This year, I traveled to Austin, TX and attended the South by Southwest film festival. It was the first time I’d ever been to a festival, and it was an awesome experience. I saw a ton of movies, and here you’ll find coverage of about half of them. The rest are in an imminent post, but for now, happy reading!
The Look of Silence
I saw this film just hours after I flew into Austin on the first day of the festival, and I walked out wondering if all the movies to come could possibly measure up. A couple came close, but Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film to The Act of Killing towers high above most everything else that played there. The Act of Killing is a powerful work on its own, but The Look of Silence makes it even more so. The two films complete each other, each filling gaps in the other and mutually enhancing the impact of their material. The Look of Silence takes a decidedly more direct approach in its confrontation of the killers, with protagonist Adi — whose brother was brutally murdered as part of the sham purge of communists — taking the reins from Oppenheimer and directly calling them out on their hypocrisies and lies. Oppenheimer wanted them to come to a realization on their own, but Adi calls them murderers straight to their faces. In a country where these men are still extremely powerful and influential, that’s an unbelievably courageous act, and one that is endlessly fascinating.
One of four Duplass Brothers films at the festival (and one of two of those Duplass Brothers films purchased by Netflix), Hannah Fidel’s 6 Years is a total bore. Though Taissa Farmiga’s performance is quite good, and the cinematography has that soft shallow-focus look that seems inherent to films like this, there’s just nothing going on here. It’s about the dissolution of a young couple’s relationship, and while I appreciated the realism with which it’s depicted, realism often makes for terrible drama. It replays the same three plot beats over and over again, the consequences of each cycle mostly forgotten as the next begins, and then all of a sudden it just stops. It feels about a half-hour shorter than it actually is, and it ends without having developed itself in any significant way. As indie romances go, I think I’d rather have something quirky and stupid than something realistic and inert.
Breaking a Monster
Documentaries (or even fiction films) about the music industry usually contain familiar tropes and ideas. Everyone’s greedy, it’s all about image, no one cares about ART, man. Breaking a Monster is no exception, but it is fun to see those ideas from the perspective of a group of middle-schoolers. The three 13-year-old members of metal band Unlocking the Truth have to contend with a manager who clearly doesn’t understand them and an industry that’s stacked against them. It’s not breaking new ground, but it’s no less effective than any other movie of its ilk.
After the film, director Alex Garland said this in response to a question about his intent in a certain aspect of the film: “People deify directors, and I think that’s bullshit.” I was smitten. It’s not often you hear a director be so virulently anti-auteurist. And it doesn’t hurt that Ex Machina is a pretty great film. It’s smart, slick, simple sci-fi in the vein of Moon, and it never condescends to its audience in telling its story. It’s not a hard movie to “get” or anything, but it never goes out of its way to explain a concept or a plot beat. It assumes the best of its audience, a trait I wish more sci-fi films could have. Oh, and I fell in love with Oscar Isaac all over again while watching it. His character’s sense of humor is totally out of line with the rest of the movie, but it works because Isaac plays it like he’s keeping you on your toes. It’s one of my favorite performances of the year so far.
Frame by Frame
This documentary about photojournalists in post-Taliban Afghanistan benefits significantly from the inclusion of its subjects’ photographs. These are some seriously talented individuals, and we see a ton of stunning compositions. It’s also got a killer premise: the Taliban made it illegal to take a photograph, so now that they’ve been deposed, Afghanistan is attempting to rebuild a free press. We get to see the country unfiltered by Western media, from the perspective of the people who actually live there. Of course, it’s hardly a glowing portrait. The journalists meet with plenty of government interference, as the country is still clinging to many conservative ideologies. One of the subjects, Farzana Wahidy, is presented with unique obstacles due to her being a woman, and scenes with her focus mainly on the oppression that Afghan women face even without official Taliban rule. Frame by Frame suffers from overstating its thesis (“photojournalism is important, y’all”) with a few too many montages, but it’s not didactic enough for that aspect to really sink the film.
This will likely be one of the more divisive films to come out of the festival and with good reason. The comedian at its center tells jokes so vile that I expect many people just won’t be able to get on board with him. I found the film’s meta-humor very well-handled, however. It’s largely to the credit of lead actor Gregg Turkington, whose pauses and emphasis in his joke deliveries are perfectly used to manipulate the audience watching the film, just as they’re perfectly used to alienate the in-film audience watching him perform. Entertainment knows the comedic value of banality, as best exemplified by John C. Reilly’s character, the most generic man who ever lived. The film reveals itself to be more and more expressionistic as it goes on, with many shots completely awash in single primary colors and the protagonist’s performances devolving into a series of fart noises. It’s a brilliant, hilarious film, and I can’t wait for more people to see it.
