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

Play the Devil (2017)

I was perpetually on the verge of allowing myself to enjoy the minor indie feature Play the Devil but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen the film before, except set in a different locale. Then it struck me: Play the Devil is essentially a queer retelling of the 2015 JLo “thriller” The Boy Next Door, except with most of that film’s campy humor & sex surgically removed. Besides reframing that one night stand-turned-stalker thriller within a same-sex dynamic & moving its location from the United States to Trinidad, the major difference is its central abusive romance is which character is asked to play the villain. In The Boy Next Door, Jennifer Lopez has sex with a teenage neighbor who becomes her tormentor once she calls off the affair. In Play the Devil, it’s the adult participant who’s tasked to play the villain, which changes the dynamic just as much as the added queer context. Unfortunately, I can’t say either change was especially beneficial to the film as an entertainment, as it both ruined the fun of the premise & made the film’s queer identity politics muddled & unintentionally uncomfortable.

A Trinidad high school student is stuck between his ambitions to pursue art in either drama or photography and his grandmother’s desire for him to attend med school. With the economic rut of his home life & his best friend’s burgeoning career in petty crime weighing heavily on his mind, he faces a coming of age identity crisis that gradually becomes intertwined with a struggle to negotiate a balance between his in-the-closet queerness and societal expectations of adult masculinity. All of this sexual & economic anxiety makes our troubled protagonist the perfect prey for a wealthy, married businessman who wishes to take him on a sexual concubine. Scared by the implications of this potential role as a wealthy man’s sugarbaby, he only allows himself one sexual encounter before backing away in fear. The predatory older man won’t take “no” for an answer and pursues the young student anyway, practically twirling his mustache as he stalks the poor kid as an over-the-top, effete personification of queer desire. Their dynamic is effectively uncomfortable, but not self-aware enough to justify its potential homophobia, especially as it barrels towards an inevitably violent climax.

The climactic sequence of Play the Devil is a gorgeous catharsis that’s so stunning it almost forgives the piss-poor acting & boneheaded homophobia of the movie’s villain. During a Carnival ritual known as “The Dance of the Blue Devil,” locals smear their bodies with blue & gold paint and rhythmically scream out the frustrations our protagonist has been bottling inside the entire film. The imagery of this emotional release and the tranquil forest sounds of men later washing off their paint under a waterfall in its denouement is undeniably powerful. I can’t claim that much else besides the brightly painted houses & intense Natural backdrops of the film’s Trinidad setting are as successful as the Carnival sequence. 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. At least it can boast that it features the absolute worst villainous performance of the year; there’s a kind of honor in that dishonorable distinction.

-Brandon Ledet