The Best and Worst of the 2015 SXSW Film Festival

The SXSW Film Festival will continue through the weekend (albeit mostly with repeat screenings and music-related films, pegged to the concurrent music fest), but your correspondent has returned from Austin, with a belly full of BBQ and a head full of leftover images and snatches of dialogue from the 21 narrative and documentary films I took in over my week in Texas. Here are a few thoughts on each, along with the best and worst films I saw there.

MOVIES ABOUT MOVIES

Raiders!

Back in 1982, a trio of grade-school kids got together with the rather simple idea of doing their own version of their beloved Raiders of the Lost Ark. The technology was crude — a clunky VHS camcorder — and their budget was an accumulation of allowances, but the film they made pulsed with imagination, enthusiasm, and heart. Directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen tell the story of that production and its unexpectedly lengthy afterlife, which led to a reunion, long after the fact, to film its final, missing scene. A charming valentine to movies, to being a kid, and to not being told what you can and can’t do. (Read more here.)

She’s the Best Thing in It

Mary Louise Wilson is a lifelong character actor, mostly for the stage, and after she won a Tony in 1998, she says, “I never worked again.” Aged out of even her specialty work, she went back to New Orleans to teach acting at the college level — no easy task for a novice, and one of the film’s key virtues is how director Ron Nyswaner (screenwriter of Philadelphia) captures the hesitancy and tension of the teaching process. He counterbalances her story by talking to several other great character actors about their craft (including Frances McDormand, Melissa Leo, and Estelle Parsons), using the life of one actor to consider the actor’s life more generally. Informative, enlightening, and heartfelt, it’s a lovely little documentary about the kind of performer we too often take for granted.

Still image from "Danny Says"

PRETTY GOOD DOCS

Danny Says

Early in Brendan Toller’s entertaining documentary, Iggy Pop defines Danny Fields as “a connector, like a fuel line in a car,” and that’s a pretty apt description. Fields was something of a Leonard Zelig figure for ’60s and ’70s pop culture: he hung out at the Factory, appointed himself the press agent for the Doors, was the first publicist for Elektra Records, edited 16 magazine, helped ignite the Beatles’ “bigger than Jesus” controversy, managed the Ramones, and gave early boosts to Patti Smith, the Stooges, the MC5, and Leonard Cohen. So, as you can imagine, he’s got some stories to tell — and he’s a colorful storyteller, witty and candid and all out of fucks to give. Director Toller complements those stories with priceless archival footage, unheard old
tapes, and inventive new animation, to create a fast-paced, energetic, and thoroughly enjoyable portrait.

GTFO

While requiring some willingness to look past the amateurish filmmaking (serious question, and not just confined to this film: is there a shortage of lavalier microphones that I’m not aware of?), Shannon Sun-Higginson’s documentary examination of sexism in the video game industry is as thoughtful and enlightening as it is timely. Examples of said sexism are predictably infuriating, but Sun-Higginson doesn’t just leave it there; she thankfully asks why this culture is this way, and comes up with some welcome, well-considered answers. (Read more here.)

TV

Angie Tribeca

Steve and Nancy Carrel came to Austin to unveil the first two episodes of this broad, mile-a-minute slapstick cop show spoof with a clear influence (some might say more than that) of Police Squad and Sledge Hammer, and a fair amount of long-overdue CSI parody thrown in. It’s charmingly silly and frequently funny, even if some of the jokes get pulled out a bit too far; the cameos are well placed, and star Rashida Jones is admirably game (particularly in an A+ scene of gross crying in the second episode).

THE AFFABLE THROWAWAY

7 Chinese Brothers

Director Bob Byington’s previous film, Somebody Up There Likes Me, was a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, and if you were in the latter camp, his newest picture isn’t going to change your mind. But I like his cockeyed style and absurdist bent, here again manifested in a short, sharp movie without much in the way of plot. But who needs plot when you’ve got a bemused Jason Schwartzman as a shrugging ne’er-do-well working man?

THE ONES I ALREADY FORGOT

Bone in the Throat

An initially peculiar pairing of gangster movie and food porn coalesces surprisingly smoothly into a tough, slick little crime picture from director Graham Henman. It knows its worlds of loud kitchens and whispering restaurants well — it is, after all, based on a novel by Anthony Bourdain, and full of nice little touches that betray that source (most notably, the frequent close-ups of what everyone’s eating — what they consume often tells us all we need to know about them). It’s walking well-trod ground, veering from a paranoid innocent-man thriller into a clean-getaway double-cross caper, and isn’t the kind of movie you’ll hold in your brain much longer than the running time. But while it’s on, it’s a fairly satisfying dish.

