Last weekend I dove into NewFest 2019, New York City’s LGBTQ Film Festival, enjoying 18 screenings over 5 days. Overall I did well, truly disliking only one of the 15 features and 26 shorts I saw.
Here are my recommendations, a smorgasbord of Queer cinema to watch out for, starting with my top three favorites:
And Then We Danced
Sweden’s official Oscar submission for Best International Film (the erstwhile Foreign Film category), “And Then We Danced” won the NewFest Audience Award. Set in the world of Georgian traditional dance, it is an exquisitely fashioned film with an electrifying central performance (Levan Gelbakhiani) and vibrantly authentic depictions of Georgian society, relationships and dance. Writer/Director Levan Akin had to make the film almost guerrilla style in conservative, homophobic Georgia, but the result is not only a great LGBTQ movie, a great dance movie, but simply one of the year’s best films in any category.
The Shiny Shrimps
This charmer about a French gay water polo team was co-written and co-directed by a member of an actual French gay water polo team, Cédric Le Gallo, who insists that all the high jinks and high spirits depicted in the film are true to life, even if the plot of the film is pure fiction. The plot concerns an Olympic swimmer being forced to redeem himself – and be allowed to continue competing at Olympic level – after being caught on camera making a homophobic remark. So he coaches The Shiny Shrimps, a team of varied misfits much like the gay soccer players of “Guys and Balls“, going on a cross-continental bus trip much like in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”, and sporting a laughs to tears ratio reminiscent of “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. Featuring a fine ensemble cast (that includes Geoffrey Couët from the seminal “Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo”), “The Shiny Shrimps” may echo many past ensemble comedy classics, but also holds up well beside them. I laughed (and cried) the most at its screening during the festival.
Music for Bleeding Hearts
One could say Brazilian writer/director Rafael Gomes’ São Paulo set comedy “Music for Bleeding Hearts” concerns a love triangle, but that would seriously simplify the complicated relationship shifts between the three leads as well as many others in their orbits. Life and love’s messiness is made even more complicated as well as fascinating by Gomes editing, jumping back and forth in time, comparing and contrasting characters’ past and present actions. After all the complications and diversions, Gomes manages to conclude the film on the perfect note. Not necessarily a conclusive ending to the story (because life itself goes on and on) but a perfect final shot for a really good film. And that elevated “Music for Bleeding Hearts” to my top three of the festival. Afterwards I literally (as in physically) pushed Ed to speak to Gomes in Portuguese, a fanboy moment out of character, and which was a little awkward for the three of us, but one I don’t regret at all. Sometimes you just got to gush, especially if it can be done in the director’s native language.
“The Shiny Shrimps” and “And Then We Danced” have US distribution. The former is scheduled for release in January, the latter’s release date hasn’t been announced yet, but it surely will be released in theaters eventually (maybe after its hoped for and likely International Film Oscar nomination). “Music for Bleeding Hearts” opens in Brazil in March 2020. Hopefully it will make its way to US screens too.
There are many more recommendations to make amongst the films I caught at NewFest, most of which will hopefully make their way to some sort of screen near you soon:
The NewFest Jury Award went to Temblores (Tremors), a Guatemalan movie about a married man brutally ostracized from his family and children when his affair with another man becomes known. Torn between being truly himself in a gay relationship and not wishing to lose contact with his family and children, the lead character Pablo submits himself to a conversion therapy run by his church. What he endures makes the trials of “Boy Erased” seem like a picnic by comparison. Rich with darkly beautiful imagery, “Temblores” is a very well made film, and ultimately a tough watch. As is Siberia and Him, a gay love story made in Russia with even greater stealth under even more unwelcoming circumstances than “And Then We Danced”. The film is distinguished by expansive shots of the Siberian landscape and strong, austere performances of the two leads struggling with their feelings – not only are they gay in one of the least accepting societies on the planet, they are also brothers in law. The ending is extremely downbeat, to my dismay, but perhaps to be expected of the first Russian film about homosexuality, one that had to be filmed in secret, and will likely only be viewable in secret, if at all, in Russia for the foreseeable future.
I saw two films set in New York or nearby: Last Ferry is set on a cool Fire Island in April, just before the start of the “season”. It begins with a murder on the beach, then shifts focus to follow a young lawyer impulsively going to the Island alone, and unwittingly getting more and more caught up in the mystery of that opening crime. The film effectively balances a gay ensemble dramedy with twisty suspense. (To my surprise, the movie’s co-lead turns out to be the husband of someone I’ve known for 22 years, beginning when he was my 8 year old neighbor growing up across our apartment building hallway).
