Elizabeth Kitchens; Erik Tanner/Contour/Getty Images; Matt Mitchell
Joey Nolfi
May 01, 2018 at 02:39 PM EDT

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The Tribeca Film Festival has long sought to carve a unique lane for itself in the shadow of larger festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Venice, and Telluride. This year, however, the annual New York City event — launched by cofounders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal in 2002 as a means to revitalize lower Manhattan’s cultural identity in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks — found its stride during 11 days in April, broaching a wealth of serious subjects and boasting plenty of unexpected moments.

Read on for EW’s key takeaways from the festival.

Marvel stars up the ante in female-driven year

In her best work to date, Creed and Thor: Ragnarok star Tessa Thompson gives a masterfully nuanced performance in Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods as a former drug pusher struggling to make ends meet against the backdrop of a fracking-ravaged town in North Dakota. And in one of the most assured feature-length directorial debuts in recent memory, Karen Gillan solidified herself as a filmmaker to watch with The Party’s Just Beginning. Describing this haunting tale of suicide, the Guardians of the Galaxy actress tells EW the film is her “twisted love letter” her Scottish Highland homeland.

Both films represent Tribeca’s ongoing initiatives to bring more women into the fold, as the festival increased the overall tally of female directors showing projects at the event to 46 percent.

Erik Tanner/Getty Images

Laia Costa becomes the breakout star of the festival 

Spanish actress Laia Costa made her mark on festival-goers in two fantastic films: the lesbian sex dramedy Duck Butter — shot with costar (and first-time screenwriter) Alia Shawkat over a period of 24 hours — and Maine, a gorgeously composed character study about a pair of hikers (Costa, Thomas Mann) traversing the Appalachian Trail. Costa’s quick wit, improvisational prowess, and charming intensity are on display in both works.

Trayvon Martin’s parents criticize ‘gun culture’ at rousing Rest in Power world premiere

The powerful JAY-Z-produced docuseries earned a standing ovation at its debut screening, where the late teen’s parents opened up about letting cameras chronicle their fight for justice after their son’s death. “The gun culture needs to change,” said Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother. “The hatred that goes on in this country needs to change. We want to make sure that we’re a part of that change [with this show].”

The Rachel Divide transcends controversy 

One of the best films of the year comes in the most unexpected package. Laura Brownson uses Rachel Dolezal, who identifies as “trans-racial,” as a springboard from which to mount a deeply moving dive into social issues of white privilege, colorism, identity, and media sensationalism. “The story is bigger than Rachel,” Brownson tells EW. “We [wanted to] make a film that wouldn’t be misconstrued as an apology piece or propaganda. I do not have an agenda with this film. It is wholly up to the audience how they react.”

Christina Aguilera returns to movies as an android prostitute in Zoe

Though she’s only in Drake Doremus’ sci-fi romance for around five minutes, Xtina made a haunting, pitch-perfect big screen comeback as a deteriorating robot hooker named Jewels in her first live-action film role since 2010’s Burlesque. Look for the film on Amazon Prime later this year.

Courtesy of IM Global

Q&A disasters provide accidental entertainment

Note to future festival attendees: Don’t plug your screenplay during the audience Q&A. A Westworld fan learned that the hard way after the cast and crew panel for the HBO series was cut short when he asked Jonathan Nolan to read his script. Scarface reunion moderator Jesse Kornbluth also landed in hot water (and drew resounding boos from the crowd) for asking Michelle Pfeiffer about her weight during production at the film’s 35th-anniversary celebration.

While the festival’s 25th-anniversary screening of Schindler’s List registered as one of the most emotional gatherings of Tribeca’s 2018 edition, moderator Janet Maslin apparently wasn’t paying much attention to the Q&A’s time clock. In the middle of reaching for questions to ask director Steven Spielberg (who assembled for the evening at a panel alongside Liam Neeson, Sir Ben Kingsley, Embeth Davidtz, and Caroline Goodall), a disembodied voice sounded over the Beacon Theatre’s audio system to cut her off and announce the event had ended. Talk about awkward.

Time’s Up clocks the patriarchy

Tribeca’s robust, day-long Time’s Up event at the tail end of the festival united women across multiple industries (from entertainment and the military to restaurants and farms) to speak about global issues of sexual assault. Among the speakers at the seven-hour assembly were feminist poet Robin Morgan, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, Parkland student Sofie Whitney, Julianne Moore, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Marisa Tomei, Sienna Miller, Mariska Hargitay, Sasheer Zamata, and United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Several Harvey Weinstein accusers — namely Lupita Nyong’o, Ashley Judd, and Mira Sorvino — also spoke.

“Healing is our birthright,” Judd, reading a self-penned letter to other assault survivors, declared. “It was not our birthright to be sexually harassed or assaulted or raped based on social constructs of gender, biology, sex, identity, orientation, ethnicity, race, ability, or any intersection thereof. It is our birthright to know in our bones that it wasn’t our fault. We humans hurt each other and sometimes we hurt ourselves, but we can make decisions and take actions that free us.”

“I’ve always kept these stories buried down deep. I did not deal with them, I did not get trauma help, I did not get counseling, and all of a sudden… when Ronan [Farrow] asked me to talk to him about the Harvey Weinstein situation, I decided against all kinds of fear and terror to come out and speak,” Sorvino later added. “All of a sudden, it became that I mattered: My own story, my own violation, my own violence — it mattered enough that I needed to get up, [and] if I could take a step to stand up for myself, maybe it will actually help other people to take that step.”

Monica Schipper/Getty Images

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