Ranking the 2016 Austin Film Festival, Part 2
In Part 1 of our AFF 2016 coverage I complained that the films I’d seen weren’t up to the previous year’s standards. The film festival gods must have heard my whining and smiled on me anyway, because I’ve got no complaints about this second set. Any of these films could reasonably be placed in the top spot on my AFF chart, and all of them I unreservedly recommend and would watch again. Only one can become my #1 film of the festival, though, so let’s count them down.
4. Trespass Against Us
Trespass Against Us belongs to the surprisingly large and popular genre of British slum dramas. Much like Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Intermission with Colin Farrell, and an Irish iteration called The Young Offenders that I reported on a few weeks ago from Fantastic Fest, Trespass Against Us embeds itself in a dramatized, violent, often detestable, yet ever-so-slightly wistful version of the British Isles’ grungiest corners. Michael Fassbender is caught between his know-nothing ape of a father (Brendan Gleeson), who rules as the petty criminal mastermind of a misfit trailer park community, and his desire to provide a higher quality of life for his long-suffering wife and two impressionable children. Much of the runtime consists of Fassbender running from local police who never seem to have the evidence they need to hold him, and the set pieces and urban car chases that punctuate their clashes are probably the best I’ve seen at a festival. Fassbender’s arc is an impressively structured (if seldom surprising) one about finding a middle course between competing family and social pressures, but making it to the payoff requires tolerance for this genre’s defining characteristics: heavy British slang, the banal profanity of the barely-literate, and some romanticization of poverty and its attendant social ills. If you can handle all that, Trespass Against Us is a winner.
3. Wrestling Alligators
If attendees had known that a documentary at this festival featured footage of or references to Donald Trump, the Clintons, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Meyer Lansky, among other famous and infamous notables, I doubt I would have watched Wrestling Alligators virtually alone. People couldn’t have known, though, because the plot description made Wrestling Alligators sound like a mere biopic about a locally-famous Native American with a reptile-rasslin’ habit. In part it is: its star and unlikely moral center is James Billie, half-white chief of the Seminole Indian tribe, Vietnam veteran, country singer, nine-fingered alligator wrestler, and “the most important Indian in America.” Fascinating and folksy as he is, though, this documentary is about something bigger than Billie. It’s about money. “Money moves governments,” says a judge for the state of Florida, which has spent years fighting the Seminole tribe over the gambling operations that Billie started and dozens of other Indian tribes across the country emulated. Thanks to bingo and slots, the Seminoles have enough money to make millionaires of all their children and buy Hard Rock Cafe — ALL of the Hard Rock Cafes — outright. Unfortunately some of the tribal elders skim off the top, and every successive Florida governor seems to want a piece of the action, too. Chief Billie, for his part, wants to plan for the future, teach his children and grandchildren to speak Seminole, build traditional open-air wooden huts, and show the state government (“those m—– f——,” that “nest of alligators”) that his nation is fully sovereign in matters of gambling, environmental protection, and anything else they might propose to control. Director Andrew Shea has dredged up a wealth of historical footage from the swamps of Florida and paired it with new interviews to tell an eye-opening story that is as national and even global as it is deeply local.
2. Bleed for This
Before the screening Ben Younger, writer and director of Bleed for This, admitted to the AFF crowd that, yes, there have been a lot of boxing movies, even within the last few years. He promised, though, that his would distinguish itself from the rest. And for the most part it does, though there are some overfamiliar tics, like a training montage, that feel perfunctory, as if Younger reluctantly decided he had no choice but to include them. That montage and other ritualistic genre markers are ticked off quickly, though, making way for what’s different and what works about Younger’s film. First, the humor. We open with joke-filled pre-fight trash talk, a funny cut to Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) on a training bike, and even a slow-motion pratfall; this is not your typical, dour, unremittingly brutal boxing movie. Soon the second distinguishing factor asserts itself: an injury that’s about as serious as it gets for an athlete, and that raises the stakes of every punch beyond anything I’ve seen in the genre previously. Throughout the back half, Bleed for This pivots between laughs and well-earned cringe moments with rapidity, sometimes eliciting them simultaneously. There are messages of perseverance and determination — it’s a sports movie, after all — but they are presented plainly and without melodrama by the steady-eyed, hard-working, understated Teller. A worthy new boxing story that’s different enough to attract skeptics of the genre, Bleed for This also stars Aaron Eckhart, Ciarán Hinds, Katey Sagal, and Ted Levine.
1. Blood Stripe
Heart-tugging indie music that drops right on cue, lakeside landscapes painted in natural light, guileless performances conveying total loss… I was afraid Blood Stripe would be too pushy about its sensitivity, but somehow it isn’t. It is inviting: a safe and unvarnished space to reckon with a topic we might rather avoid. Its unwavering focus on a female ex-Marine and her fraught relationships — with her supportive but helpless husband, her seasoned camp caretaker employer, and a slate of open-hearted back-to-the-landers she looks after — gives tangible, relatable context for the insidious realities of PTSD. The Marine’s arc is a perfectly-structured descent with the people and places around her reflecting her fears in specific and surprising ways. Writer/director Remy Auberjonois and his co-writer/star Kate Nowlin have made a beautiful, sad, important film that is an undersung, underseen highlight of the festival.
The Best Movie I Missed
Brave New Jersey is a fictional story set during Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds that some people mistook for a real alien invasion. I’m an Orson Welles fan, but somehow I missed this? That can’t be right! The festival gods must be playing a cruel trick to compensate for all the great movies they sent my way.
The Final Ranking of AFF 2016
Combining these four strong contenders with the four movies from Part 1 results in the following list, beginning with my favorite:
2. Blood Stripe
3. Bleed for This
4. Wrestling Alligators
6. Trespass Against Us
7. Electric Nostalgia
8. The Man Who Was Thursday
That brings our AFF 2016 coverage to a close! All of these movies are ready for ranking on Flickchart.com, so log in and become one of the first to pit them against your other favorite films.