The good news for anyone who finds the Tribeca Film Festival daunting is that the event, which starts Wednesday, is about the same size as last year’s slimmed-down edition — not that that’s terribly slim. At 101 new features, the program is smaller than Sundance’s was in January but larger than the typical official selection at Cannes, which takes place in May.
Without the auteurs or marquee titles of those festivals, Tribeca can leave the average moviegoer lost for guidance. Plot summaries aren’t much use, given that the festival often appears to have two films for every premise. (Interested in a satire about buffoons who try to market an absurd product in China? You have options.)
The only way to find good movies at Tribeca is to watch them. That task requires long hours, an unflagging optimism that the next film might be a masterpiece and, mostly, a colossal stubborn streak. I’ve seen 40 new fiction features and documentaries and sampled about two dozen more. Here, in honor of the festival’s 17th year, are 17 titles I enjoyed.
ALL ABOUT NINA Eva Vives’s superbly judged, tonally tricky feature-directing debut concerns Nina (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a comic whose routines are at once a mask and an outlet for her demons. She’s forced to confront her past after moving from New York to Los Angeles. Ms. Winstead carries every scene with a performance that requires her to suggest a damaged inner life even when she’s killing onstage. She never falters.
BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY Dava Whisenant’s endearing documentary is a portrait of hobby tuned obsession, a chronicle of a little-known subgenre of musical theater and an elegy for a period in midcentury America when company loyalty was, well, fun. The film follows Steve Young, a longtime writer for David Letterman, as he tracks down the creators of industrial musicals, full-scale revues with Broadway talent composed for and performed at corporate meetings (and nowhere else).
BLOWIN’ UP Much of Stephanie Wang-Breal’s documentary takes place inside the Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens, where the judge, Toko Serita, works to steer women accused of prostitution, many of them immigrants, toward rehabilitation. Can a court ever truly be a safe space? What might be an ordinary issue documentary becomes something more in its final minutes, as an unexpected development answers that question.
DIANE Here’s a surprise: Kent Jones, the director of the New York Film Festival, will hold the world premiere of his first fictional feature (after the 2015 documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut”) at Tribeca — practically N.Y.F.F.’s opposite in size and sensibility. Also unexpected: That Mr. Jones, who has said this movie is inspired by family, might go full “Ordinary People” with this character study of a Massachusetts woman (an exceptional Mary Kay Place) grappling with a dying cousin (Deirdre O’Connell) and a drug-addicted adult son (Jake Lacy). But other influences, perhaps including Alain Resnais and the Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro (who has a cameo), eventually become apparent.
THE FEELING OF BEING WATCHED “A lot of people in my neighborhood have stories about being watched,” Assia Boundaoui says at the beginning of her documentary, “but most of them are afraid to talk out loud about it.” The director investigates the apparent history of surveillance in her hometown, Bridgeview, Ill., a Chicago suburb with a large Muslim community. This riveting film is at once a personal story, a journalistic thriller and an essay on the nature of paranoia.
HOUSE TWO To make this documentary while shielding his footage from prosecutors, the director Michael Epstein was hired by the defense team of Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, one of eight Marines charged in a 2005 civilian massacre in Haditha, Iraq. While that arrangement could probably be made clearer in the film, “House Two” is compulsively watchable — a nonfiction whodunit that methodically sifts through evidence to establish the circumstances surrounding the killings in a Haditha home.
IN THE SOUP Revivals, often handpicked by Martin Scorsese, used to be the highlight of Tribeca. This year’s Retrospectives program consists of just three films (and two, “Scarface” and “Schindler’s List,” aren’t exactly unknown). But fans of 1990s indies won’t want to miss Alexandre Rockwell’s 1992 Sundance winner, restored from what is said to be the only archival print. A self-deluding filmmaker (Steve Buscemi) falls in with an eccentric, lovable crook (Seymour Cassel) who may finally be his ticket to artistic success.
JELLYFISH Poverty in Britain is not exactly a novel subject, but it’s seldom been portrayed with the vise grip of James Gardner’s feature debut. It’s a harrowing account of the obligations of a teenager (Liv Hill) in the coastal town of Margate, as she raises her siblings, puts up with a mentally ill and chronically irresponsible mother and begins to find an outlet for her frustrations, courtesy of a sympathetic drama teacher (Cyril Nri).
LEMONADE The slow-burn style of the Romanian new wave — Cristian Mungiu, the director of “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” is one of this film’s producers — comes to the United States in an immigration drama that doesn’t reveal its full complexity until its closing moments. The director Ioana Uricaru charts the compromises facing Mara (Malina Manovici), a Romanian nurse applying for her green card.
LOVE, GILDA The festival’s opening-night feature is yet another biographical documentary about a comedy legend — in this case, Gilda Radner — a mode that’s probably become overworked. (See also “I Am Chris Farley,” “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” and didn’t the festival open with a “Saturday Night Live” documentary in 2015?) But it is good to find so many clips of Ms. Radner, who these days is more nostalgized than watched.
MARY SHELLEY This English-language feature from the Saudi Arabian-born director Haifaa al-Mansour (“Wadjda”) received rough treatment from critics when it played at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. As literary biopics go, though, it’s well above average, dramatizing the much-studied parallels between the life of Mary Shelley (Elle Fanning) and her Frankenstein monster. With a scene-stealing Tom Sturridge as Lord Byron.
NICO, 1988 Even the aspect ratio — the squarish frame of Andy Warhol’s Edie Sedgwick films — signals that “Nico, 1988” won’t be a conventional portrait of the final years of the Velvet Underground singer and Warhol superstar. As the title character, the Danish actress Trine Dyrholm does her own singing; the high point is an exhilarating underground concert in still-Communist Prague.
NIGERIAN PRINCE Email scams are just the beginning in the Nigerian-American filmmaker Faraday Okoro’s first feature, about an American teenager (Antonio J. Bell) who is sent to live with his aunt in Nigeria and can’t resist the lure of his con artist cousin (Chinaza Uche). It would be an overstatement to compare the movie to David Mamet’s “House of Games,” but Mr. Okoro spins a tangled web in which no transaction can be trusted.
O.G. Jeffrey Wright gives a rich, imposing performance as the former “mayor” of Pendleton Correctional Facility, an Indiana prison he is about to leave after 24 years of incarceration. The director, Madeleine Sackler, who filmed with real prisoners in her cast, actually has two features at the festival. The second, the documentary “prequel” “It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It?” was also made with Pendleton inmates and grew out of the research for “O.G.”
THE PARTY’S JUST BEGINNING The “Doctor Who” actress and “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” co-star Karen Gillan shows a sure hand with editing that blurs past and present in her feature directing debut, in which she plays a grieving, self-destructive 24-year-old in Inverness, Scotland.
THE PROPOSAL To pose questions about who controls an artist’s legacy, the artist Jill Magid devised a provocation for Federica Zanco, an architectural scholar who insists, with some controversy, on keeping the professional archive of the Mexican architect Luis Barragán in Switzerland. No spoilers if you don’t know how Ms. Magid’s exhibition turned out. She documents her own process in this documentary.
SLUT IN A GOOD WAY A Quebecois teenage answer to “Frances Ha,” this buoyant comedy follows three friends who takes jobs at a toy store, where one, Charlotte (Marguerite Bouchard), on the rebound after a breakup, develops a reputation. Sophie Lorain’s black-and-white feature has a bit of Aristophanes and a bit of Bollywood.
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