The Best and Worst Documentary Films of SXSW 2017

A look at 'Behind the Curtain,' 'Disgraced,' 'Mommy Dead and Dearest,' 'Becoming Bond,' and more of this year's non-fiction highlights.

AUSTIN, TX: The SXSW Film Festival’s documentary slate isn’t exactly its claim to fame. This is not to say that they don’t show good films – it’s just neither the destination that is Sundance or the catch-all that is Tribeca. But their nonfiction films always have plenty of personality; at least, that was my takeaway from taking in a handful between panels and big premieres this week.

HYBRIDS

The big trend in Austin this year, from a stylistic standpoint, was the fusion of fiction and non-fiction – filmmakers using narrative tools to tell documentary stories, and in doing so, to comment on often fuzzy divide between perception and reality.

DRIB

The festival’s goofiest title is one of its smartest movies – and this is a fine place to see it, considering how seemingly every event, building, bus, and garment is adorned with one form of branding or another. Director Kristoffer Borgli dramatizes how his viral video-making, Kaufman-style performance artist pal Amir Asgharnejad was courted and then dumped for an energy drink company’s “edgy” ad campaign, and in doing so, he blurs the line between fiction and truth (even pulling out the frame of reenactment at a couple of key points) in ways that are really sort of thrilling, while trafficking in absurdist comedy and inventive explorations of form. Quietly piercing, riotously funny, and not easily dismissed.

California Dreams

Director Mike Ott (who also helmed the doc/narrative fusion film Actor Martinez) works in a blurrier style, putting real people into aesthetically staged scenes that mirror their own lives, loosely organized around the idea of regular people who want, in one way or another, to make it big in the movies. The title is evocative; most of them already live in California, but in lives so far removed from the Hollywood they imagine that they might as well be in Kansas. It would be easy for a film like this to look down on the would-be actors, writers, and stars at its center, or present their situation as poverty porn. Ott’s not into that at all, though; he looks at his subjects and listens — really listens — to them. This allows us to develop affection, sympathy, and understanding. The result is a true original, a living, breathing portrait of loneliness, aimlessness, delusion, poverty, and optimism.

Becoming Bond

This telling of the bonkers rise of “the forgotten James Bond” — George Lazenby, the Australian mechanic-turned-male-model who landed the plum gig of taking over for Sean Connery, then walked away from the franchise after his first and only outing — crosses the bio-doc with the bio-pic, but without the reverence customary of either. Lazenby, 76 but eyes still twinkling like a twenty-something, tells his own story (and he’s a very good storyteller, spicing it up with juicy details and funny flourishes). Director Josh Greenbaum dramatizes his memories, which are often bawdy and broad, in high style. It’s a funny little movie, and the supporting performances are a real treat (Jeff Garlin owns in the role he was born to play: a loud-mouth, blowhard, big-time Hollywood producer). And it might even be true; with a winking, self-aware narrator like Lazenby, it’s anybody’s guess.