'Queer Stories Told' - What to Watch at This Year's Virtual NewFest

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday October 18, 2020

The logo for the 32nd edition of NewFest
The logo for the 32nd edition of NewFest  

In keeping with most 2020 Film Festivals, NewFest, New York's preeminent LGBTQ Film Festival will have an on-demand virtual platform as well as drive-in screenings. This is the 32nd edition of NewFest, which kicks off with the NYC premiere of Francis Lee's "Ammonite," starring Oscar-winner Kate Winslet, and closes with Faraz Shariat's "No Hard Feelings."

NewFest will offer more than 120 new films in their first-ever virtual edition, as well as an exciting lineup of panels and conversations. There will be three drive-in screenings, 24 narrative features in competition, 14 docs in competition, three full-season episodics, one global episodic showcase, and 10 shorts program screenings.

"With the Presidential election right around the corner and a Supreme Court seat now open, it is more urgent than ever that queer stories be told and celebrated," said Executive Director David Hatkoff. "We have created an 11-day event that will meet and speak to this moment, delivering a thought-provoking, inspiring and joyful look at the LGBTQ community and the unique challenges it faces, while also paying homage to the incredible queer legacy that exists in NYC."

For more info, for tickets and/or for the full lineup of films and special events please visit: visit the NewFest website.


I was able to sample a large offering and below are the 23 highlights (in a weighed Best of the Best type of order but all of these titles are worth a look):

Ammonite

Francis Lee's audacious new film "Ammonite" is a paradox — delicate yet rough, exquisite yet unrefined. And the film's lead, Kate Winslet, is truly astonishing in a restrained performance seething with pent-up desire and longing. Set on the southern coast of England in the 1840s, the story explores the budding relationship between a stoic paleontologist, Mary Anning (Winslet) — who really existed, though the film is, to quote Lee, "an imagined, respectful snapshot of someone's life" — and a young married woman (a superb Saoirse Ronan) recuperating after a miscarriage. "Ammonite" is a film where every touch, every glance, every movement, every gesture has great meaning, with Lee knowing exactly how long to linger on a face or a body to convey what is needed. The dialogue is perfectly sparse, and the landscape is mysterious and perilous. Much like "God's Own Country," Lee's last sexually-charged film, this endeavor is bold, brave, and breathtaking.

Cicada

Directors Matt Fifer and Kieran Mulcare have gifted us a stirring portrait of a bisexual man (Fifer) who tosses himself into meaningless and often anonymous sexual encounters until he decides to confront his damaging demons. He meets a closeted black man (Sheldon D. Brown) at NYC's Strand Bookstore, and everything changes. "Cicada" is a rich, nuanced work that delves deep into the psychological dissection of its protagonist with mostly triumphant results. Fifer is a filmic force to be reckoned with. His script is dense and honest, and his performance fearless. This film rocks on every level.

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson

Ali LeRoi's "The Obituary of Tunde Johnson" is a singular achievement that only gets better with repeated viewings. Densely and intelligently written by Stanley Kalu, this audacious work is never what it seems. It is not another "Groundhog Day," nor is it a polemic. The film's ambitions are grand and far deeper, beginning with what Black men must deal with on a day to day basis — add gay, and the experience is magnified. Tunde (Steven Silver) is a Nigerian-born college student from a well-to-do, loving family who seems destined to live the same day over and over, culminating in his being shot (in different scenarios) by the L.A. police. He is secretly hooking up with hot jock Soren (Spencer Neville), who is doing his best friend, Marley (Nicola Peltz). All three actors do incredible work. The film tackles racism, homophobia, and class, but, at its core, is the personal story of one teen on the cusp of manhood. The film is sublime.

