HDD Presents: The Best and Worst from This Year's SXSW Film Festival

Posted Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 02:05 PM PDT by Drew Taylor

by Drew Taylor

The last time I attended the South by Southwest Film Festival, in my hometown of Austin, Texas, it was 2002. The festival was tiny; most of my recollections revolve around the "screening room" in the convention center, which consisted of a small screen and a bunch of folding chairs (yes seriously). This year, there were ten locations where films were being screened, and long lines that snaked alongside buildings and into parking lots. In short: things have exploded.

And most of this was for the best, because the festival now offers more variety and flexibility, although once the music portion of SXSW started, about midway through the film programming, things got considerably hairier and more congested. Downtown Austin seized up, its arteries clogged with hipsters, which made things more difficult, in terms of making certain screenings.

All in all, it was an amazing festival, and so in honor of it, I've put together my list of my five favorite (and five least favorite) films from this year's SXSW. And be sure to click over to The Bonus View to see individual reviews of many of the films I mention here (still updating that stuff, so please be patient with me).

My Five Favorite Films

I took part in a brief panel this year, and when the moderator asked me what my single favorite movie was this year, I said, unabashedly, Joe Cornish's 'Attack the Block.' Cornish, who in recent years had made a name for himself as Edgar Wright's co-writer, polishing Spielberg's 'Tin-Tin' script, and writing 'Ant Man' for Marvel, totally hits it out of the park with his debut feature. The film's tagline, "Inner city vs. outer space," is a good indicator of what the film is, a 'Goonies'-ish take on the alien invasion genre. Instead of landing in some posh area of London, the beasts smash into the heart of the south London ghetto, and it's up to a group of street hoods to defend the neighborhood from the invaders. Everything about this film is pitch perfect – the kids (many of whom had never acted before), the monsters (brought to life via practical effects), and the score (co-authored by British dance pop duo Basement Jaxx). Rarely does a film who walks as fine a line, tonally, and succeed the way 'Attack the Block' does. The fact that the film won the Midnight Movie award didn't surprise me, what did surprise me was that it left the festival without having secured a domestic distributor. God knows when we'll be seeing this stateside.

On the completely opposite end of the spectrum is Mike Mills' touching, funny, absolutely brilliant 'Beginners.' Ewan McGregor plays a man whose father (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet after his wife passes away. The movie takes place after the father has died, ingeniously inter-cutting between the present, with McGregor taking care of Plummer's adorable dog and his own fledging romance with Melanie Laurent (not hard to fall in love with her), and the past, with Plummer's condition worsening. It sounds like it could be dreadful and depressing, but Mills, who went through a similar situation a few years ago, brings a light, graceful touch to the material. Amazingly, it simulates the way that memory works – flashing back and forth between eras with little provocation, or being interrupted by a series of interstitial, graphics-based title cards – and manages to tell a compelling story along with it. The movie opens in early June and I can't wait to see it again. I fell in love. You will too.

This year's SXSW was gifted with a number of outstanding documentary films (like the sports doc 'Elevate' and the horse whisperer biography 'Buck') but my favorite by far was 'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop,' a look at Conan's whirlwind cross country comedy tour that immediately followed his dismissal from NBC and 'The Tonight Show.' The documentary is hilarious, for sure (large chunks of the movie I missed simply because people were laughing over it), but there's a fair amount of psychological insight into who Conan is as a person, that makes the movie unpredictable and enlightening. He's a dude that's unafraid to venture into darker, weirder territory, and the movie is immensely better for it.

But back to the schlocky stuff. There were a couple of movies, part of SXSW's midnight movies program, that I absolutely fell in love with.

The first is 'House of the Devil' director Ti West's new film, 'The Innkeepers.' Some peers found it slow and meandering, but I thought it was basically perfect, a wonderfully oddball mixture of chatty relationship drama and supernatural fright-fest. It's about a pair of young hotel workers (played by Pat Healy and the absolutely entrancing Sara Paxton) as they fight back boredom (and ghosts) during their final shifts at a haunted hotel.

'The Innkeepers' hits that scary-funny sweet spot incredibly well, and the movie is wonderfully photographed and paced. I saw this kind of late in the week, which I was starting to really get worn down, and I was still riveted throughout the entire thing. It might be West's most accomplished, fully realized film. A total triumph.

Then there's 'Kill List,' from 'Down Terrace' director Ben Wheatley. Saying anything about this film, which combines crime elements with more horrific genres, seems like an affront. So I'll just say that I was absolutely shocked, moved, and terrified. If I said any more someone would come to lock me away. But by the end of the festival, it established stateside distribution, so hopefully everyone will be able to be in awe of this ingenious little movie, very, very soon.

But it wasn't all sunshine and lollipops at SXSW this year. As with any festival, there are going to be some things that are really, truly terrible – and this year's SXSW was no different.

My Five Least Favorite Films

Maybe my single least favorite film of the entire week was 'Another Earth.' A much buzzed about "surprise screening" at the festival, it was directed by newcomer Mike Cahill and co-written by its star, the effective and adorable Brit Marling. It's basically an indie melodrama with a fine layer of science fiction on top, concerning the discovery of a parallel planet, exactly like ours, peeking out from behind the sun. No amount of cheap-ass Photoshop work is going to convince me this thing is a science fiction movie; and the overwrought emotions were just as phony as its special effects. I suggest the film's tagline should be: "In space, no one can hear you mumble." I doubt it'll catch on.

From the very small to the very huge, Jodi Foster's 'The Beaver,' -- one of the most talked about debuts at the Festival, if only because of the off-screen antics of its star Mel Gibson -- was really very awful. The tale of a disturbed man (Gibson) who only communicates via a beaver puppet (which he refuses to take off) needed a more sure hand in terms of nailing its weird tonal shifts between drama and comedy. It also seems to have too doggedly emulated its script, in ways that, in the actual movie, feel forced and contrived, leaving many of its characters without resolution to their respective arcs. In short: I hated it. And it had nothing to do with Mel's real life bad behavior.

Bad behavior, or at least a complete lack of investigative interest, is what hobbles Morgan Spurlock's new documentary, 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.' Posing as an expose of product placement run rampant, it instead turns into this cutesy, winking other-thing, with Spurlock selling off pieces of his own movie. It's mildly clever, in a cloyingly meta-textual way, but his refusal to give the movie any kind of depth really keeps it from ever being as special (or as funny) as it could be. Spurlock's like the class cut up that thinks, since he makes everyone laugh, he doesn't have to do his homework. Well, he does.

'Hesher,' with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman, has a similar problem. It's the tale of a long-haired stranger who disrupts the lives of a family mourning the loss of a parent, but its sole interest seems to be in it's "screw the world" attitude. That's all well and good for a few minutes, but when the movie violently shifts in the last act towards a kind of screechy sentimentality, well, it just falls apart completely, and what was a mildly interesting curio becomes an unmitigated disaster.

And speaking of disaster, the post-apocalyptic 'The Divide' (from 'Frontier(s)' directoer Xavier Gens) is pretty disastrous – and I'm not even talking about the hail of nuclear missiles that blows apart New York in the opening sequence. No, this movie, an unrelentingly ugly and misogynistic pile of trash, is a disaster in every sense. If you've ever wanted to see how people would never, ever react in a post-apocalyptic scenario, then this is the film for you!

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Tags: Drew Taylor, SXSW 2011, SXSW (all tags)