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Here are the best movies of the 2023 Phoenix Film Festival

The 23rd annual Phoenix Film Festival featured outstanding movies. Here are some of our favorites.

Our Father, the Devil

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Set in France, this film focuses on African immigrant Marie, whose dark past comes back to haunt her after a seemingly innocent Catholic priest shows up at her work. Played by Babetido Sadjo, Marie tries to make sense of the past, and takes matters into her own hands when she kidnaps the cleric (Souleymane Sy Savane). In the process, Marie learns about herself and her grieving, while the forces that ruined her past come back to torment her quiet life.

This film was cinematography gold. Between the long, silent scenes and the unsettling conversations is a feature that beautifully captures the struggle of coming to terms with the past. Sadjo plays a delicate, weary character who exquisitely contrasts with Savane’s masculine role. The soundtrack of this film was audibly captivating, while the storyline held the audience deep in the drama the whole way through.

I both cried and laughed during this movie, but I ultimately left the theater having seen a story of hopelessness and hardship. It is no wonder this film was given a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the highest score of any Festival film. And it comes as no surprise Our Father, the Devil won the Copper Wing Award for International Feature Film.

- Zach Bradshaw

Why Do Navajo Men Have Long Hair?

Directed by Cherylee Francis, this documentary short answers the question of why many Navajo men choose to grow their hair out. Shot on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, this film features Navajo youth and elders who discuss cultural beliefs about long hair.

The discussion also brought to life many cultural stereotypes society has inflicted on the Navajo community. It was educational to see some of the reasons Navajo men have certain cultural norms. Being from Flagstaff, I grew up learning about parts of Navajo culture. I went to high school with a few of the actors in the film. Seeing the culture reflected so well through a short film brought tears to my eyes.

- Zach Bradshaw

The Last Bell

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Grab the tissue box, this one made me sob.

Following young Dylan, this film is about a granddaughter who has been forced to take care of her declining grandmother in the final days of her life. Dylan first understands the task as an albatross, and Dylan sighs almost every time she hears her grandmother ring the bell, signaling she needs assistance.

Optimistic, however, Dylan begins to ask her grandmother stories of her past. The two soon bond over funny stories of husbands and bad friends. Dylan even updates her grandmother about her boyfriend drama.

The connection between the two is heart-warming. The next time I watch this movie, I’ll be sure to bring extra tissues and eye drops.

- Zach Bradshaw

The Blake

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Another tear-jerker (I certainly have a type with short films, don’t I?).

This short tells two sides of the infamous Challenger crash of 1986, both from the perspective of a school girl who is obsessed with outer space and has an ailing brother at home.

The Challenger for her signified ambition, curiosity, and happiness, just as her brother did. Around the same time the Challenger went down, so did her brother.

But the girl, still reeling, had hope: An interactive 40-foot replica of the Challenger shuttle built from an unused school bus. The girl learns new territories of space and human achievement thanks to the vessel, nicknamed “The Blake.” She grasps new knowledge of Challenger and its close connection with her brother.

This film was inspiring. It showed all the moving emotions that can be achieved in a short film. The graphics were perfect for the big screen, and the heart-throbbing story uplifted me into the cosmos.

- Zach Bradshaw

Oral History

Ah, yes. I love a good story about gay lifestyle.

This documentary short followed the story of the last remaining gay leather bar in New Orleans. Lively and often laugh-out-loud funny, this film was a collaboration of many stories told by men, now in their older age, who used to attend the hectic club.

Their stories, along with the efforts of outstanding owners, are keeping the bar alive and running. This film captures the funny elements of gay culture while also portraying a heartwarming instance of people pridefully advocating for their favorite drink destination.

This was one of the first films I didn’t cry during, but my heart was nevertheless touched by seeing how the profound gay community of New Orleans made a name for itself through this energetic bar.

- Zach Bradshaw

SCRATCH

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This film was awesome. Simply awesome.

Following a father and his son on a camping trip, this film takes all that should be cheerful about a camping trip and twists it into a clever horror story.

Shot in the forests of California and in a backyard camper RV in just four days, according to director Michael Trainotti, this flick is intentionally a perfect example of everything not to do while fighting a massive animal during camping.

The soundtrack for this film is highlighted with loud crashes perfect for a horror story. The father-son dichotomy leads to hilarious conversations and dumb ideas that are so dad-like. And the imaginative writing allows for a captivating story of survival.

I recommend this film for anyone who wants a good laugh and the internal rush brought by a classic scary movie.

- Zach Bradshaw

Laced

Laced is a independent film directed by Kyle Butenhoff and it is based in the snowy mountains of Colorado during a record blizzard. It centers around the main character Molly (Dana Mackin) being stuck in an abusive relationship with her husband Charlie (Kyle Butenhoff) and she chooses to take drastic measures to get out of the unhealthy relationship. She soon realizes that her choices have many unforeseen consequences.

