The Best of NOFF 2017 Ranked & Reviewed

Here we are almost two months since the 28th New Orleans Film Festival has passed and I’m finally gathering all of titles I caught at the fest in one spot.  CC & I recorded a more fleshed out recap of our festival experience on Episode #45 of the podcast in case you’re interested in hearing about the weird goings-on at the handful of downtown theaters where the festival was held, the various short films that preceded some of those screenings, and the reasons why I’m wrong for hating I, Tonya. This list is more simplistic than that kind of recap: a better-late-than-never ranking from the best to . . .  the least best of the titles I managed to catch at this year’s festival.  Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. The Florida Project: “The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults.”

2. Tom of Finland:Tom of Finland excels as a kind of filmmaking alchemy that turns an unlikely tonal mashup of Cruising & Carol into the feel-good queer drama of the year. Its high class sense of style & lyrical looseness in narrative structure feels like the best aspects of Tom Ford’s features, but without his goofy storytelling shortcomings. While its sexuality isn’t quite as transgressive as the leather daddy-inspiring art of its subject, it’s still a passionate, celebratory work that sidesteps the typical pitfalls of queer misery porn dramas, yet still manages to feel truthful, dangerous, and at times genuinely erotic. It’s hard to believe the film is half as wonderful as it is, given the visual trappings of its subject & genre, but its leather & disco lyricism lifts the spirit and defies expectation.”

3. She’s Allergic to Cats: “She’s Allergic to Cats hides its emotions behind an impossibly thick wall of ironic detachment. It even goes out of its way to reference infamous so-bad-it’s-good properties like Congo, Howard the Duck, Cat People (’82, of course), and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to throw the audience of the scent of the emotional nightmare at its core. When its protective walls break down, however, and the nihilistic heartbreak that eats at its soul scrolls ‘I need help’ across the screen, there’s a genuine pathos to its post-Tim & Eric aesthetic that far surpasses its pure shock value peers. It’s a hilarious, VHS-warped mode of emotional terror.”

4. Love & Saucers: “David Huggins is entirely sincere about his reports of hundreds of encounters with space aliens, which are mostly sexual in nature. His impressionistic paintings that illustrate these encounters are more art therapy than ironic kitsch, and you could hear the terror & the sadness in his voice as he recounts the stories behind them. There’s inevitably going to be a contingent of viewers who view Lovers and Saucers as a ‘Get a load of this weirdo!’ line of humor at David’s expense, but the truth is that both the movie and the artist are tragically, horrifyingly sincere.”

5. Damascene: “Detailing a single, hour-long conversation shot on two bike helmet-mounted GoPros, Damascene boasts the bare bones storytelling of a one act stage play. It makes the best of its limited resources it can, though, reaching into the discomforting dark humor and emotional trauma typically reserved for deep-cutting stage dramas. It’s an exciting reminder that a great film doesn’t necessarily require a great budget, that a handful of people and a commercially-affordable camera are enough resources to produce top tier cinema in the 2010s.”

6. The World is Mine: “It would be easy to imagine a more traditional, informative documentary about Hatsune Miku’s history as a cultural phenomenon or Westerner cosplay as an act of cultural appropriation, but The World is Mine isn’t especially interest in either line of thought. Instead, Oren implies a simulated identity crisis performed for the camera through the guise of an already simulated character. Lines like ‘The problem with reality is that fairy tales are full of frauds,’ don’t help much in illuminating what Oren’s learned as a living doll modeled after a popular computer program. She’s just one physical copy of Hatsune Miku among many and the eeriness of her lack of a distinct personality is only amplified in the Miku fandom visually approaching a kind of ecstatic singularity.”

7. Young and Innocent: “Young and Innocent is a little stilted by its student film production values & depends heavily on audience familiarity with Hitchcock’s original film, but it plays so loosely with Psycho’s basic DNA that it generates a tense sense of mystery & dread all of its own. More clever than outright hilarious, Young and Innocent’s awkward romantic tension is endearingly cute, while still maintaining the original film’s sense of impending doom through surrealistic violence in its dream imagery and the basic vulnerability of following a runaway teen protagonist through a series of risky decisions.”

8. Mudbound: “Mudbound is at its weakest when it’s tasked to convey a sense of grand scale scope it can’t deliver on an Online Content budget. The voiceover narration and scenes of tank & airplane warfare are where the seams of the limited budget show most egregiously. Rees still delivers a powerful punch whenever she can afford to, though, making sure that the muddy & blood details of Mudbound’s smaller moments hit with full, unforgiving impact.”

9. Wallay: “Wallay feels significant in the way it adds a new wrinkle to the European housing block narrative by giving that community an external perspective. These kids really are caught halfway between two identities and I haven’t seen that cultural limbo represented onscreen quite like this before.”

10. Wexford Plaza: “At its heart, Wexford Plaza is a dark comedy about the difference between treating menial service labor as a consequence-free playground in your 20s and the way it becomes an escape-free economic rut you depend on for sustenance in your 30s & beyond. The movie can be frivolously funny in the aimless stoner comedy moments of its opening half, but evolves into a much more surprising, rewarding watch as its story unfolds onscreen.”

