Ranking the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Fest, Part 3
During my final few days at SXSW Film, I traveled cinematically from Scotland to Brazil to the coast of Turkey. You might call that a Big Holiday — especially if you’re trying to set up a pun about SXSW’s most talked-about world premiere, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday. Thanks to Netflix, that movie became available to the public just a few hours after Paul Reubens and Judd Apatow introduced it live to a packed house at Austin’s Paramount Theater.
Big Holiday is big, but is it the best among this slate of films? What position will it claim on our final SXSW chart? Read on.
5. Bodkin Ras
A young man of Middle Eastern descent shows up in an insular Scottish town where the main occupation is drinking. The town has been decimated by the suicides and big city ambitions of its young residents, leaving a dwindling population of mostly old men. They treat the newcomer at arms’ length, giving him manual labor to do but always asking when he’ll be going “home.” As he explains to his young girlfriend in his rapidly-acquired brogue, he can’t go home. The reason why not is withheld until late in the film, and after its reveal things go downhill fast — too fast, in fact, and too far downhill. The ending feels like a cheat, a tendentious left-turn meant to prove the point that society creates monsters. Documentary-style interviews with real-life criminal James Macmillan (he’s real, but the story isn’t) endeavor to sell the narrative swerve with prison-yard philosophizing, but Macmillan’s cruel anecdotes don’t make this multinational movie’s sour ending feel earned.
4. Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday
Paul Reubens’ man-child character hasn’t visibly aged since we last saw him in 1988 in Big Top Pee-Wee. His personality, too, is unaltered, and un-updated. Reubens told the Austin world premiere audience that he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about abstractions like “the evolution” of Pee-Wee Herman; producer Judd Apatow might, he said, but the Big Holiday team has clearly opted for consistency rather than experimentation. In his latest incarnation, Pee-Wee has the same cheeky, semi-risque humor, the childlike fixations on candy and toys, and the love of gadgetry that drove his 1980s outings. It’s refreshing to see a comeback for a classic character that doesn’t feel the need to modernize or otherwise rationalize its existence. This is just a Pee-Wee movie, not a reboot or a prequel or a genre-bender. Some of it feels belabored or out of place, like a trio of sexy female criminals on the lam, but the story moves so quickly that no scene has time to overstay its welcome. If you’re not a Pee-Wee fan, nothing in Big Holiday will make you reconsider, but a reason to watch it anyway is Joe Manganiello, who steals the show with an energetic, shirt-ripping, big-hearted comic performance that will come as no surprise to Magic Mike fans.
3. Another Evil
A horror comedy must serve two masters – fear and laughter – and few can do justice to both. Another Evil is the exception. It is scary on multiple levels as well as consistently funny. Early on the movie establishes that there is a bonafide haunting at a young family’s vacation house, but as the title implies, it is another evil altogether that they should be worried about. The plot is pretty easy to predict, but as it progresses the script indulges in deliciously macabre fantasies while building up an elaborate and satisfyingly-specific theory about why this particular home is haunted. The more the movie makes us believe, the more it demonstrates that believing isn’t the important thing; it is actions, not entities, that are good or evil.
2. Dead Slow Ahead
The standard way to make a documentary about an Atlantic freighter would be to explain its role in the modern shipping industry, to interview its crew, to narrate its slow, leaky, coal-fueled progress from the Americas to Turkey. Director Mauro Herce seems to have determined that the Fair Lady and her crew deserve something more artful, and he’s right. A freighter is an ugly, utilitarian machine; Herce makes it eerily beautiful, with still shots and pans across baroque metal fixtures and into cavernous holds. The Atlantic Ocean is a flat, grey expanse; Herce catches it in its awesome moments of storm and calm and tumbling foam. A shipping crew, away from home for months on end, makes the boat run smoothly; Herce shows how they are the servants of the ship, small as insects next to the machinery, barely able to keep the ocean of water outside the hull away from the mountains of grain in the hold. There are very few words in Dead Slow Ahead, and impatient viewers may quickly lose interest. It is a predominantly visual experience — Koyaanisqatsi on a boat, without the epoch-making score — but frame by frame it bespeaks Herce’s wonderment at the underappreciated phenomenon of industrial-scale shipping.
1. Jules and Dolores
Netflix is releasing Jules and Dolores only in Central and South America. North American users, fire up your VPNs. This is one of the most distinctive heist films in recent memory, rich with characters, culture, and comedy. In the early 1980s, Brazil’s soccer association was the permanent owner of the original World Cup cup, the Jules Rimet trophy. A couple of low-rent con-men hijacked the statue, and it hasn’t been seen since. That much is history, and this movie is left to speculate about the rest. In Jules and Dolores, the mastermind behind the theft is a happy-go-unlucky gambler named Peralta, played by the convivial Paulo Tiefenthaler. In addition to getting in deep with the mafia, he spends lavishly on his beautiful girlfriend Dolores (Taís Araújo). Much of this sepia-tinted, rambunctiously-scored film involves Peralta’s attempts to sell the cup on the black market while futebol officials and police investigators try to find him before it’s too late. Like many great comedic caper films, this one has an ending that’s edifying, surprising, and as cheer-worthy as a golaço. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to know anything about soccer to get it.) Jules and Dolores won an audience award at SXSW.
1. Black Mountain Poets
3. Jules and Dolores
4. Hit it Hard
5. Dead Slow Ahead
6. American Fable
7. Another Evil
8. Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday
9. Karaoke Crazies
11. The Slippers
12. The Bandit
13. Bodkin Ras
14. Careers in Organized Crime (feature-length 360-degree movie)
15. In a Valley of Violence
16. Carnage Park
There are plenty of potential chart-toppers I just missed, like Midnight Special, Everybody Wants Some, and Transpecos, not to mention dozens of fictional and documentary shorts. If you were in Austin for SXSW this year, let us know your favorite festival movies in the comments!