SXSW Film 2015 The specter of death, the power of forgiveness, and the richness of life

The specter of death haunted SXSW Film 2015. That’s a dramatic way to view it, but it’s nonetheless true. Most films touched on mortality in some way or another, whether it was the AI fighting to avoid terminal shut down in Ex Machina, the title character in Hello, My Name Is Doris reacting to the death of her elderly mother, or the fascination of the murder scenes in Manson Family Vacation. Even the jury award winner, Krisha, was made by family and friends in reaction to the suicide of one of their own.

Beyond the subject matter of the films, filmgoers could feel the lingering shock over last year’s vehicular manslaughter incident that left many injured and too many dead. I overheard many talk about the incident in dazed and disbelieving tones while waiting to get into see a film. And, on a personal note, I found out one of my college friends committed suicide during the festival, casting a pall on everything as I tried to make sense of the senseless.

Even with death’s shadow hanging over SXSW Film 2015, it wasn’t a grim affair. The communal experience of watching these films in the festival setting abated the sense of darkness that normally comes with such topic matter, and while the films may have dealt with death, they weren’t morbidly obsessed with it. Instead, the films focused on the reactions of those surviving, finding the richness of life, the power of forgiveness, and the ability to move on.

The Final Girls (dir. Todd Strauss-Schulson)

A teenage girl (Taissa Farmiga) and her friends end up sucked into the 80s slasher film that starred her dead mom (Malin Akerman) in this metatextual comedy/slasher film. The Final Girls relies more on laughs than scares, but manages to wring a lot of hilarity out of the conventions of the genre, with fully fleshed characters and a reality-bending premise. Some emotional moments don’t deliver as intended, but it still features the two most poignant stripteases in cinematic history, all scored to 80s mega hits. It’s an enjoyable romp that plays like the slapstick cousin to a mixture of Scream with The Cabin In The Woods. Definitely worth checking out for a midnight show.

The Invitation (dir. Karyn Kusama)

Karyn Kusama’s much welcomed return to feature-length horror, The Invitation is a taut film masterfully directed so that audiences are never quite sure if there is something disturbingly afoot or if the tension springs from the protagonist’s own addled mind. Depicting the disparate ways people deal with grief, the characters are rounded out and real, which renders the suspense all the more impactful as the film progresses to a shocking conclusion.

Hello, My Name Is Doris (dir. Michael Showalter)

Showalter’s follow up to the rom-com-skewing The Baxter is a less arch approach that examines the life of an older woman (Sally Field) who tends to live in fantasy and with too much emotional attachment as she copes with the loss of her mother and the hiring of a new young executive (Max Greenfield). There are frequent laughs, and Field turns in an exceptional performance as a hoarder who becomes the toast of the New York hipster scene by simply being herself. Tyne Daly also delivers a great performance as Field’s best friend who is a straight shooter that worries where this vicarious living will lead her fragile friend of many years. The ending is a bit pat and not entirely earned, but the preceding is worth sitting through the formulaic climax for.

Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)

One of the best companion pieces to Blade Runner ever created, Garland’s debut film as a director, Ex Machina, focuses on a tech tycoon (Oscar Isaac), who brings in a coder (Domhnall Gleeson) to provide a sort of living Turing Test to his latest AI creation. This could just as easily be staged as a play with four main actors and three rooms, even though it’s dealing with harder sci-fi and brilliant make-up and special effects. Oscar Isaac is brilliant as the hard-drinking wunderkind whose late film dance routine left the audience floored and cheering for more. It’s a deep story that ponders the roles of a soul and a brain in defining existence, but also doubles as a stirring thriller, never getting too bogged down in its own philosophy.

Entertainment (dir. Rick Alverson)

Rick Alverson’s follow-up to The Comedy is less uncomfortable and cringe-inducing than that film, but that’s a high bar to meet; many audiences will likely be as put off by Entertainment. Following comedian Greg Turkington ostensibly playing a hideous version of himself, Alverson embraces indie metaphors and tropes only to subvert them in order to show that life doesn’t have these overarching motifs and that mostly it’s just a grotesque and bizarre arrangement of random things that slowly break us all down in some way or another. It’s a powerful film at times, and at others too obvious in its own anti-message, but it continues to prove Alverson has a directorial voice.

