The 6 Best Documentaries I Saw at The Tribeca Film Festival (And 2 I Effing Hated)

Featuring murder!
Publish date:
June 15, 2015
movies, documentaries, tribeca film festival, film festivals

So I'm pretty late with this Tribeca Film Festival coverage because my boyfriend almost died, but I went this year! I'm not a professional film critic or anything, but the one that that I've always loved about the Tribeca Festival is that they show tons of documentaries, which I'm super-into. Also I got to wear a badge and feel all "cultural," which I enjoyed.

My favorite thing about this photo is that I later plugged it into that age-guessing app everybody was using for awhile and it rudely grabbed the clearly 20-something girl volunteer in the background and called her like 56 or something.

Anyway, here's the best stuff I saw:

Thought Crimes

I like to read about and watch documentaries about murder so much that if I ever do get murdered I'll just be like, "Fair enough." That may be why this was my favorite documentary of the festival. It covers the case of the "NY cannibal cop," who was convicted among many blaring NY Post headlines of conspiring to kidnap and eat women. That's conspiring, because where the "thought crimes" piece comes in, is that the guy never actually did anything. The question of the documentary becomes, were his "plans" to torture, rape and consume women just dark fantasy, or was he on course to actually commit a crime. This is a really balanced and well-done documentary, and I kept shifting my opinion of whether the cop, Gilberto Valle, deserves to be in jail or not. Either way, he is by far the worst husband ever, as he had most of his disturbing chats late at night while his wife (sometimes the target of his fantasies) and young daughter slept in the next room. Thought Crimes is currently available on HBO on Demand.

A Courtship

I love any documentary that gives people I know in NY a little glimpse into what it's like to be from the Bible Belt. See also: Jesus Camp and Hell House. Courtship is a concept I'm very familiar with from a book that was popular with Christian youth at my high school called I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It's basically an alternative to secular dating, wherein the sole purpose is to find a Christian mate to marry and in which the family is heavily involved in the selection of said mate.

In A Courtship, this is taken to the extreme, as Kelly, an attractive woman in her 30s, moves in with a couple she considers her "spiritual family" to hand over the responsibility of finding a husband. The couple is raising their own small children into courtship, even teaching them the importance of saving their first kiss for marriage. My favorite part was when the kids were showing off their scrapbooks full of colored drawings of their future plans that consisted primarily of engagement rings, wedding dresses, and large families.

I found this to be a fascinating look at one woman's extreme faith in God's plan for her, despite wanting to shake her the entire movie and scream at her that she's super cute and sweet and could easily find a husband if she'd just go on a damn date or to a Christian singles group or something.

Autism in Love

This occasionally sad, often beyond sweet documentary follows the search for and navigation of love and companionship among four people with autism. Some, like the surly Lenny, can't seem to find companionship, and others, like long-term couple Lindsay and David, are just beginning to consider marriage. All of them struggle to manage romantic love against the difficulties autism poses in areas like social interaction and communication. You'll be able to see it on PBS in 2016, or you can check here for screenings.

The Wolfpack

This documentary was the most buzzed-about of the festival and the one I was most looking forward to seeing. The story itself is as bizarre as it is fascinating -- 6 brothers, kept locked in a cramped New York City apartment, the brothers learn about the world around them from watching movies, which become both their shorthand for their world around them and their salvation, as they begin to recreate their own versions of films using sophisticated props and costumes. At the time that director Crystal Moselle gains access to the family, they are just beginning to push back against the constraints of their fanatical father and discovering the world.

I don't know if it was just over-hyped, but I didn't end up enjoying this documentary as much as the three above. I didn't think the film itself was particularly well put-together, but the story is so unique, and the director's access so fortuitous that it's well worth a watch. The Wolfpack will be in select theaters starting June 12th.

