36:55 The Negro and the Cheese Knife 45:00 Signal and Noise 51:55 Really Good Friends 1:00:40 The Streets Tell a Story 1:03:03 Iron Sharpens Iron 1:15:15 Street Punx 1:17:37 In Search of … Pregame 1:26:30 Friday I’m in Love 1:29:50 Three Headed Beast 1:34:18 Last Dance 1:38:34 Nanny
I only attended two in-person screenings at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival: local premieres of the New Orleans drag scene documentary Last Dance and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning horror film Nanny. Everything else I caught at this year’s festival was presented on its Virtual Cinema platform, streamed at home on my laptop & TV. Logistical obstacles kept me from catching more titles in person, which is a shame, since one of the major joys of NOFF is being immersed in microbudget, niche-interest cinema alongside huge, enthusiastic audiences that those movies would not reach otherwise. After a week of rushing from screening to screening trying to cram in as many personal, handcrafted pictures as I can before they disappear into the distribution ether, I tend to lose track of the textures & standards of professional, corporate filmmaking. It’s a low-key, intimate headspace I never want to emerge from, and there’s something especially cool about dwelling there with the sizeable crowds that are missing from arthouse theaters every other week of the year. I obviously couldn’t simulate that experience attending the festival’s Virtual Cinema at home, but I did still get to see some pretty great movies.
The first film I watched on NOFF’s Virtual Cinema platform this year ended up being my clear favorite. The intimate, largely dialogue free drama Three Headed Beast got me excited to spend a week watching nothing but microbudget indies with no commercial appeal, and I was surprised that each subsequent virtual “screening” was a case of diminishing returns. A small, quiet dispatch from our sister city Austin (where one central Swampflix contributor currently dwells), it’s got an infectious D.I.Y. spirit that’ll convince you the only resources you need to make a great film is a few free friends & weekends and a halfway decent script. It’s cute, it’s stylish, it’s sexy, and it’s a more emotionally involving drama than most Awards Season weepies with 1000x its budget.
In Three Headed Beast, a loving bisexual couple struggles with their open relationship when one of them catches feelings for a younger third. The historical details of their relationship dynamic—how long they’ve been together, how long they’ve been open, who suggested the change, etc.—aren’t spelled out until late in the runtime, when the wordless montages of their various romantic trysts are put on pause for the film’s first lengthy exchange of dialogue. It’s all clearly communicated in their body language before that late-in-the-game explainer, though, and a tryptic split screen editing technique helps pack as much of that visual information into the frame as possible in an intricate, exciting way. The tension of who’s putting more logistical & theoretical work into their polyamory (through podcast & literature research) vs. who’s actually committing to that lifestyle with a full heart is complexly mapped out using very simple, straightforward tools of the editing room – pulling a great, low-key romance drama out of very limited resources. Plus, it’s the only film I saw at this year’s festival that includes a tender act of analingus, which has got to count for something.
Friday I’m in Love
I’m embarrassed to admit that my two favorite selections at this proudly local film festival were both imports from Texas. The pop culture documentary Friday I’m Love is a detailed hagiography of the locally infamous Numbers nightclub in Houston, which opened as a dinner-theatre cabaret before converting to an immensely popular gay disco, then mutating once again into a new wave & industrial music venue. Decorated with the tape warp & pre-loaded fonts of a vintage home camcorder, the movie presents “Houston’s CBGBs” as a Totally 80s™ nostalgia pit, one filled to the brim with half-remembered anecdotes about counterculture legends as varied as Divine, Ministry, Grace Jones, Nine Inch Nails, and Siouxie Sioux. The doc is primarily a time capsule record for people who happened to live near the gay Houston neighborhood Montrose when the club was its cultural epicenter, but anyone with a decent sense of taste in music would find something worthwhile in that hazy stroll down memory lane.
