CFF 2021: Top 10 Must-See Features From This Year’s Festival
On June 24-29 I had the luxury of virtually attending the 2021 Chattanooga Film Festival (which seems to have basically set the standard for virtual festivals last year, from what I’ve been told) for the first time ever and had an absolute blast! It was easy to feel the overwhelming amount of excitement from all the active users in the Discord server, with such a clear passion for film exuding from everyone who took part in the conversations.
There were watch parties, live streams, Q&A sessions, an awards ceremony, and we even got to see “Discord Mayor” David Lawson Jr. pie himself in the face after the fest hit a special milestone! Needless to say everyone involved had a great time, made a ton of new friends, and discovered a slew of amazing films curated by the festival along the way. I enjoyed almost everything I watched to some degree, but these are the ten that I feel you just can’t miss if you’re a fan of independent genre cinema.
10. Events Transpiring Before, During, and After a High School Basketball Game
Ted Stenson’s feature debut is a mumblecore drama set in and around a high school basketball game, yet much to my delight doesn’t feature a single frame of basketball being played on screen. This is a full-on character study, one in which you’ll almost certainly find someone resembling a younger version of yourself in one way or another.
It manages to successfully avoid all the annoying high school movie tropes while capitalizing on the good ones in smart and endearing ways, leading to an extremely likable film especially given it’s very short 76 minute runtime. You can check out my full review here.
French directing duo Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (Leatherface (2017) and the upcoming underwater horror film The Deep House) conjure up some gory scares in this demonic creature feature that follows a trio of punk teens, one of whom is assaulted by her drunk ex-boyfriend late one night and invokes the spirit of a horrifying (seriously, Google a picture) creature known as “Kandisha” to seek revenge on him. Though what she didn’t realize was that this demon comes with a complicated rule book, and it’s not planning on leaving her world anytime soon.
You can check out my full review here but needless to say things get very violent very quickly, though there’s enough characterization beforehand and throughout to ensure you care about those in harm’s way. The practical effects and creature design really shine, making this an all around spooky watch that’s manifested itself on Shudder and AMC+ now!
8. Night Drive
Meghan Leone and Brad Baruh pack some real life drama, plenty of laughs, loads of tension, and even some light action into their comedic rideshare thriller, managing to fit it all within a tight 82 minute runtime. A rideshare driver named Russell (convincingly brought to life by the always charming AJ Bowen) picks up a mysterious young woman named Charlotte (played excellently by rising talent Sophie Dalah) late one night, who over the course of a few hours will inadvertently change the course of his life as well as her own.
The chemistry between the leads is superb and really empowers the smartly written, twist-filled script making for a highly entertaining watch. It’s impressive what they were able to put together with a very minimal budget; you can check out my full review here for more info and watch Night Drive on VOD now!
7. Mister Limbo
Robert G. Putka has crafted a highly unique and surreal character study, taking place in a bizarre desert wasteland full of quirky individuals. Juxtaposing this mysteriously vast, barren setting with an offbeat set of characters and mumblecore tone works extremely well, giving the film’s messages adequate time to sit with the viewer while being dissected.
There’s so much depth to the main characters, making them feel like realistically flawed and relatable individuals as they navigate this odd locale they’ve awoken in on a quest for answers. If this already sounds interesting then the less you know the better, but if you insist on knowing more I also wrote a full review!
6. An Ideal Host
I kicked off my festival experience with this completely absurd, hilarious and beautifully edited feature debut from Robert Woods; it’s a horror/comedy dinner party with a sci-fi twist, and one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had watching a movie in recent memory. It opens with some short, funny dialogue from two of the main characters before launching into a musical opening sequence as our “ideal host” prepares her home for the gathering. It’s around the third or fourth time this sequence replays with a different song/decor set to represent her indecisiveness that you know you’re about to be treated to a clever little film.
