By Sean Boelman and Tatiana Miranda
NewFest is known as one of the premier LGBTQIA+ film festivals in the United States, and this year's lineup — for its 35th edition — was particularly strong, filled with high-profile awards contenders with queer themes or by queer filmmakers. Equally exciting, though, are the indies and international films by up-and-coming voices in the queer cinema community.
We at disappointment media were glad to have again covered this year's edition of NewFest. Here are some quick thoughts on a few of the films we were able to see as part of this year's festival.
All the Fires
Review by Sean Boelman
Mauricio Calderón Rico's All the Fires is a visually stunning film, with the imagery and atmosphere doing a lot of the heavy lifting to keep the viewer enthralled in the story. The film follows a teenage pyromaniac who begins to question his sexuality, and just as it may seem, the film arguably bites off more than it can chew. Although there are some great individual pieces at play here narratively, they never quite cohere into something as riveting as one might hope. It's definitely a slow burn (pun intended), but the gorgeous cinematography — making extensive use of firelight — is enough to make this drama mostly transfixing.
Review by Sean Boelman
The Argentine film Almamula (known in English as Carnal Sins) is a horror-esque fantasy that uses its folkloric premise to create a fascinating exploration of the queer identity. Following a teen boy who must come to terms with his sexuality, as he learns of a local legend of a creature that takes the sexually impure, it's clear where the symbolism and metaphors of this film are heading, but Juan Sebastián Torales's script nonetheless uses these images and concepts effectively to explore his characters and themes. As the feature debut of Torales, Almamula shows tons of potential — even if it doesn't always deliver in its own right.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
Based on the award-winning book by Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen is an eerie drama filled with subtle queer undertones and captivating performances. The film stars Thomasin McKenzie in the titular role and Anne Hathaway as Eileen's coworker and potential friend, Rebecca. Set in 1964 Massachusetts, it watches like an imitation of a Hitchcock film. Although some of the more off-putting aspects of the plot and Eileen's character don't penetrate as harshly as they do in the source material, the film still excels in keeping the audience on their toes and questioning the morals of the main characters. Aesthetically delightful, Eileen is sure to find a cult classic status among fans of thrillers and psychosexual dramas.
Review by Sean Boelman
There are not enough queer stories featuring people of color protagonists, and for that alone, Jason Karman's Golden Delicious deserves some merit. However, the script by Gorrman Lee is severely lacking, with an inconsistent approach to its themes, which makes it hard to buy into the film despite its heart undeniably being in the right place. The dialogue is nearly insufferable in how out-of-touch it feels, with several lines standing out as things that teenagers would absolutely never say. That being said, if there's one thing clear from watching this, it's that young actor Cardi Wong has a bright future ahead of him — if only he can find a script that allows him to better use his talents.
The Lost Boys
Review by Sean Boelman
Not to be confused with the cult classic 1980s vampire movie, or the characters from Peter Pan, Zeno Graton's The Lost Boys is a conventional, albeit mostly powerful film following a group of teenagers at a youth correctional facility. It's surprising how seamlessly the script by Graton, along with Clara Bourreau and Maarten Loix, balances its various themes — sexual identity, race, and rehabilitation — all under the central thematic umbrella of freedom. However, perhaps the biggest highlight of the film is the lead performance by young actor Khalil Gharbia, who brings an extraordinary amount of empathy to the role.
Orlando, My Political Biography
Review by Sean Boelman
Paul B. Preciado's Orlando, My Political Biography is simply an incredible feat of filmmaking. Combining a loose adaptation of the themes and ideas of Virginia Woolf's eponymous groundbreaking and incendiary novel with a series of personal stories from an all-trans and non-binary ensemble, the film is a beautiful and profound ode to the strength of the LGBTQIA+ community in the face of massive adversity. Preciado's unorthodox style is captivating, resulting in an experience that manages to devastate and inspire in turn. This truly is one of the best documentaries of the year.
