The Best of NOFF 2016 Ranked & Reviewed

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It already felt a little odd last year to post my Belated NOFF 2015 Report a whole month after the festival had concluded. Having attended more than twice the amount of films I caught at last year’s New Orleans Film Fest this time around, it took me even longer to publish a review for everything I saw. Here we are almost two months since the fest had passed and I’m finally gathering all of those titles in one spot. This better late than never round-up is going to be a little more bare bones & listicle-esque than last year’s, since there isn’t much of a worthwhile story to tell about how I caught this year’s screenings. CC & I recorded a more fleshed out recap of our festival experience on Episode #17 of the podcast in case you’re interested in hearing about the weird goings-on at the NOFF headquarters of the Ace Hotel or the surreal experience of watching a grotesque body horror screened at the mostly empty Aquarium IMAX theater. This list is more of a simplistic ranking of the titles I managed to catch at this year’s festival than that kind of a review.

Here’s a ranking of every film I’ve seen that screened at the New Orleans Film Fest in 2016. Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. I obviously did not have the opportunity to see everything that interested me at the festival (missing out on Manchester by the Sea, Contemporary Color, and Hara Kiri were particular disappointments). I also had to catch up with a couple titles after the fact, specifically Moonlight & Daughters of the Dust, due to scheduling conflicts. Again, there’s more context for these kinds of programming notes in our podcast episode on the festival. However, I do think it’s worth mentioning here that although (the strangely wonderful & sadly underrated) Girl Asleep was scheduled to screen at NOFF, it was pulled at the last minute and that, with the exception of White Girl, I enjoyed everything I managed to see to varying degrees, which made for an overall positive festival experience. Without further ado, here’s everything I watched at the 27th annual New Orleans Film Fest ranked & reviewed.

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1. Multiple Maniacs – “It’s impossible to divorce the context from the content in this case, because John Waters is such a highly specific stylist & works so closely with a steady cast of nontraditional ‘actors,’ but even if the director had never made another feature in his life I believe the world would still be talking about Multiple Maniacs all these decades later. Horror films this weird & this grotesquely fun are rarely left behind or forgotten and, given the devotion of Waters’s more dedicated fans, I’m honestly surprised it took this long for this one to get its proper due.”

2. Moonlight (winner of the NOFF Audience Award for Spotlight Film: Narrative) – “In Moonlight, Barry Jenkins somehow, miraculously finds a way to make a meditation on self-conflict, abuse, loneliness, addiction, and homophobic violence feel like a spiritual revelation, a cathartic release. So much of this hinges on visual abstraction. We sink into Chiron’s dreams. We share in his romantic gaze. Time & sound fall out of sync when life hits him like a ton of bricks, whether positively or negatively.”

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3. The Handmaiden – “As a lesbian erotic thriller with meticulous dedication to craft & a Tarantino-esque celebration of crime & revenge narratives, the film plays like an unholy combination of the flashier aspects of Bound & The Duke of Burgundy, if you could believe such a thing was possible. It’s a gleefully tawdry art piece that takes great delight in its own narrative cleverness, but also constructs a strong enough visual foundation for its flashy storytelling style to shine instead of annoy. If The Handmaiden were a little uglier or if its bigger reveals were held until its final moments, its tonal balancing act might have crumbled disastrously. As is, it’s too fun & too beautiful to resist.”

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4. Are We Not Cats? – “For all its dirty Detroit soul & doom metal sound cues, colorful Quintron-esque musical contraptions, and horrific flashes of skincrawl gore, Are We Not Cats is a film ultimately about intimacy & mutual addiction. As memorable as its grotesque, psychedelic freak-outs can be, their impact is equaled if not bested by the tender melancholy of lines like ‘When was the last memory you have of not being truly alone?’ The details of the romance that ends that loneliness construct a body horror nightmare of open sores & swallowed hair, but still play as oddly sweet in a minor, intimate way that underlines the film’s viscerally memorable strengths & forgives a lot of its more overly-familiar narrative impulses.”

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5. Cheerleader – “Cheerleader is a surprisingly dark comedy that repurposes the subversive bubblegum pop of 90s teen movies for a quietly surreal fantasy piece. The film exists in a cartoon reality of its own outside time & logic and uses familiar teen comedy beats to establish a darkly surreal mood and a tender mode of complete emotional devastation. It’s subtly brilliant, quietly intricate, and deserves the mass attention of wide distribution, especially considering the way it evokes an era of currently bankable nostalgia by reimagining instead of merely mimicking.”

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6. Ovarian Psycos – “There’s a lesson to be learned in the way Ovarian Psycos broadcasts its profile of the titular feminist biking crew without pushing for disingenuous story beats. It may open itself to accusations of being narratively slight or thematically thin, but the truth is witnessing this group of women simply existing out there in the world is more than enough to justify the film’s existence. Anything more would be dishonest.”

