Fest Highlights

Tribeca Film Festival

by Annie Nocenti, 04/17/2009

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At this year's Tribeca Film Festival, The Swimsuit Issue is not a Sports Illustrated special but a film exploring the odds of a bunch of overage, overweight men becoming synchronized swimmers. The Girlfriend Experience reveals Steven Soderbergh's take on a $2,000-an-hour call girl. Ever wonder what a "fixer" does for a journalist traveling to dangerous places? See Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi. In Whatever Works, comical screen sparks fly as Woody Allen directs Larry David for the director's latest project. Playground explores the United States' involvement in the child sex industry, and The Burning Season documents one man's efforts to stop the burning of trees in Indonesia, one of the world's leading carbon polluters.

These are just some of the provocative, funny, tragic and acerbic themes presented by films in the 2009 festival's lineup, a roster of freewheeling, eclectic and sometimes audacious projects that generated plenty of pre-festival buzz.

Now in its eighth year, the fest offers family movies, serious political documentaries, comedy, shocking midnight screenings, films by first-time filmmakers and international films: something for everyone. But with approximately 150 movies, a film festival catalog can be intimidating, even for a film insider.

Yet the thrill generated by making a new personal discovery is one of the most exciting elements of a film festival, as is the cinematic roulette of buying tickets based on an instinctive response to a film's possibilities. Tribeca offers a collection of solid prospects. In the Loop, directed by Armando Iannucci and starring James Gandolfini, promises to be a hilarious and timely satire about war. TiMER asks: if you could wear a device that bypassed fate and sounded an alarm when you met the destined love of your life, would you?

To find your way through Tribeca's cinematic bazaar, it's helpful to scour the film summaries and online trailers on the fest's user-friendly website and to view the festival's catalog by sections, which include Spotlight, Showcase, Encounters and Discovery, among others. Spotlight films are slated for theatrical distribution, so the festival allows viewers to get a first look; the screenings often feature directors and cast members for Q&As or discussions afterward. Other films showcased in the festival's documentary and narrative competitions are not yet slated for distribution, which means viewers can find an as-yet-undistributed gem that may be difficult to see in the future.

This year's Encounters selection, featuring the work of established filmmakers and popular subjects, includes a work-in-progress documentary about rocker Jon Bon Jovi, and the fest's Restored section features a new print of the classic The Boys in the Band. Tribeca is showing the film, based on the play about a group of gay men gathered together for a birthday party, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

Director of programming David Kwok has been at the festival from its first year; he and other Tribeca staffers collaboratively curate the films for the event. "Over the years it's been an evolution," Kwok explains. "The constant has been that we remain inclusive, with a broad range: experimental films to Hollywood studio to international [cinema]. We're not just about New York City. We're an internationally competitive festival."

The fest also throws an ever-popular street fair, hosts many free industry panels and organizes the Drive-In outdoor screenings at World Financial Center. Related festival events include Tribeca Film Feast, in which American Express cardholders can get special deals, discounts and prix-fixe selections at local restaurants.

While Kwok emphasizes the festival's international scope, New York City is a character and important backdrop in several of the films. For those who missed the rise and fall of the late-'70s /early-'80s punk-era New York, there are terrific historical interviews and musical footage to be found in Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB, and in Blank City, a documentary about the vibrant late-'70s art scene in the East Village. Bette Gordon's newly restored drama Variety takes viewers back to a 1980s porn theater. Along with Con Artist, a doc about art-world provocateur Mark Kostabi, these films create a nostalgic, historical look at a particularly creative time in New York.

Other films of interest include Jeff Levy-Hinte's Soul Power, which resurrects the electrifying music of the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" concert that accompanied the Ali/Foreman fight in Zaire. Serious Moonlight is the directing debut of the ever-hilarious Cheryl Hines, working from the last script by the late Adrienne Shelly. Aidan Quinn is among the stars of the supernatural tale The Eclipse, directed by renowned Irish playwright Conor McPherson. In the festival's Midnight section—presenting a selection of films designed to push the boundaries of horror, comedy and shock—The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia follows the notoriously rough-and-tumble White family in West Virginia. Not surprisingly, the film was executive produced by Jackass star Johnny Knoxville.

In addition to its curatorial categories, Tribeca presents filmgoers with the pleasures of witnessing filmmakers as they emerge onto the scene. "We are a discovery festival," says festival co-programmer Genna Terranova. "We look for new talent. First-time directors. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench by Damien Chazelle. The Colombian film Entre nos. My Last Five Girlfriends. It's exciting to see the work of someone who's never done this before." She adds that this year's fest also includes a significant number of films by female directors.

The Tribeca festival was launched in the aftermath of 9/11, and as such, had an agenda that quickly coalesced. "In some ways it was the most organic year," says Kwok. "It was a way to bring the community back together. Jane [Rosenthal] and [Robert] De Niro were in talks [about a film festival], but 9/11 put a fire under them to do something to revitalize downtown." Now, the goals of encouraging economic and cultural revitalization in Lower Manhattan, and of offering a heady showcase of film and art, remain just as vital.

The festival runs from April 22 to May 3, and tickets are on sale now.


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