Burning Cane film cast & crew after the film’s screening at the 2019 New Orleans Film Festival, photo credit Noé Cugny.

Times are unusual, to say the least. We’re wearing masks, we’re social-distancing, and more of us are working from home. An unusual election season was followed by a protracted count, and as of today, although Joe Biden is officially the President-elect, the current occupant of the White House hopes to ignore his eviction notice.

At least we can count on the movies. 

The 31st New Orleans Film Festival started on Nov. 6 and will continue through the 22nd. This time around though, things have gone outdoors and virtual.

The vast majority of the programming has been made available for purchase through the online platform on the New Orleans Film Society website, with some films being showcased on a few screens out in the open.

From shorts to features, from VR to experimental, and with a bonus talk with George Clooney, this year’s presentation presents a great opportunity for those who may have been unable to attend in the past

Below, we have a “brief” list of film selections that don’t just represent some of the best Hollywood South has to offer, but also what you should definitely spend your time on. Take your mind off the worst of times and remind yourself of the good ones all around us:

The Offline Playlist

Directed by Brian C. Miller Richard

In the opening credits, the words “A New Orleans Tourism Film” appears as a musical beat becomes audible. This is a concert film, shot in 2019, at our iconic Preservation Hall. Directed and shot by the Lost Bayou team of Brian C. Miller Richard and Natalie Kingston respectively, Offline is both a stage performed album of diverse performers and a talking heads interview series on the importance of music and culture to this city.

Artists from Irma Thomas to Mannie Fresh to Amanda Shaw to Boyfriend to Curren$y stack the deck, all backed up by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in what I can only best describe as a fusion piece. Offline proves just how universal music can be, not just between genres but between people. Each artist speaks in front of the camera, giving bits of who they are, why they do this, and how it all makes them feel. While all do pour their hearts out for us, it was Curren$y’s segment that resonated greatly. 

Curren$y describes his career in the underground of his industry with truth in loneliness and vulnerability, and excitement in discovery and freedom. When it’s his turn on stage, this critic became blown away. The jazz backup to his lyricism and beats just floored every notion of what music is and what music is “allowed” to be. It can be anything, quite frankly. 

While The Offline Playlist does dip into being more NOLA than New Orleans in a few moments – this comes with the tourism territory – it maintains a fun and uplifting rhythm throughout. It’s the right kind of infectious for a year so sick.

It’s Me, Sarah

Directed by Fabiola Andrade

Local filmmaker Fabiola Andrade’s It’s Me, Sarah is quite a surprise of a short. Telling the tale of a mysterious trauma suffered by a young creative woman, Sarah unravels breathlessly and boldly with strong performances and stronger direction. For its twenty-minute runtime, the film never feels rushed or bothered with the constraints to reach a quick finish. While its main character struggles against the clock, the movie thrives under similar pressure.

We follow this young woman some months after being found beaten most brutally, scarred for life, and without much memory as to what happened. One night, she escapes her sadness and climbs through her bedroom mirror, where she meets a friendly guide who, with some prodding will help her recollect and restart. 

It’s in these alt-world scenes where Sarah truly shines with a colorful atmosphere and a brightly empathetic smile. Passing through the mirror, the film contrasts the stark reality before it with playful conversation and a visual palette that blends well with the concept of memory and PTSD. Surely, director Fabiola Andrade isn’t one to miss whatsoever, with a work that suggests many more cinematic efforts of high drama and higher artistry.

To Decadence with Love, Thanks for Everything!

Directed by Stuart Sox

The phrase “gender-fuckery art” came as a shock to the system when said off-camera in this film essay-documentary on drag and burlesque performance art, set during Southern Decadence 2019. To Decadence carries a hot torch for a kind of theatrical stage show that this critic has never witnessed in person, but now wishes to explore some more. Combining “day in the life of” structure with a very intimate perspective, this movie feels like a hybrid of conventions, mixing traditional documentary style with an inquisitive approach that follows around everyone as if a standard narrative is playing out. It’s pretty inventive. 

We see the festival through two performers, Franky and Laveau Contraire who, in their own individual ways, are breaking norms within an already tight-knit community of stage and dance performers. We get a behind the scenes-like glimpse at them getting ready, explaining their routines, and finally putting themselves out into the world for all to see and enjoy. On the night of the Colors programming block, tension fills the air with uncertainty and second-guessing, which ultimately falls away once the lights turn on. This segment nearly brought the tears out.

To Decadence’s thesis on cultivating an open and inclusive community and culture of expression for all is indeed noble and right. With its type of “fly on the wall” view and all too close attitude towards highlighting the emotional and the vulnerable aspects of performing, this film will likely make everyone cheer loudly and proudly. 

Distant Mardi Gras

Directed by Alejandro de los Rios

Glitch art meets super-8 home filmmaking and Zoom-based interviewing in this experimental document on the pre-pandemic Mardi Gras. We start with the pleasures and fun of the event, before becoming trapped in the brick-hitting reality of illness and quarantine. This is a movie of off-camera interviews over grainy footage of parades and street photography, splashed with abstract color patterns and datamoshes intricately cut into a collage of what was, what is, and what could be.

Distant is an incredibly exciting exercise in mind-melting (and perhaps mind-altering) paintings of fondness and sadness upon a canvas of joy before a storm. It all punches rather hard, before coming back with a rallying “tomorrow is another day” optimism that’s punctuated by the constant assault of colors. 

It’s not really an endurance test, but there are times when one will want a break. However, it’s good to just let yourself wash-away with it, and consider/re-consider your thoughts on new normals and old ways.

For information on screenings and passes, visit the New Orleans Film Festival’s Eventive page here.