The Tribeca Film Festival doesn’t officially get underway till Wednesday, but a number of this year’s films have had pre-fest screenings – everything from a documentary by Eric Bana, the actor, about Eric Bana, the race-car driver; and a horror flick about the inadvisability of taking babysitting jobs with practicing Satanists. Two pictures already stand out, though. Both defy genre pigeonholing and both, I think, will be stirring up appreciative buzz over the course of the 12-day festival.
One of these is “Here and There,” a deadpan romantic comedy by Serbian director Darko Lungulov. The movie was shot in both Belgrade, Lungulov’s home town, and New York, where he studied filmmaking. It concerns a glum, down-and-out Manhattan saxophone player named Robert (David Thornton) who in order to make some money accepts an offer by a young Serbian expatriate (Branislav Trifunovic) to travel to Belgrade, marry the guy’s girlfriend (in order to get her a green card) and bring her back to New York.
The picture is mostly in English, and it has a loose, inscrutable charm that recalls early Jim Jarmusch films like “Stranger Than Paradise.” (Lungulov is an effusive fan of Jarmusch – who himself plays a prominent part in another of this year’s TFF films, the CBGB documentary “Burning Down the House.”) As Robert schlubs around the Serbian capital, drinking beer with friendly locals, bonding with houseplants (a memorably droll scene) and fending off a bosomy shopgirl who wouldn’t mind having a green card of her own, the picture takes small, surprising turns that remind you how much a director can accomplish with little more than an original sensibility and some fine actors. Thornton, whose movie credits range from “The Last Days of Disco” to “Alpha Dog,” may be most widely known for his recurring role as a snotty defense attorney in two of the “Law & Order” series. Here, playing a character whose alienation from the world sometimes borders on autism, he anchors the movie through the subtlest of means – even his haystack haircut has things to tell us. For reasons almost entirely mercurial, it’s a mesmerizing performance. (Thornton’s wife, Cyndi Lauper, makes a cameo appearance in the picture and also contributes a song to the soundtrack.)
The other Tribeca film I wanted to see again before it even ended is “Handsome Harry,” about four old navy buddies drawn back to a very dark incident in their past. The director, Bette Gordon, who started out in New York’s downtown movie scene back in the punk days, and is now a professor in Columbia University’s filmmaking program, is a master of mood and pace. She never opts for an obvious shot, or hurries the story along for fear of testing some hypothetical viewer’s patience. Not that she needed to worry about that -- there isn’t a dead passage in the whole picture. The cast is an indie dream, with Jamey Sheridan, Steve Buscemi, Aidan Quinn and John Savage as the now-middle-aged pals – out of touch for decades, and none too happy about getting reacquainted – and the incomparable Campbell Scott playing a key fifth character and bringing to the film a tide of deep emotional resignation.
The central revelation in “Handsome Harry,” though, is Jamey Sheridan, who’s in every scene and whose portrayal of conflicted regret and inescapable longing is a wonder to behold. Sheridan has been making movies for more than 20 years (“Syriana” and “The Ice Storm” are among his credits); but he, too, is a “Law & Order” veteran, and it may be for his long-running role as top cop James Deakins in the “Criminal Intent” spinoff that he’s best known. Here, illuminating his heartsick character with the most delicate gestures and intonations, he exudes star quality. All that’s missing are the traditional accolades and statuettes. Maybe not for long, though.