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Critic’s Notebook: The 2013 SXSW Film Festival

Short Term 12

Every festival has its bright spots, especially important ones like the SXSW Film Conference & Festival, but this year they were perhaps harder to find than in years past. I would have stuck around to see the lovely Destin Daniel Cretton and his indie tearjerker Short Term 12 accept the top prize for narrative (or Ben Nabor take the doc prize for his look at a Malawian windmill architect, William and the Windmill), but the weirdly tone-deaf, sycophantic awards ceremony — during which festival honcho Louis Black railed about how he “didn’t care about money” at this for-profit festival and the all-white programming team finished congratulating itself in front of a nearly all-white audience before we were treated to jokes from black-American comic Jerrod Carmichael about Ethiopians not knowing what appetizers were and ghetto kids insipidly pronouncing the “l” in salmon — pushed me toward the exits. Perhaps there are still diamonds in the rough no one has discussed and few saw, but the talk outside of many screenings and inside several whiskey-soaked premiere parties at this increasingly overcrowded festival — where screenings rarely start on time and self-congratulation is the default mode — centered on the overall mediocrity of the work on display, with little enthusiasm or excitement being expressed about the quality of this year’s program.

Sure, the documentaries, as they are at almost every festival that plays them alongside the narratives, were generally of higher quality. Indeed, two of the three most compelling films I saw at the festival — Alex Winter’s Downloaded, an inquisitive, tightly edited doc about the rise and fall of Napster and the beginning of Web 2.0, and Simon Innis’ Lunarcy!, a genuinely inspiring look at various men with oddball dreams of colonizing, selling land or developing sustainable settlements on the moon — were docs. Holdovers from other festivals, such as Penny Lane’s fantastic Our Nixon, Harmony Korine’s bat-shit beach-girls-gone-gangland fantasia Spring Breakers and David Gordon Green’s return to mildly earnest true indie filmmaking with Prince Avalanche, garnered strong partisans and big crowds, even if more interesting films playing on the margins of the fest, such as Jem Cohen’s pure narrative debut Museum Hours, did not.

If any film excited audiences it was Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn’s The Act of Killing, executive produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, in which real Indonesian death squad members re-enact their most sordid crimes with genuine ease and moral certitude, but generally the word on the street about this year’s selection was don’t waste your time. Everyone seemed to be looking forward to Tribeca, of all places — the New York festival just announced a program that may be the most promising in its history — as opposed to spreading the word about the most significant discovery of the day. This is a sentiment that has previously been almost unthinkable given the reputation rehabilitation that the often “all hype/little substance” festival has had to undertake as South By became, for reasons still unclear to this critic after this solitary visit, one of the premiere destinations for American indie films in the mid-to-late aughts.

Although Danny Madden’s euphonia sustains one’s interest across its tense, aesthetically pleasing 53 minutes, the low-budget narratives in the program were mostly undercooked, lazily written fare for the hipster cinephile. While Geoff Marslett’s Loves Her Gun — about an aimless young Brooklynite gentrifier (Trieste Kelly Dunn) who, in the wake of a mugging, decides to flee to Austin to become a gardener, live with a Latin hipster whose affections she’ll spurn and begin to have a unfulfilled fascination with firearms — has some gorgeous cinematography and a heart that’s in the right place, it finds little tension or narrative drive in its story and comes to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. Lola Bessis & Ruben Amar’s Swim Little Fish Swim meditates on an unrepentantly laissez-faire, unemployed father and husband (the inimitable Dustin Guy Defa), who allows a young French video artist (Bessis, co-director and executive producer) to stay with him and his family in their tiny Chinatown apartment as she works through her troubles and make what she hopes (and we doubt) will be meaningful art. Despite an appealing cast, I was left puzzled by the motivations of the Defa character, who although good natured seems incapable of understanding why he should prioritize his wife (Brooke Bloom) as opposed to his house guest. As the increasingly desperate woman spends her days working at a hospital and dreaming of having an actual house — which, of course, would require two incomes — you begin to think that this is the story of someone who is sabotaging himself, but I don’t think the movie wanted me to feel that way.

Junya Sakino’s sophomoric Sake Bomb, about a caustic Japanese-American video blogger who is forced by his buff father to help his Japanese cousin go in search of his long lost love before he takes over his own father’s sake empire, and Dayna Hanson’s tedious Improvement Club, about a performance art troupe putting together a locally reviled work about the American Revolution who get taken hostage by skinheads in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, were especially galling exercises in indie derivativeness, particularly the former, which aspires to be a low-rent, “lost the last of its braincells” version of Harold and Kumar Go Straight to Hell. That moniker would also fit Victor Teran and Youssef Delera’s Snap, a cautionary tale about a reclusive dubstep DJ whose already precarious psychological state begins regressing after a brief fling with a woman (Nikki Reed) he meets cute with ends badly. The pic plays like a microbudget take on Fight Club and Pi; this is less appealing in reality than in theory. Despite all of its stylistic pyrotechnics, it has a Lifetime “mental illness movie of the week” vibe that is not limited to Scott Bakula’s participation.

Still, the festival’s stalwarts were in good form this year.

The two men who were perhaps most instrumental in earning this festival its place as a premiere venue for American independents were back with exciting new work. Simultaneously departures from their previous terrain and right within the wheelhouse of both filmmakers, these films truly represent the end of whatever the term that lumped these filmmakers together meant in the first place. Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies) and Andrew Bujalski (Computer Chess) are the key practitioners in a cycle of films no one likes to call by its nickname anymore so I’ll spare everyone, but on evidence of these two works it’s clear they’ve outgrown the house they built; both are back with crowd-pleasing pictures that exhibit a veteran’s craftiness. In Computer Chess, Bujalski clearly is gravitating toward Jean Eustache-style insider-y talkathons with something of a metaphysical bent, if we’re to take the last scene at face value. Here Bujalski’s hyper-nerdy, rivalry-fueled programmers hellbent on winning an automated chess tournament are instantly entertaining — never meandering bores in the way the characters in his first two features were.

While Bujalski’s film is the more interesting thematically and more adventurous aesthetically (he shoots on early ’80s black-and-white video that would have made Sadie Benning happy), Drinking Buddies is the calling-card movie Swanberg may have wanted to make his entire career; it’s as smooth as almond butter in the hands of Beasts of the Southern Wild d.p. Ben Richardson, is performed with integrity by a cabal of pro thesps (Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, a terrific Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston, who hasn’t aged in 15 years) and exhibits an editorial rigor his previous movies have sorely lacked. My Filmmaker magazine colleague Alicia Van Couvering, who produced with Andrea Roa, deserves props for imposing a structure and a series of worthy collaborators on a promising and prolific but previously undisciplined filmmaker. No awkward, poorly lit, overlong sex scenes are on display here. Although infidelity and young whites in and out of love probably only has so much mileage within one filmmaker’s career, it has a lot of mileage at this particular festival, so I suspect if the generally asinine Grantland festival correspondent is wrong and we don’t see Swanberg making a Judd Apatow rom-com for real money sometime soon, he’ll be back with another effort next year. Here’s hoping he keeps working with thoughtful constraints.

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