Friday I’m In Love commits the worst crimes of a low-budget pop culture doc. It invites talking heads to endlessly daydream about the glory days; its director makes themself a part of the story for no particular reason; it could have easily been reduced to a short. And yet it’s got so much great archival footage of the loveable freaks who ran wild in the pre-internet world that it easily transcends those petty quibbles. It turns out I’m willing to overlook a lot of gruel & glut as long as you throw in some anecdotes about drag queens, goths, and Björk, and there’s something especially charming about seeing those beautiful freaks party in the Texas heat. It turns out I wasn’t the only one so easily charmed, either; the movie won this year’s Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.
While the one truly local film I caught on the Virtual Cinema platform wasn’t my favorite of the fest, it was maybe the best suited for the fest. Street Punx is perfect NOFF programming in that it’s a flippant satire about the petty, logistical frustrations of making the exact kinds of movies that never make it past the film festival circuit. You get to laugh at the ludicrous, aimless hipsters who don’t even know why they’re making art in the first place, then immediately dance with them at the afterparty. It’s self-critical about the entire enterprise of making niche-interest, microbudget films about “the real world” instead of genuinely engaging with it, while also never taking that to-the-mirror indictment all that seriously.
In this low-key slacker comedy, a pair of directionless New Orleans filmmakers attempt to scrape together funds to make a movie about street punks in Myanmar. Hiding behind moodboard comparisons to the unscripted No Wave influences of filmmakers like Jarmusch, they’re never straightforward to potential investors about why they want to make a movie in Myanmar, mostly because they don’t even know the reasons themselves. The studded jackets and spiked mohawks of their potential subjects look great on camera, especially in contrast to the ceremonial Buddhist robes worn by local monks & nuns. They’re not even really interested in those surface-level aesthetics, though; nor are they are interested in the violent military coups that give those punk-culture rebels a political purpose. Their concerns are selfish & petty well past the point of parody (including the director using the potential location shoot as an excuse to bang her Myanmarese crush), and most of the movie is a comedy about attempts to justify the project as anything other than a grotesque personal indulgence. It’s a funny joke too, even if Street Punx itself feels a little messy & aimless in the exact ways it’s critiquing its would-be film-within-a-film for being.
My least favorite film of my Virtual Cinema selections was also the one with the highest ambitions, one that has a much clearer political purpose than the fictional Myanmar punk culture film in Street Punx. In Wetiko, an Indigenous youth gets tangled up in a spiritualist turf war between authentic Maya shamans and their phony Euro initiators in the Yucatan, since his family’s pet store supplies hallucinogenic toads needed for their rituals. It’s sharply critical of druggy white colonizers coopting Maya shaman traditions for recreational & self-aggrandizing purposes, recalling the criticisms of ayahuasca tourism in the overlooked, underloved drama Icaros: A Vision. Featuring performances in the English, Spanish, Mayan, Afrikaans, and (fictional) Empire of Love languages, it’s got an impressively broad scope for such a tiny production, and the New Orleans Film Festival should feel proud to have hosted its World Premiere.
I just couldn’t shake the feeling that Wetiko isn’t as great as it could have been. It’s shot on film, so it’s automatically got a leg up over most modern festival programming in terms of texture, color, and warmth. It’s a shame, then, that it loses some of that ground in its choppy, “trippy”, CG-laced editing techniques during its hallucination sequences, which often feel cliché when they need to feel darkly magical. Thinking back to the way this year’s magnificent Neptune Frost updated its own ancient mystique with the string lights & glowsticks of modern urban living, it’s easy to find Wetiko lacking in comparison. I still found plenty to enjoy about it though, from the eyeroll-worthy cult members of the Empire of Love Conscious Community Center’s awe for “the universal hum of connectedness” to their satisfying violent overthrow at the hands of true local shamans who actually know what they’re talking about. If its stoney-baloney trip-outs had just looked a little more uniquely uncanny & nightmarish, it likely would’ve been my favorite screening on this list. “Impressive but flawed” is far from the worst thing you could say about a film festival title, though, and it was cool to see one of these low-profile movies punch above its weight class.
Welcome to Episode #148 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon is joined by local film critic Bill Arceneaux to review the films they caught at the 32nd annual New Orleans Film Festival (which Bill also covered for The Bayou Brief), starting with the eating disorder-themed body horror Shapeless. Enjoy!