Queen of New York
Review by Sean Boelman
Queen of New York should be a fascinating documentary, as it follows the campaign of Marti Cummings — the non-binary drag performer who made history as the first non-binary candidate to run for the New York City Council — and for the most part, it is. However, in the final 30 minutes of the film, it unfairly turns into a hit piece against Cummings's Latino opponent. A lot of accusations are thrown around and not explored in much depth. The result will leave a sour taste in many viewers' mouths. After all, Cummings's campaign was about giving a voice to the voiceless — so why is the film pitting underrepresented voices against one another, rather than suggesting minority communities come together to lift each other up.
Review by Sean Boelman
V.T. Nayani's This Place tells the story of two young women from different cultures forced to confront their own identities while they grow closer together. What is frustrating about the film is that there is a legitimately great message and compelling story, but it is dragged down by cringe-worthy dialogue and less than impressive performances. Despite leads Devery Jacobs and Priya Guns' great chemistry together, their line delivery is so stilted that it's hard to take them seriously — although as much of the fault here can be blamed on the script as the performances. Still, the film will win viewers over by the end with its charming exploration of intersectionality.
The 2023 edition of NewFest runs October 12-24 in New York City.
By Sean Boelman
Like so many regional festivals this year, the Chicago International Film Festival has an unusually stacked lineup, with plenty of excellent films encoring from the various fall festivals — as well as a few premieres that audiences will get to see for the first time in Chicago. From high-profile and buzzy awards contenders to hidden indie gems, there are plenty of great flicks to see at this year’s CIFF.
We at disappointment media are excited to be covering this year’s Chicago International Film Festival from afar, catching up on some of the films we missed elsewhere on the festival circuit, as well as checking out some of the exciting premieres playing in the Windy City
Be sure to keep an eye on this page, as we will be updating it with more thoughts on films playing at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival as we see more movies.
Second Update: 10/22/2023
R.J. Daniel Hanna’s Hard Miles is the type of indie crowd-pleaser that the festival circuit was meant to discover. The film is based on the inspiring true story of a social worker at a youth prison who assembles a peloton of young convicts and takes them on a 1000+ mile ride to teach them a lesson about perseverance and hopefully encourage them to find themselves. Although the beats the film hits are a bit predictable and sentimental, there's no denying that the film pulls on the heartstrings at the right times. Matthew Modine has also never been better than he was in this leading role, which is equal parts empathetic and uplifting.
In the Rearview
Like the many Ukraine-focused documentaries that have appeared on the festival circuit in the nearly two years since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022, In the Rearview is certainly not an easy watch — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it. Maciek Hamela’s documentary is essential viewing, and part of what makes it work so well is its simple conceit. The film follows the passengers of a vehicle that is being used to transport civilians seeking refuge out of the country. Although the camera occasionally does leave the vehicle, most of the time, the film is presented as if it were looking in the rearview mirror of the car. The result is an experience that is subtly harrowing and quietly powerful.
First Update: 10/19/2023
Paradise Is Burning
North American Premiere
Mika Gustafson’s Paradise Is Burning debuted at this year’s Venice Film Festival before making its North American premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival. Although the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel with regards to its genre, this story of a group of three tight-knit sisters who face separation by child services due to an absent mother is absolutely heartbreaking. All three young actresses — Bianca Delbravo, Dilvin Assad, and Safira Mossberg — are fantastic in their roles, but what makes this stand out from other poverty-centric narratives is Gustafson’s incredibly empathetic approach to the narrative that focuses less on the trauma of their situation than the connection that draws them together.
Stamped From the Beginning
It’s impossible to deny the artistry or the anger of Roger Ross Williams’s documentary Stamped From the Beginning, based on the book of the same name by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. The film is an exploration of the misinformation that has been used to fuel racist ideology for generations, and it is unafraid to challenge some of the institutions and figures that have been revered throughout American history. Although the film clearly struggles with condensing an entire book’s worth of material into a runtime under 90 minutes, kinetic editing and powerful messaging keep the film entirely engaging and completely affecting.
