The Best and Worst Movies of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival

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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:

PRETTY GOOD DOCS 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.

ARTSY DOCS Nothing like a good non-fiction film that sends you scurrying for a photo book or some new records after.

Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable

Winogrand, a growling straight-talker with a Bronx accent and an eye for visual poetry, was a street photographer – one of the great ones. This documentary portrait from American Masters and director Sasha Waters Freyer utilizes a loose biographical structure to explore his recurring motifs, and to close-read some of his best pictures’ compositions, themes, and influences. It’s not a total shine-job – Fryer doesn’t shy away from the shortcomings of the work, or the controversies surrounding it – but it admires him regardless, and cleverly figures out ways to see, through him, a modern history of the form.

A Tuba to Cuba

This documentary from directors T.G. Herrington and Danny Cinch is something of a reverse Buena Vista Social Club, in which members of New Orleans’ beloved Preservation Hall Jazz Band travel to Havana and Santiago to unearth musical and cultural traditions, and make connections from Cuban to jazz music that transcend language. Affection for these cities resonates in every frame, as well as for these old pros and their musical battle scars, and since it’s told from inside the group, there’s a welcome musicality to the filmmaking. It comes off a touch disorganized, and by traditional documentary standards, it may be. This is more like a musical performance, exploring themes, pausing for solos, and finding unexpected harmonies.

MOOOOOOVIES At film festivals, people are interested in movies! So they show movies about movies.

The Director and the Jedi

Anthony Wonke’s intimate portrait of the making of Star Wars: The Last Jedi begins at the wrap party, where writer/director Rian Johnson announces, “I don’t wanna freak anybody out here, but we just made a Star Wars movie.” The entire film is fueled by that notion, the gee-whiz enthusiasm of a lucky kid who’s getting to play in a sandbox he never imagined touching. And there’s a sense he’s in over his head – it’s an impossibly complicated production, and Wonke gets down into the details of set building, creature-making, calendar-shuffling, and numbers-crunching – but it’s ultimately heartwarming, because pressure and exhaustion aside, they all seem to have a great time. And due time is given to his complicated relationship with star Mark Hamill, who admits up front, “I just fundamentally disagree with your concept of this character and how you use him,” but also gives himself over to the collaboration. Sure, The Director and the Jedi is basically a DVD special feature. But it’s a really lovely one.

Half the Picture

A who’s who of women in Hollywood – including Ava DuVernay, Kimberly Peirce, Penelope Spheeris, Miranda July, Jamie Babbit, Martha Coolidge, Lena Dunham, and many more – turn up to contribute to Amy Adrion’s perceptive examination of gender bias (unconscious and not) in the motion picture and television industries. If you’re interested enough to see the movie, the stats probably won’t come as a surprise (thought the sharp, clean graphics and animation helpfully underscore them); the real value here is the space Adrion gives these extraordinary women to tell their war stories.

NERVOUS ROMANCES It’s never as simple as boy-meets-girl in indie-land.

Wild Honey Pie!

There’s a particular kind of feeling to fooling around in an afternoon that moves into evening, as drinks are consumed, inhibitions are shed, secrets are told, and desires are indulged – how quickly little flirtations get out of hand. Jamie Adams’ low-key comedy/drama gets that feeling just right, and a lot of other notes besides; it captures the complications of long-term relationships with candor and humor. And its modesty is its virtue, spending just a few tough days with its long-married and increasingly frustrated couple (played with warmth and skill by Jemima Kirke and Richard Elis). A charming little movie, filled with quiet truths.

Write When You Get Work

The first words to appear on screen aren’t a credit or a production company logo, but a promise: “Shot on Kodak Film.” (The cinematographer is Oscar winner Robert Elswitt.) And that’s appropriate; the filminess of the latest from writer/director Stacy Cochran (My New Gun) gives it weight and context, making it look like a lost late-‘80s/early-‘90s indie, something like Spike of Bensonhurst or Just Another Girl on the IRT. Trouble is, the weirdly retrograde script makes it feel like a leftover from that era as well, romanticizing a “courtship” that should probably end with a restraining order rather than a walk into the sunset. That said, the filmmaking is sturdy and it boasts a solid cast – with a standout performance by Emily Mortimer, who plays her freaked-out financier’s wife as a bundle of frayed nerves.

THRILL-SEEKERS Movies about people looking for adrenaline – and the trouble that gets them in.

6 Balloons

Marja-Lewis Ryan’s intense micro-drama runs a tight 75 minutes, but the relationships and conflicts are clear immediately, and she trusts the viewer to fill in the required backstories. Abbi Jacobson is suitably serious (but not without her dry wit) as a young professional riding a rising tide of crises and freak-outs as the surprise party she’s painstakingly assembled for her boyfriend is potentially derailed by the realization that she has to take her younger brother (Dave Franco, also excellent) to detox. The central metaphor of Ryan’s otherwise ace screenplay doesn’t quite work, and there is a sense that the picture ends just as it gets going. But it’s a movie that understands co-dependency from the inside, as well as the helplessness and hopelessness of trying to cure someone else’s addiction.