When I visited a close friend during post-Katrina exile in their home state of Alabama, one of their favorite ways to pass the time was listening to a swap meet radio show that negotiated a buy-sell-trade market of second-hand items among their audience. It was a fascinating listen, not only for the absurdism & obscurity of the items being bartered, but also because of the eccentric personalities of the people who’d call in to haggle over them. That memory flooded back to me watching the documentary/narrative hybrid film Socks on Fire, which disrupts its central drama with reenactments of that exact call-in swap meet show, deployed as Greek-chorus chapter breaks. Even more so than its subjects/characters endlessly chanting “Roll tide!” and dressing in crimson red, that radio show device placed me in its Alabama setting with an uncanny specificity I never thought possible, considering it’s a state I’ve only visited a handful of times in my life.
As its title promises, Socks on Fire opens with flaming socks pinned to a backyard clothesline, with filmmaker-poet Bo McGuire narrating questions of what you’re supposed to do with a loved one’s leftover possessions after they pass away. What to do with his deceased grandmother’s used socks has a clear-enough answer: burn ’em. It’s much trickier for the family to decide what to do with her lifelong home, of which she did not leave a living will to assign possession to any of her surviving children or grandchildren. The most obvious answer is to hand the empty house over to McGuire’s uncle, a near-destitute drag queen who doesn’t have another place to live. McGuire’s fiercely homophobic aunt opposes that plan, despite her supposedly Christian values, and viciously fights to leave her brother homeless. McGuire uses the documentary as an excuse to prod at how the siblings’ relationship got to be so poisoned in the first place, and how that friction distorts his own sense of place as a gay artist in his insular Alabama hometown.
I want to describe Socks on Fire as a Southern-fried revision of this year’s auto-documentary Madame, but that doesn’t quite capture the camp or sardonicism of its humor. It operates more like an earnest version of the over-the-top Southern theatrics of Sordid Lives, played like a tell-all airing of a family’s dirty laundry instead of a sitcom. Bo McGuire illustrates his sordid family history with a mixed-media approach, breaking from traditional documentary storytelling with photo album collages, home video tape distortions, fine art photography of suspended household objects, and poetic monologues that ominously refer to decades of conflicts that have gnarled his family tree. It’s when his uncle & fellow queens start re-creating those conflicts in camped-up drag routines that the movie touches on something really special, though. Turning his homophobic aunt into a drag character was an especially inspired choice, and it’s one that clues you into McGuire’s deliciously fucked up boundaries between humor & heartbreak.
I’m not entirely convinced that Socks on Fire is about the disputes over McGuire’s grandmother’s estate, so much as it’s about his own relationship with his isolated hometown. The swap-meet radio show, the Steel Magnolias-style trips to the hair salon, and the awed references to Reba McEntire as a living god are all tied into his aunt & uncle’s battle over a home that only one of them needs, but they feel more personal to Bo McGuire as the narrator than they feel relevant to that story. By the time he collects all the small-town women who shaped his life & persona for a single photoshoot, it’s clear that he’s mostly returning to that place of origin to uncover something about himself, not necessarily about his family. It’s all hyper-specific, intensely intimate, and playfully experimental in its internal visual language, which is pretty much all I ever ask for out of a movie. It’s a privilege to be invited into McGuire’s boozy Southern psyche like this, an old-fashioned flavor of Alabama hospitality.
Of the three low-budget, low-profile indies I caught as virtual selections from this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, I did not expect my favorite would be the crossgender body-swap comedy. In Homebody, a gender-questioning 9-year-old boy discovers the meditative power to inhabit the body of his adult-woman babysitter and lives a day in her literal shoes. It’s a premise you’d expect to find in a 1980s sex comedy or in amateur online erotica, but here it’s handled with an innocence & sweetness that disarms its potential for moral or political disaster. Four years ago, Your Name.kicked open the door for more thoughtful, earnest gender-swap comedies to saunter through, and this is the first movie I’ve seen take advantage of that opening so far. It makes sense that delicate, modernized approach to the genre would come from a film festival acquisition and not a mainstream comedy, so let’s appreciate this sweet little movie before the inevitable live-action Hollywood remake of Your Name. spoils the mood.
