The Top 40 Picks From the Tribeca Film Festival

The Hit List

Night Watch
photo: Twentieth Century Fox
Night Watch A box-office smash in Russia last summer, this metaphysical horror thriller stages a battle between Light and Dark forces in present-day Moscow—complementing the struggle over a young boy's destiny with simplistic but convoluted mythology and a ton of Slavic brooding. Director Timur Bekmambetov is a Roger Corman protégé, and there's an endearing B-movie spirit to the enterprise, copious digi-effects notwithstanding. Amusingly crammed with blatant steals from the Matrix, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings movies (not to mention Buffy, the David Fincher playbook, and even Jonathan Glazer's iconic UNKLE video), it's itself the first in a trilogy—still to come: Day Watch and Dusk Watch. A Fox Searchlight release, opens July. LIM

The Ninth Day Volker Schlöndorff imagines what happened during the nine-day gap in Luxembourgian priest Jean Bernard's famous Dachau diary, when he was given leave to attend his mother's funeral. Thoroughly fictionalized, this incident is read as a Nazi scheme, in which the clergyman is encouraged to dissuade his bishop from passive resistance, providing Schlöndorff with a chance to see the Nazis' attempt at balancing genocidal philosophy with hearts-and-minds politicking. The church's collaborationism is a looming, sordid secondary target. As the traumatized hero, Ulrich Matthes (Goebbels in Downfall) is nearly mute, a stunned observer of social absurdity. Kino, opens May 27. ATKINSON

Off to War Unlike Gunner Palace and other you-are-there soldier docs, Brent and Craig Renaud's video vérité item focuses on the transition from civilian to military life, following members of the Arkansas National Guard from their rural family enclaves through preparation for deployment to their early days in Iraq. Ranging from naive teens to pudgy middle-agers (including one father and son who serve together), these former turkey farmers and sales reps are hardly the stuff of recruitment posters. The long goodbyes given by wives, siblings, and others add a poignant note to this portrait of small-town folks caught up in a global war. HALTER

photo: Sony Pictures Classics

The Outsider "He's attracted to the sins of the flesh," says an admiring Roger Ebert of auteur d'excess James Toback—and the critic doesn't seem to be talking just about the work. Indeed, Nicholas Jarecki's obscenely charming profile of the man behind Fingers nearly matches the guilty pleasures of its subject's own oeuvre on account of a central character—Toback—who appears quite the pickup artist himself. Vices are amply indulged during the 12-day(!) shoot of the director's comic noir ditty When Will I Be Loved—aptly named for a film whose desperate search for distribution gives the doc its oddly moving climax. NELSON

Play A depressive architect loses his girlfriend, his job, his will to live, and his briefcase. A friendless nurse finds the latter and starts stalking him all over Santiago. As the lives of the two loners almost intersect, symbols and coincidences pile up—it could be fate, if only the characters could see the signs. With Almodóvarian art direction and dry, Pliny-quoting wit, Alicia Scherson's feature debut documents modern urban alienation using the language of its everyday tools—video games, cell phones, and an iPod whose shuffle mode repeats the same familiar torch song. JORGE MORALES

The Power of Nightmares
photo: Tribeca Film Festival
The Power of NightmaresThe most essential documentary in years (unlikely ever to reach a wide American public—see it and you'll know why), Adam Curtis's gripping BBC docu-essay on the politics of fear parallels the rise of radical Islamists and American neoconservatives: unwittingly allied in their hatred of Western liberalism and eagerness to politicize religion, then actual collaborators in jointly vanquishing the spectral enemy that was the crumbling Soviet Union, and now installed as mirror-image antagonists in the hugely myth-dependent "war on terror." Delivered with sardonic incredulity and supplemented by a wealth of ironic archival material, Curtis's argument is at times oversimplified, but its main thrust is devastating and historically sound. This three-hour film packs more insight and analysis than a year's worth of cable news reporting and punditry. LIM

Punk: Attitude Filmed in rote VH1 style, Don Letts's doc still catches intermittent fire, tracing punk from the MC5 and the Velvets through the Dolls and the CBGB scene over to England and out to L.A. The reliably amusing Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, David Johansen, and Jim Jarmusch weigh in, as well as the less-often-heard-from Ari-Up, Poly Styrene, and Chrissie Hynde. Letts includes Thurston Moore's lament that punk histories never acknowledge the '80s underground, then proceeds to ignore it as well. But footage of Patti Smith, James Chance, Richard Hell, Vivienne Westwood, et al., make for an inspiring nostalgia trip. SINAGRA

Puzzlehead A hermetic scientist with mysterious motives creates a robot in his own image and, as tends to happen with these things, complications ensue. The standard Frankenstein story themes are all present and accounted for, but after the newly sentient Puzzlehead inevitably turns on his maker, Puzzlehead the movie morphs into an original meditation on the persistence of memory. Shot in Brooklyn, writer-director James Bai's debut is a work of cold-lit urban desolation with a soundtrack of long silences punctuated by sparse dialogue, Puzzlehead's uninflected narration, and periodic harpsichord outbursts. LAND

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