SXSW 2016 Report Card

SXSW is a brand name when it comes to film festivals, but defining its identity is still problematic. It’s probably still second to Sundance as far as prestige for indie films looking to break out, and it comes too early in the year to attract international premieres or blockbuster headliners. 

As a regional festival, it continues to attract Texas-themed films, and its location in Austin makes it a natural for home-grown talent such as Jeff Nichols and Richard Linklater. It it’s line up isn’t as deep at TIFF or Telluride, it still attracts talent and never lacks for star power.

This year’s festival lineup was a little light at the top, and documentaries tended to outshine narratives. That said, among the twenty films I screened, there was only one out and out dud…which of course ended up winning a jury prize.

Here’s my comprehensive report card from from the film side of America’s music festival

  1. Newtown — Kim Snyder’s unflinching look at the aftermath of mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary is understandably hard to watch at times. What it gets right is not just the anger evoked by life’s sometimes brutal cruelty but the human sacred solemnity felt in the presence of survivors. (A)
  2. Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America — An impressive debut feature from Matt Ornstein profiles the outspoken musician who befriends Ku Klux Klan members. What stands out even more than Davis’s intelligence is his emotional differentiation. Only once does a conflict seem to rile him, and that is when he is confronted by other African-Americans who question the value of his methodology. (A)
  3. Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities — Steve Mims explains the origins and ideologies behind the battles unfolding for control of America’s public universities. What emerges is a startling and scary portrait of a nation that may be on the verge of forgetting why it invested in public education in the first place. (A)
  4. Fantastic Lies — This ESPN sponsored summary of the way Duke University, Mike Nifong, the media, and the rest of us rushed to judgment upon hearing accusations of sexual assault at a party for the high-profile lacrosse team suffers (but only slightly) from relying a little too heavily on parents of the falsely accused. Not that there are any remaining doubts about the players’ innocence, but the film might have benefited from a bit more introspection instead of summary. That this happened is shocking and depressing. Thinking a little more deeply about why it happened might have been a worthwhile enterprise. (A-)
  5. Claire in Motion — Less flashy but more intelligent that the festivals more highly touted spousal grief film, Demolition, Claire in Motion benefits from a wonderfully restrained performance from Betsy Brandt. Claire needs to keep herself together for the benefit of her son, and while the circumstances that keep throwing her into the path of an art student with whom her husband might have had an emotional (but not sexual) affair are a bit contrived, Claire’s responses to the other woman always ring true. (A-)
  6. In a Valley of Violence — Before Ti West’s western revenge saga dissolves into Tarantino parroting in its last act, it a surprisingly effective genre piece. Ethan Hawke expands his repertoire and Taissa Farmiga practically steals the show. This is a familiar story, but West’s framing and composition are effective, and he lets his stars do the heavy lifting. (B+)
  7. In Pursuit of Silence — A documentary about the spiritual and psychological benefits from silence is a tricky thing. On the one hand, there are ample testimonials about the detriments of having fewer and fewer spaces devoid of near constant noise. On the other hand, silence may be one of those subjects that demands a more immersive treatment. The film attempts to both explain and embody silence. A better film might have done one or the other. (B)
  8. Free in Deed — Jake Mahaffey’s depiction of an African-American man (David Harewood) seeking redemption for we know not what by trying to miraculously heal a boy who is most probably autistic was the most visually accomplished and striking film of the festival. Harewood is riveting as Abe, a man who Mahaffey said (in an interview) has a “talent” for healing but comes across as neither comfortable in his own skin or confident of his place in God’s kingdom. The film doesn’t rank higher only because it comes across as a fine act of imitation. It gets the surface textures of the charismatic religion right, but it holds us at arms length. Mahaffey appears to want the audience to extract its own meaning from the (inspired by a true-) story. That’s normally fine, but there is a difference between being circumspect and being opaque. (B)
  9. Miss Stevens — Without fine performances from Lily Rabe as Miss Stevens and Rob Huebel as a drama student who may be cycling off his medication, Julia Hart’s feel-good melodrama could easily have come across as trite or even icky. Student and teacher have an emotional bond, and Miss Stevens lets it go farther than it should for reasons that aren’t fully explained until the end. A gay male student and a less talented female student both come along for the ride. The film only really soars when Huebel’s character delivers a monologue from Death of a Salesman, but Rabe is always interesting to watch. Also Hart’s script is good at showing how teachers, like politicians, are forced to make dozens of snap decisions every day, never really knowing which they will asked to account for. (B-)
