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Tribeca '08

See these movies

With a more selective lineup of films and lower ticket prices, this year's Tribeca Film Festival clearly aims to please some of last year's detractors (who, us?). Yes, the-not-exactly-festival-y Baby Mama opens and Speed Racer closes, but in between, there are some pretty outstanding finds that won't be enjoying a studio ad blitz any time soon.

Because we at the Voice like nice, round numbers, here are our 13 picks.

Baghead
Directed by Jay Duplass
April 26, 29; May 1, 3

A frequently bracing, lo-fi revisitation of the concept behind the 1972 zombie flick Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things—ham actors isolated in the woods can't decipher if the horror stalking them is real, or their own theatrical prankishness run amok—the Duplass brothers' latest imagines four Hollywood never-beens holed up in an isolated cabin to write themselves a breakthrough. The earmarks of a recently fashionable strain of improv-driven indie naturalism are present, including dialogue that blatantly displays every motive (though in characters whose days are filled with sitcom auditions, such banality has a plausible source). And despite the familiar fetish for sad-sack emasculation, what's resonant are the empathetic portraits of beautiful people who've watched their prospects recede each passing year: Ross Partridge as a hired jawline who might've paid a decade's rent standing in for Mel Gibson, and modelesque Elise Muller's character, who can't figure where it all went wrong, bragging that Jim Harbaugh asked her out a beat before realizing that she's dated herself. Nick Pinkerton


Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans
Directed by Lolis Eric Elie and Dawn Logsdon
April 25, 26, 28; May 1, 2

Even before Katrina, when most of this charming yet hard-hitting documentary was filmed, its focus was timely and essential. Once a colonial-era suburb (faubourg, in French), now a hardscrabble New Orleans section bordering the French Quarter, Tremé may be America's oldest black neighborhood. When narrator, co-director, and Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie buys a dilapidated house there, his septuagenarian Creole carpenter opens a window to the area's history of creative ferment and social resistance: how 19th-century residents created symphonies and literature; the nurturing of early-20th-century jazz; the Civil War–era founding of the country's first black newspaper; and a civil-rights movement, long pre-dating Rosa Parks, that instigated Plessy v. Ferguson's challenge to segregation. In Katrina's wake, the film's deft blend of first-person narrative and archival photos, contemporary talking heads and theatrical recreation, underscores Elie's question: "How can our past help us survive this time?" Larry Blumenfeld


Guest of Cindy Sherman
Directed by Tom Donahue and Paul Hasegawa-Overacker
April 27, 29; May 1, 2, 3

Guest of Cindy Sherman, the title of Tom Donahue and Paul Hasegawa-Overacker's shambolic, weirdly compelling documentary, refers to an incident—a placecard, specifically—that was the undoing of the latter co-director's romance with the notoriously elusive artist. Tracking the beginnings of Paul H-O's dishy cable-access show, Gallery Beat, the film depicts the high-flying New York art world of the late '80s and '90s, including the year—1990—that Cindy Sherman broke big. Her wry self-portraits attract celebrities, major bucks, and the brash Paul H-O, whose persistence scores him a rare invitation to Sherman's studio. Footage from the interviews he conducted there reveal a fluttery, adorable figure whose nerves betray a woman smitten. Scores of interviews with art-scene players give dimension to the strange story of Cindy and Paul; she disappears from the film, and he disappears, quite loudly, into her haute-fabulous shadow. His lament for their relationship encompasses a greater loss—that of an art community where even the riffraff were welcomed, and occasionally loved. Michelle Orange


Idiots and Angels
Directed by Bill Plympton
April 26, 27, 30; May 3

Cult animator Bill Plympton's hand-penciled expressionism is most recognizable from his shorts, likely because his deadpan, spatial-distorting sight gags often can't sustain momentum in feature form, almost by design. Yet his beautifully creepy fifth film somehow transcends this limitation and proves his most fully realized yet, a grim fairy-tale comedy about a truculent businessman who discovers angelic wings sprouting from his back. Told without a word of dialogue, the mean bastard undergoes a spiritual awakening as his new appendages thwart his every transgression, a humiliating rise-fall-and-rise tale that affects a bar owner and his salsa-dancing wife, a conniving surgeon, and a town full of arson victims. Less concerned with gags than nimble storytelling and wide-screen aesthetics (every brooding corner of the frame is blotted in monochromatic noir hues), Plympton mines elegance from the utterly gonzo. Aaron Hillis