Original Post: 10/12/2023
The documentary Alien Island tells one hell of a story: a group of radio operators in Chile in the 1980s amidst the military dictatorship think they have discovered an extraterrestrial race who has taken up residence on a nearby island. When the film is able to connect the stranger than fiction story to the political undercurrents happening in its societal context, it is utterly fantastic. The film also boasts some of the most impressive reenactment sequences of the year, shot in the black-and-white aesthetic of a Twilight Zone episode or the type of sci-fi movie that would feel at home in a drive-in theater. Like many UFO-centric docs, the nuttiness does become a bit overwhelming at times, but the genuinely interesting story keeps this one engaging.
Banel & Adama
Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s feature debut Banel & Adama was recently announced as the Senegalese submission for the Best International Film Oscar. While the film is certainly gorgeous thanks to excellent cinematography by Amine Berrada, it feels somewhat bland on a narrative level. The film’s story of a couple of star-crossed lovers who face the disapproval of their community is overly familiar. While the performances by Khady Mane and Mamadou Diallo are solid, and the film is very authentic with its love story, the film doesn’t add anything particularly new or perceptive to its well-worn beats.
The Crime Is Mine
French master François Ozon’s latest film, The Crime Is Mine, is arguably his most mainstream film in quite a while, and unfortunately, it lacks the emotional heft of his recent output. However, even those looking for a diverting caper might find themselves thoroughly disappointed by this tonal mess of a comedy. Following an actress who is accused of murdering a producer and then acquitted, only for a new witness to come to light, it’s clear that this is meant to be a reversal of its genre. Which genre the film reverses is hard to identify, though. It starts as a period murder mystery, then becomes a courtroom drama, before finally settling as a film industry farce. It’s altogether too much, even in the hands of a filmmaker as talented as Ozon. Not even a rousing third act turn by the legendary Isabelle Huppert can salvage this would-be romp.
Tatiana Huezo’s documentary The Echo is undoubtedly one of the most visually stunning documentaries you’ll see this year. In fact, this verité portrait of a matriarchal community in rural Mexico is shot so cinematically, and its story told with such an eye for character, that it’s easy to forget what you are watching is a documentary and not an engrossing coming-of-age tale. Huezo’s tender lens stands out within the genre of documentary filmmaking thanks to its refusal to other-ize its subjects’ traditions and practices. The result is a film that feels deeply humanistic, even if it is on the slight side.
Bas Devos’s Here, which premiered at Berlinale earlier this year to great acclaim, shares a lot in common with another film that has gotten more attention on the festival circuit — Fallen Leaves. Both are unorthodox, gentle love stories following two people from seemingly opposite lifestyles, finding themselves inexplicably drawn together by fate. The result, particularly with Here, is a romance that is undeniably lovely to watch, offering some profound observations on the power of connection. And, as one of the duo in Devos’s film is a byrologist, the story lends itself to some stunning 16mm nature cinematography. For those looking for a reprieve from some of the heavier selections in this year’s fest, Here is the way to go.
Cinephiles often joke that Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo makes the same movie over and over again since there are so many similarities in their characters, themes, and quaint, dialogue-driven narratives. Although one of his two 2023 films, In Water, doesn’t defy expectations in a narrative sense, it does take an ambitious swing formally — and it doesn’t totally pay off. Following a trio of friends who wander around an island to which they have traveled to make a film together, the most distinctive aspect of the film is that it is intentionally out-of-focus for a majority of its runtime, making most of the images look blurry. While the conceit is intriguing, the execution is unfortunately often grating.
For much of its first third, Paris Zarcilla’s Raging Grace resembles last year’s Nanny — another anxiety-inducing social horror film that used its story to comment on the immigration crisis in the United States. However, in the second act, the film takes an unexpected turn, resulting in one of the wildest hours of genre cinema you’ll see all year. Max Eigenmann’s performance as the Filipina immigrant caretaker who uncovers a dark secret long buried by the family she works for heralds a breakout waiting to happen, thanks to her simply captivating screen presence. While the cinematography, editing, and score are all a bit obvious at times, the script is more than sharp enough to keep viewers utterly gripped to the screen.
The 2023 Chicago International Film Festival runs October 11-22.
The Criterion Voyages (Spine #1194): FREAKS / THE UNKNOWN / THE MYSTIC: Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers -- Strong Collection Led by a Pre-Code Horror Cult Classic and a Rediscovered Hidden Gem
By Sean Boelman
Tod Browning’s most famous movie might be Dracula, but his most notorious is Freaks, which was so edgy that it changed the course of the filmmaker’s career. The new Criterion Collection set Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers brings together three of Browning’s works, all underappreciated in their time, but earning greater recognition today.
