By Sean Boelman
From showcasing some of the biggest nonfiction awards contenders of the year to serving as a launching pad for under-the-radar gems that could become dark horses in the race, DOC NYC is one of the biggest film festivals for documentary films of the year.
We at disappointment media got the opportunity to cover the 2023 edition of DOC NYC remotely. Here are our quick thoughts on a few of the films we were able to screen.
36 Seconds: Portrait of a Hate Crime
Tarek Albaba’s 36 Seconds: Portrait of a Hate Crime is the type of documentary carried more by the power of the story than how it is told. Exploring the events leading up to and aftermath of a 2015 hate crime killing in Chapel Hill, NC, the film struggles to be particularly engaging. Split the difference between a Dateline approach to investigative journalism and the Netflix style of true crime documentary, and that’s about where 36 Seconds falls. All that’s to say, the film is competently made, and the story is incredibly urgent and needs to be told, but the film lacks the impact it could have had with a more forceful presentation.
The Home Game
The Home Game is a crowd-pleaser of a sports documentary, even if it doesn’t add anything particularly new to the formula. Following a man who sets out to get a home game played on the football pitch (“soccer field,” for uninformed Americans) his father built decades ago, the story hits all the beats one would expect: setbacks, perseverance, and eventually triumph (spoilers, but what documentary would there be if they had failed?) It’s charming and uplifting, and in that sense, the film accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do — it’s just that you’ve seen stories like this told this way dozens of times before.
Lucha: A Wrestling Tale
Winner of the Metropolis section at the festival, which is dedicated to documentaries about New York City and its people, Lucha: A Wrestling Tale is compelling and well-made if entirely familiar. The film tells the story of a girls’ wrestling team at a low-income school in the Bronx. As one would expect, the sports aspect of the story is a good, old-fashioned underdog story. However, where the film really stands out is when we get a glimpse into the wrestlers’ personal lives — their anxieties, socioeconomic qualms, and motivations to persevere. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s certainly effective.
Winner of the Grand Jury award in the US Narrative Competition, Mediha is the story of a young girl who escaped captivity from ISIS and has since become an activist, fighting to increase awareness about the injustices committed against young women in the Middle East. This story is truly extraordinary — equal parts harrowing and inspiring. Although there have been several documentaries telling similar stories, Mediha stands out because, in addition to calling out the issue, it also shines a light on people who are working to find a real solution. The result is nothing less than essential viewing, even if it isn’t without its flaws.
The Mother of All Lies
The Mother of All Lies is a formally fascinating film with an interesting conceit — exploring the unreliable memories of the filmmaker as they relate to her past, primarily through the use of re-enactments created with hand-sculpted figurines. As such, the film deserves a lot of merit for its sheer ambition alone. However, what holds the film back is the different layers filmmaker Asmae El Moudir is attempting to unpack, causing the film to become convoluted at times, and even occasionally feel gimmicky. Although the approach is certainly exciting, the documentary is more effective as a formal experiment than a work of storytelling.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
The Estonian submission for Best International Feature at the Oscars, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, follows a group of women who congregate in the refuge of a smoke sauna to share their most personal secrets, experiences, and anxieties. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a film that seems slight on its surface, but actually holds something much deeper beneath. Yet its monotonous nature makes it feel like this would have been better off as a short, rather than being extended to feature length. The cinematography is phenomenal, and there are some fascinating and important conversations held throughout the runtime, but the film does struggle to maintain the viewer’s interest.
Songs of Earth
One would have been hard-pressed to find a more visually stunning documentary at this year’s festival than Margreth Olin’s Songs of Earth, which also happens to be Norway’s submission to the Best International Feature race at this year’s Academy Awards. However, the film’s beauty is almost a double-edged sword, as its nature photography is so transfixing that it’s easy to lose sight of the story, following the filmmaker’s father. Perhaps that’s the point — for the viewer to get lost in their amazement at the world as much as the subject did — but Songs of Earth sadly isn’t all that compelling, even if it is consistently aesthetically pleasing.
Time Bomb Y2K
Archival documentaries can often be fascinating in how they manage to construct a story out of pre-existing media, but the HBO documentary Time Bomb Y2K doesn’t quite connect. Comprising a wide variety of footage, showcasing everyone from doomsday preppers to people on the street expressing their reluctance at what we now know was false paranoia, the documentary lacks focus. There is one narrative thread in the film — following a “doomsday messiah” of sorts — that poses some interesting questions; but for the most part, Time Bomb Y2K gets too caught up in being a time capsule to engage much with its material.
The 2023 edition of DOC NYC runs in-person and online from November 8-26.
By Daniel Lima
Before he became known for action movies starring the likes of Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, and Harrison Ford, director Andrew Davis made his debut with a small-scale, intimate love letter to the musical scene of Chicago. Stony Island, named for the South Side street its characters call home, is a remarkably raw and passionate film that captures the particular verve of its time and place.
