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SXSW: The Good, the Bad, and Top Ten Films at the 2014 Fest

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood March 12, 2014 at 4:12PM

I left this year's SXSW film festival with three takeaways: 1) Sundance programmed some really great titles back in January, many of which South By incorporated into their Festival Favorites category, 2) the Documentary Competition lineup was strong, and 3) the Narrative Competition lineup was not.
1
The Great Invisible

I left this year's SXSW film festival with three takeaways: 1) Sundance programmed some really great titles back in January, many of which South By incorporated into their Festival Favorites category, 2) the Documentary Competition lineup was strong, and 3) the Narrative Competition lineup was not. (SXSW wrap and awards winners here.)

So, to begin with the good. I caught four of the documentaries in competition, and can report they were all solid. The best of the bunch was Grand Jury winner "The Great Invisible," directed skillfully by Margaret Brown, which looks at the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its unsettling aftermath. Though the 2010 disaster has faded from headlines and media attention, the sizable environmental and economic ramifications continue to affect those who live in the Gulf area; Brown focuses on locals, survivors and surviving family members of those on the oil rig, and oil businessmen, to create a clear-eyed portrait of how an avoidable tragedy plays out in the long run.

Vessel

Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado's "The Immortalists" (review here) was a fascinating account of two prominent biologists obsessed with finding a cure for aging; Diana Whitten's "Vessel" was an emotionally resonant portrait of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, who boldly created Women on Waves, a seabound organization designed to bring legal abortion alternatives to women in countries where the procedure is outlawed; and David Marshall's "Beginning with the End," another emotionally powerful doc about high school students who face loss head-on by volunteering to care for the dying elderly in their final months.

In terms of Sundance repeats, three of my absolute faves from that fest got a chance to shine in Austin: the Zellners' wonderful "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" (review here), Gillian Robespierre's smart abortion rom-com "Obvious Child" (review here) and Lenny Abrahamson's Irish band dramedy "Frank" (review here), which is best known for starring Michael Fassbender wearing a giant fake head. Hilarious vampire mockumentary "What We Do In the Shadows" (review here) was also playing the fest.

I was able to catch seven of the total eight films in SXSW’s narrative competition section. I was underwhelmed by the offerings. Maybe it was all the Brooklyn settings, or the abundance of 20 and 30-something malaise. Hasn’t that all become stale by now? And this is coming from someone in the key demo to appreciate 20 and 30-something malaise.

"The Heart Machine."
"The Heart Machine."

Zachary Wigon's tale of long-distance relationship woes and paranoia "The Heart Machine" (review here) and John Magary's off-kilter "The Mend," starring a crazed Josh Lucas as an aging loser, were the strongest of the bunch, if neither were spectacular enough to be "that film" out of the fest to really generate buzz. (Long-distance relationships were also key in the one competition film I didn't see, appropriately titled "Long Distance"; Eric Kohn of Indiewire liked it.) Colin Schiffli's "Animals" examines a young couple in a co-dependent, drug-fueled and near-homeless relationship; the lead performance by Kim Shaw is solid, and the film's ultimate downer message was refreshingly realistic. But still, not a bonafide standout. 

Sarah Violet-Bliss and Charles Rogers' "Fort Tilden," which scored the Grand Jury award, is amusing if too indebted to the "Girls" zeigeist that Lena Dunham (who served as an eloquent keynote speaker at the fest) hath wrought. Again, aimless twentysomethings in Brooklyn. Leah Meyerhoff's visually appealing "I Believe in Unicorns" didn't successfully create lived-in characters -- a teen girl and her older abusive boyfriend, both distant and inaccessible -- that kept my attention. Meanwhile, Lawrence Michael Levine's "Wild Canaries" made a woeful attempt to blend comedy, noir, mystery and Mumblecore. It didn't work for me. And while the audience around me seemed to be eating up Shawn Christensen's "Before I Disappear," based on his Oscar-winning 2013 short "Curfew," I found it to be a contrived blend of indie cliches: the estranged reuniting siblings, the near suicide attempt, the contrast between a thirty-something loser and the young kid (who of course talks in that mannered, rehearsed way that sounds like no child on Earth) he's forced to befriend and take care of.

To end on a positive note, my Top Ten films from the fest, as well as Anne Thompson's Top Nine, after the jump.

This article is related to: Festivals, SXSW, South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW)


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.