Lou Reed's Berlin
Directed by Julian Schnabel
May 1, 2

Concert films are dicey: You weren't there, you didn't get drunk and rubbed by those strangers, and your red Netflix envelope is no proper souvenir. But Lou Reed's Berlin is one of those rare live-performance documents that truly benefits from proper cinematic context. Reed's 1973 Berlin, the 10-song tragedy of two junkie lovers, was criminally under-appreciated at the time of its release—turns out it's nothing short of a masterpiece. Whoops. And until a five-day stretch at St. Ann's Warehouse in 2006, famously grumpy Lou had never performed the record live in full. Fellow 800-pound-gorilla Julian Schnabel showed up with sets, cameras, and ethereal druggy-people projections—pseudo-narrative scenes that end up delicately interspersed within the final cut. The result is a dreamy sepia-toned tableau of existential desolation and art-house incandescence. You weren't there, but you didn't need to be: Lou Reed's Berlin doesn't simply regurgitate a moment, it rewrites cultural history. Camille Dodero


Man on Wire
Directed by James Marsh
April 26, 27, 29; May 4

In 1974, French funambulist Philippe Petit and his determined cohorts smuggled and installed a high-wire rig on top of the World Trade Center, where Petit then walked, danced, and laid down between the Twin Towers—criminal performance art to the ESPN2 extreme. In Brit filmmaker James Marsh's exhilarating doc account—a crowd-pleaser in such witty, poetic ways that even an art-house curmudgeon couldn't deny its tidy vigor—Petit's adventure, from dentist's-office inspiration and eight months of scheming to the ultimate stunt, is re-enacted like a slick heist thriller. Errol Morris couldn't have done it better, at least not with such understatement: Never mentioning 9/11 beyond the hint of a poignant photo shot from below, Marsh shows Petit becoming as one with the sky as a nearby plane. Aaron Hillis


My Winnipeg
Directed by Guy Maddin
April 24, 30; May 4

Guy Maddin's love-hate letter to his Manitoba hometown is, like Brand Upon the Brain! and Cowards Bend the Knee before it, a documentary-ish dreamscape with one foot in cinema's earliest era and the other in his own subconscious. But more than just a whimsical curiosity, My Winnipeg takes an extraordinary leap forward, as Maddin folds archival footage seamlessly into his pomo-retro stylizations to produce genuine intrigue, laugh-out-loud comedy, nostalgia for a place most of us have never been to, and—oddest of all—truth. Maddin narrates and eulogizes the ambiguous history of "the heart of the heart of the continent" (a park built on a garbage dump, a three-story public pool segregated by gender, a fake Nazi holiday—is this place for real?) with a cast of sleepwalkers like the younger "Guy" (Darcy Fehr) and his overbearing mother, as played by the narrator's "mother" ('40s femme fatale Ann Savage). Aaron Hillis


Night Tide
Directed by Curtis Harrington
April 29; May 4

The 1961 feature debut by the recently deceased Curtis Harrington, whose full filmography begs attention (The Killing Kind!), gets a welcome restoration. A proto avant-gardist in 1940s L.A., Harrington forays here into cheapjack Tourneur atmospherics, under the auspices of Roger Corman's production company AIP. A sailor on leave chats up a dark, ethereal girl on the amusement pier. She has a reputation on the boardwalk: Previous boyfriends came to bad ends; hired to play mermaid at the sideshow, there's a suspicion that she has actual mythical origins. For his lead, Harrington hired friend Dennis Hopper, his career then in TV-Western purgatory. He's disarmingly gentle and serious here, in sync with the film's sad quietude—the washed-out seediness of the Venice Beach locales is not soon forgotten. Nick Pinkerton


