Few events raise questions as to what films festivals are, really, what they're for, who they're for and what they could and should be in the future quite like Tribeca. This year's edition, opening tonight with Shrek Forever After and running through May 2, has got the Voice's J Hoberman backing way up before he pinpoints his hopes for Tribeca, now in its ninth year: "Cannes is in a class by itself"; Venice and Berlin "survive largely on Cannes' oversights and missed opportunities; the only other festival remotely capable of generating comparable hysteria is Sundance (still our Cannes despite being out-hipstered by Austin's SXSW)." And then there's "the locafest gone galactic in Toronto." It's "the ultimate people's festival.... Having recently completed a term on the NYFF selection committee, I know that the Film Society lives in fear of Tribeca's star power and populist appeal." Even so:
"Rather than Toronto (or a pay-per-view Sundance Channel), Tribeca might better study Rotterdam — a scrappy, cinephilic urban festival that has thrived for years in the shadow of Berlin, thanks to its freewheeling commitment to (and subsidies of) independent, experimental, and Third World cinema, not to mention a long-standing interest in innovative delivery systems, outré film culture, and a funky late-night celebratory atmosphere.... One can envision a Tribeca à la Rotterdam that brings together events and screenings at Film Forum, Anthology Film Archives, the IFC Center, the Angelika, the Sunshine, and Martin Scorsese's boyhood block in one yawping cine-celebration of spring. TFF has the power to make Houston Street our La Croisette, complete with palm trees. I'd anticipate seeing that. But I'm not holding my breath."
Well, according to indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez, it's full speed ahead with the new distribution initiatives. Eugene attended yesterday's press conference, the overriding message of which is probably summed up in Geoff Gilmore's soundbite: "We're really in the process of trying to reinvent what festivals do and how they reach audiences." This would be the appropriate moment, of course, to mention our own project with Tribeca, a free retrospective of some of the finer films from past editions. At the same time, as Eugene explains, the festival is launching VOD premieres simultaneous with in-theater screenings.
But let's turn to the films themselves. Stephen Holden has taken a poking for his overview in the New York Times (see, for example, Howard Feinstein for Filmmaker and Henry Stewart for the L Magazine), but there's no arguing with the title as a statement of the challenge here: "12 Days, 132 Films, 38 Countries." Over the past few days, several publications have run lists of recommendations — "must-sees" even — and I've scanned them for repeat showings by a few titles. Notes on these follow; and this'll the be the entry for gathering more in the nearly two weeks ahead.
First, ST VanAirsdale introduces an interview at Movieline: "Ask anyone what the difference is between the scandal-plagued tandem Eliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods, and they might think you're about to deliver a punchline. Ask Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, however — whose new documentary about the disgraced New York governor will appear this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival as a work in progress [image above] — and the distinctions are no joke at all." Gibney also has a completed work at Tribeca, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, adapted from Lawrence Wright's one-man play, which in turn was adapted from his bestselling book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
Howard Feinstein recommends "probably the Amerindie picture that could turn out to be this year's Best in Show." It "takes place in large part on 9/11, is sympathetic toward an olive-skinned, skull-capped, 10-year-old Muslim boy from New York who is harassed in Middle America because of the immediate backlash, and features one of the finest performances in recent memory. The movie: The Space Between, directed without fuss by first-timer Travis Fine, an ex-regional pilot with lots of experience with the film's backdrops but, alas, zero name recognition. The superb actor: Melissa Leo."
"[T]he Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and Media Advocates Giving National Equality to Trans People (MAGNET) have asked the festival to pull Israel Luna's Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives," notes Steve Erickson at the top his overview for Gay City News. "[T]he groups charge the film insensitively portrays transgender women and makes light of violence against them. I would love to be able to offer an opinion on this dispute, but unfortunately Tribeca did not screen Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives in advance, and I'm not going to attack or defend a film I wasn't able to see. For some reason, its only press screenings take place after the festival's public showings have already begun, depriving critics of the chance to judge it for themselves before its official debut."
Melissa Anderson on The Arbor: "An exemplar of fact-fiction hybrid filmmaking, Clio Barnard's debut feature traces the life of British playwright Andrea Dunbar (1961–1990), whose work chronicled her grim existence in the West Yorkshire housing project where she grew up, and the fallout of her notoriety, horrible choices in men, and alcoholism for her family, particularly her oldest daughter, Lorraine. Barnard seamlessly blends archival material and a live staging of Dunbar's play of the title on the writer's home turf. But her boldest intervention in the bio-doc is having actors lip-synch the words of the actual interviewees — a deliberate distancing device that nonetheless draws viewers in closer." Also in the Voice, Ella Taylor talks with Nicole Holofcener about Please Give. Updates, 4/28: The NYT interviews Barnard (video). And Adam Keleman at the House Next Door: "A risky experiment, The Arbor transcends the staginess of the style, allowing the emotional, hard-going times of a talented girl and her consequential madness to ring shockingly genuine."
Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York on Metropia: "Former graffiti artist Tarik Saleh concocts a bizarre, animated dystopian thriller, in which a depressed corporate cog (voiced by Vincent Gallo) is unwittingly recruited to overthrow a conglomerate that has connected Europe via a massive underground subway system. Saleh used random people on the street as character models, and their uncanniness walks a fine line between eye-catching and eyesore. Regardless, this is a trip well worth taking." Update, 4/22: Aaron Hillis at GreenCine Daily: "Saleh's film shows little more depth than a puzzling sociopolitical analogy about 'Big Brother' and the inexplicably frightening unification of Europe, so here's hoping a man of his technical prowess still has, well, a brighter future ahead."
Andrew Schenker at the House Next Door on Lola: "Lacking the bravura set pieces of Kinatay and the bubbling sense of life overflowing and sophisticated economic critique of Serbis, [Brillante] Mendoza's latest offering feels surprisingly inert, a thin narrative structured around a thuddingly obvious thesis."
Caroline Bankoff for Interview on Zonad: "Directed by John Carney (Once) and his brother Kieran, this comedy chronicles the exploits of a rehab escapee in a red vinyl bodysuit who is taken for an alien in a small Irish town (which just happens to be stuck in a 50s timewarp)."
Henry Stewart in the L Magazine on Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's Sentimental Engine Slayer: "[T]he movie is a hallucinatory, logic-less tour through desert roads and houseparties that charts the insecure and frequently violent fantasies of the possibly homosexual virgin: sex, sex, humiliation, retributive violence, and sex. Though essentially about (maybe?) getting a kid laid, it's less Superbad than a Mexican-American variation of Loren Cass, with sex replacing race-violence; or, it's like Donnie Darko without wormholes or rabbitmen."
Simon Abrams for the New York Press on Soul Kitchen: "Fatih Akin's fizzy follow-up to his dour Edge of Heaven is a nice change of pace the for the accomplished director, even if its contrived plot of two brothers and their budding restaurant brings the film down during its third act."
Updates, 4/22: Nicolas Rapold in Artforum on Chuck Workman's Visionaries: "Presided over by Anthology Film Archives founder Jonas Mekas, the film is a warm and welcoming introduction to Brakhage, Deren, Snow, Anger, Kubelka, and Cornell, among others. Critics (including Artforum's own Amy Taubin) and spotlit filmmakers (a restrained Anger, a delightful Kubelka, Su Friedrich for a slightly more recent voice, and a rather lot of Robert Downey) testify to principles and influences. Pitched to a casual viewer, the profusion of clips admirably puts the goods in front of us, and also brings Visionaries the closest to any sort of comment on the boundaries of the avant-garde by citing the likes of Night and Fog, Blue, even Julien Donkey-Boy. Barring Ken Jacobs cracking about Mekas's taste, this wandering history is comically inert for so spirited a scene." Also reviewed: Bobby Sheehan's Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy, "a tribute to the New York cabaret singer (or the 'E.T. of drag') Joey Arias," and C Scott Willis's The Woodmans: "Is it about the tragic spiral of photographer Francesca Woodman viewed through the eyes of her parents and friends? Or is it about married working artists Betty and George coming to terms with their talented daughter's death?" Dave Itzkoff talks with Workman for the NYT. Update, 4/26: Listening (18'04"). At GreenCine Daily, Aaron Hillis talks with Sheehan, Arias and puppeteer Basil Twist.
Salon's Andrew O'Hehir recommends 20 titles. Here's what he says about one, The Disappearance of Alice Creed: "An unconventional psychological thriller from young English director J Blakeson that follows the kidnapping of a millionaire's daughter by a couple of hoods looking for the big score. Things don't go quite as they planned." Update, 4/26: "Intermittently compelling," finds Adam Keleman at the House Next Door.
At Cinematical, Christopher Campbell lists ten docs he's looking forward to seeing. Above is the trailer for one of them.