This collection comprises three films made by Browning set in the world of circus performers: The Mystic, The Unknown, and Freaks. Beyond their setting, the movies also share in common the plot thread of deceit, as each deals with a con artist outsider infiltrating the sanctity and acceptance of the group of circus performers. As you might expect, they get their karma.
Of course, the movie in this trilogy that most cinephiles will be familiar with is Freaks. The pre-code horror film was seen as extremely transgressive and envelope-pushing at the time, and even now stands out for its incredibly bleak ending. It’s unsettling, but not in the way that many movies following sideshow performers are. It refuses to otherize people for their differences, instead showing a message of acceptance.
In addition to the well-known talkie, the set contains two of Browning’s silent films set in the circus. The more well-known and accessible of these is the Lon Chaney vehicle The Unknown, in which Chaney poses as an armless man, only to find unexpected love as part of his deceit. If you thought Freaks was bleak, wait until you see this one. Chaney really carries The Unknown (no pun intended) with his performance, and there are some interesting visuals, but this feels like the most conventional of the bunch on a narrative level.
However, the real reason to pick up this collection is to get your hands on Browning's previously difficult-to-find 1925 silent thriller The Mystic. Following a phony mystic who teams up with a con-man for an elaborate ruse, this is not only the movie in the set that viewers are least likely to have seen, but arguably the best. Art deco designer Erté’s production design is fantastic, as is the lead performance by Aileen Pringle. The result is a film that is utterly enchanting — even more so than most silent horror pictures.
All three movies are presented in new 2K restorations, which are quite good. It’s always a treat to see such gorgeous restorations of pre-code films that were once only able to be seen in a low-quality format. This is especially true for The Mystic, which of the thematic trilogy, is the most visually sumptuous.
In terms of bonus features, this edition offers a wealth of them. There are audio commentaries for Freaks and The Unknown and an introduction to The Mystic by scholar David J. Skal, an interview with Megan Abbott about director Tod Browning and pre-Code horror, an essay by Farran Smith Nehme, an archival documentary about Freaks, and a wealth of other goodies for cinephiles. The bonus features are very Freaks-heavy, but considering that has been the most accessible of the three for the longest time, it makes sense.
The Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers collection is a nice release in time for Spooky Season, but the real hero of this trilogy is the restoration of the elusive The Mystic. Buy it to get the Criterion version of the incendiary classic Freaks, but enjoy the hidden gem of The Mystic that comes along with it.
Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers is available via The Criterion Collection on October 17.
By Sean Boelman
After a summer event that already had a fantastic lineup, NewFest returns to New York City this month with their full-fledged event, showcasing some of the most exciting queer films of the year. In addition to the festival’s usual crop of LGBTQIA+ independent films, the festival also has screenings of some of the most anticipated award contenders of the year.
While we’re sure those gala screenings are going to be at the top of everyone’s list, we at disappointment media wanted to call your attention to some of the more under-the-radar gems playing at this year’s festival.
While there are plenty of intriguing documentaries playing at this year’s NewFest, none is more unconventional than Theo Montoya’s Anhell69. The film often blurs the line between documentary and fiction in its portrait and exploration of the queer scene in Medellín, Colombia. It’s a complex film that demands the viewer’s patience and cooperation in putting together all of the pieces Montoya presents, but for those viewers willing to get onto Montoya’s wavelength, it’s sure to be a rewarding experience.
It’s rare to see plus-size representation in LGBTQIA+ cinema, but Big Boys — as the title implies — is a movie about that subset of the queer community. Following a teenager who goes through a sexual awakening while on a camping trip with his cousin and her boyfriend, this is the type of comedy that gets its laughs from how incredibly awkward it is. And yet, there’s something undeniably sweet and innocent about this story of a first crush, especially given the infectiously big heart with which the story is told.
