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Nine Tribeca Film Festival titles you’ll soon be hearing about

Zoe Kazan and Jake Johnson star in "The Pretty One," a Tribeca Film festival offering that could win new fans farther on down the line.
(Tribeca Film Festival)

NEW YORK--The Tribeca Film Festival that ended Sunday occupies an odd niche in the movie-confab calendar, which among its oddities includes a large number of posts about the odd niche it occupies in the movie-confab calendar.

But amid all the hand-wringing about what the festival is (or was, or should be) is the fact that, these days, there are some pretty solid titles making their premieres here. In some cases these are world premieres. In others, they are North American premieres -- which, given how many Americans don’t make it to the Berlin Film Festival, where many of these movies first appeared a couple months ago, is basically a distinction without a difference.

Perhaps because Berlin puts only slight emphasis on documentaries, or perhaps because there are more documentaries than ever, nonfiction films have tended to be Tribeca standouts in recent years. But there is worthiness amid the scripted too -- as indie features get a little easier to finance via Kickstarter, as a group of fine actors from cable make forays into cinema, and as a generation that grew up with a camera in its pocket and a storytelling-in-miniature social-media site on its laptop begins to come into its own.

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PHOTOS & VIDEO: Movie Sneaks 2013

Here, then, are nine movies selected from the more than 85 that debuted here over the past 12 days that you’ll likely be hearing about in the year ahead, or should be seeking out if you don’t. Some have TV or theatrical distribution in place; others are still looking for ways to get the word out. In many cases, they’ll sneak up on you. But like all festival discoveries, that’s sometimes the best way to see them.

“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.” Tribeca this year was filled with documentaries about the famous -- Richard Pryor, Michael Haneke, Muhammad Ali. But none captured audiences’ and critics’ attention like Chiemi Karasawa’s look at the cabaret legend Elaine Stritch. “Shoot Me” is a detailed portrayal of a fiery octogenarian who’s seen and done it all (JFK, anyone?) as she prepares to leave New York for semi-retirement in Michigan. It’s also a look at aging and what happens when that occurs to very successful people living in the semi-spotlight. Younger audiences know Stritch largely from her “30 Rock” appearances in recent years. If this film is handled well, they could know her for a lot more.

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“McConkey.” A friend raised her eyebrows when told of the title to this extreme-sports documentary. But don’t be fooled by the name. This story of an extreme BASE skier named Shane McConkey is serious, eye-opening stuff, the kind that allows you to forgive the Red Bull-commercial overtones. (And given that the film comes from Red Bull’s media arm, there are a few.) Media reports recently have focused -- rightly -- on the ethical concerns raised by the culture of extreme sports. But those watching this movie have come away simply being moved by the guts and the athleticism, not to mention McConkey’s wrenching personal story.

“Bluebird”/”Stand Clear of the Closing Doors.” Sundance has long prided itself on quiet dramas. And it still does that rather well. But there are a growing number of other places to look for these types of narratives. Tribeca is one of them, and few films better represent the form than this pair. Lance Edmands’ “Bluebird” stars some good actors (theater veteran Amy Morton and “Mad Men” star John Slattery) doing some subtle work in a Maine-set tale about a school-bus accident in which several are complicit. Sam Fleischner’s ultra low-budget “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” looks at a mother and son on and below the streets of New York in the days before Superstorm Sandy. Both films offer human stories set in particular places, and the ways tragedy can play havoc on that humanity.

“The Rocket.” If any Tribeca film this year merited the term breakout, it’s this one. Kim Mordaunt’s Asia-set story won both the top jury and the top audience prize this past weekend, a rarity at any festival. The Australian production tells of a boy in tribal Laos who is believed to have brought bad luck to his family and is now looking for redemption as he leads a ragtag group through the mountains to find a home. It may be the first-ever road-trip movie set in a place without roads. If its can-do story -- the boy must ultimately build a rocket in a local competition to save his family -- and its staples like the American-pop-culture-obsessed foreigner (let’s just say James Brown figures in) have been seen in global cinema before, the movie’s quiet charms and lush visuals will no doubt help it build an audience. Don’t be surprised if this one’s in the foreign-language Oscar conversation next year.

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“Big Shot.” Hardcore hockey fans remember well the tale of John Spano, who in 1996 bought the New York Islanders without possessing any of the means to do so. What’s amazing isn’t that he tried -- it’s that he succeeded, effectively functioning as the owner for eight months before anyone stopped him. As the actor Kevin Connolly explores in this ESPN-produced documentary (the movie will air on the network in October) Spano is an enigmatic and fascinating figure, and his story is as much about the distortive power of the American dream (Spano wants to own a hockey team, so why shouldn’t he) as it is about hockey. In a related footnote, the Islanders are in the playoffs this year. So there’s a happy ending. Sort of.

“The Pretty One.” Zoe Kazan may have had one of the more underrated indie romances in the last year with “Ruby Sparks” -- a movie about a young woman created out of thin air by a novelist -- that she wrote and starred in. She’s back on screen again in Jenee LaMarque’s equally high-concept tale of a young woman who loses her more glamorous twin sister in a car accident -- while the world thinks it’s her character who died. (It makes sense when you’re watching it.) Jake Johnson, speaking of TV stars, plays opposite Kazan, who gets to do double-duty, “Big Business”-style, as multiple characters, while channeling that offbeat “Ruby Sparks” spirit within.

“The Kill Team.” America is still coming to terms with the two wars it fought this century. That reckoning will be made more cathartic -- and more difficult -- by what Dan Krauss shows in “The Kill Team,” a documentary that pulls no punches in examining war crimes committed by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and a man who finds his interest in doing the right thing thwarted. Not easy to watch, but strong war docs never are. The jury found it worthwhile too, giving the movie its top documentary prize.

“Tricked.” Admit it, you’ve missed Paul Verhoeven: The wacky plots, the perverse obsessions, the gratuitous shots of the female anatomy. Well, miss him no more. In this featurette that was crafted -- sort of -- from crowdsourced ideas, Verhoeven looks at affairs, conspiracies and other serious-in-real-life-but-fun-on-the-screen plot turns. U.S. release plans are still up in the air, but as Dutch consumers recently learned, it’s episodic Web entertainment at its best, a kind of “House of Cards” for the international cinema set.

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ALSO:

Tribeca 2013: ‘The Rocket,’ ‘Kill Team,’ among festival’s top winners

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Tribeca 2013: In ‘Tricked,’ Paul Verhoeven turns fans into writers

Tribeca 2013: ‘Mad Men’s’ John Slattery takes an indie-film turn

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Tribeca 2013: In ‘McConkey,’ a different path down the ski slopes

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