It’s been four decades since Robert De Niro looked into a mirror and snarled, “You talkin’ ta me?” before jerking his arm and aiming a pistol at his own image. On April 21 the Tribeca Film Festival will head to the Upper West Side’s Beacon Theatre to mark that anniversary with a screening of Taxi Driver hosted by director Martin Scorsese, De Niro and his co-star Jodie Foster. Founded in 2001 by De Niro (with partners Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff) in the grim aftermath of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, the Tribeca Film Festival has steadily expanded both its scope (inaugurating a television division and now a virtual reality mini-fest) and its ambition as a competitive marketplace that peaked last year with the $2.5 million sale of Ashby, among other films.
The TFF launches Wednesday night with the world premiere of Andrew Rossi’s First Monday In May, a quintessentially New York film that takes as its subject a gala opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “China: Through The Looking Glass” brought out a spectacular array of social X-rays, fashionistas, masters and mistresses of the universe, paparazzi, art world wannabes and 1 percenters in a collision of East and West, Uptown and Downtown, money and not-so-much, all captured here. The festival will close 11 nights later with the bomb, another world premiere, in this case of Smitri Keshari, Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Kevin Ford’s “immersive film and musical experience” about the nuclear era hosted by Michael Douglas and featuring a live performance by the band The Acid.
“We’re a very public-facing festival,” producer Paula Weinstein (In the Heart of the Sea, This Is Where I Leave You), who is also the executive producer of Tribeca Enterprises, told me over breakfast recently with a few members of her festival team. She acknowledged that TFF is primarily “for film enthusiasts, not just NYU and Columbia students, but people who have that level of enthusiasm we had in the ‘60s. Maybe because I’m older, I hate the idea that everything is new.”
And maybe because TFF itself is now older, the programming reflects a deeper dive into the culture that will offer, yes, 77 premieres among the 101 films, but also retrospectives that look back on such iconic moments as Richard Nixon’s Christmas 1970 encounter with Elvis Presley (Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon) and Alan Ball looking back at the series finale of his Six Feet Under.
“In Los Angeles it’s all money, what the data tell us people want to see,” Weinstein said. “My first job was working with David Geffen at Warners and you bet on who you bet on. This is the hardest time I’ve ever seen on filmmakers. But in TV now it’s only about the writing. A lot of people are crossing the disciplines. There was a wall; no more. There are so many multihyphenates now.” Referencing the TFF premiere of an episode of History Channel’s Roots remake, she added, “Roots? You can’t tell that story enough these days.” Among the television world premieres at TFF: Comedy Central’s three-part mini Time Traveling Bong, co-written by and starring Ilana Glazer and Paul W. Downs in what looks like a blazed version of A Wrinkle in Time.
In addition to the screenings and usual post-screening talks, Weinstein and company have put together a list of “Tribeca Talks” that’s as quirky as it is enticing: John Oliver interviewing Tom Hanks, for example. Patti Smith and Ethan Hawke. Director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Francis Ford Coppola and Jay McInerny. We’ll be covering as many of these as we can to bring you their observations.
As for the main event, some of the films on that roster that grabbed my attention are the world premiere of A Hologram For The King, with Tom Hanks starring in Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel about an American abroad (in this case, in Saudi Arabia). Also Reset, Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai’s documentary about Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied and his work with the Paris Opera Ballet; The Last Laugh, Ferne Pearlstein and Robert Edwards’ docu about humor and the Holocaust that features interviews with Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., Alan Zweibel and a host of others; and Custody from Broadway writer and director James Lapine (Into the Wood, Falsettos), with Viola Davis, Tony Shalhoub, Hayden Panettiere and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) about an immigrant mother who gets caught up in the compelling and confounding world of New York City’s family court system.
Soccer superstar Pelé will be on hand for Pelé: Birth of a Legend. Also in the mix: The world premiere of the Katie Holmes-directed All We Had, in which she stars with Stefania Owen, Luke Wilson, Richard Kind, Mark Consuelos, Judy Greer and Eve Lindley in the story of a mother and daughter bucking a hostile world. Another New York theater legend, triple threat actor-writer-director Austin Pendleton (Billions) is the subject of Starring Austin Pendleton, also a world premiere.
I asked Weinstein how she and her team measure success at the festival. “Audience experience first,” she said. “What worked and what didn’t work. Was it inclusive enough? Was there something we loved that didn’t reach the audience — and where did we go wrong?” Judge for yourself. http://www.tribecafilm.com/festival.