Tribeca - A film festival finally getting into its groove

Tribeca celebrated its 10th birthday with a mix of stars, quirky programming and controversy. Sarah Hughes reports from New York

New York's Tribeca Film Festival dares to be different. When it began in 2002, the popular belief was that America's newest film festival would function as something of a brash younger brother to Sundance, giving a glitzy East Coast spin to that festival's laid-back indie cool.

It's true that, in its early days at least, the festival, which in 2002 opened with the Hugh Grant comedy About a Boy and closed with the Star Wars prequel Attack of the Clones, was as well-known for its ability to draw A-list stars to its swish downtown premieres as it was for its wide-ranging but occasionally muddled programme of films.

Yet what a difference nine years can make. The stars – from Julia Roberts and Martin Scorsese to Will Ferrell and Orlando Bloom – are still out in force to celebrate the festival's 10th anniversary but they are notably no longer the event's biggest draw.

People queued at the Soho Apple Shop to watch Ferrell talk about his downbeat new comedy, Everything Must Go, and again at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center to hear Sean Penn discuss his coruscating post-terrorism documentary Love Hate Love. But they also lined up to attend the festival's less film-centric events, including a surprisingly successful all-day celebration of football, and are expected to do so again for this Saturday's annual Family Festival Street Fair.

It's a timely reminder that, while it might lack the gravitas of Berlin or the Oscar-friendly nature of Toronto, the New York festival's strength lies in the fact that it marches to its own beat, placing as much emphasis on the community aspect of the festival – it was founded in order to rejuvenate the Lower Manhattan area after the 9/11 attacks – as on the films themselves.

It has also never been afraid to court controversy, on screen and off, and this year has been no exception to that rule with a number of headline-grabbing moments, cinematic and otherwise.

Chief among the latter was festival co-founder Robert De Niro's decision to use a rare interview marking the event's 10th anniversary to attack the property magnate Donald Trump over his adoption of the right-wing "birther"' cause. Dismissing Trump's demands that President Obama produce his birth certificate and prove that he was born in the USA as "crazy", De Niro added: "It's like a big hustle... like being a car salesman. Don't go out there and say things unless you can back them up. How dare you? It's awful."

The never publicity-shy Trump, who has repeatedly claimed that he will confirm or deny his candidacy at the end of the current series of The Celebrity Apprentice, swiftly hit back, saying that while he admired De Niro's films the actor was "not the brightest bulb in the planet... we're not dealing with Albert Einstein". Yet although the spat dominated headlines, it was overshadowed by a strong slate of films. Some big movies misfired – notably Lance Daly's melodramatic The Good Doctor, starring Orlando Bloom as a harassed medic, and the facile war-photographer flick The Bang Bang Club, which stuttered despite a strong turn from the rising star Taylor Kitsch – but there was still plenty to admire.

Lee Hirsch's harrowing school documentary The Bully Project, the strong favourite to take the audience award, reduced many in the audience at the West Village's AMC Loews to tears and has been snapped up for distribution by the Weinstein Company; Bombay Beach, the Israeli director Alma Har'el's stylised and original take on the inhabitants of a decrepit California seaside town, proved compelling.

There was a theme of sorts, though Tribeca would never be so unhip as to admit it. This year's event included 16 music-related features, with films on subjects as diverse as New York's infamous Limelight club and the life of the English musician and performance artist Genesis P-Orridge, as well as Michael Rapaport's Beats, Rhymes & Life: the Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, a controversial take on the hip-hop stars which has already seen the band member Q-Tip take to Twitter to claim that he does not support the warts-and-all film.

Pre-festival hype focused on its opening film, The Union, Cameron Crowe's study of the relationship between Elton John and Leon Russell. Yet Crowe's first film in six years proved to be a solid, unspectacular tale, which gazed starry-eyed at its subject instead of pulling back the curtain. Far more entertaining were the rambunctious God Bless Ozzy Osbourne, which managed to provide new insights into the over-exposed rocker, and Stephen C Mitchell's Kings of Leon documentary Talihina Sky, which derives much of its power from focusing on the Southern band's relatives.

