The Best and Worst Movies of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival

Some thoughts on what we saw in Austin this year.

AUSTIN, TX: The SXSW Conference and Festivals are drawing to a close this weekend, and the film fest was particularly strong this year – which is unsurprising, as the film side of the music and interactive event was celebrating its 25th anniversary. As a matter of fact, your correspondent didn’t see a single bad movie this year; there were a couple of mild disappointments, sure, but all things considered, the batting average was pretty high. Here are some thoughts on what Austin had to offer:

The SXSW documentary slate is traditionally very strong; these had their flaws, but are worth seeking out anyway.

Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes

The archival footage that populates Robert S. Bader’s documentary account of the on-screen relationship between heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali and talk show host Dick Cavett is so fascinating, so alternately funny and charged and enlightening, that the movie is almost worthwhile solely as a clip compendium. Almost. The trouble is that Bader moves beyond the early, necessary analysis of Ali’s persona – and how keenly he understood the medium of television – into a dubiously required primer and his career and controversies into what finally amounts to a full-on Muhammad Ali bio-documentary. Two problems: 1) there are more than enough of those in the world already, and 2) the angle that we think the film will explore is juicy enough to leave some of its strands incomplete or untouched. So it’s a bit of a missed opportunity overall, though again, fans of either man (or students of the period in general) will find much to enjoy here.

Operation Odessa

The latest high-crime documentary from director Tiller Russell (the electrifying The Seven Five) concerns the “complete free-for-all” of cheap weapons and military vehicles hitting the black market in the years following the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, culminating in the attempts of three shady characters with ties to the Russian Mob, the Miami underworld, and South American drug cartels to purchase a Russian military sub in 1997. The characters are colorful, and they’re excellent storytellers, while Russell’s sense of montage is fast, funny, and energetic. But so much of it is told directly, I’m not sure there’s much reason for it to be a film rather than a good magazine article; it’s an entertaining movie and a fascinating story, yes, though a bit monotonous.