The following are a few highlights from South by Southwest 2015 and several days of intentionally gluttonous filmgoing. These were all peak experiences in one way or another; that most of them are either documentaries or movies that straddle fiction and nonfiction says more about my own preferences than it does about SXSW. At the end of the day, through what you choose and what you choose to skip, you program your own festival. For five days, I went to whatever started soon and looked good; these were some of the films that took me by surprise.
Waytao Shing/Getty Images for SXSW
Best Film — Krisha (directed by Trey Edward Shults)
I’m still not sure how well Shults’s debut feature — winner of SXSW’s Grand Jury prize for narrative features last Saturday — actually works as a narrative, in the three-act sense. I’m not sure if using a cast largely made up of members of your actual family to tell a family story this brutal is an act of supreme empathy or an act of vengeance. And I’m not sure I’ll ever be in the mood to watch it again and find out. I do know I’ve never seen anything like it before. I wrote down “Nicolas Refn After-School Special” at one point, which is close, and later “Terrence Malick’s A Woman Under the Influence,” which is closer — Shults got his start as an intern on Malick’s Tree of Life and worked as a camera PA on two upcoming Malick projects, and some of Drew Daniels’s cinematography has that spectral-yet-assertive late-Malick quality. But beautiful shots and formal command aren’t the point here. Krisha is a staggering and almost psychedelically intimate portrait of a woman (the revelatory Krisha Fairchild, a stage actress whose last IMDB credits include shorts and video-game voice work) struggling to reconnect with her estranged family (and specifically her college-age son, played by Trey Shults himself) over the course of what becomes a disastrous Thanksgiving. Fairchild is Shults’s aunt; Shults’s actual mom, Robyn Fairchild, plays Krisha’s sister. The story is short and straightforward — “When Krisha returns for a holiday gathering, the only things standing in our way are family, dogs, and turkey” was how the official program summed it up, and nothing’s missing — but emotionally the movie feels like an exorcism. In context, all the style on display is a kind of mercy; it’s a reminder that you’re being told a story. You’ll need it.
Best New Rock Documentary — They Will Have to Kill Us First (directed by Johanna Schwartz)
On my flight to Austin I shared a row with some excited young men who were set to perform that week at a SXSW showcase put on by McDonald’s. Said showcase became somewhat infamous earlier this month when it came to light that McDonald’s (market cap as of Friday: $93.28 billion, with a “b”) was apparently asking bands to perform in exchange for “exposure,” a valuable yet not strictly speaking spendable form of compensation. (They later amended this policy after much social-media outrage.) The guys on the plane were sheepish about this — “We’re getting paid in hamburgers,” one of them said, as if they knew what we were all thinking — but only a little bit. After all, SXSW has always been about art sharing a last-call pedicab with hustle, and the auto-insurance providers and energy-drink companies now planting their fangs in the neck of music and musicians are merely carrying on a tradition of exploitation that record labels are less and less financially able to maintain. If all you have to struggle with in order to make your art is a few nagging ethical questions about who signs your checks, you are doing spectacularly in the grand scheme of things.
They Will Have to Kill Us First is about a country in which music itself became not just unsupported but illegal, and how this affected people for whom music-making was as natural and important as breathing. It happened in 2012, when Tuareg rebels and the Islamist group Ansar Dine took control of northern Mali, imposing Sharia law in the process. Soldiers armed with modern weapons undertook the repeal of modernity, which included a ban on music. They shuttered radio stations, toppled cell towers, and smashed mobile phones. Tens of thousands fled south, or to the neighboring countries of Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso; that refugee population included a great many musicians, including diva/activist Fatimata “Disco” Oumarr, the guitarist Moussa Sidi, and the all-refugee supergroup Songhoy Blues. They show up onscreen riding scooters and carrying rifle-slung guitars like some mod gang from a West African Quadrophenia; their loping, reflective boogie has John Lee Hooker and Tinariwen in it, deep blues and deep time. Mali was and is, among other things, a nation of extraordinary electric-guitar players, and watching Sidi coax liquid notes from a battered black Ibanez like Jerry Garcia on a spacewalk would be remarkable on its own, but knowing that armed rebels told him “Don’t play guitar and you won’t get hurt” gives the footage a different weight. Everyone you meet has a story like that: “I am a woman, I sing, I talk,” Disco says matter-of-factly. “It could cause me problems.”
Sociopolitical tragedy forces rock back into service as a mode of struggle against oppressive and hypocritical authority, and old truisms — the idea that music can transcend borders, speak truth to power just by existing — become reinvested with meaning. The movie doesn’t pretend that these artists can actually change anything, but it shows us how a context like this can turn the simple act of going on tour into a victory over oppression, whether it’s Songhoy Blues playing shows in London after signing to a European label or Disco driving north to sing in her old town square for whoever shows up.