Playing
Directed by Eduardo Coutinho
April 29; May 1, 3, 4

Playing is weirdly mesmerizing for a movie that consists almost entirely of Brazilian women sitting on a stage in an empty theater, telling their life stories. Half of them are talking about themselves; the others are actresses hired to impersonate the original storytellers, word for word and gesture for gesture. They might sway or wave their arms or raise their eyes to the sky for emphasis, but the camera always holds their heads firmly within its fixed gaze. Subjects are probed and prodded by director Eduardo Coutinho, who conceived of the film as a way to explore the relationship between acting and playing. The whole thing is highly conceptual, and worth a watch if only for the mind-reeling sensation of observing two women—one "real" and one "fake"—chip away at the same character simultaneously. Julia Wallace


Redbelt
Directed by David Mamet
April 25, 27

The synopsis in the press notes for Redbelt, the latest meditation on American malehood from the heart and loins of David Mamet, is three pages long. Surprisingly, it's the talkiest thing about this labyrinthine, sequence-driven movie. Mamet's steely, staccato language is still in evidence, largely by way of a super-chill ethical vessel named Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose manifold codes of honor derive from the martial arts. A Desert Storm veteran with a demanding Brazilian wife (Alice Braga) and a jujitsu studio where he puts cops, thugs, and rape victims through their paces, Terry is a fighter, not a competitor. A series of chance encounters (most absurdly, with a Hollywood fat cat played by Tim Allen), however, conspire to get him back in the ring. Mamet is clearly enthralled with the world of body drops, Zen koans, and fight-movie motifs, but his self-seriousness actually works in favor of this satisfyingly overblown genre romp. Michelle Orange


The Secret of the Grain
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
April 28, 29, 30; May 4

This overlong but absorbing drama turns an intensely detail-oriented eye to a Franco-Arabic community in a depressed seaside town. Slimane (Habib Boufares), a freshly laid-off dockworker, is the shy and stoic center of a raucous extended family. Prodded by his stubborn but doting stepdaughter (the magnetic young actress Hafsia Herzi), he takes tentative steps toward realizing a dream: opening a restaurant that sells his ex-wife's famous fish couscous (the secretive grain of the title). Some abrupt transitions punctuate the film's long stretches of dense, Altmanesque chatter, but director Abdellatif Kechiche captures his milieu just right—the gossip, the good food, the endless gutting and eating of fish. Julia Wallace


Simple Things
Directed by Aleksei Popogrebski
April 26, 28, 30; May 1, 2

Aleksei Popogrebski's solo directorial debut tells the story of a handsome but bumbling Russian anesthesiologist (theater director Sergei Puskepalis, strikingly Clooneyesque in face and bearing) who just can't seem to get anything right. His teenage daughter has run away with a lout (though he's curiously blasé about this development), his mistress is mad at him, and his wife is newly pregnant. Hurting for money, he takes a second job shooting up an elderly actor with pain meds. Despite the circumstances, there's nothing flashy here: Popogrebski, a former psychologist, is patient and loving with his characters, and perfectly attuned to the rhythms of everyday life. Julia Wallace


Somers Town
Directed by Shane Meadows
April 24, 26, 28; May 1, 3

Director Shane Meadows is of a rare breed, touching headline issues in his films without ever putting human interplay at the service of some message. His Somers Town details an inter-dialect friendship between an adolescent Midlands runaway (wizened Thomas Turgoose, who also starred in Meadows's This Is England) and a young Polish immigrant (Piotr Jagiello), a big, uneasy kid with an incongruously piping voice and photography hobby that makes him stand out amid the jostling biceps of his father's construction-worker buddies. The slight runtime is mostly devoted to deadpan anecdotage—the outfits Turgoose improvises after getting his bag nicked, or the hustling he endures from a neighborhood crap vendor (Perry Benson). Cinematographer Natasha Braier's ringing silver-and-black London is enough to refute the tenacious idea that visual articulacy somehow contradicts honesty. The ending coda, something like a Scopitone set to a lullaby-soft song, is a dream of trans-European goodwill . . . and the film's actually worthy of the sentimental indulgence. Nick Pinkerton

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