The Best and Worst of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival

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AUSTIN, TX: “As a filmmaker, this is a dream come true,” director Keith Maitland told the packed house at the Paramount Theater Thursday morning, before a screening of his Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary Tower. There was a catch in a his voice and a tear in his eye, and it was easy to get caugh up in his emotion; it’s something I saw from a lot of filmmakers at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival, a fest renowned for its populist spirit, in which film fans and filmmakers and film critics intermingle freely, drinking together, sharing ideas, having a beer, and watching movies. This year’s slate was, as ever, eclectic and frisky and bracing and sublime; here is the best (and worst) of what we saw.

YES, AND…

One of the small pleasures of film festivals is observing how accidental trends reveal themselves – that, less due to imitation than to parallel thinking and ideas floating around the culture, we’ll often see multiple films in the same slate about the same things. It happened at Sundance, with the simultaneous narrative and documentary accounts of the life and death of Christine Chubbuck; at SXSW, the hot topic was long-form improv comedy, with a narrative film about the NYC scene and a documentary about the guru who inspired it.

Don’t Think Twice

Mike Birbiglia’s first feature, 2012’s Sleepwalk With Me, was one of the most confident, personal, and funny debuts I’ve seen — a film that, in its truth and innovation, legitimately recalled vintage Woody Allen. His follow-up doesn’t quite hit those heights, though you can’t fault him for trying something new; he’s telling an ensemble story this time, of a New York comedy troupe right on the verge of success (and not quite closing that gap), so the big questions and conflicts can play as rather low stakes to non-showbiz viewers. But it’s still a funny and likable picture, and Birbiglia remains a promising filmmaker and engaging performer. (Read more here.)

Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon

Del Close, the long-form improvisation teacher and comedy legend, died in 1999; his last words were (reportedly), “I’m tired of being the funniest guy in the room.” His most vocal acolytes were the founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, and shortly after his death, they began the Del Close Marathon, an NYC improv festival boasting something like 400 comedy shows over 52 straight hours. Director Todd Bieber’s documentary is, basically, three films — a bio-doc of Close, a history of the UCB, and a fly-on-the-wall look at the 15th anniversary Marathon – and unfortunately, the first two films are far more interesting than the third. But there’s still a lot to like here, particularly for comedy nerds: great footage (new and old), insightful interviews, and a genuine love for what Close strived for, “creating a momentary, fragmentary experience” of true comic fireworks.

SIBLING RIVALRIES

Another case of inadvertently similar stories, with two indie comedies about regular guys struggling through their relationships with brothers who they cannot get mad at, no matter how loathsome they may be.

My Blind Brother

Sophie Goodhart’s comedy/drama opens with the title character (Adam Scott) confidently finishing a marathon, as his sighted brother (Nick Kroll) struggles to keep up, and for no glory or recognition either. It’s an apt metaphor for their relationship, and Goodhart gets a good deal of comic mileage out of their difficult dynamic – because of course it’s possible to be a brave, blind humanitarian, and also a dick. Their tension finally comes to a head when they both fall for the same girl (Jenny Slate), with their unspoken competitiveness occasionally veering into outright sabotage. The straight-up screwball beats are so funny that the picture could’ve frankly used a bit more of them and a little less of the touchy-feely family stuff that we know it’s headed for; that minor complaint aside, this is a funny movie, with just enough edge to keep you off-balance.

Rainbow Time

This comedy/drama from writer/director/star Linas Phillips comes under the banner of Duplass Brothers Productions, and at its best, it gets at the uncomfortable emotional truths and earned laughs of their finest work (with Togetherness leading lady Melanie Lynskey, a valuable-as-ever addition). But Phillips – as both director and actor – has trouble with the film’s key character; he’s so insufferable, he upsets the delicate balance they seem to be going for (and that calls into question the patience of even Lynskey’s saintly character). In a few scenes, particularly towards the end, you get a sense of what they were going for, and they come awfully close to pulling it off. Awfully close.

WORKS-IN-PROGRESS

For years now, SXSW has been an important stop for spring and summer studio comedies, which often screen under the designation of “works-in-progress” – though as Sausage Party’s Seth Rogen noted, some are more “in progress” than other.

