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Personality drives this Tribeca Film Festival

Personality drives this Tribeca Film Festival
A scene from the documentary “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic.”
(Steve Shapiro / Showtime)

NEW YORK — In 11 previous editions, the Tribeca Film Festival has showcased dozens of glitzy studio productions and stars — Tobey Maguire and his “Spider-Man 3" crew rode into town in 2007, Tom Cruise opened “Mission: Impossible III” here in 2006 and last year Joss Whedon world-premiered “The Avengers” on closing night.

But when Tribeca’s 12th edition opens Wednesday, most of the famous names won’t arrive via big-budget Hollywood movies — they’ll come as documentary subjects.

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This cinematic rite of spring has eschewed the splashy studio premiere this year, opening instead with a documentary about the niche rock band the National (“Mistaken for Strangers”) and closing with a revival of a 31-year-old film starring its co-founder, Robert De Niro (“The King of Comedy”).

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But over 11 days, audiences will be exposed to a barrage of boldfaced names through nonfiction titles: Richard Pryor, Muhammad Ali, Elaine Stritch, Gore Vidal, Moms Mabley, Michael Haneke, extreme skier Shane McConkey and even — why not? — YouTube’s most popular cats.

“There wasn’t really any intentionality to programming these [types of] documentaries,” said Tribeca’s chief creative officer, Geoffrey Gilmore. “But as the movies started coming in this year, we noticed a lot of them were personality-driven.”

Genna Terranova, the festival’s director of programming, said she felt filmmakers were increasingly drawn to human subjects instead of issues or controversies. “There aren’t these kind of cultural beacons right now, and I think we’re a little nostalgic for when there were.”

Among the anticipated films are some titanic names. In “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic,” director Marina Zenovich examines the complicated life of the trailblazing comedian who died in 2005. Chiemi Karasawa’s “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” follows the octogenarian actress and singer on the road over a year. With “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” Nicholas Wrathall offers a tribute to and interview with the late author. Donning a director’s hat, Whoopi Goldberg seeks to unearth truths about her idol, Chitlin Circuit pioneer Moms Mabley, in “I Got Somethin’ to Tell You.”

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And then there’s Yves Montmayeur’s “Michael H. Profession: Director,” which, though it focuses on a current figure, seeks to shed light on the elusive Austrian filmmaker Haneke, fresh off his foreign-language Oscar win for “Amour.”

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Zenovich, who previously directed the headline-grabbing “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” says the rise of the personality-driven documentary is a reaction to another media trend.

“We live in a time when there’s so much blah news about people in the public eye,” she said. “I think filmmakers and audiences are hungry for texture.” The director worked around the challenge of a deceased subject by giving weight to Pryor’s friends and journal entries.

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The shift this year away from big-budget Hollywood and toward a kind of documentary glamour will delight fans who revel in Tribeca’s unpredictability but may irk skeptics who say the festival lurches between identities.

Organizers, though, say that such criticism misses the point. “If you can’t try something new at Tribeca, then where can you try it?” said Jane Rosenthal, the festival’s co-founder and De Niro’s producing partner. “Some people say, ‘Stay in your lane.’ But we’ve never defined that lane. And we like it that way.”

Though narrative films can be a mixed bag at the festival, there are some scripted features generating anticipation. They include the Amy Morton-Adam Driver small-town drama “Bluebird"; Craig Zisk’s comedy “The English Teacher” featuring Julianne Moore and Greg Kinnear; the mistaken-twin dramedy “The Pretty One” starring Zoe Kazan; “Sunlight Jr.” starring Naomi Watts from “Sherrybaby” director Laurie Collyer; and Sam Fleischner’s Superstorm Sandy coming-of-age indie “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors.”

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(Angelenos, take note: A number of these movies will be arriving in theaters, on the Web or on television during or shortly after Tribeca. For instance, “English Teacher” is now available on YouTube, Amazon and VOD, while the Richard Pryor film will air on Showtime on May 31.)

Meanwhile, Tribeca is known for the occasional foreign breakout as well, having served as the North American venue of discovery for the 2013 foreign-language Oscar nominee “War Witch” and, in 2008, the Swedish vampire hit “Let the Right One In.” (Last year, the Cuban defection tale “Una Noche” became spookily real when two actors from the film defected en route to the festival.) Notable imports this year include the Taiwanese family comedy “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and the Middle Eastern honor-killing drama “Before Snowfall.”

The festival usually offers a deep roster of sports documentaries, many presented in conjunction with ESPN. Among its athletically oriented world premieres this year are Red Bull Media House’s portrait of extreme skiing in “McConkey” and Bill Siegel’s investigation of race and class in “The Trials of Muhammad Ali.” And of note to at least one long-suffering New York Islanders fan is “Big Shot,” the actor Kevin Connolly’s look into the embarrassing 1996 sale of the team to Dallas mogul John Spano, who turned out not to have any money to buy the club.

But the Tribeca entry with perhaps the most buzz isn’t centered on humans at all: “Lil Bub and Friendz” is a look at some cats that have gone viral. Made by the outré production company Vice Media (of Dennis Rodman-North Korea fame), the movie plays to a different kind of festival sensibility.

“The idea for the film was originally birthed from my wanting to examine people’s overwhelming interest in cat videos, while realizing that the videos are crazy view-drivers,” said Juliette Eisner, who directed the movie with Andy Capper. “So we essentially made a cat video of our own — the most epic cat video, one that is accepted at Tribeca and is having a red carpet premiere.”

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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