Say what you will about the identity -- or lack thereof -- of the Tribeca Film Festival, which kicked off in NYC tonight. To me, an event like this is not about unique status among the world's many film fests; it's about watching films. And while it's true the narrative premieres have only yielded a few breakouts, such as Let the Right One In and Transamerica, I have never been dissatisfied with Tribeca's documentary selection, which has introduced us to eventual Oscar-winners like Taxi to the Dark Side and Oscar-nominee follow-ups like Marshall Curry's Racing Dreams (soon to be remade as a fictionalized drama).

Of course, I've also seen some terrific non-fiction films at Tribeca that still can't be rented through Netflix or Blockbuster (though you may find DVDs through direct sale by the filmmakers). And that just goes to show why film festivals must be attended with great wonder and curiosity, not ignored with hopes that critical acclaim for each and every worthwhile film will virtually thrust the entire fest into your living room via any number of distribution channels.

Obviously those of you not in the tri-state area or otherwise unable to attend Tribeca would like only to hear about films you'll eventually have an opportunity to see. All I can tell you is that by supporting your own local film fests, regardless of whether or not they have identity issues, you may have your sole opportunity to view those documentaries and other niche films that might never be available to stream free online, let alone play at your nearest arthouse cinema.

I've highlighted a number of films I'm dying to see at Tribeca this year, some of which could one day be accessible to the masses with rental queues and others that might not be heard from again. Due to this column and my preferred cinematic tastes, the listed titles are limited to the documentary selections. (I wouldn't mind if Tribeca was only a doc festival.)

The Arbor (Clio Barnard)

I'll always be interested in a film described as blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction, as is this experimental biographical film about the late British playwright Andrea Dunbar. Like the hit foreign documentary Waltz with Bashir, the main conceit here is that it's based around audio interviews. Instead of using animation, though, Barnard has actors portraying the interviewees and lip-syncing to the pre-recorded material. Also, interwoven with these interviews is an outdoor staging of scenes from Dunbar's play The Arbor.

Into Eternity (Michael Madsen)

Before you even know what this Danish doc is about, check out the awesome, haunting, Herzog-like teaser below. Then check out the synopsis via the above link and check out another, much older trailer here.



Untitled Eliot Spitzer Film (Alex Gibney)

Gibney returns to Tribeca after premiering his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side here three years ago. While he also unveiled a new film (Casino Jack and the United States of Money) at Sundance recently, it is fitting that a film about Spitzer would debut at a New York festival. For more on the unfinished doc, which will screen as a work-in-progress (perhaps the audience can offer Gibney some unsolicited tips for its completion?), check out our recent post spotlighting a clip from the film.

My Trip to Al-Qaeda (Alex Gibney)

Gibney also has a finished film premiering at Tribeca this year. While it may not have the prestige and buzz of the Spitzer film, this adaptation of Lawrence Wright's play, based on his book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, should be another must-see. The prolific documentarian can do wrong (I was very disappointed with his Hunter Thompson film, Gonzo), but I'm as equally drawn to the subject and source material as Gibney's name.


Thieves By Law (Alexander Gentelev)

I might be slightly worried about any Brighton Beach natives sitting around me in the auditorium during this film, which provides an apparently intimate look into the Russian Mafia. Who needs that sequel to Eastern Promises (or even the original, for that matter) when you can watch the real thing here? See the trailer below:



The Two Escobars (Jeff and Michael Zimbalist)

Where do drugs and sports meet? Besides steroids (see Bigger, Stronger, Faster for that topic), there's the link between Colombia's narcotics trade and professional soccer, documented through this dual bio of drug lord Pablo Escobar and footballer Andres Escobar, who was assassinated -- allegedly by the Medellin drug cartel -- following the 1994 World Cup.

Earth Made of Glass (Deborah Scranton)

Another Tribeca vet, The War Tapes' Scranton returns with a documentary that like The Two Escobars brings us back to 1994. In this case it's a dualistic look at the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, featuring central interviews with current President Paul Kagame, who implicates the French as being involved in the horrible tragedy, and Jean Pierre Sagahutu, a genocide survivor. Check out the film's trailer below:






Freakonomics
(Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock, Eugene Jarecki, Seth Gordon and Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing)

Based on the best selling book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, this anthology documentary, with segments directed by some of the biggest names in non-fiction (yep, Gibney again), will close the festival. For more on the film, check out my earlier post on the doc's acquisition by Magnolia.


Sons of Perdition (Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten)

You can't attend a film festival without checking out the obligatory religious wacko documentary, and this one seems especially fascinating. Measom and Merten follow a group of teen boys who were exiled from their polygamist community and attempt to adapt to the real world. Trailer:



Monica & David (Alexandra Codina)

Finally, how about a little romance? There just aren't enough documentaries about the subject of love, which is unfortunate in a world that sees so many bad rom-coms made each year. This film depicts a year in the life of the titular couple, both of whom have Down syndrome, as the prepare for their wedding. Trailer:



Stay tuned for coverage of these and/or other Tribeca films from the Cinematical team over the course of the festival.