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

Brothers of the Head

As improbably touching as the Farrelly brothers' Stuck on You, this mock-doc tracks the rise and fall of a conjoined-twin glam-rock act in polysexual, Performance-era England. The tone is anything but mocking: Directors Keith Pepe and Louis Fulton (who made the Terry Gilliam doc Lost in La Mancha) avoid Behind the Music snark, focusing instead on period textures and oddball details (weirdest of all, an aborted Ken Russell biopic). The golden-hued footage is impeccably faked by ace cinematographer (and Dogme vet) Anthony Dod Mantle. Dennis Lim

The Case of the Grinning Cat

As lively, engaged, and provocative as ever (not least in his use of digital technology), octogenarian Chris Marker meditates on the state of post–9-11 France. Part personal essay, part city symphony, this hour-long video takes as its premise the mysterious appearance of the enigmatic M. Chat—a wide-eyed, broadly smiling feline mascot who magically appears on Paris rooftops and building walls, as well as at political demonstrations. A minor mystery: The movie is dated 2004. Why has it taken so long to arrive here? J. Hoberman

Colour Me Kubrick

John Malkovich has recently played Gustav Klimt, Charles II, and of course himself, but this might be his most out-there performance yet. In Brian Cook's broad, breezy comedy, based on a real-life case, the up-for-anything thesp plays Alan Conway, a gay, effete, alcoholic slob who in the late '90s passed himself off as Stanley Kubrick. The lack of physical resemblance and the impostor's hilariously limited knowledge of the filmmaker's work didn't stop him from hustling his way into several bedrooms and bank accounts. The movie feels a touch attenuated even at 80 minutes, but Malkovich is transfixing, and his ridiculous mincing even attains a tragic dimension. D.L.

Comedy of Power

Fictionalizing the notorious "Elf Affair" that sent scores of corrupt French CEOs and oil execs to prison in 2003, New Wave lion Claude Chabrol casually stretches in the sun of a legal procedural that typically has less to do with facts than character and social intercourse. Isabelle Huppert, as the chief investigating judge of a corruption scandal involving millions in state funds, sauces up the movie so indelibly it evolves into a post- feminist character study. Her workaholic avenging angel, dangerously underfed and self-amused, is pathologically invulnerable—even as the murder threats pour in. Therein lies her charm, and Huppert's star power. Michael atkinson

Day Break

In Iran, where a condemned criminal can only be executed or pardoned after a face-to-face meeting with his victim's family, Mansour (Hossein Yari) waits for his life-or-death appointment . . . and waits, and waits. Hamid Rahmanian's assured film begins in faux-documentary mode as a taut consideration of capital punishment in Iran, but it eventually switches gears to become a reticent interior journey, as Mansour's apprehension about his fate slowly transforms into the agony of a living death. Jessica Winter

The Dignity of the Nobodies

Radical thunderflash Fernando Solanas proceeds with his searing career project—documenting Argentina's political plunder and its human costs, for all the world to see—with this continuation of 2004's fist-in-your-face history lesson A Social Genocide. Here he focuses on "the usual victims," peasants knowledgeable enough about who's guilty to use the term neoliberalism during incessant street protests. Solanas makes the third-world poverty doc look easy and imperative, examining how collective activity—soup kitchens, farm auction interventions, factory takeovers—has spontaneously arisen from the IMF-dictated exploitation. M.A.

Home Front

Left blind and brain-damaged in Iraq, army ranger Jeremy Feldbusch returns home to Pennsylvania into the care of his parents; he faces an uncertain and depressingly sedentary future, but does link up with other vets to lobby Congress for the "Wounded Warrior" bill. Richard Hankin's poker-faced documentary is conventional in its outlines, but it's alarmingly valuable as a working sketch of the pro-war heartland circa now. J.W.