Summer of 85

French auteur François Ozon has fashioned a beguiling look at a love affair between two teen boys with "Summer of 85," set in 1980s Normandy and starring two of France's most promising new actors, Félix Lefebvre and Benjamin Voisin. Both do compelling work playing two 18-year-olds of slightly different classes with diverging ideas about fidelity and loyalty. The chemistry between these two is off the charts. But "Summer of 85" is much more than another pretty gayboy love story. It asks intriguing questions about why we fall in love, and whether we can ever really know one another. Ozon blends the playful and lighthearted with touches of the sinister and macabre, and delivers a haunting cinematic experience. In French with English subtitles.

Los Fuertes (The Strong Ones)

Omar Zúñiga Hidalgo's first feature, "Los Fuertes (The Strong Ones)" is a super-hot queer love story where the chem between the two leads, Samuel González and Antonio Altamirano, is so palpable you can't not root for them. Alas, they are from different worlds, and neither seem willing nor wanting to compromise. Set in a remote oceanic town in southern Chile, "The Strong Ones" probes the smoldering passion, but also the deep connection, between two guys who are still figuring out who they are and where they fit in the world. In Spanish with English subtitles.

Uncle Frank

Alan Ball, Oscar-winning screenwriter of "American Beauty," has penned and directed a semi-autobiographical new film that explores deep-seeded homophobia in the American South (shocking, I know). "Uncle Frank" brings to mind elements of "August: Osage County" and Ball's own "Six Feet Under." Set in the early '70s, Frank (an excellent Paul Bettany) is a gay man forced to keep his sexual orientation a secret from his family. Frank is smart enough to flee his South Carolina town (to NYC, of course), but when a tragedy strikes he and his beloved niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis), must return, and Frank is forced to confront past demons. Joining them on the literal road trip is Frank's loyal sig other, Wally (Peter Macdissi), who is basically shoved into the shadows. The film boasts a solid ensemble, including Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, a scene-stealing Colton Ryan, and "August" alum Margo Martindale, who brings gravitas to any project she's attached to, and who is especially powerful here as Frank's tough-ass mother.

Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation

Docu-director extraordinaire Lisa Immordino Vreeland has done it again. After crafting fascinating portraits of iconic figures such as Peggy Guggenheim, Cecil Beaton, and Diana Vreeland, she has structured a truly captivating and cleverly contrasting examination of two of the most significant writers of the last century. "Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation" teases a sit down with these titanic scribes. What we get is a cavalcade of intimate photos, film clips, TV moments, and, most especially, the writings of both Capote and Williams as interpreted by Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto, respectively. As much as they had in common is as much as they differed, and this doc places their words and worlds center stage, leaving the viewer wanting to run out and devour all the creative output they can find from these two enigmatic authors.

Nora Highland

At the center and heart of this virtually-shot adaptation of the play "Nora Highland" is lengthy scene between two central characters, Linda (Marin Ireland), a struggling stage director, and Mark (Michael Hsu Rosen), a semi-successful, out actor. The scene is absolutely electrifying. Both actors are fantastic. And the arguments the play... oops, I mean film, makes are perfectly presented. The bookended scenes are clunky and not up to the same standard. The work cleverly explores the casting of gay characters in gay plays. It's fairly simple for theatre insiders to figure out who the iconic figure of Nora Highland is based on. Writer-director Ryan Spahn has a great ear for dialogue, and a gift for exploring important themes and making it entertaining. I highly recommend the film for the middle section.

Sublet

Eytan Fox's potent film "Sublet" examines a few days in the life of a Michael (John Benjamin Hickey), a New York Times writer who travels to Tel Aviv to write a piece on the city's hot spots. Michael sublets an apartment from Tomer (Niv Nissim), a young, somewhat arrogant film student, and finds himself fascinated with both the young man and the locale. Along the way, a poignant bond is created that helps both characters move forward with their lives. Fox insightfully examines intergenerational themes in this moving work. And Hickey delivers a rich and nuanced performance in a rare leading role (he's ubiquitous in supporting parts across mediums). Fox continues to add to his eclectic oeuvre.

