My Chattanooga Top Twelve!

I’m back and recovered from the four-day whirlwind that was the Chattanooga Film Festival! Parties, lectures, and workshops abounded at the CFF, but I was there to watch movies and watch movies I did. I can happily say that I went to 21½ screenings and that I’ve now seen 49 of the feature films and shorts shown at the CFF (and I’m still catching up with more titles). A lot were good, some were great, and a few were regrettable. MMC! is all about the movies I love and so here are my top ten twelve picks from the 2018 Chattanooga Film Festival.

(My apologies to those films that I missed.  You can find a full account of the CFF’s films and my takes on a large number of them at my Letterboxd list devoted to CFF 2018.)

Tigers Are Not Afraid (Issa López, 2017)

There’s no better place to start than the CFF’s Best Feature prize-winner and unstoppable festival favourite, Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid. The film has been gathering awards at seemingly every festival it’s played at since debuting at Fantastic Fest in September 2017 and even Chattanooga audience members who’d already seen Tigers found themselves bawling minutes into this powerful movie. Lopez adroitly blends social realism and horror-fantasy in a manner remarkably comparable to Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), but distinguishes Tigers by its contemporary setting and its direct engagement with the violence and terrible consequences of Mexico’s Drug War. At the centre of Tigers is Estrella (Paola Lara), a young girl who finds herself alone after her mother disappears one day, another victim of “The Huascas” and their human trafficking ring. She seeks some modicum of comfort with a group of boys led by Shine (Juan Ramón López), however Shine and his young crew are hunted by crime boss Chico over a stolen iPhone. On this basis alone, Issa López likely would have made a successful social drama, but Tigers Are Not Afraid becomes transcendent through her incorporations of horror, fantasy, and magical realism. Estrella is haunted by her mother and the ghosts of the Huascas’ other victims, she and Shine frame their liminal world with fairy tales that reflect their unfortunate circumstances, and Tigers is alive with magical potential, including living graffiti and chalk that grants tragic wishes. If I had any criticism of Issa López’s film, it might be that her fantastical elements could still be pushed farther but this is quibbling between greatness and perfection. My real reservations arise from the fact that Tiger Are Not Afraid still lacks a distributor despite all of its accolades (and the dead kids).

(More still to come on Tigers Are Not Afraid.)

Lowlife (Ryan Prows, 2017)

Ryan Prows’s Lowlife was one of my favourite films of last year’s Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival (and I’ve previously discussed its plot, so I’ll take that as read). My experience at CFF only confirms my admiration more. Like Tigers Are Not AfraidLowlife directly examines current socio-political conflicts through the lens of genre cinema – in this case, the multi-perspective, pop-cultural hodgepodge of the Tarantinoesque and the New Hollywood Violence of the 1990s. Lowlife is viciously funny, exhilaratingly violent, and importantly diverse, a first class genre classic and a lucha-masked bellwether of the times. Writer-director Ryan Prows and writer-actor Shaye Ogbonna were on hand to provide insight on the film, its process (written in a TV writers’ room-style by its five contributors), and the 2017 Presidential election that seemed to unfortunately follow Lowlife‘s own political concerns (their decision – “OK … go with it.”). Lowlife is currently out on VOD with distribution by IFC Midnight.

(More still to come on Lowlife as well.)

Summer of 84 (RKSS, 2018)

The ’80s nostalgia of Summer of 84 had me quite wary of the film, fearing a poor cousin to Stranger Things and a tired pastiche of a passé trend. I couldn’t have been more wrong as Summer of 84 had me and the rest of the theatre wowed with a thoroughly convincing period production design, charismatic performances, and a bracing story with a daring, uncompromised conclusion. Summer of 84‘s Montreal-based directorial team RKSS (François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell) remarked during the Q&A that the announcement of Stranger Things had a definite chilling effect on their developing production but the Netflix series eventually revealed itself to be something substantially different, a sci-fi horror program featuring notably younger protagonists. Summer of 84 is a horror thriller concerning a quartet of 15 year-old friends and their suspicion that a police officer living across the street is a serial killer targeting boys their age. Their amateur investigation is youthful excitement until the threat facing them draws into focus and death becomes a grave and sobering reality. As such, Summer of 84 dramatizes youth’s loss of innocence in a tensely entertaining horror mystery. (Thanks to Yoann-Karl Whissell for the hugs!)