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis

Already controversial within experimental-film circles—not least due to ongoing legal battles over the legendary downtown artist's estate—Mary Jordan's long-awaited doc is surprisingly snappy; ironically, for celebrating such an uncompromising figure, it's one of the most accessible portraits of an avant-garde filmmaker ever made. Best known for the scandalous '60s flick Flaming Creatures, Smith is depicted as the unsung force behind the rise of the Warhol star system and performance art, and an anti-capitalist ranter whose personal philosophy embodied the ne plus ultra of undergroundness. Ed Halter

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

The ultimate death knell for '60s idealism sounded on November 18, 1978, at Jonestown, Guyana, where Reverend Jim Jones and more than 900 acolytes of his Peoples Temple destroyed their utopian aims in a paroxysm of paranoia, murder, and mass suicide. The conventional PBS formatting of Stanley Nelson's documentary only makes Jones's rise from Indiana pet monkey salesman to pansexual socialist megalomaniac more surreal—and heartbreaking, given the noble early goals described by still-dazed survivors. In the end, there's just the grim evidence of the doc's horrifying last half-hour, the on-camera slaughter of a dream: history as Cannibal Holocaust. J.R.

Land of the Blind

Bizarrely and rather dunderheadedly outrageous, radicalized undergrounder Robert Edwards's first feature imagines a fictionalized ur-nation bouncing from the reign of a Caligula-like despot (Tom Hollander), to a quasi-socialist revolution led by a playwright/messiah (Donald Sutherland), to a Stalinist/Taliban fascism. Who exactly is the one-eyed man in this Mad magazine version of dialectical materialism isn't clear; it surely isn't Ralph Fiennes, as the passive hero who graduates from being a good soldier to being Winston Smith in a re-education torture chamber. M.A.

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

Gerald Fox's documentary follows photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank around his twin demesnes of the Bowery and Nova Scotia, frequently in the company of his longtime partner, artist June Leaf. Early on, it's unclear whether Fox or the cantankerous Frank is directing this picture. Copious interspersed footage from Frank's photography, films (including Pull My Daisyand Cocksucker Blues), and video diaries join the artist's street-side and studio-bound reminiscences and observations, piecing together an image of a man whose life and art could never be truly extricated. E.H.

Lunacy

Inspired by—or rather, a self-proclaimed "infantile tribute to"—Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade, Jan Svankmajer's latest is a bracing blast of old-school surrealism. The Czech master punctuates live action with delirious stop-motion animation of assorted meats (steaks, tongues, mince) in this brooding meditation on freedom and control—the final film on which he collaborated with his late wife, Eva, and a cranky allegory that views the world as mental institution. D.L.

Maquilopolis

Though not the slickest anti-globalization doc to head through the festival pipeline in recent years, Maquilopolis may be one of the most brutal in its indictment of how multinationals run roughshod over the lives of third-worlders. Visiting the near-border cluster of Mexican maquiladoras where low-paid women assemble goods ranging from toys to TVs for first-world consumption, the filmmakers reveal a ravaged landscape of sewage-filled streets, toxin-threatened children, and 19th-century-style workplace conditions. The story, focusing on a successful group of activist workers, attempts hope, but the bigger picture implies otherwise. E.H.

Men at Work

Four middle-aged Iranian men on their way home from a ski trip come across a mysterious rock formation, which they, just as mysteriously, become obsessed with trying to dislodge. Allegory with a capital A, Men at Work happily doubles as a knowing comedy of contemporary masculine anxieties—the endless difficulties with women, the inevitability of aging, and the perpetual inadequacy of the available tools for the job at hand. Based on a story by Abbas Kiarostami, director Mani Haghighi's feature debut cribs a few signature shots of cars winding their way along mountain roads. Joshua Land

The Mist in the Palm Trees

One of the most concentrated acts of imaginative filmmaking in years and a tempestuous contender for the richest found-footage feature ever made, this Cuban faux memoir by Carlos Molinero and Lola Salvador dips in and out of the lost consciousness of a fictional scientist, freedom fighter, and vanished father, roaming around the history of the early century as it climaxed with the advent of the Manhattan Project. Unlikely nexuses are formed between fin de siécle nudie postcards, the history of Havana, Orson Welles, nuclear physics, and the home movies of countless forgotten childhoods. A rousing, intoxicating blast of movie-movie enigmatism. M.A.

