Movies

The Six Best and One Worst Movies I Saw at SXSW 2012

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Scary cabins, time-travel comedy, and a respectful tribute to a beloved indie classic.

If I had to identify a prevailing trend at SXSW this year, it'd probably be semi-nude and even stark-naked fat men (see: Matt Lucas' underwear-clad oddball in Small Apartments, Louis Negin's cackling/free-balling narrator in Keyhole, Steve Zizzis' saggy-chested suburbanite in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, etcetera). But the other big theme running through this year's films was the consequences of bad choices. So in that spirit, here are my cautious choices for the best and worst movies of SXSW 2012.

1. The Cabin in the Woods

Thanks to the 2010 bankruptcy of MGM, director Drew Goddard's inventive horror picture has been locked in a scary basement of legal maneuvering for years, fueling rabid speculation in the online geek community. Yet despite Lionsgate's somewhat spoiler-y ad campaign for the film's April 13 release, I'm going to heed the plea of producer/co-screenwriter Joss Whedon at Cabin's buzzy SXSW screening and say nothing about the plot except: yes, there's a cabin, and it's definitely in the woods. That said, while discovering the story's secrets for yourself is a big part of the fun, there are plenty of jolts to make the movie worth seeing, even if you go in with full knowledge of the central gimmick (and/or a certain spot-on celebrity cameo late in the proceedings).

2. Sun Don't Shine

As with Cabin, ignorance was bliss at the SXSW screening of Amy Seimetz's tense, effective lo-fi thriller. Viewers were simply dropped into the middle of the action and forced to figure out the nature of the relationship between the two central characters. But I will say that sex is very much a part of the equation, and Kate Lyn Sheil's smoldering performance as Crystal makes it clear why Kentucker Audley's Leo becomes snared in her dangerous web — or is she trapped in his?

3. Bernie

Meanwhile, what happens when the nicest man and the meanest woman in Texas get snared together? The answers are darkly comic in Richard Linklater's semi-true crime story, featuring Jack Black as a closeted mortician, Shirley MacLaine as a rich widow, and Matthew McConaughey as a grandstanding district attorney. Black, in particular, is fantastic, bringing nuance and humanity to a character who could easily have been played as a one-joke caricature.

4. Paul Williams Still Alive

Linklater's film is presented as a pseudo-documentary, but as for actual documentaries, the standout was this profile of the titular 1970s superstar, decades after drugs and alcohol derailed his career. Numerous young interviewees in Still Alive are unfamiliar with the diminutive actor/songwriter's career (though they're quick to recognize his numerous hit compositions like "The Rainbow Connection" and "We've Only Just Begun"). But Williams was a ubiquitous pop culture presence in his heyday, and polyester-era clips from Smokey & The BanditBattle for the Planet of the Apes, and Johnny Carson's Tonight Show will have a special resonance for Baby Boomers and Generation X. But what really fuels the film is the spiky relationship between director and subject, as they grapple with the boundaries of privacy and the point (or pointlessness) of celebrity profiles in the tabloid age.

5. Safety Not Guaranteed

Speaking of mystery and nostalgia: would you ever respond to a classified ad requesting a partner for time travel? And what type of person would post such an ad in the first place? Rather than answering these questions with a sci-fi mind-twister like Primer or Source Code, director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly opt instead for a wistful comedy about misfits too focused on possibilities and regrets to see the present clearly. Aubrey Plaza and Jake M. Johnson keep the twee at bay with their sarcastic, wise-ass performances, while co-stars Mark Duplass and Karan Soni balance out the production's central sweet-and-sour quartet.

6. The Do-Deca-Pentathlon

Duplass also scored on the other side of the camera (alongside fraternal co-director Jay) with this comic depiction of a frustrated family man (Steve Zizzis) channeling sibling rivalry, marital frustration, and midlife crisis into the titular secret competition with his outwardly freewheeling brother (Mark Kelly). The events include everything from arm wrestling to laser tag, but the real game involves hiding the ongoing "Do-Deca" from a disapproving wife and mother (Jennifer Lafleur and Julie Vorus). And while that description makes the film sound like a terrible Adam Sandler movie, the Duplass Brothers wisely ground their film in observational humor and sharp character moments (rather than, say, twenty-five different ways for the main characters to get whacked in the crotch).

HONORABLE MENTION: Slacker 2011

One of the highlights of SXSW 2012 was a screening of this twentieth-anniversary tribute to Slacker, featuring twenty-four local directors remaking and updating Richard Linklater's classic indie love letter to Austin. A must-see for fans of the original, this reimagining reflects what's changed both in Austin and in the culture at large since 1991 — greater diversity in the cast, 9/11 conspiracy theories replacing speculation about the JFK assassination — as well as what's stayed the same, like the eccentric creative energy still burning bright deep in the heart of Texas.

WORST: Nature Calls

A few years back, Patton Oswalt claimed that he threw the script of Alvin and the Chipmunks "across the room in disgust" after reading it. If only he'd had the same reaction to this shrill, painfully unfunny tale of a schlubby Scoutmaster battling his alpha-male brother (Johnny Knoxville) for the respect of a troop of obnoxious pre-teens. Nothing in writer/director Todd Rohal's movie bears the slightest relation to actual human behavior, which might be okay if Nature Calls was a three-minute short on Adult Swim, instead of a hackneyed, headache-inducing "indie" full of people shrieking at each other. Personally, I'd rather watch a bunch of singing rodents.

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