The Mattachine Family
Andy and Danny Vallentine’s The Mattachine Family might be a saccharine family comedy, but it’s hard to hate a film that’s as warm-hearted as this. Following a gay couple whose relationship and idea of family is put to the test after their foster child is reunited with his birth mother, the film is simply adorable. Although it leans a bit heavy into the melodrama at times, the Vallentines know exactly what type of movie they’re making, and that’s what they deliver: a charming crowd-pleaser, with a splash of romantic comedy, and a bit of tear-jerker thrown in.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster is the first movie the master filmmaker didn’t write himself, but it’s extremely layered nonetheless. Outwardly, the film is a Rashomon-style nonlinear mystery about an incident at a school and the strange behaviors of a young boy. However, as the layers begin to unfold in their characteristically nonlinear style, it becomes clear that the film is, at its center, the story of a unique bond forming between two boys. As always, Kore-eda remains adept at cutting to the core humanity of his story.
Luke Gilford’s directorial debut National Anthem was one of the sleeper critical darlings of this year’s SXSW earlier this year before making an encore at TIFF in the fall. Now, LGBTQIA+ audiences in New York City are getting to see this tale of a young construction worker who unexpectedly finds his place among a group of queer radio performers. Although the story adheres a bit too comfortably to conventional beats, Gilford tells it with such an authentic heart that it’s easy to get invested in it. Add in some gorgeous visuals and a tremendous performance from Charlie Plummer, and the result is pretty fantastic.
The 2023 edition of NewFest runs October 12-24 in New York City.
By Sean Boelman
For its 59th edition, the Chicago International Film Festival is bringing Chicago moviegoers a lineup that is nothing short of stacked. Thanks to a focus on indie productions, the festival has still been able to attract plenty of A-list talent to present their movies despite the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike (many films have secured an interim agreement).
From some of the most anticipated awards contenders of the fall, hot off of their festival debuts, to Chicago-based productions that will undeniably be of interest to homegrown audiences, there’s no shortage of great films to see at this year’s festival. Here are a few recommendations of movies we think you should check out:
CIFF has always had a focus on showcasing international cinema, including many films that have been submitted by their respective countries for the Best International Feature Oscar. Kaouther Ben Hania’s latest movie, Four Daughters, is her second to represent her country of Tunisia in the awards race, and this blend of documentary and drama is absolutely fascinating and often harrowing. Although the film feels a bit too convoluted for its story for much of its first hour, it quickly becomes clear that there are more sinister forces afoot, and when they do take over, the result is crushing.
Tatiana Huezo’s documentary The Echo is another fascinating documentary about a matriarchy, but on the opposite side of the world, taking place in a rural village in Mexico. The hero of this film is undeniably its cinematography, which is exquisite and beautiful. However, it is also impressive how much Huezo is able to get viewers invested into the characters’ lives, allowing the movie to play out like a real-life coming-of-age tale.
Bas Devos’s Here is a restrained, quiet film, but it’s quite successful as a lovely little romance. Following a construction worker and a byrologist who form an unexpected connection after a chance encounter, it’s a rumination on connection, but it never feels the need to wax poetic in a way that feels pretentious. Instead, we simply spend time with these characters — and in some gorgeous environments captured with stunning 16mm cinematography, no less — making this an utterly splendid watch.
Raging Grace won the jury prize in the narrative competition at this year’s SXSW, and given how rare of an accomplishment it is for a genre movie to take home a top award like that, it should be immediately intriguing. While the first act of the film is compelling, the last two-thirds of Paris Zarcilla’s debut go off the rails in a way that will have you on the edge of your seat, and maybe even screaming at the screen in disbelief and anticipation.
Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams is not just one of the best animated movies of the year, but one of the best movies of the year, period. Based on the graphic novel by Chicago-born artist Sarah Varon (who will be in attendance for the festival screening), the film follows an anthropomorphic dog who purchases a robot to be his best friend. Completely without dialogue, the movie nonetheless manages to be undeniably moving — and just as adorable as you could possibly hope.
The 2023 Chicago International Film Festival runs October 11-22, 2023.
The Snake Hole
Retrospectives, opinion pieces, awards commentary, personal essays, and any other type of article that isn't a traditional review or interview.