My Dad Is 100 Years Old

Made with Guy Maddin, Isabella Rossellini's shrewd and tender childlike tribute to Italian neorealism's founding figure visualizes Roberto Rossellini as the big belly against which she once hurled herself. The actress takes pleasure in portraying her father's aesthetic antagonists—Hitchcock, Selznick, Fellini—as well as an angelic Chaplin and her mother, Ingrid Bergman. Maddin, another anti-Rossellini, frames this grave, hilarious psychodrama as an educational film, manfully accepting its implied criticism: "My father would call those camera moves immoral, because they are pretentious and unnecessary." A new print of Rossellini's 1950 The Flowers of St. Francis completes the bill. J.H.

On the Bowery

On the Town, On the Waterfront, on the bum . . . Newly restored, Lionel Rogosin's 1957 skid row documentary—two years in the making—is a quintessential chunk of New York history and not just because the old Third Avenue elevated is a harsh and haunting presence. Rogosin frequented Bowery dives and flophouses; he used a hidden camera and some cannily staged scenes to dramatize a particular white working- class culture where desire under the el is mainly for a bottle of cheap muscatel. Running just over an hour, the result is closer to underground movie than cinema vérité. J.H.

The One Percent

Doc-maker Jamie Johnson—already famous as the scion of the Johnson & Johnson dynasty and sardonic navel-gazer behind 2003's Born Rich—takes on the current state of real-life American economics from a privileged place inside the citadel. Johnson doesn't know very much, but he talks to the right people: Ralph Nader, Robert Reich, Adnan Khashoggi, Milton Friedman, Bill Gates Sr., and scores of citizens from the bottom rung, including members of the Katrina displaced. Best of all, he grills his family, effectively trying to piss off his self-righteous elders and get himself written out of their wills. M.A.

Ontic Antics

Laurel and Hardy give their greatest posthumous performance in Ken Jacobs's transformation of the team's 1929 two-reel talkie Berth Marks into a feature-length sensory blitz. A fantastic pulsating strobe created by the alternation of (flipped) frames, as well as various other forms of screen-splitting repetitions, this hyper-visceral presentation is not for the fainthearted (or for anyone prone to epileptic seizure). The original narrative isn't deconstructed, it's detonated—Ollie is made to dance and Stan to fly. Predicated on the fundamental fact of motion pictures, the experience is avant-garde yet archaic. Ontic (as in ontological) Antics indeed. J.H.

A Perfect Day

A sullen Lebanese mood piece in which the entirety of Beirut seems haunted in its details by the civil war of 1988, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige's film studies a day in the lives of a widow still waiting for her long- disappeared husband to return, and her grown son, who is plagued by a wholly symbolic case of narcolepsy. They bridle at the sense of stasis in their lives, and the movie feels hypnotically on the verge of a disaster that never comes—or has come and gone years before. A big winner at Locarno and an eloquent experience thanks largely to the city itself and contents-under-pressure performances, especially by the Magnani-esque Julia Kassar. M.A.

Prix de Beauté

In her final starring role, Louise Brooks plays a Parisian typist who wins a beauty contest and dumps her boyfriend, with tragic consequences. Augusto Genina's direction is routine, but this is a cinematographer's movie, from the dazzling location shooting to the beautifully lit projection room climax. Cameraman Rudolph Mates does wonders with Brooks's radiant face—her performance is an irresistible mix of innocence and eroticism. The film began shooting as a silent, sound was added, and it was released in four languages. The rarely revived silent version will be shown, preceded by Giovanni Pastrone's The Fall of Troy, an important film in the history of set design—the magnificent decors often give a sense of bound- less space in contrast to the one-dimensional sets of earlier historical pictures. E.S.

