The Five Best (and One Worst) Movies I Saw at SXSW 2011

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Featuring Conan O'Brien, Ridley Scott, and one appalling documentary.

Austin's South-By-Southwest Film Festival is famously more laid back and idiosyncratic than the taste-making Indiewood buzz factory known as Sundance. And yet, the 2011 edition of SXSW often felt more slick than scruffy, with high-profile projects sharing a certain tonal sameness I can only describe as Sundance-y.

Win Win (starring Paul Giamatti), The Beaver (Jodie Foster's study of family dysfunction starring Mel Gibson), and the award winning Christians-gone-wild road-trip warmedy Natural Selection were three different flavors of the same well-crafted, well-acted, self-consciously edgy but ultimately well-behaved formula on show this year. It's a recipe favored by slumming A-listers, big studio "indie" divisions and all the usual suspects of the current festival-industrial complex. Like other films of the Sundance-y genre, they violated the Seinfeld rule (no hugging, no learning) and depicted deep feelings without necessarily stirring them. While those prestige pictures might have been the most talked-about films at SXSW 2011, the movies that really stuck with me were fueled by more visceral emotions and sharper, less predictable rhythms. 

1. Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

Moment to moment, director Rodman Flender's backstage chronicle of Team Coco's 2010 "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on TV" tour (the live, multi-city comedy/music juggernaut which spanned the downtime between Conan's ouster from The Tonight Show and his re-emergence as the face of TBS late night) was hands-down the funniest, most enjoyable film at the festival. But O'Brien's spiky, live-wire persona (and his willingness to reveal his nastier, needier side) is what elevates the movie. That honesty transforms what could've been a puff piece into a fascinating reflection on the non-stop drive separating the guy on stage from the audience laughing in the dark.


2. The Innkeepers

This ghost story from Ti West (The House of the Devil) doesn't exactly break new ground, but it did scare the bejesus out of me, with an intense climax that came back to haunt me days later (alone in the dark of my own scary basement). Pat Healey and Sara Paxton (a rising young actress with the perky charisma of a sexy blonde Muppet) star as the last two employees of a spooky old New England inn, and West nicely captures the dead-end banter of workaday wage slavery before the hotel's actual dead people start making their presence known.


3. SXSW Shorts

Some of the most innovative and unnerving directorial visions of the festival came in bite-size form this year, from the inexplicably surreal A Travel Tale of Interminable and the disturbing Mothersbane to the Jim Jarmusch-meets-Mean Streets character study John's Gone and the happy hippies of Man & Machine: A Naked Robotic Love Story. These films won't be playing soon at a theater near you, but they're well worth seeking out online.


4. Life In A Day

Challenged to upload clips depicting a typical day in their lives, thousands of YouTube users from around the world submitted videos of grief, celebration, and everything in between, along with their answers to questions like "What do you love?" and "What do you fear?"  Director Kevin Macdonald (and producer Ridley Scott) shaped a ninety-minute snapshot of life on Earth from the thousands of hours of material they received. It's hard not to lose yourself in the gorgeous A.D.D. diversity of the resulting film, from the beautiful harmonies of African workers to the viral-video goofiness of a father passing out in the delivery room while shooting the birth of his child.


5. Self Made

Better This World (by Katie Galloway & Kelly Duane de la Vega) and Errol Morris' Tabloid were both thoroughly enjoyable documentaries, but my fifth spot goes to Self Made, a curious British experiment situated in the gray area between art and psychology.  After responding to an ad placed by director Gillian Wearing, a group of average blokes and birds confronts its personal demons via a series of intensive Method acting exercises set in a minimalist rehearsal space. They ultimately deliver remarkably compelling performances in personalized cinematic scenes.


WORST: Kumaré

Kumaré has a promising set-up: placing himself at the center of his own documentary, Morgan Spurlock-style, director Vikram Gandhi poses as the titular guru to expose the scamming ways of (mostly New Age) spiritual leaders and the gullible suckers who buy into their nonsense. But then Kumaré gathers a flock of yoga enthusiasts with real-world problems and attempts to help them, like a fake therapist videotaping his patients' sessions as part of a self-aggrandizing cinematic stunt. Festival-goers rewarded the film with an Audience Favorite award, perhaps viewing it all as a harmless Borat-style goof. But the difference here is that Gandhi exploits his psychologically vulnerable victims for weeks, while blithely hoping everything will turn out okay in the end. The result is an icky, exploitative viewing experience.