Best & Worst Films at the 2021 Tribeca Festival

  • Publish Date: June 22, 2021
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Which films impressed at this year's Tribeca?

Tribeca 2021

The 2021 edition of the Tribeca Festival (formerly the Tribeca Film Festival) wrapped its 12-day run over the weekend after screening the world premieres of new features from Steven Soderbergh, Morgan Neville, and more. Though the Audience Award winners have yet to be announced, the Tribeca jury issued its awards over the weekend, with a college rowing drama from a first-time filmmaker taking top honors.

Below, find out what critics think of those films and all of the other major film titles debuting at this year's Tribeca. Note that Tribeca titles which previously debuted at other festivals or that have already opened in theaters or debuted on TV (such as 12 Mighty Orphans, Creation Stories, and In the Heights) are not included here. And we've only included those films which have actually received more than a couple of reviews so far; coverage from the film press has been relatively light this year, so a few unreviewed titles (including all of the festival's television show debuts) are omitted.

The winners

Best Narrative Feature (U.S.)
The Novice
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Lauren Hadaway

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Writer-director Lauren Hadaway based her feature debut on her own experiences as a competitive college rower. Tracking freshman Alex Dall (Orphan's Isabell Fuhrman) as she obsesses over making the top varsity boat, this "tense, often electrifying" film took home awards for Best U.S. Narrative Feature Film, Best Actress and Best Cinematography. IndieWire's Kate Erbland believes the praise is warranted, especially for Fuhrman's "incendiary performance", that "adds the most tension and intensity to the film."

Best Narrative Feature (International)
Brighton 4th
Drama/Comedy | Bulgaria/Georgia/Monaco/Russia/USA | Directed by Levan Koguashvili

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In the International Narrative Feature section of the festival, Levan Koguashvili's film about a Georgian wrestler (played by former Olympic wrestler Lavan Tediashvili) who travels to Brooklyn and finds his son in debt to a local mob boss won Best Film, Best Actor for Tediashvili, and Best Screenplay for Boris Frumin. Film Threat's Josiah Teal thinks Brighton is a "compelling watch" thanks to "Tedaishivili's excellent performance." Wendy Ide of Screen Daily believes "Koguashvili deftly blends tones," and in his review for The Playlist, Christian Gallichio calls it a "thoughtful naturalistic film" that is "reflective and stoic."

Best Documentary Feature
Ascension
Documentary | USA | Directed by Jessica Kingdon

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Director Jessica Kingdon won Best Documentary Feature and the 2021 Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director for her look at the "Chinese Dream." Film Threat's Noah Schwartz believes Ascension "empowers Chinese citizens while also shining a light on the exploitation and oppression they face in the workplace and job market." And in his A– review for The Playlist, Warren Cantrell writes, "There are no talking heads in the picture or any camera-facing reflections to guide the audience along a narrative, making it less cinéma vérité and more direct cinema in style. It is an effective approach."

Other highlights of the festival

All These Sons
Documentary | USA | Directed by Bing Liu and Joshua Altman

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A cinematography winner at the festival, Bing Liu's documentary feature follow-up to Minding the Gap, co-directed with that Academy Award-nominated film's editor, Joshua Altman, looks at two community programs in Chicago, the IMAN (Inner-City Muslim Action Network) and the MAAFA Redemption Project, and three young men, Shamont, Zay and Charles, working through trauma resulting from pervasive gun violence. Liu and Altman have produced a "sharp, deeply personal piece, equal parts devastating and inspirational," according to Robert Daniels of The Playlist. Screen Daily's Allan Hunter finds it "compelling and very touching," and in his review for THR, Daniel Fienberg's "biggest complaint" is that it's "only 88 minutes; I'd have watched the two-hour or 10-episode television version happily."

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road
Documentary/Music | USA | Directed by Brent Wilson

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Director Brent Wilson (Streetlight Harmonies) and Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine accompany legendary songwriter, producer, and musician Brian Wilson around Los Angeles as he reflects on his troubled life and his incredible music. Also included are "passionate and eloquent" reflections by Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and music producer and director of Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn't Made for These Times Don Was, who "don't merely explain why Wilson's music matters; they reveal the life-changing feelings of discovery that it stirred in them," writes Sheri Linden in her review for THR. At The Playlist, Christian Gallichio finds Road to be an "insightful but breezy introduction to the musical mastermind." And Variety's Owen Gleiberman believes it's an "affectionate and satisfying movie, sentimental at times but often stirringly insightful."