Keanu

Key and Peele’s first feature starring vehicle recalls the films of many great comedy teams of the past — and not always in good ways, as it runs a bit too long, takes its dumb plot a bit too seriously, and overindulges at least one running gag too many times. And, just as in your favorite Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy vehicle, it couldn’t matter less; what matters are the laughs, and on that score, the picture delivers. And there’s just a dash of commentary (exploring one of their favorite themes, code-switching), to boot. Did I mention there’s a cute kitten? There’s a cute kitten. Point is, if this was indeed a “work-in-progress” screening, director Peter Atencio sure could tighten that third act — but even as is, it’s a plenty funny picture. (Read more here.)

Sausage Party

Oh sure, you could complain about the juvenile gags and rampant crudity and cornucopia of stereotypes in this very R-rated animated comedy from the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg factory — and I’m sure many people will, when it hits theaters in August. On the other hand, it’s a movie about grocery store hot dogs trying to fuck buns, so you’re sort of getting what you ask for here. In its current shape — which is, it must be noted, quite rough — it’s hit-and-miss, with its one-joke premise stretched mighty thin and a script that too often settles for the easy joke. But some of it is off-the-chain funny, and miles more thoughtful than its crass premise would suggest. (Read more here.)

MORE LAUGHERS

In his introduction to Sausage Party, Seth Rogen explained they wanted to bring their movie to SXSW, “even though it isn’t done,” because “it’s the only festival that treats comedy as remotely equal to other genres.” And it’s true; with each passing year, more and more big comedy titles launch in Austin (in front of, it should be noted, the festival’s raucous and social media-friendly crowds).

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday

There’s an argument to be made that we’ve just let a bit too much time lapse between Pee-wee’s big-screen adventures – the man is 63 years old, for goodness’ sake – and this one misses about as often as it hits, which is something you couldn’t say about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. But those complaints aside, director John Lee works up an enjoyable continuation/reimagining of the P.W. Herman ethos, filling the picture with playful gags, ingenious contraptions, and energetic set pieces. It doesn’t all play, but enough of it does; all in all, it’s good to have our Pee-wee back. (Now streaming on Netflix; read more here.)

Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard Linklater takes the shaggy, shambling vibe of Dazed and Confused from a 1976 high school to a 1980 college in this freewheeling and giddily entertaining hang-out comedy. It takes a while to lock in on his baseball-bro protagonists, who aren’t (initially, at least) the most likable group of guys. But they’re certainly authentic, and their shared-room negotiations, faux-philosophical discussions, and clueless strategies for wooing the fairer sex ring with a truth that’s far from period-specific. After the mature searching of Before Midnight and the narrative boldness of Boyhood, this is just Linklater having a good time — and it’s infectious. (Read more here.)

MUSIC

The SXSW Music Festival doesn’t exactly overlap with the film sibling – the film fest’s panels and big premieres mostly conclude on Tuesday, and the music folks start rolling in the next day. But film screenings continue through the music block, and the film programming folks have never been shy in including lots of narrative and documentaries about music, and the people who make it.

The American Epic Sessions

In 1925, Western Electric built the very first mobile phonograph recording equipment, taking it out on the road the following year and recording, for the first time, regional music. Engineer Nick Bergh spent a decade rebuilding the last known Western Electric deck; this film documents the 20 recording sessions producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett put together to use it, with a variety of acts recording their songs, straight through, into one mic, direct to disc. They end up with a combination of history, performance, and celebration, and it’s frequently (pardon the pun) electrifying, capturing the sheer joy of these sessions and these songs. And it feels a little overlong at a full 120 minutes, though I can’t think of one thing in it I’d do without.

Born to Be Blue

Ethan Hawke plays jazz legend Chet Baker and Carmen Ejogo is the woman who could save him in this surprisingly effective musical portrait, which wisely serves as a snapshot rather than a photo album – focusing on the period immediately before and after the brutal beating that nearly ended his career. Lord know we don’t need another biopic of a troubled but brilliant musician, but writer/director Robert Budreau dives into the psychology of a figure like Baker with a depth that such films rarely muster. He helps us understand what the drugs did for Baker, and why they were so hard for him to shake; ultimately, it’s a story about a man who couldn’t be saved by a woman’s love, because he was already in love with a needle.

