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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson Picks His Favorites from the Tribeca Film Festival 2021

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Tribeca Film Festival
Tribeca Film festival wrapped up over the weekend

Having closed down in 2020, along with the rest of the world, the Tribeca Film Festival is the first American festival to come back, or most of the way back from all virtual to mostly theatrical. And come back it did, with 192 features, including 90 narrative and 102 documentaries, plus sections devoted to episodic TV, games and new media, sit-down chats, and a special mixed program selection of Juneteenth programming. You can see many of the films in theaters or streaming over the coming months.

The festival opened with In the Heights last week and closed this past weekend.

The first Tribeca FF in 2002 was in response to Sept. 11, the year before. Robert DeNiro who’d set up shop in Tribeca, wanted to help rebuild not just the neighborhood but confidence in New York and the US through the one engine he knew, film. Tribeca has more than done its part to restore downtown. But it has struggled to find high profile programming over the two decades, for reasons that are partly a function of the world festival calendar. It’s still what it has always been--an interesting grab bag of films at varying levels of quality, well marketed to the public as an event, spreading its footprint out to theaters all over town in the ensuing years, and making downtown the growth area of Manhattan.

Civilization reasserts itself through art, and there’s been a river of films at Tribeca this year about art and artists.

Bernstein’s Wall by Douglas Tirola is a doc about Leonard Bernstein, using archival footage, home movies, interviews and testaments to paint a picture of this most magnetic of symphony conductors and composers, who made his way from Boston—at 10, Bernstein daydreamed regularly about killing his tyrannical Russian Jewish father—to smash through to one of the most public and protean careers in serious music of the 20thcentury. Pair that with director and Johns Hopkins media studies professor Bernadette Wegenstein’s The Conductor, a doc about Marin Alsop, who at 9 went to one of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, which set her compass to smash through as the first music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

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Tribeca Film Festival
A scene from the doc The Lost Leonardo

My favorite this year is Tribeca’s premiere of The Lost Leonardo, Andreas Koefoed’s doc about the strange journey of the Salvator Mundi, a painting of indeterminate provenance, restored, retouched and purporting to be a found Leonardo Da Vinci bought as a sleeper for less than $1200 ($1175) at auction in New Orleans in 2005. It then passes through the funhouse mirror that’s the art business until sold at Christie’s in 2017 for $450 million to Mohammed Bin Salman, the emergent Sultan of Swat in Saudi Arabia. Koefoed’s brilliant orchestration of the painting’s strange path combines it with Bin Salman’s other big ticket pickups –a $450 million yacht, a $300 million French chateau--the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Bin Salman’s warm reception by French President Emmanuel Macron—because business is business. While the FBI and CIA are hot on the trail of the painting for Saudi money laundering and terrorist funding. Which culminates in the Salvator Mundi’s no-show appearance at the Louvre, after the Saudi Crown Prince tries to leverage whatever-it-is, as the Male Mona Lisa pin-up, next to the original. Art critic Jerry Saltz encapsulates the process:

The Lost Leonardo plays like that car at the circus releasing a stream of hustlers instead of clowns, all characters taken from Georges Simenon, the Ealing comedies of Alec Guinness, and Quentin Tarantino’s band of petty criminals in high places. It’s set for an August release. And I wouldn’t miss it to save the world.

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Tribeca Film Festival
A scene from the Buddy Guy doc

I also loved a doc about Buddy Guy, The Blues Chase the Blues Away, by a trio of directors, with a wealth of footage starting with home movies in Lettsworth, LA where the now nearly 85-year old Guy was born the son of sharecroppers.

There were features on Wolfgang Puck, Anthony Bourdain, Stanley Kubrick, Larry Flynt, Ben Fong Torres, Rick James, Dick Gregory, and Gordon Parks.

Artists were everywhere. None more so than in Brighton 4th, a Georgian fiction film by Levan Koguashvili, that won best foreign film at the festival. It is a Georgian shaggy dog story that starts in Tbilisi in a dreary bar full of Georgian men all facing the screen watching a soccer match on the lone TV, some of them, maybe all of them, with rent money on the game. It moves on to Brighton Beach, New York, where an old Georgian wrestler – the artist of the piece-- arrives and challenges a transplanted Georgian gangster – your worst nightmare kinda guy -- to a wrestling match on the beach, double or nothing on his son’s poker debt. His green card money, what else? This is a wonderful movie, please God somebody buy it for the US market.

And this is what it sounds like when Georgian men troop upstairs to sing a dirge around your body.

When it’s my turn, I should only be so lucky.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.