventh Symphony), resulting in a fascinating takeaway: The man’s carefully orchestrated image and his political power were one and the same. An oblique history of ’80s nuclear disarmament laden with revealing off-camera asides, The Reagan Show makes the glossy image profound. It’s the most crucial and unique film at the fest.