Best of SXSW 2010
By: D.E. Ortega
Fresh from SXSW here’s my best of-in some kind of order:
NY Export: Opus Jazz
In what appears to be faithful to Robbin’s 1958 ballet in it’s choreography, music (Robert Prince) and abstraction, this film also has clearly defined individual performances which give it a lyrical narrative form; it would not be out of place screened next to something by Tsai Ming Liang. Jody Lee Lipes, who shot this film, is a major new talent as cinematographer – and this is one of two films he shot in my best of SXSW list. (Not available on Auteurs – but appears to be available On Demand for PBS)
Easily the most impressive narrative I saw, and my introduction to a major talent in writer/director/actor Martha Stephens. A multiple character study with only a few threads connecting the multifarious story lines. Of the dozen or so significant characters, only two pairs briefly meet, but what keeps them together is not a narrative device, but shared experiences of loss. Each character in Passenger Pigeons has either lost someone or something, come to end of a moment in life, or is in fear of losing something. Shot in Kentucky, which is a much a mental state as a place, no other movie took me to place as clearly lived in as this one did.
Annie Goes Boating (a short film shot in 3D)
Director Noel Paul told me his previous work has been more experimental in nature, and it makes me wonder how much that background helped make this sublime short succeed. In experimental films, things like feelings, impressions, sense of setting and rhythm often take the place of a traditional narrative form. What struck me first was it’s sense of setting. The way Paul and his crew framed scenes they recalled images of Monet in a simple and refined way. It’s a simple tale of young adults in the park one afternoon playing, relaxing, talking and being playfully romantic. It may sound slight, but the conception of the 3D allows for a unique immersion. The eye is allowed to wonder, and the film doesn’t distract by it’s showiness. (Not available on Auteurs)
This was also my introduction to director Matt Porterfield in what is largely a improvised film. The death of a young drug abuser allows for various characters to recall memories of their relationship to the deceased. Often shot as series of interviews, the characters are asked questions from a off screen voice and the environment in which the subjects are shot in, seem to help to define them as they offer a brief glimpse into places they live, work, or hang. Porterfield and his crew give the movie a poetic feel, and each vignette would stand on it’s own but the narrative drive is the funeral. Yet, it doesn’t end there, and there is a sense of mystery under the surface. A beautiful experience.
I Miss (experimental)
Unfortunately, I Miss (a experimental short video) has little to no chance of appearing on this site. Director Annie Dorsen gives (off/on screen?) direction to a little girl as she recites a intense & romantic poem. Charged with melancholy and sensuality – the video is almost in one take but the cut hardly takes away from it’s awesome power. (Not available on Auteurs)
I’m not quite sure what I saw here, but the feeling one gets is unsettling, atmospheric, and a kind of comedy that might make you laugh as even as you wince. With moments of shocking violence that recall Haneke, and a style of comedy that felt Godardian. A brother and two sisters are trapped physically on their parents estate, and mentally by their demands. The children (who are young adults) are even prisoners to language, as their father gives convenient definitions to words he finds objectionable. Despite it’s disturbing nature, it’s also quite playful.
At first I begrudgingly added this film because of the impressive work of Lena Dunham who wrote/directed and bravely stared. The artificial language of the Diablo Cody style leaves me cold and annoyed, yet it is still just as clever and sharp in this film as it is in Juno. Then something happened, I realized that my struggle was a problem of my own, rather than that of it’s filmmaker. What continues to amaze me is the assured direction, writing, and performance of it’s star that are first rate – it doesn’t get much more professional than this, yet I wonder how it is going to stand up in the face of its reviewers. The feeling may be that Dunham is playing herself, and from what I can gather this is a personal story, so while that may be true it’s more a mark of strength than liability.
The film is centered around young woman who is just out of college. She’s aimless, conventionally unattractive and a loser at love – so she moves in with her mother and sister in Tribeca where she attempts to seduce a dubious internet celebrity (a interesting Alex Karpovsky), get a job as a hostess and bang the hot sous chef. She succeeds at a few in debatable ways perhaps, but she also abandons her life long best friend for her superficial and spoiled ex high school chum (played with artificialness showiness and star making turn by Jemima Kirke) which was never developed to my like.
Tiny Furniture recalled Ghost World, with it’s focus on a imperfect, unattractive lead character who we know is smart as hell, unconventionally attractive and yet somehow gets into situations that don’t play to her strengths and where her beauty isn’t appreciated. Some of the highlights for me where the magnificent images she composed with master cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, and a great, awkward sex scene that stands up there with the recent unnerving work of Andrea Arnold.
A deceptively challenging work.
Audrey the Trainwreck
Audrey the Trainwreck features a strong cast, and a terrific written script – written being the key word as there is a distinction worth making. This is the first work of Frank V. Ross’s that I have seen, but clearly he has a talent for words and direction – little of the movie is improvised, yet it feels alive and of the moment. Kudos for getting original John Medeski (of the great Medeski, Martin & Wood) music on the big screen. (Not available on Auteurs)
There’s a slight drop off from here out… While no means a great film, Trash Humpers might be the best thing Korine has ever made. It’s free from any kind of narrative (so often his weakness), and is really just a series of vignettes about a group of elderly (or meant to be thought of as disguised?) who sexually abuse trash cans, trees, or other things and shot video of themselves along the way. Among their encounters are strange conjoined twins, a fat misfit kid, and other weirdos. Shot on VHS, and shown complete with codec and STOP/FF/REW signals, it is supposed to play like a piece of found art and it may play better in a gallery setting, as it is often exasperating.
Aaron Katz’s best movie, despite it’s slow start. Director of Photography Andrew Reed is perhaps the most interesting thing about Katz’s movies, and this time he gets his hands on the beautiful Red camera. A sly brother/sister story about a former forensic studies major (not quite believable) who moves in with his sister and discovers a mystery about his ex girlfriend. Along the way he is aided by his coworker, but it is his relationship with his sister, and their final moments that stuck with me the most.
Strange Powers: Stephen Merritt and the Magnetic Fields
Perhaps not much more is revealed here that couldn’t be found through some research, but this is really one of the great bands of the past couple of decades, and Stephen is a interesting subject. There is never a dull moment in this movie, and it’s adherence to traditional documentary methods (no 3D model still photo effects) make it completely satisfying. With the influx of documentaries, this one knows its limits unlike some of the others I saw at SXSW where they over stay their welcome.