The New Orleans Film Festival screens nearly 250 movies in a variety of genres. It's also celebrating its 25th anniversary. Below are reviews of some of the feature-length films. For a full schedule and details, visit www.neworleansfilmfestival.org.
8:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, The Joy Theater; 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 23, Prytania Theatre
New Orleans-based filmmaker Garrett Bradley's stunning debut feature Below Dreams is a modern-day testament of youth, tracing the sacrifices and compromises of a generation adrift. The impressionistic narrative follows a diverse trio of twentysomething protagonists through dashed hopes and second chances in the Crescent City. Elliott (Elliott Ehlers) arrives from New York but can't seem to forget the woman he left there; single mother Leanne (Leanne Miller) aspires to become a model and actress; Jamaine (Jamaine Johnson) finds that his criminal record may prevent him from landing a job.
As all three confront the possibility the American Dream isn't available to them, the lively, unkempt fabric of New Orleans becomes a character in its own right. Weaving lackadaisical patterns of story and speech with an artist's keen compositions, the film's poetic realism manages to capture the city's unfussy beauty without disguising the fraying edges of the social contract. Half of it seems built from dusky bus stops, Lake Pontchartrain shores and wordless anxieties; the other half is all ramshackle porches, Bourbon Street revelry and meandering talk. As the characters strive to rebuild their own lives, the city around them does too, and it is a halting, imperfect process. Below Dreams depicts New Orleans not as a figment of the pop cultural imagination, but as a jagged puzzle of streets, neighborhoods, people and histories. With boundless empathy, the film turns a discerning eye to hard choices and harsh injustices, understanding that no person, no generation and no city is ever just one thing. "The more hollow your heart, the more you can fill it up and let the world in," says a friend of Elliott. — MATT BRENNAN
Big Star: Live in Memphis
9 p.m. Monday, Oct 20, The Joy Theater; 10 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 22, Prytania Theatre
The late American power-pop band Big Star has seen a recent revival thanks to the continuing success of the fantastic 2012 documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. A pseudo-companion piece is a bare-bones live concert film, one of the only filmed concerts featuring the late Alex Chilton. Live in Memphis was shot in 1994, more than 20 years after the band's "breakup" and 15 years after the death of songwriter Chris Bell. After the show, the footage sat virtually untouched in a closet for years. Filmmaker David Leonard edited and retouched the footage, and it makes its festival premiere here.
For the homecoming gig, Big Star drummer Jody Stephens sits at the kit, and guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow of The Posies fill in Bell's absence. (That lineup remained until Chilton's death in 2010; founding bassist Andy Hummel had declined to rejoin the band. He also died in 2010.) Chilton — clad in a faded white jacket and smoking a cigarette throughout — smiles and playfully chugs through Big Star classics, including most of #1 Record and several songs from Stephens and Hummel, as well as a few covers, including Bell's "I Am The Cosmos," handled beautifully by Auer. It's a fairly straightforward show meant for family, friends and hometown fans. The film is grainy, the lights are dim and the music is raw — but the songs are great. It's another entry in the band's catalog making the case for its long-overdue spotlight. — ALEX WOODWARD
Dear White People
10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18; Prytania Theatre
On the campus of fictional Winchester University, Sam White (Tessa Thompson) broadcasts her show "Dear White People" over the college radio station's airways. "Dear White People," she says. "Dating a black person to shock your parents is a form of racism." White is outspoken and confrontational, which helps get her elected leader of her residence hall and contributes to fellow black students labeling her a Black Panther wannabe and "blacker than thou."
There are four main archetypal characters in Justin Simien's satire, and they're all invested or burdened with the notion of who and what is acceptably, authentically black. Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the dean's son, is seen as being extremely deferential to whites and the establishment in order to succeed. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is suspect for not being comfortable in all-black company. Coco (Teyonah Parris of Mad Men) is a free agent who tries to use every situation to her advantage, a la reality TV pandering. The students are all eloquent, cutting and painfully self-aware. Sam tells her white boyfriend she's "indistinguishable from urban images of blacks used to amuse and market to white America." She's also joking and being ironic, but the proposition seems to make it impossible for any of them to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Their plights are complicated by Kurt, a white, entitled leader of the campus humor magazine, who is primarily interested in satire but can't seem to choose nonblack targets. Shifting allegiances keep the drama tense until Fletcher ultimately turns everything black and white. The film isn't as funny as Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing or Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle, but it's smart and sharp-tongued and puts Simien in good company with his first major feature film. — WILL COVIELLO
Jingle Bell Rocks!
8:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19; 8 p.m. Monday Oct. 20; Theatres at Canal Place
Early in director/narrator Mitchell Kezin's documentary about offbeat Christmas music, Canadian radio personality David Wisdom offers an insight that seems like the point of the movie: Most holiday music is horrible because its just out there to make a buck and it's insincere. But Kezin's personal crate-digging mission and his film are about an earnest search for holiday music that is sincere and mirrors his memories of Christmas.
Kezin traces his quest to a Nat King Cole song about a boy who gets passed over by Santa Claus and doesn't know why. Kezin finds camaraderie with other Christmas crate diggers, many of whom work in the record industry and share their own holiday compilations of obscure finds, ranging from calypso and country tunes to an anti-Vietnam war holiday song. The search also unearths personal stories from Run DMC's Joseph Simmons, filmmaker John Waters and The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne who reveals the origins of his DVD/CD Christmas on Mars. A few of the stories behind the songs are heartbreaking, but that's why some of the music is meaningful during a holiday that commercialism can make seem soulless. — WILL COVIELLO
Oil & Water
8:45 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19; Joy Theatre
For his documentary about the conflicting needs and activities of the oil and seafood industries in south Louisiana, director Alan Davis could not have found better subjects than George and Carol Terrebonne. George once worked in the oil industry and the couple owns The Seafood Shed, a shrimp fishing company based in Port Fourchon. The documentary seems to be a response to the BP oil disaster and George is suing BP over its impact on his business. But still he says south Louisiana needs oil industry jobs.
The film makes a strong case about the bleak outlook of the confluence of risks of deep sea oil drilling, damages done by normal oil industry operations (i.e. digging canals) and coastal erosion. It's just not feasible to believe the oil and seafood industries can coexist much longer. Fishermen can sue oil companies, but that doesn't restore wetlands.
Local audiences likely are familiar with this story. It may be a more useful primer for non-Louisiana audiences, but the film seems to overreach, delving into the history of Cajun culture all the way back to Nova Scotia and broadly discussing the economics of post-World War II oil consumption. There's also too much use of stock footage from what seem like petroleum industry videos. The issue isn't whether world markets want more oil. It's what people in south Louisiana will do about their future. — WILL COVIELLO
We Are the Best!
7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 20; 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 23; Chalmette Movies
Being a teenager comes with immense joy and crushing heartache, often in the same day. Swedish writer/director Lukas Moodysson captures the highs and lows of being an emotional, impressionable 13 year old girl — who just so happens to be a self-identified punk rocker — in We Are the Best!, adapted from the graphic novel Never Goodnight by Moodysson's wife Coco. The film's two young punks — Mira Grosin's gregarious, anti-authority Karla and Mira Barkhammar's shy, insecure Bobo —start a band in 1982 Stockholm, all while enduring the hazing of teen heshers in the band Iron Fist (with whom they share a practice space), and the ridicule of their peers, parents, teachers and sensitive but inept youth counselors. The girls meet Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a quiet, lanky Christian classical guitarist, who the girls convince to join the band — which has only one song, about how sports suck and people in Africa are dying. The young actors steal the show with adolescent enthusiasm and tenderness, and drive the anarchic, loose narrative in all its sloppy, teary-eyed, hilarious glory. The "punk is dead" mantra echoes throughout the film, and the girls defy it by spitting into the dead '70s while reminding the present of the value of the DIY spirit and imagination. — ALEX WOODWARD
Zack and Addie
9:15 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18; 6:15 p.m. Monday, Oct. 20; Contemporary Arts Center
The post-Hurricane Katrina murder/suicide story of Zack Bowen and Addie Hall has been told and retold, but director Rob Florence's documentary about them is riveting nonetheless. It's not meant to be lurid, but its true-crime appeal is undeniable, particularly since one of its major interview subjects, Margaret Sanchez, is currently awaiting trial in an unrelated murder/dismemberment case (not addressed in the film).
Zack committed suicide on Oct. 17, 2006 by jumping off the roof of a French Quarter hotel. In his pocket was a note directing police to go to his apartment, where they found the dismembered and partially cooked remains of his girlfriend Addie. The national media pounced on the story, and New Orleanians were dazed as the horrible details were revealed.
Florence interviews Zack and Addie's family, friends, coworkers, landlord and neighbors, the police officer who found the note and entered their apartment, a psychiatrist and others. Sanchez claims to be one of their closest friends, and what she claims about their friendship is almost as unsettling as any of the other details of their story. — Will COVIELLO