Transfatty Lives

I didn't know at all what this film was going to be about going into it. The "Transfatty" of the title, it turns out, it a person, Internet filmmaker Patrick O' Brien, an unabashed character who is in the process of making another film when he is diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease, and given 2 to 5 years to live. Along the way, he can expect to lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe, all while his brain remains as sharp and intact as ever. O'Brien turns the camera on himself, documenting his decline until he is living in a facility and communicating his direction through a computer that tracks his eye movements. That all sounds pretty maudlin -- but O Brien's spirit is so unflinching, and his attitude toward his disease so bold, that the film never gets sappy or sentimental.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

I have a little bit of inherent snottiness when it comes to my impressions of The National Lampoon -- I went into the film expecting to be annoyed by learning about the college publication that gained a reputation as an Ivy League feeder into comedy writing for rich white dudes.

But I also love learning about these strange little pockets of time in which the right people and circumstances come together to create something new that actually has an impact on culture, ala the punk movement. And the original Lampoon was certainly that -- a comic revolution that branched off from Harvard to become a surrealist, counter-culture juggernaut that launched the career of legends like Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase and John Belushi before they were all thoroughly poached by Hollywood and Saturday Night Live. So I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed this film documenting the rise and fall of the first national humor magazine.

Documentaries I Wish I'd Gotten To See

There were some movies, that due to my human inability to be in more than one place at once, I wasn't able to make a screening of, even though I really wanted to, and/or their press folks never got back to me. For instance:

Live From New York

This documentary, about the history and effects of "Saturday Night Live," was one of the buzzier films at the festival and I wasn't able to get into a screening. Luckily, it's currently in select theaters.

Roseanne for President

The sitcom "Roseanne" was a hugely validating part of my formative years -- it was the first time I saw a home and a family on TV that looked anything like mine. Though I'm less interested in the subject matter of this documentary -- Roseanne's 2012 campaign for president -- I wish I had gotten to see this one because: Roseanne.

In My Father's House

I heard from a lot of strangers I met in line that this was a standout documentary from the festival. It's the story of a successful rapper and songwriter (He wrote "Jesus Walks" for Kanye West) named Che "Rhymefest" Smith who decides to purchase and raise his family in his childhood home on Chicago's South Side, only to be reunited with his father, a homeless alcoholic who still lives in the neighborhood. You can check here for screenings.

Thank You For Playing

I want to see this film, but I don't think I can watch this film. I learned shortly after becoming a mom that even fictional movies in which a major plot point is the death of a child (Hello, "Gravity) are too much for me to handle. So a film like this, which is about the a father and his real-life 1-year-old son's terminal cancer diagnosis, would probably level me. Designer Ryan Green coped with the unthinkable by creating a video game called "That Dragon, Cancer," based on his family's experience. Upcoming screenings will be listed here, or you can support the game here.


True confessions: I actually went to this movie, but I fell asleep in the middle. This was in no way the movie's fault, I had just ran myself ragged that week going from screening to screening and I passed out. The subject matter is of great interest to me: It's about a 20-year-old named Ryan Ferguson who served 10 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. The doc tells the story of his wrongful imprisonment and his father's 10-year fight to prove his innocence. My boyfriend, who did not fall asleep, said it was very good. You can check for future screenings here.

Documentaries I Kind of HatedMisery Loves Comedy

This documentary made me angry, only because its title and description were so patently misleading. According to the press materials, it was supposed to be, "An insightful documentary that delves into the psyche of a comic to find out whether you must be miserable to be a comedian." Instead it was just a bunch of clips of (disproportionately white and male) comedians talking about what it's like to be a comedian. Which is FINE, especially if you're a big comedy nerd, but not what the film was supposed to be about. A huge missed opportunity to talk about what's actually a really interesting topic -- the seeming prevalence of depression, substance abuse and other mental health issues among the world's funniest people.

Prescription Thugs

As a recovering addict, I was really excited to see this film about prescription drug abuse, and I knew the director, whose own brother died of a prescription drug overdose, had had previous success with the documentary "Bigger Stronger Faster," about steroid abuse. But this thing was a mess -- repetitive, full of inaccurate information (at one point, the voice-over refers to the "eradication of HIV" due to prescription drugs), dedicated to hammering home super obvious points and making connections anyone with a brain has already made. Halfway through the film, when director Bell reveals his own prescription drug addiction, it comes as no surprise -- this watched like a documentary made by someone on drugs.