Dating Amber

Eddie (Fionn O'Shea) and Amber (Lola Petticrew) are both gay and living in a small Irish town in 1995, so they decide to be one another's beard to make life a bit more bearable. This is the setup of David Freyne's surprisingly funny comedy "Dating Amber." Eddie is more than a bit of an asshole. Sure, he's super fucking repressed and really messed up, but the way he mistreats people is almost unforgivable. And that's actually one of the joys here: That we've gotten to a place in queer-themed films where gay protagonists can be deeply flawed. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Eddie's entire world is suffocating and horrifically bigoted and homophobic. "Dating Amber" is fittingly bittersweet.

Minyan

Eric Steel's mesmerizing film "Minyan," set in 1986, centers on a teen boy coming to terms with his attraction to men amidst the backdrop of the Russian Jewish world of Brighton Beach. Repression, homophobia, assimilation, deception, AIDS-fear, and survival are just some of the lofty themes tackled. Samuel H. Levine (Broadway's "The Inheritance") plays the lead, and shows true cinematic promise. There's great heft to this story, but the ending lacks a proper punch. Still, "Minyan" is a worthwhile sit. In English, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish with English subtitles.

Tahara

An original and incisive coming of age dramedy, "Tahara" is about two BFFs Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece) and Hannah (Rachel Sennott, perfectly superficial) on a particularly mournful day after one of their Hebrew schoolmates commits suicide. The unusual indie starts off like a train wreck (where you just can't not watch) and becomes a rather poignant and pointed meditation on teen friendships and the responsibilities involved in simply being a decent person. Paramount to the success of Olivia Peace's film is Carrie's awakening, not just to her own sexuality, but to all the fakery around her. Kudos to screenwriter Jess Zeidman for writing such rich characters, and to the ensemble for keeping them authentic.

Cured

It's been less than 50 years since the American Psychiatric Association decided to finally remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Bennett Singer and Patrick Sammon's engaging documentary, "Cured," chronicles this vital movement towards LGBT equality when a small group of true queer heroes challenged the patriarchy and proved victorious. And in a nod to irony, one of the most homophobic opponent turned out to have a gay son. This is an important film about queer history.

Killing Patient Zero

A truly captivating and thought-provoking doc that sets out to alter the wrong committed by history when it came to "reporting" on the man known as patient zero, Gaetan Dugas, the French-Canadian flight attendant blamed for the spread of AIDS. The real story is much more complicated, and director Laurie Lynd does her homework with help from the book "Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic," by Richard McKay. Much of what is revealed is outrageous, but all of it is believable. Yes, Dugas may have been cavalier in his behavior, but he was also a scapegoat.

Shiva Baby

Emma Seligman's sly "Shiva Baby," set almost entirely at a shiva (the seven-day mourning period in the Jewish faith taking place at the home of the deceased) manages to be sweepingly cinematic and passive-aggressively familiar to anyone who's ever felt uncomfortable at a family gathering. Seligman's keen look at familial dynamics is both relatable and unique. Rachel Sennott and Molly Gordon are especially good as on-again/off-again lovers, and Polly Draper is fantastic as a Jewish mother who embodies and confounds the cliches.

Keith Haring: Street Art Boy

Ben Anthony's cool, insightful doc "Keith Haring: Street Art Boy" shines a light on the truly iconic NYC artist who died of AIDS in 1990, and whose work has had a staggering influence on artists all over the world. The story is told via images of his work and audio/video recordings. And we are given a fascinating glimpse into the art world of the '70s and '80s. If there is a flaw in the portrait, it is that Haring's personal life isn't given enough heft. I keep stating that in features about straight artists the significant others are always given their due, but when it comes to queer artists, even queer filmmakers still shy away from those who have influenced these important figures the most. It was nice to learn that Haring was celebrating life right up until the very end.

Forgotten Road (La nave del olvido)

Chilean director Nicol Ruiz Benavides provides Rosa Ramirez Ríos with a fantastic acting showcase in "Forgotten Roads," a loving portrait of an older woman coming to terms with who she is at age 70. Ríos plays Claudina, a recent widow forced to move to in with her daughter and grandson. There, she meets and falls for a female neighbor who awakens long-repressed feelings. Claudina isn't going to let anyone deter her from her new path, not even possible UFOs. My only beef with the film is that there is a whole new chapter of Claudina's life that could have been explored at the point where the 71-minute film ends, cheating us of seeing beatific Ríos thrive in her newly-won emancipation. In Spanish with English subtitles.

