The Five Best Movies I Saw At SXSW 2010

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Featuring a Bill Hicks tribute, a Star Wars takedown, and John C. Reilly adopting Jonah Hill.


Tiny Furniture Trailer from Lena Dunham on Vimeo.

Full disclosure: Lena Dunham, the writer/director/star of this semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy previously directed herself in a sex scene for the Nerve video series Tight Shots…but before you go accusing us of nepotism and shameless self-promotion, I only made that "six degrees" connection after enjoying the hell out the film. Furniture finds a distaff Graduate named Aura (Dunham) returning home from a Midwestern liberal-arts college to grapple with twentysomething alienation in the condo/studio of her cuter, more ambitious sister and her successful artsy mother (played — speaking of nepotism — by the filmmaker's actual kinfolk, Grace Dunham and Laurie Simmons, respectively). In most such films, a schlubby guy comes of age through the unlikely ministrations of a conveniently available (and way too beautiful) dream girl, but the gender roles in Tiny Furniture are swapped, while expectations and genre clichés are constantly upended by the clever script and crackerjack ensemble cast (including sardonic mumblecore all-star Alex Karpovsky, bad-boy eye-candy David Call and Jemima Kirke as the wised-up trust-fund ice princess of my dreams). Bonus points to the film for winning SXSW's Best Narrative Feature award, and also for an awesome, awkwardly erotic sex scene (in a drainpipe!) that's a shoo-in for Nerve's next Red-Band Awards.


I never understood the cult fervor associated with Jonathan Richman until I finally saw the guy play live and found myself converted into a true believer by the end of the first song. Likewise, I never understood the reverence some people have for Bill Hicks, who (in the recordings I'd heard) always sounded more like a hectoring (though sensible) Bill Maher-esque political provocateur than a laugh-out-loud comedy genius. But thanks to Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock's inventive, warts-and-all tribute, I now have a far greater appreciation for the man and his material (as well as a real sense of regret that Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of thirty-two, wasn't around to bring his acerbic sensibility to bear on the Bush years, America's recent foreign-policy misadventures and the rise of the Tea Party movement). Using inventive digital techniques, Harlock and Thomas bring Hicks' story of hard-won fame and drug-fueled infamy to life. Oh, yeah, and the jokes (culled from years of club and TV appearances) are pretty damn funny, too.


I could easily laugh at The People vs. George Lucas' disgruntled fans, as they berate the massive-necked creator of Star Wars for inflicting Jar-Jar Binks on the galaxy and ruining his own original films with endless CGI tinkering. But deep down (not even really all that deep), I know I'm one of them. Like many kids of my generation, the space opera that would eventually come to be known (annoyingly) as Episode IV: A New Hope completely blew my pre-teen mind, inflamed my imagination, and inspired an artistic sensibility that would later recoil at cinematic abominations like… well, The Phantom Menace. Ambivalent about Lucas' work (which, among other things, helped to supplant the golden age of humanistic 1970s filmmaking with the corporate sterility of modern Hollywood product), Alexandre O. Philippe's overlong but entertaining documentary explores interesting (and topical) questions of authorship and intellectual property, punctuated by snippets from dozens of Star Wars send-ups and tributes, from the Uncut and Robot Chicken versions to George Lucas in Love and the greatest (unintentional) parody of all, 1978's infamous Star Wars Holiday Special.


"Mumblecore" is a low-budget indie-film subgenre more concerned with the honest (if sometimes inarticulate) emotions and behaviors of its characters than with traditional notions of three-act structure; a style reviled by some as dull navel-gazing and celebrated by others (myself included) as a refreshing alternative to typical multiplex fare. With Cyrus, brothers Jay and Mark Duplass split the difference, combining the mumblecore sensibility of their previous films (The Puffy Chair, Baghead) with Fox Searchlight money (though still presumably less than the cost of a single N'avi from Avatar) and a brand-name cast (including John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, and Catherine Keener). The result is a deadpan, Apatow-lite comedy of manners about a schlubby divorcée dating a dreamy single mom, whose possessive, passive-aggressive twentysomething son refuses to leave the nest. Reilly and Hill make a great comedic duo, though funnier still was the post-screening Q&A — the stars and directors unleashed their ninja-sharp improv skills to skewer the hapless questioner who asked whether the mama's boy portrayed by Hill was modeled on South Park's Eric Cartman.


5. LIFE 2.0

After losing many a weekend to just the single-player version of Warcraft (let alone its online multiplayer incarnation, World of Warcraft), I understand the addictive, immersive, time-killing nature of virtual worlds all too well, which is why nowadays I only let myself play online poker, since at least it's a game I can play while doing other things (like, for instance, writing this article… aces over jacks! Woo-hoo!). But the online world Second Life is much more than a game for the subjects of Life 2.0, a documentary by Jason Spingarn-Koff. For one enterprising "Resident," a designer who specializes in creating and selling virtual goods, the free-form DIY environment provides a real-world business opportunity — until a glitch in the program (and ambiguities in the law) lead to pirating of her brand-name items. But the film's true drama revolves around two couples: long-distance lovers (both married to other people) who can only engage in cybersex, and an adult male torn between his fiancée and his avatar, an eleven-year-old girl who seems to be taking on a life of her own.


Other much-hyped films at the fest which I didn't bother to see, because they'll be playing soon enough at a theater near me (and you), include the Saturday Night Live spin-off MacGruber (starring Will Forte and Kristen Wiig), LEMMY (a documentary about Motorhead's mercurial frontman), the Bill Murray/Robert Duvall collaboration Get Low, about a man who throws his own funeral, and the Kristen Stewart/Dakota Fanning girl-band biopic The Runaways, featuring the most eagerly anticipated faux-lesbian kiss since Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

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