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 tribecafilmfestival.org), 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.


1/2 PRICEA 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 HOMEBeginning 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


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Delamu
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 SONAnyone 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-SHYGerman 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


LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE Thai director (and Pratt alum) Pen-ek Ratanaruang teams with Hong Kong–based cinematographer Chris Doyle and Japanese dreamboat Tadanobu Asano for this lovely, bruised rumination on chance, symmetry, and international relations. Asano's neat-freak librarian, adrift in Bangkok and compulsively concocting suicide scenarios, bonds with a mutually bereft local girl days before she leaves for Osaka. A minor-key ballad filled with delicate but haunting shifts in register, the film is best summed up by its original Thai title—literal translation: Tiny Enormous Love Story. A Palm release, opens August. D.L.


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The Last Train
photo: Tribeca Film Festival
THE LAST TRAIN Alexei Alexeyevich German, same-named son of the Soviet-era master behind My Friend Ivan Lapshin and Khroustaliov, My Car!, co-opts his dad's widescreen mise-en-scène and wartime humanism for this breathtaking debut, a desolating visit to the Soviet front of WWII, wherein a corpulent, foolish German surgeon wanders into the snowy forests and never comes out. Like a traumatized consciousness, German's movie withholds cause-and-effect and temporal fluidity; it's a smothering, tubercular nightmare of unseen deaths and Sisyphean action, all in startlingly eloquent black-and-white. MICHAEL ATKINSON


LIPSTICK & DYNAMITE, PISS & VINEGAR Ruth Leitman's peep at the world of female wrestling from the '40s to the '70s reveals a culture that ran the gamut between hard-won liberation and hard-knock abuse. Pioneers describe how they were photographed like glamour girls and trained like Olympians—expected to be ladies on the street, freaks in the bed, and monsters in the ring. Predictably, as these tough broads relive their glory days, tales of off-hour exploitation by the men who held the purse strings seep through the rosy recollections. L.S.


THE MAN WHO STOLE MY MOTHER'S FACE The flipside of Long Night's Journey Into Day, this effectively agonized doc provokes the question of whether a privileged white South African's personal suffering might also merit a filmmaker's quest for truth and reconciliation. That the filmmaker, Cathy Henkel, is the daughter of the victim—who was raped and beaten in her Johannesburg home in 1988—lends an extra layer of empathy to a story in which justice appears more easily attainable than peace. R.N.


THE MOTHERIn this bold quasi-update of Fear Eats the Soul, a newly widowed English grandmother (Anne Reid) takes up with a bit of rough half her age (Daniel Craig), who also happens to be her daughter's married lover. Directed in a crisp deadpan by Roger Michell from Hanif Kureishi's barbed screenplay, The Mother bracingly—and humanely—resists sensationalism and sentimentality. At once fearless and vulnerable, emphatically putting the sex in sexagenarian, Reid's performance is a self-contained miracle. A Sony Classics release, opens May 28. D.L.


THE ORIGINS OF AIDS By now it seems clear that AIDS was born from contact between humans and chimpanzees infected by the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus. Peter Chappell and Catherine Peix's highly disquieting doc explores the possibility that the devastating transfer was inadvertently caused by scientists. Witnesses recount how chimps were used in the manufacture of virologist Hilary Koprowski's experimental polio vaccine in Africa; he denies all knowledge of the matter. ELLIOTT STEIN


POSTER BOYZak Tucker's first feature represents an overdue advance for the gay coming-out movie—insofar as it forgoes solipsistic affirmation and factors in culture-war realities and a more nuanced view of sexual and political identity. The closeted son of a bigoted senator is pressured into helping Dad campaign, but changes his mind after a one-night stand. Though the plot machinery is creaky, the actors are persuasive, and the scenario's bristling election-year topicality should not be underestimated. D.L.


SATAN'S LITTLE HELPER Forgotten genre-freak Jeff Lieberman (his erratic career began in 1976, as the auteur behind the giant-worm saga Squirm) manufactured this '80s-style gore-farce out of crummy horror-flick spare parts, but the upshot is conceptually maniacal and witty. A semi-delusional kid, obsessed with a satanic video game, meets and obliviously assists a grinning-demon-mask-wearing psycho as he litters bodies through an iconic suburbia on Halloween—a setup that allows Lieberman to fill front-lawn graveyard displays with corpses and bloodied knives. M.A.