Relative newcomer Colby Minifie puts in an A+ slapstick performance as the babysitter host-body in this possession story. Her client is a “Wells For Boys” type indoor kid who’s obsessed with his babysitter in a way that extends beyond the boundaries of a typical childhood crush into an intense jealousy & idolization. A few quick YouTube tutorials later, and he’s using “free spirit” transcendental meditation to inhabit her body, living a casual afternoon as an adult woman. Meanwhile, her consciousness is locked away in a Sunken Place limbo, slowly emerging to coach him through the trickier parts of living in her body before their proper places are righted. The scope of the picture is intimately small & mostly guarded from danger, but it doesn’t shy away from the squirmier curiosities children have when figuring out their relationships with their gender & their bodies. This particular kid indulges in crayon illustrations of his vore fantasies, carefully listens to adults piss from the outside of locked bathroom doors, and inadvertently invites his babysitter’s boyfriend to hook up while he’s piloting her body – all uncomfortable glimpses into his private psyche. For the most part, though, you just hope he has a nice afternoon exploring his feelings & identity on the other side of the gender divide, hopefully without ruining this sweet woman’s life in the process.
Homebody makes an impressive impact, considering its limited means. Director Joseph Sackett wrings a lot of visual vibrancy out of the crayon drawings & YouTube meditation tutorials that illustrate his protagonist’s gender journey. The movie also would not work at all if not for the talent of Minifie in her dual role as babysitter & client, clearly defined as two separate personae through the subtleties of her physical presence. It’s a movie that could very easily sour its own mood with a tonal or political misstep. It’s also one that could allow itself to be reductively summed up as “Freaky Friday meets My Life in Pink“. It’s got a lot more going on than that sales pitch would imply, though, especially as an intimate character study of a highly specific type of child that doesn’t tend to get a lot of screentime. Overall, it’s a wonderfully earnest exploration of childhood gender identity & general obsessiveness. It was also the highlight discovery of this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, at least for me.
As you would likely assume, the COVID-19 pandemic has sabotaged my usual filmgoing routine during the New Orleans Film Society’s annual New Orleans Film Festival. In a typical year, I fill my NOFF schedule with a dozen or more low-profile independent films that I likely wouldn’t be able to see on the big screen (or see at all) outside a festival environment. I’ll zip around the city for a week solid, cramming in 3-4 no-budget titles a day, the more esoteric the better. I tend to avoid most of the big-name movie premieres at NOFF every year – both because those films are likely to be widely distributed to local theater chains in a few months anyway, and because the events are time-sucks that keep me from catching the smaller, weirder titles that will not screen in any other local venue. The pandemic shifted those priorities greatly for me, though. As I’ve been going to the movies a lot less frequently this year, the appeal of seeing a film festival screening of a major release with a masked, vaccinated crowd instead of gambling that I might be comfortable seeing it at the multiplex in a couple months is much less resistible. And so, my participation in the 2021 edition of the New Orleans Film Festival was most boldly defined by attending the city’s premieres of three Awards Season prestige pictures, the exact thing I usually avoid during this ritual.
I will still do my best to individually review the few smaller NOFF selections that I watched at home on the festival’s virtual platform, since those no-distro titles are the ones that can most use the attention. Since the three Spotlight Films I attended in person will most likely be discussed to death in the coming months by professional publications, I’m okay just grouping them here in bite size quick-take reviews. As always, we’ll also provide an audio round-up of all the films we caught at this year’s festival on an upcoming episode of The Swampflix Podcast in the coming days. Some traditions are worth maintaining, pandemic or no. For now, here’s a brief round-up of all the major spotlight releases I caught at this year’s NOFF.
The most thematically on-point selection for this year’s New Orleans Film Festival was definitely C’mon C’mon, which was highlighted with a lavish red-carpet premiere at The Orpheum. The film was an obvious programming choice for that festival-opener treatment because the city of New Orleans features prominently in its cross-generational road trip narrative, which visits—in order—Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and, finally, N.O. Director Mike Mills was in attendance to gush about the locals who collaborated on the picture, especially the New Orleanians who trusted him to interview their children on-camera about their visions of what they expect the future will be like.
