In Transit (via Tribeca Film Festival)
It’s become something of a cliche that the best of the Tribeca Film Festival can always be found among the documentaries. It’s true, of course, yet it’s hardly the most interesting thing to say. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s a struggle to say something else. For example, the New York Times published a preview that characterizes this year’s crop of documentaries as niche-focused projects in which “content is king, sentimentality is rife” and there’s no real inclination towards experimenting with nonfiction art. It’s a fascinating claim, despite the fact that it’s misguided and essentially untrue.
Now, I didn’t see every documentary feature at the festival. I saw 24. Yet the trend across that sample is one of artistically inclined storytelling. The NYT article uses the misconception that artfully made documentaries are never interested in narrative, which is a particularly frustrating canard. Many of Tribeca’s 2015 documentaries are smoothly directed verite projects that look to emulate the intuitive style of Albert Maysles rather than the expository style of Alex Gibney. A documentary doesn’t have to be a “hybrid” to be artful, as many of the festival’s most intriguing works attest.
Here are the eight best, all of them films that use cinematic technique to bring out the artistic truth of their subjects.
1. In Transit
Tribeca Film Festival
It’s appropriate, then, that the best film in the festival was Maysles’s last. He directed In Transit along with Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui and Ben Wu. This plural authorship underlines the beauty of the film, a compilation of passengers and stories from Amtrak’s Empire Builder line. A wide variety of people ride the train across the Rocky Mountains and the oil-rich plains of North Dakota, from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest. All of the characters are given just the right amount of screen-time, some of their arcs lasting the whole film while others say their piece and move on. It’s a testament to the manifold spirit of America and a perfect farewell film from Maysles. [Full Review]