Quitters

A confident and competent — if not particularly groundbreaking — entry in the “know-it-all teenage boy as unlikable monster” genre, filled with echoes of The Squid and the Whale and Igby Goes Down (with Igby himself, Kieran Culkin, on hand as a teacher). Performances are on the mark and director/co-writer Noah Pritzker fills his scenes with sharp little touches, which help distract from the sometimes tiresome waiting game of seeing how long it takes for our protagonist to alienate or piss off everybody else.

THE BIG COMEDIES

Trainwreck (work in progress)

There’s so much to like in Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer’s candid and introspective romantic comedy, so many fall-out-of-your-chair funny scenes and deftly executed left turns and great lines, that I legitimately hope the “work in progress” tag is an indication that work will still be done on the finished-looking picture. The problem isn’t the comedy (though a few bits drag on a beat or two too long, and there’s an unfortunate overdose of celebrity cameo-based humor); it’s the dramatic stuff, which simply doesn’t mingle with the gags as smoothly as it should. Too often, the jokes just stop for the Serious Material, and said material leans too heavily on familiar tropes. When they work together (a funeral speech, a Before Midnight-style overnight fight scene), they work beautifully; here’s hoping Apatow can fuse the rest of the movie that well. And if not, y’know, there are still enough funny scenes to overlook the clunkers. (Read more here.)

Spy

If you didn’t know better, you’d think that the latest from director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy is two hours of one joke: Wouldn’t Melissa McCarthy be a funny spy, haw haw, lookit her fall down! So the film itself is a kind of wonderful surprise; Feig sets out to make an honest-to-goodness action/ comedy, and one where each element complements the other, rather than taking an either/or approach. And he thankfully thinks past the obvious joke, to the more interesting one: wouldn’t it be funny if Melissa McCarthy were a great spy? As a performer, McCarthy is clearly energized by his confidence; she takes over rooms, thinking on her feet and riffing her way out of tight situations, like Eddie Murphy in a Beverly Hills Cop movie. (Maybe Feig and McCarthy picked the wrong ’80s franchise to reboot.) All in all, an energetic, entertaining surprise.

Get Hard

While hinting at the possibility of social satire (with broad swipes at race and class) in its opening scenes, this one eventually degenerates into a fairly typical black/white buddy comedy with a shot of gay panic thrown in for good measure. Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart get their share of spotlight moments, and make an interesting and energetic team, winning a few big laughs. But those are sporadic at best; more often than not, you see them straining to sell the weak material, or trying to divert from its inherent familiarity. Hard to hate, but equally hard to remember.

Still image from "Sweaty Betty"

MIXED BAGS

Sweaty Betty

Joseph Frank and Zachary Reed’s inner-city drama is a bit of an oddity. It’s not a documentary, but it’s not scripted either; their camera hangs out with a handful of characters over Father’s Day weekend, following a pair of very loose story threads. It’s a film you want to like, since it’s giving us a peek at a world too seldom seen in even independent cinema. The trouble is that’s it’s so dramatically inert, with poorly improvised scenes that run on and on and (along with the flat, handheld photography) leave Sweaty Betty feeling like a home movie that somehow wound up at a film festival. It’s earnest and authentic; I wish it were just a better movie.

Fresno

This sibling comedy from director Jamie Babbitt (But I’m a Cheerleader) offers more titters than belly laughs, and is something of a mess in terms of both narrative and tone. But as a performer’s showcase, it’s hard to beat. Judy Greer and Natasha Lyonne anchor it with a priceless good sister/bad sister dynamic; Lyonne is atypically sunny (and typically delightful) while Greer, as a bitter burnout, puts a sharp little spin on every line, turning each into a little dagger. Aubrey Plaza also shines in a brief but juicy bit as a would-be love interest for Lyonne. Babbitt never quite works up the screwball steam the story seems to need, and the nice-and-neat conclusion is a bit of a disappointment. But it’s hard to complain too loudly about a movie that’s so generous to the talents of so many absurdly talented (and frequently underused) performers.

