Tribeca Gets Better, Wiser: Fewer Blockbusters, More Indies

Just as its neighborhood morphed from a manufacturing zone into a suburban enclave, the Tribeca Film Festival experienced its own odd growth spurt. And with its self-important posturing and incessant civic boosterism in the last two years, it seemed to parallel a city that continues to transform into a parody of its own grandeur. But this year feels a little different. The fest seems to have moved beyond its awkward adolescence, if not grown into maturity. What began as a five-day event-hastily thrown together in the aftermath of Sept. 11 by producer Jane Rosenthal, her husband Craig Hatkoff and actor Robert De Niro-has become a sophisticated smorgasbord fit for a city of New York’s various tastes.

Almost entirely absent from this year’s program is the big-budget fare that peppered the schedule in years past. True, the opening-night film is the $80 million Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn vehicle The Interpreter. But it’s Sydney Pollack. It’s the U.N. It’s about-gasp!-Africa. One would be hard-pressed to find commercial fare to rival last year’s Raising Helen and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s New York Minute, or even-thank God-2003’s Down With Love. (House of Wax be damned!) To some, this-and the fact that there’s no sneak preview of DreamWorks’ Madagascar (which takes place in a C.G.I. version of N.Y.C.) to match last year’s Shark Tale-is a sign of the festival’s decline. But to a city that prides itself on being the independent-film capital of the world, the international and low- to no-budget feel of the festival more closely hews to what New York filmmaking is all about, without feeling like a latter-day New York Film Festival.

What began as a five-day sprint has turned into a 13-day marathon, with over 250 features, documentaries and short films. Looking to capitalize on the industry momentum generated by last year’s sale of David Duchovny’s House of D during the festival, organizers have bumped up its starting date by almost two weeks, adding more space between its finale and the Cannes Film Festival, which begins on May 11.

And its sharpening focus goes a long way to erasing the image of a dour Robert De Niro shilling for American Express on the wet streets of a black-and-white Manhattan. More than in years past, the films themselves seem to represent a New York that has been digested and absorbed and repackaged for a discerning audience. The Tribeca Film Festival-what with its myriad sponsors and heady mixture of street fairs, kiddy fare, foreign documentaries, oblique arthouse films and true independents-is more like the mirror that, when held up to the city, shows it its true colors. We’re a big tent-let’s welcome the circus.

(But remember, events and film screenings can either be moved, cancelled or sold out.)

Thursday, April 21

Fictitious accents abound as the Tribeca Film Festival hosts the gala premiere of Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter. Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn do their best to revive interest in the U.N. (Who sent an invitation to Kofi’s son?) And don’t expect too many foreign-affairs outbursts from Mr. Penn after his dour defense of Jude Law at the Oscars completely backfired. Here’s hoping, though, that The Interpreter will at least break the T.F.F.’s string of disappointing opening-night films.

Friday, April 22

With luck, the sun will be shining and the weather will be warm for this first day. Why not pack a cooler of sandwiches and kick off Tribeca with Neo Ned, a charming little love story dramatizing a romance between a neo-Nazi and a black woman who thinks she’s Adolf Hitler? The film takes place in a mental institution and is sure to warm the cockles of even the iciest heart, said director Van Fischer. Starring Jeremy Renner and Gabrielle Union, “it’s a quirky story, and although it’s based in a subject matter that some might find disturbing, it has a story and a theme that appeals to an awful lot of us,” he said. So load up the minivan! And bring some extra juice boxes for the kids.

If Neo Ned sounds like a pass, other highlights of the day include Aurora Borealis, a family film starring Dawson’s Creeker Joshua Jackson as a deadbeat so overburdened with family-related trauma that he’s little more than a swilling mess. What else is new? A typical film-festival audience would likely be filled with enough licensed therapists and psychopharmacologists to clear those problems up right away. But Mr. Jackson nevertheless will struggle through 109 minutes of conflict and resolution with his grandparents, played by Donald Sutherland and Louise Fletcher, before achieving the peace of mind that one Lorazepam could provide in a few minutes. Juliette Lewis also stars.

Expect massive crowds at the New York premiere of All We Are Saying, an homage to classic rockers directed by Rosanna Arquette. “I made it for musicians,” Ms. Arquette told The Observer. And what about moviegoers? “For them, too, if they’re music fans.” For the film, she interviewed a slew of self-professed “real musicians” (some of them certified creaky middle-agers, including Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Nicks and Steven Tyler) to learn how rockers balance life and art, and what they think of today’s popular music. We already know Elton John likes Eminem. Just imagine what Peter Gabriel has to say about 50 Cent!