Brimstone & Glory (Viktor Jakovleski, 2017)

My favourite from the CFF’s “Truth Bombs” program was Brimstone & Glory, a documentary that truly demands to be seen on the big screen. Capturing the National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec, Mexico, an annual event in honour of San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of firework makers, Brimstone & Glory attends to the celebration’s two main features: the “castillos” or castles, towering wooden structures loaded with fireworks and supporting massive pinwheels; and the “pamplonada,” a “running” of fabricated bulls covered in fireworks through the streets of Tultepec until they converge in the town’s main plaza. Jakovleski creates a fascinating document of a community, their art, and the spectre of danger always connected to it, however he interrogates these subjects through spectacles that are truly awe-inspiring. From dizzying climbs up framework castillos to whistling fusillades of fiery gold, Brimstone & Glory is a cinematic extravaganza, a visual feast for the eyes and a sonically enveloping experience. See it on the biggest screen possible; hear it at its fullest volume. Brimstone & Glory is available on VOD and hard media by Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker, 2018)

Josephine Decker’s impressionistic and sometimes experimental film Madeline’s Madeline was a breath of fresh, indie-film air to the CFF’s genre-forward program. Helena Howard brilliantly plays Madeline, a troubled young woman with a strained relationship with her mother and brother who finds comfort in an ambitious theatre troupe led by its director Evangeline (Molly Parker). Madeline finds peace in performance and proves herself quite talented, bringing added attention from Evangeline, but the girl’s personal issues are increasingly leveraged by the troupe’s director as fodder for their next production and Evangeline’s blindness to its effects on Madeline and her mother (Miranda July) becomes increasingly problematic. Art, exploitation, and mental illness converge in Madeline’s Madeline and its slippery plot reflects the impressionistic subjectivity of the film’s title character. Decker’s film shifts and elides around Madeline, moving with uncomfortable ease between her reality, her perspective, and her increasingly constructed persona, and this tension is most affectively represented in its sound design where noises and voices, real and imagined, approach unexpectedly from different directions. Like Brimstone & Glory, Madeline’s Madeline is best seen on the big screen and with a robust sound system so that the immersive force of the picture can be truly experienced. Madeline’s Madeline was recently picked up by Oscilloscope Laboratories and a theatrical release is expected later this year. Hopefully Decker’s film will be embraced as the tour de force it is.

November (Rainer Sarnet, 2017)

Rainer Sarnet’s November was my favourite film from the 2017 Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival (and I’ll again take my previous description of the film as read). I once again heard complaints over the movie’s “slowness,” although these reservations are completely lost on me as I still find Sarnet’s fancifully tongue-in-cheek view on Estonian folklore to be thoroughly bewitching and entirely enthralling. At least there seemed to be no disagreement that Sarnet’s wonderful grisaille was gorgeous to look at at, offering a gravely dour counterpoint to November‘s often absurd and whimsical dilemmas. November is currently screening theatrically in limited engagements and is available on VOD by, you guessed it, Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Let the Corpses Tan (Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, 2017)

Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, makers of Amer (2009) and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013), have established a reputation for making mind-bending films that evoke and then transform the Italian genre cinema of 40 years ago, and Let the Corpses Tan proves to be both a break and a continuation from those efforts. Cattet and Forzani surprisingly engage in adaptation here, translating Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid’s novel for the screen in a style that most strongly evokes Italian genres like the polizieschi and the spaghetti western. The result is a multivalent narrative that constantly shifts in time and perspective as various criminals, motorcycle cops, and innocent bystanders maneuver through a crumbling Mediterranean locale in an effort to claim a bounty of stolen gold. Added to the mix are a series of gialli-esque vignettes that seem to operate as pure visual metaphor for the greed and mercilessness that motivates the film. Altogether, Let the Corpses Tan plays out like a crime film made to feel like a spaghetti western, and that is organized to look and operate like the trailer or the opening credits of a giallo but stretched to feature film length. I found it garishly energizing and consistently surprising, and it may be my favourite discovery of the CFF.

