(My man in SXSW, Andrew Osborne, put together this list of the 10 movies he saw there that you need to keep an eye out for! Thanks, Andrew! – John)
Since its humble origin as a local music festival in 1987, SXSW (short for “South by Southwest”) has exploded into an exuberant arts (and marketing) smorgasbord, drawing bands, filmmakers, comedians, digerati, suits, celebrities and scenesters from around the world to the streets, clubs, convention halls and screening rooms of Austin, Texas each spring.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of its film component, SXSW hosted 133 features (including 78 world premieres) over ten days – making it virtually impossible for even the most dedicated of reviewers to see everything (or even a fraction of everything). So consider the following list a selective, highly subjective sampler plate of treats and surprises worth seeking out in the coming months at a theater (or Netflix queue) near you.
My South-By Top Five:
In most Hollywood romantic comedies, we know the central couple will overcome a few perfunctory obstacles and live happily ever after because the actors playing the lovebirds are the most attractive, likable (and famous) people in the movie. But writer/director Joe Swanberg knows real-world relationships seldom follow a predictable formula, which is what makes Drinking Buddies so relatable, funny and ultimately moving. Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (New Girl’s resident wiseass, Jake Johnson) work – and flirt — together at a craft beer microbrewery. They seem perfect for each other, yet never act on their clear mutual attraction because they’re both tethered to significant others (Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick), who in turn also seem perfect for each other…if only life were that simple.
Like Swanberg, Boston native Andrew Bujalski started his career in “mumblecore,” a character-focused independent film movement notable for its lo-fi aesthetic. For Computer Chess, the writer-director finally decided to go high tech – although, in this clever, heady period piece, the technology (including the ancient video camera used to shoot the film) is several decades out of date. Set in the very early 1980s, the story focuses on a convention of programmers obsessed with the titular activity and the pursuit of artificial intelligence. But what begins as an exploration of an arcane subculture takes a turn for the universal (and surreal) as the scientists discover they’re sharing their dingy, cat-infested hotel with a parallel convention of New Age sensualists more concerned with the mysteries of the heart and soul than the complexities of simulated thinking machines.
Branson, Missouri is the Las Vegas of the Bible Belt, where older white conservative Red State residents can enjoy glitzy patriotic variety shows in a small town oasis of traditional Christian family values. But, as the title of this documentary by A.J. Schnack and David Wilson implies, the reality is far more nuanced. The town has a large gay population of performers forced by geography to hide their personal lives in plain sight. A single mother sings squeaky-clean pop songs for the crowd, then curses like a sailor offstage. The moderate Republican mayor is more concerned with protecting her citizens than political divisions at the national level (while a visiting Congressman makes a point of cursing the stimulus money he hopes to wrangle for the town). And with the economy keeping visitors away, everyone struggles to ensure the show will go on in this compelling behind-the-scenes portrait of a uniquely American community.
4. OUR NIXON
Long before Americans began documenting the minutiae of their lives on social media, our 37th president and his staff were recording conversations in the Oval Office and compulsively shooting home movies of their time in the White House. Eventually, of course, the administration’s passion for self-inflicted surveillance would lead to its downfall – and, many years later, this fascinating found footage documentary by filmmaker Penny Lane. Culled from nearly 30 hours of archived Super 8 reels shot by Watergate all-stars H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin, Our Nixon is both an important historical document and a human-scale glimpse of the history makers themselves. Candid and revealing, some of the numerous highlights include Henry Kissinger in a surprisingly giddy poolside frolic, an exasperated executive branch tirade against All In The Family and Tricky Dick’s proudly square introduction of the Ray Conniff Singers (just before the performance takes a gasp-inducing turn).
Nobody does bleak, beautiful despair like the French, and this Grimm environmental fable is no exception. Faced with an endless season where crops won’t grow, cows won’t give milk and trees are toppling in the forest, the citizens of a once pastoral village slowly descend into cruelty and brutal superstition. Yet, as with Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, the imagery of directors Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth’s quiet, spooky apocalypse is so gorgeous that it’s hard to look away.
MY HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Richard Dormer stars as Terri Hooley, the godfather of Belfast punk in this feel-good tale of Catholic and Protestant kids fighting the “Troubles” in 1970s Ireland with the power of the pogo.
Harry Dean Stanton was originally offered the Dennis Hopper role in Blue Velvet, he once shared a bachelor pad with Jack Nicholson, Debbie Harry wrote a song about him and he’d rather yodel country standards than talk about any of it. But director Sophie Huber still manages to coax some great stories out of the American icon (and you eventually get used to his singing).
If you’re a fan of the late, great Divine (the 300 pound gender-bending star of Hairspray and Pink Flamingos), you probably already know the story of a bullied Baltimore kid named Harris Glenn Milstead who rose to international cult stardom. But whether you’re familiar with the story or coming to it fresh, Jeffrey Schwarz’s affectionate profile is a rollicking, bittersweet tribute to the patron saint of misfits.
Sports can offer a way out (or at least a temporary morale boost) for kids stuck in poverty – but in Davy Rothbart’s compassionate documentary, the epic losing streak of a rural Indiana basketball team comes to symbolize the fading hopes of the recession generation.
Background singers are meant to be heard but not seen (at least not as individuals), which is just fine for some of the subjects in Morgan Neville’s toe-tapping survey of pop music’s invaluable supporting players. Yet for those seeking lead singer status (like former Blossom Darlene Love), the twenty feet to the front of the stage can be a very long walk indeed.