Tribeca 2021 highlights: Best films from this year’s virtual festival, from Ascension to The Novice

·5 min read

Founded in the wake of 9/11, Tribeca Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary as the cinephiles of New York emerged from the shadow of a pandemic. It was the first major film festival to hold in-person screenings and live events since Sundance last year.

Fortunately, for those who couldn't possibly make it in-person, the festival also offered at-home online screenings. Unfortunately though, not all films €" like the Warner Bros titles In the Heights and No Sudden Move €" decided to participate in the virtual leg.

Indeed, one doesn't really attend Tribeca or Sundance for the big studio fodder, but to identify the new voices and talent in independent filmmaking. Tribeca again championed a fresh batch of storytellers, giving them a conduit to have their films seen by the widest possible demographic. The festival truly stretched its format by adding video games to the official selections for the first time this year, going beyond the norm of traditional film festivals. To embrace this evolution, it dropped the "film" from Tribeca Film Festival.

We only had access to the films, which ranged from the mostly watchable to the mostly forgettable with the odd gem thrown in. Now that the festival is concluded and with it the feeding frenzy, we weeded through the mixed bag to bring you the films to watch out for.

Ascension (dir. Jessica Kingdon)

Ascension - Tribeca 2021
Ascension - Tribeca 2021

Ascension - Tribeca 2021

The meaning of the word "Orwellian" may be overused and overstretched nowadays, but it's really the most fitting descriptor for Jessica Kingdon's tragicomic portrait of contemporary China as the world's factory. How else would you describe these everyday scenes from the film? The compliant working-class sort out used plastic bottles and assemble busty sex dolls like impassive humanoids themselves. The go-getters attend seminars on how to become influencers and butlers to better serve China's rising upper class. Each one of them have been conditioned to believe they are a vital cog in the China machine. Kingdon offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective of this structured and standardised ecosystem through the lens of consumerism. The tone echoes that of a sci-fi comedy, as its vignettes unfold with a strikingly absurd sense of humour.

as of yet (dir. Chanel James, Taylor Garron)

as of yet - Tribeca 2021
as of yet - Tribeca 2021

as of yet - Tribeca 2021

Writer/co-director/star Taylor Garron's confessional comedy tries to process what the isolation has done to our social lives. Single, alone and jobless, Garron's 20-something Brooklynite Naomi funds her lockdown life with unemployment checks. To counteract the enormous disruption, she establishes a daily routine of sorts: FaceTiming with family and holding virtual happy hour with friends. She's also been chatting with a guy named Reed (Amir Khan), and considers breaking quarantine to meet him. Only, her white roommate Sara, who's gone home to Florida, isn't too happy about it, even though she herself has been guilty of doing it. Worse, Sara is tone-deaf. In what has to be "the white girl summer moment," she bemoans the Black Lives Matters protests turning violent, asking: "Do you have to destroy Target to make a point?" Naomi is forced to reassess her friendship with someone who not only invalidates her struggles, but must be constantly educated on the plight of being a Black woman in America. A confident debut from an emerging talent, as of yet is a refreshing take on lockdown life and singlehood.

All My Friends Hate Me (dir. Andrew Gaynord)

All My Friends Hate Me - Tribeca 2021
All My Friends Hate Me - Tribeca 2021

All My Friends Hate Me - Tribeca 2021

College reunion doesn't go according to plan for Pete (Tom Stourton), an insecure man who hopes conversations and camaraderie will get picked up from where they were left off. When old flames and friends don't treat him the way he expects them to and a mysterious outsider overshadows him as the life of the party, Pete falls prey to paranoia in Andrew Gaynord's anxiety-inducing film. Ostensibly a comedy, Gaynord packs in more than laughs, using psychological thriller grammar to maintain a tense rhythm throughout. Passive-aggressive mixed messages turn Pete into a ticking bomb of a panic attack, replicating the same feeling in the viewers watching too. The whole thing is held together tightly with that distinctly British razor-sharp wit.

The Novice (dir. Lauren Hadaway)

The Novice - Tribeca 2021
The Novice - Tribeca 2021

The Novice - Tribeca 2021

Isabelle Fuhrman stuns as Alex Dall, a young woman trying to rise up the ranks in her college rowing team. With Alex's mad obsession for perfection coming at great personal cost, comparisons to Whiplash will be inevitable. But Lauren Hadaway offers an equally punishing drama that also doubles as a psychodrama. For obsession here becomes atmospheric. Alex is defined and driven by compulsive pursuits, majoring in physics only because it's one of her weaker subjects. She wants to be the best in a sport she doesn't have a natural talent or strength for. Her quest thus demands extreme physical and mental toil, requiring her to practice until she is sweaty and bloody. As she finds herself pitted against another rowing novice, her obsession begins to enter the psychosis phase. And Fuhrman sinks her teeth into the role chillingly, turning The Novice into a riveting allegory for unchecked ambition.

The Lost Leonardo (dir. Andreas Koefoed)

Thought to be the last known Leonardo da Vinci painting, "Salvator Mundi" comes with the sort of sordid history of changing hands that makes for a gripping film. Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed offers us a functional, if not revelatory, documentary on the inner workings of the art world, now a money-grubbing industry made up of dealers, auction houses, Russian oligarchs and Saudi Crown Princes. Testimonies from sceptics, believers, journalists, patrons and collectors chronicle how the painting of Jesus bought for $1,175 at a New Orleans auction house went on to be sold for a record $450 million to a mysterious buyer (later revealed to be Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman). The fact that the painting is collecting dust in some luxury yacht or some Geneva tax-free storage facility instead of a museum for everyone to see tells you everything you need to know about the modern art industry.

Other highlights: Catch the Fair One, Last Film Show, Poser, Queen of Glory, The Justice of Bunny King

Also See: Tribeca Film Festival 2021: How Anthony Bourdain docu director reconciled someone who was both 'insightful and blind'

Tribeca Film Festival 2021 opens with Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights and gives New York a much-needed revitalisation, post-pandemic

Tribeca Film Festival 2021: Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show is an ode to how we interact with cinema as kids

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