7. Daughters of the Dust – “Julie Dash’s film is a sometimes impenetrable, but often beautiful evocation of a mood & a spirit. It may first appear from the outside to be a historical work about the Gullah people on the precipice of the modern world, but Daughters of the Dust strives to be something much grander & harder to pinpoint than that reductive description suggests and it’s near-impossible not to admire the film’s ambitions even when its individual moments aren’t wholly successful.”

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8. My First Kiss and the People Involved (winner of the NOFF Audience Award for Narrative Feature) – “My First Kiss and the People Involved traffics in the standard indie drama empathy inherent to small scale films about systemic mental health care. However, it also mirrors the helplessness & delusion of its disenfranchised subjects by veering into the unexpected territory of a psychological horror. At times, the film’s tense paranoia & dread of sudden violence plays like the silent horror classic A Page of Madness by way of a classic Hitchcock thriller, which is not at all the expectation or precedent it sets in its more tender, but familiar first act.”

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9. Check It– “Check It works best when it shows the kids chowing on fast food, discussing their Instagram aesthetics, and listening to artists like Cakes da Killa or Dominique Young Unique. It loses a little credibility in its celebratory air when it asks queer kids to change themselves to survive, especially since they had managed to survive on their own despite the overwhelming odds for long enough to make a name for themselves and attract this attention in the first place. If they ever find a way to inspire internal inspiration for change & progress within their own ranks they’ll be unstoppable. It’ll also make for a much less compromised documentary.”

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10. White Girl – “White Girl wants to indulge in the sex & drugs & rock n’ roll lifestyle for easy hedonism, condemn the audience for leering along with it, make a point about white women using POC neighborhoods as consequence-free playgrounds, and then use POC narratives as consequence-free playgrounds. In so many ways the film participates in the very same entitlement it aims to indict.”

-Brandon Ledet

Are We Not Cats (2016)

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fourstar

One curious throughline that ties together a lot of body horror classics (besides the sadly dying art of grotesque practical effects) is the idea of doomed romance. Titles like The FlyPossession, Altered States, Splice, and Slither all make their inhuman, nail-splitting, mucus-gushing freakshows count for something by using a doomed romance plot as an emotional anchor. The surprise indie gem Are We Not Cats, delivered by first time director Xander Robin, flips this dynamic on its head. As grotesque as the film’s body horror imagery can be, not least of all in its moments of hair-eating & amateur surgery, its practical effects shock value always feels secondary to its central romance plot. Are We Not Cats toes the line between many genres: body horror, mental health drama, black comedy, surrealist fantasy. It’s first & foremost a doomed romance, though, one that’s infectiously celebratory despite the grotesque violence & grime of its direly tragic atmosphere.

An out of work garbage man finds an unexpected love interest in a lumber yard worker who shares a surprising amount of his peculiarities/afflictions: addiction, crippling loneliness, boredom, poverty, and (most importantly) trichophagia. Our two stray cat lovebirds suffer a rare psychological condition that urges them to compulsively eat human hair. One has a manageable condition that largely sticks to the tiny hairs of beards & arms, but the other is far more voracious. She chows down on the stuff wholesale, leaving entire scalps bare in her wake. There’s a tangible sense of impending doom in this sudden romance, as both addicts feel “weirdly sick” in a way they find difficult to express. Surely, this is somewhat attributable to their likelihood of consuming toxic amounts of jug wine & antifreeze for a cheap high instead of anything that could remotely be considered food, but eating large quantities of human hair also has its own inherent health risks. Have you ever seen a cat cough up an oversized, mucus-coated furball? This is far worse.

Are We Not Cats is a minor work in a lot of ways & features some narrative clichés you’d expect from a first-time filmmaker (an emotionally damaged male lead searching for a female love interest to “fix” him, for starters), but Robin finds a way to luxuriate in the narrative’s insignificance in a way that charms instead of deflates. His characters are society’s throwaway trash, at one point literally tossed in the garbage, so that everything they do is minor by nature anyway. More importantly, though, the film makes lyrical art out its discarded pieces. Instead of chasing the burn-out shrug of the similarly-minded psychedelic body horror Anitibirth, the film is confident that it has style to spare and instead builds its world around an intangible air of romance & desperation. For all its dirty Detroit soul & doom metal sound cues, colorful Quintron-esque musical contraptions, and horrific flashes of skincrawl gore, Are We Not Cats is a film ultimately about intimacy & mutual addiction. As memorable as its grotesque, psychedelic freak-outs can be, their impact is equaled if not bested by the tender melancholy of lines like “When was the last memory you have of not being truly alone?” The details of the romance that ends that loneliness construct a body horror nightmare of open sores & swallowed hair, but still play as oddly sweet in a minor, intimate way that underlines the film’s viscerally memorable strengths & forgives a lot of its more overly-familiar narrative impulses.

-Brandon Ledet