The Best and Worst Documentary Films of SXSW 2017

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AUSTIN, TX: The SXSW Film Festival’s documentary slate isn’t exactly its claim to fame. This is not to say that they don’t show good films – it’s just neither the destination that is Sundance or the catch-all that is Tribeca. But their nonfiction films always have plenty of personality; at least, that was my takeaway from taking in a handful between panels and big premieres this week.

HYBRIDS

The big trend in Austin this year, from a stylistic standpoint, was the fusion of fiction and non-fiction – filmmakers using narrative tools to tell documentary stories, and in doing so, to comment on often fuzzy divide between perception and reality.

DRIB

The festival’s goofiest title is one of its smartest movies – and this is a fine place to see it, considering how seemingly every event, building, bus, and garment is adorned with one form of branding or another. Director Kristoffer Borgli dramatizes how his viral video-making, Kaufman-style performance artist pal Amir Asgharnejad was courted and then dumped for an energy drink company’s “edgy” ad campaign, and in doing so, he blurs the line between fiction and truth (even pulling out the frame of reenactment at a couple of key points) in ways that are really sort of thrilling, while trafficking in absurdist comedy and inventive explorations of form. Quietly piercing, riotously funny, and not easily dismissed.

California Dreams

Director Mike Ott (who also helmed the doc/narrative fusion film Actor Martinez ) works in a blurrier style, putting real people into aesthetically staged scenes that mirror their own lives, loosely organized around the idea of regular people who want, in one way or another, to make it big in the movies. The title is evocative; most of them already live in California, but in lives so far removed from the Hollywood they imagine that they might as well be in Kansas. It would be easy for a film like this to look down on the would-be actors, writers, and stars at its center, or present their situation as poverty porn. Ott’s not into that at all, though; he looks at his subjects and listens — really listens — to them. This allows us to develop affection, sympathy, and understanding. The result is a true original, a living, breathing portrait of loneliness, aimlessness, delusion, poverty, and optimism.

Becoming Bond

This telling of the bonkers rise of “the forgotten James Bond” — George Lazenby, the Australian mechanic-turned-male-model who landed the plum gig of taking over for Sean Connery, then walked away from the franchise after his first and only outing — crosses the bio-doc with the bio-pic, but without the reverence customary of either. Lazenby, 76 but eyes still twinkling like a twenty-something, tells his own story (and he’s a very good storyteller, spicing it up with juicy details and funny flourishes). Director Josh Greenbaum dramatizes his memories, which are often bawdy and broad, in high style. It’s a funny little movie, and the supporting performances are a real treat (Jeff Garlin owns in the role he was born to play: a loud-mouth, blowhard, big-time Hollywood producer). And it might even be true; with a winking, self-aware narrator like Lazenby, it’s anybody’s guess.

CREATORS

The thematic element popping up most often in this year’s documentary slate was the creative process – how artists make the work that they make, and how the rest of us see it.

David Lynch: The Art Life

“You drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, and you paint… and that’s it.” That, in his youth, was David Lynch’s notion of “the art life,” right around the time he decided that was the life he wanted to lead – that nothing was more important to him than being an artist, no matter how long it took to make it as one (“I knew my stuff sucked, but I need to burn through. I had to find what was mine. And the only way to do that is to keep painting.”) This moody and informative documentary from directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm is solely interested in Lynch’s early years, with particular interest in his Pacific Northwest upbringing (“My world was no bigger than a couple of blocks”), and how all that suburban normalcy gave birth to his darkness and peculiarity – the way flashes of dread and strangeness would invade this idyllic childhood, and alter him forever. Lynch is, as ever, a fascinating figure, full of great stories, odd turns of phrase, and disturbing images; this unconventional documentary does right by its subject, which is no mean feat.

Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall

Director Katherine Fairfax Wright documents American Idol contestant and YouTube star Hall’s 2016 album and tour, a contemporary interpretation and staging of The Wizard of Oz that is a perpetual race against the clock – he writes records the songs, makes videos for all of them, releases the album (audio and video), and mounts a tour, all in the space of about a month. Hall seems to thrive on the adrenaline of pushing to the last minute, which is possible only because he’s a tireless worker and multi-hyphenate with a self-contained production unit. But aside from the fascinating logistical details of how this corner of the entertainment industry works, we also get a sense of how his art reflects his life; the film’s structure augments the performances with his autobiography, including some heart-wrenching memories of growing up black and gay in an environment that welcomed neither. Behind the Curtain could be a little tighter — it feels like the album and tour are each a movie fighting for time — but it’s a genuinely moving and inspiring portrait of a hard-working artist with a good heart (and of just how exhausting it is to be a pop star these days).

Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched

Director Frank Oz, an original Muppeteer turned accomplished filmmaker, gathers four of his fellow performers (the title’s a bit of a misnomer — it’s four guys and a girl) to reminisce about their years together and the man who brought them together, Jim Henson. The conversation is informative and often very funny, as they discuss the particulars of creating and performing the characters: finding the voice, finding the “lock,” understanding how many dimensions they needed, pulling them out of their own personalities (and flaws). Director Oz cleverly lays little animations over the interviews, helpfully illustrating the fascinating how-they-did-it stuff; otherwise, the filmmaking is shockingly amateurish for such an accomplished filmmaker (it looks like it was cut and titled in iMovie). It’s loose and informal, both for good and ill; there’s quite a bit of territory left uncovered in this barely-an-hour feature (and no real focus on the show, subtitle notwithstanding), but enough good stuff that fans will have a great time anyway.

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.