The elegiac The Swell Season, which follows what happened to Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová after the Oscar-winning glow of their 2007 indie romance Once wore off, was smaller in scale but arresting. Best of all was Roadie, Michael and Gerald Cuesta's follow-up to the creepy yet compelling L.I.E., a downbeat look at lives half-lived on the rock'n'roll fringes with outstanding performances from Ron Eldard and Bobby Cannavale.

Elsewhere, the Italian star Toni Servillo gave one of the strongest performances of the festival as an ex-mobster in A Quiet Life, Sam Shepard was haunting as an ageing Butch Cassidy in the mournful Blackthorn, and Carice van Houten compelled in Black Butterflies, Paula van der Oest's uneven but interesting look at the life of the South African poet Ingrid Jonker.

Three very different British films were also well-received. Hailed as "hugely enjoyable and wickedly funny", Michael Winterbottom's The Trip stitched together the best bits of the BBC series to create a surprisingly coherent 70-minute movie. Peter Mullan's Neds won plaudits for its brutal tale of youth gone awry. At the other end of the social scale, Lotus Eaters, Alexandra McGuinness's languid study of gilded youth starring Johnny Flynn and Antonia Campbell-Hughes, was praised for style if not substance.

Hollywood stars had a more mixed reception. Vera Farmiga's clever directorial debut, Higher Ground, which charts the lives and loves of a born-again Christian, was generally considered a success. Last Night, a drama about infidelity starring Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington, was more divisive, some critics being less than convinced by the central pairing.

Everything Must Go, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, was entertaining and nicely downbeat, with a surprisingly subtle turn from Will Ferrell. The comedy Jesus Henry Christ, executive produced by Julia Roberts, and starring Michael Sheen and Toni Collette, turned out to be a little too self-consciously quirky, while Angel's Crest, a depressing small-town drama starring Jeremy Piven as a lawyer prosecuting a young father (an outstanding Thomas Dekker) for the death of his child, received plaudits for its acting alongside brickbats for its uneven tone.

The most divisive film of the festival was Detachment, the British director Tony Kaye's overblown, surreal assault on the American education system. Summed up by one critic as "great cast, awful movie", Detachment was also hailed as a "gut-wrenching achievement" featuring Adrien Brody's "best turn since The Pianist". While there's no doubting Kaye's sincerity or the power of Brody's performance, the film's lurches between the trite and the transformative mean that it is very much a movie you will either love or hate. Much like the often hectic, enjoyably muddled experience of Tribeca itself.

Tribeca triumphs: Five of the best films

1. Donor Unknown

Jerry Rothwell's sweet-natured, affecting documentary follows a young woman, JoEllen Marsh, on her search to uncover her heritage and track down her sperm-donor father and the half-siblings she never realised she had.

2. She Monkeys

The Swedish director Lisa Aschan's subversive and smart twist on old coming-of-age tropes centres on the very complicated and often shocking growing pains of the 15-year-old Emma, a talented teenage gymnast, and her precocious seven-year old sister, Sara.

3. Romantics Anonymous

America and Britain have done their best over the years to ruin the romcom but this wonderful French film from Jean-Pierre Améris, about a nervous chocolate-maker (Isabelle Carré) and her timid beau, goes some way towards addressing the balance by leavening the sentimentality with honesty and wit.

4. Koran by Heart

Described as fundamentalist Islam-meets-'American Idol', Greg Baker's fascinating documentary looks at the International Holy Koran Competition, held every year in Cairo, in which hundreds of school children turn up to demonstrate their knowledge of the holy book.

5. The Carrier

Margaret Betts's debut film is a delicate and probing documentary about the life of an HIV-positive Zambian woman, Mutinta, and her family. It's a difficult subject, beautifully handled.

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