  10. The Liberators — Cassie Bryant’s documentary about priceless artifacts stolen from Germany at the end of World War II takes too long to get to its most interesting questions, insisting on trying to make itself into a detective story even though the outcome is never really in doubt. High marks, however, for some very articulate talking heads. (B-)
  11. Everybody Wants Some!! — I’ve warmed a tad, but only a tad, to Richard Linklater’s opening-night film. The mostly plotless depiction of three days at a Texas university before the start of classes is mostly an excuse for a very of well executed vignettes that feel like less than the some of its parts. That said, Me and Orson Welles is the only Linklater film outside the Before trilogy that I’ve truly liked, so your mileage may vary. (C+)
  12. Cameraperson — Is it fair to call a person’s memoir thirty minutes too long? Maybe not, but while Kirsten Johnson’s highlight reel does evidence a keen eye for framing, it usually feels more like a scrapbook than a memoir. I actually found myself wanting a little bit of Johnson talking about her work. (C)
  13. Midnight Special — I am convinced that if Jeff Nichols’s sci-fi mash up is screened outside of Austin that maybe more people will eventually agree with me that it is underwritten. The actors are all great–Nichols rightly called it a dream cast in introducing the film–but nothing much happens until the end. By that time, the fate of these characters matters less to us than it should. (C)
  14. Little Sister — This film felt more like Tribeca than SXSW. It was the story of a dysfunctional family as seen through the eyes of one semi-normal member. Colleen is a nun-in-training who takes a leave to visit her family when her brother returns (wounded) from a war. The family dynamics are a bit too sitcommish, but Addison Timlin holds it together in the lead, and its always nice to see a film have its religious characters treat their religion seriously. (C)
  15. I Am Not  a Serial Killer — Novelist Dan Wells confirmed in an interview that he was very pleased with Billy O’Brien’s adaptation of his genre-bending series of John Wayne Cleaver books. My less sanguine response had much to do with the fact that the film greatly de-emphasizes the teen’s internal struggle to keep his own demons at bay while fighting a monster he thinks he is uniquely qualified to understand. Wells countered that Max Records does a fine job of communicating the internal struggle without the film resorting to voice-over, and he’s right about that. But he also insisted that the book is about someone trying to be good, and all I saw in the film was someone trying to destroy another evil. (C)
  16. The Master Cleanse — Almost. This deadpan comedy horror vehicle simultaneously skewers health nuts, New Age religion, and self-help seminars. It’s central conceit–making the purging of impurities literal rather than figurative–sort of works, but it takes too long to get to it. The tone is stuck somewhere between ironic detachment and enthusiastic embrace of farce. Another draft might have helped a great deal. (C-)
  17. Yarn — A documentary about how yarn is made and used and thought about ought to at least be charming. The film, unfortunately, can’t decide if it wants to focus more on the art projects–some of which are impressive–or the eccentric artists that create them. The latter aren’t always as articulate as you would like, and a few are actually cruder than you would expect in a film that might otherwise attract a wider audience. It’s almost as though Yarn doesn’t really believe anyone might actually be interested in its subject and so pushes away those who are while trying to attract…who exactly? (D+)
  18. Bodkin Ras — Kaweh Madiri told audiences at SXSW that he was fascinated by the characters in this Scottish town but mostly interested in Forres as a swamp from which nobody could escape. The mix of fictional character and documentary travelogue never quite gels, and even at 79 minutes, the film feels stretched. Before watching the film, I’ve always thought Scotland might be a cool place to visit. Afterwards, I wondered if everybody just hates living in small towns wherever they are. Surely that was not the intent? (D)
  19. Before the Sun ExplodesI have a long standing antipathy for films (or television shows) that manipulate us into rooting for adultery. The story of a middle-aged comedian kicked out of his home (maybe) by his wife and being pursued (maybe) by a younger, more understanding woman nails the passive, half-resistance that white-knucklers often offer in the face of temptation. But we’re emotionally smarter than this, so the film too often engenders impatience where (I think) it is aiming for empathy. (D)
  20. The Arbalest — For the second time in three years, my least favorite movie at SXSW won the Grand Jury Prize. Not sure what that means. The Arbalest is a satire that isn’t sure what it is satrizing, a comedy that isn’t funny, and a film that uses violence in the laziest ways possible while expecting us be alternately horrified and amused by it. My only consolation is that Fort Tilden also received a Grand Jury prize and was rightfully never heard from again.

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