Pelin Esmer / International Documentary
Turkish director Pelin Esmer’s portrait of a group of women in a remote Anatolian village who perform a play based on their life experiences is boisterously insightful, hilarious and socially relevant in equal measure, and the perfect antidote to today’s crop of dryly crusading, good-for-you documentaries. Esmer follows nine very different peasant women, part of a small local theater troupe formed with the help of the local school principal, as they rehearse a bitterly comic piece depicting the grueling nature of their lives. The women not only play each other, they also perform the parts of all the men, including their husbands. The catch? Those very same men are also part of the village audience that will be viewing this play. Approaching her subjects without any hint of condescension, Esmer is smart enough to let her fly-on-the-wall camera do the heavy lifting, showing us the profoundly brave nature of these women, who work on their play even as they go about their backbreaking daily chores. Not to be missed.—B.E.
Saint of 9/11
Glenn Holsten / NY, NY Documentary Feature
Documentarian Errol Morris often frets about the levelling plotline of hagiographies that praise incontrovertibly good people, and this portrait of Fire Department chaplain Mychal Judge represents the best and worst of the genre. On one hand, you couldn’t ask for a better subject. Judge, according to every report, was an extraordinarily charming, eloquent, and generous man up until the day he died, while administering last rites to firefighters who died on September 11. His good works with local organizations, including the Fire Department and various AIDS relief programs are astonishing. And Judge himself was a fascinating character, a gay man and activist, a recovering alcoholic, a paragon of flawed virtue. So it’s odd that this documentary doesn’t quite bring his vibrant life into focus, and it’s probably not the filmmakers’ fault so much as a tragic shortage of intimate footage of Judge. Much of this film relies on talking heads, who inevitably repeat one another’s unalloyed praise. Certainly, this documentary honors Judge’s memory, but one wishes for something greater.—L.H.
Shoot the Messenger
Ngozi Onwurah / International Narrative
If Tribeca had an award for Most Stunning Mid-Movie Turnaround, Shoot the Messenger would have it locked up. Joe Pascale (David Oyelowo), a successful black man with a high-paying software job, hears that Britain’s schools need more black male teachers, and is inspired to leave his prosperous career to start teaching at an urban high school. He quickly transforms into a true hard-ass, giving out detention slips like they're going out of fashion and becoming generally reviled among the tough kids at his school. The tonally unsettling narrative veers and weaves all over the place. All along, Joe offers snide asides to the camera, suggesting that some of the film’s more laughably florid moments are meant to be exactly that—bitter punctuations in a darkly comic narrative. Then, one of his adolescent nemeses falsely accuses him of being violent, the black community turns against him, and a court case ensues. Found guilty and disgraced, our hero begins to lose it, doing a stint in an asylum and even spending some time on the streets before his eventual, and unlikely, redemption. And that’s just the first half hour! Like some unholy cross between To Sir With Love and A Clockwork Orange, Ngozi Onwurah’s film at first doesn’t seem able to decide if it wants to be a satire or a painfully earnest social drama; it doesn’t help that the story is also often painfully contrived. But it turns out by the final act that the film’s uneven tone is actually intentional, and Shoot the Messenger attains a strange confidence sorely lacking from its first half. And it begins to sell us on its kooky, off-putting conceit. It’s still not exactly a success—the broad-strokes script and the heavy-handed acting feel less like parts of a grand artistic design and more like those of a confusing misfire—but what began as an obvious social-problem film turns out to have a much subtler and unexpected target in its sights.—B.E.
Kristi Jacobson / NY, NY Documentary Feature
In this affectionate slice of Americana, documentary filmmaker Kristi Jacobson films a biography of her grandfather, the famous barkeep Toots Shor, who kept post-WWII New York properly inebriated. Aimed at anyone who loves a snootful of New York nostalgia, this film paints a beer-stained portrait of a bygone day when men were, well, often sloshed. Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Pete Hamill, the gangster Frank Costello, and plenty of other grand old guys drop by for a drink—but it’s the heavyweight drinker Jackie Gleason who steals the show, as friends recall old pranks he and Shor pulled on one another. There’s not much context or analysis here in this straightforward and nostalgic doc, nor does Jacobson make an ambitious case for Shor’s relevance in American culture, but it sure is a fun, loving ride.—L.H.