Ranking the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival, Part 1
The first weekend of South by Southwest featured Bernie Sanders and Elon Musk, a buzzy Westworld promotional experience as awe-inspiring as the eponymous fictional theme park, and all the robotics and tech demos a two-square-block convention center can hold. But you’re not here for that. You’re here for the flicks.
For the uninitiated, Flickchart builds an ordered list of your favorite movies by pitting every movie you’ve seen against each other in endless pairings. You can match movies randomly or pair them by genre, franchise, director, actor, year, and other factors. It’s humorous, it’s agonizing, and it’s addictive. It makes you consider and reconsider what you value most in cinema. In fact, Flickcharting is a little bit like curating a film festival, or deciding what to see at one! (Also, by taking into consideration how many movies a user has seen — and showing you what they are and how the user ranks them — our algorithm provides more context for each user ranking than the increasingly controversial IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes rating models.)
For our South by Southwest 2018 coverage, we’ll rank each title we review against every other title to build an ordered list of our favorite to our least favorite films. Look below each recap for the matchups and updated rankings.
High-concept sci-fi is often “about” something; the monsters are metaphors, or the dystopia is a warning. A Quiet Place, starring real-life married couple John Krasinski (who also directed) and Emily Blunt as parents raising children in a world overrun with giant, lightning-fast, scythe-limbed insects that kill anything they can hear, is not that kind of high-concept sci-fi. It’s all entertainment, emotion, and adrenaline. Because the movie is nearly wordless, exposition about its near-future world is wisely relegated to set-dressing details: newspaper headlines and Krasinksi’s desperate scribblings about the monsters’ potential weaknesses. The movie uses jump scares frequently and for the most part effectively, but they are not how Krasinski generates fear and anxiety; he does this through the assiduous creation of situations in which we know what is going to happen but can foresee no good outcome. For example, Blunt’s very pregnant character is clearly going to give birth during the film, but how will she do it without making noise? And even if she does, how does she expect to prevent a newborn baby from making noise? At times the urge to look away is powerful, but the cast’s emotional, nearly-voiceless performances and the lurid appeal of the monsters make the urge to see stronger.
1. A Quiet Place
One of the posters for American Animals features a painting of flamingos done in the style of John Audobon. Yet it is the artist, not the art, that is the movie’s subject; his name is Spencer Reinhard, and he and three of his friends each served seven years in federal prison for attempting to steal the world’s most valuable book — a collection of Audobon paintings — from their university library. In American Animals Reinhard is played by himself in present-day interviews and by Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk) in a tragicomic reenactment of the heist. The movie tries to mix tones — funny when in heist mode, reflective when in documentary mode — but only the first of those really works. Keoghan and costars Even Peters, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson embody the low cunning and half-baked ambition of the students-turned-thieves during the movie’s well-paced first half, but even when their plans unravel in a semi-comedic frenzy during the second half, the actors aren’t able to fully actualize the fear and regret that we are told the young men experienced. Nor is director Bart Layton able to elicit anything particularly powerful from the real individuals whose worst few weeks he dramatizes. The question of “why” clearly has an answer for each of these men beyond the promise of financial gain, and Layton does suggest a lot of intriguing answers, but he could have probed more deeply into them. The movie poster, a poignant manifestation of Reinhard’s continuing fascination with the art of Audobon, may speak more loudly than the script’s black comedy and heist genre beats.
American Animals loses to A Quiet Place
1. A Quiet Place
2. American Animals
If you’ve watched the Nic Pizzolatto-penned TV series True Detective, it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’ve seen Galveston before and better. Pizzolatto’s novel Galveston predates the hit television phenomenon, so the comparative simplicity and rough edges of its story may be forgiven as a token of something greater to come. The same can be said for director/screenwriter Mélanie Laurent, whose direction in her fourth feature film is confident and unflinching if not yet transcendent. She elicits a very strong, wide-ranging performance from Elle Fanning as a young prostitute in the care of a fugitive hitman played by Ben Foster. Laurent captures the trademark bleakness of Pizzolatto’s late-20th-century Gulf Coast, dismal and deadly. Yet the characters and the plot are as flat as the world is vivid. By eschewing the novel’s first-person narration, Laurent’s screenplay loses an avenue for observational wit and does not find another route to achieve specificity or complexity. Other than curious Pizzolatto superfans, it’s difficult to imagine anyone being enthusiastic about a story whose darkness is so banal.
Galveston loses to A Quiet Place
Galveston loses to American Animals
1. A Quiet Place
2. American Animals
Imagine Ex Machina with several more twists and a chronology rearranged like puzzle pieces, and you’ve got more than a good idea of Elizabeth Harvest. Both take place in the same kind of high-tech minimalist compound built for comfort and isolation. They both feature the same sci-fi-inflected, psychologically-harrowing dynamic between a master, an apprentice, and their (sexy) creation. They showcase the talents of a young star, in this case Abbey Lee of Mad Max: Fury Road and The Neon Demon; she’s equally effective doing horror or comedy, and pivots effortlessly from sensuality to doll-like dormancy, all while projecting agency and eliciting pathos. The cinematography of Cale Finot makes creative use of a saturated and ever-shifting palette and ensures that the movie, though essentially a looping narrative in a confined setting, is never boring to look at. The script takes big leaps of emotional logic that may not always hold up to scrutiny or even work in the moment, but that’s a common pitfall of cerebral sci-fi. I found the same to be true of Ex Machina, and Elizabeth Harvest has more visual flair and a more exploratory (if also more expository) narrative to compensate.
Elizabeth Harvest beats Galveston
Elizabeth Harvest beats American Animals
Elizabeth Harvest loses to A Quiet Place
1. A Quiet Place
2. Elizabeth Harvest
3. American Animals
Stanley Tucci spent about 15 years bringing this true story to the screen, a long-term struggle that mirrors the laborious pace at which painter/sculptor Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) works. As someone who has both directed movies and been directed in movies, Tucci understands the restless creative forces that drive Giacometti as well as the tireless and demanding job performed by Giacometti’s model James Lord (Armie Hammer), who defers personal responsibilities in order to help the creator pursue his Sisyphean objective. The real-life Lord wrote in 1980 about his experience posing for an interminable Giacometti portrait several years earlier. From The Social Network to Call Me By Your Name to this, Armie Hammer has staked out a delightful niche in movies that understand the late 20th and early 21st centuries as a period whose aesthetics and cultures offer fertile ground for storytelling. He does more with a set jaw and a sardonic smile than perhaps anyone since Cary Grant. Meanwhile, Rush seems to be having as much fun as ever in a role that asks him to yell “Fuuuuck!” in an exaggerated continental accent several times. The ending of Final Portrait comes abruptly, and Tucci doesn’t oversell its message about the tension between process and product, of the arbitrariness of saying that a creative work is “done,” but creators everywhere will have no trouble recognizing that message and relating to it.
Final Portrait beats Galveston
Final Portrait beats American Animals
Final Portrait beats Elizabeth Harvest
Final Portrait beats A Quiet Place
1. Final Portrait
2. A Quiet Place
3. Elizabeth Harvest
4. American Animals
The Best Movie We Missed
Many viewers are praising Ready Player One as Steven Spielberg’s best, most entertaining, most visually-striking movie in years. “This is not a film. This, I promise you, is a movie,” Spielberg told the preview crowd, leaning into the supposed distinction between art and entertainment. We’ll see it with the rest of the country in a couple of weeks!