Lauren Wissot at the House Next Door on Alexander Gentelev's Thieves by Law. It's "a smart and fascinating peek inside the Russian mafia via three middle-aged 'businessmen' old and wise enough to have both survived, and to be able to explain without bombast, the inner workings of the post-Perestroika underworld. And in a country that allows convicted criminals to run for government office, the guy's got a point. Like Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, which would make a great narrative companion piece to this doc, Thieves by Law forgoes broad sensationalism for the riveting details of the matter-of-fact mafioso life."
Also: The Two Escobars, a doc about "the infamous Pablo and Colombian soccer hero Andrés, unrelated and having little in common but a last name, a shared birthplace, a passion for soccer, and the fact that they lived and died under the constant watch of the media eye."
"Little more than an ethnographic sketch, American Mystic supplies slender snapshots of three Americans practicing alternative religions," writes Nick Schager of this "mildly interesting but cursory peek at peculiar fringe-dwellers." Alicia Van Couvering talks with director Alex Mar for Filmmaker.
Also at the House Next Door, Andrew Schenker on The Travelogues: "The only 'experimental' feature at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, [Dustin] Thompson's 49-minute sketchbook is comprised of a series of brief views taken primarily from France, Italy, and California, often accompanied by a written text at the bottom of the screen that occasionally contextualizes the images but more often works at an odd tangent to the visuals.... [I]t would take a keen mental dexterity indeed to fill out the interstices in Thompson's tantalizingly suggestive but frustratingly empty film."
Updates, 4/23: For the NYT, Mike Hale has "spending all my time with the festival's seamy underbelly: a rich, fatty layer of horror, crime, martial arts and transgressive comedy. Not every movie can be good for you, after all. The festival organizers helpfully group some of these films into a series called Cinemania (previously known as Midnight), which this year consists of three Asian genre movies and three boundary-nudging comedies. It feels like a ghetto — a place for works that don't distinguish themselves in some more respectable fashion — but at least one of the films, Zonad, deserves wider attention."
"Take a dash of Splash, a generous pinch of The Secret of Roan Inish, and a healthy portion of low-key and very effective Irish charm, and the result is Ondine, a sweet and frankly lovely little film from Neil Jordan." Scott Weinberg at Cinematical: "Jordan approaches his latest project as if it's a modern-day fairy tale — while probably hoping that his audience is not too cynical to play along. Colin Farrell stars (and excels) as a fisherman with a handicapped daughter, a dumpy trawler, and a history of alcoholism. But things take a turn for the weird once the lovely Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) pops up in one of Syracuse's fishing nets."
"The Sloan Foundation and the Tribeca Film Institute will present a 10th anniversary screening of Christopher Nolan's Memento on Saturday, April 24. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion on the science of memory, featuring Memento stars Guy Pearce and Joe Pantoliano, writer Jonathan Nolan, neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin, and psychology professor William Hirst." Michael Atkinson at Moving Image Source: "In one sense at least, Memento is authentically quantum: its essential inconclusiveness is 'truer' than ordinary film narrative, which should best be regarded as an industrial convention designed to imbue us with a notion of omniscience we do not truly have. This false superpower may be a large reason why we crave cinema, and it seems safe to say that if every movie cannonballed anti-omniscience Kryptonite at us as Memento does, then the medium would have withered away for lack of an audience."
"Like those pictures that can be interpreted as either a vase or the silhouettes of two lovers, My Queen Karo might be a young girl's coming of age story set in a squatters commune," writes Alison Willmore at IFC.com, "or it might be the tale of the disintegration of a squatters commune as seen through the eyes of a child. It's a far better, if uneasier, film for this fluctuation in focus than if it settled for a more conventional route down only one of those paths."
Lauren Wissot at the House Next Door: "My Brothers, a coming-of-age tale set over Halloween weekend 1987 that follows three young siblings as they make their way to the Irish seaside to find a replacement watch for their dying father, on its surface bears all the hallmarks of a Shane Meadows film. So it's no surprise that the movie marks the directorial debut of Paul Fraser, a frequent writing collaborator of Meadows. Unfortunately, like another Tribeca Film Festival selection, sex & drugs & rock & roll by Mat Whitecross, co-director of Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo, it's also in dire need of the auteur half of the partnership at its helm." More from IFC.com's Alison Willmore.
Also at the House, Nick Schager: "Based on the poetry of Gerald Stern, Lucky Life reflects on issues of remembrance, life, and death with a heartfelt lyricism bordering on affectation. Though on the surface a significant departure from his stunning Munyurangabo, Lee Isaac Chung's sophomore effort is in many respects a kindred spirit to that Rwanda-set drama, sharing with it similar aesthetic assuredness (and specific flourishes) as well as an interest in human responses to present and past calamity." More from Alison Willmore (IFC.com).
