1. Time Is Illmatic
Time Is Illmatic, a documentary about Nas's seminal album "Illmatic" kicked off the festival with with raw insight into the making of not only the record, but also the poet, the brother, the son, the man -- Nas himself. First-time filmmakers One 9 and Erik Parker directed and wrote/produced the doc, respectively, and did a great job at giving the audience entrée into the environment that shaped Nas, Queensbridge Projects. Like a dysfunctional family, Queensbridge was depicted as a place simultaneously filled with violence and chaos but also love and support, a place that allowed Nas to explore his musical talent and ultimately launch his career. We also met Nas' Hennessy-swigging brother, Jungle, a man with a "thuggish" exterior and a heart of platinum. A highlight of the film, each time Jungle came on the screen I automatically leaned forward because I knew I was going to either laugh or cry. Other bright spots included extensive concert footage from the '90s -- including an epic clip of a baby face Nas performing "Live At The Barbeque" -- which were a nice complement to the rapper's current-day concerts performed in sold-out arenas. The film ends on a "you never thought that hip-hop would get this far" note as we see Nas with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discussing the "The Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship," an endowment at Harvard. In 1994, Nas asked, "Whose World Is This?"and twenty years later, it's clear the rapper made it his very own.
2. When The Garden Was Eden
I haven't followed basketball since I aged out of being able to have sex with the players but...I thoroughly enjoyed this b-ball film. When The Garden Was Eden focuses on the Knicks' glory days of winning two NBA championships in 1970 and 1973. Although I was a baby during that era, I grew up with memories of the Knicks' "Dream Team": the peacock Walt Frazier, the pragmatic WASP Bill Bradley, current Knicks team president Phil Jackson, the no-nonsense Willis Reed and the scout-turned-history-making coach, Red Holzman. Even if you don't like basketball, you're drawn into the story of how this underdog, racially and socio-economically diverse team managed to win two championships against better teams, all with the backdrop of Vietnam, civil rights protests and an overall anti-establishment movement surrounding them. At the end of the film you'll be cheering for this ragtag crew and wishing you could witness a Cinderella story like this again. C'mon Phil Jackson, let's hang a 21st century banner from the Garden's rafters!
Watching Chef I didn't know what I craved more, sex with Jon Favreau or a Cuban sandwich. I devoured this sweet story about a hotshot chef who's lost his groove, his wife (played by Sofía Vergara), and ultimately his heart and how he embarks on a road trip to gain them all back. With his son (a precocious Emjay Anthony) and his funny sidekick/line cook John Leguizamo, he takes over a rundown food truck, given to him by his wife's ex-husband (played by Robert Downey, Jr. in a hilarious cameo). Favreau & Co. drive cross-country making artisanal comfort food and building a social media following, which fuels his business and ultimately allows him to bond with his son. The film also has a kick-ass hip-hop soundtrack and tasty tidbit roles by the busty & breathy Scarlett Johansson as a hostess/side piece, Dustin Hoffman as an overbearing restaurateur only interested in making money and not great food and Bobby Cannavale, smoldering as Favreau's sous chef.
According to Webster's a "mensch" is a person of integrity and honor and according to first-time director, Mike Myers, Shep Gordon is a SUPER MENSCH. This doc is a love song to entertainment manager Shep Gordon, the man responsible for Alice Cooper's career, getting Teddy Pendergrass off the "chitterling circuit" and the creation of the "Celebrity Chef" genre. The film features a parade of stars (Michael Douglas, Alice Cooper, Sly Stallone, Fab 5 Freddy and Mike Myers) trading stories, some outrageous, others sweet, about their friend Shep. In his later years, he realized that he spent too much time creating a life for his clients and not enough creating one for himself, and so by the time the doc ends, we learn that Gordon adopted four black kids (the grandkids of an ex-), retired, and now pals around with the Dalai Lama seeking enlightenment in preparing food. Oh, and he has an open door policy at his dream house in Maui. Hey Shep, do you think I could stay over for a week? I promise to help out with the cooking!
5. The Search For General Tso
From the chic, perennial hot spot Mr. Chows to the corner takeout Chinese restaurant with plexiglass, versions of General Tso's chicken are ubiquitous in America. The filmmakers could have done a straightforward piece on the history of the dish, but instead they smartly decided to tell the story of Chinese Americans through the prism of food. They start out taking us to China's Hunan Province to find out whom General Tso actually was but the story really gets cooking when they explore the Chinese immigration story to America, which starts during the California Gold Rush. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act is signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, prohibiting further Chinese immigration and forcing Chinese Americans out of the labor force and unwittingly creating generations of entrepreneurs mainly in the food and laundry forces. The newcomers were resourceful and through a network of already-established Chinese Americans, the recently-arrived immigrants were able to map out what areas in the country were safe to establish businesses and what areas to avoid. They also learned to adapt their traditional Chinese cuisine and tailor it to the more homogeneous (a.k.a. bland) taste buds of the average American. It seems that necessity is not only the mother of invention but of General Tso's chicken as well.
6. Dior & I
There have been a plethora of fashion documentaries and though the best ones usually star incredible characters (Isaac Mizrahi in Unzipped or Valentino in The Last Emperor), sometimes the clothes and the CRAFT speak for themselves and they speak volumes. That is the case with Dior & I. The film focuses on the first haute couture collection by Raf Simons, a designer best known for his minimalist designs as the lead on Jil Sanders. Raf doesn't speak French, has never designed couture, and has only eight weeks to create an entire haute couture collection. Needless to say, many in the fashion industry doubt he can pull it off.
Once Raf hits the Dior atelier with artisans who have been working on haute couture for decades, it begins to feel like a Master Class version of Project Runway. When Raf has a bit of a meltdown when his premier atelier has to attend to a couture client's fashion emergency in New York and misses a crucial run through, I automatically wished he had a Tim Gunn there to assuage his fears. However, Raf proves to be a quick study and without sketching a thing, he manages to pay homage to the legendary Christian Dior's "New Look" while making it modern by creating a pattern out of contemporary artist Sterling Ruby's paintings. Raf may be new to haute couture but he quickly realizes he has a fantasy budget and proceeds to create a set made entirely out of fresh flowers (he supposedly caused a European flower shortage). It's well worth it when you see his chic designs entering a gorgeous floral maze with every fashion bold face name sitting front and center, including fellow designers, Alber Elbaz, Marc Jacobs and the late L'Wren Scott.
By film's end, you realize that Raf Simons is the perfect artistic designer for the legendary fashion house for he has much in common with Monsieur Dior himself. They were both shy but committed to creating beautiful yet wearable clothes that celebrated women. Calling all burgeoning fashion designers, run don't walk to see Dior & I!