Some notes on ten films I saw in the three and change days I spent at South By Southwest. Reading them, it shouldn’t surprise that I have an issue with Natural Selection virtually sweeping all of the narrative film awards. It’s a middling crowd-pleaser that mixes religion, sex and slapstick with agreeable irreverence, but I honestly saw nine other films that I thought were more interesting, unique or flat out better, including two fellow contenders for the narrative film awards. Natural Selection may have hogged all the awards, but I prefer to share the love:
Convento (dir. Jarred Alterman) – Gorgeously shot docu-pictorial of Dutch artist Christian Zwanikken and his family who have turned a rustic Portugese estate into a personal playground of surreal wonders, including bizarre contraptions built from animal remains and garbage scraps found in the area. Has a mystical, trance-like quality reminiscent of arthouse phenom Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, celebrating a lifestyle devoted to creativity and wonder.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (dir. Rodman Fletcher) – More intensely entertaining than O’Brien’s talk shows ever were, this doc follows O’Brien throughout a whirlwind standup tour following his departure from NBC. He seems to work himself half to death performing, mingling and being constantly “on” at a critical juncture of his career, more in need of public approval than ever and eager to seek it out at every turn. The dark compulsions underlying the comedian’s persona emerge though never fully come into focus. It’s hard to say just how “intimate” we get given how thoroughly O’Brien wears his public persona at all hours, at least in front of the camera. But it’s hard not to be in awe of O’Brien’s lightning wit and general good-naturedness through a herculean effort to retain his fan base.
Green (dir. Sophia Takal) – A young New Yorker (Kate Lyn Sheil) follows her boyfriend to the countryside for a project, where a friendly local (Takal) slowly starts to threaten their relationship, though it might all be in the girl’s head. Remarkable for fitting a slew of conflicts – regional, economic, sexual – into a seemingly laid-back narrative nudged along by brilliant camerawork that pores over its subjects like a microscope. The causes of Sheil’s psychological dismantling aren’t fully accounted for and unfold imperceptibly, perhaps too abruptly, but the film has a couple stunning scenes that break down bedroom politics in their messy glory; the film’s atmosphere is unshakeable.
American Animal (dir. Matt D’Elia) – Like Takal, D’Elia writes, produces, directs and acts in a tour de force about a sick shut-in who alternately spellbinds and terrorizes his roommate and lady friends with his outsized personality, fueled by pep talk rages and invocations of classic movie scenes. As visually arresting as it is tonally abrasive, D’Elia dares you to like his monstrous creation; as his antics escalate, you see desperation and fear of both mortality and irrelevance creep in. It’s all the more poignant if you wonder how much it’s D’Elia as much as his on-screen alter ego who’s grappling with what it means to be young, affluent and standing in the shadow of everything great that’s already been done, edging him towards being a sideline spectator. It’s as much a deconstruction of the proverbial wunderkind debut film as it is an attempt to be one.
Taken By Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis (dir. Roddy Bogawa) – Fairly by-the-numbers documentary about the designer of some of the most iconic rock album covers of the 70s and 80s, including Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. Interestingly, Bogawa frames the documentary in the same square dimensions as an LP cover.
Bad Fever (dir. Dustin Guy Defa) – Mostly compelling character study has several well-observed moments between Eddie, a seemingly autistic wanna-be stand-up comedian, and his sexually twisted pseudo-girlfriend. The characters have way more levels of fascination than their actors can manage; Eddie’s considerable verbal tics at times seem inconsistently wrought, but at best they suggest a young Robert DeNiro riffing through a Harmony Korine gimpfest.
Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja (dir. Billy Corben) – Intermittently rousing yarn that gives three accounts for how the marijuana smuggling trade flourished and floundered in Florida. Best part is about how a bunch of white guys started the Ethiopian Zionist Coptic Church in Miami as a way to smoke pot all day with impunity, eventually building a multi-million dollar operation in the process.
New Jerusalem (dir. R. Alverson) – This two-hander about a fundamentalist Christian serving a emotionally shelled-out vet is a much more even-handed consideration of religion than Natural Selection, though it coasts along on not very much for considerable stretches. Will Oldham continues purveying the same sensually asexual charisma he unleashed in Old Joy, making his weirdo Christian character oddly compelling.
Hit So Hard: The Life and Near Death of Patty Schemel (dir. P. David Ebersole) – Loosely chronological account of Hole’s lesbian drummer and her struggles with singer Courtney Love, the band’s whirlwind success, and the heroin abuse endemic to the grunge scene.
Natural Selection (dir. Robbie Pickering) – Fundamentalist Christian woman goes on search for husband’s illegitimate son, following her husband’s stroke while stroking it to Christian porn in the local male sperm bank. That’s one example of the kind of the facile satire dispensed by the script, with plenty of indie quirk plot twists laid out like gumdrops to keep the audience distracted from the conventionality of the premise. The leads do what they can imbuing empathy to these caricatures, otherwise it’s a disposable snickerfest.