The Best and Worst Films of SXSW 2014

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AUSTIN, TX: The conference portion of the SXSW Film Festival has drawn to a close (though films will continue to run through the weekend), so alas, your film editor’s time in the lovely city of Austin is just about over. This year’s was an intriguing and entertaining slate, lacking the kind of breakout hits I’ve seen here in years past, but nonetheless filled with films that you’ll want to seek out in the weeks and months to come. Here’s a quick jaunt through the 15 movies I saw there; check out the rest of our continuing SXSW 2014 coverage here.

THE UNREVIEWABLE ONE The Dance of Reality Within the first 20 minutes of The Dance of Reality, we encounter an elaborately costumed little person, a mother who sings all of her dialogue operatically, copious male nudity, and a (literal) chorus of amputees. Welcome back to moviemaking, Alejandro Jodorowsky! This is the El Topo creator’s first film in over two decades, and his freak flag certainly hasn’t deteriorated in the interim; he lets it fly proudly in this autobiographical mash-up of confession and surrealism. His style is not my particular brand of vodka, but if you like what he does, you’ll find a whole lot of it here. (You know who you are.)

GOOD MUSIC MOVIEMAKING Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records Jeff Broadway’s documentary portrait is an affectionate tribute to a label that, as ?uestlove (whose presence in music documentaries now seems to be a foregone conclusion, and good for that) notes, “embraces the unembraced.” Common, Kanye West, Snoop, and Talib Kwaeli also show up to sing the praises of Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of the titular label; the film follows that label’s evolution, while pausing to tell plenty of good stories and convey some fascinating mini-biographies (the section on J-Dilla’s seminal Donuts is particularly wonderful). Freewheeling and informative, Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton captures a scene, and makes you want to be a part of it.

BAD MUSIC MOVIEMAKING Rubber Soul

Director Jon Lefkovitz dramatizes the two most in-depth interviews of John Lennon’s life (with Rolling Stone in 1970, and with Playboy a decade later), using only the words spoken in those interviews, clicking back and forth between the two Lennons as they expand on shared themes and ideas. It’s an appealing little stunt, but a stunt can’t sustain 84 minutes — though Joseph Bearor’s two-part performance as Lennon is convincing, the movie ultimately doesn’t go anywhere, do anything, or (most importantly) tell us anything new about this fascinating figure. It’s ultimately just a parlor trick, impressive but uninspired.

FLAWED BUT FASCINATING The Legend of Shorty When Sinaloa drug cartel kingpin Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman was captured in February, he’d been on the run for over 13 years, following his escape from a maximum security prison. But there were questions about his capture, and the time before it: why had it taken so long, when he seemed to be hiding in plain sight? Did the American and Mexican authorities know where he was all along? And if so, what took them so long to get him? These are provocative questions; director Angus McQueen, unfortunately, never quite answers them. (One gets the sense he didn’t have time to, that the film was presumably in the can and the very recent capture was added in as a hasty post-script.) His story is a riveting one, of a terror organization run like a corporation; the events are grisly and harrowing; the filmmaking is inventive and high-energy. But it sets the table for a meal that never quite arrives.

Faults Hometown boy Riley Stearns’ psychological thriller offers up a rare leading role for the great character actor Leland Orser (Seven, Very Bad Things), and yet another impressive piece of work by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (the filmmaker’s wife), and it requires two actors of their skill — it’s basically a two-hander, theatrical almost, in which a cult deprogrammer (Orser) locks himself into a hotel room with a kidnapped young woman (Winstead) and tries to break her. We’ve seen this kind of story before (it’s not dissimilar to Holy Smoke!), though in its early sections, Stearns sets it apart with dark humor and eye-catching compositions. Alas, it unravels in the third act (just when it needs to tighten up), cashing out its compelling narrative for a series of twists that aren’t nearly as clever as the picture thinks they are.

BIG STARS, JUST DOING THEIR THING Bad Words Jason Bateman does double-duty on this high concept comedy, starring and directing the story of a middle-school dropout with a giant chip on his shoulder who exploits a loophole in the rules to compete in the national spelling bee. The tone is tricky — this is, on occasion, a mean, nasty little movie, and though it has the expected character arcs and feel-good undercurrent, Bateman and screenwriter Andrew Dodge throw plenty of elbows along the way. It’s the kind of movie where you think you know exactly what you’re going to get, but Bateman digs a little deeper and takes some welcome risks.

A Night in Old Mexico Robert Duvall is magnificent (but that kinda goes without saying) as a mean, crotchety, semi-suicidal old bastard who’s angry at no less than God — “I’ve had it with you,” he tells the big boy upstairs — that he’s losing the ranch that’s been in his family for generations. When he meets the grandson he never knew he had, he takes the kid down to Mexico for one last blowout before he’s forced to move into a “tin can” trailer. Much of the picture is warm and funny, and it’s always a joy to watch Duvall work (and, in one great sequence, to watch him dance). But the film’s 35-years-in-the-making backstory is all too apparent in the unnecessary ‘80s-style guns/drugs/bag of money subplot that ends up taking over the movie in its second half. Young co-star Jeremy Irvine is about as bland as they come, and the melodramatics get awfully clunky, but the picture’s worth seeing for Duvall’s indelible performance as a coot who’s gonna go down swinging.

