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At the awards ceremony for Key West Film Festival, founder Brooke Christian cited La La Land in the way it’s all about dreamers and individuals looking to work and work and work at what they love most. It’s about how every failure and win matters in the long haul of getting where you want to be. This little speech was applied to pretty much everyone in the room—filmmakers, critics, staff, and volunteers alike—and it’s certainly something that felt genuine for a festival making a wonderful splash in its fifth year.

With that, here’s a post all about my first experience with the place where “passion meets paradise”—a tagline that makes all the sense in the world.

The Stay

The awards ceremony took place on the penultimate night of the festival, so let’s rewind back to day two of the festival, and my personal day one.

With a three-hour drive behind me–featuring an excessive amount of 80s new wave–I arrived at the Real World Key West house where I’d be staying part of my visit, an especially surreal experience considering the amount of Real World episodes I’ve seen in my life. Let it be known that I would willingly exist in this home for months with cameras filming my every waking moment if I could. I was staying with a bunch of folks, a cool group of filmmakers and staff members who I stopped being polite with and started getting real. Actually, we were all very nice to each other, particularly on an abrupt check-out on Saturday morning when we had to switch over to a new hotel. My new residence was the Gardens Hotel, right next to Duval–where we’d be spending most of our hours–and was the breeziest hotel check-in I’ve ever had. It was an especially helpful location to both leave my car at and arrive to after those late nights at The Porch and other spots that were soon to come.


The Parties

I drank. And I drank. And I drank. No, really. The parties in Miami, for many a festival, tend to be an inconvenience to get to between distance and pricing and what not. This isn’t to say that they’re bad parties, or all tough to arrive at, but some even tend to exclude press. At Key West, I woke up in my bedroom and walked straight out and into a party that was just getting started in the home I was staying in (and was never denied entry elsewhere and additionally waltzed into many a bar to hang out with other individuals visiting the city).

A great DJ (who was shocked when we all yelled for her to mix in A Tribe Called Quest’s new album after she expected none of us to listen to them), great bartender (mixing mimosas that were 90% alcohol, 10% OJ), and a great atmosphere (adults and kids running around a massive house and enjoying each other’s company) made for a particularly relaxing morning, regardless of not having slept much, and the hot tubs were a nice touch too.

Later that day: another party at Mangoes with the same DJ on hand, shifting from the Latin music I’d expect at a Miami party to rap, techno, new wave, jazz, you name it. There was dancing—including some hot moves courtesy of Strike a Pose’s Salim Gauwloos and Jose Xtravaganza, who later accepted the award for Best LGBTQ Film at the festival—and some drinking, and even some people trying out a VR experience for the first time right next to the bar and finding themselves floored at its creativity. One woman in particular, gripping her purse tightly at first for feared of being robbed while the goggles were on, let loose about halfway through the experience and then praised it to high heavens to everyone around her.

Slipping away from that party was easy and I hit up the Bourbon St. Pub with some of the other queer folks attending for a particularly memorable evening, a place that was as gay as you can imagine: go-go dancers, naked men by the pool, a couple having passive-aggressive oral sex next to us while we’re trying to have conversations, the whole he-bang.

And, after very little sleep and another day of movies came the final after party post-Manchester by the Sea; something appropriately upbeat after a hell of an affecting drama. Great food was had by all and, more importantly, awards were discussed and decided mere minutes before the ceremony that would close the festival.

The Awards

Saturday night closed with a packed house at the Casa Manna Resort in Key West, with a number of awards handed out by programmers, critics, and filmmakers alike. The First Annual Critics Prize was awarded to Contemporary Color, by Bill Ross and Turner Ross, accompanied by an intro from Indiewire’s chief film critic Eric Kohn. The pick was made by Kohn; David Fear, senior film/TV editor of Rolling Stone; Amy Nicholson, chief film critic for MTV; Steve Dollar, film critic, journalist and freelance contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Bright Ideas magazine, Filmmaker, and other publications; Hans Morgenstern, film critic for Miami New-Times and Independent Ethos; Eugene Hernandez, deputy director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and co-publisher of Film Comment; Brian Brooks, co-producer of special events of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, journalist at, and co-producer of SeriesFest; and myself. We’re a very cool bunch, as you can see.

Editor’s Note: I poorly photoshopped Amy Nicholson into the picture in her absence from the awards ceremony due to sickness.

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Film, and Reuben Atlas and Jerry Rothwell’s Sour Grapes won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. The Audience Award for Best Foreign Film went to Yared Zeleke for Lamb, and the Audience Award for Best Florida Short Film went to Christopher Rapalo for Retro Couture. Best LGBTQ Film went to Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s Strike a Pose, the Golden Conch for Best Key West Film went to Jon Rhoads and Michael Marrero for Buzzcut, and the Brett Ratner Florida Film Student Showcase awarded Isaac Mead-Long’s Ballet Bus and Ruth Reitan’s The Interlude.

