It was a pretty solid year for SXSW. I saw 35 films, and I enjoyed and would recommend over half of them. The festival made better use of the convention center this year, with the SXXPRESS Passes on the first floor and the Vimeo theater not feeling quite so cavernous. I still wish it was just a film festival, or at least that it didn’t happen during the music portion, because as soon as that starts, the town fills and its really unpleasant to try to get anywhere or see a film downtown. I found myself sticking to the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar more and more as the festival progressed. But that’s never going to change, as one of the things SXSW prides itself on is being the ‘convergence’ of all things anyone cares about. Which they do better than anyone else. It’s just exhausting and getting to and ejoying a film has become more difficult each year.
By the end of the festival I started to seriously rethink my day and ask myself ‘do I really want to see this movie that bad’ or ‘would I rather just stay at home and not deal with all the people.’ I may be officially old. But there were a couple of things that were really difficult this year. Many of the midnighters did not play at midnight and there were some nights when there was only one choice in that slot. Similar feeling movies seemed to always be running against each other. And the time slots were such that if you had to shuttle from one location to another, you almost certainly couldn’t catch the next film. And that’s before Austin traffic.
Anyway, he’s my festival in fives, Five Favorites, Five Frustrations, and Five Fails.
5) OPERATOR – This Martin Starr / Mae Whitman dramedy was possible the most SciFi film of the festival. Starr plays a programmer in charge of the latest IVR (Interactive Voice Response) for a health company. Searching for sound that is both empathetic but also can take charge, he cajoles his wife (Whitman) into supplying the voice for the system. As he perfects the program, he becomes obsessed with his creation, and begins to prefer her over his wife. The film plays with issues of control and technology and perfection and manages to be quite funny at the same time. Whitman’s other job is as a performer with The Neo-Futurists, and their long-running production Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, where she writes playlets exposing herself in search of the truth. They are funny and often heart-wrenching when she begins to examine her relationship with her husband. This is a solid film with great performances and a strong take away message to think about afterward.
4) SLASH – Neil is a shy teen boy with questions about his sexuality and a strange hobby – he writes erotic fan fiction. When Julia brings him out of his shell and encourages him, he ends up in the different world of comicons and men much too old for him coming on to him. And he also may be interested in Julia. It’s all a mess in his mind, which is what makes SLASH so wonderful. It is a charming coming-of-age story where no one really figures anything out, except how to get by for the moment. Michael Johnston and Hannah Marks really nail their roles with humor and sensitivity so that we are always on both of their sides, even when they are angry at each other, and that’s a true victory. Clay Liford has really made a special film. One that can help a lot of people, and maybe just launch a new tentpole franchise (I would totally see a Vanguard film starring Tishuan Scott).
3) DON’T THINK TWICE – Mike Birbiglia’s comedy perfectly captures a set of improv artists right when they realize they might not be able to make their art anymore, and whether it is even worth trying to. The fictional improv troop “The Commune” has served as the proving ground for years for future stars of Weekend Live (aka Saturday Night Live). On the verge of losing their theater, the company receives a surprise visit from the show’s talent scouts. As two of the six members are invited to audition for primetime, rivalries come out and threaten to tear the group and relationships apart. Honestly, I don’t think a better film has been made about the improv sketch comedy scene, and the film seizes on a universal concern, best put forth by the line in the film “Your 20’s are about hope and your 30’s are about realizing how dumb it was to hope.” There is a sad truth to this for a much higher percentage of the people out there than most would care to admit.
