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Picking Our Favorites From the Last Five Years of SXSW

Picking Our Favorites From the Last Five Years of SXSW

Matt Singer, our intrepid Criticwire captain, has plans to travel to Austin this weekend for the South by Southwest (SXSW) festivities (where he’s hosting a panel on Monday, if you happen to be there yourself). Forrest Cardamenis and Steve Greene…how do we put this?…do not. So, in the spirit of taking part in the celebration, even while being on opposite coasts, here are some of their favorite recommendations from the last five years of SXSW.


Steve Greene: For some reason, as I look back on these lineups from the last few years, the titles that immediately pop out to me are the documentaries. SXSW has some impressive pedigree when it comes to midnight movies and premiering smart, entertaining mainstream Hollywood films, but the ones that have stuck with me have come from the doc side. Case in point? My favorite film from last year, Bart Layton’s “The Imposter.” Technically, this was a Sundance premiere, but Austin was where a handful of critics made their respective discoveries.

The testimony of the man at the center of “The Imposter,” Frederic Bourdin, is disturbingly enthralling, on-par with any list of cinematic characters who manage to juggle equal parts charisma and creepiness. On the surface, the documentary is about the search for (and questionable fate of) Nicholas Barclay, a child who disappeared from a Texas family. But there’s an unsettling ambiguity that lies at the heart of that pursuit that makes the overall film less about one incident than the general ability for an entire group of people to be willingly manipulated rather than face the “truth.” There aren’t any jump scares in this one, but it’s the kind of film that will nibble at your consciousness for days and weeks after. (Plus, if you ever hoped that Hershel from “The Walking Dead” had a younger brother who was a private investigator, then Charlie Parker’s your man.)

What about you, Forrest? Any type of film stand out for you, from 2012 or beyond?

Forrest Cardamenis: I have the disadvantage in that you have almost definitely have seen a lot more of these films than I have, and I admit I have not caught up with “The Imposter” just yet. In fact, my documentary knowledge in general is fairly limited, but 2012 had two films that have really stuck with me and are among my favorites of the year. I hate to break the rules, but I would regret it if I ignored either “Girl Walk // All Day” or “Starlet.” The former is a wonderful music video/film set to Girl Talk’s album “All Day.” Besides having a crazily energetic soundtrack, it plays like a modern city symphony, one which re-imagines the outcasts and oddities of the Big Apple as heroes and saviors. It’s a celebration of uniqueness and personality that does not need a story to work, and it’s one of the most joyful experiences I can recall having while watching a movie.

“Starlet” won an Independent Spirit, but I still rarely see it get proper attention. It’s a film that trusts its audience entirely, has a great lead performance, and save for a misstep or two, has down to earth, realistic writing. It’s enlightenment through observation, and while it’s easy to nitpick about what does or doesn’t work, there’s a big reward for those who will stick with it.


SG: Regardless of which camp you were a member of in the Great Late Night War of 2010, there’s something for you in “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.” The best thing that the film does is avoid deifying its subject. O’Brien has such a cult following that it would be easy to edit together ninety minutes of fan tribute footage and show his reach. To some extent, we get a little of that: adoring fans at his nationwide live tour, glad-handers at post-show meet-and-greets. But the push and pull between the comedian’s public persona and more subdued demeanor in his working environment is a fascinating ripple throughout the entire Tonight Show saga aftermath. Rodman Flender manages to get a balanced view of Conan, from his narcissistic writer’s room streaks to the palpable joy he gets from releasing some of that tension on-stage.

FC: If I can go off on a tangent here, regardless of what you think of Steven Spielberg, that kind of love for science fiction and fantasy, that mix between entertainment and craft from an original screenplay and story idea is a hugely important, almost voice in today’s cinema. I say almost, because we have Duncan Jones. For that reason, I’m going to highlight his second effort, “Source Code.” I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s a highly entertaining and suspenseful film with a great story that does what great science fiction should do–it makes you think. It should suffice to say that there’s both head and heart in this picture, and even writing this is making me anxious for Jones’ third picture.


