The Six Best (and One Worst) Movies I Saw At SXSW!

by Andrew Osborne

Semi-nude and even stark naked fat men seemed to be the major trend at SXSW this year (see:  Matt Lucas’ underwear-clad oddball in Small Apartments, Louis Negin’s cacklin’, free-ballin’ narrator in Keyhole, Steve Zizzis’s saggy-chested suburbanite in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, etcetera).  But the other big theme running through the films I saw involved the consequences of good and (mostly) bad choices…and so in that spirit, here are my top (and bottom) picks from the best fest in the west!

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

Thanks to the 2010 bankruptcy of MGM, director Drew Goddard’s inventive horror mash-up has been locked in a dank, scary basement of legal maneuvering for years (while the mysterious nature of this cinematic beast fueled rabid speculation in the virtual torch-wielding mob of the online geek community).  Yet despite Lionsgate’s somewhat spoiler-y ad campaign for the film’s April 13 release, I’m going to heed the plea of producer/co-screenwriter Joss Whedon at Cabin’s buzzy SXSW screening and say nothing about the plot except:  yes, there’s a cabin, and it’s definitely in the woods.  However, I’ll also say that while discovering the story’s secrets for yourself is a big part of the fun, there are plenty of jolts (and laughs) to make the movie worth seeing even if you go in with full knowledge of the central gimmick (and/or the identity of a certain spot-on secret celebrity cameo late in the proceedings)!

SUN DON’T SHINE

As with Cabin, ignorance was bliss at the SXSW screening of the tense, effective lo-fi thriller Sun Don’t Shine.  Viewers were simply dropped into the middle of the action and forced to figure out the nature of the relationship between the two central characters in Amy Seimetz’s excellent, well-paced mumble-noir take on the road trip subgenre.  But I will say that sex is very much a part of the equation, and Kate Lyn Sheil’s smoldering, viscerally unhinged performance as Crystal makes it clear why Kentucker Audley’s Leo becomes so helplessly snared in her dangerous web…or is she trapped in his?

BERNIE

Meanwhile, what happens when the nicest man and the meanest woman in Texas get snared up together?  The answer is darkly comic and occasionally poignant in Richard Linklater’s fictionalized documentary of a true crime story featuring Jack Black as a closeted mortician, Shirley Maclaine as a rich bitch widow and Matthew McConaughey as a grandstanding district attorney.  The fates of the various characters may inspire empathy and debate, though a mostly non-actor Greek chorus of talking heads coupled with a central trio of vivid performances are Bernie’s real draw.  Black, in particular, is fantastic, bringing nuance and deep humanity to a character who could easily have been played as a one-joke caricature.

PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE

As for actual documentaries, the standout was this profile of the titular 1970s superstar, decades after drugs and alcohol derailed his career and set him on the road to recovery.  Numerous young interviewees in Still Alive are unfamiliar with the diminutive actor/songwriter’s career (though they’re quick to recognize his numerous hit compositions like “The Rainbow Connection” and “We’ve Only Just Begun”).  But for older folks (like director Stephen Kessler), Williams was a ubiquitous pop culture presence in his heyday, and polyester-era clips from Smokey & The Bandit, Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show will have a special resonance for Baby Boomers and Generation X.  What really fuels the film, however, is the spiky relationship between Kessler and his subject as they grapple with the boundaries of privacy and the point (or pointlessness) of celebrity profiles in the tabloid age.

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

Speaking of mystery and nostalgia: would you ever respond to a classified ad requesting a partner for time travel?  And what type of person would post such an ad in the first place?  Rather than answering these questions with a sci-fi mind-twister like Primer or Source Code, director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly opt instead for a wistful comedy about misfits too focused on possibilities and regrets to see the present clearly.  Aubrey Plaza and Jake M. Johnson keep the twee at bay with their sarcastic, wise-ass screen personas, while co-stars Mark Duplass and Karan Soni balance out the production’s central sweet-and-sour quartet.

THE DO-DECA-PENTATHLON

Duplass also scored on the other side of the camera (alongside fraternal co-director Jay) with this comic depiction of a frustrated family man (Steve Zizzis) channeling sibling rivalry, marital frustration and midlife crisis into a secret competition with his outwardly freewheeling brother (Mark Kelly).  The events include everything from arm wrestling to laser tag, but the real game involves hiding the ongoing “Do-Deca” from a disapproving wife and mother (Jennifer Lafleur and Julie Vorus).  And while that description makes the premise sound like the high-concept pitch for a terrible Adam Sandler movie, the Duplass brothers wisely ground their film in observational humor and sharp character moments (rather than, say, 25 different ways for the main characters to get whacked in the crotch).

HONORABLE MENTION:  SLACKER 2011

One of the highlights of SXSW 2012 was a screening of this 20th anniversary tribute to Slacker, featuring 24 local directors remaking and updating Richard Linklater’s classic indie love letter to Austin.  A must-see for fans of the original, the imaginative re-imagining reflects both what’s changed in the city and the culture at large since 1991 — greater diversity in the once mostly white, English-speaking cast, 9/11 conspiracy theories replacing speculation about the JFK assassination – as well as what’s stayed the same, like the eccentric creative energy still burning bright deep in the heart of Texas.

WORST:  NATURE CALLS

A few years back, Patton Oswalt joked that he threw the script of Alvin and the Chipmunks “across the room in disgust” after reading it.  If only he’d had the same reaction to this shrill, painfully unfunny tale of a schlubby Scoutmaster battling his alpha male brother (Johnny Knoxville) for the respect of a troop of obnoxiously precocious pre-teens.  Nothing in writer/director Todd Rohal’s movie bears the slightest relation to actual human behavior, which might be okay if Nature Calls was a hilarious three-minute gag-fest on Adult Swim instead of a hackneyed, headache-inducing “indie” full of people shrieking at each other.  Personally, I’d rather watch a bunch of singing rodents.

(And click here for the Nerve version of the article!)

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