My Own Love Song features "scenes of animated flamingos and kingfishers, a batshit Forest Whitaker and Elias Koteas, and Nick Nolte serving up slices of a psychedelic chocolate cake," notes Stephen Saito at IFC.com. "Sadly, these things overshadow Renee Zellweger's first genuine performance in years as a wheelchair-bound singer who reluctantly travels down south to New Orleans when her mentally unstable pal (Whitaker) stumbles upon a letter from her son who she gave up for adoption.... To be fair, My Own Love Song couldn't be anywhere near as bad as it is without being as ambitious as it is."
Updates, 4/24: Alison Willmore: "Like many a film that has its premiere at Tribeca, Meskada is earnest and unremarkable, with a cast stacked high with semi-known actors, like Nick Stahl as small-town detective Noah Cordin, or Rachel Nichols from Alias as the sheriff's deputy partnered with him on a sensitive case, or some guy from The Black Donnellys, or some guy from Twilight, or 'Boondock Saint' Norman Reedus. Its ace in the hole, in terms of publicity hooks, is that it's the film debut of Grace Gummer, daughter of Meryl Streep."
"A real-life counterpart to HBO's Big Love, Sons of Perdition details the efforts of three teenagers to craft new lives after leaving the 'Crick,' a Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) community lorded over by Warren Jeffs on the Utah-Arizona border," writes Nick Schager at the House Next Door. "Despite working with subject matter prone to be treated with freak-show melodramatics (as somewhat confirmed by HBO's serialized drama), the documentarians [Jennilyn Merten and Tyler Measom] never resort to cheap theatrics and tsk-tsk moralizing, instead allowing the boys to articulate — both verbally and through their actions—the arduousness of the path upon which they've embarked." Listening: The NYT interviews the directors.
Updates, 4/26: "As part of what has been unofficially labeled the Alex Gibney Film Festival, Tribeca unveiled the prolific Oscar-winner's officially untitled work-in-progress documentary about former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer Saturday night to a packed auditorium of lucky festival-goers," writes Christopher Campbell at Cinematical. "Those who made it in were treated to a lengthy, in-depth and surprisingly sympathetic look at a fallen figure, and at many moments throughout the presentation the audience roared with laughter, often at the expense of those individuals interviewed onscreen." More from Movieline's ST VanAirsdale. And AJ Schnack's got a roundup of reactions.
"To watch Open House, Andrew Paquin's limp splatterfest, is to revisit some of the hoarier conceits marking the last half-century of the non-supernatural horror film," writes Andrew Schenker at the House Next Door.
Stephen Saito at Indie Eye on Every Day: "[Liev] Schreiber, acknowledging his wife Naomi Watts in the audience, said he agreed with the missus' observation that the heart of [Richard] Levine's script was what drew him to the film as well as the chance to play a father, but added, 'it's a simple story and simple stories are often overlooked.' The unfortunate part of Every Day is it doesn't do enough to stand out."
Updates, 4/27: "What is the template for this festival, which has been struggling to find its identity since its inception?" asks Howard Feinstein at the top of his second roundup for Filmmaker. "Toronto, Sundance, Cannes, Berlin? San Francisco, Denver? Answer: It's not cast from a festival mold at all, in spite of the invaluable input of former artistic director Peter Scarlet and David Kwok, as far as I can tell the only current programmer with any significant knowledge of film as art. No, the model is the Hollywood studio. On top of that, Tribeca's priorities are much more LA than New York, no matter how much the promo materials cry, 'Here comes the neighborhood.'"
"Arrested a month and a half before the Tribeca festival along with fellow director Jafar Panahi, Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof builds his latest film The White Meadows out of a catalogue of images of incomprehensible ritual and absurd acts of punishment," writes Andrew Schenker. "But while The White Meadows is certainly a political film, it should not be taken as a basic allegory, a simple matter of easy correspondences." More from Henry Stewart (L). Update, 4/28: Nick Schager at the House Next Door: "A gorgeously wrought fable trading in subtle, if nonetheless unmistakable, social commentary, Rasoulof's film employs indigenous folklore for a poignant critique of oppression and the sorrow it spawns, following middle-aged Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) as he travels to remote islands collecting the tears of the grief-stricken.... Empathy courses through The White Meadows as Rahmat performs his ritual, the film focused on the nobility and grace of selfless compassion."