WORST OF THE FEST

For the Record

According to the opening credits, this “documentary” is presented “in association with” four companies (Real Legal, Live Deposition, Infinity Steno Machines, and Advanced Depositioning) that provide hardware, software, and services for transcription and stenography. The film, coincidentally enough, is a love letter to the profession of transcription and stenography (with mentions of the hardware and software that make it possible). How convenient! And how this infomerical masquerading as a documentary got into a major film festival is beyond me — particularly since it’s not even a very good infomercial, filled as it is with amateurish photography, dodgy sound, poor editing, and stock music. The little subculture it’s presenting is somewhat interesting, but you’ll wish you’d just found a nice explainer to read rather than wasting your time with this.

BEST OF THE FEST: RUNNERS-UP

Love & Mercy

Few things in this world have grown as thuddingly predictable as the music-genius biopic, so kudos to director Bill Pohlad for finding a refreshing way in to the oft-told but still fascinating story of the Beach Boys’ troubled genius Brian Wilson. Grabbing and intermingling two strands of Wilson’s life — the post-Pet Sounds fall and his late-‘80s reemergence — and playing them in different styles with different actors (John Cusack, very good, and Paul Dano, uncannily on-point), Pohlad ends up crafting a rich and deeply moving portrait. (And I don’t even particularly like the Beach Boys.)

Unexpected

A deceptively modest affair from Kris Swanberg, who tells the story of a 30-year-old white inner city teacher and the 17-year-old black student she ends up connected to via their unplanned pregnancies. You can see, from that description, the kind of white-savior landmines a picture like this could trigger; Swanberg sidesteps them gingerly, and addresses the underlying issue itself, both in a head-on confrontation and in the way she juxtaposes their experiences. It’s a remarkable juggling act, lending equal weight to the thorny questions her older protagonist must weigh about staying at home vs. working motherhood, while also reminding us that for some mothers, even the question is a luxury.

Still image from "The Invitation"

BEST OF THE FEST

  1. Manson Family Vacation

A key scene in J. Davis’ familial comedy/drama hinges on a “bait and switch,” and the writer/director pulls a bit of one himself; the film’s meandering style and apparent ironic detachment (it is, true to the title, about a Manson-obsessed weirdo who wants to visit all the Family’s crime scenes) slyly cover a real efficiency in narrative and a deeply felt story about old wounds that haven’t healed. Davis is a smart filmmaker, sensing when we think we’re getting ahead of him and subverting those expectations, and arriving at a conclusion far more poignant than you might expect.

  1. The Invitation

A group of old friends meet up for a slightly tense reunion/ dinner party, where the expected social awkwardness gives way to a worrisome certainty that their hosts have gone a little batty over the passing years. It’s a situation where every conversation is loaded, and where the fine line between concern and paranoia looks blurry until it may be too late. Director Karyn Kusama is a masterful practitioner of the fine art of withholding information; she keeps the tension simmering right up until the explosive, gut-punch conclusion.

  1. Creative Control

A five-minutes-into-the-future story of a marketing executive who lands a company specializing in “augmented reality,” and falls down a dangerous sexual rabbit hole. Director/co-writer Benjamin Dickinson has a good ear for jargon (both Brooklyn lifestyle and tech biz) and a dry sense of verbal and visual humor; the black-and-white cinematography is striking and stylish as hell. But the movie is, thankfully, more than its gimmick, manifesting an emotional intensity, wise to the desperation that’s always within reach of even the sturdiest relationship, and arriving at a philosophical conclusion that’s both true and inescapably cynical.

  1. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Director Alex Gibney, fascinated by the rather disproportionate public grieving for Apple mastermind Steve Jobs, set about to unravel the man and his many contradictions in this piercing, searching, and provocative documentary. His attempt to question the mythology occasionally borders on mean-spirited, but the picture is ultimately a long overdue reminder to the cult of Mac that this oddly elevated saint was, in fact, a man — a salesman and a businessman whose walk often didn’t match his “corporate values” talk. (Read more here.)

  1. Krisha

Few wells in the indie world have been revisited more often than the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving, so it’s all the more impressive that writer/director Trey Edward Shults uses that trope to create something as singular and haunting as this. He cast several members of his own family (including his extraordinary aunt Krisha Fairchild, in the title role), which only increases the authenticity; you buy these relationships, and he savvily conveys the way family members talk and don’t talk to each other. A ruthless eye for composition, genius sense of juxtaposition, and an inventive (and unnerving) sound design combine to recast a family holiday as an anxiety nightmare and psychological horror story, yet the visceral sensation never overrides the deep empathy at the heart of this very special film.