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Six Lessons Learned at the SXSW Film Festival

Your humble film editor spent last week at the South by Southwest Film Festival — my first time not only at that event, but in Austin, period. (It’s a lovely town, full of friendly folks and outstanding smoked meat products.) Normally, when I go to a film festival, I just try to jam as many movies into my eye-holes as possible, but there were some interview and panel opportunities this year, and I knew you guys wouldn’t forgive me if I passed up the chance to talk to Patton Oswalt or Nick Offerman or Aubrey Plaza or Mike Birbiglia, or to go to panels with Joss Whedon or Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow. But the moviegoing took a hit — I accomplished a pathetic average of two movies per day. Hell, I do better than that sneaking into multiplexes at home.

And although I managed to see not a single solitary one of the SXSW Film award winners, I did learn some valuable lessons from the movies I did manage to see. I’ll share them with you after the jump!

Lesson 1: Matthew McConaughey can act. I’m as surprised as you are! Aside from Dazed and Confused and the occasional self-parodying appearance in movies like Tropic Thunder, your correspondent was not exactly a McConaughey booster; he seems to spend most of his cinematic career sleepwalking through horrifyingly vanilla romantic comedies, taking his shirt off for the likes of Kate Hudson and Sarah Jessica Parker. But in last year’s Lincoln Lawyer, he showed a glimmer of life, allowing himself to indulge (ever so slightly) the inner dirtbag that he always seemed to be smothering in those ingénue roles. In his two films at SXSW, he let his dirtbag flag fly. He plays the title role in Killer Joe, William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play, starring as a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a contract killer, and it’s a taut, chilling piece of work. His turn in Richard Linklater’s Bernie is lighter, a comic character turn similar to his role in Linklater’s Dazed, but equally impressive; sporting big, terrible glasses, awful hair, and suits at least a size too big, his personification of the publicity-hungry small-town D.A. gives the picture a much-needed jolt of energy in its second half.

Lesson 2: People are gullible. One documentary and one drama based on a true event, both of them riveting, confirmed what many of us suspect on a daily basis: if you’re persuasive enough, you can get people to believe just about any damn thing you want. The documentary was The Imposter, a thrilling picture in the Errol Morris mold that told the story of Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old French con artist who convinced a Texas family that he was their missing 17-year-old son Nicholas, in spite of the fact that he had different colored hair, different colored eyes, and spoke with a French accent. The narrative was Compliance, a horrifying dramatization of what people are capable of doing when they believe they’re being instructed to do so by a person of authority. The layers of deception are unpeeled slowly and deliberately, right up until its gut-punch conclusion, which must’ve sent more festivalgoers to Google than any other film of the week.

Lesson 3: Documentary film is thriving. The Imposter was the best documentary I saw at SXSW, but there were several other awfully good ones. The “Anonymous” profile We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists is less objective documentary than it is advocacy, but that’s sort of okay, since the cause is so intriguing (and so frequently in the right). Sunset Strip is heavy on history and light on analysis, but the history is fascinating; this look at LA’s famous club district is filled with great stories and priceless archival footage. And Uprising: Hip Hop and the LA Riots (which you’ll probably be seeing soon, since it’s produced by VH1 Rock Docs) is a visceral, you-are-there look at the post-King riots of 1992, with an amazing soundtrack of songs that predicted the riots, reacted to them, and (maybe) helped inspire them.

Lesson 4: Sibling rivalry isn’t the comic goldmine it once was. My two biggest disappointments of the fest were astonishingly similar in nature: comedies with strong ensembles, examining the explosive sibling rivalries of grown brothers. Nature Calls features Patton Oswalt, Johnny Knoxville, Rob Riggle, and Patrice O’Neal — four comics I’d have gladly watch have a beer and shoot the shit for 90 minutes — but the film is strained and clunky, unsure of its tone and awkward in its execution. Frankie Go Boom stars Charlie Hunnam, Chris O’Dowd, Chris Noth, Nora Dunn, Whitney Cummings, Ron Perlman (in drag!), and the great Lizzy Caplan, but it (to put it mildly) strains credibility, and never comes up with a unique comic spin for its silly situations. Memo to indie comic filmmakers: let’s lay off the developmentally arrested brother stories for a bit.

Lesson 5: Take some chances, why don’t you. Two of my favorites of the fest were also the riskiest — one in subject matter, one in tone. Bobcat Goldthwait’s pitch-black social satire God Bless America is a film you’re going to be hearing a lot about this spring, I predict, if for no other reason than its (literal) targeting of Bill O’Reilly, a gent who’s been known to raise a hackle or two when he sees something he doesn’t like at the moving pictures. Goldthwait’s film takes on the decay of modern culture, with terminally ill hero Joel Murray (Bill’s brother, and Freddie Rumson on Mad Men) and his teenage sidekick shooting their way across America, taking out various reality TV stars and scourges of society. It’s not a subtle movie, but it is a ballsy one, and incredibly satisfying. Bob Byington’s Somebody Up There Likes Me is a much gentler film, but its absurdist tone and peculiar storytelling will surely alienate some viewers; this one, however, found it enchanting, and Nick Offerman (who also co-produced) is simply marvelous in it.

Lesson 6: It’s not always possible to be a responsible festival-goer. With so many films — dozens, really — that I had not and would not be able to see, was it responsible of me, as film festival attendee and journalist, to say, “aw, the hell with it” and go see Sleepwalk with Me, which I’d already seen at Sundance, again? Probably not. But I had some friends who wanted to see it, and it was (and remains) my favorite film of that festival, so yes, I failed a bit there. Same with Monday night’s premiere of 21 Jump Street, a film opening in multiplexes around the country a full four days later. Should I have taken in some obscure foreign documentary that night instead of the movie I could meander over to my neighborhood theater to see as soon as I got back? Yes, probably. But that would have meant not seeing it with the rowdy Austin crowd, including stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum (above, right), who attended the big premiere in their bicycle cop outfits from the movie. Did I make the “intellectual film buff” move? No, certainly not. But I made the “film fan” move — and at South by Southwest, that’s a perfectly reasonable decision to make.

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