In a Q&A after the film, the filmmakers stated that The Boy was the first in an intended trilogy that would track the growth and development of a sociopathic serial killer. It came across as insanely presumptuous to make that claim so long before the film’s official release. It’s a creative misstep that you can really feel throughout the film. A lot of this feels like it’s designed to be called back to in future installments, rather than bringing any meaning to the film itself. It’s largely set-up for films that, for all anyone knows, might never get made. The Boy tries to make up for its hollowness with an explosive climax, but it feels totally out of line with the quiet, unsettling dread that preceded it. I was left wondering what film the filmmakers thought they were making. It appears that even they didn’t know.
This is undoubtedly a bad documentary, but I mostly enjoyed it. Director Rodney Ascher somehow manages to make a feature-length film about sleep paralysis without including any insight into what causes it. Much like in his popular documentary short The S From Hell, which focused on people who were frightened by the logo for a TV production company, The Nightmare is far more concerned with the “what” than the “why” of this phenomenon. Most of the film is comprised of recreations of its subjects’ nightmares, and I actually found it really compelling. Ascher offers a voyeuristic glimpse into the minds of strangers, and oftentimes a scary one at that. As a documentary about sleep paralysis, it’s a failure. Ascher has nothing to say about the science behind the disease, and there’s only so much interest you can wring out of a bunch of personal experiences. But as a creepy horror film, The Nightmare is a very modest success.
Naz & Maalik
This is the only film I didn’t take any notes on, because I was too busy loving it the whole time. It’s got my favorite premise of any film I saw at the festival: Two closeted gay Muslim teenagers are targeted by an FBI agent because their secretive relationship comes across as concealing radicalism. It’s a striking statement about persecution and profiling, but it’s hardly a “message movie.” The film doesn’t shy away from depicting their sexuality, but it’s not about their sexuality, and it treats their religion the same way. They’re just two kids walking around New York City and talking about stuff, like Before Sunrise with less surrounding serenity. It’s a film about a gay romance that at the same time isn’t “A Gay Romance Film,” if that makes sense. Like its characters, it isn’t defined by that aspect of its story, but it isn’t afraid of it either. I think a lot of people have been waiting for a film like this to be made. Well, here it is.
One & Two
This is a Terrence Malick movie with the philosophical musings swapped out for an element of magical realism. It makes no attempt to hide its primary influence, more than once combining tracking shots in a forest with whispered voice-over. There’s even a scene where the main characters twirl around in a field! I think a lot of people will see it as an inferior knockoff, but it really worked for me. It has a fable quality to it, like the story has been around for generations, so the Malick aesthetic gives it a timelessness that young adult films today often miss.
Manson Family Vacation
This was my least favorite film of the festival. It should be a sensitive exploration of the relationship between two brothers, with the older brother’s obsession with Charles Manson serving as a springboard, but it just can’t help itself from swerving back to Manson at every opportunity. Just when you think it’s finally become solely focused on the brothers, the older brother starts talking about Manson again, and it’s back to square one. There’s also an incredibly stupid twist that removes the very thin layer of subtext that the film initially had going for it. There’s almost nothing to like about Manson Family Vacation.
Love & Mercy
I wasn’t sold on Love & Mercy’s structural conceit for most of its runtime. It intercuts the story of young Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano) during his career with The Beach Boys with the story of older Brian Wilson (played by John Cusack) during his time under the abusive care of a greedy doctor. These two arcs are interesting, but they’re totally disconnected from one another until a cool sequence at the end that explicitly ties them together. It feels like two separate Brian Wilson biopics being played at the same time, and the concept of combining them doesn’t do much for either. But all that aside (and this is going to sound like a real stretch, I know), the sound design is phenomenal. Wilson’s auditory hallucinations are rendered with disturbing clarity. Love & Mercy isn’t a bad movie, but I wish it had more going for it.
This is a terribly cliched comedy, and that’s something that doesn’t often bother me. But Adult Beginners is aggressively cliched, like it thinks it’s the first movie about an adult trying to fix their life by moving back home. It’s moderately funny, and Rose Byrne is great as always, but it really struggles to get past the fact that it’s basically a bargain-bin ripoff of Blue Jasmine.
Check back very soon for coverage of more SXSW films, including The Invitation, Results, Krisha, and more!