11. The Joneses: “I can’t recommend The Joneses as much of a transformative feat in documentary craft; if anything, the filmmaking style often gets in the way of the work’s best asset: its subject. As a work of progressive queer politics, however, it’s often endearing just for its patience in documenting a universally recognizable American family that just happens to have an adorable trans woman at the center of it. There’s a political significance to that kind of documentation the film should have been more comfortable with instead of pushing for immediate dramatic conflict.”

12. Serenade for Haiti: “There might possibly be a more informative documentary to be made about the grand scale aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but by profiling members of a single music school within Port-au-Prince before & after the event, the film offers an intimacy & a specificity a more wide-reaching documentary could not accomplish. The filmmakers behind Serenade for Haiti would have had no way of knowing the significance of what they are documenting when the film first began production, but they stumbled into a personal, up-close look at a historic tragedy in the process.”

13. Play the Devil: “Play the Devil is effective in its evocation of a spiritual & cultural atmosphere, but the story it manages to tell within that frame is a disjointed mess. I assume that the movie was aiming to be a poignant coming of age drama and not the less fun The Boy Next Door remake with #problematic queer subtext in accidentally stumbled into, which is a total shame. The Carnival imagery almost makes up for it, but not quite enough to turn the tide.”

14. As Is: “The recent small scale documentary As Is details the behind-the-scenes production of a one-time-only multimedia performance staged by visual artist Nick ‘Not That Nick Cave’ Cave in Shreveport, Louisiana in 2015. The film documents all of the artist’s intent, production logistics, and cultural context in the weeks leading up to this performance, then stops short of documenting any of the real thing once it’s executed. It’s like watching the behind the scenes footage of a concert you weren’t invited to for a band you’ve never heard of before. It’s very frustrating.”

15. I, Tonya: The violence leveled on Harding throughout I, Tonya certainly makes her more of a recognizably sympathetic figure than what you’d gather from her news coverage. However, the nonstop beatings are near impossible to rectify with the Jared Hess-style Napoleon Dynamite quirk comedy that fill in the gaps between them. The film either doesn’t understand the full impact of the violence it portrays or is just deeply hypocritical about its basic intent.”

-Brandon Ledet

Damascene (2017)

The democratization of filmmaking technology has meant that it’s now affordable for anyone to have a voice in modern cinema, whether or not they have properly funded distribution or production values to back them up. Films like Creep, Primer, and Tangerine, while benefiting from traditional modes of distribution, have been exciting reminders of just how much a no-budget indie can accomplish with the right players & screenplay. The recent found footage dark comedy Damascene, which saw its world premiere at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, isn’t nearly as high profile of a release as those shining examples of minimalist digital filmmaking, but is just as worthy to be lauded for the effect it accomplishes with severely limited, available-to-anyone means. Detailing a single, hour-long conversation shot on two bike helmet-mounted GoPros, Damascene boasts the bare bones storytelling of a one act stage play. It makes the best of its limited resources it can, though, reaching into the discomforting dark humor and emotional trauma typically reserved for deep-cutting stage dramas. It’s an exciting reminder that a great film doesn’t necessarily require a great budget, that a handful of people and a commercially-affordable camera are enough resources to produce top tier cinema in the 2010s.

Two old lovers reunite by accident after a long absence while biking to a mutual friend’s party. They film each other in conversation with their own helmet-mounted GoPros while cruising the streets, parks, and back allies of a sunshine-drenched London. The conversation starts amicably enough. The woman is guarded & perhaps even annoyed by the intrusion of her old boyfriend on what was a solo bike ride, but they find enough common ground to casually discuss as they leisurely make their way to the party: making fun of their friends for treating romance like a social media meme, reminiscing over half-remembered anecdotes and a shared political interest in war-torn Syria, pop culture touchstones like Friends, Event Horizon, Bukowski, etc. Thiis protective shield of social niceties eventually corrodes, however, and their rapport takes a dark turn. Picking at the barely-healed scabs of their failed romance uncovers a long-buried trauma and an unresolved act of violence that can’t remain undiscussed forever. The darkness at the heart of Damascene gradually creeps in with a casually tossed-out sexist joke or an alcoholism-blurred memory of an nonconsensual public groping, chipping away at the pair’s apparent camaraderie. Once the guard wall is fully breached there’s a full, unstoppable catharsis in the film’s tragic streak that poisonously overpowers any kindness or illusion of healing that came before it.

It’s initially tempting to view Damascene as a Before Sunrise descendant, if not only for its structure as a single conversation contained mostly between two romantically-linked characters. The film is so much more caustic than Richard Linklater’s melancholic romance series, however. Its thematic explorations of unchecked privilege, toxic masculinity, and lingering trauma sit heavy on the audience’s conscience, especially as they’re brushed aside with playfully dark social humor. It makes total sense that one of the two main players is a former playwright, since this mix of comic & tragic tones combines with the conversational storytelling to amount to a very distinct stage play aesthetic. Staging this conversation through hydraulic-smoothed GoPro footage makes this dialogue-based work feel inherently cinematic, though. The camera operators build tension by squeezing between cars in London traffic and offer an eye-level version of drone footage of the city that feels unique to its productions style. Better yet, it’s often easy to forget you’re watching GoPro footage at all, once the dread & mystery of the dark places the conversation is going commands the back half. Damascene is proof in itself that there are great films to be made out of less than ideal equipment, even if it is never distributed wide enough for most audiences to see that proof for themselves.

-Brandon Ledet