CRITICS NOTEBOOK: International Entries, And Few American Films, Shine At 2005 Tribeca Film Festival
by Howard Feinstein
Spectacle threatened to overshadow the films themselves at the Tribeca Film Festival: the ubiquitous Am Ex sponsorship, the advertising blitz, the personal publicity machine of the "co-founders," the parties and sideshows. The media itself covered it mostly as an event, leading filmmakers to complain that their movies were being ignored by the press. I decided to ignore the glossy patina and, purist-like, delve into the films. Fortunately, I found many very good ones, more than in previous editions. For the most part, the selection had the strong imprimatur of executive director Peter Scarlet. The best of the films are not dissimilar from those he programmed during his successful tenure at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Given Scarlet's track record, it's not surprising, then, that many of the strongest works are from Asia and Europe, especially France and the U.K. (Matthew Vaughan's postmodern English gangster flick, the intricately plotted "Layer Cake" -- to be released soon by Sony Classics -- was one of the strongest in the Showcase section.. An Asian film, Chinese director Li Shaohong's "Stolen Life," deservedly won the narrative feature award; and an excellent European doc, "El Perro Negro: Stories From the Spanish Civil War," a Dutch production by the Hungarian director Peter Forgacs, garnered the documentary feature prize. The most striking sections were Spotlight, Showcase, and the Narrative Feature and Documentary Feature competitions -- all international. With some exceptions, American features and docs paled in comparison. Perhaps these are not Scarlet's domain, not to mention the clout of Sundance (Tribeca wants premieres) and New Directors a month earlier. The fact that the (mostly) domestic Made in New York Narrative Feature and New York Loves Film Documentary Feature competitions require the works to be shot in, or about, New York -- while perhaps a noble sentiment -- restricts the eligible movies.
Of the American indie films, two stood taller than the rest. "The Great New Wonderful" (Made in New York Narrative Feature competition) is Brooklyn-born Danny Leiner's third film, following "Dude, Where's My Car" and "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," but it couldn't be more different. A stunningly made and exceptionally moving work, it's a somewhat melancholy love letter to the Big Apple in the wake of September 11, which is a hovering absence throughout. Leiner deftly interweaves five stories of New Yorkers, whose emotional ups and downs mirror the trauma experienced by New Yorkers following the demise of the WTC. The ensemble is terrific, but two steal the show: Maggie Gyllenhaal as an arrogant, overly ambitious society pastry proprietor and Olympia Dukakis as an elderly Jewish wife who has an epiphany once she realizes that mundane routine killed her spirit years before.
Gregg Araki adapted the masterful "Mysterious Skin" (Special Screening), to be released this month by Tartan, from Scott Heim's 1994 novel. The film is tighter and more fluid than anything Araki has done before. Set in a small Kansas town in 1991, it tells the stories of two 18-year-old boys who think they don't know each other, though they were involved at the age of eight in a three-way with a pedophile baseball coach. One is a handsome, cocky gay hustler, the other an awkward fellow obsessed with extraterrestrials. The movie skillfully advances toward their cathartic reunion.
Of the Asian films, the most impressive was "Stolen Life" (Narrative Feature competition). Stylistically, it's an exercise in a constantly moving camera and commensurate editing. Director Li Shaohong used neither Steadicam nor tracks: It's almost all handheld, and for good reason. Much of the action takes place in a literally underground Beijing community of shops and flats where the two protagonists make their love nest. A beautiful, shy young woman from a poor family gains entry into college, but throws away the opportunity for a seemingly devoted delivery man. They struggle to make ends meet, but what really sours the relationship are his amoral maneuverings for quick cash. He is a serial woman manipulator, and nothing, not even their baby, is sacred. What the film is really about, though, is her journey, her coming-of-age and maturation. Zhou Xun as the woman and Mu Yu as the cad deliver superb performances.
Tribeca scored a major coup with the North American premiere of Wong Kar-wai's supersensuous "2046" (Spotlight), which Sony Classics will release in August, shown in the version re-edited for accessibility after the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. (I prefer the dense Cannes cut.) Tony Leung reprises his role as Chow from "In The Mood for Love," but he has become a sleazeball. Still a writer, Chow is in the midst of penning a science-fiction novel set in the year 2046 on a train where people go to recapture their lost memories, but never return. Gong Li is a one-handed gambler from his past. Occupying his present are several women living in his seedy Hong Kong rooming house, primarily Zhang Ziyi's ballroom dancer/prostitute and the landlord's daughter, played by Faye Wong. The future, a visualization of Chow's novel, again features Faye Wong, now as an android.
