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Tribeca Film Festival 2017: 20 Movies We Can’t Wait to See

From docs on Puff Daddy and Public Image Ltd. to British comedies and Aussie horror – your complete guide to the downtown NYC film fest

tribeca film festival 2017, public image limited documentary

Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, Scott Gries/Getty, Ray Stevenson/Rex

When Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal first started the Tribeca Film Festival back in 2002, the idea was to revitalize a downtown neighborhood still suffering from a post-9/11 slump. It was a modest, and somewhat local affair. Fast-forward nearly 15 years later, and this little NYC shindig has become a beast: a vast, sprawling event filled with competitions, big-name gala premieres, a bleeding-edge V.R. and multimedia presence, a TV-centric sidebar, some truly inspired celebrity-interviews-celebrity events and more sponsorship than you can shake an across-the-board branding initiative at. The programming remains thrillingly eclectic, frustratingly erratic and left-field exhilarating. Its aims have become more and more ambitious, yet it still remains, first and foremost, about the movies.

The question is really, out of the dozens upon dozens of choices, what do you need to see when this year’s fest starts up on April 19th – which is where we come in. We’ve singled out 20 films you’ll want to check out, or keep an eye out for: music docs on everyone from Puff Daddy to Public Image Ltd.; portraits of going-too-far stand-ups and gone-too-soon movie stars, ex-punk Buddhists and transgender activists; another road-movie Britcom from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon; an Aussie horror flick for the ages and one genuinely unclassifiable Estonian movie involving witches, twig demons and flying cows. Consider this your complete guide to the 2017 edition. Please view responsibly.

Dare To Be Different: The Movie

Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

‘Dare to Be Different’

Gather ’round, children, and listen to the tale of WLIR, a Long Island radio station that, sick of trying to compete with classic rock outlets crowding the dial, decided to start playing all this weird music coming from England. In the process, they introduced most of the bands that your parents listen to on that Sirius “oldies” channel (i.e. Eighties New Wave) to American audiences, paved the way for MTV and helped goose a musical revolution. Never mind the rather stock talking heads/archive footage doc format; see this for the who’s-who of “modern rock” royalty that testify to WLIR’s tastemaking power (Howard Jones, Joan Jett, The English Beat’s Dave Wakeling, members of Duran Duran and A Flock of Seagulls). You don’t get U2 or Musical Youth without these FM mavericks. DF

'The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson'

Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’

In 1992, the body of Marsha P. Johnson, gay-rights icon and a Greenwich Village fixture, was found dead in the Hudson River. The police ruled her death a suicide; everyone else, however, considered it a hate crime. Decades later, activist Victoria Cruz began looking into the details around the long-dormant case, trying to get some answers – and closure – regarding this beloved revolutionary’s passing. Documentarian David France (How to Survive a Plague) follows Cruz as she doggedly chases down leads and interviews those who fought alongside Johnson at the Stonewall Riots and beyond. In the process, the filmmaker traces not only the life and times of the person many called “the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement” but reminds you of the key part that the transgender community played in the socio-political struggle for recognition. Essential viewing. DF

The Departure

Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

‘The Departure’

Two hundred miles west of Tokyo, ex-nihilist–turned-Buddhist priest Ittetsu Nemoto leads “death workshops” for those with suicidal tendencies in the hopes of giving attendees renewed reasons to live. But as Lana Wilson’s engrossing documentary shows, this 24/7 job – Nemoto spent years answering every email and phone call alongside personal home visits – has destroyed his body and drained his soul. The meditative film raises the question: “How much should one sacrifice to help other people?” Heavy, yet absorbing. JN


Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival


As in Gilbert Gottfried – the profane comic whose singular screech and unorthodox delivery has made him sui generis among stand-ups. Director Neil Berkeley shines the spotlight on the intensely private comedian, delving into the Ozzy-Sharon relationship between Gottfried and supportive caretaker/wife, Dara, and the backlash against him in the wake of his controversial tsunami and 9/11 jokes. Nevertheless, he’s persisted – see his justly famous marathon “Aristocrats” joke – and remains a comic dynamo who hasn’t lost his edge. JN

A Gray State

Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

‘A Gray State’

When 29-year-old filmmaker and rising alt-right star David Crowley was found dead alongside his wife and five-year-old daughter in their quaint Minnesota home, conspiracy theorists quickly rushed to blame a government-assisted murder and cover-up. Erik Nelson’s doc (executive produced by Werner Herzog) uses the hundreds of hours of film and recordings left by Crowley to unpack fact from fiction, examining how an enthusiastic Army veteran conceived a potential underground cult flick – and ended up losing his mind. Part suspenseful murder-mystery and part real-life political thriller, this true-crime deep-dive feels poised to be a festival breakout hit. JN