SO THIS IS NEW YORK For this 1947 farce (the program calls it a belated New York premiere, though it has actually played in Brooklyn and at MOMA), first-time producer Stanley Kramer had on his payroll scenarist Carl Foreman (High Noon); director Richard Fleischer, a talented craftsman; and the versatile composer Dimitri Tiomkin. He was less lucky with his leading man, radio comic Henry Morgan, playing a small-town cigar salesman in the big city, but Hugh Herbert, usually seen as an asexual nincompoop, is splendid as a lecherous shrunken-head collector. E.S.


A SOCIAL GENOCIDE Radical thunderflash Fernando Solanas hasn't tempered his ferocity one foot-candle since his hellacious Marxist masterpiece The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), and this fist-in-your-face history lesson of modern Argentina's economic downfall at the hands of politicians and the IMF could make your nose bleed. Framed by astonishing footage of the Buenos Aires street protests of 2001, Solanas's video document faces not military dictators but privatization and illegal debt, explicating the pillage of the nation's resources in bullet points, while contrasting Argentina's dire poverty and its palatial corridors of financial power. M.A.


A TALKING PICTURE Manoel de Oliveira rehearses his farewell with this cruise around the Mediterranean in the company of a history professor and her young daughter. The tone is bizarrely straightforward, though midway, John Malkovich and three European divas arrive to raise the eccentricity level. A travelogue that imagines the origins and the end of European civilization and amply justifies its title, A Talking Picture has so little vanity it's not even artless. Watching the movie is like getting high on spring water. A Kino release, opens late 2004. J.H.


THE TIME WE KILLED A beautiful, impressionistic cine-poem (and a companion piece to her short Chronic), Jennifer Reeves's debut feature combines elements of experimental film, narrative cinema, and documentary to create a stellar example of personal filmmaking. Poet Lisa Jarnot plays Robyn, a borderline agoraphobe who can't prevent the outside world from penetrating her Brooklyn apartment—whether it's a murder-suicide next door, memories of her true love, or September 11. MARK PERANSON


VULCANO Director William Dieterle was called in to direct Anna Magnani in this juicy 1950 melodrama after both she and the project were dumped by Roberto Rossellini, who took off to shoot Stromboli with Ingrid Bergman. In addition to Magnani's lusty performance (as a prostitute banished by the Naples vice squad to her native island), the film's assets are colorful semi-doc scenes of local life and some first-rate underwater sequences. This is the U.S. premiere of the original Italian version. E.S.


WAR IS OVER! Iranian-Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi (Marooned in Iraq) crafted this pedestrian's-eye video diary of everyday life in post-Saddam Iraq with more urgency than polish, but its value as first-person reportage remains self-evident. Odd music choices (light jazz over shots of coalition-occupied Baghdad?) and a chatty voice-over that occasionally curls into deadpan cynicism gloss images of a shell-shocked toddler playing next to a burning field, and junk markets selling off everything from loose medications to small firearms. Screens with Saddam's Mass Graves. E.H.


WINTER SOLSTICE Anthony LaPaglia plays a blue-collar widower dad struggling to maintain connection with his two sons, the elder (Aaron Stanford) through with high school and sick of playing co-parent to his troubled younger brother (Mark Webber). Despite minor incongruities—the 'hood seems a bit ritzy for its "dead-end" rap—writer-director Josh Sternfeld's ear for familial vernacular, determination to present working people actually doing work, and affection for grounding detail warm up this slice-of-life vignette. L.S.


ZAMAN, THE MAN FROM THE REEDSThe first feature made in Iraq in over 10 years, Amer Alwan's simple, DV peasant fable was already in production as Bush II's invasion was being debated in international news (footage was confiscated by the old regime, leaving Alwan to finish it once Saddam was ousted). Studiously meta-realist in the Kiarostamian tradition yet amateurishly executed, Alwan's movie affects a mock-doc structure and quietly matures into a pained critique of Islamic culture. M.A.


ZATOICHITakeshi Kitano plays the titular blind swordsman, beloved folk hero of numerous Japanese serials, as a platinum-blond recluse forever chuckling over some private joke (maybe it's that he can actually see?). With its taiko-heavy score and punchily choreographed bursts of torso perforation, Kitano's first period movie repeatedly threatens to turn into a musical, and eventually does, complete with ecstatic, tap-dancing chorus line of samurai, peasant farmers, and cross-dressing geisha. A Miramax release, opens June 4. D.L.

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