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Critic’s Notebook: Has Tribeca Improved? Yes, Depending Where You Look.

Critic's Notebook: Has Tribeca Improved? Yes, Depending Where You Look.

Here’s the good news: In its 11th year, Tribeca has significantly improved by offering a range of satisfying possibilities. Of the 27 features I saw — about 30% of the 89-feature program — a few were terrific. Most of those that weren’t still offered worthy qualities. The biggest complaint: Tribeca still felt too big and broad, a hulking mass of movies coming from a million directions at once.

However, two aspects of the festival improved significantly this year: It relied less on existing hits from other festivals (“Your Sister’s Sister,” “Take This Waltz,” “Searching for Sugarman”) and developed a modest but intriguing contingency of smaller movies. It’s this feature that could benefit from further expansion.

Tribeca has yet to become identified with any sort of movement or movie and that has held it back from deepening its brand. However, the strongest narratives at Tribeca this year point to a promising direction worthy of further exploration: Keep it small and loopy.

The festival used to contain a respectable lineup of experimental movies; that absence was felt. Here’s an idea: Drop the celebrity-studded juries (Brett Ratner?) and bring back the avant-garde. Make sure newly hired artistic director Frederic Boyer sticks around (his contract ends this summer). Boyer faced an aggressive backlash from the French press when he dared to program a number of far-out movies for Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight; it’s that kind of bold approach that could embolden Tribeca’s lineup.

Boyer has said in interviews that his impact on this year’s festival was minimal. Next year, his overseas connections could help broaden the potential to bring odd, challenging movies from around the world. New Yorkers are a very discerning audience, because every day this city offers enough choices for the aggressive cinephile to program his or her own personal film festival.

So the onus is on programmers to choose movies that truly stand out. It would be great to see more promising debuts like “First Winter,” first-time director Ben Dickinson’s mesmerizing look at Brooklyn hipsters trapped in an icy countryside during some unspecified apocalypse. As the alternately snarky, clueless and horny characters gradually lose patience with each other, a movie initially invested in its quirky creations folds on itself and reaches a higher state of awareness, the survivors transitioning out of their stylistic allegiances and emerging as newly enlightened human beings. The final shot eloquently captures their rebirth.

Dickinson’s patient direction turns the movie into a philosophical rumination, not unlike “The Fourth Dimension,” another standout. Produced by VICE, this anthology film contains one of the best director-actor collaborations in recent years (Harmony Korine directing Val Kilmer as a fictionalized version of himself in the surreal “Lotus Community Workshop”) as well as similarly otherworldly looks at time travel and the end of the world. Title cards explain the guidelines given to the filmmakers, including a mandate that they must explore the tension between truth and fiction, which is naturally at the root of any filmmaking attempt. In this case, the lofty ambition paid off.

Not every movie demands such an extreme otherness. Eytan Fox’s “Yossi” was a grounded, conventional look at a closeted Israeli gay man, and Alex Karpovsky’s “Rubberneck” riffed on intelligent film noir. Both stood out for the way they appeared to celebrate their small scales.

Tribeca may not express a desire for any particular kind of movie, but it does earn a lot of milage in its digital initiatives. The on-demand aspect of Tribeca is an impressive industry achievement: It has successfully made strides in creating the living-room festival. The time has come to refine the physical festival. In 2012, it showed plenty signs of improvement and noticeable room to grow. After years of baby steps, Tribeca is ready to grow up.  

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