Also premiering Friday is The Great New Wonderful, the Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close of the indie-film circuit. This is the movie Tribeca was made for, featuring five stories about different characters’ lives in the wake of Sept. 11. It stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Edie Falco, Tony Shalhoub and Stephen Colbert.

Aurora Borealis (5:15 p.m., 109 min., RC10; see festival guide for complete details)

Neo Ned (5:45 p.m., 97 min., RC11)

All We Are Saying (8 p.m., 100 min., TPAC1)

The Great New Wonderful (6:15 p.m., 89 min., SHS)

Saturday, April 23

Day 2 is a doozy. We suggest you go heavy on the fluids. Get a good night’s rest. Maybe take another Centrum first thing. First up is Ladies in Lavender, which stars two ladies of the British Empire, Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. It’s unclear from the official Tribeca thumbnail synopsis exactly what to expect from this movie-something about a quiet seaside life and a bittersweet tale. Anticipate lots of cardigans and sun bonnets, as well as enough classy humor and ocean vistas to make you feel bad about your Yiddish-cursing grandma and her condo in West Palm.

There’s also the North American premiere of 2046, a love story made in Hong Kong by director Wong Kar-Wai. Said Michael Barker, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which will distribute the film after Tribeca, it has “a real heavy emphasis on romance-in the texture of the film, in the colors of the film, in the story.” Basically, one guy dates a lot of beautiful women. Nice work if you can get it.

Or check out indie darling Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, starring Michelle Trachtenberg and 3rd Rock From the Sun’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The movie is about two Kansas teenagers who were molested by their Little League coach. From actors best known for playing an ice skater and an alien, here’s a film that, according to its write-up, “reveals a new maturity and heretofore unplumbed depths of empathy.”

What surely doesn’t reveal a new maturity and or any profound levels of empathy is House of Wax (3-D), the 1953 horror film starring Vincent Price, Carolyn Jones and Charles Bronson. A modern remake of the film will show on April 30, starring Elisha Cuthbert and Chad Michael Murray-but 10 out of 10 audience members will be there to watch Paris Hilton plumbing her own unspecified depths in the heiress’ second horror-movie appearance.

Ladies in Lavender (5 p.m., 104 min., SHS)

Mysterious Skin (9 p.m., 99 min., PACE)

House of Wax (3-D) (9 p.m., 90 min., TPAC1) (the remake screens at midnight on April 29)

2046 (8 p.m., 129 min., TPAC)

Sunday, April 24

Fans of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One-no doubt an anxious and substantial group-have had to wait a grueling 37 years for the sequel. But the agony will finally subside on this first Sunday of Tribeca, when William Greaves will premiere Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take Two and a Half. If you liked the first one … boy, oh boy, are you in for a treat! This one recycles a bunch of old footage and works in some new material. Produced by Steve Buscemi, the film “comprises a multiplicity of approaches to film that I’ve passed through in my career as a filmmaker-documentary, straight Hollywood drama, a lot of cinema vérité elements,” Mr. Greaves told us. And if you’re hooked, fear not: Takes Three, Four and Five might be on the way, he said.

There is also The Baxter, “a bubbly soufflé of a screwball romantic comedy.” We’re not sure about the screwball romantic comedy, which stars Dawson’s Creek alum Michelle Williams, but it sounds like something’s gone bad in that soufflé. The movie’s a safe bet, though: It’s written and directed by Michael Showalter, who also stars, along with Elizabeth Banks and Justin Theroux. It’s about a man choosing between his soulmate and a pretty blonde. Decisions are tough. Watch him hem and haw.

Premiering at night is Special Thanks to Roy London, a tribute to the avant-garde acting coach. Directed by Christopher Monger, the film features interviews with Sharon Stone, Geena Davis, Hank Azaria and Garry Shandling, among others. It looks promising. And it’s easier to pronounce than Symbiopsychotaxiplasm.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take Two and a Half (2:45 p.m., 101 min., RC11)

The Baxter (6 p.m., 91 min., SHS)

Special Thanks to Roy London (8 p.m., 91 min., RC4)

Monday, April 25

Our hearts and our wallets this year are going to Alchemy, perhaps the least-anguished movie in the line-up and, therefore, the least befitting a film festival. Which, said dreamy star Tom Cavanagh, of Ed fame, is exactly what makes Tribeca grand. Mr. Cavanagh plays a university computer scientist who, in order to save his job, needs to create a program that will make a woman fall in love with a machine instead of another professor. It sounds like the kind of thing you’d see on Comedy Central in the early afternoon when you’re staying home sick from work: bad costumes, chintzy electric music, just network filler between airings of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

But Mr. Cavanagh swore to us that the movie’s smart and the cast magnetic. It’s perfect film-festival fare, he said: “Typically, you have to have a movie about chopping up your parents and stuff-something that deals with the psychological consequences of witnessing a heinous act. But I figure, regardless of subject matter, audiences want to be entertained. All we’re really trying to do here is entertain people for a couple of hours. It’s not dark and scalding. It’s nice that that kind of story was welcomed into the Tribeca Film Festival.”

