Just in case you aren’t already aware, Swampflix is very much an amateur operation, which means there’s no one paying us to seek out & review all of the movies we cover. That amateur status, combined with our home base location in New Orleans (which is known more for its role in film production than film distribution), means we aren’t exactly on the front lines of film festival exclusives. Professional critics traveling to TIFF, Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, and so on are much more dependable for sneak peaks at festival circuit releases that will become a big deal later in the year when Top Ten lists & Awards Season thinkpieces flood the internet. With the documentary fest True Orleans gradually finding its sea legs and the Overlook horror film festival switching venues to New Orleans this year, that dynamic might be starting to change, but the two most substantial festivals in the city (both curated by the New Orleans Film Society) are more or less small fries in the larger film festival picture. I don’t mind that diminished scale one bit. Seeing a much-buzzed-about indie release months before it reaches theatrical distribution is not the highlight of the festival experience for me. What’s most exciting about film fests is the opportunity to catch microbudget releases that might not ever see big screen distribution at all; some never even make it to VOD. There’s also usually a few opportunities to see digital restorations of older classics big & loud in a communal environment you might not ever see them in again, which is a big deal in a city that’s . . . sparse with repertory theatres. As such, I usually try to do my best to review & podcast about as many of the films I can see at the two annual New Orleans Film Society-run festivals every year, projects that sometimes take months to complete because of our posting schedule and the amount of unpaid time & labor required to pull it off. Every year, I see more movies screening at each fest than I did the year before, take longer to review them all (naturally), and feel better about putting in the additional effort.
Of the two NOFS-operated festivals, New Orleans Film Fest is both the longest-running and the most substantial. The 28th Annual NOFF screened hundreds of films all over downtown New Orleans last October, of which I was able to catch 16 features (and a few shorts). This is practically an exponential increase from the 10 screenings I caught in 2016, the three I attended in 2015, and the one or two I’d stumble into as a casual cinephile in the years before we started blogging. Still, I feel like I’m only seeing an insignificant fraction of the films screening NOFF every year, making a festival-wide recap something of a Sisyphean task. NOFS’s annual New Orleans French Film Fest is a different matter entirely. The entirety of French Film Fest is located at a single, beautiful venue: The Prytania, Louisiana’s oldest operating single-screen cinema. For the past couple years, I’ve been able to see about ten feature films a piece at each French Film Fest, which is a fairly substantial percentage of the 15-20 features that screen there. All films are at least partially French productions, most are shown in subtitled French language, and the large majority of them never see domestic big screen distribution outside of the festival. I see some of my favorite releases of the year at French Film Fest too; last year’s My Life as a Zucchini ranked high on my Top Films of 2017 list. There were at least two screenings from this year that I’d comfortably call all-time favorites just after one viewing. New Orleans French Film Fest is the smaller, more intimate festival on the NOFS calendar, but its manageability is more of a charm than a hindrance and I’m starting to look forward to it more every year. That’s partly why last year we only podcasted about our experience at the festival, but this year I wanted to post a more formal ranking of all the films we saw there, no matter how delayed, the same treatment we afford the more gargantuan NOFF proper.
The 21st Annual New Orleans French Film Fest was staged at the Prytania Theatre in late February, 2018. Like last year’s spotlight on French New Wave innovator Jacques Demy, the highlight of this year’s festival was a small retrospective of films by Agnès Varda, who recently became the first female director to ever win an honorary Oscar for her lifetime achievement in the medium. CC and I will be doing a more exhaustive recap of our experience at the festival in early May (she’s more less become our official festival correspondent on the podcast at this point), but for now here’s a ranking of every film I’ve seen that screened at the 2018 New Orleans French Film Fest. Each title includes a blurb and a link to a corresponding review (with one exception of a classic that I didn’t see the point in properly reviewing). Enjoy!
1. Double Lover (2018) – “It’s a narratively & thematically messy film that gleefully taps into sexual taboos to set its audience on edge, then springs a surreal horror film on them once they’re in that vulnerable state. Double Lover is not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller. It’s a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare.”
2. The Gleaners & I (2002) – “I can’t believe that there was this succinct of a summation of my personal philosophies as a silly-ass, trash-obsessed punk idealist in my youth floating around in the ether and I completely missed it until now. I went into The Gleaners & I respecting Varda as a kind of mascot for unfussy, D.I.Y cinema with a genuine subversive streak, but left it believing her to be more of a kindred spirit, someone who truly gets what it means to live among the capitalist refuse of this trash island Earth.”
3. Faces Places (2017) – “Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Faces Places is the way it uses its adorable surface of kittens, friendship, and shameless puns to hide its deep well of radical politics. Varda & JR are very particular about the small-village subjects they select to interview, painting a portrait of a Europe composed almost entirely of farmers, factory workers, coal miners, waitresses, shipping dock unions, and other working-class archetypes. They pay homage to these subjects by blowing their portraits up to towering proportions, then pasting them to the exteriors of spaces they’ve historically occupied. More importantly, they involve these impromptu collaborators directly in the creative process, so they can feel just as much pride as artists as they feel as subjects. The project often feels like a playful, wholesome version of graffiti, which is always a political act (even if rarely this well-considered).”