Two Golden Keys were also handed out, one for Excellence in Costume Design to Mary Zophres, whose long career with the Coen brothers and others was highlighted throughout the festival, and the other for Career Achievement to Burt Reynolds, who attended the festival for a screening of Jesse Moss’ The Bandit.

And what are awards without the things that we’re handing them out to:

The Films

While I didn’t make it to the festival itself for opening night on Wednesday, I was lucky enough to catch a press screening of 20th Century Women while up in Miami. It’s a sometimes effective and sometimes underwritten period piece that’s pretty inventive regardless. I’ll be holding a full review until later, but there’s something wonderfully personal and effective about the way Mike Mills presents simple moments between two human beings, making it a delightful opening pick.

Contemporary Color was the first film I saw at Key West Film Festival, and the film that, surprisingly enough, ended up being our winner. It’s a film that, as I mention in my review, “is engrossing enough to keep your eyes on the screen at all times, even if it sometimes loses sight of what David Byrne wanted to showcase and highlight more than anything with his show: the colorful, wild, fascinating, fluid, emotional, and riveting art of color guard.”


Following that, I introduced Justin Kelly’s gay porn true-crime drama King Cobra alongside Brian Brooks to an audience that was, well, not in the mood for our joking around. “Who here has heard of Brent Corrigan?” Brooks asked, and everyone stayed dead silent except for one proud man way in the back who we promptly thanked for having some semblance of enthusiasm. We talked a little about the movie and then I closed, frustratedly, with “it’s shot a lot like a porn film, which as much as none of you want to admit it, I’m sure you’ll recognize the aesthetic. Have a great night.” At least we got a round of applause before the folks ended up checking out the film that Kyle Turner said “might be a testament that you can’t have an ass and eat it too.”

• • •

From there, I hit up Logan Sandler’s debut feature, Live Cargo, a film I was primarily interested in due to Dree Hemingway’s casting, having been fond of her work in Sean Baker’s Starlet. What begins as a film that introduces several narrative strings soon devolves into a film that can’t figure out which one it wants to explore. There’s a couple struggling after the death of their newborn child, a human trafficker trying to take over the Bahamian island on which they live and work, an aging patriarch trying to maintain order on the island, and a young man torn between these two factions of men. Sandler can’t quite manage to focus on any of them as long as he should; regardless of which half of the film you’re interested in, you’ll be sorely let down by the fact that it is continuously cut away from until a climax that messily brings them together.

There’s something utterly compelling about Dree Hemingway’s Nadine though, and the way the camera captures how she can’t quite handle being touched by her partner, Lewis (Keith Stanfield), is excellent. The two make for the most compelling aspect of the film, her recoil and his cold glare after an attempt at intimacy proving to be the sole factor we have to be invested in this film. Sam Dillon, whose character Myron feels like he was ripped out of a bad Harmony Korine film, gets the short end of the stick; a frustrating, and often laughable, series of scenes that try to establish a certain inability to connect with others keep his narrative as the weakest strand. Robert Wisdom and Leonard Earl Howze excel in their limited roles, as well, but are ultimately let down by the aforementioned issues in scripting.

When Live Cargo lets its scenery do the work for it, it begins even more frustrating. Daniella Nowitz is the most valuable player, with moments between people being as intimately composed as the bits focused on the environment that surrounds them. An underwater sequence that features the characters diving is especially gorgeous, but it’s simply a nice aside in a messy movie.

• • •

The next day brought the Real World house party and an exciting panel full of critics that I was thrilled to attend. Of the aforementioned critics who were part of the award choice, Brooks was our moderator and Nicholson, Fear, Kohn, Dollar, and I shared the table outside at The Porch to discuss film with the audience. We talked about our favorite films of the year, the availability of modern films and the way on demand is helping things, and more. A video of the panel will be coming soon.

La La Land came after, my admitted second viewing of a feature I’ve fallen head over heels for. I won’t expand until later this year, but suffice to say it’s a delightful musical that feels as though someone tossed Jacques Demy, Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli, Baz Luhrmann, and a whole lot of jazz into a blender. This screening, though, was accompanied by costume designer Mary Zophres in conversation with her colleague Deborah Landis. The entire conversation was riveting and a video of it will be coming soon.


• • •

My Saturday was a series of inconveniences that led me to miss a lot of the morning and early afternoon stuff, so I spent the day drinking and eating with my fellow critics. The night brought just one film: Manchester by the Sea. As someone who loved You Can Count on Me and didn’t care for the long-gestating Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature was something I wasn’t too enthusiastic about. By the time the film ended and a conversation between Fear and Nicholson began, I found myself willing to give Margaret another go, solely due to how damn good Manchester turned out to be. With a script that uses the word “fuck” more casually than I do in daily conversation and an ensemble that nails every beat – Casey Affleck looks more comfortable in a role than ever before and Michelle Williams delivering two scenes that could arguably steal the whole film – Lonergan delivered something engrossing from a narrative that could have been a total bore in lesser hands.

