Tribeca Film Festival - The stars return to New York

Robert De Niro's Tribeca film festival finally came of age this year, overshadowing Cannes and Sundance. Kaleem Aftab was there

In the shadow of King Kong, to the south of the Empire State Building, lies the neighbourhood of Tribeca, where this week Robert De Niro's film festival showed why, in only its eighth incarnation, it has gained the reputation of being the hippest kid on the film-festival block. It was after September 11, the most dramatic event in the city's history, that the star of Taxi Driver decided to set up a film festival where once stood the island's tallest towers.

Strangely, it has taken another crisis – this time on Wall Street – for the film festival to mature into a significant player. Instead of trying to display its strength, by showing more films year-on-year (a fault in previous times), De Niro and his revamped programming team have decided to focus on fewer films, and those which highlight the city's place in the hearts and minds of the world. The response from New Yorkers, especially the film-making community, has been overwhelmingly positive.

Two of the city's most famous film-making sons, Woody Allen and Spike Lee, both premiered films here this year and the festival also played host to Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, a film in which most of the action takes place in Manhattan. In the year in which "austerity" is being bandied about as the keyword at Cannes, with even Vanity Fair pulling the plug on their annual shindig on the French Coast, Tribeca decided to take the opposite tack and show defiance in the face of financial crisis. And when New York decides to put on the glamour, not even Cannes can match it.

The first sign of things to come was the opening press conference at which the jury was announced. There was some fighting talk from one of the festival founders, Jane Rosenthal, about the recession, followed by Uma Thurman, who looked like a skyscraper next to De Niro and Spike Lee, reading out a list of her fellow jury members. This was a cast list that even a big-budget Steven Spielberg picture would struggle to put together. On the various juries were actors Adrien Brody, Meg Ryan, Bradley Cooper, Whoopi Goldberg, Melissa Leo, Parker Posey, Thomas Haden Church, James Franco, and Mary Kate Olsen, as well as directors Todd Haynes, Morgan Spurlock and Mary Harron. It's a who's-who list that puts Cannes' jurors, this year headed by Isabelle Huppert, in the shade.

After that, Natalie Portman used the festival as a platform to launch her new website, makingof.com, that takes a behind-the-scenes look at the film industry. The official launch at the Apple Store was followed by an exclusive cocktail reception hosted by Interview, the magazine started by Andy Warhol. The party took place at The Marble House and Portman's pals, including Anne Hathaway, were out in force. What made this particular event so charming were not the flash interiors or the priceless artworks on show, nor the host of attending celebs, including Rashida Jones, Max Minghella, Debbie Harry, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Shannon and Tom Sachs, but the personal touch that comes when you host a party in your home town. Even Portman's parents were on hand to press the flesh. Sweet.

The fashion stakes were high, as always, with the accessories of choice coming from the DanniJo label, owned by Snyder sisters Danielle, 24 and Jodie, 27. Their jewellery has been taking the town by storm since it launched last year with Beyoncé snapped in one of their necklaces while swaying through Soho last week. The IFC Films party for In The Loop saw a plethora of Brits celebrating at the lavish loft residence of Barry Appelman and Ildiko Sragli. This is a luxurious apartment set over three floors, with views of the Hudson and Empire State Building from the enormous roof terrace. The film festival had coincided with the arrival of sunshine more usually associated with the Côte d'Azur and the congregation happily drank to the successful New York premiere of the political film.

But my favourite location of the week was the Truffles Tribeca, an apartment complex with a sumptuous private members' lounge where the party for the Josh Lucas flick Tell-Tale took place. The venue houses a cinema and guests were kept occupied by an array of games on offer, including billiards, table football and darts.

The events at Tribeca meant that the other film parties in town had to pull out all the stops. The Film Society of Lincoln Center succeeded with their tribute to Tom Hanks. It takes something special to put Spielberg, Sam Mendes, Ron Howard and a performance from Bruce Springsteen in the shade. But Julia Roberts got up on stage and gave a bizarre eulogy to the actor, littered with swearing. Priceless.

Even when the parties were more low-key, such as the one for the Channel-4-funded dance documentary Only When I Dance, they were still fun. The film follows the fortunes of two Brazilian dancers trying to break into tough ballet circuit and win a dance scholarship awarded in New York. The party that took place in a tiny West Village Brazilian eatery was hands down the best place to get your groove on.

And there were movies, of course. The opening film, Whatever Works is Woody Allen's long-awaited return to his home city after a five-year sojourn in London and Barcelona. This time Larry David has the pleasure of being cast in the "Woody Allen" role. David plays a disillusioned Columbia University quantum physicist whose failed suicide attempt leads to the break-up of his marriage and, a relationship with a young Mississippian runaway played by Evan Rachel Wood. Despite the performance of David, it met with indifferent reviews: not the trium-phant return that some had hoped for after Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Spike Lee had two documentaries showing: Kobe Doin' Work is about the basketball star Kobe Bryant made for ESPN, in the mould of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait while Passing Strange captures the closing-night performance of the one-man Broadway show of the same name.

Lee hosted three parties, one for each movie and another in his role as president of the online Babelgum, which, in keeping with this year's trend, moved its award ceremony from Cannes to New York. Finally came one of the most anticipated films of the festival – Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience. The film about a $2,000-a-night call-girl features the porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role. Set in the days leading up to the 2008 Presidential election this is one of Soderbergh's low-budget efforts. It's an uneven affair, which draws analogies between Grey's troubles at maintaining a relationship while working as a call-girl and the life of a film-maker. Except the call girl didn't go to enough glamorous parties.

In between all the frivolities, the festival had not forgotten the horrific event that gave birth to the festival, and in anticipation of the inaugural Tribeca Film Festival Doha that will take place in November, there seemed to be an effort to show more Middle East-themed films. Chief among them was the world premier of the UK documentary Team Qatar, about a team of Oxford graduates hired by the government of Qatar to coach the national high-school debate team who have entered into the World School Debating Championships in Washington DC. It's directed by Liz Mermin, a London-based New Yorker, and its philosophy is in keeping with De Niro's original hope of using film and culture to promote a more harmonious world.

An unexpected side-effect of all the changes made at Tribeca this year is that the festival is creating a unique, trendy and multicultural vibe that is more in keeping with the city that hosts it. Sundance and Cannes will be looking over their shoulder, watching out for this streetwise upstart.

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