Commentary: Tribeca's snapshot of zeitgeist in perfect focus thanks to spot-on slate

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At the Tribeca Film Festival this past week, co-founder Jane Rosenthal has been eager to point out the fest's move away from the dark. "We've sought out lighter films," she told reporters. "People need to laugh right now."

I've seen about 10 of the movies playing Tribeca, and the quality is high -- possibly its highest to date. But the tone ain't always light.


"Vegas: Based on a True Story"
 
In fact, Tribeca's strength this year might be the opposite: capturing the zeitgeist of jitteriness permeating New York, the film world and the world at large. It's an accident -- though it certainly didn't feel like one -- that during its busy first weekend, news broke that swine flu had reached the city.

Some of the movies have been dead-on relevant to the culture of anxiety. Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience," which officially premieres here after a rough-cut screening at Sundance, showcases (aside from its escort exploits) Wall Streeters on the brink of losing their bonuses and lifestyle.

Down the economic ladder, Amir Naderi's trenchant "Vegas: Based on a True Story" examines a down-on-his-luck blue-collar worker who becomes consumed with the idea of treasure buried under his home and ruins his life and family trying to find it. You could spend years studying Countrywide mortgage records and not come up with a better metaphor for the follies and victims of the real estate boom.

Even films that don't directly echo current problems tap into a general feeling of worry. Irish drama "The Eclipse," probably the best movie here, concerns a widower mourning a life that was. If that weren't enough to cue the timeliness bells, he's haunted by ghosts of someone still living. Gruesome visions? When so many agents worry about their fate? The filmmakers could have come out of a Beverly Hills lunch spot.

Organizers might not have set out to do it, but this might be the first festival in years to reflect so fully its time and place. In doing that, Tribeca might have found the identity it has sought so long.


"The Eclipse"
 
Toronto and Sundance lightened up during the past year; the latter was dominated by such offbeat romances as "(500) Days of Summer," "Adam" and "Paper Heart." It's a nice group of films, but they didn't do what a film festival can only occasionally do and what Tribeca has done: blend seamlessly the feeling inside the theater with that outside. (There's a poetry here: Recession-fueled anxiety isn't merely a backdrop to the films; it's the reason the fest cut its slate nearly in half this year, which increased the quality.)

Festgoers are still living it up, of course. The party culture has been muted only marginally: Friday saw festivities go late into the night at an afterparty for the quirky documentary "Shadow Billionaire" at a trendy bar below the Mercer Hotel, and Saturday brought out a mix of glitterati and unironic trucker hats at a party for "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia." But there's a feeling of ominousness, a kamikaze fatalism, hanging over the whole thing.

Founders like to talk about how the 9/11-inspired Tribeca is one of only two festivals to grow out of an act of war. Most years that seems like noble but quaint nostalgia, but with all of the current battles to fight, it feels like a mission statement.
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