While that choice to highlight a (partially) local production in one of the city’s most gorgeous venues makes total sense thematically, I do think the presentation clashed with the film’s low-key nature. I walked out Mills’s previous film wowed by his concise encapsulation of subjects as wide-spanning as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be “a good man” in modern times, the shifts in the status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For all of C’mon C’mon‘s interviews with real-life kids about the daunting subject of The Future, it’s mostly just a road trip movie where a socially awkward uncle (Joaquin Phoenix at his most subdued) bonds with his socially awkward son. It’s about the same thing a lot of low-key indie dramas are about: how difficult it is to meaningfully connect with the fellow human beings in your life, which is a much smaller scope than what I’m used to from this director.
Since C’mon C’mon is a lot more contained & intimate than either Beginnersor 20th Century Women, it never approaches the heights of what Mills can do at his best. Still, it’s pretty darn charming as one of those heartfelt friendship stories where a precocious child drags a lonely grump out of their shell. And I love that you can feel Mills falling in love with New Orleans in real time in the third act, especially in a brief sequence set during a walking parade. He looked genuinely inspired by the city on that stage.
The other two Spotlight screenings I caught at this year’s fest were staged at AMC Elmwood – a very clear vision of what it would’ve been like to see them presented outside of the fest. Of the Elmwood screenings, the title I was most stoked to see was Sean Baker’s latest black comedy Red Rocket, since his previous film The Florida Project ranked among my personal favorite films of the 2010s (several spots below Mills’s 20th Century Women). Red Rocket did not disappoint, but it did leave me in a worse mood than Baker’s previous two features, which are much sweeter despite dwelling in the same bottomless pits of economic desperation.
Former MTV VJ Simon Rex stars as a down-on-his-luck pornstar who returns to his hometown in rural Texas to recover from his rock-bottom fallout in Los Angeles. From the opening seconds of the film, Rex chatters & schemes at a brutally unrelenting pace, weaponizing his conman charm (and gigantic dick) to climb the local drug-ring ladder at the expense of everyone he encounters – including his closest family members and innocent neighborhood teens. The only moment of relief from his sociopathic motormouth is when the community joins forces to shout “Shut the fuck up” into his face in unison. The film boasts all the D.I.Y. visual splendor & infectiously rambunctious energy that typify a Sean Baker film, but they’re re-routed into a stomach-turning, pitch-black character study of Beach Bum-level proportions.
In its broadest terms, Red Rocket is just another bleak poverty-line comedy from Baker, exactly what you’d expect from him. It’s just that this time it’s more of a feel-bad hangout than a nonstop plummet into chaos, and the protagonist is deeply unlikeable instead of charmingly vulgar. It’s like a goofier, laidback version of Good Time, where you feel terrible for laughing while a desperate scumbag exploits every poor soul in their path just to keep their own head slightly above water. It really slows down to make you squirm between the punchlines. I didn’t appreciate it as much as The Florida Project or Tangerine, where you are invited to love Baker’s protagonists for their misbehavior, but at least he’s not repeating himself, nor shrinking away from what makes his work divisive.
While the appeal of the other two NOFF Spotlight selections I caught this year was the previous work of the creatives behind them, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was drawn to the third & final film on my schedule mainly because of its exclusivity. I’m generally a fan of Sean Baker & Mike Mills, but the only other film I’ve seen from Apichatpong Weerasethakul left me dead cold. What drew me to his latest slow-cinema arthouse drama, Memoria, was less the artist behind it and more the William Castle-style gimmickry of its distribution. A large part of the appeal of film festivals is having access to movies I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. Memoria fits that bill perfectly: a challenging head-scratcher indie film that may never play in New Orleans again.
