Saturday, December 2, 2023

NewFest 35 Queers Up The Fall Festival Season

NewFest, the NYC LGBTQ film festival, held its 35th edition this past week. With a lineup of some of the season’s biggest LGBTQ+ films, the lineup is a fantastic compliment to the lineup of world cinema behemoths that New Yorkers just got at NYFF, which ended just as this festival began. The lineup boasts over a hundred features and short films, many available on the festival’s streaming platform.

Next Best Picture has already covered some of the festival’s biggest titles, which are making their NY premiere after playing Telluride and TIFF. Foremost of these are the pair of Netflix biopics hoping to make a splash in this year’s awards race. The Festival’s Opening Night film “Rustin” included a special introduction from director George C. Wolfe. Hopefully, SAG-AFTRA will get a fair deal from the AMPTP soon so that Colman Domingo, a tour de force as pioneering civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, can get out and work his magic on the campaign trail for one of the best performances of the year. US Centerpiece “Nyad,” starring Annette Bening as Diana Nyad, who at the age of 64 became the first person to swim between Cuba and Miami without a shark cage, and Jodie Foster as her friend and coach, is looking to get a stronger foothold in the race after muted reception at Telluride and TIFF. Both Bening and Foster are awards-worthy, as are the completely convincing makeup effects. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest, “Monster,” winner of the Screenplay prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is NewFest’s International Centerpiece. While critics mostly raved (including our own Ema Sasic), I wasn’t quite so high on it. Telling a story in a “Rashomon”-esque style requires deliberately withholding information, and in the context of this story, that became very frustrating very quickly. However, Kore-eda’s humanity shines through in the third act, when we finally get to see young Minato and Yori’s story for ourselves. It’s a powerful statement on how childhood bullying follows us even as adults, assuming we’re able to survive it. 

NewFest has also programmed some fantastic films still without distribution despite acclaimed appearances at major festivals. “Cora Bora” was one of the comedic highlights of this year’s SXSW, with Megan Stalter’s megawatt charisma and some fantastic original songs carrying a story about a difficult, self-absorbed singer-songwriter who learns to be (slightly) less self-absorbed when her long-distance girlfriend breaks up with her. Luke Gilford’s “National Anthem,” my favorite film from SXSW, is hereafter also hitting TIFF. A gentle fable about the importance of queer spaces where young people can explore who they are in an environment free of judgment, it’s one of the very best films of the year, one that shouldn’t feel radical but is, in its own quiet way. The sequence at the gay rodeo, giving pride of place to all the types of people never acknowledged in most Westerns, is a thing of beauty. According to director Luke Gilford, the film was shot in only seventeen days, during the height of windy season, on film, making his achievement all that much more remarkable.

Neon’s Sundance pickup “Eileen” is expertly styled to evoke 1950s thrillers with its tale of a young woman (Thomasin McKenzie) who falls in thrall to the gorgeous new psychologist at the young men’s prison where she works. When that psychologist is played by Anne Hathaway in full-on movie star mode, it’s perfectly understandable. The film’s shocking last act divided critics, but I was a fan of its matter-of-fact pulpiness, saying aloud what films of the period weren’t allowed to say. The ending is an open-ended head-scratcher, but it’s such an aesthetically engrossing mood piece that it doesn’t matter.

“Housekeeping For Beginners,” Goran Stolevski’s second film to see release this year after the tender coming-of-age romance “Of An Age,” sees the filmmaker tackling a kitchen-sink social realist drama through an LGBTQ lens. Anamaria Marinca plays Dita, a government employee who finds herself unwittingly at the head of a family when her Romani lover (Alina Serban) succumbs to cancer, leaving behind her two daughters. The head of a household that already includes her gay male best friend and three LGBTQ teens, Dita must now deal with her moody young wards, the eldest of whom may be trying to leave with her boyfriend. While the characters start off somewhat abrasive, the film nails an early tonal shift, and the dynamic between the characters is so endearing that you come to love them. Like the best of these films, the audience feels like part of this found family, rooting for them to overcome all the racist, homophobic nonsense that comes their way. The cast includes many Romani actors in their screen debuts, and they’re dynamite.

Janis Pugh’s “Chuck Chuck Baby” may have gotten lost in the shuffle at TIFF, but this gem of a film didn’t deserve it. The low-fi British kitchen sink drama/lesbian musical has enormous John Carney energy in how it uses diegetic music, in this case, classic 70s AM rock songs that stir up such memories and feelings that the characters can’t help but sing along, pouring out their hearts to each other in the process. The story is about a chicken factory worker (Louise Brealey) living with her husband, his baby mama, and his mother, for whom she provides nursing care, and how her life gets upended by the return of her childhood crush (Annabel Scholey), back in town after years away to bury her abusive father. The lead actresses both have an endearing quality in their performances, drawing the audience in with their sweet singing voices and direct emotionality. The film may be low-key, but that helps the big emotional moments land.

“All The Fires” takes on perhaps too many themes, but Mauricio Calderón Rico’s debut feature displays his knack for creating mood. As a means of coping with his father’s death, Bruno (Sebastian Rojano) has taken to setting things on fire and uploading videos of it to the internet. When his mother starts dating another man, he runs away to find Daniela (Natalia Quiroz), another pyromaniac with whom he has been conversing online. Despite their subsequent fire-setting spree, though, Bruno begins questioning things about himself when he starts missing his best friend Ian (Ari Lopez) a bit too much. While Rojano can be a bit stiff at times, he’s incredibly affecting at others, and the evocative cinematography imparts what emotions his performance does not. It’s a deeply felt, beautifully shot, thoroughly modern coming-of-age story.

French drama “Lie With Me” feels relatively mainstream in many ways. The story concerns a writer returning to his hometown of Cognac, where the famous spirit was first made, and finds himself haunted by the ghost of his high school lover, almost literally, in the form of his son. The fact that said son is played by the grandson of French cinema legend Jean-Paul Belmondo is enough to excite any cinephile. His likeness to his grandfather makes it extremely difficult to look away, and he gives a very fine performance. Still, the focus is mainly on Guillaume de Tonquédec as the present-day author and Julien de Saint Jean as his lover, Thomas, in flashback. The flashback story is a pretty standard gay narrative, with the “soft” gay boy being attracted to a bad-boy type who’s secretly harboring some gay tendencies. But as the present-day storyline slowly fills in the details of what happened in the years between then and now, it accumulates specificity and emotion, leading to a perfectly judged ending.

NewFest’s digital platform, available nationwide, will stream many of this year’s selections through October 24th. To take advantage and to learn more about NewFest’s year-round programming, visit

Did you attend NewFest this year? What were some of your favorite films that screened there? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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