The Best and Worst Documentaries of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival

Our reviews of 'Running with Beto,' 'The Boy Band Con,' 'It Started as a Joke,' and more docs from Austin.

AUSTIN, TX: The 33rd annual SXSW Conference and Festivals is winding down this weekend — as is the 26th edition of the SXSW Film Festival, which your correspondent was lucky enough to spend the past week or so covering. I made an effort to split my viewing, as equally as possible, between the festival’s fiction and non-fiction offerings; our rundown of those narrative selections will run on Monday, but I wanted to share some documentary recommendations today, for you Austin natives or fest visitors who are in it for the long haul.

SXSW doesn’t get a lot of credit for its documentary slate (I typically hear more about the offerings at Sundance, Tribeca, and specialty festivals like True/False), perhaps because their selections tend to check the same boxes every year. But some of these are awfully good.

THE OUTLIER

The Hottest August

The set-up for Brett Story’s observational documentary is simplicity itself. Over the course of one month, August of 2017, she interviews several New Yorkers about the things that are important to them: family, work, fitness, preservation, dance, investment, and (swear to God) “robot communism.” But these aren’t just snapshots of regular folks; Story and cinematographer Derek Howard are speaking volumes in the way they see and show all of these people, and display a savvy understanding and articulation of exactly what American life is at this particular, peculiar moment.

(SXSW)


SXSW SPECIALS

“Stern warning of the dangers of technology gone amuck that toasts the brave digital warriors who are holding down the fort” and “Affectionate celebration of a rascally chef” aren’t exactly revolutionary additions to the SXSW slate, but these are still worth a look.

Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World

This peek into the “open source journalism” of the online collective Bellingcat is enlightening and informative, delving into how they conduct investigations of image identification, geolocation, and disinformation campaigns by following the digital crumbs. Director Hans Pool wisely adopts a tone and style akin to a thriller, with moody photography and intrigue-dripping music. But the film could do with a bit more skepticism; it only gives the briefest of lip service to legitimate concerns about lack of conventional expertise, and then only to note that they’re often adopted by voices with significant ulterior motives. We can’t take anyone entirely at their word — that is, after all, one of the lessons of the movie.

Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy

“I’ve had a funny life, let’s face it.” So says Ms. Kennedy early in this bio-documentary, and she’s not wrong. Ninety-five and kicking at the time of its production, Kennedy is a white British woman who’s become the foremost English-speaking expert on Mexican cuisine. And she isn’t just a TV and cookbook cook; she’s a historian, working to preserve the tradition via research and publication. Director Elizabeth Carroll doesn’t really draw outside the lines much, stylistically speaking (and that’s fine; hell, it’s right there in the title), but her camera is in the right places at the right times, and this is a persuasive portrait of a dazzling woman — and a real firecracker.

(SXSW)

 

ELECTION SEASON

Since Robert Drew and company’s “Primary” back in 1960, the campaign-trail documentary has been one of the most reliable non-fiction standbys. Such films seem particularly urgent right now, and these two spotlight two rising stars in the Democratic party, with varying success.

Running With Beto

Seeing David Modigliani’s account of Beto O’Rourke’s underdog 2016 campaign to unseat Ted Cruz, right in the heart of Austin, was sort of like going to a Beto rally; the premiere crowd sounded like supporters, duly cheering his successes and hissing for his opponents. Taken on its own terms, Modiglianis film is reasonably engaging, if a little standard — it captures human moments, provides what seems an authentic portrait of its subject, and finds side characters in his staff and volunteers who are equally compelling, if not more so. But the film is ultimately hobbled by the fact that it ends with a defeat, which kind of takes the air out of what comes before; Rachel Maddow is seen, on election night, saying that the loss “feels like a blunt ending,” and she’s not wrong.

Knock Down the House

Rachel Lears’ documentary has been dubbed “the AOC movie” since it premiered at Sundance, and it’s important to note that it’s not just a profile of the insurgent candidate from the Bronx and her come-from-behind primary victory over longtime Representative Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th. Lears and her team also follow three more women, from West Virginia, Missouri, and Nevada, who mounted primary challenges against Centrist Dems. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez certainly gets the majority of screen time, and there’s nothing wrong with that; she gives the best sound bytes (“Everyday Americans deserve to be represented by everyday Americans”), and her victory, after the other three defeats, gives the picture a necessary closing lift. But Knock Down isn’t just a puff piece; it’s a funny, sharp doc, moving at a good clip and providing notes of both realism and inspiration.

