Once again, Austin, Texas and the SXSW Film Festival kicked our ass this year. One week of great weather, tex-mex, bbq, a little booze, a little music (Big Krit ruled) and a looooot of movies. For the third year in a row The Playlist team descended down on the coolest little town in Texas and were witness to a panoply of movies, documentaries, sci-fi pictures, disturbing horror films, deep and/or genre-tinged dramas (the latter seemed to be a trend), rock docs, feel-good dramedies, filthy comedies and more.
While, yes, you won't find too many obscure discoveries here, this isn't really the point for us. These were the films that either left us in stitches, left us reeling or in the case of one rather disturbing picture, left us gasping for breath. All of them are engrossing, captivating and something you must put on your radar for 2011.
"Attack The Block"
Rarely does a hive-mind-ish group-think take over The Playlist crew, but if you asked any of us that attended this year's SXSW which movie we thought was the most ridiculously great laugh-one-minute-scream-the-next fun, then we'd all come up with the same answer: "Attack the Block."Joe Cornish's directorial debut is an enthusiastically entertaining sci-fi comedy about some furry monsters that land from outer space in the wrong part of town -- think "Critters" or "Gremlins" meets "The Goonies." It could have been a total mess – tonally inconsistent (with its disparate elements of humor and horror), lacking in storytelling fundamentals (this is Cornish's first film, after all), barely intelligible (due to the cockney gangsta-speak) – but comes off as something like a minor miracle. A quarter the price of most Hollywood tent poles and exponentially more entertaining, "Attack The Block" bowled us over and we're still trying to get the grimy-awesome Basement Jaxx score out of our heads [read our full review]
Few movies at the festival blindsided us with the raw power, emotionality and technical prowess that Mike Mills' heartbreaking and hopeful drama "Beginners" did. It's easy, at a festival like SXSW, to become dazzled (and then later desensitized) by the constant onslaught of exemplary genre material, so it was even more of a shock that "Beginners" left the impression it did. The subtle, gorgeous story of a man (Ewan McGregor), dealing with the aftermath of his father's death (played by Christopher Plummer) and a burgeoning (and worrisome) relationship with a fiery young actress (Melanie Laurent), is told through a series of relatable vignettes and graphics-based cards that are hard to describe, but indispensible. And the fact that "Beginners" is able to pull this all off without coming across as desperate, cloying, or (worst of all) cute, is a testament to its timeless greatness. We'll still be talking about this film during our "Best Of" recaps at the end of the year, for sure. [read our full review]
Unnerving, brutalizing and ultimately psychically scarring, U.K. director Ben Wheatley's follow-up to "Down Terrace" is intense, disquieting and, in its balls-off-the-wall conclusion, capital T traumatizing. Is it a Ken Loach like kitchen-sink family drama full of emotionally violent Brits? Well, it's seems to be that at first, and then it becomes a hit-man buddy tale and then there's a creepy unsettling feeling throughout which fully blossoms later in the picture into an "omg, WTF is happening here?" way. Released by Warp X, an off-shoot of Warp Records, this disturbing picture is tonally and spiritually in line with some of the eerie Chris Cunningham-led music videos even though the concept of the picture is nothing supernatural like his bizarre masterworks, but there's likely a reason it landed at Warp X (and we can't figure out who did the score, but it's full of sinister ambient music and spooky sound design that would fit perfectly on the label). It's a difficult film to discuss without revealing too much, but it sweats portentous dread out of every pore even in the most seemingly mundane scenes. A must-watch, but something you may never want to see again once you've already witnessed it. [read our full review]
"The Sound Of My Voice"
There's a good reason why actress Brit Marling came out of Sundance with a hive's nest worth of buzz -- she is a comely, skilled and talented triple threat: director, actress and writer. Marling actually co-wrote two of the films at SXSW, and both of them interestingly enough were sci-fi, or genre-tinged dramas -- i.e, dramas with a hint of the unusual. The sci-fi inflected "Another Earth" was snatched up by Fox Searchlight already, but it's the cult drama, "The Sound Of My Voice" that really blew our hair back (and somehow this one doesn't have a home yet). Zal Batmanglij’s startling directorial debut is enigmatic, potent and fully absorbing like a trance. Marling plays a secretive young woman who claims to be from the future, and while it sounds ridiculous, it's not once the characters -- and audience -- are under her beguiling and hypnotic spell. This is a commanding picture that slowly uncoils itself like a serpent, one with mesmerizing allure and a sense of mysterious wonderment. [read our full review]
Is it a cheap, cop-out to put a big studio picture on this list given that it's not really in the indie-spirit of SXSW? Possibly, but damn us all if Universal's Paul Feig-directed "Bridesmaids" (produced by Judd Apatow) didn't have us in stitches for its entire 2-hour running length. A filthy comedy for girls is just what the doctor ordered and yes, comedy scene-stealer Kristin Wiig is long overdue for her first leading film, but as usually is the case with these kinds of comedies, the supporting cast is riotously funny. Particularly great is "Gilmore Girls" and "Mike & Molly" actress Melissa McCarthy who provides roaring, pretty fucked-up laughter throughout with her booming, larger-than-life character. Additionally, on top of great laughs from Jon Hamm, Chris O'Dowd, Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey, the film has a heart and soul, and even touches upon some Mike Leigh-like class issues in its surprisingly weighty story. Wiig is our hilarious go-to girl, but she also proves she can write and act as her Annie character reveals that narcissistic self-destruction can provide tears just as much as they can deliver chortles of laughter. [read our full review]
"Conan O'Brien Can't Stop"
This was a wonderful year for documentaries at SXSW ("Elevate" and "Buck" among them), but the cream of this particular crop was undoubtedly "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" (please keep in mind we'd already seen "Tabloid" a few months earlier). A hilarious, raw, unexpectedly introspective account of Conan's post-NBC traveling show, it seemed genuinely interested in the man on stage instead of just what he was performing. (Although, it should be noted, the actual concert footage-type stuff was just as amazing.) Part psychological profile, part go-for-broke comedy documentary, Rodman Flender's film was the rare nonfiction film that in not taking itself too seriously, really got to the heart of its subject matter in profound, unexpected and affecting ways.
"Our Day Will Come"
Romain Gavras, son of director Costa-Gavras, grabbed attention last summer with his controversial video for "Born Free" by M.I.A.. In it, redheaded children were rounded up and forced to walk through landmine-strewn fields, with most of them exploding into gooey chunks. It seems like Garvas' debut feature, "Our Day Will Come," is set in the video's same universe, in which redheads are persecuted and forced to plot escapes from the cruel harshness of reality. Vincent Cassel plays a lecherous psychologist and Olivier Barthelemy plays his young accomplice as they make a break for Ireland (a kind of redheaded utopia) and get into outlandish, occasionally hyper-violent misadventures along the way. Gavras has an uncanny sense of pacing and shot composition, with industrial landscapes out of Antonioni's "Red Desert" and an episodic structure that never feels draggy. Ed Banger artist Sebastian's thumping Euro-beat score nicely mirrors the rush of blood the viewer feels while watching the film.
While none of the films were really terrible per se, we did find a few disappointing films in: Jodie Foster's "The Beaver" starring Mel Gibson felt like a pretty mild and innocuous effort; Ti West's "The Innkeepers" was far too goofy and mundane -- like 85% mumblecore and 15% horror -- and even Duncan Jones' "Source Code" did not blow us away.
But we're not done yet, keep an eye out for more reviews from SXSW. --Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, & RP