The fact that Tribeca, like the New York Film Festival and New Directors, has French gems validates my impression (from the evidence of the movies themselves) that the annual Rendezvous with French Cinema is nothing but a consolation prize for filmmakers whose work nobody else wants to show. One of Tribeca's big surprises was "The Axe" (Special Screening), a searing black comedy by the normally serious, politically engaged director Costa-Gavras ("Z," "Missing"). Yet its premise -- a laid-off executive decides to off his competitors for a new job -- is in keeping with the social concerns of his other films. After all, the man is a victim of global capitalism, and he encounters lots of unemployed people. Visually, this is Costa-Gavras's most accomplished movie. The Tati-esque Jose Garcia delivers an extraordinary performance as the hapless Bruno.
The gallic "The Beat My Heart Skipped" (Narrative Feature competition), directed by Jacques Audiard ("Read My Lips") and opening here in July from Wellspring, is a frenetic visual feast centering around a 28-year-old tough guy torn between his shady real-estate dealings and his desire to become a concert pianist. Based on James Toback's 1978 "Fingers," the film boasts a fine acting job by Romain Duris as Tom, the conflicted young man, and a special feel for human relationships, most notably Tom's with his loser father and his partner-in-crime's wife.
Another movie in the Narrative Feature competition, "News From Afar," a first film by Mexican director Ricardo Benet, is a devastating, impressively original artwork. Benet uses striking compositions and slight camera tilts and pans to brilliantly captures the sounds, smells, and textures of both the dusty countryside and the urban clutter that is Mexico City. Teenaged Martin (David Aacron Estrada) lives with his troubled mother, resentful stepfather, and reverential younger brother on a homestead in a deserted, waterless area. The first half of the film is about their futile attempts to make a go of it. In the second part, Martin moves to the capital for work, living in a flophouse and getting involved with a psychologically disturbed older woman. He returns to his family, only to find that the neighbors have all moved away, his mother is catatonic, and his stepdad is inflexible about her fate. Tragedy ensues when Martin ultimately asserts himself.
Without a doubt, some of the strongest films of the festival were documentaries. The masterpiece outside the Documentary Feature competition, Adam Curtis' "The Power of Nightmares" (Showcase), is an extremely thorough, three-part BBC production. Beginning in the 1940s, it shifts back and forth between the development of neo-conservativism in the U.S. and the evolution of militant Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle and Near East -- and their occasional joint ventures, such as American support for Afghan rebels and their foreign Muslim supporters in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the '80s. After all, the neocons falsified reports to exaggerate the threat of the USSR to America. The jihad movement began to treat civilians as fair game, guilty of just living in a too-secular society with corrupt leaders. The neocons developed myths of religion and country to keep liberal impulses under control, though the intellectuals behind it scoffed privately at such notions. They also pushed the idea that America's mission is to spread democracy around the globe. Curtis makes the point that the neocons and the jihadists deploy fear as an organizing tool. September 11 is the outcome of these polar movements, and events in Iraq the result of a neocon fixation and the Islamists' disregard for non-military casualties.
Jurors for the Documentary Feature competition must have had a hard time making their decision. Brit Daniel Gordon's "A State of Mind," an exploration of life in North Korea through the lives of two young gymnasts, is a solid glimpse into what is for us uncharted territory; Syrian director Omar Amiralay's "A Flood in Baath Country," an apologia for his earlier support for what turned out to be a disastrous dam project, takes us into the mindset of an autocracy, as politicians and schoolchildren alike espouse complete devotion to their ruler and his party. The winner, the unforgettable "El Perro Negro: Stories From the Spanish Civil War," is a compilation of re-edited 8mm home movies from the late '20s and '30s, mostly from two amateur Spanish filmmakers. Director Peter Forgacs occasionally slows down the footage to make a point. Voiceovers narrate the original filmmakers' adventures as well as explain the complicated political rifts and battles that occurred during that tragic period.
Another documentary in the competition approaches the sublime. Barcelona-based Mercedes Alvares returned as an adult to her native village of Aldealsenor for a year in order to gain the trust of the 14 remaining inhabitants, all very old people who refused to relocate when most people left for greener pastures. Shot over four seasons, "The Sky Turns" is the result of her patience. Unhurried, the film records the daily life, opinions, memories, and frustrations of these last residents, while also documenting the construction of new electric windmills and a luxury hotel that seem to mock their existence. The views of the village and the colors of earth and sky make for a transcendent experience. For me, that is the pinnacle of success for a filmmaker.