In a publicity-generating power move, Memoria‘s distributor Neon has announced that the film will “never” be presented on a streaming service or physical media. It will instead perpetually “travel” in a “never-ending” theatrical release that will only play on one screen in one city at a time. Personally, I very much value the novelty of attending an Event Movie right now. It’s been a lackluster year for me, so I appreciate a little carnival barker razzle dazzle on the arthouse calendar, luring marks like myself who don’t even enjoy the director’s previous work into the circus tent just to feel like I’m witnessing something special. I also recognize the pretension & elitism of that release strategy, so I was proud of the NOFF audience for outright laughing at the explanation of it during the festival’s pre-recorded intro. That moment of communal mockery turned out to be one of the precious few highlights of the experience, unfortunately.
Memoria stars Tilda Swinton as a Scottish academic who’s spiritually adrift in Colombia, haunted by her sister’s mysterious illness and an even more mysterious sound that only she can hear. Much of the film consists of non-sequitur tangents & intentionally overlong shots of its star sitting in still silence, as seems to be Apichatpong’s M.O. I had about the same level of engagement with this film as I had with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: short bursts of baffled awe drowning in a bottomless sea of boredom. Both films have exactly one scene that I flat-out love (a tense family dinner at a restaurant here & the catfish encounter in Boonmee) but for the most part were decidedly Not For Me. I was practically begging for Memoria to end by its final half-hour, cursing myself for being suckered into the theater by its “never-ending” exhibition gimmickry. Taking chances on difficult-to-access art films that make you feel intellectually bankrupt for not “getting” them is a quintessential film festival experience, though, and it oddly felt nice to be let down in that distinctly familiar way. Made me miss the before times, may they soon return.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Brandon, Britnee, and CC review the few films they caught at the 31st annual New Orleans Film Festival, including films on killer mermaids, local drag artists, and New Orleans legend Valerie Sassyfras. Enjoy!
When reviewing the few feature films I caught at this year’s (mostly virtual) New Orleans Film Festival, I found myself constantly writing about how the context of the COVID-19 pandemic shaped my experience with them. It’s been a long nine months since I last attended a film festival in person (French Film Fest, which was snugly slotted in between Mardi Gras and the city’s initial coronavirus lockdown orders), so it was impossible to not compare & contrast this year’s NOFF with similar events in the past.
To the festival’s credit, the programmers addressed this unavoidable preoccupation head-on, platforming a wealth of short films that directly commented on COVID-era New Orleans culture. They also adjusted the scope & structure of the festival to offer as safe of an experience as possible, including an online streaming option for most of their selections as well as a few outdoor, socially distanced screenings for in-person events.
COVID undeniably reshaped my usual New Orleans Film Festival experience this year, at the very least in how it limited the range & volume of movies I could make time for during the fest’s short window. It didn’t halt the ritual entirely; it just hung over it as an unignorable dark cloud.
Here’s a list of the four features I’ve reviewed from this year’s New Orleans Film Festival. CC & I will record a more fleshed-out recap of our COVID-era festival experience on an upcoming episode of the podcast, in case you’re interested in hearing about our favorite shorts from the line-up or our thoughts on the ways the fest had to adapt to the constrictions of a pandemic. This list is a more bare-bones kind of recap: a best-to-least-best ranking of the features we managed to catch at this year’s NOFF.
Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!
A local documentary that captures how drastically different the New Orleans drag scene is now vs. the traditional Southern Pageant Drag scene I remember growing up with. It was great to see a community I love (including a couple friends who perform) documented for posterity, but also bittersweet because the very last in-the-flesh social event I attended was a drag show in March and I miss it very much.
A local documentary about avant garde zydeco-turned-new-wave musician Valerie Sassyfras, who’s a very specific kind of New Orleans eccentric. It’s a jarring mix of fun outsider-art punk aggression and severely upsetting social & mental dysfunction; the exact kind of niche-interest no-budget filmmaking you only see at festivals.
A conceptual art piece about Black women’s relationships with their own bodies and the meaning of “feeling safe.” It’s a little impenetrable the way a lot of experimental essay films can be, but it also packs a powerful wallop when it feels like going for the jugular. There’s also some incredible Nina Simone footage interspersed throughout.
