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March 20, 2006

Below, you'll find brief notes on most of the feature films I saw at SXSW, as well as a few of the more notable shorts from the various (and uniformly outstanding) shorts programs.

It's not exactly complete coverage, but at a certain point, writing short reviews for nearly seventy films began to seem like an insurmountable task. Call me lazy, and I'll gladly agree with you if it means I can take a temporary break from typing.

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sxsw-oldjoy.jpgOld Joy (dir. Kelley Reichardt)

Of all the words I might use in writing about this film, the only one that really matters is elegaic. At first I thought it might be too definitive an adjective; but no, its implication of inevitability and acceptance perfectly encapsulates both the meaning of Reichardt's title and her film itself, which transposes the decline of Western Civilization onto the crumbling friendship of two men who are a bit closer to having mid-life crises than they might like to admit. Scarcely over an hour long, full of long shots of the West Pacific landscape and silent tensions of the sort Gus Van Sant has recently spent three films exploring, Old Joy is gorgeous and unexpectedly heartbreaking. Reichardy wisely avoids any overt incident - particularly in one tender scene that could be wildly misconstrued by audiences expecting some cataclysmic revalation in return for their attention. Anything of that sort would have sunk this delicate little construction; it is a film with a heavy heart that is simultaneously lighter than air.

The film has no distribution, but you lucky New Yorkers can catch it on March 27th at the Walter Reade and March 29th at MoMA. Visit the official site for more information.

A Prairie Home Companion (dir. Robert Altman)

I've been listening to Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion since before I was old enough to even know what it was, and yet I don't think I've ever heard a complete episode. I don't know whether or not that qualifies me as a fan, but I do appreciate the show and enjoyed seeing it come to life here, in Altman's latest. That it isn't also his greatest is no disappointment; it's too damn enjoyable to discredit for being slight.

The film is a behind-the-scenes look at the production of the radio program, but it's far from a documentary; all four walls of cinematic fiction are securely in place, and bearing most of their load is a realization of Keillor's classic private eye, Guy Noir, brought to suitably deadpan life by Kevin Kline. Noir serves as both a character in the plot and a gateway towards a few more fantastical developments that I think might polarize viewers, myself included; it took me a while to get used to the presence of Virginia Madsen as a guardian angel, but I dearly love how Altman wraps up her subplot, and am leaning towards thinking that the film is the better for its inclusion.

The backstage action of the show is joy to watch through Altman's roving lens, and (expectedly) even better to listen to; the same goes for the musical performances, of course. The pairings of Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin and John C. Reilly and Woody Harrellson are pure spun gold; and a very pregnant Maya Rudolph finally gets the big screen attention she deserves. Furthermore, amidst all the crowd pleasing, foot-stomping spectacle, there are a few momentary interludes about growing older and going out on a good note that are especially poignant, considering who they're coming from.

My Country, My Country (dir. Laura Poitras)

The turnout for the Iraq elections in January 2005 was generally regarded as one of the few triumphs of the US occupation, and indeed, there is a sense of caustic victory in the climactic sequence of this documentary: a helicopter shot depicting citizens leaving their houses in droves to head for the polls, in spite of the threat of violence. But Poitras' film isn't a celebration of democracy; rather, she turns her camera towards the citizens affected by its enforcement, using as an avatar a respected physician and family man who is running for office in his district. He involves himself in the elections not because he endorses US policy, but because he truly loves his country and wants what is best for it, and is willing to do what he can under the circumstances. The film is admirable for its refusal to become mired in political debate; Poitras focuses instead on progress, and as a result, her film is a hopeful one - cautiously so, perhaps, but hopeful all the same.

Eve And The Fire Horse (dir. Julia Kwan)

Producer Yves E. Ma was a fellow attendee of the Berlin Talent Campus last year, and it was there that I first saw footage of this film, the directorial debut of a young Canadian named Julia Kwan. The clip I saw was a beautiful melange of autobiographical magical realism, packing themes of religion, Asian tradition and childhood estrangement into a few minutes that could have been a short film all by itself. The feature length version is much the same, except that sense of the bizarre has been diluted slightly by a slightly typical - if still quite charming - narrative about a nine year old Chinese girl growing up in Canada, trying to find a balance between her two cultures.. The film is technically beautiful, and I can't really criticize it on any grounds other than that it was a little too sweet for my tastes; it is so steeped in nostalgic warmth that the magical realism I was looking forward to loses its sense of mystery, and becomes precious instead.

sxsw-job.jpgjumping off bridges (dir. Kat Candler)

This is one of a few films this year that it's difficult for me to be objective about; inasmuch as I'm proud of Kat and her crew for making this film (and feel strongly about its subject matter), I can't help but love it. But I understand the value of criticism, so I'll do my best.

jumping off bridges is about a son's struggle to react to his mother's suicide, and to fit that reaction into the mess of emotions already churning within him. What response he does manage is inexplicable; painting his room black, throwing all his furniture out the window, kissing his best friend's girlfriend after breaking up with his own. In my favorite scene of the film, he sits in his car and tries to imitate the position his mother was in when he found her. When his father asks him why he acts this way, he says that he doesn't know, and he means it.