(SXSW)

 

IT’S ALSO A MUSIC FESTIVAL

SXSW began as a music festival, and is perhaps still best known as such, so it’s not surprising that the film side’s programmers go out of their way to show movies about music. Most are scheduled towards the end of the fest, when the music folks take over, but I caught a couple before heading out of town.

The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story

Based on the subject matter and the producer credit for Lance Bass, I expected this documentary on the crooked impresario behind *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Aaron Carter, and O-Town to be, basically, a Behind the Music situation — and for the first half hour or so, it is. But director Aaron Kunkel has more on his mind, crafting not only an exposé of Pearlman’s dirty deals, but a psychological profile of a pathological liar and crook, and then the story of a Madoff-style fleecing. It’s a rise and fall story, meticulously detailed and full of fascinating, upsetting sidebars, and even some rather tasty tea.

Carmine Street Guitars

Rick Kelly has spent decades working out of the title shop in Greenwich Village, building custom guitars with wood rescued from torn-down NYC buildings — “the bones of old New York,” as he puts it. Ron Mann’s documentary eschews most of the standard devices; there’s no narration, no talking heads, no archival materials. He just spends a few days hanging out in the shop, watching Rick and his apprentice Cindy work, and eavesdropping as musicians and Village figures (including Lenny Kaye, Bill Frisell, Wilco’s Nels Cline, and the Roots’ Kirk Douglas) pop in to shoot the breeze and play music. They end up doing the interviewing, and if some of the conversations sound a bit too staged, that’s a minor complaint; this is a lovely little movie, propelled by genuine affection for music, craftsmanship, and the city New York used to be.

(SXSW)

 

FUNNY PEOPLE

Fun fact: there’s also a simultaneous SXSW Comedy Festival, and wouldn’t you know it, some of the documentaries tie in nicely to that as well.

It Started As a Joke

Eugene Mirman proposed the idea late one night, a little bit drunk: “What if we made a festival that’s just making fun of other festivals?” But this chronicle of the 10-year run of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival isn’t just a “how they did it” affair, with clips and stills from shows with titles like “Yikes! Most of These Comedians Were Born After ‘Police Academy 2’ Was in Theaters!” It’s also a portrait of a specific moment in the burgeoning Brooklyn comedy scene, before everybody moved out to L.A. and got good jobs. And it’s a warm and inviting bio-doc of Mirman, one of the funniest and most delightful people in comedy, who put all of this together while dealing with unthinkable personal troubles. And on top of all of that, there’s a lot of really good stand-up too.

I Am Richard Pryor

Here’s the thing: there was a really excellent Richard Pryor bio-doc not that long ago (2015, to be exact) called Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic. And while this one offers up a few new anecdotes and a couple of valuable new interview subjects (and a few that are, to put it politely, less so), it’s hard to find a convincing reason for it to simultaneously exist. Early on, director Jesse James Miller seems interested less in biography that sociological perspective, which would’ve been a smarter way to go, but it soon descends into the same journey as Logic (and his 2014 PBS profile Icon, and his 2003 Comedy Central documentary). The earlier film has a more confident sense of storytelling; may as well seek that one out. Or better yet, just listen to some Richard Pryor albums.

(SXSW)

 

MOOOOOOVIES

But this is the cleanest tie-in of all: people who go to film festivals like seeing movies about movies. These two programs helped curious viewers rethink some of the most ubiquitous movies of our lifetime.

Joe Bob Briggs: How the Redneck Saved Hollywood

To be clear, this was not a documentary per se (though I could certainly see it being made into one); Joe Bob Briggs appeared live at the Alamo Drafthouse to front his multi-media presentation about the redneck in cinema, and in American life in general. A jokey but affectionate tribute to movies with titles like Country Cuzzins, this was an evening full of great clips, common sense ultimatums (“You’re either a Forrest Gump person or a Sling Blade person”), jaw-dropping discoveries (I have a whole list of things to look up and track down) and good one-liners (“In the movies it would be called ‘moonshine’; today it’d be called ‘artisanal craft bourbon’”).

Romantic Comedy

Director Elizabeth Sankey (and a handful of additional contributors) revisit and comment on the tropes, rules, and messaging — sometimes subtle, sometimes not — of contemporary romantic comedy in this thoughtful and thought-provoking essay film. “This is how dominant romantic comedies have been in my life,” she explains, revisiting the life they helped her envision, the promises they made, and the regressive ideas they implanted. Sankey covers a lot of ground in her compact 78-minute running time, illustrating her points with inventive supercuts and ingenious juxtapositions, and while there are occasional, minor issues of context (some of these clips are themselves critiquing the tropes they’re presented as exemplifying), this is an exuberant and insightful work of necessary film criticism.