Christian Petzold’s latest is Good, but not entirely My Thing. I can’t imagine being the kind of person who watches The Lure and thinks “What if this was a quiet, understated drama instead?” but apparently that kind of person is out there.
Here we are almost two full months since the 30th annual New Orleans Film Festival concluded and I’m finally gathering all of titles I caught at the fest in one spot. CC & I already recorded a more fleshed-out recap of our festival experience on Episode #95 of the podcast, in case you’re interested in hearing about the goings-on at the handful of downtown theaters where the festival was held and the various short films that preceded some of those screenings. This list is a more bare-bones kind of recap: a ranking from the best to the . . . least best of the features we managed to catch at this year’s festival.
This year we focused entirely on boosting the profile of micro-budget indies that are unlikely to get wide theatrical distribution, skipping the New Orleans premieres for bigger titles like Jojo Rabbit, Knives Out, and Harriet. Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!
1. Swallow –“Appearing like a scared child in June Cleaver housewife drag, Bennett conveys a horrific lack of confidence & self-determination in every gesture. Her fragility & despondence under the control of her wealthy, emotionally abusive family make you want to celebrate her newfound, deeply personal path to fulfillment, even though it very well might kill her. As she snacks on fistfuls of garden soil while watching trash TV instead of obeying her family’s orders all I could think was “Good for her!”‘
2. Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project– “As Stokes’s D.I.Y. archive is an extensive cultural record of American society over the past thirty years, the list of trends & topics that could be explored in their own full-length documentaries are only as limited as an editor’s imagination. This film is an excellent primer on the cultural wealth archived in those VHS tapes, as it both explores larger ideas of how media reflects society back to itself and does full justice to the rogue political activist who did dozens & dozens of people’s work by assembling it.”
3. Gracefully – “Smart to never allow the flashiness of its craft to overpower the inherent fasciation of its subject. When it does get noticeably artful in its framing & imagery, it’s only ever in service of its subject’s dancing—often showing him performing in pitch-black voids as if his D.I.Y. glamor was the only thing in the world that matters.”
4. Jezebel – “Perrier doesn’t shy away from the exploitation or desperation that fueled her online sex work as a cash-strapped, near-homeless teen, but she’s equally honest about the joy, power, and self-discovery that line of work opened up to her at the time, making for a strikingly complex picture of an authentic, lived experience.”
5. A Great Lamp – “Feels akin to the aimless slacker comedies of yesteryear – the kind of deliberately apathetic, glibly existential art that put names like Jarmusch & Linklater on the map back when Independent Filmmaking was first becoming a viable industry. It’s got the handheld, high-contrast black & white look of a zine in motion (and I’m sure many a Clerks knockoff from festivals past), evoking a bountiful history of D.I.Y. no-budget art. However, in both tone & sentiment there’s no way the film could have bene made by previous generations of artful slackers, as its heart is clearly rooted in a 2010s sensibility.”
6. Hunting for Hedonia– “Most valuable for its ability to explain the full scope of Deep Brain Stimulation’s history in concise layman’s terms. It covers the horrific past of its abuse, the promising present of its success in the therapy field, and the terrifying future of its rapid, unavoidable escalation in a modern capitalist paradigm.”
7. The World is Full of Secrets – “Plays like Are You Afraid of the Dark? reimagined as a traumatizing stage play or audio book – with long takes of sub-professional teen actors struggling to conquer unnecessarily complex monologues. What’s amazing about this set-up is that the film not only finds room to establish a genuinely creepy mood, but it’s often prankishly hilarious and light on its feet despite its potential for academic pretention.”
8. Pier Kids– “Its personal, intimate documentation of a new, specific crop of homeless queer kids is just as essential as any past works – if not only as confirmation that the epidemic is still ongoing. These children are still out there taking care of themselves & each other with no end or solution to this cycle in sight. I do hope there will be a day when these documentaries are no longer such a regular routine, but only in the sense that I hope for a future where they’re no longer necessary. We’re not there yet.”
9. Reži– “Even if the film is overall too frustrating to merit a hearty recommendation, the combatively prankish attitude it performs in every frame is too infectious to fully ignore – like so many festering stab wounds.”
