Heralding the Unheralded: 3 Films Worth Seeing at Tribeca

Heralding the Unheralded: 3 Films Worth Seeing at Tribeca
Film still of Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd in "Almost Christmas"
(© Tribeca Film Festival)

Ransack the Tribeca Film Festival and ye shall find, in this case, three relatively unheralded items that are well worth seeing.

Phil Morrison got a friendly reception back in 2005 for “Junebug,” an offbeat character-driven indie set the writer-director’s native North Carolina; eight years later, he’s back with another offbeat character-driven indie, with a regional tang. Unpromisingly called “Almost Christmas,” the movie is not exactly Capracorn — at once less essentially bleak and a lot less sentimental than “It’s a Wonderful Life” — but it is nonetheless a seasonal fable.

Basically a Great Recession comedy shuttling between snowy Quebec and seedy Greenpoint, “Almost Christmas” concerns a smalltime thief (Paul Giamatti) who’s released from prison to find himself unwelcome at home and then, in an attempt to go straight, selling Christmas trees with his old partner (Paul Rudd) on a derelict stretch of Nassau Avenue. Anti-buddy antics and atmosphere of droll ineptitude give the movie the feel of a Mario Monicelli farce. The mise-en-scene is further enlivened by the grotesque, partially inflated Christmas elf that the feuding partners use to mark their enterprise and the presence of human elf Sally Hawkins as a voluble, heavily accented Russian immigrant employed by a vacationing dentist. Hawkins (and her wardrobe) can be hilarious and Rudd, as usual, is a consummate straight man; still the movie belongs to Giamatti’s depressed, volatile protagonist, permanently put-upon and entertainingly light-fingered. You might think you can see where “Almost Christmas” is heading but it never quite loses its acerbic edge or goes emotionally blooey. Indeed, thanks to Giamatti the inevitable ending is actually less saccharine than Chaplinesque. (It’s screening once more Wednesday night.)

More outer borough regionalism, Sam Fleischner’s “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” (showing in competition) updates the New Yawk New Wave favorite “Little Fugitive” to the days of Superstorm Sandy. Ricky, an autistic teenager from an immigrant family scraping by in Far Rockaway, takes off to ride the subway for several days even as the hurricane bears down on the defenseless city. Meanwhile, his distraught, overburdened mother is the personification of parallel action, hopelessly searching for him.

Basically a long ride through a subway system filled with cryptic messages, “Stand Clear” has intimations of allegory — or, alternately, one of the videogames that Ricky likes to play. (Fleischner juggles the chronology a bit to incorporate Halloween night and fill the A train with costumed monsters.) The sub working-class, Latino milieu shades more exotic than authentic, but the cast is terrific, the movie is extremely well-shot up close and personal and, however filled with emotional hooks, Fleischner’s formalist approach is admirably uningratiating.

Packing a tremendous wallop, Jason Osder’s documentary “Let the Fire Burn” recounts the tale of the Philadelphia political sect called MOVE — or at least its destruction. Founded in 1972, the Black nationalist, back to nature, provocatively obnoxious MOVE commune engaged in a 12-year-long war of nerves with Philadelphia authorities that culminated in an astounding attack on their fortified house. Performing on live TV, the police fired 10,000 rounds of ammo and were ultimately so desperate they dropped a bomb on MOVE’s roof, effectively incinerating an entire neighborhood to finally destroy the organization.

The movie, named for an order issued by Mayor Wilson Goode, has a few explanatory inter-titles but no voiceover. It’s completely drawn from documents, notably the public inquiry held in the aftermath of the attack, and the media coverage that the events received. The violent clash between constitutional freedoms and social society, not to mention the racial conflict, make for a very American story. In fact, intentionally or not, the movie’s first screening was scheduled for the 20th anniversary of the day the Waco siege ended with a government assault on another unpopular and troublesome sect.

“Let the Fire Burn” is part of the documentary competition; it screens again Wednesday afternoon and Thursday night.

Read more J. Hoberman at Movie Journal.