2) MISS STEVENS – Julia Hart’s film captures the impossible position that every teacher is put in, wanting to be there for the student and supporting them but also maintaining that distance that is necessary to be able to teach them and remain an authority figure. Lily Rabe gives a phenomenal performance as Stevens, a high school English teacher roped into taking three students to a drama competition, one of who develops an inappropriate crush on her. But this is not a story of a covert relationship that leads to scandal, thankfully. In the compressed timeline of three days, Hart puts Rabe in the most vulnerable place and we watch her struggle to find exactly how to relate to these students. It is a beautiful story anchored by a powerful performance that really strips away all the artifice of making a movie for a movie’s sake and tells the truth. This was one of the first films I saw at SXSW this year and it was difficult to find anything that matched up. [read my full review]
1) AMERICAN FABLE – But then came Ann Hamilton’s coming-of-age story set in the eighties on a farm in the Midwest. Gitty discovers a wealthy man being held hostage in her family’s silo and realizes that maybe her father is not as perfect as she believed. The world starts to crumble around her and her fantasies and nightmares start to invade her daily life. The magical realism of this film elevates it to another level, and cinematography is unbelievable. Although it is not as much of a fairy tale as the description would lead one to suppose, the lessons learned are the same and Peyton Kennedy delivers a magnificent performance as Gitty, a girl trapped between protecting her family and her soul.
5) TOWER – I’ve already written at length about what didn’t work for me in Tower, which despite being on this list, also clocks in as #7 of my favorites (#6 is Starving the Beast, another Austin-based doc in case you were wondering). Keith Maitland’s film gives a comprehensive study of the events of August 1st 1966, when Charles Whitman went to the top of the University of Texas tower and shot at people with a sniper rifle. It plays out, for the first two thirds, in intense, almost real time. The film recreates that day using rotoscope animation, casting actors as the men and women who lived (and died) through the events of that day, bringing them to screen in breath-taking imagery. Unfortunately, I spent most of the first 40 minutes of the film trying to understand what was being delivered – there were young voices, and rotoscoped interviews showing young faces, talking about events 50 years in the past with the distance and gravity that can only be achieved years later looking back – and of course all speaking in the past tense. I understand wanting the interviewee to look like who we are seeing in the re-creation, but it was confusing and kept taking me out of the moment. That being said, it was still a worthwhile film, bordering on perfect. I hope the filmmakers will make a few tweaks before general release. [you can read my full review here]
4) DON’T BREATHE – AKA Untitled Fede Alvarez Ghost House Thriller – The first frustration was that this film had nothing to do with ghosts in a house, Ghost House is the production company, so that could have been temporarily titled better. But getting past that, the well-made break-in thriller about three teens who rob an old blind man and discover a secret far more dangerous than his large pile of money, has one huge problem. I hated everyone in the film. They are all shameful people doing shameful things, and are all given several opportunities to change course and redeem themselves, and never do. So it was very hard to care about what anyone them did, if they lived or died, or were tortured, or raped with household items (yeah it’s a brutal film, all the more reason you want some sort of moral anchor). In the end, the film was about 15 minutes too long, and the third act felt very forced, but a big part of that was just that I was so uninterested in the plight of any of the characters. Also there was at least five times when it was really quiet in the film when I wanted to lean over to my neighbor and whisper ‘Don’t Breathe’ so its effectiveness was a bit lost. There is a lot of skill here, that could have been put to better use.
3) LITTLE SISTER – There is nothing particularly wrong with Zach Clark’s film about a nun who returns home to deal with her family, I just didn’t understand what the point was. Its one of those films where it feels more like a collection of intentionally quirky characters shoved together than a film with a purpose. Have you seen that add for Regal’s arthouse brand? This is a place for the down on his luck boxer…etc etc. It feels a bit like that. Army Vet With Injury, Gwar-Listening Nun, Mom Who Loves To Smoke Pot, Best Friend who is also an ecoterrorist, etc. Colleen admits to her family that she sought out the order of the cloistered life, but spends the whole time at home losing her grip on that order, and in the end gets ridiculous high with her family. And then goes back to the nunnery at the end. Okay…? So the message is what? Nun should do drugs? Its okay to not deal with your personal issues and hide? You shouldn’t get to be who you really want to be? I just had no idea what the filmmaker wanted me to take away from the film.
