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23rd Annual Cucalorus Film Festival: Recap

Ladies and gentlemen, I am still alive! I know my website has been silent for a couple weeks now, but I've been working on a couple reviews for shows that are still embargoed, so I can't publish those reviews yet, and I just spent four and a half awesome days at Cucalorus Film Festival right here in Wilmington, NC! I know I promised you all an awards season preview article, and I will get around to that one, but now that Cucalorus is over, I wanted to write a quick recap article like the one I did for Fantastic Fest. I was blessed with the opportunity to attend with an all-access press badge, so I saw a lot of really good films and I wanted to share with you all my Top 10 Narrative Films from the festival, some honorable mentions, as well as four documentaries I watched that are all great for different reasons.

Top 10 Narrative Films from Cucalorus 23

10. TORREY PINES (4/5 - Really Good)

Torrey Pines is an autobiographical, stop-motion animated film directed and animated by Clyde Petersen, a transgendered man from the Seattle area. The film, through minimal dialogue, tells the story of a 12 or 13-year-old girl struggling with her sexual orientation and gender identity. She has dreams and fantasies of kissing women and being a man, and hasn't told anyone.

The film is gorgeously animated using paper, a multi-plane camera, and a couple of minor computer animations. The film is also backed by an awesome punk rock score composed by one of the band members of Death Cab for Cutie. It's only a bit over an hour, it's packed with 90's nostalgia, and tackles some important themes, so I highly recommend checking it out over at the film's website, TorreyPinesFilm.com.

9. PRINCESS CYD (4/5 - Really Good)

Princess Cyd is an LGBTQ+, coming-of-age drama that focuses more so on how 16-year-old Cyd and her aunt, Miranda, view sex and spirituality in their lives. The performances here from Rebecca Spence and Jessie Pinnick are so genuine and earnest, but the star of the film, for me, was Malic White, making her feature film debut. White plays Katie, the young woman Pinnick's Cyd falls for.

The story became uninteresting to me at times, but then the use of subtext to push the narrative drew me right back in. The stories being read throughout the film relate directly to what is occurring in the film; it's weird how much I liked this considering how much I am usually uninterested in literature studies. I'm also a huge fan of the cinematography in this film. There were times where the camera zoomed in slow enough that an entire conversation was had before cutting to another scene. There were several shots throughout the film where the camera, probably using a wide lens, stayed still to portray a larger scene instead of following the cast around. The camerawork was truly masterful.

8. MR. ROOSEVELT (4/5 - Really Good)

Mr. Roosevelt is quite possibly the most awkwardly hilarious film I have seen in a few years. I can't recall any other film that has ever made me chuckle uneasily as much as this film did. While Mr. Roosevelt is awkward and uneasy, which is what it's aiming for, it's also a roller coaster ride of emotions and I'm surprised this is billed solely as a comedy; it definitely has some dramatic and romantic feels too. Mr. Roosevelt is lighthearted, but emotional, charming, but awkward, and adorable, but cringeworthy (in a good way).

I could use all of those same adjectives to describe the performance of Noël Wells as she absolutely carries this film while being mostly surrounded by shallow supporting characters. I was hoping for a deeper look into our main character's past with her ex-boyfriend and her newfound "relationship" with her ex's new girlfriend. This film did it's job successfully, but I think it could've gone a bit further than that. Once you find out what the tragedy is in this film, your outlook on the film will completely change. The synopsis isn't wrong, but it doesn't tell the whole story of course. Noël Wells is so beautiful and adorable and I wish I could be her friend. Also, I love Doug benson!

7. THE ENDLESS (4/5 - Really Good)

The Endless is actually a film I caught at Fantastic Fest, but it played at Cucalorus as well, so here it is on my list! The Endless has a brilliant concept that nearly meets its maximum potential for me. It is extremely confusing if you don't pay 100% of your attention to the screen, but still an enjoyable film nonetheless. It really is a mind-bending, psychological thriller with some elements of sci-fi sprinkled on top. My friends Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead do an incredible job as directors, writers, lead actors, and more. They pretty much handled every aspect of the film and handled it well!

More could be said about The Endless, but this is one film that it's best to know very little about when you go into the theater, so I shall say no more.

