I thought about doing a Best Documentaries of SXSW feature, but that would have included too many repeats from past festivals. For instance, a number of my favorite docs of 2011 so far, such as 'Armadillo,' 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams,' 'The Interrupters' and 'How to Die in Oregon,' were in Austin last week and honestly would have trumped anything I'd just seen. Yet I couldn't limit myself to world premieres, either, because there are some films I caught up with at SXSW, like Sundance Audience Award winner 'Buck' and the wonderfully eccentric 'Convento.'
The truth is, I wasn't really excited about a lot of this year's non-fiction crop (including 'Buck'), and I already devoted full reviews to two favorites, 'The City Dark' (which won an award for its awesome score) and 'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop.' I didn't see all the docs of course -- that might have been impossible even if I didn't make time for friends, Franklin and a few fiction films; also, other Cinematical writers took on a few selections for coverage (see our reviews of 'Fightville,' 'El Bulli: Cooking in Progress' and 'Becoming Santa' as well as a look at the music docs of the 24 Beats a Second program). But I would like to share some thoughts on a handful of other films I like for one good reason or another.
I might as well begin with the Grand Jury Winner, Tristan Patterson's near-verité look into the life of pro skateboarder Josh "Screech" Sandoval as he returns to the sport after a hiatus, somewhat adapts to fatherhood, hangs out with a new girlfriend and otherwise wanders about, homeless and aimless. I've heard criticisms focused on its pointlessness, but I'm certain it would receive a lot more love if it was the exact same film, shot-for-shot, yet was a work of realist fiction rather than a documentary. Like, say, if Gus Van Sant had made it.
No, you won't learn much from this film, which is so gorgeous to look at (yes, even with all the out-of-focus shots) that Eric Koretz's win for best cinematography almost seems like a too-obvious understatement. First-time filmmaker Patterson and his editors (Lizzie Calhoun and Jennifer Tiexiera) structure the year-or-so-long narrative neatly with album track-inspired chapter breaks and do a marvelous job cutting both the skate action and the simpler scenes (like with 'Armadillo,' there are times I wondered just how they achieved the coverage of certain moments). See this one on the big screen if you get a chance.
The joy of this film comes more from its subjects than the work of director/cinematographer Jarred Alterman, though it is a beautiful film. It takes us to a 400-year-old monastery in Portugal, where a peculiar family of Dutch artists now lives. Most interesting is son Christiaan Zwanikken, whose creations are like mechanized taxidermy inspired by Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" video and maybe 'Blade Runner' (I also referred to the sculptures as skeletal Muppets).
Also seen are his ballerina mother and animal-loving brother, as the doc poetically explores dichotomies such as natural remains and man-made trash, ancient and futuristic settings, life and death, knights and robots. At only 50 minutes long, it's also commendable for not overstaying its welcome, as many other SXSW docs (including 'Buck') do, while also not trying to fit the temporal confinement of an Academy-recognized short.
'Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film!'
It may not have the quantity of laughs or celebrity appeal of the Conan O'Brien doc, but this comedy concert film from director Victor Varnado ('The Awkward Kings of Comedy') is a very, very good time and features hilarious up-and-coming "alternative" comics like Christian Finnegan and the more well-known Kristen Schaal (here half of a duo with Kurt Braunohler). While the stand-up is plenty funny, if occasionally more musical and New York-centric for outsider tastes, and in a way the film functions primarily as an ad for the specific weekly show of the title, 'Tell Your Friends!' is best for its off-stage interviews with veteran comedians like Janeane Garafolo and Colin Quinn, in which they discuss the concept of "alternative" comedy, how it can sometimes be too esoteric or existential but how it's typically smarter and more experimental because regular comedy club crowds are disrespectful idiots. Ironically, after all the talk about how much more intelligent shows like this are, Schaal and Braunohler fill their set with a lot of dick jokes. But they are some brilliant dick jokes.