2) COLLECTIVE: UNCONSCIOUS – This one was not surprisingly frustrating, featuring five separate works by five directors (each interpreting another’s dream) As with any anthology project, the works are uneven. I like three of the five quite a bit. The opening film, shot in stark black and white and with a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, really held my imagination as I colored in around the story. It felt like a dream but had a really strong structure. The third piece felt more like a stand alone short, but it was a great coming of age story dealing with self-identity and role models and that moment you realize you can be a leader. Finally, there was a hilarious and cutting satire called ‘Everybody Dies,’ a children’s television show hosted by the grim reaper that basically prepared all the African-American viewers that they were going to die, and probably long before the white children. It had such a strong message and style it almost overpowered the other films, most of which were sort of message-less. The other two films (number 2 and number 5) in the anthology really felt like dreams, but in that weird sort of I have no idea what the fuck I just saw sort of way, so they were tiresome and dull, especially when placed alongside much stronger work, films which had meaning and substance. Also frustrating was the connecting material which was basically a narrator putting us into trance to watch the films. Most of his dialogue felt lifted from the opening of a free mp3 download to like quit smoking or something and didn’t really add to the film. Apparently, the intent for this ‘film’ is/was to be a web series (that’s how it was promoted on Kickstarter) so maybe as individual pieces it works much better. As a whole, the film failed to say anything unifying about dream states or our collective unconscious and the filmmaking was too uneven to provide a fulfilling experience.
1) THE OFFICIAL SXSW BUMPERS – Oh where to begin? So I liked the idea of this preshow feature, friends at a film festival, talking about films, and other things that come up over the week, but these really could have been much much better. First of all, they were clearly not shot in any theater in Austin I’ve ever seen, it felt like some generic Cineplex (probably in LA) and one of the things that’s so great about SXSW are all the great venues. Certainly there was nothing particularly Austiny or SXSWy about a generic big box theater. And the actors selected, while they were fine, they didn’t necessarily say anything about SXSW or Austin. We have a ton of great Austin actors who have been on SXSW screens for years that could have been utilized. Sure you may not have been able to get Ethan Hawke, Matthew McConaughey or Ellar Coltrane, but I would have reached out to Andrew Bujalski, Tishuan Scott, Ashley Spillers, or the Duplass Brothers. Also the shorts had a really high forced quirkiness factor. The whole ‘would you rather’ is never going to be better than Noah Baumbach’s KICKING AND SCREAMING – and what was up with that fish? When Noah Segan fell from the roof, I was so sure he wanted to say ‘That’s Fantastic’ instead of Ridiculous, like it was a Fantastic Fest bumper. Finally, what was up with them just ending? Each one was titled with a day of the week, with a new one rolling out every day for the first few days of the festival and then nothing new – and we had to watch recycled ones for the rest of the fest. I get that maybe they didn’t want to make nine of them, but then I don’t think you can title each one after a day of the week as if we are going to get at least seven. Also, most of them were far too long. Get in, make your point and get out – we are here to see the movies. Side note: it was pretty funny to watch Samantha Futerman complain in one bumper about having seen enough movies starring a bearded white guy, as that basically describes a majority of the SXSW narrative program, including the Jury Award winning THE ARBALEST.
5) SPACESHIP – No film was a bigger violator of the ‘forced quirk factor’ than this one which is about an alien abduction … maybe … that happens halfway through the film and then drops off its abductee only about thirty minutes later with very little changed. The characters are just plain weird for weirdness sake, and not compelling. The story goes no where extremely slowly, it’s like the first forty minutes of the film are just set up, and then its over before anything really happened. I liked the idea of this film so much better than the actual film.
4) ALCHEMIST’S COOKBOOK – This was another film where the execution fell far short of the premise. A recluse lives out in a trailer trying to make gold, only that was such a small part of this film, which fell victim to having a central character we never know anything about who never explains what he is doing and doesn’t seem to have any real goals until it is too late. By the time the film hits the sixty-minute mark and there is a bit of tension with the disappearance of his friend, I just didn’t care any more. Joel Potrykus is not an easy filmmaker (anyone who’s seen BUZZARD knows this) but at least he usually delivers fascinating characters that jump off the screen. In this case, I kept waiting for the film to begin.