• • •

After a mishap with a screening of Lovesong on my last day—Hans Morgenstern and I ended up in the wrong screening room—we took a trip down to the VR lounge to check out all the works. Earlier in the week, I’d seen Maggie Levin’s Vain: This Party Sucks thanks to the editor/producer, Braedan Herrera, with whom I stayed for a portion of my trip.The 360-degree video short throws you headfirst into a warehouse rave, pumping with gorgeous lighting and an intense soundtrack that surround you entirely. It’s bloody, it’s great to look at, and it’s just plain fun.

And then there was Notes on Blindness.

I didn’t quite expect Notes on Blindness to effect me the way it did, though everyone I’d heard who went into the VR lounge and saw it had left praising it. By the moment it was coming to a close after just under half an hour, I had let out some tears in the VR headset and was laughing at how silly I probably seemed, spinning around in a chair and experiencing the world presented to me. Why? Because it was a pitch black realm, only illuminated by white and blue dots and lines that shaped the things that populated the world.

Based on the audio diaries of John Hull, an academic and writer who became totally blind in 1983, the VR experience engulfs you in a world where everything is essentially built up by sound. In one chapter, objects only pop up as Hull narrates the sounds around him. Others involve utilizing wind or rain in order to discover what shapes exist by us. In an unsettling chapter, we face the reality of what it’s like to be blind in the face of not knowing what surrounds you, and in a particularly beautiful one, we “see” a chapel around us come to life through sound waves of a singing choir, music echoing off high ceilings.

There are, of course, limitations to the experience, particularly that of being seated and, in one instance, being guided along by a bird almost like a video game. At its best, and in an impacting epilogue, Notes on Blindness recalls another work of art that also features a studied individual going blind: Derek Jarman’s Blue. Both works of entirely different circumstance and scale, I found myself taken aback by the ways these two individuals shared similar ideas at times and, ultimately, wanted to share their tragic (though, in a weird way, all too beautiful) experiences with a world that might not have any real interest in them.


• • •

I barely managed to check out any short films while at the festival, but there were three I felt compelled to write about here: Buzzcut, Cockwater, and Retro Couture.

When her girlfriend Jane tries to score some morning sex, Melanie tells her bluntly: “I’m tired of fucking Eraserhead. No haircut, no sex.” This is the perfect kick off for a film as brash and goofy as Buzzcut, Mike Marrero and Jon Rhoads’ short film about a woman who heads out to get a buzzcut and ends up dealing with apocalyptic matters of a special kind while trying to fix the haircut her barber botched. Rather than focus on the blood and the gore that punctuates a lot of apocalyptic movies, Marrero and Rhoads cut to scenes of violence – blood gushing and dripping everywhere – between individual scenes of his intense queer protagonist Jane hitting up every barbershop possible in order to fix her hair and get laid before she dies. It’s a hotly edited movie, full of short bursts of the kind of stuff you’d expect someone like Alexandre Aja to make if he was working on a budget (not that it takes away from some great cinematography) and was at peak self-awareness. It’s no wonder it won the Golden Conch for Best Key West Film.

Cockwater, another film the duo had at Key West Film Festival, is more restrained in presentation, but no less interesting. The two work as fascinating companion pieces: bloody, amusing, and, well, a little fucked up. “Here’s the thing about butchering a wild animal: they don’t want to die. And men, they’re just like hogs,” Elena Devers’ character Frances says into the camera in a long take for the ages. Almost as if to directly work against their other short, Marrero and Rhoads let Devers, looking far cooler and less frazzled than a woman covered in blood should, take the reigns of this work of art. It’s all about the monologue and the performance here, with only a few quick establishing shots of the room at the start and one cutaway at the end, so much so that it becomes the kind of performative scene of death, spite, and humor that recalls the popular musical Chicago. More specifically, it brings to mind the “Cell Block Tango” number, sans music. You can practically feel yourself waiting for her to say something like, “He ran into my knife ten times,” and Cockwater delivers by the time this anon-group meeting comes to a close.

In a complete detour from the content of both of these shorts, there was Christopher Rapalo’s Retro Couture, which had formerly played at the Miami Fashion Film Festival, and now won the Best Florida Short here at KWFF. What Rapalo does with his short documentary is hone in on the way Miami is becoming a fashion spot that continues to evolve and the individuals that reside within it, shifting between interviews, archival footage, and shots of studios, shops, and the city itself, among other things. Featuring Keni Valenti, Allison Sagehorn, Simonett Pereira, Lauren Arkin, and Madeleine Kirsh, each interview offers a brief glimpse into how each local has approached the fashion scene in Miami, what their contributions have been, and how they expect it to change. They each approach the fashion world through a different scope, though each with a fondness for vintage clothing that I’m sure most viewers would share. If there’s a stand-out, and a woman who could easily inspire another short for Rapalo to tackle, it’s Kirsh, whose colorful store C. Madeleine’s matches her personality in a way that’s almost too big for the screen, but wonderfully captured by the filmmaker.

• • •

To say I ended the festival on a great note, with the copies of Carrie Fisher’s Delusions of Grandma and Paul Verhoeven: Beyond Flesh and Blood I bought at Key West Island Books in hand, is an understatement. I can’t begin to imagine what next year will hold.