6. THE LIGHT OF THE MOON (4.5/5 - Great)

This festival really likes showing extremely heavy films that are brilliant, yet hard to watch. The Light of the Moon is the story of Bonnie, played by Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), as she is violently raped and chronicles the following weeks after the attack. This film has everything you could ask for from a film about such a challenging subject matter.

Stephanie Beatriz is absolutely spectacular in this film and, though the supporting cast is good, they pale in comparison to Beatriz. I don’t want to say anything more about this film because it needs to be seen by everyone.

5. SUN DOGS (4.5/5 - Great)

God bless Jennifer Morrison for giving us one of the best directorial debuts in recent years with her new film Sun Dogs! 2017 has been a great year for directorial debuts. Ned Chipley is a young man with a head-trauma-induced condition who wants so badly to join the Marines, but can't because of his condition. Set in 2004, Chipley has tried to enlist on 9/11 of every year since the 2001 terrorist attacks in NYC. This time around, when he tries to enlist, the officer working at the recruitment center tricks Ned into thinking he's fighting an undercover, anti-terrorism, special operative battle in his hometown in the San Diego area.

Allison Janney plays his mother, Ed O'Neill plays his mother's significant other, Melissa Benoist plays a sex worker whom befriends Ned, and Xzibit plays the officer at the recruitment center. It is an emotional roller coaster backed by stellar performances from the entire cast, but it really is a feel-good dramedy in the end as Ned realizes he simply wants to save lives. There are many hilarious moments throughout the film, but they're hard to explain because this film's plot is a bit wild; it needs to be seen to be believed. I highly recommend Sun Dogs to anyone who likes war films, dramedies, and hilariously wild stories.

4. TRAGEDY GIRLS (4.5/5 - Great)

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my most anticipated film of Cucalorus Film Festival! A combination of Heathers, Mean Girls, and Scream, Tragedy Girls is an absolute bloodbath and is one of the most fascinatingly violent and brutal films I’ve ever seen.

Honestly, there is nothing I can say here to even begin to describe what happens in this film. It’s not just a good satire of slasher films, but it’s also a great slasher film itself and has to be one of the best horror films of recent years. The leads are great and the various supporting performances and cameos were all super fun as well.

I’m 100% there for the way Josh Hutcherson’s character was filmed as he was talking. I absolutely cannot wait to own this film on Blu-ray someday!

3. QUEST (4.5/5 - Great)

What a truly beautiful and brilliant film this is. Quest is a film set in a middle school that is about an unusual relationship between a teacher and student. This one, however, isn’t a romantic or sexual relationship. This is about pushing boundaries and going beyond the limits to save someone you love, even if it means making major sacrifices. Directed by Santiago Rizzo, Quest is a biopic about Rizzo in his middle school years portrayed through a student named Mills. It’s a true story and the emotion and heart behind the film was constantly bleeding all over the screen.

LaKeith Stanfield is extremely underused in this film, but that’s my only gripe. He’s as brilliant as ever, but his character doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. Stanfield can do no wrong now. I mean, even in Death Note he still gave a really good performance. This film is quite a tear-jerker and I was constantly wiping my eyes on the sleeve of my hoodie. It was a truly breathtaking film and is so close to perfection. Who knew a film about a 12 year old graffiti artist would be so impactful, emotional, and powerful?!

2. MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI (4.5/5 - Great)

I actually first watched this back in June when it came out on Blu-ray and that's when I learned that this gem earned it's Best Animated Feature nomination at this past year's Academy Awards. My Life as a Zucchini is one of the most beautiful and emotional films I've ever seen, especially in the genre of animation. Even though it was Cucalorus' choice for their Kids-a-lorus feature, this is not meant only for kids like 99% of today's animated movies. It is rated PG-13 for a reason. It tackles very real and very heavy material about what orphaned children go through and what caused them to become orphaned.

I saw the English-dubbed version of this film and it was wonderfully casted. Nick Offerman voices the police officer and is the emotional glue of the film. If you can find this movie (which you can because it's now available on Netflix!), watch it, but be prepared to be thrown into an emotional beatdown.

