Monday, November 8, 2021

NewFest 2021: The Features

The Sixth Reel (c) The Sixth Reel

NewFest: The Features 
Film Festival: Oct 15-26, 2021 

After going virtual last year, NewFest, New York’s LGBT+ film festival, returned to in-person screenings while also keeping a streaming option. This hybrid model made the festival accessible to people around the country to enjoy a diverse and intriguing line-up this year. 

The movies ran the gambit, from true independent film pictures to studio backed fare. The centerpiece film, the excellent film “Passing" was a bit of a stretch to include as its LGBT+ theme was mostly inferred, especially since other overtly gay festival favorites this year like "Benediction" were sadly not included. But I fully endorse the opening night film "Mayor Pete,” as well as the closing night selection, "FLEE." 

Mayor Pete (c) Amazon Prime

“Mayor Pete," which will premiere on Amazon Prime on November 12, is an informative and comprehensive look at Pete Buttigieg’s historic presidential bid in 2020. While last year’s election cycle is still rather raw, it’s important to show Buttigieg’s popularity, particularly when a certain non-news outlet continues to attack now Secretary of Transportation Pete on fundamental rights. Imagine if Pete were elected president. 

Flee (c) Neon

“Flee,” which is Denmark’s submission for the International Film Oscar, is a fascinating animated documentary about a young, gay Afghani man living in Denmark, and the secret of how he ended up in there as a refugee. I anticipate a lot of discussion about his story when it opens in December. 

A Distant Place (c) A Distant Place

If I had to pick a favorite movie of the festival, it would have to be South Korean director Park Kun-young’s “A Distant Place” in which a man (Kang Gil-woo) and his young ward are living and working on a remote sheep farm when his friend from Seoul comes to visit. The film is a mix of “Brokeback Mountain” and “Minari.” There’s a lot of pastoral shots that surround this spiritual story of duty and living in dignity. 

I was also able to catch up with Carl Andress and Charles Busch’s “The Sixth Reel,” which seemed to be marketed as a quirky farce but turned out to be more about one man’s facing the choices he has made in life for his love of movies. Sound like someone we know, Charles? Don’t get me wrong, there is a queer “Ocean’s Eleven” in the plot, and the all-star cast (including Margaret Cho and Timothy Daly) relished every absurd plot twist, but this is probably Busch’s most personal film and one in which his drag personas were not front and center. I only have one non-spoiler question: The Other Arm? Sounds like a sequel to me. 

Potato Dreams of America (c) Potato Dreams of America

Other films of note include the odd and charming “Potato Dreams of America,” a title I didn’t realize was a complete sentence as Potato is our gay protagonist who dreams of leaving Russia in the late-1980s with his mother. The strokes are broad but wait until the end for the film to clarify why there are two distinct parts to the movie and how its resolution is cinematic kismet. 

Firebirds (c) Firebirds

There were not many melodramas in the fest, but if you’re looking for a “Dr. Zhivago” type of heightened love story, look no further than “Firebirds” which has gorgeous men secretly having an affair in Russian occupied Estonia. The choice to do the movie in English (like “Potato Dreams”) brings its own set of challenges, but knowing it’s a true story keeps you invested past its overdramatic style. 

Poppy Field (c) Poppy Field

“Poppy Field” is the odd title for Eugen Jebeleanu’s drama in which a gay, Romanian cop has to confront his internal homophobia while trying to de-escalate a right-wing protest. Conrad Mericoffer tense performance keeps you occupied as you wait to see how the situation will be resolved. “My Best Part” has probably the least sympathetic character in a film this year, and that he is played by the director makes me wonder how autobiographical it is. Nicholas Maury (Hervé in “Call My Agent]” plays a self-centered French actor who is trying to deal with his jealous tendencies but really should be dealing with his over-dramatic reactions to every little thing. Brave filmmaking, yes. Maddening, even more so. I think this was supposed to be a comedy, but got lost in translation. 

See You Then (c) See You Then

“Boy Meets Boy” and “See You Then” are essentially two-character dramas that carry the intimacy of the genre but also a schematic awkwardness. “Boy” is about two strangers who spend a day together in Berlin before one has to leave. If you enjoy the “Before Sunset” movies or “Weekend,” you’ll enjoy the talk between the flirting. “See You Then” is the opposite as Kris (Pooya Mohseni) and Naomi (Lynn Chen) know each other very well. They are exes who haven’t seen each other since Kris came out as a trans female. Here, the reminiscing talk is always interesting, and the actors have great rapport with each other. It’s only when we get to the nitty gritty of the break-up that things get dramatically murky. 

Under My Skin (c) Under My Skin

“Under My Skin” is fascinating because the main character, Denny, who is coming to terms with a non-binary identity, is played by four actors at different points in the movie. But even more rewarding, director David O'Donnell also shows a sympathetic portrayal of Denny’s boyfriend, Ryan (Alex Russell from TV’s “SWAT” in a breakthrough role) who loves Denny and keeps trying to understand this unexpected turn. 

Jump Darling (c) Jump Darling

“Jump Darling” will always be known as Cloris Leachman’s final film. She shines as the dying grandmother to a directionless drag queen. And “The First Death of Joana” is a lovely meditation of life and death. I reviewed this movie for “Metro Weekly,” and you can read it here

The screenings were decently attended and the NewFest crew seems to be genuinely happy to see our masked faces during the film and the many Q+As. I hope when Covid-19 finally exits our daily existence, this hybrid presentation remains as it would be ideal if the goal is to get as many eyes on the many films of wide-ranging, queer voices. 

NewFest Screening at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea (c) The Interested Bystander

Please note: NewFest is bringing the 2021 Award Winners BACK for weekly virtual encores through the end of the year! They're kicking things off this Friday, Nov 12 through Nov 18 with virtual screenings of Grand Jury Award Winner for Documentary Feature “Miguel's War,” as well as the deliciously campy U.S. Narrative Feature Jury Special Mention “Potato Dreams of America.” “A Distant Place,” my favorite of the festival, will have its encore stream on December 10 – 16. Info can be found here

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