'Hounds of Love'

Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

‘Hounds of Love’

Harrowing doesn’t begin to describe this story of a young woman (Ashleigh Cummings) trying to escape the serial-killing couple who’ve abducted her – it’s a high compliment to the movie’s effectiveness to say that Tribeca should have PTSD counselors on hand for post-screening appointments. (At the very least, the use of “Knights in White Satin” during a drugging scene will ensure you never hear that Moody Blues the same way again.) Riffing slightly on the “Moorhouse Murders” case, Australian filmmaker Ben Young displays a talent for shredding your nerves, especially when his heroine starts banking her survival on psychologically pitting her kidnappers against each other. It’s too impeccably composed to be pure Ozploitation and too icky and scuzzy to be a prestige-drama take. So thank god it found the perfect true-crime-horror sweet spot to hit. DF

'I Am Heath Ledger'

Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

‘I Am Heath Ledger’

He went from a typical Aussie surfer dude to Hollywood’s hot new It guy to one of the most respected actors of his generation – throw in record-label co-founder and music-video obsessive, and you’ve got Heath Ledger’s nonstop-creative arc in a nutshell. But utilizing interviews from friends and professional cohorts, film clips and home movies shot by the man himself, this look at the late star could not be more intimate in presenting the life (and untimely death) of a guy who never stopped searching for something deeper in whatever he did. DF

'King of Peking'

Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

‘King of Peking’

A father-son team in Beijing (Big Wong and Little Wong, respectively) survive by creating and selling pirated bootlegged movies during the height of the DVD era. Living in the basement of a movie theater, the projectionist and his partner-in-crime furtively film current blockbusters and dub their own voices in – think Cinema Paradiso meets (a better) Be Kind Rewind. Director Sam Voutas deftly highlights the exhilarating, protective and terrifying lengths parents will go for their children. Long live the King. JN

'LA '92'

Steve Grayson/WireImage/Getty

‘LA 92’

In 1965, South Central Los Angeles went up in flames after a traffic stop turned into a textbook case of police brutality; some three decades later, another incident involving a motorist and the cops sparked an even bigger us-vs-them catastrophe. Paralleling the stories of the Watts Rebellion and the aftermath the Rodney King verdict, this new doc (honoring the 25th anniversary of the 1992 riots) chronicles the tensions between the
immigrant communities in the area, as well as the events – the beating of King, the death of Latasha Harlins, the subsequent court cases
– that lit a fuse beneath the city. Oscar-winning directors Dan
Lindsay and T.J. Martin (Undefeated) craft a compelling and timely story about how, so
long as there is racial injustice, unrest will inevitably boil to the
surface. EGP

'The Lovers'

Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

‘The Lovers’

Having endured a crumbling marriage for years, Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) find themselves seeking intimacy, physical and otherwise, outside the union. Both promise their new romantic partners that they’re going to end things once and for all. Then the couple start “cheating” with each other on the sly – and guess who’s suddenly head over heels in love again? Writer-director Azazel Jacobs (Momma’s Man) has been one of the stealth MVPs of the indie-cinema world for a decade now, and his riff on the vintage remarriage-comedies of the 1940s could very well get him the attention he rightfully deserves. Letts – who’s cornered the market on Angry Middle-Aged White Men roles; see Indignation and his turn on Homeland – gets to play romantic-comic for once; as for Winger, you can officially say the Debranaissance starts now. DF

'My Friend Dahmer'

Daniel Katz

‘My Friend Dahmer’

Long before he entered the Serial Killer Hall of fame, Jeffery Dahmer (Disney Channel heartthrob Ross Lynch) was just another high-school senior, collecting road-kill skeletons and befriending fellow students like cartoonist Derf (Alex Wolff). Soon, however, this awkward young man starts to realize he’s a little … different. Like, say, when he fantasizes about killing young men that he’s attracted to, like the local doctor (Mad Men‘s Vincent Kartheiser). Based on Backderf’s autobiographical graphic novel, the film offers a sympathetic look into Dahmer’s troubled childhood, and a more nuanced examination of the future celebrity cannibal as he unsuccessfully tries to keep his budding homicidal desires in check. EGP

No Man's Land'

Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

‘No Man’s Land’

