Tribeca Film Festival 2021 was the weirdest movie fest ever

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The most surreal moment I’ve ever experienced at a film festival came Wednesday night in Battery Park. I was at the outdoor world premiere of the documentary “Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James,” part of the Tribeca Film Festival, when the movie stopped with 40 minutes still to go.

“We will now pause for 15 minutes to watch the fireworks,” an announcer said. Huh? Cannes has never shot off pyrotechnics during a Lars von Trier debut. (Perhaps they should.)

The surprise display was Gov. Cuomo’s hastily announced celebration of many COVID restrictions being lifted in the state. Mayor de Blasio barely knew about it, which, granted, is not uncommon for him. 

Usually at such an event, all I’d have to watch is the new film and a few obnoxious speeches about the importance of art. But, from start to finish, this was no normal Tribeca.

The 20th anniversary edition was the first major in-person film festival in the United States since Sundance in January 2020 — although there was an optional at-home element — and it was a successful experiment in how to get these shindigs off the ground again. 

Not to mention a hilarious one.

Just because the screenings took place outdoors does not mean the films were PG-ified to appease New York kids for whom the word “bedtime” is as foreign as “tractor.” 

During a taut, if underdeveloped thriller called “Catch the Fair One” at Hudson Yards, there was nudity, a character was waterboarded to death, F-bombs were thrown around like confetti and bad guys were shot point blank in the head. All the while, energetic kiddos were rolling around on scooters and posing for selfies by the Vessel.  

One boy — he was maybe 10 years old — ducked under the velvet rope and pulled up a chair to take in some R-rated cinema up close. Nothing he wouldn’t see a few blocks away at Penn Station, I suppose.

Also funny was the lax mask enforcement. Announcements regularly came on-screen during the pre-shows telling audiences that face coverings were mandatory at all times, even outside. Exactly nobody followed that rule. 

The films themselves were decent. Tribeca is different from Toronto, Venice and Sundance in that its movies typically are not awards-season fodder, so you get to experience unconventional new talent and voices. 

Well, except for New York’s most famous voice in 20 years, Lin-Manuel Miranda. The film adaptation of his musical “In the Heights,” about Washington Heights residents hustling during a sweltering summer, appropriately premiered here during a heatwave. The triumph was Tribeca’s best get in years.

Vanessa Kirby, fresh off her Oscar-nominated turn in "Pieces of a Woman" is back in "Italian Studies."
Vanessa Kirby, fresh off her Oscar-nominated turn in “Pieces of a Woman” is back in “Italian Studies.”
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Of the competitive entries, I enjoyed “India Sweets and Spices,” a buoyant New Jersey-set rom-com about a rich Indian daughter who falls in love with the son of a grocery store owner. A let-down, though, was “Italian Studies,” starring a characteristically luminous Vanessa Kirby as a writer in Manhattan who’s forgotten every detail of her life. Like her character’s memories, the snoozy movie has left my mind.

The documentary slate was juicy: “Rick James” delved into the singer’s dayslong coke binges, “The Lost Leonardo” gave new insight into a $450 million da Vinci painting and Rita Moreno opened up about her tumultuous relationship with Marlon Brando in “Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It”. For fans of New York history, footage of 25-year-old fledgling composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in 1950s Manhattan in “Bernstein’s Wall” was a marvel.

And how refreshing it was to see celebrities wearing real clothes onstage at an event instead of lounging in athleisure in their multimillion-dollar homes on Zoom. Pals Emily Ratajkowski and Amy Schumer were candid during a chat in which Ratajkowski criticized the film “This is 40,” then asked who made it.

“It’s Judd Apatow,” Schumer said of her friend and collaborator. “I don’t care, I’m ready to burn that bridge to the ground tonight.”

The strangest Tribeca ever will end Saturday night in a big way: with the world premiere of Dave Chappelle’s new documentary at Radio City Music Hall at 100-percent capacity.

That gives me hope that next year, we’re gonna party like it’s 2019.

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