Ranking the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival, Part 2
Toward the end of South by Southwest, music and gaming events are in the ascendant. Lines at theaters shrink as movies screen for the second, third, and fourth times. The headline-grabbing event at the end of the festival was a packed outdoor Garth Brooks concert on Saturday night. . . and the unannounced show he played afterward at a popular Austin country dance hall. Even I took time out to take in some tunes and had a better festival than ever because of it. Whatever your preferred entertainment medium, SXSW is a special event and a special moment that I’m sorry to see end.
Oh, and as a sidenote, I found myself in an elevator one afternoon with Buzz Aldrin. Or, as a friend described it, “a capsule heading toward space with Buzz Aldrin.” So that happened, and it’s still sinking in.
Back to movies, though. The second half of the festival offered both appealing documentaries and crowd-pleasing features. Here’s a rundown before merging them with Part 1’s top 5:
Taking a cue from Godzilla, whose metaphor about nuclear war and its environmental consequences was right on the surface, Colossal presents a barefaced, 1:1 correspondence between kaiju and the real-world ills of alcoholism and abuse. Anne Hathaway‘s Gloria, a woman on a path to alcoholism, is kicked out of her New York flat by her fed-up boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens). She returns to her small hometown and reconnects with a childhood friend, Jason Sudeikis‘s Oscar, who offers her a job. Unfortunately, Oscar’s business is running the local bar, and neither Gloria nor Oscar can resist the temptation of the taps. Even more unfortunately, a weird portal exists in the local park; if Gloria passes through it while stumbling back to her unfurnished home, a giant monster appears in Seoul, moving as she moves but crushing buildings and killing Koreans in the process. Most unfortunate of all (unless you really feel for those poor Koreans, which the movie purposefully doesn’t), the relationship between Oscar and Gloria becomes violent. This is unfortunate for the audience as well as the characters, because the movie’s shift from high-concept relationship comedy to grim abuse thriller is abrupt to the point of being confusing and alienating. There are individually strong ideas about what makes Oscar tick, and Sudeikis gets to deliver a classically villainous monologue about a firecracker, but our glimpses into his life are too scattered to form a clear picture, and Vigalondo‘s focus on him leaves little time to do justice to Gloria’s arc or to interrogate the supporting characters for their less-than-helpful roles in the lives of the leads. There is catharsis in this film for viewers who have had to ditch toxic substances or toxic people, and the genre-blending plot is engaging enough even for those who haven’t, but structurally Colossal is not quite a match for the abiding kaiju movies that Vigalondo admires and cleverly references.
2. The Cloud Forest
A more apt title for this lush, patient documentary set in Mexico’s semi-tropical southwest might be The People of the Cloud Forest, as the forest itself is mostly a backdrop and a bookend to a season or two (it’s hard to be sure) in the lives of its locavore agrarianists. The people who live within the forest, raising corn and goats, are not longtime rural holdouts, but voluntary refugees from the city — young and middle-aged people who want to live closer to the land. They are at the bleeding edge of what may be the next phase of the environmental movement, as people retreat from the world’s intractable macro-level convulsions but become more engaged with the soil beneath their own feet. An apparently sophisticated curriculum at a local eco-school teaches Mexican teenagers how to manage resources equitably and sustainably. Some of their parents, and some of the relatives of the older inhabitants of the community, don’t understand the appeal of living in such a wild, remote place, and worry about the lack of “traditional” schools and urban social networks. Perhaps that’s where documentarian Mónica Alvarez Franco’s attempt to make the forest a character finds its justification; her occasional montages of cloudy canopies, plant life, and bug life create contemplative spaces for the audience to reflect on the larger environment that the documentary’s subjects live within but seldom modify. It’s a wispy, ephemeral-looking world whose beauty seems to justify the hard work and sacrifices required to live within its sphere.
3. Win By Fall
The title of Win By Fall is a wrestling term, not a reference to a seasonal deadline for winning, but an unforgiving athletic calendar does rule the lives of the teenage girls in an eastern German wrestling boarding school. They must make their weight classes, losing or gaining stubborn kilograms in the days before competitive events; they must be the best in Germany in nationwide meets and then prepare for unfamiliar competition in the European championships; and not least, because they are separated from their families, they must make friends quickly if they hope to receive any emotional support — they will get none from their paternalistic yet never coddling coaches. Because the director of this documentary eschews direct interviews, there are questions about the girls’ thoughts and about the coaches’ philosophies that go unanswered. Impressively, though, the wrestling itself needs no supplemental explanations. Competition footage, often slowed down, highlights the girls’ athleticism and captures their swiftly changing emotions mid-match. Win By Fall may not topple its peers in the sub-subgenre of youth sports documentaries, but it hits the important beats and is situated within an intriguing and specifically German context.
4. Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo
The American space program, particularly the romantic days of the Apollo moon missions during the late 1960s and 70s, has been the subject of numerous documentaries and movies. Some of them are more dramatic (Ron Howard’s Apollo 13), more artful (the Oscar-nominated For All Mankind), or more comprehensive (Why We Left Earth) than this one, but Mission Control nevertheless serves a specific and important purpose. Using a straightforward, talking-head approach accompanied by period footage and CG recreations, the documentary acts as a platform for the men who spent their moon missions not in a capsule speeding toward another world but hunched over primitive computer screens, chain-smoking and sleeping under tables, wracking their young brains (average age of Mission Control employee during Apollo: 27 years) for solutions to the inevitable problems that threatened the lives of their pioneering countrymen in space. Director David Fairhead draws out hints of personal sacrifices and even regrets from his stoic, old-school subjects, but the overwhelming sense one gets from listening to these now septua- and octagenarians is that they remember those years in Houston much as we space buffs do when we imagine them: with pride and awe. Tech-heavy and traditional, this is neither the most accessible nor the most memorable space documentary, but for enthusiasts it is a welcome supplement.
5. Two Pigeons
One of the most interesting twists on the home invader film is the long-term home invader film: movies that posit a person living secretly in another person’s dwelling for weeks or longer on end. In Two Pigeons we follow a real estate agent named Hussein and his girlfriend Mel, who share a small London apartment. In the same apartment, where almost all of the movie takes place, we also follow the nocturnal life of an extremely gaunt Spaniard with disgusting hygiene habits. Hussein and Mel don’t know that the Spaniard lives there, listening to all of their interactions from his secret hiding places, stealing meager amounts of food and toiletries when they’re asleep or away. Their uninvited guest has an additional hobby; from the window he watches a pair of nesting pigeons on the apartment ledge and makes up dialogues for them. Whether this gross-out thriller comedy is thrilling and funny (as it intends to be) or merely gross (which it certainly is) depends on the viewer, but what can’t be dismissed are the performances from Javiet Botet, Mim Shaikh, Mandeep Dhillon, and Kola Bokinni. This diverse cast allows the script to touch on racial and cultural issues in amusing and humanizing ways, which is nice since the “surprise” reveal of the central story is relatively generic and predictable. I would welcome seeing any of these actors in other projects.
The Best Movie I Didn’t See
The Top 10 of SXSW 2017
1. Baby Driver
7. Win By Fall
9. Two Pigeons
10. Fits and Starts