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AUSTIN, Texas - After 10 days and seemingly hundreds of films, the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival closes this weekend. In typical form, I saw almost none of the ones that ended up taking home trophies. Unfortunately, it’s the nature of film festival coverage – you try to be strategic, see things that received good feedback from others, and when possible, stray into auditoriums in your spare time hoping to uncover a gem. But even after six days, I missed the Narrative winner, “Gimme the Loot,” and the Documentary winner, “Beware of Mr. Baker,” as well as the Audience winners for the Narrative (“Eden”) and Documentary (“Bay of All Saints”) categories.
Nevertheless, I saw quite a gauntlet of films programmed to play during the festival, including several that preciously appeared at Sundance, such as Craig Zobel’s transgressive “Compliance” and Joe Berlinger’s “Under African Skies.” But even the wonderful “21 Jump Street” and the thrilling “The Raid: Redemption” were easily among the best films I saw. Both of those appeared essentially as stopovers en route to their theatrical releases, whereas a lot of selections build buzz at festivals like this one, and the fate of many others hung in the balance in a very real way based purely on the response of attendees.
Ironically, the two films I consider my favorites are simultaneously polar opposites and have a strangely – if not obviously – similar message: “God Bless America” and “Brooklyn Castle.” In the former, Bobcat Goldthwait directs Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr in a misanthropic revenge tome about an insurance company worker who goes on a killing spree. In the latter, Katie Dellamaggiore documents the amazing achievements of New York junior high students who compete nationally in (literal) master-class chess tournaments. What they share in common is a desire to see people be their best selves; otherwise, it’s true one’s a wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy and the other an inspirational story of hope. But in another similarity, Goldthwait and Dellamaggiore demonstrate an amazing aptitude for capturing raw humanity at its most sublime and mundane, and announce that they’re filmmakers to watch going forward. (Which isn’t meant to undermine Goldthwait’s earlier filmmaking efforts, only to suggest he’s reached a peak that would be interesting to see him rise above.)
The two worst films I probably saw at the festival were “Babymakers” and “The Aggression Scale,” one a comedy for folks who thought that “Knocked Up” was too mature a look at parenthood, the other a home-invasion thriller that manages to avoid being a total whiff only because of one great performance, from “Friday the 13th” star Derek Mears. “Babymakers” is a one-off from the guys in the Broken Lizard comedy troupe, and though it aims to move into more mature waters than beer-drinking competitions and send-ups of slasher movies, their influence is simply too strong for it to function as anything other than farce.
Meanwhile, “Aggression Scale” is most offensive when sexualizing its teenage female lead, who pointlessly luxuriates in a shower before her house is broken into by thugs, but Mears’ self-aware and sensitive turn as a thug and a kick-ass opening credits sequence (and soundtrack) rank as the very few things that I could tolerate. Still, others seemed to admire its pulpy intensity, but my favorite moment of the festival was when the filmmaker retweeted my scathing pan and we subsequently engaged in a very respectful conversation via Twitter.
Then of course there were the “missed opportunities,” films that started off with strong ideas but failed to follow through satisfyingly on them. In just an afternoon, I saw both “Electrick Children” and “In Our Nature,” and then two days later, I caught “Funeral Kings,” all three of which feature some really intriguing ideas and compelling characters but peter out before they pay off. Firstly, “Children” shows remarkable promise from its writer-director Rebecca Thomas, who tells the story of a teenage girl who leaves her Mormon homestead for Las Vegas after becoming convinced she was the beneficiary of an immaculate conception that occurred while she was listening to a cover of The Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone.” But the film falls into indie quirk as it wraps up, undermining what might have been an interesting commentary on religious indoctrination or at the very least a captivating coming-of-age story.
“In Our Nature,” meanwhile, has a real wealth of keenly-observed moments in its chronicle of a father and son who clash over the course of a shared weekend at their family cabin, and great performances from its four leads give the drama real gravitas. But its sense of naturalism never finds a fully comfortable cinematic rhythm, and the end of the film fails to satisfy either more conventional expectations of catharsis, or leave viewers with something more idiosyncratic than “well, that just happened.”
As for “Funeral Kings,” it falls to some extent into the same space as “Electrick Children,” capturing a particularly pivotal moment in adolescents’ lives as filtered through the filmmakers’ experiences as altar boys. But it never balances movie material with real character development, eventually yielding to cheap audience manipulation and crime-story plot developments that are impossible to care about – especially after we’ve cultivated real concern for the characters.
For locals, the hottest ticket during the festival was “Sinister,” a midnight movie written by Austin native Robert Cargill, and it delivers the goods as a horror-mystery with mythical undertones. But a few muscular music choices and a finale that’s either too specific or not specific enough unfortunately keep it from becoming an instant classic, especially since it fails to have that haunting quality that keeps people awake the night after they’ve seen something truly terrifying.
On the other hand, the premiere of “Cabin in the Woods” essentially reinforced the blogosphere’s early adoption of Drew Goddard’s metatextual horror treatise, but it left me a little cold, at least in the sense that it’s a more pessimistic movie than it might think it is. Nevertheless, it’s downright entertaining and it should be interesting to see the discussions it spawns after being released later in 2012.
Finally, Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” and Stephen Kessler's “Paul Williams: Still Alive” were both solid films – so solid, in fact, that they sort of exemplified the overall reaction I had to the festival: pretty good, but not quite great. Linklater’s film is funny and engaging even as it deconstructs the true-crime killing of a widow by a beloved funeral director, while Kessler’s finds some truly moving moments as he deconstructs his own fandom while developing a friendship with Williams. But “Bernie” leaves you with less emotional engagement than a brisk sense of being entertained, and “Still Alive” spends a little more time examining Kessler than its supposed subject, so even though they have real and meaningful merits, they’re unspectacular – not quite that mind-blowing enthusiasm that all attendees are so eager to experience.
Instead, there’s only a modest sense of satisfaction, which certainly beats an unhappy or unenjoyable festival. But ultimately, SXSW 2012 didn’t quite live up to previous years, albeit in only a sort of enviable way: productive and entertaining but seldom profound, it preserved audiences’ interest in movies, but didn’t push it forward.
For year-round entertainment news and commentary follow @mtgilchrist on Twitter.
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