10 days in Austin, 32 feature films in theaters, another 6 on my laptop, and an undisclosed number of wild-at-artichoke-heart pizzas from the Alamo drafthouse: these are the stats behind my SXSW 2012 experience. What might get lost in those numbers is just how many of those feature films were excellent. Limiting myself to 10 examples is tough, but here’s a few standing out in my memory as I grab one last coffee from Epoch and wait for the airport shuttle to show.
[in alphabetical order]
BAD BRAINS: BAND IN DC – This is a lo-fi, scrappy documentary, as well it should be. The DC hardcore scene was basically invented by these young African-Americans, who started out in jazz but soon infused the new punk genre with harder tempos and more positive ideals. Punk soon became just one element in their sound, joined by reggae, metal, and more, even as dynamo frontman HR’s personality began to morph in new and strange directions, making their 30-year journey a tumultuous one. Ian MacKaye, The Beastie Boys, and many others weigh in on the importance of this singular band.
BROOKLYN CASTLE – It turns out that the middle school Jay-Z attended now produces an inordinate amount of world-class chess players—but funding problems have the school’s exceptional chess program under assault. I won’t lie, I cried. Fans of Word Wars and Spellbound take note!
THE COMEDY—Tim and Eric both shine in this film, but it’s much closer in tone to FROWNLAND than their BILLION-DOLLAR MOVIE. This is an abrasive, challenging film about very privileged characters behaving very badly, and audiences have been wildly divided. I think it’s one of the best films of the year, reading it as an essay of sorts on the bleak interior landscape of someone whose sense of humor knows no boundaries.
GAYBY—Warm-hearted, often explosive humor and vibrant characters drive this crossover comedy about best friends—a gay man and a straight woman—who in their 30s decide to make good on their promise they made back in college to have a child together. This isn’t a “gay film” per se—it’s an uproarious indie ensemble comedy that happens to be set in gay New York today.
GIRL WALK // ALL DAY – Anyone who knows me knows that if I’m recommending a feature-length dance video, it’s something special. This is a narrative film told through dance, shot on the streets of New York City without permits but with an ecstatic sense of spontaneous creation. Not since a revival screening of Stop Making Sense at The Senator twenty years ago have I seen a film audience jump out of their seats and dance en masse.
GIRLS—Lena Dunham’s new HBO series confirms her talent as expressed in the 2010 SXSW award-winner TINY FURNITURE. A funny, graphic satire of the sex lives of young New Yorkers worthy of comparisons to Bret Easton Ellis, Woody Allen, Nicole Holfcener, and yes, series producer Judd Apatow.
JEFF—Billed as a documentary, this film about three lives forever changed by Jeffrey Dahmer is actually an experimental hybrid of narrative and doc forms. Evocative sequences of a fictional Dahmer shopping for fish tanks and formaldehyde are balanced with revelatory real-life interviews with an elderly neighbor who trusted “Jeff,” the medical examiner who identified the victims, and the prosecutor who got the killer’s confession. Amazingly, it’s a film about Jeffrey Dahmer that feels very PG (okay, maybe PG-13).
PILGRIM SONG—Martha Stephens’ narrative about a laid-off schoolteacher embarking on a hike of self-discovery along the Appalachian Trail was one of the quietest films of the festival, to its credit. A million miles from the meth-addled violence of WINTER’S BONE, imagine a tone akin to OLD JOY punctuated by colorful characters worthy of Jarmusch and Kaurismaki, and you’re in the right ballpark.
THE SOURCE – What happens when a cult leader no longer wants to be a cult leader? Ultimately, that’s the central question posed by this exceptional documentary about “The Source” commune from early 70s L.A., led by restaurateur-turned-new-age-prophet Yahowa.
SUN DON’T SHINE—Amy Seimetz’s sweaty, grimy, swampy narrative feature is Florida-set and 16mm-shot. If you share my fascination with the way today’s vanguard filmmakers reference the aesthetics of 60s and 70s renegade filmmaking, well… this one’s for us.
– Eric Allen Hatch, Director of Programming