10. Singular– “Whatever faults this might have as an overly reserved document of a wild, punches-throwing artist, it does have plenty of net benefits in pushing Cecile McLorin Salvant in front of an even wider audience. I imagine if you’ve never heard of her before this doc could play as a revelation that a Nina Simone-level genius is alive & working in plain sight, waiting for your eyes & ears. The contrast between her work & the doc’s reserved nature might even unintentionally emphasize her art’s subversive playfulness, which seeps through the concert footage despite the buttoned-up style of the interviews.”
I first fell in love with jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant at her 2015 Jazz Fest performance, where her unpretentious, playful stage presence felt like a once-in-a-lifetime gift I didn’t deserve. It says a lot about her accessibility that she affected me at all, given that I listen to essentially zero modern jazz. Yet, there was a sinisterly subversive, rawly sexual prankishness to her art that read as being punk-as-fuck to me across that genre divide. Salvant has also been a hit among people who actually are in tune with the current state of jazz, winning multiple consecutive Grammys in the few years since that performance and many other accolades besides. Part of her rise-to-legend path now includes the PR-boosting documentary Singular, which premiered in her hometown of Miami this year before screening at The New Orleans Film Festival to an audibly delighted crowd. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t quite live up to Salvant’s subversive, audience-rattling stage presence, but I’m not sure it ever had a fighting chance to do so.
Smartly, Singular anchors its recap of Salvant’s quick rise to relative fame on a Miami concert where the genius of her art is on full, open display. Talking-head interviews & home video footage of her pre-fame years interrupt the concert at regular intervals, but you do get just enough of a taste of what she’s up to onstage to understand why she’s so distinct in her field. The problem is that it’s difficult to not want more, especially if you’re hearing her music for the very first time. I’d usually be thankful for a film with this straightforward of a subject sticking to a slim 68min runtime, but here that compression means that Salvant’s performances are frequently disrupted by the commentariat, with interviewees talking over her art about how great that art supposedly is, as opposed to letting the work speak for itself. It’s probably unfair of me to wish this were a full-on concert film instead of a documentary, but in all honesty the story of Salvant’s life (as presented here) isn’t nearly as interesting as the story her work tells onstage. Few things are.
This is ultimately a very polite, well-behaved documentary for a subversively raunchy, confrontational performer who deserves something with much sharper teeth. Salvant’s backstory of training with an intimidating French professor at her “momager’s” insistence before returning to America to wow jazz snobs who didn’t know what to expect from her is endearing, but not especially eye-opening. As the narrative approaches her modern day interests—confronting the performance of racial caricature in jazz history, drawing psychedelic cartoons of a “lobster woman” in her free time, modeling some world-class couture glasses-frames, etc.—the story starts to get more interesting but then abruptly shuts down as if those were footnotes & addendums instead of the central text. Part of the issue might be that these legend-building docs usually arrive posthumously or late in an artist’s career, while Salvant’s story is still very much unfolding. At this point, anything but a proper concert film is bound to feel a little premature.
Whatever faults Singular might have as an overly reserved document of a wild, punches-throwing artist, it does have plenty of net benefits in pushing Salvant in front of an even wider audience. I imagine if you’ve never heard of her before this doc could play as a revelation that a Nina Simone-level genius is alive & working in plain sight, waiting for your eyes & ears. The contrast between her work & the doc’s reserved nature might even unintentionally emphasize her art’s subversive playfulness, which seeps through the concert footage despite the buttoned-up style of the interviews. The movie also does convey a kind of lighting-in-a-bottle aspect of her current work by contrasting it with her life & career as a whole. In early footage of her amateur concerts & competitions, Salvant is obviously talented, but feels like a relatable, pedestrian nerd from Miami. In her contemporary performances, she’s a ferociously confident, once-in-a-lifetime persona, as if something magical within her had clicked into place that cannot be fully explained. It’s difficult to not yearn for more of that modern, magical footage in a feature-length concert film, but this document of that trajectory from green talent to world-conquering confidence is still worthwhile on its own merits – even if barely so.