The other film Cubby, set in Brooklyn and released in theaters this week, is a tender-hearted comedy about an odd-ball misfit (played by writer/co-director Mark Blane) newly arrived in the city and getting hired as a babysitter to an angelic 6 year old. Whimsical animation and fantasy sequences clued me in to take the narrative with a grain of sugar, but the NYTimes review found the real world implications of the behaviors depicted in the film more off putting.
Two international films depict teenage lesbians in particular and teenage social intricacies in general with acuity and humor. The Philippine Billie & Emma brings Manila tomboy Billie (Zar Donato, blessed with a face the camera adores) to a Catholic girls school in the country after her parents discover she’s a lesbian. There she falls for popular girl, and inconveniently pregnant, Emma. Writer/Director Samantha Lee said she wanted to make a lesbian John Hughes movie, and she succeeds perfectly; all the more astounding considering she had only 9 days to shoot the many pitch perfect scenes with a large cast. Lee set her story in the ’80s in part to avoid cell phones intruding on the relationship beats. Austrian writer/director Monja Art makes clever use of texting, and how it brings together and alienates the teenagers in her semi-autobiographical dramedy Seventeen. Art, like Lee, shows how teenagers, and teenage romance and sex, can be messy, and full of contradictory desires and behavior. Whereas Lee tells her story within a more conventional narrative style reminiscent of John Hughes, Art gives her narrative a more loose, careening flow. Worlds apart in time and place, both films do an entertaining job illuminating young lesbian desire and teenage microcosms.
If you like your gay male leads hunky and prickly, 15 Years, set in Tel Aviv, tells of Yoav’s emotional tail spin that threatens his 15 year relationship with his lover after his childhood best friend announces she is pregnant. If you like your gay male leads charming, complicated, and a bit of a prick, Benjamin is the UK indie film about a charming, complicated and prickly UK Indie filmmaker. And if you like your gay male leads big, cuddly, and animated, and mostly nice and not mostly assholes, the Swedish animated featurette Top 3 will charm you most unreservedly, as it did the crowd at Outfest LA, where it won the Audience Award.
Finally two more feature recommendations that have in common that they deal with family, but stylistically could hardly be more different: the Chinese A Dog Barking at the Moon, winner of the Teddy Award at this year’s Berlinale, is an elegant puzzle box of a movie, that reveals deeper aspects of its narrative in shifts and turns of chronology, while simultaneously deepening the palette of its filmmaking grammar in stylistic shifts and turns. The True Adventures of Wolfboy is an offbeat fable for audiences 8-108, about being other and seeking family. It stars Jaeden Martell (Midnight Special, It) as a boy with a condition that covers his body in hair, with Chris Messina, John Turturro, Chloey Sevigny and Stephen McKinley Henderson supporting with flair and sensitivity, and introducing young transgender scene stealer Sophia Giannamore.
I enjoyed almost all of the short films I saw over the course of the festival, including those compiled under the screening headings “Busy Thinkin’ Bout Boys”, “Beyond the Binary” and “All in the Trans Family”. I can recommend the Jury Award winner Ponyboi, which smoothly blends realism, and fantasy, as well as the Audience Award winner Wonder, about a boy who wants to dress up for Halloween as Wonder Woman. Other stand-outs include the danceriffic Sweater, the very entertaining rom com Engaged, the acute teenage crush examining Tadpole, the hilarious text message mini epic R u o k, the HIV status drama Three Months, the adorably annoying You and Me and Him and Him and Him, the transgender parenting documentaries How to Make a Rainbow and Bunny, the funny, touching Tell-By Date, the final-surprise-foretold-by-festival-placement but still diverting Long Distance, the sweet transgender and deaf kids-meet-cute Welcome to the Ball, the well-told, poignant Melt, and the small gem Little Boy.
The two shorts that had the strongest impact on me are Marco and Miller and Son. Marco, by Sadeed Haddad, is about a gay Lebanese man in London, who hires sex worker Marco for an erotic massage. Marco claims to be from Spain, but that turns out to be not true. A richly imagined and emotionally complex two-hander about identity, sexuality, and being a refugee from war and homophobia ensues and culminates on an emotionally devastating, and intelligently inconclusive note. Miller and Son focuses on a trans woman who is a supremely competent auto mechanic by day, and expresses her femininity only by dancing in a club at night. A simple narrative is told with acutely observed details and pacing that ratchet up suspense and emotional tension brilliantly. Director Asher Jelinksy made one of the most masterfully shot and edited films of any length in the festival and is an artist to watch out for. I really wanted to approach them in person and gush my admiration of their craft, but I missed my chance. Which may explain my boldness later with Rafael Gomes.