Punching at the Sun

A South Asian teen grapples with the loss of his brother on the mean streets of Elmhurst, Queens. Tanuj Chopra's first feature doesn't deviate much from the coming-of-age template, but it has a tenderness and intimacy that recall recent small-scale NYC triumphs like Our Song and Raising Victor Vargas, not to mention a dazed summer-in-the-city energy proudly lifted from early Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. D.L.

Shoot the Messenger

An acerbic identity-politics analysis served up in a contemporary picaresque, Ngozi Onwurah's sprightly satire combines wry, dark humor with TV-movie style melodrama. "I hate black people," soliloquizes protag Joe. "I hate being black. Being black feels like a curse." Cursed he may be: Joe's fortunes propel him from hardnosed schoolteacher to homeless beggar, mental patient, Christian charity case, job placement officer, and cocktail partygoer. The film travels through these numerous pockets of black British culture with an eye for social detail that's equal parts Spike Lee and Charles Dickens. E.H.

The Shutka Book of Records

Another shot rang out from the Balkan hinterlands, this Macedonian doc is as whimsical and subjective as nonfiction gets—but its wild sense of absurdity and peasant magic sprouts from the native soil of what is apparently Eastern Europe's largest and most famous all-Rom village. Recording Shutka's daily life, first-timer Aleksandar Manic (who is a resident and a doctor) offers up dervishes, unseen genies, silent-movie antics, psychotic entrepreneurs, obsessives of all stripes, South American soap operas, Tito fetishists, nonstop music, and "champions" whose "most" and "best" achievements you'll never find in Guinness. M.A.

Sounds of Silence

Amir Hamz and Mark Lazarz's low-tech but meticulous doc explores the vagaries of the Iranian music industry, an apparent hall of mirrors in which contemporary musicians, producers, and even retailers never know for sure what is permissible under sharia and what is not. The articulation (particularly of rock journalist Shadi Vatanparast) of the regime's byzantine rules for lyric content, women singers, musical tone, etc., speaks volumes politically, even as the officially condemned culture persists in a nation where nearly 65 percent of the populace is 25 or under. M.A.

Street Thief

Believed responsible for some 100 safecrackings since 1996, Chicago-based burglar Kaspar Carr is the subject of this transfixing documentary. Filmmakers Malik Bader and Miles Harrison strive for a comprehensive view of the "profession," following Carr through months of painstaking preparation and, most provocatively, riding along on several jobs, including a six-figure score at a suburban multiplex. Bader and Harrison largely ignore the obvious ethical questions raised by their enterprise, which must be why their final-act turn to the police in a desperate effort to explain Carr's still unsolved 2004 disappearance feels so self-serving. J.L.

Taking Father Home

The dizzying chasm between urban and rural China—a perennial subject in Jia Zhangke's films—is fodder for blunt melodrama in Ying Liang's first feature. An obstinate village kid heads to the big city in search of the father who abandoned him years ago, his motives suspended between revenge and reconciliation. Ying's knack for framing overrides the no-budget production values, and he even manages a credible late shift from black comedy to tragedy. D.L.

Tell Me Do You Miss Me

Matthew Buzzell's doc about the farewell tour of cult heroes Luna amounts to a grubby indie-rock scale-down of The Last Waltz—less an epic send-off than a grueling long goodbye of sound checks, nightly gigs, and endless van rides with people who can barely tolerate each other's company. But the film has a mournful, sleep-deprived mood that matches the melodic Velvety drone of the group's songs, underlined by the prickly, weary offstage chemistry of band members Dean Wareham, Britta Phillips, Sean Eden, and Lee Wall. The result may likely create new fans now that it's too late—which seems fitting. J.R.