But if dark and scalding is what you want, though, there’s always SHOW Business, which follows the development of four Broadway musicals from inception to Tony. You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve watched Boy George launch and fold Taboo. We’re betting it’s only slightly less comfortable than spilling McDonald’s coffee in your lap.

Then there’s Fierce People, a film starring the wispy Diane Lane as a New York massage therapist who moves to the country for the summer with her troubled son. “It’s a great, big, expansive sort of epic story that we had to do about rich people, that we did on a very tight schedule-just a great story,” director Griffin Dunne told us. Donald Sutherland stars again, only this time, instead of a difficult father, he plays an eccentric millionaire. (And we still like his Hawkeye best.)

And speaking of repeat characters, if you didn’t get enough of Chrissie Hynde in Rosanna Arquette’s tribute to aging rockers, there’s more to be had in Don Letts’ Punk: Attitude, which traces the origins of punk music in 1970’s London and New York. Get ready for indulgent rants from Henry Rollins and lots of East Villagers in tight pants.

Another option is Asylum, a film about a psychiatrist’s wife (played by Natasha Richardson) who is fascinated by one of her husband’s patients, a man who killed his wife and now lives in an asylum outside of London. The film also stars Sir Ian McKellen and was written by Patrick Marber, the author of Closer. Ms. Richardson told us that the production was plagued by financial troubles, but that she’s proud of and haunted by the finished product. “It’s a dark story of a sexy, obsessive love affair, with disastrous consequences to this woman’s life,” she said. Also, it’s got great, gritty, uncomfortable nudity, so maybe leave the kids at home for this one. “The director wanted it to be as real and as true as possible, and that required a brutal honesty in the sex scenes that was difficult to go through,” she said. “It was kind of beyond Last Tango in Paris, really, what we were doing.”

Alchemy (7 p.m., 85 min., RC5)

Fierce People (4 p.m., 110 min., RC6)

Punk: Attitude (9 p.m., 90 min., PACE)

SHOW Business (8 p.m. 102 min., TPAC1)

Asylum (9:15 p.m., 97 min., SHS)

Tuesday, April 26

Fuck.

There. Now you don’t need to go see The F Word, a film about actors acting up on the mean streets of Manhattan during the Republican National Convention. See, no one’s shocked by bad words any more. And if you want Republican-baiting, no need to spend $10 on a movie-Frank Rich’ll give it to you for $3.50 in The Times every Sunday.

For something more provocative, there’s always Gay Sex in the 70’s, certainly the go-to date movie on the Tribeca line-up. Take your sweetheart to this highly explicit tour through gay New York in the “steamy post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS era.” Visit the bars. Take a steam in the baths. Watch men give each other handjobs in every possible dark corner of the city-and plenty of the better-lit ones, too. It’s either this or that crapfest about the Red Sox starring Jimmy Fallon. No contest, people!

There could be some in Transamerica-and if there isn’t, at least you’ll get to see Desperate Housewives’ Felicity Huffman playing a pre-operative transsexual woman. Written and directed by Duncan Tucker, the film follows Mr. Huffman and his son (blithely ignorant for most of the film that the transsexual is his biological father) on a road trip from New York to Los Angeles. Remember that road trip you took with your fraternity brothers after junior year? Just like that.

Transamerica (6:30 p.m., 103 min., RC2)

Gay Sex in the 70’s (8 p.m., 57 min., RC4)

The F Word (9 p.m., 74 min., PACE)

Wednesday, April 27

If you want something explicit, or if you have a thing for skinny anthropology grad students at Columbia, 9 Songs is making its New York premiere smack dab in the middle of Tribeca. Advertised as one of the most sexually explicit English-language films outside the porn industry, 9 Songs brings together a British glaciologist and a young American abroad. Spliced between concert footage of bands (including the Dandy Warhols and Franz Ferdinand), the unvarnished copulation is supposed to show us something profound having to do with truth in physical expression. Your guess is as good as ours. Vincent Gallo gets no billing, but we figure he’s behind this somehow.