Kat is very much in touch with a particular sort of teenaged sensibility. She knows the difference between sadness and the petulance it is often mistaken for, and she treats her sullen girls and boys with the sort of patience and understanding their parents (and, perhaps, some audience members) can never quite muster.

The film is at its best when it deals with these abstractions of angst. Where it falls short is in trying to achieve emotional absolution on a literal level, particularly in the scene where Zach (Bryan Chafin) and his father (Michael Emmerson) have a tearful confrontation. It's the sort of moment we've seen in everything from Ordinary People to Goodwill Hunting and countless other films, all of which fail to note that issues like these are too big to be wrapped up with tears and hugs (no matter how much those things might help). Luckily, this is merely the prelude to actual climax of Kat's film; the actual denoument gently hints at closure, but does not enforce it.

Gretchen (dir. Steve Collins)

Just as the word 'elegaic' so succinctly encapsulates Old Joy, there's no better description for Gretchen than to call it a cross between Welcome To The Dollhouse and Napoleon Dynamite. That's what I was thinking while I watched the film, and it's what I've read in just about every review of Austinite Steve Collins' feature length debut. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it's part of what keeps me from embracing the film wholeheartedly. A skewed, mannered tale of high school misfits in a world of carefully coordinated colors, Gretchen does have a few original masterstrokes up its sleeves, one of which is the perfect casting of Courtney Davis, John Merriman and other adults in their late 20s and 30s as high schoolers. It's a stunt that works perfectly, both as a satire of the WB-ish tendency to fill teenage rolls with slick twentysomethings and as an accentuation of the characters' discomfort with their own bodies.

TV Junkie (dir. Michael Caine & Matt Radecki)

This found-footage documentary follows the sordid devolution of Rick Kirkham, a television reporter and father of two who has obsessively videotaped his entire life, including the depths of his crack addiction. Culled from three thousand hours of videotape covering about two decadres, the film borrows a page from Tarnation (which director Cain brough to his other baby, the Deep Ellum Film Festival, last year); it's far less stylized than Jonathan Caouette's picture, but also far more objective. Kirkham's endless cycle of crashing, recovering and then burning once again gets a bit redundant, but the very existence of all this footage - and the media addiction that is the root of it - validates the film.

The Cassidy Kids (dir. Jacob Vaughan)

After watching a rough cut of this film last fall, I wrote in an e-mail to Bryan that the film seemed "like something you could describe as, oh, say, William H. Macy's story in Magnolia mixed with equal parts Nancy Drew and Stand By Me, and people will wonder what the hell you're talking about, all the way up until they see it and suddenly find that it makes sense." In a way, that referential description is still accurate of the final cut of The Cassidy Kids, but the film has been refined to a point where such comparisons really don't matter.

I loved Dear Pillow, the debut feature from Bryan (who directed it) and Jake (who produced); for their follow-up, they've switched roles, and created quite a different film, one that is hard to put a finger on. It's a kids' film for grownups - something along the lines of a Boxcar Kids mystery that acknowledges and explores its own repercussions. The film tells the stories of a.) a group of children who uncover a murder mystery in the 80s and become the inspiration for a hit TV show, and b.) the same kids, year later, reuniting to recall the halcyon days of yore and coming to the grim realization that case was never quite solved. It's (intentionally) a hodge-podge of tones - deeply emotional one moment, thrilling the next - and those different moods gradually begin to reflect one another as the parallel narratives reach their apex. The structure is almost too complex for its own good, but that's what makes it engaging - at least until the ending, when the denoument slips by a bit too easily. In retrospect, the solution of the mystery isn't quite worthy of its elaborate staging, but the impressive uniquity of that structure is the film's raison d'ĂȘtre - it's what makes the film memorable, and/or worth looking forward to.

sxsw-lol.jpgLOL (dir. Joe Swanberg)

As previously noted, this is my pick for best film of the festival. Enough said.

