Best in Show

The Top 40 Picks of the Tribeca Film Festival

Conceived in the shadow of no towers, the Tribeca Film Festival was the first 9-11 memorial, and surely the most upbeat. The fifth edition acknowledges its roots—opening with the movie everyone I know is afraid to see, the quasi-real-time United 93. At least two documentaries evoke that epoch-defining day, and there are many more on the Bush wars, not to mention the fictional disaster movie Poseidon and the presumably mega-violent secret-agent flick Mission: Impossible III.

What have Robert De Niro and his producer Jane Rosenthal wrought? From the perspective of its founders, Tribeca has been a mild boon to neighborhood restaurants and magnificent advertisement for American Express. The festival is a triumph of branding, but has it found its niche? Like the city it celebrates, Tribeca has proven resilient, but like New York, it's far too sprawling and abrasive to ever attain the grooviness of SXSW or the exclusivity of Telluride. Marketing—yes. Market—we'll see. Tribeca is very far from rivaling Sundance (or Toronto) as the place at which to sell or launch a movie. True, Oscar nominee Transamerica did have its premiere at the last festival—but only God and Harvey Weinstein know if the Weinstein brothers weren't already planning to make that acquisition. (Other recent releases that found distributors at Tribeca include 4 and Ushpizin; The Power of Nightmares, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, and Night Watch were local premieres.)

Perhaps such inside baseball is irrelevant. Tribeca executive director Peter Scarlet, longtime head of the San Francisco Film Festival and former director of the Cinémathéque Française, has brought an urbane, genuinely cosmopolitan quality to the selection—choice restorations, an amazing assortment of documen-taries, any number of movies wrested away from New Directors/New Films and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, and new work by the likes of Chris Marker, Guy Maddin, Jan Svankmajer, Ken Jacobs, Claude Chabrol, Chen Kaige, and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, plus some things you'll never hear of again.

This year's festival (April 25 through May 7) has spread further from sacred ground—in some cases all the way up to West 68th Street, the heart of Lincoln Center–land. Two weeks, four competitions, 250-plus movies—find 40 recom- mended below (see tribecafilmfestival.org for screening times). Am I allowed to say, let's roll . . . film?


Air Guitar Nation

"My long strums are pretty fucking tight," gushes one faux-ax-stroker in this slick, hilarious, and at times even suspenseful ode to competitive mock-rock and/or the further decline of Western civ. Power-chord mimes here include Krye Tuff, Bjorn Turoque, and the kung fu–styled C. Diddy, who handily wins stateside air-solo honors and proceeds to the world cup in Finland, whereupon this American Idle turns, uh, political. Though the licensing of "classic" licks from Van Halen et al. makes the doc definitive, you just know that Paramount is prepping a Jack Black remake even as we wank. Rob Nelson

Al Franken: God Spoke

Unfocused but fun (and a tad revealing), this all-access bio-doc from the Pennebaker crew plays like a stand-up comedy film to the extent that its subject—SNL vet turned liberal muckraker and Senate hopeful Al Franken—is rarely if ever offstage. God would be a campaign tool as well, except that the star's stridency, however entertaining, suggests a limited potential for conversion. Turning to face the voters in Minnesota, the comic Kerry supporter flip-flops on whether to scrub his potty mouth. Politics is showbiz, to be sure—but when it comes to dick jokes in Keillor country, all bets are off. R.N.

Backstage

Isild Le Besco, possessor of the most expressive overbite in contemporary cinema, hurtles through writer-director Emmanuelle Bercot's second feature as unpredictably as a contraband bottle rocket. In Bercot's elusive, unsettling study in celebrity worship, Le Besco plays a suburban teen pulled into the orbit of her self-obsessed pop star idol (Polanski muse Emmanuelle Seigner, frosty and leonine). As their double-edged relationship veers from therapeutic to parasitic, Bercot keys the movie's ever shifting tone to Le Besco's seismic emotional volatility, while Agnés Godard's camera watches like a bodyguard ready to pounce. Jim Ridley

The Big Combo

A private, obsessive duel between cop Cornel Wilde and gangster Richard Conte is at the heart of this extraordinary work—one of the last great film noirs and cult B director Joseph H. Lewis's masterpiece. John Alton's baroque camerawork creates a dazzlingly rich black-and-white texture in deep-focus setups, while Conte's sadistic gay hit men (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman) display a devotion to each other of which the heterosexual protagonists are clearly incapable. And there's one for the history books—in a love scene between Conte and Jean Wallace we're treated to the first U.S. mainstream movie implication of oral sex. A new UCLA archive restoration print will be shown. Elliott Stein

The Blood of My Brother

Andrew Berends's documentary approaches the Iraq war through the sorrow of one family—and particularly one person: Ibrahim, a young man forced to head his household after the death of his brother, killed by an American patrol while guarding a major mosque. At times frustratingly scant with context, the film is nevertheless provocative in illuminating the underpinnings of a culture of martyrdom. Scenes of the family's grieving are supplemented with footage of the occupation, including one sequence when Iraqi police gun down a nonviolent protest—with the camera just outside the line of fire. Ben Kenigsberg

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