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SXSW 2011: Nat’s Top and Bottom Five

March 31, 2011

Cousin Jane recorded her top flicks of SXSW, and I figured I’d snag her coattails (how many times has “Pancake’s Top Five Girl Crushes” been in the most viewed articles?) and offer up my favorite films of the fest. I have some reviews of these on the back-burner, but my laptop is in the repair shack down the road, so I’m typing from the PC at the moment. (Which has lasted far longer than any computer I’ve ever had. Way to go, Dell!)

Top Five

1. Cave of Forgotten Dreams

This was, with the possible exception of Tabloid, the only Great Movie I saw at the festival. That’s not to say there weren’t a slew of really good movies showing, but Cave is the only one I can think of that people 75 years from will still be talking about. Herzog’s treatise on ancient art and art in general puts you right into the Cave and elevates 3-D to the level of pure artistry. It is a beautiful and thoughtful film. BEST SCENE: “What do you think this rock thought of the men who made these paintings?”

2. Tabloid

Errol Morris’s most accessible film is also his funniest–Jane, Angela, and myself collectively laughed their dainty tushes and my fat ass off. Joyce McKinney may be delusional, but she’s endearing as hell; and I’m not sure what’s funnier: the fact that her story just keeps on going and going and getting more and more bizarre or Morris’s constant off-camera audible disbelief and astonishment with his subject. BEST SCENE: “So I went and got him cloned.” FULL REVIEW HERE.

3. The Innkeepers

What a delight! My first introduction to Ti West was in the lamentable Silver Bullets (we’ll get to that in a moment), but he more than made up for it with this funny, scary, and surprisingly old-school “Ghost Story for the Minimum Wage.” Maybe the most interesting thing about West’s film is how slow of a burn it is when pretty much every other horror director his age whom I can think of would have thrown splatter after splatter at the viewer. West is much more interested in getting to know his sparse four-and-a-half characters, and he makes his two leads so charming, that The Innkeepers would have been good enough if it didn’t even have the horror element. But it does, and the pacing works fantastically well. The only thing I didn’t like was that it was almost all jump-scares, but, hell, they are chilling. BEST SCENE: First foray into the basement.

4. Becoming Santa

Cute and fun, Becoming Santa is probably the SXSW 2011 movie I’d most like to see with my grandmother. Jack Sanderson and Jeff Myers well deserve their audience award for this sweet documentary that’s never crude, never sacchrine, surprisingly informative, and consistently funny. BEST SCENE: Tie between “Santa doesn’t kill people” and proving to the world that there is a market for “Civil War Christmas Historians.” FULL REVIEW HERE.

5. Tie between Our Day Will Come and El Ambulante (The Peddler).

Two diametrically opposed films. El Ambulante is a surprisingly warm documentary about a hack filmmaker (Daniel Burmeister) who travels about South America looking for food and lodging in exchange for the promise to make a film about whatever village he happens to wander into. While the quality of his films never rises above home movies, he’s shrewd enough to know that everyone in the village will be overlook the hokiness and be satisfied just to see themselves up on screen. Our Time Will Come is, I think, the closest we’ll ever see to a film version of Grand Theft Auto. Vincent Cassel and Oliver Barthelemy are redheads fed up with France’s discrimination against their hair, so the two embark on a hedonistic rampage on their way to Ireland. It makes no sense but is strangely compelling–and you wonder how anyone this movie get made. BEST SCENES: Burmeister, despite his age and girth, is a paradoxically adept climber; Cassel pours brandy onto the chest of a buxom young girl with whom he’s currently engaged in a four-way…then lights it on fire.

Bottom Five

5. Convento

A dull, incoherent mess. The description is fantastic: “Artist Christian Zwanikken resurrects deceased wildlife by reanimating the skeletal remains with servomotors and robostics. He breeds these new species in a 400-year-old monastery in Portugal.” But director Jarred Alterman never seems to have much interest in his subjects; he’s more content to just sit back and film them, without realizing that they don’t want to be filmed or explored, so all you’re left with is many of the same shots repeated, one after the other, after the other, after the oth…

4. Something Ventured

Another doc full of potential that it wastes. Directors Dan Geller and Danya Goldfine get access to some of the greatest financial minds of our time: Arthur Rock, one of the first people who invested in Apple, Intel, Scientific Data Systems, and Teledyne; Jim Gaither, one of the first venture capitalists, who basically set up the system; Mike Markkula, former CEO of Apple; Robert Campbell, founder of PowerPoint; the surviving members of “The Traitorous Eight,” and does nothing with them outside of ask questions that could be found in any Business History 101 textbook. And to ask these men to teach history is to miss the point. For one, they’re not particularly articulate to lecture on how they changed the world; that’s a job for the historians, and the important questions–why they did it, what drove them, how to build a great company, what the next big financial development will be, how to recognize it, is technology a bubble, are we in a crisis–are glided over or outright ignored. These men (and women) have insight, but the film never quite taps into it.

3.  Silver Bullets

Ponderous. Silver Bullets has some awkward laughs but lingers on its scenes for way, way too long that it ends up as a lazy miasma of confusion that’s so muddled not even the copywriter who summarized it could figure out how to do so: “Filmmaking and life converge around a werewolf film.” Kate Lyn Sheil and Ti West, both of whom (especially Kate) try to give it a go but are noticeably doing this to help a friend, Kate has lovely breasts, but do they deserve a bearing for this?

2. The Catechism Cataclysm

Colleague Brian Prisco said “There’s a special place in hell reserved for Steve Little for this film.” No kidding. And I was amazed to hear from Brian that this was produced by the Eastbound & Down crew. I’m still not sure on that, but this is unbearably brutal. I like Steve Little on Eastbound, though he’s painful to watch here, and not because the humor tends toward social faux pas that are grounded in trying to make a joke while simultaneously making a point. However Catechism is aggressively unfunny–it’s at first dwelling on the main character being a social outcast, but assumes that’s merely enough; and I was similarly amazed that the audience laughed–uncomfortable laughter, but laughter nonetheless–and foremost was the studio liaison, whose laughter was as awkward and stilted that ultimately she gave the impression that she’d seen it too many times before. Messy, ignorant, and uncomfortable.

1. The Divide

Head-slappingly bad. Dumb characters, dumb screenwriting, dumb, dumb, dumb. Even the hummus at the Ritz was bland. FULL REVIEW HERE.

And for the record, here’s all the films I saw at SXSW 2011:

Animated Shorts
The Beaver
Becoming Santa
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
The Catechism Cataclysm
Cold Sweat [Sudor Frio]
The Divide
El Ambulante [The Peddler]
Fambul Tok
Fubar: Balls to the Wall
The Innkeepers
A Matter of Taste
Natural Selection
Night Fishing
Our Day Will Come
Page One: Inside the New York Times
Reindeer Spotting: Escape from Santaland
Rime of the Modern Mariner
Silver Bullets
Something Ventured
Umshini Wam
Viva Riva!


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