Ranking the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Fest, Part 1
It wasn’t the breakfast tacos, I swear! Not long after previewing the first two days of South by Southwest 2016, I came down with a nasty case of food poisoning. I wish I could report on Richard Linklater’s opening night film and half a dozen others I missed while groaning on the bathroom floor, but alas, it was not to be.
Fortunately, SXSW is a long festival, and most of its movies screen more than once. As soon as I could walk I hit the ground running with a full day of movies. Here they are, ranked from least great to most great.
5. The Bandit
One of my biggest movie bragging rights, as of Monday night, is that I have seen the man and the mustache, the sex symbol of the ‘70s, the Bandit himself, Burt Reynolds, with my very own eyes. The 80-year old was on stage at an Austin outdoor venue to introduce Smokey and the Bandit. A previous Flickchart blog piece has taken a closer look at that legendary film, but the occasion for its screening at SXSW was a new making-of documentary called The Bandit. Country Music Television financed the doc, which its director Jesse Moss describes as “a buddy movie about a buddy movie.” The buddies in Smokey and the Bandit are Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed, but the buddies behind the movie were Reynolds and director/stuntman Hal Needham. The story of those pals — how Needham asked if he could crash at Reynolds’ house for a few days and ended up staying for years — has been told in several interviews, but The Bandit digs up Reynolds and Needham interviews that probably haven’t lit up a screen since they were taped in the 1970s. If you want to see Barbara Walters draped across an interview couch, Reynolds in a series of bedazzled cowboy getups, Needham in tinted glasses and gold chains, mirrors on the ceiling, and lots and lots of chest hair — as well as relive the majesty of a redneck movie classic — this doc is for you. I loved it, but whether you will may depend on how much you love the ‘70s and, to quote the Bandit, “what part of the United States you’re standing in.”
For a movie that takes place entirely within a colorless, scuffmark-encrusted Bosnian apartment building, Papagajka has some of the most beautiful cinematography to be seen at SXSW. Its narrative is a slow burn, a sparsely-worded psychological duel between two rudderless 20-somethings, but snowy rooftop scenes and spastic, dreamy montages involving a ballerina create a surreal visual throughline. This is the debut film of director Emma Rozanski, and she has all the tools to become a force in the arthouse world.
3. Karaoke Crazies
For most of its runtime, Karaoke Crazies from director Kim Sang Chan feels like an unpleasant story unpleasantly told. I don’t mean technically; from a production standpoint, the movie is lovely, shot in comfortable, warm colors with an appealing symmetry. I mean there’s no avenue into the movie’s ensemble of damaged characters beyond a kind of mortified pity. They are shut-ins and runaways who inhabit a shady basement karaoke parlor in a small South Korean town, and they are unable to understand themselves or relate to others. Rumors of a serial killer swirl outside, but none of the characters are willing to leave their increasingly uncomfortable shelter. The viewing experience, too, is uncomfortable, sexual but not sexy, farcical but not comedic, but viewers who stick it out may find a surprise at the end: somewhere along the way we start to care about these cretins, and we realize that they are more relatable than some members of the society they’re hiding from.
2. Hit it Hard
If you’ve seen any of ESPN Film’s 30 for 30 series, you know why their latest 50-minute sports doc is my second-favorite film of the festival so far. When Hit it Hard airs on ESPN, don’t miss it. It’s the story of John Daly, the good ol’ boy with the bright yellow bullet who shocked the golf world with a PGA title win in 1991 and then shocked them again with years of not-for-the-clubhouse behavior. He won fortunes in golf tournaments and endorsements, then lost it all to booze, gambling, and alimony. After all the highs and lows, Daly’s fans still queue up in Hooters parking lots to get their pictures taken with the guru of “grip it, rip it, and sip it.”
Hush by filmmaking team Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel is an instant horror classic, containing the DNA of such closed-room thrillers as Misery (1990) and Wait Until Dark (1967). None of Hush’s genre predecessors, though, have paid this much attention to sound design and aural atmosphere, since none had characters who demanded it. Hush’s protagonist is a young female writer (Siegel) who has been deaf and mute since contracting an illness as a teenager. She is alone in her isolated home when a masked man toting a crossbow and hunting knife shows up (John Gallagher, Jr.) He’s a familiar serial killer type, but his tics are subtly characterized. Can he get his murderous jollies from a victim who can’t scream in horror? Can she make deafness an asset rather than a liability? No need to hush me, I won’t spoil it!
With apologies for my slow start, then, here’s the SXSW Flickchart Top 5 so far:
2. Hit it Hard
3. Karaoke Crazies
5. The Bandit
I’ll keep watching and ranking, so check back in a few days for an updated list.