'A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt'
This profile on Liebrandt, a chef who has had a bumpy career over the past decade, is pretty basic as far as docs like this go. I have issues with some of first-time filmmaker Sally Rowe's choices, especially a sketchy appropriation of an interview for PBS, but in the end I applaud her first-hand dedication to the project, for which she'd been shooting material for ten years, and managed to enjoy its look at the modern difficulties of the American dream during these "redemptive" times when "we build people up just to tear them down, over and over." The film explores the evolution of under-appreciated talent, the NYC restaurant industry and the power of food criticism -- in some ways, 'A Matter of Taste' is more about the continued relevancy of The New York Times than 'Page One' is -- while also showing the foodie crowed some beautiful dishes. I also like that this is sort of the culinary equivalent of 'Tell Your Friends!' in the way it sort of trashes the modern celeb chef scene in favor of "alternative" artists who actually set foot in the kitchen. Rowe also gets favorable marks for keeping her film rather short, too (68 minutes). See it soon on HBO.
Vikram Gandhi's life-experiment doc is more Sacha Baron Cohen than Morgan Spurlock, but it lacks the laughs of either. Not that I'm sure Gandhi is aiming for comedy. In the film, which took home an Audience Award from SXSW, the U.S.-born filmmaker takes on the character Kumare, a long-haired, bearded guru from India who has gone to Arizona to teach people that they don't need a guru, or any sort of religious leader. But the message is overlooked because these students begin to idolize the mystical stranger.
Gandhi never seems to disrespect the poor suckers, on screen or through the film, which is why we never laugh at them, but there is a tense awkwardness as we wait for the revelation to ultimately come and be met with pitchforks and torches (also sadly, unlike conman films like 'The Music Man' and 'The Rainmaker,' Kumare never has a love interest who you know will forgive him in the end). 'Kumare' is less revealing than you want it to be, and its message is rather simplistic, and Gandhi's methods are certainly questionable, but I couldn't walk away from it.
'Last Days Here'
Don Argott follows up 'The Art of the Steal,' which made my top 10 list for 2010, with another highly engaging story, this time co-directing with his editor, Demian Fenton. The doc follows the life of Bobby Liebling, singer for the 70s metal group Pentagram, which might have been as big as KISS and Black Sabbath if only the front man hadn't screwed it all up. Thanks to growing cult fanbase and one very dedicated follower, Liebling tries to kick his crack habit and clean up enough for a reunion show.
The premise and much of the content seems like material for a cross-over between VH1 Classic and A&E (specifically the shows 'Intervention' and 'Hoarders'), and we've seen enough of these docs about old, forgotten rock geniuses who live with their parents and have mental issues. Coming from someone who tends to hate those kinds of music docs, I have to admit 'Last Days Here' is better than any I've seen (or tried to watch). It's not as great as 'Art of the Steal' but it's pretty darn good.
The Rest - I'm still working on seeing more of the SXSW docs (via screener), and hopefully a few of them, like editing prize-winner 'Where Soldiers Come From' will be added to my favorites of the fest. As for those I saw and can't completely recommend, I did enjoy parts of both 'Buck' and 'Better This World.' The former is overlong and overstates its metaphoric anti-abuse message (I'm surprised there's no explicit address of how horse whisperer Buck Brannaman is the key to world peace) but it has some unbelievable moments and I totally get why it continues to receive standing ovations from fest crowds. The latter is really great in the second half, but it takes a very long time getting there, through too much expositional backstory. It's focus on plea bargaining brings little that's new to the audience, and so it fails to provoke discussion on domestic terrorism the way Marshall Curry's better new film, 'If a Tree Falls,' does.
I also liked some of 'Sound It Out,' which is as colorful and amusing as we can expect from a film about fanatic collectors, but it too could have been about an hour shorter, as it goes nowhere. Finally, I saw one documentary short at SXSW this year (excluding the great 'Satan Since 2003,' which I caught during Sundance), Jessica Edwards' 'Tugs,' which at 9 and a half minutes shows you all you really need to know about the NYC tugboat world today. It's concise, informative, very well shot, and it proves that you don't need to force a feature out of a subject in an attempt to make a great documentary.