Summercamp! (dir. Bradley Beesley and Sarah Price)

And this was my favorite out of all the documentaries. Beesley (whose Fearless Freaks played here last year) and Price (of American Movie and The Yes Men fame) follow a handful of children at a summer camp in Wisconsin. That's it - no agenda, no deep secrets to unearth, no structure or style to get in the way. Why did I feel like a better person after having seen it? Because after being (willingly) impressed upon by crises of politics and relationships and identity, it was unbelievably refreshing to see all those same issues distilled to their core and handled, without a trace of cynicisim, by kids who still have that marvelous, naive ability to bounce right back.

And also because it made me miss my mom.

51 Birch Street (dir. Doug Block)

I'm always suspicious when filmmakers turn towards that most tempting of subject matters - their own families - but Doug Block's new documentary completely transcends whatever personal therapy it might have also served as and achieves a rare and intimate relevance. The film leaves the realm of home videos when Block's mother suddenly dies (an event represented by the unexpectedly affecting image of an empty doorway) and his 83 year old father even more suddenly remarries a woman who 40 years earlier served as his secretary. Block begins to investigate the history - and validity - of his parents' marriage, and almost immediately finds himself face to face with more answers than he necessarily wants to know, in the form of his mother's diaries. There's a surprising amount of suspense as he debates over whether or not to read them; by that point, the film is as personal to the audience as it is to the filmmaker. 51 Birch Street is a deconstruction of a marriage, but in examining it, Block doesn't discredit the institution; he substantiates it.

After the film, Block welcomed his father and stepmother onto the stage with him for a Q&A. They were met with a standing ovation, which seemed odd at first; they didn't do anything grand or heroic. But, I realized, what they did do was live, and love, and let example be made of themselves; and that's pretty grand in it's own right.

Darkon (dir. Luke Meyer & Andrew Neel)

Winner of this year's prize for Best Documentary, and one of the few sure bets for theatrical distribution, Darkon is named for a fictive realm in which armies of businessmen and stay-at-home-dads battle each other for dominion in full medieval regalia, armed with padded weapons. The filmmakers could easily have poked fun at these literal weekend warriors and their straight-faced dedication to what is essentially a full scale game of Dungeons & Dragons, but that would have been too easy. Instead, directors Meyer and Neel take a more honorable route and treat their subjects with a respect they do in fact deserve.

Cocaine Angel (dir. Michael Tully)

It's a rarity to see an original entry in the drug-addicts-spiralling-downward genre, and as far as plot specifics go, Cocaine Angel contains little we haven't seen before. But while there are a limited number of stories in the world, there are an unlimited numbr of characters to populate them, and what revitalizes this hangdog story is Damien Lahey, who wrote the film and stars as Scott, a coke addict hanging onto the last vestiges of a civilized life. In spite of his increasingly sickening habit (he has to shoot up down there), he possesses a grimy sort of charisma; more importantly, Lahey manages to convey a real sense of decency, and thus we find ourselves attached to this guy. Most impressive about the film is its conclusion, which hits just the right note of optimism; Scott may be doomed, but the world he's living in turns out to have a little bit of beauty in it after all.

sxsw-motorcycle.jpgMotorcycle (dir. Paul Gordon)

Last year, I passed over the SXSW premiere of Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation; this time around, I vowed not to skip any film shot on b/w 16mm, for fear that I might be missing the next great thing in independent film. I'm kidding, of course (I'm not that reductive in my expectations), but I'm glad I managed to catch Motorcycle; it's a terrific throwback to - well, to the days when film schools still taught students how to shoot on film, for one thing. Indeed, this film is comprised of three interconnected short stories revolving around the titular vehicle, each of which was produced under the guise of a student film while Gordon was enrolled at the University Of Texas. The first segment is a charming bit of whimsy; the second meanders off, but the third - the master thesis, as it were - is just about perfect, both as a short film unto itself and as a third act to a feature. The no-frills black and white photography is reminiscent of Stranger Than Paradise and the way the three stories are linked brings Mystery Train to mind; but while the film owes more than a little to the deadpan style of Jim Jarmusch, it doesn't come across as terribly derivative; rather, its merely antiquated, and for all the right reasons.

Pretty Kitty (dir. Gregory MacDonald)

I often find excessive screaming to be hilarious; consider my affection for PT Anderson's short film Couch, or the majority of Will Ferrell's SNL skits. Thus, Pretty Kitty earned my affection through the monotone exhortations of its star (although an accompanying smattering of unexpected gore didn't hurt). The film is completely pointless and beautifully absurd; and, as the postcards for the film state, it is "guaranteed to be over in less than four minutes." Not a bad deal.

