The inaugural Tribeca Film Festival offers a sneak preview of the box office hopefuls Hollywood will be rolling out over the coming weeks, including opening-night attraction About a Boy (an adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel, with Hugh Grant), Insomnia (Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to Memento, pitting Al Pacino against Robin Williams), and Attack of the Clones. Two of the Star Wars screenings are reserved for families hit hardest by September 11; the festival itself, co-founded by Robert De Niro, is foremost a celebrity rally for resurgent Lower Manhattan (venues include the Screening Room, Stuyvesant High School, and the Tribeca Performing Arts Center; see tribecafilmfestival.org for complete listings). The jury for best fiction feature: Barry Levinson, Frances McDormand, Kevin Spacey, and, um, Janet Maslin.
The 15 movies in competition, however, are largely characterized by low profiles and lower budgets. Squiggly digital video is the dominant format, and the filmmakers—only first-timers were eligible—are as apt to flaunt their narrow aesthetic palette as camouflage it. Vojko Anzeljc’s cheerfully vulgar The Last Supper, for example, takes the form of an improvised romance shot on the fly by two escaped mental patients (and became last year’s highest-grossing domestic film in Slovenia). And the bleary, addled DV maneuverings of Manito match rhythm to its torrid, blustery environs: In Washington Heights at the first flush of summer, an extended Latino family is caught between a criminal past and an upstanding middle-class future. Director Eric Eason has an ear for peppery banter, but his melodramatic climax is as overdetermined as it is unlikely.
The most technically accomplished of the competing films available for preview, the lurid Morlang jumps back and forth in time to piece together the death of an aging artist’s adulterous wife. Tjebbo Penning’s film applies too much force behind its hairpin turns, but broad scripting and acting are counterbalanced by crisp photography, shivery sound design, and well-chosen debts—Atom Egoyan’s entire oeuvre with shades of Ian McEwan’s novel Amsterdam.
Anxiety of influence is the driving impetus behind the sole animated feature. Luis Eduardo Aute’s wordless, non-narrative A Dog Called Pain, made up of some 4000 dusky, Gorey-like pencil drawings, catalogs iconic images by the likes of Goya, García Lorca, Velázquez, and Kahlo. The leaden theme—mapping the link between womanly plenitude and martyrdom—only exacerbates the film’s overlength. But Aute is so enthralled by his ghostly mentors—and his omnipresent odalisques, with their milk-fountain breasts and neat-trimmed hedges—that A Dog Called Pain may appeal to your inner voyeur, if only because its making seems such a private, obsessive act. —Jessica Winter
In the disturbing tabloid documentary Telling Nicholas, the most controversial of the nonfiction films in the Tribeca festival, filmmaker James Ronald Whitney spots a poster of a seven-year-old boy with his mother, who went missing on September 11. On September 12, Whitney journeys to the child’s Staten Island home to discover a dysfunctional family in denial and unable to tell the boy his mother may be dead. Enlisting the help of TV talk-show therapist Dr. Gilda Carle, Whitney and crew enable the grieving process à la Sally Jessy, capturing the grandmother’s fainting spells, a sister’s ability to see “negative entities,” and an apostolic father who takes 10 days to finally talk to his son.
Less exploitive but just as devastating, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Afghan Alphabet examines the educational crisis of young Afghan refugees on the Iranian border. Videotaping during the U.S. campaign, Makhmalbaf singles out one nervous girl who refuses to remove her burka in class for fear of retribution, even though she is out of Taliban hands. “Bombarding can ruin a political regime but it cannot change a culture,” the Iranian director writes on his Web site. “The Afghan girl needs education.”
The dangers of over-education get their due in Spellbound, a breezy highlight in the competition section. Director Jeff Blitz tracks eight economically and racially diverse nerds on the road to the U.S. National Spelling Bee in 1999. (One mother is warned, “It’s a unique form of child abuse.”) Teens face another rite of passage in Devil’s Playground (soon to be broadcast on Cinemax), Lucy Walker’s look at Amish youth raising hell during a period called “rumspringa” in which they are allowed to experience the “English” world before joining the church. Another cable doc, Kristi Jacobson’s HBO film American Standoff (produced by Barbara Kopple) is a stirring labor chronicle, following a bitter Teamsters strike that began in October 1999 and still continues.
In the risky category of personal documentary, actor Adrian Grenier searches for his long-lost father in the mildly amusing A Shot in the Dark, and Mark Moskowitz goes on a multi-year mission (barely condensed at 141 minutes) to find out what happened to one-book-writer Dow Mossman in the Slamdance winner Stone Reader. The best of the quests, and not coincidentally the shortest, is That’s My Face (E Minha Cara), Thomas Allen Harris’s lyrical voyage to Brazil in a poignant attempt to understand his spiritual and racial identity. The impressionist beauty of Harris’s Super-8 footage should give pause to anyone continuing to shoot their documentaries on digital video. —Anthony Kaufman
Assembled in six quick months, the Tribeca fete may push the city’s festival capacity past its tipping point in years to come, but for now, it’s a hearty party, Marty. Indeed, Scorsese has stepped up to offset the fat premieres and what seem like Sundance rejects with a few sweet sidebars. Firstly, there’s a selection of recent restorations funded by the Film Foundation: Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, Hawks’s The Big Sky, Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe, and, most happily, Budd Boetticher’s stunning and wise Ride Lonesome.
Obeying a seemingly ubiquitous impulse, Scorsese also rolls out his favorite shot-in-New York classics. (The American Museum of the Moving Image’s recent, identically themed New York Film Critics Circle series used some of the same movies.) Thus, the Scorsese-beloved ’50s predominate (Woody Allen’s Manhattan is the only post-Nixon inclusion), and being mostly noir, few of the entries are very joyful. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Abraham Polonsky’s seminal Force of Evil, Stanley Kubrick’s wicked indie Killer’s Kiss, Jules Dassin’s The Naked City, and, of course, Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success all offer glimpses of post-war Manhattan brimming with vice and capitalist desperation. (The juxtaposition of Polonsky and Kazan—the HUAC’s forgotten Jesus and forgiven-by-some Judas—is its own implicit plea for healing.) Likewise, Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man is as paranoid and discomfiting a portrait of New York bureaucracy as Hollywood ever produced—and it’s a true story. Hey, Marty, what’s wrong with The In-Laws?
The semi-rarities are Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration, a 1915 melodrama shot on and around the Bowery and the East Side docks. Walsh recruited lowlife extras from the neighborhood, and the movie’s portrait of WW I-era downtown is pure lightning-as-history. Also relatively difficult to find, Anthony Mann’s Side Street (1950) reunites Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell from the previous year’s landmark They Live by Night for a classically grim noir scenario that presages the opening absconded-funds movement of Psycho. Again, Manhattan’s a maze for hapless rats, particularly as Mann shoots it—in almost Rossellinian overhead angles and with the scrupulous, crystal-clear regard for landscape Mann famously demonstrated in his westerns as well as Men in War. So be it: For New Yorkers, a little bad luck, despair, and pessimism never meant having to say you’re sorry to live here. —Michael Atkinson