Manson Family Vacation (dir. J. Davis)

This indie dramedy focuses on the strained relationship between two brothers, one a successful lawyer (Jay Duplass), the other (Linas Phillips) a man who has slowly left his artistry behind and become obsessed with Charles Manson. Essentially a road movie rife with twisted subject matter, the film is elevated by the performances of the leads and the lived-in, realistic approach to their characters. The denouement of the film seems a bit… off, but director J. Davis is assured enough in his performers and his script that it never feels as hokey as it should.

Interesting Ball (dir. DANIELS)

The best short of the festival, Interesting Ball is a bizarre film that traffics in hilarious surrealism. A kickball seduces a woman into adultery, a refrigerator gains sentience to help a widow move on with her life, a group of frat boys turn into a Voltron-esque monstrosity to win back an ex-girlfriend of one of its members, a man is slowly sucked into the butt of his roommate, and a date is slowly going off the rails in separate but related stories that all grapple with the infinite possibilities of the universe. It’s a film to be on the lookout for if it ever hits streaming services because it is so absurd, ridiculously funny, and completely original.

We Are Still Here (dir. Ted Geoghegan)

Ted Geoghegan’s debut may seem to others like it has pacing issues, as it is slow going for the first half of the film, with a couple of scares thrown in here and there to increase the tension. However it’s perfectly fitting for a throwback to the Fulci films like The House By The Cemetery and The Beyond, wherein the first act or two are always slowly paced before the true madness is unleashed and everything goes to Hell (sometimes quite literally). Well acted, with impressive effects, this horror film about a couple that moves into a secluded house with a history is not to be missed for those who welcome a return to the batshit insanity and creeping unsettling feeling of those well-documented 70s Italian films.

Turbo Kid (dir. RKSS Collective)

Easily the best of the fest for me, Turbo Kid is a riotous, joyous celebration of the Italian Mad Max knock-offs of the late 70s/early 80s that wallows in its outsized world and gallons of practical gore effects. Despite the over the top violence, the film has sincerity and heart to it (mostly due to Laurence Labouef’s Apple character) that immediately entertains and endears. RKSS Collective’s post-apocalyptic world of 1997, wherein only BMX bikes survive as the means for transportation and water is scarce, is a world that I look forward to revisiting many times in the future.

Danny Says (dir. Brendan Toller)

Following a real life rock n roll Zelig figure, Danny Says chronicles the life and career of Danny Fields, who was associated with acts like The Velvet Underground, Nico, MC5, The Stooges, The Doors, and The Ramones. The film is at its most vibrant when Fields is speaking as he is a true maverick . One is never quite certain what he’s going to say or what his take on this zeitgeist-defining act will be. The only downside to the film is its abrupt ending, with his firing from The Ramones, but perhaps since he’s still alive that just goes to show there’s always more story to tell and more to discover from this singular individual.

7 Days In Hell (dir. Jake Szymanski)

Hilarious, bizarre, absurd, and completely nonsensical, Jake Szymanski’s film for HBO 7 Days In Hell is a great send up of the self-important sports documentaries that chronicles a fictitious grudge match between two fake tennis players. Even at its slight running time of 50 minutes, it still finds space to go off on bizarre tangents about court cartoonists, the Swedish prison system, and the cult of celebrity and “bad boys” of sports. There are more laughs per minute in this shorter film than found in most feature-length comedies, with a bunch of eccentric characters who would not be out of place in a Christopher Guest mockumentary.

Mavis! (dir. Jessica Edwards)

It’s not surprising that one of the most joyful presences in music would also lead to an incredibly humane and uplifting documentary. Mavis Staples has been a musician for more than 60 years, starting out in gospel before moving to mainstream soul in the 70s and finding fans and accolades through working with Jeff Tweedy. While this isn’t a scandal-ridden documentary, it’s engaging by dint of the oversized heart of its subject matter and the way her music has chronicled the various changes in music, culture, and the politics of a nation. A powerful film focused on a charismatic woman with a powerful voice, Mavis! is an excellent debut by Jessica Edwards that sheds a completely new light on one of the hardest-working women in music.

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