The Last Romantic (dir. Aaron Nee & Adam Nee)

The Brothers Nee play a dangerous game with this film; they cast as a protagonist a young man who is almost completely unsympathetic, and never let on that they're not rooting for him any more than the audience is. The young man (played by Adam Nee) is a would-be poet named Calvin Wizzig who moves to New York with the inflated expectation that he will be able to sell his work (a whole two poems) and become a successful artist over the course of a weekend. As long as we're taking Calvin seriously, he's insufferable, and the film is too. But then, at a certain point, something clicks. It becomes clear that he's meant to be a loser, and the film undergoes a surprising contextual shift. It becomes a critique of a youth (and, perhaps, a youth culture) who has been raised on instant gratification, and who cannot distinguish between intentions and actions. This fluctuating turning point doesn't necessarily excuse a few of the more indulgent aspects of the film (references to Jules et Jim, irresistable though they may be, are only acceptable if they're direct quotes), but in light of the neart-catastrophe of character, those are minor quibbles in a film that thankfully winds up being very good.

The most notable aspect of The Last Romantic (aside from a supporting turn from James Urbaniak) is, inevitably, its photography. It was shot on the DVX-100a 24p camera, which seemed to be the acquisition device of choice at the festival; these particular end results, though, looked entirely unique, thanks to some truly masterful color timing. On a purely technical level, the film sets a visual new benchmark for what can be accomplished visually with miniDV; check out the trailer for some examples.

Brothers Of The Head (dir. Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe)

Fulton and Pepe are the filmmakers behind two amazing documentaries about the filmmaking process, both involving Terry Gilliam: The Hamster Factor and Lost In La Mancha. Brothers Of The Head, their first fictional film, doesn't find them straying too far from their normal forte; it is a fake documentary (far too serious to be considered a mockumentary in the Christopher Guest vein) about two conjoined twins who are plucked from obscurity in the English countryside during the 70s and fashioned into punk rock stars.

The film itself isn't as bizarre as one might expect; much of it is actually a bit dull, as if the fictional documentarians weren't always in the right place at the right time. What makes it exceptional, however, is the level of realism that is achieved. For instance, there's gorgeous tungsten-hued photography by Anthony Dod Mantle, which captures the texture of a 70s film with eerie accuracy; the film literally looks as if it had been plucked from some ancient old archive, and it's hard to accept the fact that it was produced only last year. Blurring the line further is the fascinating inclusion of footage from an incompleted fictional film about the bothers, starring Jonathan Pryce and directed by Ken Russell - augmented with interviews with Russell himself. All of this has been fabricated for the film (which is based on a book by Brian Aldiss, whose Super Toys Last All Summer Long was the source for Kubrick's A.I., and who is also interviewed here), but even still, these deceptive layers do their trick; Fulton and Pepe have crafted a fascinating illusion of a film.

sxsw-vangogh.jpgI Am (not) Van Gogh (dir. David Russo)

Russo's short film Pan With Us landed at the number two spot on my top ten list from last year. His latest short is animated in the same exhaustively physical manner, but its tone is more lighthearted. The soundtrack consists of Russo pitching the film to an arts festival, describing the images as they occur and breathlessly attempting to explain their meaning while keeping up with their constant permutations.

I won't attempt to surmise the film's meaning; like Pan With Us, multiple viewings are required before content can be distinguished from Russo's form. No matter how many times I see it, in however many different films, his animation never ceases to amaze me. At the climax, his voice falls into synchronization with an animated mouth, and the effect is positively mindblowing.

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Other feature films I saw:

Lettes From The Other Side (dir. Heather Courtney)
The Lost (dir. Chris Silverston)
Fired! (dir. Annabelle Gurwitch)
Punk Like Me (dir. Zach Merck)
Wide Awake (dir. Alan Berliner)
Fuck (dir. Steve Anderson)
Cruel And Unusual (dir. Janet Baus, Dan Hunt & Reid Williams)
2AM (dir. Korey Coleman)
loudQUIETloud: a film about The Pixies (dir. Steven Cantor & Matthew Galkin)
S&Man (dir. J.T. Petty)
Before The Music Dies (dir. Andrew Shapter)

I had intended to take in the final screening of Slam Planet, but by the time I arrived it was sold out. I'll take everyone's word for it that the animation looks good up on the big screen.

And now, after two days off, it's time to catch up on a few films that have been released in my absence. First up is CSA: The Confederate States Of America; I also need to see V For Vendetta, to see if I still agree with my sleeplessly ecstatic assessment of it from last December.

Speaking of sleepless...

Posted by David Lowery at March 20, 2006 02:10 AM


wow, nice reviews david. i've already saved a few of these films in my head to hopefully see in the future..

Posted by: brad at March 22, 2006 08:15 AM

Now also on the front page of AICN. Cool, it is.

Posted by: Karsten at March 23, 2006 07:55 PM