PRETTY GOOD DOCS

The Bandit

In 1977, Burt Reynolds — then among the biggest movie stars in the world — leveraged his considerable clout to help make Smokey and the Bandit, the directorial debut of buddy/roommate/longtime stuntman Hal Needham. This warmhearted documentary by Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) looks at their collaboration on that film, while functioning as part dual biography, part time capsule. The obscure promo clips, TV appearances, trailers, and behind-the-scenes images and footage are a hoot, and the cutting is often clever. Yet for all of the thoughtful material about the delta between who Burt was (a personality) and who he wanted to be (a real actor), Moss stops disappointingly short by not exploring the increasingly tepid films they made after Smokey, a series of bad-to-worse pictures that Reynolds presumably fronted out of loyalty to his pal, yet which ultimately torpedoed his own brand. Reynolds defends Smokey as “good for what it is,” and the same goes for Bandit; it’s just a bummer, because it clearly could’ve been more, were it not so dead-set on its feel-good ending.

Silicon Cowboys

The focus seems narrow – a documentary account of the first decade of computer industry disrupters COMPAQ – but director Jason Cohen ends up crafting a mini-history of personal computing itself. Its impressions of the industry’s early days are quaint and informative (particularly the then-and-now comparisons of process and capital), particularly the company’s low-rent beginnings and the way that now-standard bells-and-whistles like portability were, at that moment, enough to start what felt like a revolution. But if your interest is more casual, no worries; it’s also a fast-paced and lucid time capsule, thanks to the kitschy vintage ads, archival footage, and news clips.

VERY GOOD DOCS

Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race, and America

Daryl Davis is a DC-area African-American musician, author, and lecturer who’s spent the past quarter-century or so pursuing a peculiar hobby: he sits down with leaders of the KKK and other hate groups, talks to them, tries to see them as human beings, and to get them to see him the same way. And it’s made a difference; several of those he’s met have subsequently left those groups, and those lives. Director Matthew Ornstein takes his camera along with Davis on a journey through the South and Midwest, discussing their history and the people he’s met along the way. For much of its running time, Accidental Courtesy is an absorbing look at a fascinating figure. But it doesn’t lionize its subject; the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center questions the effectiveness of what he’s doing, and he ends up in a charged, harrowing confrontation with Black Lives Matter activists, a conversation that unexpectedly dives into the generational divide in black activism, and ends up turning the whole movie inside out. A complicated and unexpectedly challenging exploration of vital and timely subjects.

Ovarian Psycos

The opening music is dreamlike, and the images are striking: women on their bikes, riding through East LA, with bandanas over their faces like Wild West bandits. They are the Ovarian Psycos, an “all women of color bicycling brigade,” and this immersive documentary by Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-Lavelle captures their scene – as well as the social and economic world and personal tragedies that shaped it. The personalities are vivid and the filmmaking is both mournful and exuberant, capturing these streets, their stories, and their world.

VERY GOOD DOCS (cont.)

Orange Sunshine

Of course this documentary account of the ’60s California LSD scene opens with “Spirit in the Sky”; it’s the kind of movie that can’t not open with it. The specific focus here is on “The Brotherhood of Eternal Love,” a church dedicated to spreading the word of spiritual revolution — and spreading the tabs that’d lead to it. Their story is a fascinating one, of a group that discovered that the manufacturing, smuggling, and distribution of substances was something they were pretty good at. And it’s told well, by the people who were there, accompanied by period footage, convincingly faked home movies, and stylish reenactments. Fast-paced and energetic, and a brisk and eccentric snapshot of an era.

MODEST DIVERSIONS

Jules and Dolores

“Some of this actually happened,” smirks the title card that opens Caito Ortiz’s energetic crime comedy, which tells the tale of the 1983 theft of the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. It’s the story of a hustler, racking up debts and broken promises, who stumbles upon the idea of a heist, barely pulls it off, and does pretty much everything wrong afterwards. Ortiz directs in a slick, brassy style, capturing the characters’ flexible moral code (and their cheerfully sensual domestic life), and he puts together some memorable set pieces. It’s a totally serviceable, easily digestible, and semi-disposable cops ‘n robbers flick, which is all fine, though film festival-goers might be looking for a bit more.