The story of an R&B band assembling and attempting to land its first gig, the film is based on the experiences of the director and his brother, one of the stars. The two grew up on the South Side as it went from a predominately white to a predominately black neighborhood, exposing them to Black culture broadly — specifically Black music. Their upbringing gave them keyed them into the universality of the music, how it dissolves racial divisions in the face of its emotional power, and that is well reflected in the world of the movie.
The urban landscape of late ‘70s Chicago is beautifully photographed. Davis’ first job as cinematographer was on Haskell Wexler’s docudrama Medium Cool, and the influence of his guerrilla shooting style is evident here. Each shot has a candid feel, a sense of immediacy that roots you in the gritty milieu of the South Side. Harsh blue lighting reflects the cold Midwest air and lends each frame a certain downtrodden feel. It’s the kind of textured visual style you rarely see today, as good an argument for the power of film as any.
A low-budget independent production doesn’t have the luxury of licensing music, so every musical performance is an original. Spanning the black musical tradition from blues to jazz to soul, from Chicago down to Louisiana, the songs here are incredible to a one, from funeral ballads to rousing big band numbers with hastily improvised lyrics. It is clear that Davis and his cast — most of whom were actual musicians — have a deep appreciation for this music, which shines through every note played.
That is crucial to the film, as the actual narrative is thin. The band is assembled piece by piece, recruiting players and acquiring equipment, and there are some developments in the personal lives of the members, but there is no real dramatic tension or momentum. Stony Island is certainly an engrossing watch, but not because of the story.
What makes Stony Island such a captivating watch is how full of life it is. The enthusiasm of each of the actors, giving incredibly naturalistic performances, bleeds onto the grimy milieu that surrounds them. The excitement of a jam session in a dilapidated building; blossoming young love against the backdrop of lions in stark, empty cages; a triumphant gig witnessed by all the people who came together to make it happen. Such pains were taken to organically flesh out this world, to make it extend beyond the confines of the frame. That effort allows the film to act as both a time capsule of the era and a wonderfully idiosyncratic portrait of artists coming together to make something beautiful.
Stony Island is now playing in theaters for its 45th anniversary.
The Criterion Voyages (Spine #549): THE LAST PICTURE SHOW -- Bogdanovich's Gem of American Cinema Restored in Beautiful 4K
By Sean Boelman
When thinking of the great American filmmakers, there are a few who go under the radar, including the late, great Peter Bogdanovich. Although Bogdonavich’s first film, Targets, was recently added to the Criterion Collection, his latest movie to get the treatment — in a 4K upgrade — is his acclaimed masterpiece, The Last Picture Show.
The film tells the story of a group of teenagers living in a small, dying Texas town as they come of age in a world of shifting values. Based on the novel of the same name by iconic American author Larry McMurtry, the movie was one of the most important in the New Hollywood movement, offering an uncommonly empathetic portrait of rural America.
Fans will likely recognize many of the faces who make up the film’s ensemble, including such future stars as Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Randy Quaid, and Cybill Shepherd. However, it is arguably Timothy Bottoms’s performance in the lead role that shines the brightest, as it is crushingly powerful in its quiet nuance.
One of the reasons why The Last Picture Show remains such an important facet of American cinema to this day is the timelessness of its themes. Although the movie was made in the early ‘70s, and set in the early ‘50s, its tale of teenage angst continues to resonate to this day. There are few films about the teenage experience that feel as bluntly honest as this semi-autobiographical tale from McMurtry.
This timelessness is further aided by the gorgeous 4K restoration on the new Criterion edition of the movie. The Last Picture Show is the latest in the line of upgrades the boutique label has issued, releasing films that were already in the collection in 4K UHD. And the black-and-white visuals of the movie look as stunning as you could possibly hope for in this release.
In terms of bonus features, this edition doesn’t offer anything that the previous Criterion release — in the “America Lost and Found” box set — didn’t have. It’s mostly the standard audio commentaries, making of documentaries, and some other things like Q&As, introductions, and the like.
That being said, one thing that sets this particular edition out is that it also features Bogdanovich’s less acclaimed follow-up to The Last Picture Show, Texasville, in both its original theatrical version and a black-and-white version. In effect, this serves as a two-set and allows fans to look at the films as companion pieces.
The Last Picture Show remains an essential pillar of American cinema. This Criterion Collection edition of the movie is sure to be a must-add to any cinephile’s collection — particularly with the 50% off sale ongoing — as it offers a beautiful 4K version of this undeniably moving and brilliant film.
The Criterion Collection edition of The Last Picture Show is now available.
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 Snake Hole
Retrospectives, opinion pieces, awards commentary, personal essays, and any other type of article that isn't a traditional review or interview.