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

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

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The lateness of some political milestones can be horrifying to realize once you put them in temporal context. There are people alive now who lived through a time before women earned the right to vote in American elections. In 1964 The Beatles gave birth to modern pop music the same year The Civil Rights Act (legally) ended racial segregation. The Supreme Court made gay marriage legally binding in 2015, less than 15 years after it officially decriminalized sodomy in 2003. I’m always bewildered (and more than a little horrified) by how late in the game these kinds of milestones arrive and my most recently discovered example on that note is the case of Daughters of the Dust. Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film directed by a black woman to earn a theatrical release in the United States. In 1991. That’s madness. The same year Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars, the Internet was first made available for commercial use, Nirvana’s Nevermind made punk popular again, and Rodney King’s assault & arrest were caught on video tape, the first film directed by a black woman to be theatrically released in the US landed a political milestone that should have come decades, if not almost a century sooner. I can’t get over that.

One of the best things about Julie Dash’s history-making crown jewel is that it is fiercely, unapologetically black. Typifying pop culture Afrocentrism of the early 90s, the film depicts several generations of a Gullah family of slave descendants as they negotiate on what level they’d be participating in the modern world. Isolated on an island off the American coast near Georgia, the Gullah people thrived as free outsiders with their own unique culture, language, and customs. The threat of rape, exploitation, and enslavement looms over them, but is kept entirely off-camera as the film focuses on a very specific moment early in the 20th Century as younger generations long to leave behind old religions to join a modern world they’ve only seen in photographs while their elders cling to culture & tradition. Rhythmic African percussion, folk art, and meticulous food preparation (including what looks like a life-changing gumbo) drive the film’s apparent concern with preservation of culture in the face of a world that seems determined to colonize and homogenize. For all of Daughters of the Dust‘s fretting over staying still vs keeping in motion and reminders to “Respect your family. Respect your elders. Respect your ancestors,” it doesn’t at all play like an academic exercise in anthropology cinema. Besides being a vivid record of a highly specific black cultural experience, Daughters of the Dust also feels deeply personal and resoundingly poetic.

Written, directed, and produced by Dash herself, the film boasts the art film obfuscation that often gets called “dreamlike” or a “tone poem.” The negotiations (mostly between women) over who will and who will not be returning to mainland America after the film’s climactic feast provide a very basic structure for the story Daughters of the Dust wants to tell, but a lot of its narrative is expressed through the feelings evoked in its imagery. Floods of wild horses disrupt island calm. Purple steam rises from wooden cauldrons as women process indigo dye. Characters languidly drape themselves on immense trees like sentient moss. The whole story is narrated by a bodyless spirit billed as Unborn Child in the credits. 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 and it’s near-impossible not to admire the film’s ambitions even when its individual moments aren’t wholly successful.

I’ll admit that at times during this film I had found it to be more interesting as an artifact than as a moment to moment experience. Much like the films of similarly image-centric auteurs like Nicolas Winding Refn (who I love) and Terrence Malick (who I loathe), this is the kind of work where you have to find its rhythm early or else get left behind. Besides my personal lack of interest in narratively loose, intentionally obscured modes of filmmaking, an occasional choice in home video-era frame rate or embarrassingly dated soundtrack cues threw me off in specific moments where I lost the rhythm of what Daughters of the Dust was trying to accomplish (and, to be fair, those were likely editing choices, the one area of production Dash didn’t handle herself). I did, however, continuously find the film fascinating & wondrous to behold as it presented a culture and a set of images rarely evoked onscreen. Having watched the less than stellar Kino-released DVD of the film, I’m very much interested in seeing the restored version of Daughters of the Dust that’s currently making the rounds (having just played at New Orleans Film Fest last month). Not only was Dash’s film a far too late cultural milestone for black female directors, it hasn’t been well treated or remembered in the decades since its release. After being cited as a major influence on Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, though, it seems that it’s finally getting the respect & recognition it deserves and I’d love to see how vivid the film’s powerful imagery is in its latest, most well-handled incarnation, so I can fall even further under its spell.

-Brandon Ledet