A Prayer Before Dawn (Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, 2017)

Possibly my biggest surprise of the 2018 CFF was Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s A Prayer Before Dawn, the harrowing adaptation of Billy Moore’s prison memoir of the same title. Moore, a young Liverpudlian boxer living in Thailand and grappling with substance abuse problems, is incarcerated in the country’s notorious Klong Prem Prison where he struggles to survive and finds partial refuge in the institution’s Muay Thai Boxing program. Sauvaire’s knack for portraying violent masculinity with near documentary realism is on full display here, shooting on location and with former Thai prisoners covered head to toe in ornate and intimidating tattoos. Moore’s isolation and danger is heightened by a language barrier Sauvaire underlines by infrequently subtitling Thai dialogue and further immersing the audience into Moore’s exceptionally perilous situation. A Prayer Before Dawn is ultimately a tale of redemption, about a young, troubled man broken down and then forced to rebuild himself in a rarely seen and absolutely terrifying environment. A24 is scheduled to release A Prayer Before Dawn in August.

The Accomplice (John F. Beach and Jonathan Hoeg, 2017)

My biggest laughs at the CFF came during the eight-minute running time of John F. Beach and Jonathan Hoeg’s The Accomplice. In the short, a man returns home from a business trip and listens to 17 answering machine messages wherein his entirely unknown and dangerously escalating involvement in a friend’s armed robbery plot is described. The Accomplice plays out no farther than a few yards from the tabletop answering machine and so the writers (Dustin and Greg Hahn) and directors deserve great credit for how perfectly written and assembled the film is given its very constrained nature. Every shot, every cut, every beat of The Accomplice is perfectly placed to propel the short forward while its main character helplessly and hilariously observes his unwanted downfall.

homer_a (Milos Mitrovic and Conor Sweeney, 2017)

Whenever I discussed the CFF’s short program with anyone, Milos Mitrovic and Conor Sweeney’s homer_a seemed to always be the film mentioned first. Audience members could hardly be blamed for gravitating toward this uneasy re-imagining of The Simpsons told in the threateningly lo-fi style of Harmony Korine. The short has an obviously transgressive appeal with Homer’s drunkeness and Bart’s mischievousness taking on an unsettling and violent edge. My only disappointment is that Mitrovic and Sweeney’s companion film, homer_b, did not make the program as well.

Socks on Fire: Uncle John and the Copper Headed Water Rattlers (Bo McGuire, 2017)

There was one film at CFF that I immediately wanted to watch again as soon as it ended and that was Bo McGuire’s Socks on Fire: Uncle John and the Copper Headed Water Rattlers. Described by McGuire as a fever dream portraying some drama his family is currently going through, the short is full of thrift store pageantry and hallucinatory logic. Ostensibly about conflicts over a deceased relative’s belongings and a puckish uncle/drag queen stirring up trouble, McGuire figures prominently in the film in seemingly multiple roles as both an interested relation and an observing trickster. The 15-minute short shown at the CFF appears to be a rough cut to a longer, more narratively-driven feature currently being completed by McGuire. I can’t wait to see the feature-length version.

(More still to come on Socks on Fire.)

Rock Steady Row (Trevor Stevens, 2018)

To be honest, I probably saw better films at the CFF but none so weirdly took hold of my imagination as did Rock Steady Row. Trevor Stevens feature film is patently ridiculous, telling the story of an unnamed freshman who arrives at a dystopic university where rival fraternities battle for control of the BMX bicycle market, where sharpened No.2 pencils are a deadly throwing weapon, and where comedian Larry Miller plays an uncaring dean. I was prepared to write off Rock Steady Row as some half-assed, millennial stunt but as the film progressed, its debts to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars became more plain and by its latter portions, the film began to explicitly match scenes and beats of its antecedents, transforming it into a strange, preposterous lens through which I recognized one of my favourite stories. It’s hard to imagine a more ludicrous use of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, but its effect became oddly compelling and its almost unwelcome magnetism has left me wanting to revisit it again to see if the unexpected goodwill I left with might alter the initial doubts I felt during my first screening of Rock Steady Row. Hopefully I’ll have that chance again soon.

Big thanks to the Chattanooga Film Festival for this great opportunity and for such an interesting program of diverse films and events. And my apologies to All the Creatures Were StirringRevenge, Ramen Heads, and Stay which all just missed spots on this list. The CFF promoted itself with the hashtag “#respectcinema” and having seen the Festival firsthand, it is clear that the CFF does just that. Until next year (and hopefully warmer weather).

4 thoughts on “My Chattanooga Top Twelve!

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