SXSW Film 2016 Screenings parsed and evaluated: the good, the bad, the greasy

South By Southwest 2016 was a pretty good year for film, though perhaps not a great one for festivals. So many of the films present already had distribution deals, including various streaming sites, where they would soon be made available to watch in mere weeks from their festival debut. Obviously the democratization of movies, and allowing more people to see different kinds of film, is inherently a good thing.

But it does take away some of the appeal of the festival itself, realizing that what you’re watching now will soon be beamed into everyone’s homes in a matter of weeks (or days in the case of Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday). Part of the appeal (and point) of film festivals is to help build buzz around smaller films and get them in front of an audience who will appreciate it; but since so many had already been acquired and had their own marketing roadmap for distribution and PR, was SXSW buzz even necessary?

Part of the problem is there was a dearth of great films at this year’s SXSW. There were some truly not-great ones (looking at you, Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word), but most of the movies in the line-up fell between good to very good; nothing world-changing. And that’s fine—in a world churning out some execrable movies, very good can feel like the next Citizen Kane. But it seemed like the high quality movies had some asterisks next to them that held them back from truly excelling, whether it was a weird tonal shift, a lack of emotional connection, or some other flaw that sabotaged said film from reaching the next echelon.

Still, SXSW has such a diverse line-up every year there’s always something for everyone (even if the Midnighters were a bit weak this year outside of Hush and those mentioned below). There were documentaries about competitive chicken raising, weird European explorations of puberty, and a dramedy about a world where the Rubik’s Cube would’ve been the biggest thing ever. There was enough eclectic selection that even if you saw four films in a day, you were guaranteed to walk away liking at least two of them and perhaps contemplating the other two far longer than you thought you would.

Here then are the highlights of what we saw at SXSW 2016 that should be making their way to you (sometimes even sooner than you realize).

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru (dir. Joe Berlinger)

In six immersive days (and for a few thousand dollars), master life coach-business-counselor-exorciser-of-bullshit Tony Robbins will show you not only who you truly are, but how to be the person you actually want to be. Director of the remarkably front-row documentary, Joe Berlinger (who also was behind Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) gets in the teary-eyed, rapturous faces of Robbins’ “Date with Destiny” seminar attendees, who for six days in Palm Beach, Florida, worship Robbins as the key to their better selves. The film does little to volley skepticism at Robbins’ (at some times wildly irresponsible) counseling, in front of his live audience, of those with suicidal tendencies or histories of sexual abuse, but appears genuinely fascinated by this man who, through his near-obsessive devotion to his work, appears to need his devotees as much as they need him.

The Greasy Strangler (dir. Jim Hosking)

If John Waters and Tim & Eric had a lovechild, and then horribly neglected that child so it came up with all sorts of wrong ideas about sex and morality, then perhaps you’d be close to The Greasy Strangler. A repugnant but fascinating bit of anti-comedy with gross scenes and awkward dialogue, the film succeeds because it revels in its own disgusting universe. While it could probably stand to lose about 10 minutes, the film is a wild ride of gonzo proportions as a father and son learn to live together (and, actually, love each other) while also pushing the envelope for how much an audience can stand of seeing malformed penises and slop-covered murderers. Truly a unique film unlike anything before it, The Greasy Strangler is certainly not for everyone; but those who appreciate fringe films will certainly find a new favorite here.

I Go Back Home - Jimmy Scott (dir. Yoon-Ha Chang)

Ralf Kemper is a music producer who has obviously stretched his aching belief in an artist to emotional/financial extremes. To many, Jimmy Scott is a tough sell. To a fair share of us, though, his idiosyncratically pained singing style is precisely the antidote to all that numbs and nullifies in this world. SXSW has many singers of all manner of ability and style, but few cut to the quick like Jimmy Scott. As this film shows, there is an alchemy to what he did that is nearly heart stopping in its power. For most of the collaborative sessions that we follow in the film (hey, it’s Joe Pesci!) we are hearing standards. Standards that Woody Allen never tires of, standards that are shamelessly maudlin, and (most importantly) standards that jazz musicians can continue to scrape by on. Scott (my first introduction was this still powerful appearance) turns these chestnuts inside out, almost admonishing them for their ostentatious yearning and promise. Every note is sung like it’s his last, and he lives in those sappy sentiments and visibly slumps at their fleetingness.

While it seems true for many musicians, Scott had a hard life that tested him at every turn. After being orphaned at a young age, he was able to work his way up as a singer, only to be refused credit for his work on two hit records. He did eventually strike out with the acclaimed ‘63 LP Falling in Love is Wonderful on Ray Charles’ Tangerine Records, but by the late 60s found himself working as an orderly. Being that Kemper’s production was to be Scott’s third comeback (since the 90s, 00s), it’s easy to understand the ailing singer’s visible fatigue. The titular quote is not necessarily one of triumph, but of a last ditch hope for peace of mind. It’s almost as though he sees Kemper’s passion, sacrifice and dedication for him, and meets him half way in tribute. Otherwise I see man yearning to be free of it all. Chang captures this unmistakably, remembering to see the spark of passion that never goes away even when life has run you ragged. There are a great deal rough edges and padding to the presentation (for some reason Ralf speaks in German at the start and showing Scott being ushered through Tower Records for some music geek love felt awkwardly obligatory), but when Jimmy Scott began to sing it was easy to forget all that.

The Arbalest (dir. Adam Pinney)

Adam Pinney made a 76-minute long movie that is really just a fancifully decorated cake. The frosting is beautiful — colorful, richly period-toned compositions of 1970s tomfoolery, with florettes and detailing that stage the narrative of a spurned toy inventor whose obsession with a lady lost turns into an inexplicable parable on gun violence. All that, with whiffs of Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick in framing, but in script and plot, more like a ploddingly paced meal with just one (kind of) course. We stumble through the hapless protagonist’s world without really caring whether he lives, dies, gets the girl, or not — a basic cake, beautifully frosted. Inexplicably though, The Arbalest won SXSW’s narrative grand jury prize, so give it a look and fight with your friends about it.

Hunt For The Wilderpeople (dir. Taika Waititi)

Waititi’s Hunt For The Wilderpeople is a throwback to 80s kids films and adventure pictures that is hilarious and incredibly cute. The chemistry between foster child Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) and his reluctant caretaker (Sam Neill) is palpable as the two end up on the run from authorities when a misunderstanding spirals out of control. The laughs are character-based and Waititi revels in the comic possibilities that emanate from this odd couple as they travel through the brush of New Zealand. Beautifully shot landscapes and lack of censorship or pulling punches because it’s a “kid’s film” make this a surprisingly winning film that will probably become a classic that people will want to revisit again and again, quoting their favorite lines (of which there are many).

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