Hey Karina and Chris--
While I agree with both of you that the desperate desire on the part of Tribeca's organizers to have A Really Big Festival! has resulted in the presence of some truly horrible movies, I have to say that doesn't (at least for me) make the good -- and even great -- films at the festival any less worthwhile. Granted, it's risky as hell to just blindly buy tickets to anything (particularly, as Karina pointed out, to features), but if attendees choose carefully, they can create a pretty strong week of film-going.
Like Karina, I've seen some crap, but have also seen some very good films. Even today, more than a week after I first saw it, I'm still over the moon about Once in a Lifetime, the New York Cosmos documentary that made me so damn happy it might have become one of my favorite films ever, not just of the festival. And, as a Soviet and Russian history nerd, I've really enjoyed Freedom's Fury and Hammer and Tickle, which offer very different looks at the Eastern Bloc. Freedom's Fury is built around the 1956 Olympic semi-final water polo game between Hungary and the USSR, but is most valuable as a lesson on the 1956 Hungarian revolution; Hammer and Tickle, meanwhile, explores the history of dissent under Soviet rule through jokes. The latter is not an entirely successful film but the history is fascinating, if you're into that sort of thing. In addition, 37 Uses for a Dead Sheep, which details the difficult past and present of the Pamir Kirghiz people, is a pretty wonderful film, sure enough of its approach and subject matter to have a charming, gangly confidence that is all too rare in film, documentary or otherwise.
On another front, I'm a bit stunned by how weak the films in the Narrative Feature Competition that I've seen so far have been -- like you, Chris, I'm hoping the brilliance will be revealed at screenings later this week (Colour Me Kubrick, for example, has a lot of people pretty excited). In retrospect, of the four that I've seen, Two Players from the Bench has become my favorite. It's a Croatian film that touches on war, friendship, and the International War Crimes Tribunal a good-natured, light-weight sort of way that nevertheless manages to stay with you. While I was watching (and reviewing) it, I spent the whole time asking myself why the hell I was enjoying this not-particularly-good movie so much. I still don't know the answer, but I like it now even more than I did when I saw it, nearly three weeks ago.
Ironically, despite our collective negative experiences with them, the films that I'm most looking forward to over the next 10 days are almost all features. I've had Hanging Garden (from Japan) and Crime Novel (a fictionalized "virtual history of gangsterism in Italy between the 70s and the 90s;" the image above comes from this film) on my list from day one, and The Promise recently joined them because I'm a sucker for Hong Kong epics, even if, like this one reportedly is, they're melodramatic and empty. In addition, I can't wait for Viva Zapatero!, one of the small flood of anti-Berlusconi films coming out of Italy; this one is a sharp, comedic documentary.
Even with all the crap to wade through, I'm really enjoying covering the festival -- I think we need to remind ourselves, sometimes, what a great opportunity something like this presents. I mean, even if I don't like some of the films, not a lot of other people get paid to watch dozens of movies, and then share their reactions. And, even if they're not getting paid, film lovers in NYC have a chance over the next 10 days to see small films from all over the world that might never cross their paths again. Cynicism aside, I think that's something to cherish, and something we need to remember when the sheer volume of Tribeca threatens to overwhelm us.