The Best and Worst Movies of SXSW 2013

Your film editor has returned from Austin, where SXSW’s robust selection of fascinating panels and workshops kept my film consumption lower than I might’ve liked. But the dozen SXSW film entries I did get to see offered up an assortment of riveting performances, inventive filmmaking, and recurring motifs; a quick round-up of the best and worst (of what I saw, at least) is after the jump.

muchado

THE BEST

Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon modernizes the dress, cranks up the slapstick, and fills his cast with regulars and friends who give Shakespeare’s dialogue a distinctively screwball snap. His reimagining of the Bard’s classic is respectful but not reverential; he fills the edges of the frames with goofy business and gives the entire affair the feel of a party that won’t end (which, considering the off-the-cuff nature of the film’s production, it sort of was). We’re all invited, though, which is much of the picture’s charm — it’s sweet, coy, sexy fun.

Short Term 12
Destin Cretton’s drama is set at a foster care facility for teens, and he uses the emotional intensity of the location well; it’s the kind of place where anyone can lose their grip at any time (including the staff). What’s more, it’s a film that gets what a cruel and hopeless place the world came seem like, when you’re a certain age and of a certain disposition. Cretton’s direction is personal and close, sometimes uncomfortably so, but he gets rich, nuanced performances out of his cast — particularly the wonderful Brie Larson, who transforms from an unknowable puzzle to a character of astonishing openness and vulnerability. It’s a kind movie, with a good heart.

Drinking Buddies
Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson play co-workers and best friends who start to feel the pang of something more, but Joe Swanberg’s ensemble comedy/drama isn’t just a mumblecore When Harry Met Sally; in fact, what at first seems an obvious narrative with too-tidy schematics becomes something messier, more inhabited, and more interesting. The relationships are thoroughly convincing — not just Wilde and Johnson, but Johnson and Anna Kendrick (who put across the ease and comfort of long-timers with real warmth) and Wilde and Ron Livingston (whose entire performance is filled with inspired physical comedy of the subtlest form). And this is the best work I’ve seen from Wilde: her performance is simple, lived-in, and just plain good. Same goes for the movie.

i-give-it-a-year

THE WORST

I Give It a Year
“It’s just like a Hugh Grant film!” exclaims a secondary character early in Dan Mazar’s rom-com, and we’re meant to chuckle at the divergence. The trouble is, the film hews far too closely to the Brit rom-com formula, seeming to think that a few narrative tweaks and a dash of gross-out humor will somehow distract from the fact that we’ve seen this predictable, vanilla effort many, many times before. Moments of wit are scattered here and there, but mostly via Stephen Merchant and Minnie Driver, who disappear for long stretches; the rest of the time we’ve got the kind of montage-heavy, brutally schematic junk food that’s at home at a multiplex, but not at a festival.

THE SOMEWHERE-IN-BETWEENS

Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine attempts to mash up art film ennui and mainstream genre trash, with mixed results. James Franco is (rather surprisingly) a comic dynamo, but the protagonists are barely distinguishable, and the messaging and subtext are, to put it mildly, on the incoherent side. Still, it’s got mood and memorable images to spare, and should continue to provoke some entertaining discussions.

Hey Bartender
This documentary valentine to “craft bartending” examines both the history of cocktail culture and the ins and outs of the job today, focusing on a handful of high-profile mixologists at bars across the country (but mostly in New York). It tells a good story and hones in on some interesting people, but these folks take themselves awfully seriously, and director Douglas Tirola seems to buy in (there’s only a fleeting moment’s acknowledgment that sometimes working in a bar is less about being an artist than it is about dealing with drunken assholes). Plenty to enjoy and learn here, but your enjoyment may depend somewhat on your ability to drink the (fresh-squeezed, jiggered, served over giant cut ice) Kool-Aid.

computerchess

TECHNOLOGY IS FASCINATING!

Computer Chess
It’s hard not to come at Andrew Bujalski’s comedy/drama from a purely stylistic standpoint, because its look is so aggressively unique. Set in the world of early-’80s computer experts, it is shot like a no-budget refugee from the era: ugly, smeary, full-frame black and white video, which appears to have been left on a shelf for the better part of the decades since. The frames are filled with other aged technologies, from overhead projectors to the giant, desk-size computers at the story’s center, and the film’s throwback look and analog style help offset its genuine (though likable) peculiarity, occasional dry spots, and odd narrative loose ends.

Downloaded
This documentary on the rise and fall of Napster, directed by Alex Winter (co-star of the Bill & Ted movies), opens with the sound of a screeching dial-up connection, which is an effective way to reminds us all that there was a time when a single music file took hours to download (when it worked, which was rare). Winter’s film is awfully heavy on the talking heads, but it’s a thoughtful and fair examination of how Napster not only revolutionized file sharing, but the notion of “social” media. Thorough and fast-paced, thoughtful and well researched, Winter tells the history yet, thankfully, considers the impact as well.

KEEP AN EYE ON…

A Teacher
Hannah Fidell’s Sundance hit casts an unblinking gaze on a high school teacher in the midst of a sexual affair with one of her students, but it’s less an exploitative excuse for voyeurism than a thoughtful, modest character study — and a showcase for a terrific young actress named Lindsay Burdge (who participated in Jeffrey Tambor’s Acting Workshop last weekend as well). Fidell conveys the dynamics of the relationship masterfully; the sex we see is adequate but not exceptional, indicating that both are more turned on by the affair’s taboo nature (watch the charge she gets when he kisses her after class), and it’s interesting to note how the relationship brings her down to his level instead of vice versa (sexting, jealousy, dances, and sneaking around). Fidell knows we’re waiting for them to step in it, and much of the film’s narrative power comes from how the filmmaker pokes at that expectation.

i-am-divine

VERY GOOD DOCS

I Am Divine
This affectionate tribute to Harris Glen Milstead, better known as the “cinematic terrorist” Divine, who took drag “to a level of anarchy” in the films of John Waters, is not just a valentine to its subject, but a fine history of Waters’s work (the clips from their early, tiny-budget collaborations are priceless), a chronicle of their friendship, and an ode to their entire company of weirdos. Director Jeffrey Schwarz (the prolific cinema historian behind 2011’s Vito) also creates a vivid portrait of the late-‘70s NYC underground, and provides entertaining artifacts of Divine’s forgotten music career. Nothing earth-shattering here, but I Am Divine is plenty of fun, and nicely articulates both who he was and what he meant.

The Punk Singer
Sini Anderson’s fast, funny, electrifying documentary is a portrait of Kathleen Hanna, the Bikini Kill lead singer who combustibly fused punk rock and feminism, and started a movement in the process. Anderson pulls off the always-tricky balancing act of considering the personal subject and the historical context in roughly proportional terms; we not only feel like we not only know her, but understand why she was so vital. (And the performance footage is amazing.)

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
Like last year’s excellent The Zen of Bennett, Sophie Huber’s film is less a documentary profile than a mediation on a legend’s very being. In examining definitive character actor Stanton, Huber uses some of the standard tools (background info, clips, testimonials from collaborators), but seems less interested in that stuff than in merely gazing at the man himself, and drinking in his essence. The subject isn’t terribly forthcoming in conversation, but he’s more than happy to sing some of his favorite songs; her camera lingers on his worn voice and weathered voice, and in doing so, gives us more of an understanding of the man than a dense book or PBS mini-series.