By Graham Carter
Every year, South by Southwest’s idiosyncratic taste proves that it is a more interesting film festival than Sundance. SXSW takes more risks by programing smaller, and often stranger films.
Here are the five most memorable films from this year’s SXSW that I loved.
Images and official plot synopses from the SXSW website
“Sweaty Betty" by Joseph Frank and Zachary Reed
In a cramped row house on the border of Washington D.C., two stories of big dreams take place. Floyd and his family have raised a 1,000 pound pig in their backyard, and are determined to turn her into the team mascot for the Redskins football team. Floyd puts his plan into motion, but the pig, named Miss Charlotte, draws unwanted attention. A few blocks away, Rico and Scooby, two teenage single fathers and best friends, are hanging around the neighborhood. As they scheme up a better life for themselves and their children, they are presented with an unexpected opportunity.
French filmmaker and poet Jean Cocteau famously said, “Film will only become an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.” We are approaching the point where this idea is closer to reality. People whose stories are not told by Hollywood have the abiity to produce them on their own.
With their film “Sweaty Betty,” first-time filmmakers Joseph Frank and Zachary Reed have made a low to no budget American masterpiece with low-grade technology. The two have cited independent and documentary film legends (Jean Rouch and John Cassavetes) as influences, but also Larry David’s (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) improvisation based on an outline rather than a full script.
The film is acted by their longtime friends, Scooby and Rico, and feels like a documentary even though the directors staged most, if not all, of the scenes. The film has an entirely unique sensibility, largely due to the fact that a story like this hasn’t really ever been told. The directors wanted to portray their largely black community in a more authentic light than previously seen. This is film is completely successful in its intent. It’s also fun and tender in a way not many films are.
“Kings of Nowhere" by Betzabé García
Three families live in a village partially submerged by water in Northwestern Mexico: Pani and Paula do not want to close their tortilleria and spend their spare time rescuing the town from ruins; Miro and his parents dream of leaving but can’t; Yoya and Jaimito live in fear but have everything they need.
“Kings of Nowhere” is similar to “Sweaty Betty,” in that director Betzabé García documents a village close to her home and gives a voice to people whose stories would not usually be told. Her style is slow and beautiful and leaves plenty of time to take in the flooded landscapes. The characters are all kind,funny and memorable. A great moment comes when a couple’s daughter calls them during a power outage and the mom is deboning a chicken in the dark with lightning striking behind her. It is one of the most memorable scenes of SXSW, and this movie is full of these kinds of poetic moments.
"Heaven Knows What" by The Safdie Brothers
Based on the experiences of Arielle Holmes — a homeless teenager with a ferocious Jersey accent — the film stars Holmes as Harley, a fictionalized version of herself: a heroin-hooked panhandler unable to get either the junk or her wicked boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) out of her system. Locked into the relentlessly repetitive cycle of the addict's life — the never-ending search to score, the squabbles with dealers and fellow junkies, the violence ever ready to erupt as either farce or tragedy — she is still driven by a strange (and surely self-destructive) desire for beauty, the explosive moments of rapture that puncture the drabness of her existence.
The Safdie Brother’s latest film, “Heaven Knows What,” is one of the most visceral films I’ve ever seen. Every second of it is intense, and this is the movie I have thought the most about since the festival ended. The opening credits sequence is some of the most formally brilliant work ever done. The movie is hard to watch because it feels like so much of it is real. The Safdie brothers deserve the highest praise as they continue to push boundaries and challenge the complacency many indie filmmakers have gotten into. This is probably their best work to date, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.
“Results” by Andrew Bujalski
Recently divorced, newly rich, and utterly miserable, Danny (Kevin Corrigan) would seem to be the perfect test subject for a definitive look at the relationship between money and happiness. Danny's well-funded ennui is interrupted by a momentous trip to the local gym, where he meets self-styled guru/owner Trevor (Guy Pearce) and irresistibly acerbic trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders). Soon, their three lives are inextricably knotted, both professionally and personally.
Full disclosure — I might be biased because I am in this movie (though only briefly). In reality, I am probably more biased because I think Andrew Bujalski is one of the best directors working right now. “Results” is his first big-budget movie with A-list actors, and I was very nervous about him making the transition from unknowns to stars. He completely pulls it off, and the seemingly random narrative, which is actually very tightly structured, keeps it from feeling like a standard romantic comedy. A woman at the screening I attended commented that what made the film so enjoyable was the fact that she never had any clue where the plot was going, which kept her engaged. This is definitely the film’s biggest strength, as it is truly character driven. It’s also warm, kind of weird and has a lot to say about loneliness and emptiness. Every film Bujalski has made is a masterpiece, and his latest is no exception.
“Uncle Kent 2” — Todd Rohal
In a desperate search to create a follow-up to Joe Swanberg's 2011 film UNCLE KENT, Kent Osborne travels to a comic book convention in San Diego where he loses his mind and confronts the end of the world. Reuniting in the GREMLINS 2 of "Indie" sequels, Joe Swanberg, Jennifer Prediger and Tipper Newton return in a surrealist look into Osborne's madness. Written by Osborne and passing the directors' torch over to Todd Rohal (THE CATECHISM CATACLYSM), UNCLE KENT 2 plays out like an absurdist successor that bends the rules of sequels and the minds of the audience.
I was involved with this film as well, but I would love it just as much even if I were not. Todd Rohal is a weird genius, and his Sundance/SXSW short from last year, “Rat Pack Rat,” is probably my favorite short film of all time. “Uncle Kent 2” starts off as an inside joke, but quickly becomes a crazy apocalyptic romp that anybody into bizarre humor will enjoy. The main character, Kent Osborne — who is the head writer of “Adventure Time” and had a hand in writing “The Spongebob Movie” — is extremely likable and exudes awkward charisma. Any movie with him is a safe bet. Seek this one out if you like some of the more absurd jokes in “Spongebob” and “Eastbound and Down.”