3) HUSH – This by-the-books home invasion thriller from Mike Flanagan about a deaf woman who is trapped in her home hiding from a masked killer stumbles out of the gate immediately. Maddie is pretty much defined by being deaf and being a writer. Other than that, we learn nothing about her whatsoever, she might as well be Generic Victim #1 although that role was already taken by her neighbor. If you want to see a much better version of this set up (similar but different, but far more effective), check out Eskil Vogt’s BLIND from 2014. Flanagan’s film features absolutely no character development and basically nothing beyond the minute to minute ‘how will she escape this now,’ and ‘now how will she escape this,’ and ‘now….’ The entire premise hinges on the fact that our masked stranger can’t just break the glass and get into the house, glass which I can hear rattle as they close the door and which surrounds the cabin. This is not new modern reinforced security glass, this is shitty fifty-year-old glass that shatters if you through a midsized rock at it. Considering how easily the killer busts up her car elsewhere in the film, its hard to believe he doesn’t just go in instantly. Plus I’m done with ‘because you were home’ reason behind killing. It’s so exceeded its effectiveness in horror movies.
2) JOHNNY FRANK GARRETT’S LAST WORD – This truly inept movie featured some of the worst acting and dialogue I’ve ever scene, and a laughable mob scene. The film claims to be based on real events involving a case in Amarillo, Texas, where a young man was executed for raping and killing a nun despite maintaining his innocence and some rather questionable evidence. On the night of his lethal injection, Johnny writes a curse out on anyone associated with the case and strangely right after that, a number of people die, including a few jurors. The curse seems very random, not affecting every juror, sometimes affecting family instead of the actual people, sometimes acting fast, sometimes a slow developing condition. This all may be true in real life, but in terms of a frightening attack from the other side, it does not work at all. [You can read my full review here.]
1) BLACK – This truly reprehensible film managed to be both sexist and racist in addition to being wholly derivative. The I-got-into-a-gang-and-now-I-want-to-get-out storyline has been played out endlessly over the years, and the Romeo and Juliet star-crossed lovers has been done better (even against the backdrop of gang rivalry). I also think if you are going to so directly invoke the Shakespearean play, you need a few more touchstones. Where is my balcony scene? The death of Mercutio? But the real problem with BLACK is how offensive it is. Set up as showdown between two gangs, the Moroccan 1080s and the Congolese Black Bronx, BLACK sides pretty strongly with the light-skinned Moroccos, as no one in the Black Bronx has any redeeming qualities. They are just simple stereotypes whose creation seems motivated by xenophobic fear. The women are treated merely as sexual objects, even our lead character. We don’t even really see her fall for the Moroccan boy, any scene that is not a glorification of violence, drugs, or sex pretty much is only shown as a montage. This film clearly wouldn’t pass the Bechdell test as the few scenes between female characters are focused on their relationships with male gang members, or as a set up for a surprise gang rape. And then let’s talk about the rape scenes (two of them), one of which is interminably and uncomfortably long and shot from a sort of voyeuristic angle as if we are supposed to be sexually stimulated by what we are seeing. It makes its point about two seconds in and yet goes on for what seems like two minutes. This is really not something we needed to see. And if that wasn’t enough, the filmmakers FLASHBACK to it later, in case we forgot (remember that time our lead character got raped? Here, let us show you). It was disgusting filmmaking. I felt dirty watching it and a female friend of mine said she had a rape nightmare that night. If only the film had a prominent gay character so it could be homophobic as well. (I also want to ask is there something going on in Belgium? I saw BELGICA and also found it to be racist and sexist, though not to the extent as this film.) Yuck. Just yuck.