Recommended Viewing: Best of the Fest, Part Two

The 31st Annual New Orleans Film Festival Jury Award Winners have been announced. Bill Arceneaux writes about four of the winning movies.

Photo from the 2019 New Orleans Film Festival

In Part One of our “Best of the Fest” film picks for the 31st New Orleans Film Festival, I chose four of what I believe were must-see selections, whether they’re seen in-person or online. For this follow-up, we have an interesting combination of scenarios. 

On one hand, we have reached the point of the festival where all outdoor screenings have ended. On the other, award winners have been chosen by juries in various categories. So yes, if you plan on watching any of these movies, now is the time, and now has to be virtual

And so, the following brief covers four winning films that come highly recommended. 

You may not be able to count on Father Time being in your favor, but we can always count on the movies:

Umbilical, winner of the Helen Hill Award for Animation

Directed by Danski Tang

In the scribbled down notes from watching the cartoon short Umbilical, this critic had written “imaginative animation.” In retrospect, this film is more “animated imagination.”

It’s a combination of emotional memory and laid bare abstract interpretations of hard truth, layered on top of a calming if forward conversation between a Chinese mother and her daughter. That talking element alone couldn’t be considered “cut & dry” by anyone, as even it breathes as a form of life unbound by the confines of its medium. 

This paternal talk between generations goes from tragic revelations to shared love in split seconds, bouncing back and forth as easily as the animation melts and morphs into one another. We witness the equivalent of brain synapses firing to visualize what’s being said, interpreting the information as quickly as possible and from what experiences either woman has undergone. These perspectives shift around too, depending on who is listening and who is talking. It’s stunning, if a bit confusing. This confusion however feels built in, making the multiple memories that are shown and the connection of mother and daughter much stronger on an emotional level. 

By no means is this easy to watch, but the journey is absolutely rewarding. There’s sadness spoken in friendly tones, but also strength in their own hindsight and in their mutual confrontations with societal darkness. Pregnancies out of wedlock, sexual orientation, and just “being different” may be taboo in some cultures, but from generation to generation, they’re learned as being completely natural. Umbilical feels totally natural, no matter how deep the women get with each other and within their minds. Clever colors and complete honesty make this short a class act.  

Pillars, winner of the Best Cinematography for a Louisiana Short Film Award

Directed by Haley Elizabeth Anderson

Returning to cultural taboos, Pillars is a tale of innocence clashing with harshness in as profound a manner as can be described. To take away the joy of youth and the wonder of natural discovery is all too horrid of a person to do, especially a father to his daughter. 

We see a young teen girl and her interactions with her parents as being pleasant and average. Her father plays practice boxing with her in a rather playful and safe way, while the mother is loving if stern. A trip to church proves the dismantling of this family dynamic, when a very innocent practice kiss in a bathroom stall is found out by the father, who responds with sad shock and dismissive anger. It may have been at church when this harmless incident happened, but why make her feel such guilt? Such shame? What does this accomplish?

Pillars reaches such great heights when the daughter attempts to play with her father again, only to go through a traumatic physical confrontation that slowly burns and escalates with grand rising tension. A pillar of fire forms, one that may never burn out. 

The use of light and intimacy in the cinematography is especially impressive, making something as simple as a kiss and something as emotionally big as a fight all the more internally felt and realized. Pillars is a true tour de force and ought to be appreciated by all who come across it.

In Sudden Darkness, winner of the Best Short Feature Award

Directed by Tayler Montague

If there’s one thing about In Sudden Darkness that can be stated, it’s how the title belies its story. Images of bleak horror hit our minds when this is read, but when the film plays and unfolds, we understand how it’s truly meant. The movie takes place in the Bronx, circa the widespread blackout in 2003. It’s hot, it’s uncomfortable, it’s dark. 

We follow a small family unit from the perspective of their young daughter, who sees things in simple tones and from simple angles. Her parents will argue at the flip of a switch (no pun intended), and usually over something as quotidian as groceries. Of course, food is not really what they’re getting fired up about, and to a kid, this is very much understood. Nothing is minced. Somehow though, another switch will flip, and the parents change their language and feelings a bit, lightening the mood greatly. 

We get shots throughout that too are pretty simple, but more special than average. Sometimes it’s static, unfolding in one take. Sometimes it moves down a dark sidewalk. It’s always as if from the mental processing of the little girl, who in turn sees things as they are to how they feel, from conversations to chaos to care.

In Sudden Darkness ends on a wonderfully positive and inspiring note, but with an asterisk that every new day carries new possibilities, from good to bad. It appears oh so effortlessly, how this film conveys such a scope in a small-sized package. It’d be nice to use the saying of “the eyes were bigger than the stomach” here in a more eloquent and appropriate way, and without the suggestion of filling up too fast, but let’s leave that up to y’all.

Inspector Ike, winner of the Best Narrative Feature Award

Directed by Graham Mason

Probably the cutest and most fun film of 2020 (though we still have another month to go), Inspector Ike is an instant classic of spoofs and goofs, taking the 1970’s TV Movie of the Week concept and using it to stylistic ends in a not so mysterious mystery of tomfoolery and oddball shenanigans. To make it all the more excellent, this is a film of true blue craftsmen and performers, who all know their roles, how the roles fit with one another, and how to deliver the funny in droves. 

An “avant garde” theatre troupe in New York has suffered a tragic loss at the hands of fate, or so it seems. Inspector Ike, who makes a point of raising a glass of champagne for every arrest he makes and every case he cracks, is called in to find out what happened to the troupe’s lead thespian, why, and maybe who. From the get-go, Inspector Ike reveals itself to not be our modern understanding of a spoof, as obliterated with awfulness by the likes of Epic Movie. Nor is this really anything like Airplane!. It’s a comedy for the post-Adult Swim/current No Budge crowd, those who enjoy great filmmaking of weirdness, as made by weirdos. It’s a film of awkwardness and oddities that isn’t afraid to take bold chances, whether it’s breaking the narrative for a Chili recipe course or a mundane and coy explanation of date night plans. 

Inspector Ike, through sincerity and earnestness and conviction, makes even the most unusual and foreign of behaviors and responses to be universally hilarious. It’s a blast of pure cheeriness that’ll cause a smile on the face of any downbeat party-pooper around, and it can’t be recommended nearly enough.