For the New York Press, Simon Abrams talks with Shinya Tsukamoto about Tetsuo the Bullet Man, "the first film of Tsukamoto’s to feature an American lead and has been kicking around in his head to make for 17 years now. We sat down with Tsukamoto and Bullet Man's star Eric Bossick at a round table for the film and later one-on-one to talk about what distinguishes this new Tetsuo from the rest and what Darren Aronofsky, of all people, owes Tsukamoto." He's also met Ferzan Ozpetek for GreenCine Daily "to discuss his career and the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Loose Cannons (Mine Vaganti), his new drama about a young man (Riccardo Scarmacio) who can't bring himself to come out to his father."
A "young nerd, fresh out of high school, befriends a has-been porno queen, falls madly in love, helps her out of a jam, and learns a few valuable life lessons in the progress. You could probably name all the key plot points and supporting characters without even seeing the film, right?" But Scott Weinberg, writing at Cinematical, finds Meet Monica Velour to be "actually quite a little winner, truth be told." For Stephen Saito at IFC.com, "it's a sly, unforced coming-of-age story that may be slightly predictable, but is always engaging."
Nicolas Rapold has fresh notes on five films for the L Magazine.
Updates, 4/28: "The specific atmosphere of [Jim] Thompson's work — which is that of perdition, to adapt Robert Benayoun's seminal phrase — is pretty difficult to get onto film," writes Glenn Kenny. "One sometimes believes that grainy, scratched-up, overbright 8mm is really the way to go — what you want is a sense that you're watching something you're not supposed to be watching.... The closest any film has come to having that atmosphere permeate the proceedings is Alain Corneau's thoroughly staggering 1979 Serie Noire... [Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me] isn't that strong, but it's still pretty potent, worth the time of the old-school crime-thriller aficionado for sure."
"A turgid experiment in elliptical lyricism, William Vincent plays like a hybrid of Pickpocket, In the City of Sylvia, and The Passenger, except far more pretentious than even that description suggests." Nick Schager at the House Next Door: "Jay Anania's film follows a man who goes by the name of William Vincent (James Franco) as he strolls Manhattan's sidewalks, his starting point murky — having cheated death by skipping a doomed flight home from Japan, he assumed a new identity and residence in Chinatown — and his destination unknown."
Update, 4/30: "Expressing 'gratitude' and 'surprise,' German director Feo Aladag's When We Leave (Die Fremde) took the Tribeca Film Festival's Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature, while American director Alexandra Codina's Monica & David won Best Documentary Feature," reports Brian Brooks for indieWIRE. "Both winner received $25,000 in cash and their respective original pieces of art. Ferzan Ozpetek's Loose Cannons received a Special Jury Mention in the narrative category, while Julia Bacha's Budrus received the same for the doc competition." Vulture has an at-a-glance list of all the winners. Die Fremde tells "a deeply touching story that never exploits its controversial subject, but that digs deep into the forces behind family, society, tradition, and freedom," writes Thorsten Funke.
Updates, 5/1: Jason Guerrasio looks back on a few of the fest's highlights for Filmmaker.
"Equal parts journalistic exposé and targeted anthropological dissection, the slick anthology production Freakonomics makes heavy ideas go down easy," writes Eric Kohn at indieWIRE. "That's the point, of course: Based on Steven Levitt and Stephen J Dubner's bestselling 2005 tome, the movie explores 'the hidden side of everything' — meaning the interpersonal rituals dictating when societal decisions get made, or should get made, or should not get made. It's a broad topic, which justifies the mini-movie format for probing the book's central concepts. Directed by a documentarian 'dream team' composed of established non-fiction storytellers with divergent approaches, Freakonomics has a cumulative effect that comes across like a series of intelligent dinner table discussions stuffed into feature-length form."
Updates, 5/3: "Gainsbourg, Je t'Aime... et Moi Non Plus is French animator Joann Sfar's first foray into live-action film (it's based on her own graphic novel) and the influence of Michel Gondry is enormous," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "Still, it's a thoroughly delightful picture — vivid, sexy, poetic, surreal.... [O]nce word gets out that Sfar's combination of '60s period piece, musical, sex comedy and Freudian puppet show is not just coherent but totally enjoyable, look for Gainsbourg to become a modest sleeper hit when it's released later this year."
Dave Itzkoff for the New York Times: "Things We Learned About Saturday Night Live From James Franco's Documentary."
IndieWIRE's Eric Kohn wraps his coverage by addressing "Tribeca's Image Problem."