No Hard Feelings (Futur Drei)

Faraz Shariat's absorbing three-person character study "No Hard Feelings" examines notions of identity, sexual, ethnic, and geographic. Parvis (Benjamin Radjaipour) is a wildly out queer Iranian living in Germany. While performing community service at a refugee shelter, he encounters Amon (Eidin Jalali), a deeply closeted gay living with his older sister, Banafshe (Banafshe Hourmazdi), who is in danger of being deported. All three hit it off and struggle with their respective demons. Shariat's style is impressive. And Parvis embraces something rarely seen in gay films: He is a proud bottom. In German with English Subtitles.

Breaking Fast

Writer/director Mike Mosallam gives us a sweet and shmaltzy gay rom-com, set during Ramadan, in which broken hearted Muslim Mo (Haaz Sleiman) falls for handsome and seemingly perfect Kal (Michael Cassidy). On the surface, "Breaking Fast" appears to be just another affable comedy, but some ground is broken here since the central character is a gay Muslim, and Mosallam allows for differing notions of what Islam means to Mo and his BFF Sam (Amin El Gamal).

Dry Wind (Vento Seco)

Daniel Nolasco's strangely engrossing curio, "Dry Wind (Vento Seco)" features enigmatic characters and semi-hardcore sex. The plot to this low-fueled Genet meets Fassbinder film is pretty pointless, but centers on a horny middle-aged Brazilian mining company employee (Leandro Faria Lelo) who enjoys crotch-staring and raunchy sex in the woods — usually with his younger, ripped co-worker (Allan Jacinto Santana). That is, until an even hotter dude catches his eye (Rafael Theophilo, looking like he just burst off a Tom of Finland drawing). It all culminates in a fantastical ending that is sure to please many horny middle-aged bears. I do applaud the film for its unabashed and unashamed exploration of sex. In Portuguese with English subtitles.

Gossamer Folds

Director Lisa Donato and screenwriter Bridget Flanery explore the definition of a true family in the deeply affecting "Gossamer Folds." It's Kansas City in 1986, and forever-curious 10-year-old Tate (Jackson Robert Scott) and his parents (Sprague Grayden and Shane West) have moved to the suburbs and next door to a black trans woman, Gossamer (Alexandra Grey), and her father (Franklin Ojeda Smith). The married couple are locked in perpetual discord, so Tate spends most of his time next door. What follows is a poignant tale of friendship, family, love, and survival. Grey and Scott excel in their respective roles, but it is Smith who touches us most as a loving dad doing his best in an ever-changing world.

Monsoon

Henry Golding ("Crazy Rich Asians") is the best reason for watching Hong Khaou's evocative "Monsoon." He plays Kit, a man who returns to Vietnam for the first time after escaping decades earlier with his mother, while the war was still raging. His journey is deeply personal, and Golding delivers a lovely, understated turn, subtly exposing his conflicting feelings. The film explores Kit's relationship with three very different people during the course of the slight narrative, which relies more on minutiae than anything truly dramatic. Khaou is to be commended for the bracingly casual way Kit's sexual encounters are depicted, even if they're carefully filmed.

Cowboys

Anna Kerrigan's thoughtful and sometimes irksome feature, "Cowboys," examines childhood gender identity with great sensitivity and, in non-binary actor Sasha Knight's superb performance, allows the audience a peek into the conflicts faced by a transgender pre-teen. Steve Zahn is to be commended for his terrific portrayal of the 11-year-old's understanding and protective father. The film falters with some of its forced (and sometimes ridiculously extreme) plot twists, but is worth a look for Knight and Zahn's touching turns.

NewFest runs from October 16 - 27. For more information, visit the NewFest website.

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Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com

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