"Modoki" is the Japanese word for "similar, yet different." Take for example the Tribeca Film Festival (April 21 to May 2, 2010), and October's New York Film Festival. Both are Manhattan cinema extravaganzas — whose overlaps end there. Populist Tribeca plays teriyaki to artsy NYFF's sashimi.
Almost four decades the Lincoln Center event's junior, Tribeca was founded in 2002 by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff to goad downtown development in the aftermath of 9/11. Never mind that the "Triangle Below Canal Street" has since ceased to be ground zero for the Festival. And who of today's TFF ticket buyers thinks he or she is subsidizing lower New York's economic and cultural revival?
Rather, what continues to flourish are the Spring fest's display of popular, indie and world cinema and the celebratory mood that envelopes it. For the non-auteurist crowd, there are accessible Hollywood entertainments, ESPN-sponsored sports docs and family movies. Bring your kids; wear your sweats; Tribeca is the cinema equivalent of a cherry blossom festival.
The inclusive spirit has its downside, however. TFF still grapples with the bad rap earned during its embryonic years, when the slate was crammed with duds. Around 2008, the Festival learned how to prune and the yield has generally improved.
Not that you won't find some clunkers among this year's 85 features and 47 short films, handpicked from 5,050 submissions. Where exactly the head was buried of the programmer who saw Buried Land, and said, "We have to show this," I'd rather not imagine. Any conversation Steven Eastwood and Geoffrey Alan Rhodes' docudrama about ancient pyramids in Bosnia may have spurred about its hybrid form was surely more fascinating than any draggy frame of the actual work.
Likewise, the choice of Alex Mar's documentary on alternative religion, American Mystic, is a head-scratcher. It's a terrific idea in larval stages of narrative and character development.
Happily, the Festival also has its share of worthwhile diversions. Of the fiction features, Cairo Time and Please Give qualify. The former supplies a fluid narrative and sultry near-romance that gently gets under your skin. Minor distractions are Patricia Clarkson's bared shoulders and Cairo's sanitized streets. (A novice traveler, much less a sophisticated magazine editor and the wife of a UN staffer, would know never to flaunt skin in the Arab world; and don't expect to smell the lived-in, overripe Egyptian capital from Luc Montpellier's Chamber of Commerce cinematography.) Otherwise, Ruba Nadda's 17th film is an understated charmer.
Please Give is the fourth and most cackle-worthy of Nicole Holofcener's urban comedies. As in Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing and Friends with Money, Catherine Keener leads the charge. This time she plays a privileged Manhattanite who co-owns an antique furniture shop with her husband (Oliver Platt), and can't get past her guilt. Whether you recognize yourself in their flawed souls and complexions may be a correlate of your sense of self-worth.
For a "How To" on strutting your imperfections, look no further than the ecstatic duo in Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy. Performance artist Joey Arias and puppeteer Basil Twist make you wish you were weirder per Bobby Sheehan's sensational visual romp through the New York downtown art scene beginning with the 70s. Fueled with perverse amounts of talent and vim, the co-leads and such fellow fantastics as David Bowie and Klaus Nomi should knock you clear off your cinema seat.
As stupendous as Arias with a Twist is, the Festival revelation has to be Thieves by Law/Ganavim ba Hok. Remember the Viggo Mortensen character in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises — that Russian gangster with the scary tatoos? Alexander Gentelev's documentary introduces you to the real wise guys of Russia's seething underworld whose pedigree can be traced to Stalin's gulags. One of the film's many worthy provocations pits the "Vory v zakone," or "thieves' code," against the lax morality of Russian government officials, and probes which is the sounder. Tough choice. As opposed to the choice of seeing this slam-whiz Festival selection.
Another no-brainer is Alex Gibney's My Trip to Al-Qaeda. The new documentary from the maker of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and Oscar laureate Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) is based on Lawrence Wright's book and stage play, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and Road to 9/11.
Gibney's work-in-progress, Untitled Eliot Spitzer Film, will also be screened at TFF. At the Festival's opening press conference, the filmmaker acknowledged the organizers' anxiety-soothing embrace of unusual fare like his unfinished films.
They aren't among the handful of titles slated to reach viewers around the country through TFF's new distribution initiative, which includes video-on-demand and pay-TV. Yet, as Chief Creative Officer Geoff Gilmore said at the same press conference, such digital delivery solutions give him "great hope for the future of independent film.”
“We are in the process of reinventing what festivals do and how they reach audiences,” said Gilmore.
Here come the neighborhoods.
Visit www.tribecafilm.com for the full TFF program.
Tribeca Film Festival
Apr. 23 - May 2, 2010
Chelsea Clearview Cinemas
260 West 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues
New York, NY
Village East Cinema
181 2nd Avenue@ 12th Street
New York, NY