1. BODIED (5/5 - Masterpiece)

Bodied is a masterpiece and was my favorite film at both Fantastic Fest and Cucalorus! I really can’t say anything bad about Bodied other than it eventually had to end and I hated that. It’s about Adam's (Calum Worthy) exploration into the battle rap community as a white man and is part of his Master’s thesis. That's all I'm going to say plot-wise because this film is WIIIIIIILD.

I’m so glad this was the secret screening at Cucalorus. I’ve now seen Bodied three times and it keeps getting better and better! The crowd at Cucalorus had never heard of this film before and had no idea what they were about to experience. The only thing better than watching this for the first time is watching it in a crowd of people who are watching it for the first time. I love the way people react to this film, both during and after. I wish a distributor would finally pick up this film and distribute it as is. I need this to get an unedited theatrical run because it's such an important film and needs to be seen as the director, Joseph Kahn, wants it to be seen. It's profane, offensive to all kinds of people, high-adrenaline, insanely entertaining, and the best film representation of America's culture in 2017.

If you manage to find a special screening of this film, or if it plays at a festival near you, please do yourself a favor and grab a ticket for what I know will be my favorite film of whatever year it finally gets released.

Honorable Mentions (I gave all a 3.5/5 - Pretty Good): BLAME, DAYVEON, A BAD IDEA GONE WRONG, INFINITY BABY, & SIGNATURE MOVE

Top 4 Documentary Feature Films from Cucalorus 23

4. WORKING IN PROTEST (4/5 - Really Good)

What a powerful and important documentary! Documentaries are hard to review, so I simply just discuss how much they impacted me. This one is not a documentary that focuses on a specific event or time, rather it focuses on protests. It focuses on protests of various kinds from the past 30 years and it’s extremely powerful to watch. Find it in the future if you can!

3. PURPLE DREAMS (4/5 - Really Good)

God bless the arts! Purple Dreams is a documentary film centered on the musical theatre department at Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte, NC and their production of the musical, The Color Purple. What it's really about, though, is proving the power that arts education can have on the youth of America. Arts education can be highly influential and change lives. Many of the students in this film could be anywhere else getting into trouble and making bad decisions.

Some of the students are fatherless. Some of the students have been held back a few years and could have dropped out. Some of the students may be involved with drugs, gangs, or other criminal activity. However, they're in the theatre singing, dancing, and having a great time putting on a magnificent high school production of The Color Purple that was recognized at the Tony Awards! Now, instead of falling into the stereotypes of America's black youth, these students are attending some major universities studying the arts. The arts are powerful, influential, and should never be stripped from schools.

2. THE ROAD MOVIE (4/5 - Really Good)

Riddle me this: how does one review what is essentially a 60+ minute YouTube compilation of crazy and stupid stuff people see when driving in Russia? That’s exactly what this film is and it’s incredible! The Road Movie is hilarious, exhilarating, thrilling, scary, and intense. Some of the dash cam clips felt a bit long or uninteresting to me, but there’s still so much to love here!

This film is best seen with a crowd because it begs for audience reactions. It is impossible not to react as you watch the various dash cam clips. If you ever get the chance to grab a few friends, some drinks, and watch this movie, please do so! It’s an absolute blast!

1. THE WORK (5/5 - Masterpiece)

The Work is a feature documentary about an intensive group therapy program that takes place in Folsom State Prison. Men come from outside of the prison to participate in this program with several convicts from Folsom. This film tackles several real issues including views on masculinity and femininity, suicide, grieving, self-discovery, and more.

Men, it is ok to cry. Crying doesn't make you a wimp or a wuss; showing emotions doesn't make you any less of a man. We're all people and we all feel emotions. One convict lashed out in The Work because he was called gentle. One of the men from outside of the prison broke down in tears because he felt he wasn't "man enough" in his father's eyes. Another outsider, whom admitted he judges people all the time, did not want to cry because he thought people would judge him, so he lashed out in anger instead.

The Work is so real and so important. Not only does this film prove it's ok to be a man and feel emotions, it also proves that convicts are real people with real issues, just like all of us, and that they can actually be changed into good people. This has now stripped Hoop Dreams of the title of my favorite documentary film of all time. What a very, very real masterpiece. I can't recommend this to the faint of heart, but I urge everyone to seek out this film, watch it, and do the work.

*None of the images in this article belong to me.

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