MIXED BAGS

When you’re reading festival insta-buzz on social media, it’s easy to presume that every movie is either a masterpiece or a massacre. These were somewhere in the middle.

Demolition

Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club) finds the right way in to this story of a recent widower (Jake Gyllenhaal, great again) losing his grip; Vallée puts us right in his head, seeing every barely triggered memory and hearing every delayed inquiry, yet unable to penetrate the shell that he’s apparently always been, since long before his wife died in front of him. It’s the story of a man coming apart, but not in the expected way (or for the typical reasons), and for a very long time, it works; the dazzling style makes the story seem fresher than it is. But even the ace performances and Vallée’s aesthetic pyrotechnics can’t distract from the overt contrivances and narrative manipulations of its third act, and it leaves the whole thing feeling like a missed opportunity, a picture running wild that’s eventually clobbered into conventionality.

The Trust

Nicolas Cage livens up a fairly formulaic dirty cop/heist movie with his now pro forma physical tics, bonkers line readings, and actorly flourishes, and it’s either the best or worst thing about Ben and Alex Brewer’s debut feature (or maybe it’s both). The performance doesn’t make sense within the film’s ultimately somber tone, nor within the context of what seems to be written as a by-the-book character who goes bad. But without them, this’d be some mighty generic fare. Elijah Wood, as his junior partner and ultimate accomplice, works up a credibly exhausted, reactive rhythm with the older actor, and the Brewers’ direction is rambunctious and appropriately moody. But not much about it holds or reverberates.

MISFIRES

Also known as: the kind of movies people who don’t go to film festivals presume they run at all the film festivals.

The Arbalest

Writer/director Adam Pinney’s bizarre comedy/drama (the rather inexplicable winner of the Grand Jury Prize) begins promisingly, with a pair of intermingled timelines introducing the character of Foster Kalt (Mike Brune), a would-be toy inventor, and Sylvia (an exquisite Tallie Medel), the woman he becomes fixated on for the better part of the decade. Pinney’s style is strangely compelling – a little cold, a little removed, occasionally jolting us with arrhythmic cutting and snap zooms – and the peculiar interactions between his characters are intriguing. But it doesn’t go anywhere or do anything; it’s just a collection of oddball scenes, and by the time Pinney gets to his frustratingly hollow concluding scenes, his film has become off-puttingly infatuated with its own presumed subversiveness.

Black

This Belgian Romeo and Juliet riff has a flashy, caffeinated style and jangly energy, which goes a long way towards making this creakily familiar story seem somewhat fresh, as does the easygoing chemistry and charisma of its leads. But it takes some ugly turns midway through, with a series of glib (and kinda racist!) twists and a gang rape scene that is uncomfortably exploitative — it puts too much weight on this otherwise lightweight story, and topples it clean over. The filmmaking is aesthetically sublime, but that’s about all it’s got going, and by its climax, you’re just waiting for them to check the double-murder boxes.

WORST OF THE FEST

Hardcore Henry

There’s no measurement of time quite as elongated as those you spend on a friend’s couch watching them play a video game, and in spite of some bouncy innovations and technical wizardry, Ilya Naishuller’s subjective action movie is basically like watching someone else play a particularly gory and misogynistic first-person shooter. The camerawork is impressively nutty and it moves like nobody’s business, but it’s ultimately just a wind-up toy, and once it’s done going in its tedious circles, there’s not much left for anyone who can vote and doesn’t subsist on Red Bull.

BEST OF THE FEST, RUNNERS-UP

Hunter Gatherer

Andre Royo (“Bubs” from The Wire) brings his easy-breezy authenticity to this loose, frowzy story of an ex-con returning to his Los Angeles neighborhood and trying to put his life back together – particularly the relationship that fell apart in his absence. Writer/director Joshua Locy creates a community of colorful characters and relationships of genuine warmth, all the while positioning his protagonist on the razor’s edge between heartbreak and instability. He paints himself into a bit of a corner by the end, and the dreamlike interludes are too self-consciously arty. But Royo keeps the picture grounded, and its closing passages vibrate with real power.

