Ranking the Austin Film Festival, Days 3 and 4
Maybe it’s a strong festival, or maybe I’m just picking the right movies for me, but it was a fun Saturday and Sunday here in central Texas. Ranking documentaries against scripted material may be a challenge for some, but we Flickcharters are used to it. Here we go:
6. Last Days in the Desert
This is one of the festival’s marquee movies, and one that seems sure to get at least arthouse theater distribution due to the presence of Ewan McGregor and Game of Throne’s Ciarán Hinds, but I was a bit underwhelmed. It’s a beautiful, patient desert film with elemental themes like temptation and ambition — all things I usually enjoy — but Rodrigo Garcia‘s script gave me too little to think about during the quiet moments. The conversations between McGregor as Jesus and McGregor as Satan are the highlights, but McGregor’s undisguised Scottish brogue feels out of place in an otherwise authentic-feeling period piece about the Jewish holy man “Yeshua.” Nevertheless, Last Days in the Desert’s pretty bluffs and new bits of apocrypha make for easy viewing.
Just the right amount of quirk lightens Carolina Hellsgård’s pessimistic slice-of-life drama about a reformed bank robber. Wanja is the well-acted and thoroughly believable story of how the post-prison social welfare system fails a woman who’s doing everything right. Scenes with Wanja’s menagerie of “pet” wild animals are creative, but nothing could prepare you for the creatures she meets at a bonfire. There’s some looseness to the second half, and it’s debatable whether the ending is inevitable or manufactured, but there’s still plenty of reality to Wanja.
4. No Más Bebés
A heartbreaking documentary featuring some familiar faces from the halls of government (Donald Rumsfeld, anyone? …Anyone?), No Más Bebés tells a story that no American should forget. The documentary doesn’t offer much in the way of historical contextualization (there are lots of similar cases out there going back decades), but even a single example of forced sterilization is enough to disturb most audiences. No Más Bebés has several examples, all Hispanic women who went into an LA clinic in the early 1970s to give birth and came out unable to have children. These women, now in their 60s and 70s, are rightly the stars of the show, but it’s also striking to see just how high up the medical, legal, and political hierarchies the toxic ideology of population control went.
3. County Fair, Texas
Like the kids in County Fair, I grew up in Texas, but in a different world. I was in suburbia, they’re on ranches. I was good at video games, they’re good at raising livestock. We follow a diverse group of teens and tweens as they pick out baby pigs and calves, fatten and train them for competition, and hopefully win the right to sell them at auction. County Fair is a wholly likable documentary about a side of my state that I am perhaps far too removed from.
2. Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown
A son of Youngstown, Ohio has made a hilarious and multifaceted tribute to (or takedown of) that city’s most infamous personality: Jim Traficant, “the Walking Tall sheriff,” the Democratic demagogue whose theatrics on the floors of Congress and federal courthouses were either buffoonery or genius depending on who you asked. The fast-paced documentary draws together several threads including the collapse of Youngstown’s manufacturing economy, a turf war between two factions of the Italian mafia, and the backroom deals where so much of our governing happens. Always at the center of the maelstrom is Traficant, a tragicomic figure worthy of Shakespeare but with the vocabulary and emotional maturity of a South Park character. Youngstown natives like actor Ed O’Neill and boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini provide colorful cultural context for this real-life American folk tale. If anything, the documentary could have been longer in order to more fully explore some of the murkier episodes of Traficant’s life. The trailer is unembeddable, and available directly at: https://vimeo.com/120176416
1. Forward. Side. Close!
Writer/director Alexander Peter Lercher’s debut feature has already won one film festival (the Hollywood Film Fest), and it received an enthusiastic response from the audience here in Austin. It’s my top film of the weekend, but make no mistake: it is sentimental and fairly predictable. On his 70th birthday a grouchy introvert named Reinhard is visited by a lifelong friend who has retained all of the youthful élan that Reinhard has suppressed. As Reinhard reluctantly comes out of his shell we find out why he got in to begin with. Though there are no real surprises, the movie does connect emotionally: it’s a funny film about friendship, a poignant film about regret, and a hopeful film about aging — you’d never guess a 23-year-old wrote it. Three committed performances from older German actors, including the well-known Uschi Glas, help the movie place highly, but it’s the cinematography and editing that firmly set it above the rest. The interiors and exteriors were shot at a beautiful private estate which we tour on a loop as Reinhard goes about his strict daily routine. Lercher’s editing and Kyle Ford’s photography make certain that this repetition is engrossing. It certainly doesn’t look like a couple of kids’ debut film, but the fact that it is means we have a lot to look forward to.
Integrating days 3 and 4 into my rankings for days 1 and 2 produces an AFF Top Ten that looks like this:
3. Forward. Side. Close!
4. Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown
5. County Fair
6. No Más Bebés
8. Last Days in the Desert
Will week 2 produce any chart-toppers? I can’t wait to see.