Catch the Fair One
Thriller | USA | Directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka

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Josef Wladyka's feature follow-up to Manos Sucias is a "bristling, horrific thriller" guided by a "distinct vision that pulses to potent degrees," writes Robert Daniels in his A- review for The Playlist. Wladyka's co-writer, boxing world champion Kali Reis, makes her acting debut as Kaylee, a former boxer who goes undercover to infiltrate a human trafficking ring with hopes of finding her missing younger sister. Film Threat's Bobby LePire believes Wladyka's direction "is lean and ably brings forth the emotional truth of each scene," and Wendy Ide of Screen Daily agrees, writing, "He's clearly a directing talent to watch, grounding the driving tension of his action sequences in a foundation of grit and morality."

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
Documentary | USA | Directed by Morgan Neville
In theaters July 16

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Morgan Neville (Won't You Be My Neighbor, 20 Feet from Stardom) directs this look at the life of chef turned TV personality Anthony Bourdain. It's a "raw, illuminating portrait of a man whose passions ranged as far and wide as his passport carried him, but could also lead to dangerous extremes," writes Leah Greenblatt in her A– review for EW. Bourdain's suicide in June of 2018 does cast a shadow over the project, with Clint Worthington of Consequence describing it as "engaging in a kind of collective mourning, a desperate bid to understand a man who meant so much to so many, even if we never met him." THR's Daniel Fienberg goes one step further, calling it an "intensely painful documentary, one closer to the center of a raw, thoroughly unhealed, and yet very public, wound than I think I've ever seen before." The film will open in theaters on July 16 and will air on CNN and stream on HBO Max later this year.

Additional festival debuts of note

7 Days
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Roshan Sethi

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Roshan Sethi's directorial debut, stars his partner and co-writer, Karan Soni (Deadpool), and Geraldine Viswanathan (Blockers, The Broken Hearts Gallery) as Ravi and Rita. Their first date, arranged by their parents, turns into a week-long COVID lockdown in Rita's apartment, leading to revelations about how they presented themselves online and who they really are. Screen Rant's Mae Abdulbaki believes it's a "thoughtful, compassionate romcom" that is "emotionally resonant, sweet, tender, and genuinely funny." And in her review for THR, Lovia Gyarke calls it a "charming romantic comedy" that "satisfyingly freshens up a stale formula, thanks in large part to the lead performances."

No Man of God
Drama | USA | Directed by Amber Sealey

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Luke Kirby plays serial killer Ted Bundy, and Elijah Wood is FBI analyst Bill Hagmaier in this film from director Amber Sealy (No Light and No Land Anywhere) and Doctor Strange screenwriter C. Robert Cargill (using the pseudonym Kit Lesser). Prior to the film's premiere, Sealy and Joe Berlinger, the director of a feature and documentary about Bundy, exchanged some barbs, but the story faded once critics saw what The Film Stage's Christian Gallichio calls an "engrossing feature" and an "actors showcase that purposely eschews mythologizing Bundy or his crimes." THR's David Rooney believes it's a "chilling psychological inquiry that holds your attention for the duration" with Kirby the "mesmerizing center of the film" and Wood matching him "in terms of intensity." In his review for Variety, Owen Gleiberman echoes those thoughts: "At moments, No Man of God could be a two-hander performed on stage. Wood and Kirby get a real communion going, one that echoes the battle of wits between Graham and Lecter in Manhunter."

No Sudden Move
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Streams July 1 on HBO Max

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Steven Soderbergh's latest post-retirement project is another caper, but one a bit more hard-boiled than Logan Lucky. Set in 1954 Detroit, the film focuses on two petty criminals (Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro) who are hired to do a seemingly simple job: "babysit" the family (Amy Seimetz, Noah Jupe, Lucy Holt) of a GM exec (David Harbour) while he fetches a piece of paper from his office. Things go awry, as they do in these kinds of films, and suddenly enforcers (Brendan Fraser), crime bosses (Ray Liotta and Bill Duke), cops (Jon Hamm), wives (Julia Fox) and girlfriends (Frankie Shaw) get involved. Critics agree that the cast delivers, especially when it comes to Ed Solomon's dialogue, but opinions differ on the final ten minutes of the film. TheWrap's Alonso Duralde believes if Solomon and Soderbergh had "been content with ‘merely' making a first-class genre film, they might have made a clean getaway," and Owen Gleiberman of Variety finds the film "a little too pleased with its corporate conspiracy-theory dimension," even though it is "clever and blithely vicious" and "invites you to share Soderbergh's joy in filmmaking." More positive are Screen Daily's Tim Grierson, who finds it "unquestionably overreaching but also compulsively watchable," and Jesse Hassenger of Consequence, who calls it a "great-looking, propulsive piece of entertainment."