The Treatment

Based on Daniel Menaker's novel, this New York rom-com is full of backbeats and unpredictable bounce, limning the existence of a neurotic prep school English teacher (Chris Eigeman) as he meets and tries to court a sweet and wealthy widow (Famke Janssen) and, more importantly, does psychological battle with his analyst (Ian Holm), an Argentine Freudian whose therapy methods quietly range from the surreal to the sadistic. In documentarian Oren Rudavsky's first fiction film, the idiosyncratic characters are so resistant to formula it's as if they were each scripted by a different writer, sitting in a different room. M.A.

Two Players From the Bench

What would the TFF be without a mordant comedy from the Balkans? This Croatian farce, played out in post-Kusturica spittle and bombast, sticks a war-embittered Serb and Croat together in a locked room; at first black-market kidney traffic is in the offing, but then both are coerced into masquerading as look-alikes to defend a Serbian war criminal at the Hague. Director Dejan Sorak's movie makes dry comedy about things we have not been conditioned by history to find amusing (white slavery, torture, unmarked graves). More's the better. M.A.

Viva Zapatero!

If government complicity in media consoli- dation makes you want to flee the U.S., don't move to Italy. As this fast and furious doc bewails, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi controls a good nine-tenths of the nation's media, which in 2003 helped enable him to force the cancellation of Sabina Guzzanti's raucous state-TV comedy RAIot. Thus separated from her audience, the comedian retaliated by taking her act on the road and filming the proceedings to even more scathing effect. Guzzanti is both a genius curtain-peeler and an utterly fearless activist; she makes Al Franken look like Buddy Hackett. R.N.

Voices of Bam

Iran's 2003 earthquake all but flattened the ancient city of Bam, where a population of 140,000 suddenly experienced the loss of 30,000 neighbors and loved ones. This filmed document of a city attempting to continue with life after mass death eschews formal story- telling in favor of humble witnessing. The results combine three elements: post-disaster footage of denizens getting on with the mundanities of everyday existence amid heaps of rubble, mute images of tattered family snapshots depicting pre-quake life, and the titular voice-overs by survivors, mostly addressing lost family members, but occasionally pressing God for answers. E.H.

Wordplay

In Patrick Creadon's diverting doc, New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz emerges as the benignly sadistic lord of a realm of word-crazy puzzleheads—the kind of folks who can't help but notice the flip of a consonant turns Dunkin' Donuts into "Unkind Donuts." Creadon follows Shortz to the national championship in Stamford, Connecticut, pausing for profiles of the contenders as well as puzzlemaster Merl Reagle, whose nimble tutorial on the history, form, and construction of crossword puzzles is riveting. Enjoy Creadon's film as a peek inside an obsessive subculture—or simply your chance to watch puzzle fan Jon Stewart wrack his brain alongside Ken Burns, Mike Mussina, Bill Clinton, and the Indigo Girls. J.R.

The Yacoubian Building

This three-hour Egyptian epic-—the most expensive ever made—has been crafted (in the old school, by youngish pro Marwan Hamed) as a massive Arabic soap opera, a Cairo-based Gone With the Wind swoony with mourning for a privileged colonialist past and with fascination for the bloody ideological conflicts of the present. Notably in a nation with notoriously strict censorship laws, Hamed's film revolves around the need for, and degeneration of, sex and money, and it's groundbreakingly frank about homosexuality and female exploitation. Hammy, lavish, and often thunderfooted, the movie is an immersion in rare ethnographic pulp. M.A.

Soy Boricua, Pa' Que Tú Lo Sepas! (I'm Boricua, Just So You Know!)

Until Puerto Ricans get the 20-hour Ken Burns–style documentary we deserve, there's Rosie Perez's remarkable directorial debut. Packing more than five centuries of culture in under 90 minutes, it delves into chapters even history books would rather forget: the Taino genocide, state-sponsored mass migration, forced sterilizations, the islander-Nuyorican divide. Not bad for a down-to-earth labor of love framed as a home movie of Perez's search for her family and her roots. Funny, heartbreaking, and essential—a generation ago, you could get arrested just for watching this. Bravo. Jorge Morales

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