SXSW Film Festival 2011: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Austin saw plenty of movie action in March as the popular SXSW Film Festival descended on the “biggest little town” in Texas. For an intensely creative and exciting week, industry types, cinephiles, eager attendees (and me) crowded the streets and multiple theatres throughout town to watch the best in indie film.

SXSW saw record numbers this year for its film festival (traditionally it was only a music festival), which reflects a growing interest in the film portion and thus even more elite film selections. The SXSW “powers that be” sifted through thousands of submissions to select the best out there in indie film, in categories that included narrative films, documentaries, shorts, horror/genre films, big-budget films, and international offerings.

Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly (aka the really bad) of what I had the opportunity to see.

First the good. The following films stood out as the very best at SXSW, and as most of them have been picked up and will have a theatrical release so those of you who weren’t lucky enough to go the festival will get a chance to see them.

My first fav was The Divide. Xavier Gens‘ thrilling horror film is a disturbing vision of a post-apocalyptic future. Michael Biehn (Aliens), Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes) and Rosanna Arquette star in this visceral, sometimes stomach-churning drama about a group of survivors trapped in a subterranean bomb-shelter after a nuclear holocaust. The sense of paranoia and claustrophobia both grow as the film unfolds, adding to the atmosphere of violent tension that is established at the very beginning and doesn’t let up till the end credits roll. Check out my review on The Divide.

Super was another film that stood out. A quirky homemade superhero story with surprising violence and a very dark humor, Super came across as both funny and bizarre in a good way. Rainn Wilson (The Office) and Ellen Page (Juno) starred as sanity-challenged everymen who decide to sew their own superhero costumes and go fight evil. Kevin Bacon and Liv Tyler co-starred, rounding out a stellar cast in what was probably the funniest film of the festival. Writer/Director James Gunn brought Super to life, and to his credit it was an improvement on other DIY superhero movies out there like Kick-Ass. Check out my Super review.

James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the team behind the original Saw, can add another scary-as-hell horror film to their repertoire. Insidious was an old-fashioned spooky ghost story involving a comatose child and a demonic netherworld called The Further. Rose Byrne (28 Weeks Later) and Patrick Wilson (Watchmen) star as distraught parents who face losing their very souls in order to save their son. My Insidious review tells it all.

Hobo with a Shotgun transcended its grindhouse film genre to offer a really fun movie. Despite it being an homage to those terrible exploitation films from the 70s, director Jason Eisener has made a film that never takes itself too seriously. The purposefully bad acting and the ridiculous dialogue all work in this story about a hobo that gets fed up with the most corrupt town in the world and decides to buy a shotgun and clean up the streets. Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner) played the hobo, with an uproariously convincing integrity that made everything else in the over-the-top film work. Here’s my Hobo With A Shotgun review.

A bigger budget release, Source Code starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan provided some great entertainment of the sci fi kind. With plenty of heart, Source Code centers around Captain Colter and his journey through someone else’s consciousness. Channeling a 12 Monkeys vibe, Colter keeps waking up in different places and in different times, and doesn’t know exactly what’s going or who’s controlling him. From Moon’s director Duncan Jones, this film strikes a good balance between the science fiction elements of the story and the emotional/romantic elements. Check out my Source Code review.

Another stand out for me was the film Win Win, a heart-warming comedy/drama about a struggling family man who faces an ethical dilemma. Paul Giamatti stars as the down-trodden family man and part-time wrestling coach in Win Win. After he makes a questionable decision, a young man comes into his family’s life and changes things forever. The fact that this young man happens to be a fabulous wrestler makes things even more complicated for our family man, as he tries to do what he knows is right while battling with his desire for success in life. Here’s the Win Win review.

As far as documentaries go, I only saw one and it pleased in the extreme. Becoming Santa follows Jack Sanderson’s journey to discover the true meaning of Christmas. He decides to become a Santa-for-hire, and the documentary follows him as he gets suited out, dyes his hair and beard, and goes to Santa School. Then he suffers the ups and downs of the Santa profession while trying to find meaning in it all. The film is quaint and nostalgic, with a great soundtrack of traditional Christmas carols and fresh remixes. Check out my review.

Now for the bad (or just ok). These films are worth a watch, perhaps on VOD or when they’re out on DVD, but I wouldn’t spend money to see them in the movie theatre unless I was a fan of one of the stars, or the genre. For instance, 13 Assassins by famed director Takashi Miike was ok, but nothing I would want to see again. Yet fans of samurai movies will probably appreciate it more than I did as it is a very traditional shogun-style film.

Another film that makes the ok list is Innkeepers. Ti West made a name for himself with his atmospheric satanic horror film House of the Devil. But the slow pace of that movie turns out not to just be an effect he was creating for that movie, but a flaw (ok, a part) of his personal style. Which, in the case of the Innkeepers, just didn’t work. Too long a set up with too little pay off.

I actually enjoyed Ceremony, a charming romantic comedy starring Uma Thurman. But compared to other films I saw over the course of SXSW, it doesn’t stand out as among the best simply because it didn’t make a lasting impression. A bit too light, perhaps; though if I could make a category between bad and great, this film would go there.

Another film I would put in that “I kind of liked it but it wasn’t great” category is Paul. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) team up again in this extremely self-reflective comedy about an alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Despite a lot of easy humor and pop culture references, it just lacked any real depth.

Bellflower is another film that I didn’t love, but I didn’t hate. It has some interesting filming techniques, but the artsy feel is also a detractor. It comes across as a little too self-conscious. The story, instead of being a story about two friends surviving an actual apocalypse, turns out to be a twisted love story…which left me feeling slightly cheated.

And lastly, the dreaded ugly (or really really bad). I hate to say that two big-budget films made this list; Red Riding Hood and The Beaver. While Red Riding Hood was visually appealing with plenty of artistic scenes and a fairytale-esque color palate, it failed to make any kind of impression as it lacked depth and substance. The Beaver felt gimmicky and didn’t have the depth to excuse the ridiculous man-uses-hand-puppet-to-deal-with-mental-issues scenario.

Hesher is one of those films that will definitely polarize. I found it did have merit, but the main character’s brutality was disturbing (in a bad way), and the lack of any substantive plot left me wanting more.

International selections Cold Sweat and George the Hedgehog both fell short of being great. Cold Sweat didn’t make much sense, and the one head-exploding scene was hardly good enough to make it worthwhile. George the Hedgehog was interesting and kind of novel (ie; an animated film for adults about a libidinous hedgehog), but lacked substance.

And finally the film (and that’s being generous) Silver Bullets. This self-conscious and highly pretentious “film” had very little plot, was completely predictable, and instead of any real cinema relies on a series of atmospheric dramatic scenes between the main characters that have little to do with anything. The fact that Ti West plays a director in this film directing another film exemplifies my point.

And speaking of films with very little plot, I felt Beginners was a melancholy, self-indulgent study in love and loss. Ewan McGregor stars in this plot-less film about a 38-year-old man dealing with the loss of his flambouyantly gay father, and his inability to form a lasting romantic relationship. It tended to drag, the humor was too understated, and the overwhelming sense of sadness made it difficult to enjoy.

That about covers it. I’m looking forward to the film selections at SXSW next year, both the good and the bad and the ugly…because there’s always some of those.

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