“FAN SERVICE” Veronica Mars I’ve heard the phrase “fan service” (one I was previously not entirely aware of) thrown around somewhat condescendingly about Rob Thomas’ long-awaited follow-up film to the cult TV series, and its deployment seems redundant — of course it’s fan service. That’s literally what it is: a movie funded by fans. As such, it delivers everything fans can ask for. It’s a good thriller, a great comedy, and most of all, a warm and affectionate reunion. It doesn’t exactly break any new ground, but it is a smart, entertaining, and totally satisfying experience.

Harmontown In January of 2013, during the “gas leak year” of his exile from his baby Community, Dan Harmon and his pals hit the road for a 20-city tour, taking his podcast Harmontown out on the road and seeing what happened. But this is no fawning, sycophantic, self-serving home movie; the director is Neil Berkeley, the inventive filmmaker behind Beauty Is Embarrassing, and he’s more interested in Harmon’s idiosyncrasies, bad habits, and self-abuse. Yet he also discovers something lovely about the raw and honest way he’s opened himself up to his admirers, and the kinds of people who are drawn into that orbit.

FUNNY IS ENOUGH Neighbors The latest from director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets) starts with a fairly straightforward, ’80s-style snobs vs. slobs conflict, as a fraternity moves into the house next to a yuppie couple and their infant daughter. But there are no simple designations here; Stoller has sympathy for both halves of the equation, perhaps even more for the couple wrestling with their own lameness complex. Stoller keeps the somewhat centralized narrative in motion through the ingenuity of his pairings: Frat boys Zac Efron and Dave Franco get a good rhythm going, Efron and Seth Rogen share some funny moments, and the wonderful Rose Byrne proves she’s got real comic chops, more than holding her own against Rogen and coming out of this thing looking like the MVP. It’s messy and unruly, sometimes too willing to stoop for the cheap laugh, but boy is it funny most of the time.

What We Do in the Shadows Co-writer/co-director/co-stars Taikia Waititi (Eagle vs. Shark) and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) prove there’s plenty of life left in the increasingly wheezy “mockumentary” form, as a crew from “the New Zealand Documentary Board” tracks a house full of vampires as they prepare for the annual “Unholy Masquerade” — and deal with the typical headaches of roommate living (dishes not getting done, blood all over the sofas, that kind of thing). Gracefully deadpan and cheerfully gory, spiced up with casual yet impressive effects and the tiniest bit of well-played pathos, it’s unquestionably the funniest movie of the festival.

THE DOC WINNER The Great Invisible The winner of this year’s feature documentary Grand Jury Prize revisits the Deep Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill, which dumped 176 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days in 2010. It gives you what you pay for — stunning figures, accounts of mind-boggling hypocrisy and incompetence, and endless rage. We know the facts; director Margaret Brown’s skill is in drawing out the characters, from shellshocked survivors to family members left behind to Roosevelt Harris, a straight-talking and kind food bank volunteer who provides the heart and soul of the picture. It’s easy to get depressed by this kind of thing, but Harris provides a valuable counterpoint, reminding us of the goodness that inevitably appears in the wake of a nightmare.

THE UNDERDOG The Mend John Magary’s debut feature requires some patience — it has no earthly idea when or how to end, and does quite a bit of meandering on its way there. But it does so charmingly, telling the story of two brothers (Stephen Plunkett and Josh Lucas — remember him?) whose lives are sort of falling apart at the same time in a New York apartment that’s in barely better shape. Magary’s got a cockeyed storytelling style, but the picture’s looseness is much of its appeal; he’s got a good ear for conversational dialogue, a real knack for creating a lived-in vibe, and just hanging out there for a while.

THE PLEASANT SURPRISES Premature If co-writer/director Dan Beers didn’t pitch this to someone as “Groundhog Day Meets American Pie,” I’ll eat my hat. The premise: a horny teenager having the most stressful day of his life tries to lose his virginity, but, well, you can guess what happens from the title — after which he wakes up at the beginning of the day, and has to keep living it over and over until he gets it right. The variations on the premise are fairly ingenious, even if they start to get a little random and desperate as the second half takes some unfortunate turns into scatological humor and casual xenophobia. And the moment you lay your eyes on the Joey Potter-style beautiful BFF (The Killing’s Katie Findlay, very good) that he just can’t see because of the blonde sex bomb he’s drooling over, you can take a pretty safe guess as to how the whole thing’s gonna turn out. Still, it’s got a snappy visual sense and (basically) a good heart, and if there are an abundance of easy laughs, there are plenty of genuine ones as well.

Frank Expectation is no small influence on the moviegoing experience, and perhaps it works in Frank‘s favor that it sounds, going in, so insufferable: the story of a bizarre band making peculiar music under the guidance of the titular frontman, who never removes his giant plastic mascot head. But tone is key, and Frank isn’t overly enamored with its own hipness; it’s a little daft and a lot of fun, with a well-proportioned dusting of serious undertones. Michael Fassbender gives an inspired physical and vocal performance as the guy under the fake head, while Maggie Gyllenhaal is wonderfully brittle and more than a little broken. Endearingly deadpan and approachably absurd, it’s a weird, bighearted treat.