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.

 

STRANGER THAN FICTION

The only one I couldn’t fit into a category — because you’ve never seen a story quite like it.

Dealt

Richard Turner is one of the great card mechanics of all time – a 40-years-in performer whose performances are like magic shows, except he’s not just showing tricks, but the moves cheaters use to win at casinos and the card table. He’s spectacularly talented, a funny, gregarious dude who’s always got a deck of cards in his hands (“I have a two to three pack a day habit,” he jokes) and whose sleight of hand is astonishing even before you discover he’s completely blind. Director Luke Korem traces his loss of sight, which began at age nine (using effective camera tricks to visually represent his deteriorating state of vision), and his consequent resistance to labels and limits. In some ways, his refusal to be defined by his blindness is admirable, but the filmmaker savvily navigates the tricky question of whether he just doesn’t want to admit to, and come to terms with, his condition. Korem works a little too hard at the end to assure us how inspirational Turner (and by extension, the film) is, but that complaint aside, this is a compelling and frequently dazzling portrait.

TRUE CRIME

Unsurprisingly, the runaway success of “Serial,” “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer” have made true crime a hot topic for nonfiction makers. Coincidentally, these were the two best documentaries I saw in Austin this year.

Mommy Dead and Dearest

“You know what happened to your mom,” the police detective tells Gypsy Rose Blanchard, in the interrogation video that opens this excellent documentary, “and I know you know.” What happened was Gypsy Rose had her boyfriend kill her mother, and they ran off together before authorities caught up with them several states away. But there was more to this story, much more, and the depths of it first came to our attention via our former colleague Michelle Dean’s jaw-dropping Buzzfeed story. Dee Dee Blanchard made the world believe her daughter was suffering from a series of debilitating maladies, when in fact she was a perfectly normal young woman who just wanted a regular life. It’s a shocking story, and even a sloppy film about it would probably be riveting. This, thankfully, is not a sloppy film. Director Erin Lee Carr makes expert use of medical records, first-person interviews, and carefully staged home movies to put us inside their bizarre world, and patiently reconstructs — via photos, Facebook posts, online messages, and texts — the relationship and the planning that led to that grisly murder. Carr’s analysis is smart and her research is thorough, and she asks the key questions: Why would you do this to your child? Why didn’t anyone else step in first? And exactly how much of this tragic outcome did Gypsy Rose orchestrate?

Disgraced

Director Patt Kondelis helms this riveting true crime story, full of twists and shocks, about the sandal that rocked the campus of Baylor University and the city of Waco, Texas in the summer of 2003. “It’s one of those things people around here do not talk about,” we’re told early on, and it’s easy to see why — what begins as a sort of bizarre missing person case turns into a jaw-dropping story of murder, cover-up, corruption, NCAA rules violations, and surreptitious recordings. And, of course, BU’s faculty and alumni do their best to manipulate the outcome and the aftershocks, for the good of The Program. It’s one of those docs where just when you think it can’t get any stranger, it does, so it will appeal to the Jinx/Serial set. But beyond that, it’s a blistering character study of Coach Dave Bliss, whose passive language, crocodile tears, and stunning conspiracy theories (conveyed when he thinks the camera is off) accumulate into a real, unvarnished portrait of everyday evil.