This movie is a great thriller that constantly kept me on the edge of my seat. There were many twists and turns that happened throughout the whole film that I did not see coming. The timing of the soundtrack throughout the film was great and added to the suspense when it was necessary. The main character Molly was great as she played the role of both the victim and part murderer very well. She for sure pulled at the heart strings in some of the scenes but also reminded the viewer that she was a cold-stone killer as well. 

I definitely recommend this movie to anyone that is interested in a thriller that will keep you guessing until the very end.

- Ruben Porras

Wake Up

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All I can say about the plot of “Wake Up” without spoiling it is that it’s about a home break in. 

Written by Sally Pitts and directed by Josh Kasselmand, this is everything a comedic short film should be, making use of a simple set, a goofy concept, and tendencies and emotions that resonate with everyone in the audience on some level. The comedic timing of the two actors in the film is excellent. “Wake Up” kept me laughing through the whole run time, and left me contemplating. What more could you ask for?

By the way, “Wake Up” won a Copper Wing Award from the festival for “Best Arizona Short”. 

- Sophia Braccio

Hermana

A feel-good short film, “Hermana” captures the power of forgiveness and family through the story of two sisters preparing for a quinceañera. Ibarra’s love and appreciation for her culture shines through thoughtful details during the quincaeñera and moments of dialogue that switch between Spanish and English.

I have to admit I am biased in this review, because the crew and much of the cast are students and alumni of Arizona State University, and I interviewed Ibarra and others prior to the festival for a separate article with The State Press. After watching “Hermana” at the theater I can say the film absolutely exceeded all of my expectations. 

The acting, cinematography, set, and score come together for a colorful, heartwarming and polished film. Every second of screen-time is used to build genuine characters. The film inspired me to reflect on the moments that define my own relationship with my family. 

- Sophia Braccio

Reflections

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Writer and director Chris Blackford’s short “Reflections” is at its core about love. In the film, a husband faces the trials of caring for his wife with Alzheimers, as their lifetime together flashes before his eyes. 

In a post-screening Q&A at the festival, Blackford discussed how he used not only his own experience with his grandmother having Alzheimers, but also extensive research, to tell the story respectfully. His care with the subject adds authenticity and emotion to the film. 

Seamless cinematography pairs with thoughtful writing and acting to truly pull the audience into the screen and witness the intimate moments of a family working through the reality of Alzheimers. Watching “Reflections” is the most I have ever cried in a movie theater.

- Sophia Braccio

Her Monster

If you think that the “B Movie” cliché only exists in feature-length films… watch the short film “Her Monster” and think again. Directed by Ted Tanaka and Dylan Garcia, the film overtly poses the question, “who’s the real monster?” through the story of a young girl, her abusive father, and the monster under her bed.

Under tight time constraints, the writing brashly approaches the topic of domestic violence, and fails to develop characters fully. There are a few corny jokes involving a snack-loving policeman, and the fight choreography is eerily similar to that of  my high school play. The audio quality is choppy.

Still, the monster was perfectly creepy and grotesque, and the score of the film was refreshingly metal, making it a standout among the other short films at the festival set to gentle acoustic tunes. “Her Monster” managed  to make me laugh out loud once with a perfectly set-up joke by actress Helynn Castro who plays Sarah, and I have to admit, there was a classic horror flick plot twist at the end that I didn’t see coming.

- Sophia Braccio

Everything Went Fine / Tout s'est bien passé

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Originally released in France in 2021, Everything Went Fine takes a deeply relatable yet incredible subject and treats it with the care it deserves. After her father suffers a stroke, Emmanualle (played by Sophie Marceau) must come to his side to take care of him. But issues arise in his recovery process when he asks Emmanualle to help him “end it”. 

There are very few films that could address suicide with such a gentle hand, but Everything Went Fine finds a way. The acting is superb throughout, Sophie Marceau displays the extreme emotional rollercoaster that comes with having the responsibility of her father’s life without over-performing. She rarely ever cries, rather she shows the anxiety, stress, and pain that a person would experience in her situation. Another standout performance of the film is André Dussollier, who plays the father André. After having a stroke, André is faced with a tough decision; try his best to recover or accept his life has run its course. He shows both emotions of André perfectly, acting as a bitter older man and a man who has accepted his time has passed. 

The film is a slow burn, showing the families gradual sadness and mourning they know is soon to come, while André begins to accept his life is over which seems to bring him a certain  peace of mind. It is quite difficult to address a topic like suicide, but director François Ozon handled the topic extremely well, resulting in a gut wrenching yet oddly heartwarming story. 

- Spencer West


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