Werewolves Within
Horror/Comedy | USA | Directed by Josh Ruben
Opens in theaters June 25 / available on VOD and digital on July 2

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Scare Me director Josh Ruben stays in the horror-comedy realm with his second feature, a very loose adaptation of the Ubisoft VR game. Written by Mishna Wolff, this June 25 theatrical release (July 2 on digital/VOD) follows Veep scene-stealer Sam Richardson, the new forest ranger in the town of Beaverfield, as he tries to solve a series of mysterious murders with the help of a local postal worker played by AT&T commercial star Milana Vayntrub. "Richardson and Vayntrub become the perfect straight-man characters," according to Jared Mobarak of The Film Stage. Similarly, Lorry Kikta of Film Threat believes, "The ensemble cast of Werewolves Within is what makes it." IGN's Matt Fowler admits "not every joke lands," but still deems the film a "quirky monster mystery filled with gentle laughs and massive maulings."

A few disappointments

False Positive
Horror | USA | Directed by John Lee
Streams June 25 on Hulu

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Coming to Hulu Friday, this horror-comedy-satire hybrid about impending parenthood evoked a wide range of opinions. Broad City's Ilana Glazer stars as Lucy, who, after struggling to get pregnant, finds herself in the hands of Pierce Brosnan's Dr. Hindle. But Lucy begins to suspect something sinister lurks below this charming man's surface. In her B– review for The AV Club, Katie Rife writes, "On a broader conceptual level, False Positive is clever, setting up and then defying expectations through the subversion of tropes . . . But the satire of pregnancy culture is surprisingly mild." Screen Daily's Nikki Baughan thinks a "sharp screenplay and strong performances" result in a "watchable thriller, rather than just a mere pastiche." But TheWrap's Elizabeth Weitzman cautions that the "frayed strands of the horror plot feel hastily woven together, and underwhelming when all is revealed." Similarly, Kate Erbland of IndieWire believes this "aimless film isn't dark enough to be scary, funny enough to be a comedy, or smart enough to say anything about the many topics it seems to want to tackle."

God's Waiting Room
Drama | USA | Directed by Tyler Riggs

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Set during a hot summer in central Florida, writer-director-actor Tyler Riggs' feature directorial debut follows Rosie (Nisalda Gonzalez), a musician just out of high school, Jules (Best Actor in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film award winner Matthew Leone), the hustler she falls for, and Brandon (Riggs) a recently released ex-con. Andrew Bundy of The Playlist finds it "slow and stagnant despite the ongoing swirl and fleeting natural style," ending with an "unbelievably unsatisfying pay-off." While Tim Grierson of Screen Daily agrees the "plotting grows increasingly convoluted near the finale," he thinks the film "works best as an immersive experience, inviting us to inhabit these characters' lives for a little while. And THR's Jon Frosch believes there's a "taut, tensely intimate little drama here, waiting to be chiseled out from the extraneous plotting and thesis-positing."

Italian Studies
Drama | USA | Directed by Adam Leon

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Writer-director Adam Leon's third feature, following the critically acclaimed Gimme the Loot and Tramps, divided critics. The story of an amnesiac writer (Vanessa Kirby) wandering the streets of Manhattan is a "shapeless hodgepodge of pretentious affectation," according to David Rooney of THR. Equally negative, Screen Rant's Mae Abdulbaki complains, "Italian Studies never leads to much of anything and remains an empty shell." But Film Threat's Alex Saveliev is more equivocal, writing, "While it may raise more questions than answers and not quite cohere as a whole, the film nevertheless is poetic and at times breathtakingly beautiful, anchored by a superb cast." He is joined by Nick Allen of The Playlist, who believes the film is a "striking mix of open-hearted storytelling and atmospheric filmmaking, with an overall confidence from Leon and Kirby that's more pronounced than the script's slippery nature."

Mark, Mary & Some Other People
Comedy | USA | Directed by Hannah Marks

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Writer-director-actress Hannah Marks (Banana Split, After Everything) collected a screenplay award for this story about a married couple (Ben Rosenfield and Hayley Law) who explore an open relationship. Directing a feature solo for the first time, Marks "brings her unique and subtle twists to the subject of open relationships," according to Film Threat's Alan Ng. Michael Franks of The Film Stage finds the film to be "sweet, genuine, and singular, like much of Marks' storytelling." While IndieWire's Kate Erbland agrees that "Marks' ability to find humor and honesty in even the small moments" is "rare," she also cautions that the filmmaker's "handle on the polyamorous aspects of her story are tenuous at best."

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