FC: For my money, one of the most creative and provocative voices in world cinema right now is Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos, and there’s no way to announce that better than a blind-watch of “Dogtooth.” Giving anything away would be a sin, but it’s a surreal and deconstructionist work that plays as horror, family drama, and satire all at once, largely due to its bold and rather unique syntax. It’s a constant exercise in mood and trying to catch up with the filmmaker the first time you watch it, but subsequent viewings hold up and it’s clear how many ideas are in the works. I’m not sure if the imitations just haven’t arrived yet or if it’s just too bizarre and idiosyncratic a film to even attempt to mimic, but whatever the reason, it means that “Dogtooth” hasn’t lost a bit of its freshness.

SG: If you’re looking for a self-contained community that doesn’t involve, well, some of the activities that “Dogtooth” involves, then try the considerably more tame Charlottesville version. “The Parking Lot Movie” is one of those documentaries that benefits from ultra-specificity – we never really leave the confines of the titular lot near the University of Virginia. The people who work there have lives outside the toll booth, but the film’s more interested in the day-to-day habits and camaraderie of the employees while they’re there. There’s a vicarious joy that comes from seeing a group of people take the simple and make something dynamic in the process, bringing a sense of creativity to what otherwise would have been the most banal of places. May all of us be able to capture a fraction of that sense of fellowship and legacy at our respective workplaces.


FC: I could just as well have talked about Duncan Jones again here for his debut “Moon,” but “The Hurt Locker” was one of the best films of 2009. You could argue that its message is a bit thin, especially compared to “Zero Dark Thirty,” but there’s no substitution for great film-making, and that’s exactly what Kathryn Bigelow demonstrates with “The Hurt Locker.” Every scene oozes tension, Jeremy Renner is giving a career best performance, and it was a timely film that said about the war what everybody wanted to but nobody did.

SG: OK. I’ll give you “The Hurt Locker.” But it’s no “Troll 2.” Picking one from this year is a no-brainer for me (even with the phenomenal “Humpday”) because I absolutely adore “Best Worst Movie,” the documentary that revisits the cult film that its star, George Hardy, openly admits is the “worst movie ever made.” Director Michael Stephenson was a member of the cast as a young child, but this personal connection never clouds his approach to reconnecting with the cast and crew that unwittingly gave birth to one of film’s most devoted niche followings. Stephenson’s not afraid to show the film’s many subjects in
unflattering moments: the “Troll 2” director has trouble coming to terms with
the fact that his film is not quite the masterwork he might have remembered,
while the actor who played Stephenson’s grandfather unreservedly declares that
he’s probably wasted his life. Seeing Hardy, now an Alabama dentist, get immersed in the throngs of “Troll 2” devotees is almost as fascinating as his eventual realization that even the NILBOG level of idolatry has limits to its enjoyability. 


FC: This is a tough year. I don’t feel strongly about anything I have seen, but it’s worth mentioning Alex Karpovsky’s “Woodpecker,” which might sound familiar those who have seen his more recent “Red Flag.” That’s because the film Karpovksy’s fictional version of himself takes on the road in that film is called “Woodpecker,” and it is in fact this very film. Trivia aside, Rolling Stones fans will enjoy “Shine A Light,” which may not be the concert film that say, “Stop Making Sense” is, but it’s a document of one of the greatest bands of all time, as directed by one of the greatest film directors of all time. That’s pretty cool.

SG: Agreed. I’ve never been to Alabama (roadtrip, Forrest?), but Margaret Brown’s “The Order of Myths” manages to capture not just one, but two extended versions of the city’s Mardi Gras celebrations in the span of an hour and fifteen minutes. Where “The Parking Lot Movie” benefits from highlighting one setting, “The Order of Myths” chronicles the Mardi Gras pride and pageantry in all its forms. In the process, the city’s differing racial approach comes organically from documenting the most important parts of both the black and white versions of the festivities. There’s a constant struggle between reveling in tradition and the acknowledgment that a divide still exists. And not only does Brown manage to capture the vitality of Mardi Gras, 2007 edition, but she’s able to show how this extends to the fabric of Mobile itself, even to the trees that line the city streets. When a secret society that’s basically “The Wicker Man” meets the Neighbourhood Watch Alliance from “Hot Fuzz” doesn’t even crack the top 5 most bizarrely intriguing things about Mobile’s approach to the holiday, you’ve got a pretty fascinating film. 

So, dear readers, are there any films from the last few lineups that Forrest and Steve need to add to their recommendations list?

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