Before the Sun Explodes

A floundering stand-up comedian (Bill Dawes) whose marriage is in disarray finds himself spending the night with a fellow comic (Sarah Butler), who is sexy and interesting and more than a little fucked up. Co-writer/director Debra Eisenstadt confines the action of her story to that long, weird evening – and the morning that follows – and captures the intensity and uncertainty of nights like those, where the push-pull of an ill-advised attraction is both scary and hot. It’s a tricky, complicated movie, and Dawes and Butler generate a great, weird chemistry.

BEST OF THE FEST

5. Operator

I’m sure Logen Kibens’ debut feature will draw comparisons to Her and Creative Control and other recent examinations of the intersection of love and technology, but don’t get it twisted: hers is a unique new voice, and this is an inventive take on modern romance. And she’s doing something risky too — the relationship she establishes at the beginning of her story seems to be one that works (thanks in no small part to the lived-in vibe established by stars Martin Starr and Mae Whitman); you get not only how they love each other, but how they make sense together. And when circumstances put that relationship into a spin cycle, they both end up realizing something very subtle and vital about each other, and themselves — and suddenly everything is up in the air. But don’t see it for that stuff; see it because it’s uproarious and lyrical and (aha) human.

4. Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols is a distinctively Texas filmmaker; his work is giant yet personal, tackling huge ideas on an intimate scale. His latest is a masterful blend of road adventure, family drama, and science fiction, in which two estranged parents, the goons of a Jeffs-like cult leader, and the federal government are all after a remarkable child with inexplicable powers. As with his earlier Take Shelter, Nichols is using his large canvas to ask pressing questions about faith and belief, all the while acknowledging his story’s loudly ticking clock and relentless momentum. The matter-of-fact effects and bluntly efficient action beats are marvels, but the real power here is in the connections between parents and child, and the tenderness of their interactions. Nichols does so many things so well, and all at once, that it sort of takes your breath away. (Read more here.)

BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)

3. War on Everyone

John Michael McDonagh returns to the morally-compromised-buddy-cop-movie territory of The Guard for this brutish, nasty, wickedly funny barn-burner. Resplendent in their three-piece suits, Michael Pena and Alexander Skarsgaard are a pair of cheerfully profane and unapologetically crooked police detectives; they’ve got the rapid-fire timing and bristling familiarity of a good comedy team. Both are great, but Pena is particularly enchanting, channeling the confidence and comic ingenuity of Beverly Hills Cop-era Eddie Murphy. Stylishly executed and ruthlessly paced, it’s got a giddy shoot-the-works spirit and, yes, a moral compass buried deep in its cold, black heart.

2. Tower

Director Keith Maitland’s Grand Jury Prize winner for documentary explores the 1966 University of Texas clock tower mass shooting – in Austin, so hometown emotions run high – in a strikingly unexpected way, intermingling archival news footage and audio recordings with reenacted scenes and interviews, put through the “rotoscoping” animation process. What could have been an alienating device ends up making the picture even more immediate, dramatic, and tense; it’s scary, visceral filmmaking, and the moments in which Maitland chooses to drop his devices and use color and/or the original participants are stunningly effective. It’s the story of a tragedy, but also of regular people and the searing bravery they’re capable of, and the Walter Cronkite commentary on the tragedy is, 50 years later, still distressingly on-point. And to that end…

BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)

1. Newtown

Kim A. Snyder’s emotionally pulverizing documentary opens with images from a parade — a marching band, drum majors, service people, a beauty queen. These tableaux are almost clichéd visions of Americana, and they’re quickly followed by one that’s become equally inescapable: a mass shooting in progress. Twenty children and six adults were murdered on that December day in Newtown, and Snyder’s film is a portrait of grief, as felt by an entire community: parents who spend every day in tears, surviving siblings trying to muster a strength that the world shouldn’t yet require of them, a community that will never be the same, not even close. That the two best films of this festival were both about school shootings is one of those weird coincidences I mentioned earlier – but it also speaks to the way this subject is dominating our collective subconscious. We don’t really talk about this issue, not really; we make it about “rights” and “liberty” because what actually happened to these children and their families is simply unfathomable. But it happened, and attention must be paid, and this powerful film reverberates with the urgency of that need.