Once the guests begin to arrive the tension steadily rises, and the stakes continue to rise at a rapid pace until right up until the bloody, action-packed conclusion. I go into a little bit more detail in my review, but the twists are part of the fun with this one so I recommend going in as blindly as possible.
For release info follow the film’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/anidealhost!
5. The Lodger (Messe Basse)
When we think of love stories, ghosts don’t often come to mind. Thankfully they did for writer Ollivier Briand and director Baptiste Drapeau, who’ve crafted a hauntingly beautiful narrative about a young French student named Julie who finds herself becoming involved in quite a peculiar love triangle with the elderly couple she’s renting a room from, one of whom is deceased.
Victor, the late husband of eccentric widow Elizabeth, isn’t even actually there but his widowed wife acts as if he never died and expects Julie to do the same. The performances and the atmosphere really shine here, which I detail further in the full review, making what should be a fairly hard to sell main plot point seem effortlessly believable. This is a thrilling love story like you’ve never quite seen before, and it’ll be available later this year (rumored August release date) via VOD.
4. The Old Ways
Christopher Alender said “I see the Conjuring-verse and I raise you actual folklore while dropping the Christianity angle” and delivers on this premise in essentially every capacity! The tension is well paced, punctuated with grossly great practical vomit and gore effects that are accompanied by some impressively directed VFX sequences rivaling some of the biggest studios in Hollywood horror in terms of quality.
The narrative here is actually good too, which I shed some light details on in my review; long story short if you have any interest whatsoever in possession films you absolutely owe it to yourself to see this movie, which is available on Netflix now!
3. Blood Conscious
Timothy Covell delivers without a doubt the most paranoia-inducing film on the list, and one that will rightfully be mentioned among some of the genre greats when being recollected years from now if it’s able to find its audience.
A family shows up for a small reunion at the lake house they used to frequent growing up, only to be greeted by a mass shooting that they realize isn’t quite over yet upon quickly having a shotgun shoved in their faces and being asked if they’re demons. I explore the thematics further in my review but this is a film that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat from nearly the time it begins. You can catch this harrowing, paranoia-ridden thriller on VOD now!
2. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
A cautionary tale that’s more relatable than you’ll expect going in, and that will rattle you to the core by the time it’s crept towards the gut-wrenching finale. You’ll grow so attached to people who were total strangers when you started the film that you won’t want the connection to end, and this feeling is highly intentional.
In my review I mention an online ARG called “The World’s Fair” that a lonely teen girl named Casey decides to take part in, marking the beginning of a bizarre series of events driven entirely by online conversations and “YouTube” videos. This is easily among the best screen life films ever made, though it took me two viewings to fully realize this. I think you’ll feel quite similar when it releases in theaters and on HBO Max early next year!
Peter Collins Campbell takes the viewer on a surrealist, mumblecore adventure back to their childhood via the lens of a hip but melancholic young woman named Brynn, who’s returning to her family’s cabin in the woods for a mental retreat accompanied by her boyfriend, Laika.
Shortly after their arrival they’re greeted by a mysterious stranger from Brynn’s past, who she can’t shake the feeling she knows but doesn’t explicitly remember. In my review I talk about how bizarre things really get, as it’s not long before the couple’s trip as well as their lives are turned upside down.
It’s also worth noting that “DimLand” was voted Best Audience Feature at the 2021 Chattanooga Film Festival, rightfully so as it’s a massive achievement accomplished on a shoestring budget. You can watch this darkly magical fairytale on VOD now!
There were such a wide range of amazing features from a massive roster of truly talented filmmakers, so it was really hard to narrow it down to just ten. Luckily, there’s full reviews available in the articles section of the site for every film I saw at CFF this year, so be sure to check that out if you’re hungry for more recommendations. I already can’t wait for next year’s festival, as this was truly a first time CFF experience for the books! For festival information or to bookmark for ease of securing a badge next year, visit https://www.chattfilmfest.org; you can view the majority of the Q&A sessions on CFF 2021’s YouTube, as well as bonus video content like the award ceremony.