In January 2016, a group of anti-government militants seized the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon; what started as a protest against what appeared to be an unfair prison sentencing soon became a cause celebré for the paranoid-patriots set. The fact that documentarian David Byars embedded himself among the righteous ranchers and far-right-wingers who engaged in a stand-off with federal law enforcement is extraordinary enough; that he also manages to humanize these folks while not downplaying their somewhat extreme ideology or activities is nothing short of amazing. It’s one of those you-are-there docs that helps you understand why this happened – and doesn’t flinch when bullets start flying. DF


Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival


From its first five minutes – in which a rolling bone-demon with a steer skull kidnaps a cow and “helicopters” it away – Estonian writer-director Rainer Sarnet drops you into a world that’s part Grimm fairy tale, part Eastern European folklore and all fever dream. Sure, it’s your typical boy-meets-girl, boy-falls-in-love-with-local-baroness, girl-casts-spell-on-her-romantic-competition chestnut, rendered in some of the most gorgeous black-and-white cinematography in recent memory. But where most old-world yarn spinners would take the building blocks of freaky Freudian bedtime stories (sleepwalking damsels, deals with the devil, witches, werewolves, class warfare) and milk them dry, Sarnet doesn’t stop until he’s fried them (and your frontal lobe) to a crisp. It’s a beautiful as it is profoundly weird-as-fuck. DF

'The Public Image Is Rotten'

Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

‘The Public Image Is Rotten’

This is not a love song to John Lydon’s band/company/project – call it what you will, a rose by any other name smells as wonderfully rotten – though the songwriter’s incredibly ambitious, musically experimental post-Sex Pistols group most certainly deserves one. Instead, actor-turned-documentarian Tabbert Fiiller doggedly charts the bad decisions, bad gigs, burnt bridges and burnt-out musicians left in PiL’s wake, in addition to the highs of making incredible, often uncategorizable music and some legendary albums. (Seriously, have you listened to Second Edition lately?!) It feels like the closest fans will ever get to a complete-ish history of Public Image Ltd., as well as an insightful look at the artist at the center of it. To paraphrase the singer of another collective: You will not get the feeling you’ve been cheated. DF

'The Reagan Show'

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

‘The Reagan Show’

It was the administration that set the stage for much of the post-Goldwater modern conservative movement – as well as what one journalist declared would be remembered as the most PR-savvy Presidential run ever. Filmmakers Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez revisit the Reagan era via the massive treasure trove of in-house archival footage of Rockin’ Ronnie’s time in office, complete with scandal deflections, stiff photo ops, goofs, gaffs, private moments and his political showdown with the Soviet Union. It can lapse into cutesy cleverness (enough with the whimsical music; using Reagan’s old-movie footage as a diss was already old-news when hardcore punk was young). But when it uses these clips to construct a media-fed narrative that doubled as a political feedback loop, this doc says volumes about then and now. DF

'The Trip to Spain'

Courtesy of 2017 Tribeca Film Festival

‘The Trip to Spain’

At this point, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have refined their screen double act – the one they literally take on the road – down to a science, and the third film in their unofficial Trip trilogy doesn’t stray from the previous movies’ recipe. In a nutshell: Take two established British comedians, have them drive and eat their way through a region (this time: Spain), add lots of hilarious impersonations (this time: dueling Mick Jaggers) and just a dash of middle-aged malaise to bring out the flavoring. And like the other films, this combination of passive-aggressive one-upmanship and culinary tourist-porn is remarkably consistent in quality; the gents and director Michael Winterbottom know they’ve hit on a successful formula and work the duo’s annoyed glares and ability to crack each other up for all it’s worth. Genius, this. DF

'When God Sleeps'

Amin Khelghat

‘When God Sleeps’

While your average pop star complains about the “trappings of fame,” Iranian singer-songwriter Shahin Najafi is reading Websites showing the assassination of his avatar as thousands of Muslims, led by religious clerics, wish for his death. Banned in his native country for his iconoclastic lyrics, the musician moves to Berlin while he, his band and manager navigate death threats and apostasy accusations. Director Till Schauder and his crew aren’t afraid to immerse themselves into Najafi’s precarious world. JN

'Whitney. "can I be me,"'

David Corio

‘Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me?’

Nick Broomfield’s previous forays into music documentaries include outlandish, gonzo-ish conspiracy theory-filled films on rock stars (Kurt & Courtney) and rap feuds (Biggie & Tupac). This time, the filmmaker plays it straight, staying behind the camera and letting the late singer’s friends, family members and record label associates trace how a shy New Jersey girl became the most awarded female vocalist ever. Broomfield examines the myriad and complicated factors leading to her death in 2012, but unlike past portraits, this celebrates her life even as it unpacks her death. It’s also a nice dissection on race and the marketing of an image in the music industry, as one fan’s golden voice is another’s selling out. JN

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