Downtown Express

25 movies to catch at the Tribeca Film Festival

Only two years old, the Tribeca Film Festival is starting to find a happy medium between civic pride, celebrity flamboyance, and cinephile legitimacy. Crucially, this corporate-powered event has also figured out how to market its identity crisis as a selling point.

This outsize festival's third annual edition (May 1 through 9)—the second under the judicious watch of executive director Peter Scarlet (formerly of the San Francisco Film Festival)—is, as advertised, populist and wide-ranging, to the extent that you sometimes wish the programming approach were less big-tent and more in keeping with the fest's own velvet-roped Bloomberg Hospitality Tent (you'll need a $300 or $1,200 pass to get in).

Still, inclusiveness has its advantages: Whether you're in search of arthouse exotica, topical docs, freshly restored rarities, the movie your film-student neighbor made last year, or even if you just really need to catch that Olsen-twins opus a full 72 hours before it lands in your local multiplex, Tribeca has it covered. To help navigate the intimidating sprawl of a program (200-plus entries in nine days and a dozen venues; details at, the Voice's critics—after weeks of press screenings and heaps of preview tapes—assembled this survival guide: a handpicked, literally all-over-the-map short list of the festival's 25 best, or at least most noteworthy, films. Unless indicated, all titles are without U.S. distribution at press time.

Last Life in the Universe
photo: Tribeca Film Festival
Last Life in the Universe

1/2 PRICE A minor sensation in Paris after Chris Marker proclaimed it the Breathless of a new generation, this jagged, dreamy debut featurette from 21-year-old Isild Le Besco (winsome love interest in Sade and Roberto Succo) is actually more evocative of two Truffaut films: The 400 Blows and The Wild Child. Their parents as absent as in a Larry Clark movie, three under-10 siblings survive—even thrive—through a combination of hard-nosed secrecy, feral resourcefulness, and a rich imaginative life. The handheld DV camera hovers close and stays low, suggesting a sort of kid's p.o.v. and conferring an unfiltered documentary immediacy. DENNIS LIM

ANOTHER ROAD HOME Beginning with a quest by New York-based Israeli filmmaker Danae Elon (daughter of author Amos Elon) to reconnect with her childhood caregiver (a Palestinian), this doc has all the makings of diaristic drivel. But when Elon meets the man's sons in Paterson, New Jersey, awkward exchanges reveal deep resentments: They recount the risks their father took to work in Israel and the pain of his long absences. Elon's longing for therapeutic catharsis is undercut by the realities of decorum, human frailty, and the inseparability of personal and political. LAURA SINAGRA

ARNA'S CHILDREN "Acting is like throwing a Molotov cocktail," says one of the titular kids, a member of a theater group for child refugees in the occupied West Bank. A minute later, co-director Juliano Mer Khamis—whose Israeli activist mother began the group—informs us that the young thespian will perish in the Battle of Jenin. Loaded with casually devastating displays of omniscience, this irresolvable documentary turns to pure war correspondence after the theater has been bull-dozed and the barely adult actors have taken their drama to the streets. ROB NELSON

BAADASSSSS! More poignant than uproarious (and less scrappy than its inspiration), this Ed Wood–esque biopic of blaxploitation pioneer Melvin Van Peebles on the set of Sweet Sweetback (also screening in the festival) gains immeasurably from having been directed and toplined by its subject's son. Mario Van Peebles has a blast playing Pops as a stop-at-nothing workaholic. Yet the movie's most striking element is the younger filmmaker's palpably ambivalent characterization of himself—on-screen and off—as a fledgling artist patiently awaiting his father's approval. A Sony Classics release, opens May 28. R.N.

CRYSTAL Though touted as documentary, this intriguing video-verité feels too perfectly magic realist to be true, telling the story of a young Kurdish woman who suffers from an ultra-rare medical condition that causes her to extrude bits of painfully gem-hard quartz-like substance from her eyes, womb, and throat. The ex-wife of an abusive older man, she produces more tumor-jewels when sad. Director Mania Akbari, lead actress of Abbas Kiarostami's mock-doc Ten, skillfully crafts her believe-it-or-not tale into a potently multi-allegorical parable. ED HALTER

photo; Tribeca Film Festival
DELAMU Tian Zhuangzhuang, whose wonderful Springtime in a Small Town opens later this month, returns to his ethnographic roots with this restrained, beautiful, and somewhat opaque documentary on an isolated village on the spectacularly craggy border between China and Tibet. The location is remote and so too the filmmaker's point of view; this idyllic vision of working and hanging out is oddly new age in its flavor. And, as a world premiere, it's a coup for Tribeca. J. HOBERMAN

EVERY MOTHER'S SON Anyone who has lost a loved one in an unexpected instant knows how incapacitating such loss can be. The three ordinary moms in this documentary (whose sons—Amadou Diallo, Anthony Baez, and Gideon Busch—died in headline encounters with the NYPD) not only endure but emerge as leaders of the city's police-brutality resistance. Resurrecting the furious tension of Giuliani's New York, directors Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold humanize the consequences of a flawed system. CHISUN LEE

GUN-SHY German director Dito Tsintsadze's bleak comedy charts the mental degradation of a meals-on-wheels deliveryman whose loneliness leads to desperation and eventually violence. Though hardly original (the six-degrees-of-misery motif gets a more cosmically loopy treatment in Barbara Albert's forthcoming Free Radicals), the movie features plenty of incidental eccentricity (one scene combines night-vision goggles and Kim Jong Il) and a remarkable lead performance from Fabian Hinrichs, whose affectless stare creates an impenetrable force field of existential radioactivity. DAVID NG

Next Page »