American Animals

Like his 2012 SXSW entry The Impostor, the latest from director Bart Layton blurs the lines between documentary and narrative, intercutting the actors dramatizing this story of a rare book heist with their present-day, real-life counterparts, even plucking the real guys into the staged scenes (“So this is how you remember it?”). And that’s not the only bait and switch here; Layton seems to be assembling a standard caper movie, and takes full advantage of the rapid pace and energetic sense of montage such a story affords, even lifting music cues and lines of dialogue from the classics in the stack of heist movies they rent from Blockbuster for research. But the job itself isn’t slick and cool; it’s messy and ugly and upsetting, and in those riveting scenes (which are all the more nerve-racking because they don’t really know what they’re doing – so anything could go wrong), it becomes, surprisingly enough, a stealth act of media critique.

CLOSE CALLS Memorable performances and strong concepts, but something about these movies was just a little bit off.

A Vigilante

“I’m looking out the window, and the trucks won’t stop coming.” All the women leave her a message that begins with those words, followed by their details; then she shows up, often in some kind of disguise, to help them leave their husbands. She’s very persuasive. Her name is Sadie, and she’s played by Olivia Wilde, who were first see in an extended close-up of her face in a snarl as she works the heavy bag; it’s a tough, tricky performance, powerfully exploring trauma and grief. And to its credit, this is not a rah-rah bullshit movie, a la Death Wish – it’s quiet and intense and informed by sadness. It’s also a very tough sit, particularly when (as we expect) her own past catches up with her in the third act, a stretch of pain and torture that throws the picture out of whack. But it’s worth a look, for Sarah Dagger-Nixon’s moody direction, and yet another impressive turn from Ms. Wilde.

Support the Girls

Andrew Bujalski’s movies always operate on their own wavelength, and when he’s cooking, it’s an ideal place to be. But when he’s off, it can be a bumpy ride, and that’s the case more often than not in this loose-limbed, workplace-hangout comedy, which spends a day in the doors of Double Whammies, an Austin “sports-themed bar and grill.” But there’s a lot here to like, particularly from a performance perspective: Haley Lu Richardson is just delightful as the cheeriest waitress in the place (or any place, frankly), and Regina Hall, as the manager, conveys the character’s personal and professional ennui without turning into a big drag. It’s so energetically acted and casually funny, you might not even notice that it never quite comes together.

BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNERS-UP)

A Quiet Place

John Krasinski directs and co-stars (alongside wife Emily Blunt) in this taut, gripping thriller that builds its scares around an inevitability: the puncturing of silence. They play parents of a family hiding in the woods following an invasion by aliens who are drawn (and drawn to kill) by sound, and much of the film’s early stretch merely dramatizes their little rituals and routines. Krasinksi risks boring the audience here, but to an end: the tiniest disruptions become that much more startling and scary, and every little detail is a ticking bomb we’re expecting to explode. All the performers are excellent; Blunt is particularly sturdy, building her character’s regret and guilt into stern determination, but Krasinski’s quiet closing moments find the picture’s emotional truth. A ruthlessly efficient and bluntly effective B-movie.

A Bluebird in My Heart

Clara (Lola Le Lann) is a restless teenager, trouble waiting to happen; Danny (Roland Møller) is a taciturn, head-down type, just out of jail and trying to keep his nose clean. Writer/director Jérémie Guez deftly positions both of them as outsiders, mirror images of solitude and need, and brings them to each other in ways both effective and unexpected. He knows what to show and what to choose not to (there’s a close-up of a blood-spattered window that’s truly chilling), and works up some genuine emotion in its closing scenes; it’s a melancholy number, this one, quiet and tough and kind of great.

BEST OF THE FEST (Also worth mentioning in this company: Julia Hart’s Fast Color and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, which you can read about here.)

Blindspotting

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal co-write and co-star in this wildly funny and proudly provocative story of Collin (Diggs) on his last three days of probation, and first day of (relative) freedom after. But this is not some wacky, Friday-style hangout comedy – that’s clear right away, when Collin witnesses a cop shooting an unarmed black man, and is haunted thereafter by the image of the crumpled body on the street – and their script takes well-aimed shots at gentrification, racism, and black rage. But it’s funny as hell, and can turn on a dime, moving from witty, vernacular dialogue humor into the kind of scenes where people say the uncomfortably quiet part out loud. Director Carlos López Estrada crafts an energetic visual style, popping from scene to scene and shot to shot with a rhythmic intensity that mirrors the (mostly hip-hop) needle drops. Like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You , which premiered alongside it at Sundance, Blindspotting feels like an early shot in a new movement of absurdist social satire, and it’s long overdue.

Thunder Road

The slyly funny and utterly heartbreaking eulogy that opens writer/director/star Jim Cummings’ expansion of his 2016 short (itself a SXSW smash) is an extraordinary balancing act of comedy and tragedy that properly sets the stage for the extraordinary film that follows, which is a difficult yet invigorating account of a man slowly falling apart. Cummings, a terrific actor with a sprung, Owen-Wilson-ish way of delivering a line, finds the humor in his Squaresville character without turning him into a caricature; he’s the kind of guy who starts talking and just can’t stop himself, even as he’s digging a deeper hole. I’ve rarely seen a film pivot so quickly and so frequently between comedy and pathos, in a way that neither devalues the drama nor blunts the humor. It’s kind of a miracle, frankly.