4. Nocturama (2017) – “Nocturama is certain to ruffle feathers & inspire umbrage in the way it nonchalantly mirrors recent real life terror attacks on cities like Paris & London. That incendiary kind of thematic bomb-throwing is difficult to come by in modern cinema, though, considering the jaded attitudes of an audience who’ve already seen it all. It helps that the film is far from an empty provocation; it’s a delicately beautiful art piece & a hypnotically deconstructed heist picture, a filmmaking feat as impressive as its story is defiantly cruel.“
5. Breathless (1960) – Watching Jean-Luc Goddard’s French New Wave classic Breathless for the first time (on the big screen!) likely “should” have been one of my highlights of the festival, but I was honestly more enamored with the presentation of the film than the movie itself. I’ve gushed here before about how much I cherish the Rene Brunet’s Classic Movie of the Week series at The Prytania, so it was wonderful to see a French Film Fest screening work itself into that weekly slot so seamlessly (a huge improvement on last year’s selection, Love in the Afternoon). As for Breathless itself, I appreciated it as a kind of cinematic ourobouros. Its flippant story if a womanizing car thief was obviously influenced by American gangster pictures, but filters that appreciation through a dangerous French New Wave aesthetic, which later influenced New Hollywood crime pictures like Bonnie & Clyde back in America and the cycle goes on. I struggled at times with the poisonous machismo of the film’s chainsmoking antihero, but appreciated that he admits up front to being an asshole and that most of the humor posits him as the butt of the joke. It’s got a handheld, exciting immediacy to it that makes its place in the Important Movies canon immediately apparent, but it could easily be remade as a (perhaps especially violent) PePe Le Pee cartoon, which is kind of a problem (please nobody tell Max Landis).
6. Le Bonheur (1965) – “The floral, color-soaked Eden where Varda stages this adultery-suspicious morality play is a Douglas Sirk-level indulgence miraculously achieved on a French New Wave scale & budget. Her protopunk subversion of that Sirk melodrama mindset is a little subtler than what you’ll find from John Waters, Russ Meyer, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, so much so that it’s plausible to miss its criticism of men taking women for granted as domestic & emotional laborers entirely if you let your mind wander before the final minutes. The subtlety of that subversion is just as potent as the film’s flair for the avant-garde, though, an apple-gnawing worm that’s all the more effective for catching you off-guard in a sun-drenched Eden.”
7. Souvenir (2018) – “Souvenir is a delicately surreal comedy. Decades ago, it would have been referred to as ‘a woman’s picture.’ As such, I suspect it’s unlikely to be as well-respected within the Isabelle Huppert Boinking Younger Men canon as films that strive to be Serious Art, but it’s covertly one of the best specimens of its ilk.”
8. Ismael’s Ghosts (2018) – “The audience is held hostage waiting for Ismael’s Ghosts to tidily wrap up its illogical collection of disparate tones & storylines, a task that proves more impossible every passing minute. It’s as if Desplechin’s self-therapy for being tortured by his own writer’s block in the midst of familial & professional obligations was to pass that anxiety along to his audience so they can feel what it’s like. It’s a difficult mode of art to appreciate as a viewer, but one with a surprisingly rich tradition (if not only in the Charlie Kaufman oeuvre) and occasional strokes of brilliance among its expressions of creative frustration.”
9. Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2017) – “There’s nothing revelatory in the suggestion that sexual scandal is more inherently cinematic than scientific research, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that The Courage of Knowledge would get distracted by Marie Curie’s highly publicized adultery. Indeed, most of the fun to be had with this film is in its tabloid-friendly back half: Albert Einstein shamelessly flirting with Curie, her married lover referring to her as ‘my beaming radium queen,’ his wife pulling a knife on her and calling her ‘a laboratory rat.’ It’s exciting stuff. It’s also more than a little insulting to the legacy of a scientist who the movie wants you to know was the first person to earn two Nobel Prizes and still the only woman to ever do so.”
10. All That Divides Us (2018) – “While All That Divides Us did little to impress me narratively or thematically, I frequently found myself surprised by its willingness to get downright nasty. Characters bet on dogfights, force victims to smoke crack at gunpoint, erotically choke each other during sex, blackmail, cheat, kill, and say meanly dismissive things to their sex partners like ‘You were good for my prostate.’ There are a couple stray moments of unintentional humor, but most of the movie’s fun is in its warped, tasteless imitation of 90s-era crime thrillers.”
11. 4 Days in France (2018) – “Maybe it’s simple-minded of me to posit that, because the plot is driven by a series of Grindr hookups, a More Explicit Gay Sex edict is the adrenaline shot 4 Days in France needed to feel alive & worth the effort. Either way, it was certainly missing something and more gay sex in this movie about a gay sex app might’ve been worth a shot.”