Now in its 12th year, the Tribeca Film Festival -- founded by Robert De Niro, his producing partner Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff -- has improved immensely since its early scattered years as the celebrity-studded fest comes of age. If you could see only five films at the fest, you could do worse than watching these comedies, dramas, and documentaries:
RETURN OF OLD FRIENDS: "Before Midnight"
The third and richest collaboration between Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, and director Richard Linklater ("Before Sunrise," 1995; "Before Sunset," 2004) finds the French and American couple Celine and Jesse still talking, talking, talking -- and making love.
Having met nearly two decades earlier on a train and then reunited in Paris following Jesse's publication of a novel about his time with Celine, they are now coupled with children. Together, they navigate the rocky seas of divorce, domesticity, and middle age. This day in their lives unfolds at the end of a summer holiday in Greece. They bid goodbye to his son from his troublesome American ex, hang with their twin daughters, and continue to talk into the night about what works, and what doesn't, in their relationship.
Brilliant! You laugh. You cry. You identify with one or the other -- and sometimes change allegiances midfight. This is a fresh, contemporary dramedy about love and pain and the whole damn thing from three intelligent and insightful artists (they all collaborated on the script) without a single false note. Of all the movies at Tribeca, "Before Midnight" will have life at the theaters when it opens on May 24 opposite "The Hangover Part II"-- and at the very least should snag a nomination for best original screenplay come Oscar time.
AN INTERNET SENSATION: "Lil Bub and Friendz"
This pet-friendly documentary charts the rise to Internet fame of a cat and his boy -- Lil Bub and Indiana music producer Mike Bridavsky. Lil Bub is arguably the most famous cat on the Internet, or at least the cutest, with a mass following that includes 71K YouTube followers, over 8K Twitter followers, and over 3 million views of Lil Bub's YouTube videos. Not bad for a creature who hasn't even celebrated his second birthday!
Inspired by the Walker Art Center's Internet Cat Video Film Festival, filmmakers Juliette Eisner and Andy Capper narrowed their gaze to breakout star Lil Bub. The tiny kitty with the big eyes could be considered a freak in the cat world -- the rescued pet has 22 toes, no jaw, and a body wracked by osteopetrosis and limited by dwarfism. The movie examines the phenomenon of cats on the Internet, shows Lil Bub's encounter with the similarly famous Grumpy Cat, and explores what makes this relatively recent meme so viral.
A BRILLIANT HEARTBREAKER: "The Broken Circle Breakdown"
Hear the plot of this Flemish movie, and you'll never go see it: A tattoo artist (Veerle Baetens) and a musician (Johan Heldenbergh) meet cute, marry, and unexpectedly have a child. When that little girl gets cancer, the ensuing crisis rocks their relationship. It sounds so Lifetime Movie, but there's a reason why "The Broken Circle Breakdown" -- in Flemish with English subtitles and bluegrass performances in English – won the audience award at the Berlin Film Festival. Director Felix Van Groeningen (of the brilliant "The Misfortunates") creates a drama that plays with time, gracefully unfolding to tell an emotionally rich story. A play on the Carter Family hit song title "Can the Circle Be Unbroken," the drama, with bluegrass performance interludes, can be seen as a cross between "Walk the Line" and "Blue Valentine." But the World Narrative Film Competition contender is unique in its compassionate and candid look at complicated and fully realized contemporary characters. Bring tissues and a generous heart -- and a hope that this will become a contender for best foreign-language film so that more Americans can view it.
A DISCOVERY: "What Richard Did"
Poised for international stardom as the lead in the upcoming "Transformers" sequel four, breakout actor Jack Reynor, 21, stars in this terrific independent Irish drama from Dubliner Lenny Abrahamson. The handsome American-born, Irish-raised Reynor plays the title character. The popular, privileged young rugby player has everything going for him -- until a brawl outside of a house party over summer break changes his life forever. As the gap widens between who Richard thought he was and what his actions and their consequences reveal about his nature, Reynor delivers a charismatic and shattering performance as the once-golden boy, Richard, becomes increasingly isolated from the community he once ruled.
A MUST-SEE DOCUMENTARY: "In God We Trust"
Bernie Madoff's financial fraud that led to his 2008 arrest had a negative impact on many people -- his family, his investors, and his co-workers. This is the story of his personal secretary: an upright, middle-aged Italian-American mother from Staten Island named Eleanor Squillari. While she, too, lost her nest egg and, ultimately, her house, she also felt personally betrayed by a boss whom she trusted and who was a father figure to her. Her response to the personal and collective tragedy was to do something -- with her insider access to documents and knowledge of the key players, she helped the authorities to piece together how this enormous white-collar crime was committed and see that justice was done. Like a wife realizing that her husband led a double life, and thirsting for details, Squillari obsessively investigates how Madoff defrauded so many. Over the course of the riveting documentary, viewers also get a portrait of Madoff as a smart but amoral man who, with a combination of personal charm and meticulous and systematic financial dirty dealings, secured huge gains for a very few and bankruptcy for many others -- including Squillari.
The 2013 Tribeca Film Festival opens tonight with the documentary "Mistaken for Strangers," about the Brooklyn indie band the National. It shutters on Saturday, April 27, with a special screening of a restored print of co-founder Robert De Niro's darkly comic 1982 collaboration with director Martin Scorsese and co-star Jerry Lewis, "King of Comedy." Rupert Pupkin will likely be in the house.
See the trailer for 'Before Midnight':