Other Wednesday premieres include Iowa, a film about methamphetamine addiction in the heartland written, directed by and starring Matt Farnsworth. Rosanna Arquette made time to star between interviewing musicians, as did Diane Foster and John Savage. Here, for New York audiences, is a rare glimpse of red-state America. Apparently, the Bush voters of tomorrow aren’t too busy with Jesus and Wal-Mart to make time for a little crank. Or a lot of crank.

Speaking of drugs, how about a movie about the downtown New York art scene in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s! Prove to your visiting relatives that the Midwest hasn’t always had the crank market cornered by taking them to TV Party, a documentary focusing on the public-access show of the same name that aired from 1978 to 1982 and documented in real time the drug-riddled but creatively explosive art world in the days of cocaine and Studio 54. The film features clips of Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fab Five Freddy, and includes interviews with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie.

Iowa (5:30 p.m., 108 min., RC3)

TV Party (8 p.m., 91 min., RC4)

9 Songs (11:30 p.m., 69 min., TPAC1)

Thursday, April 28

Not too many new movies are showing at this point in the festival, so we recommend you stop, refuel and begin making your way through your B-list. Highlights on Thursday include the oh-so-cleverly-titled Adam and Steve, a raunchy romantic comedy about two gay thirtysomethings who get into an improbable relationship. It features Parker Posey and Chris Kattan and probably plenty of euphemisms for male genitalia. Enjoy!

How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)-a movie seemingly named after a euphemism that, to our knowledge, doesn’t make an appearance in Adam and Steve-does premiere at the same time. Directed by Joe Angio, this is an “unabashed portrait” of black independent film pioneer Melvin Van Peebles. Mr. Van Peebles is a Renaissance man who has lived a colorful life, worked with Spike Lee and is credited as the first black stock trader on Wall Street. Go and learn all the reasons that no one will ever end up making a documentary about you.

Or hold out instead for Bowery Dish, a documentary by Kevin Frech, and watch the gentrification of New York’s Skid Row neighborhood. Wax nostalgic about the pre-Giuliani days of drug-infested flophouses and violent bars. Then go out for a $12 martini and complain about soaring rent prices in Manhattan.

Best if earlier in the day you watched The American Ruling Class, a movie by Harper’s Magazine editor Lewis Lapham about who really runs things these days. Mr. Lapham talks to intellectuals, C.E.O.’s, politicians, activists, celebrities and … folk singers? Last time they had any power, we weren’t even born. Still, the film stands to be a good primer in who to suck up to and who to watch out for. Career counseling and fun, all bundled together!

Adam and Steve (9:30 p.m., 100 min., RC2)

How to Eat Your Watermelon … (9 p.m., 85 min., PACE)

Bowery Dish (7 p.m., 52 min., TC1)

The American Ruling Class (4 p.m., 100 min., TC1)

Friday, April 29

God bless the extended schedule! Without it, we might have been forced to sit through XXX: State of the Union. And although Ice Cube’s been having good days of late, that fate would have driven us to use our AK. Use the extra time wisely. If you missed the “Drive-In” showing of Mad Hot Ballroom-on Sunday, April 24-be sure to catch this Spellbound-like documentary about New York City fourth- and fifth-graders competing in a citywide dance-off. If you last saw Taylor Mead in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, you probably thought the man was on his last legs. And you’d be right. But hey, even he has time to star in a documentary about his life: Excavating Taylor Mead. See one of the few Warhol icons still around.

Mad Hot Ballroom (6:15 p.m., 104 min., SHS)

Excavating Taylor Mead (8 p.m., 89 min., RC4)

Saturday, April 30

Hip, hip, hooray! Street fair! Make kites. Watch a puppet show-or maybe some disturbing acrobatic performance artists. If the thought of this makes you nauseous, however, there are still some intriguing films that you may have missed earlier. Sally Potter makes her case for feminist relevance in the 21st century with Yes. T.F.F. © James Toback: The Harvard grad gets the royal treatment, starting with a screening of the remake of his 1978 cult classic Fingers, entitled The Beat That My Heart Skipped and starring Romain Duris (who also appeared in the entertaining L’Auberge Espagnole). The documentary The Outsider-which follows Mr. Toback as he shoots the Neve Campbell vehicle When Will I Be Loved-rescreens on Sunday, May 1, if you haven’t yet gotten your fill of Toback. And last but not least, late-30’s hotties Maria Bello and Mary Stuart Masterson star in The Sisters, a family drama about, well, sisters. Erika Christensen rounds out the cast.

Yes (8 p.m., 95 min., RC4)

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (1:15 p.m., 107 min., RC8)

The Sisters (1 p.m., 113 min., RC6)

Sunday, May 1

Screening of festival award winners. Film industry shrugs.