Best Old Rock Documentary — A Poem Is a Naked Person (directed by Les Blank)
Blank, who died in 2013, is probably best known for Burden of Dreams, a film about Werner Herzog’s battle to finish Fitzcarraldo that may actually be a better movie than Fitzcarraldo, but his specialty for years was movies about American traditional music and the people who make it. In the early ’70s, Blank spent some time in the orbit of then-ascendant boogie-rocker Leon Russell, on tour and at home in Grand Lake, Oklahoma, and produced — on Russell’s dime — an elliptical and not altogether complimentary documentary about what he’d seen. Bootlegs and unofficial screenings aside, it didn’t see the light of day until last Monday night in Austin. It turned out to be one of the greatest rock documentaries I’ve ever seen, as eloquent an evocation of the reality-distortion field around rock stars as D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back or Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues, but funnier and stranger than either. You can see why Russell wasn’t sure what to do with this movie; Blank doesn’t even pretend to be interested in explaining Russell to the world, and seems vaguely horrified by the whole shrieking freak-show gestalt of the live rock-music experience, juxtaposing concert footage with shots of a snake eating a live chick and the demolition of a Tulsa hotel called the Bliss.
But in skirting its actual subject, the movie becomes a fascinating time capsule of its moment. It’s free-associative, intuitively structured, a little stoney. Characters drift in and out. You meet people without learning their names right away, as if your presence in these rooms is accepted but not wholly welcome. Blank gets restless, cuts away from studio drollery and after-party shenanigans to whatever else catches his eye — the painter Jim Franklin doing a mural in Leon’s pool after first removing stray scorpions, a man chewing glass at a skydiving exhibition, an actual wild-goose chase, the contrails of a jet, a sunset, a catfish. When we do see Russell onstage, he seems a little lazy, a little trapped; the best performances in the film are by Willie Nelson and George Jones, who both look shockingly young but sound spiritually ancient in a way that the Russell of ’72 doesn’t yet. The Russell of 2015 was in attendance at the Austin screening, seated on a Rascal scooter, inscrutable behind a white Gandalf beard that matched his suit. Blank’s son Harrod took the stage at a postshow Q&A and explained how the movie got shorter each time Blank recut it, gradually remanding to the cutting-room floor “a whole lot of hippie activity,” as well as a scene of Neil Young’s producer David Briggs improvising pornographic lyrics to the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” But when someone asked the question everyone else wanted an answer to — why a movie this good had taken as long as it had — he said “Next question,” then suggested we all focus on the good news, the fact that the movie was finally here. A voice from the mezzanine, Russell’s, cut him off: “You sound like a Republican,” Russell told him. Everyone waited for him to say something further; he never did.
Second-Best Old Rock Movie — Human Highway (directed by Dean Stockwell and Neil Young as Bernard Shakey)
The “movie” part of Neil Young’s third midnight movie, from 1982, is a chipper New Wave reframing of Young’s aesthetic touchstones (model-train layouts, antique cars, etc.) from a period of Young’s career that still doesn’t get enough critical attention, with a cast of world-class hipsters (Russ Tamblyn, Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell) helping Shakey feel around for a story and Neil himself doing a jut-jawed Jerry Lewis impression as a gas station attendant whose rock-and-roll dreams are imperiled by a nuclear disaster. The newly remastered director’s cut adds some additional dream-sequence footage of Neil and the band having an impromptu roadside powwow with a group of Indians. But the front end of that dream sequence casts Young as a sideman playing guitar with Devo (who appear in the film as glowing nuclear-waste disposal technicians, and are credited as a unit) on a 10-minute version of his “My My, Hey Hey.” The clips online don’t do the moment justice; like the notion of Young as a forefather of punk, “Neil Young jams with Devo” is just a cool idea. On the big screen, the moment suddenly looked career-pivotal. Young is razor thin, thrashing around in a Sex Pistols T-shirt, napalming one of his greatest hits in waves of kill-yr-idols distortion. In the ensuing years he’d make some of the most puzzling music of his career, shuffling from one overthought reinvention to the next. This is just him, sitting in with a band, trying to respond to punk, or be overtaken by it, or live up to what that music demanded of everyone it touched.
Best Documentary Guaranteed to Make You Feel Weird About Your iPhone — Jobs: The Man in the Machine (directed by Alex Gibney)
Nothing here will surprise you if you’re familiar with the key points of the case against Apple as a corporation and Steve Jobs as a human being. We’re told once again, as we were in Walter Isaacson’s biography, about the trail of screwed-over collaborators and disappointed friends, the computer he named after the daughter whose paternity he’d sought to deny, the double-Irish tax scams, the intellectual-property hit squad kicking in the doors of Gizmodo reporters, the suicide nets at Foxconn, the curdled countercultural values. And yet the movie is devastating and disquieting. Gibney begins with the spectacle of grieving that followed Jobs’s death in 2011 — shopper-mourners paying their respects at the Apple Store, bereft vloggers weeping into YouTube windows, all those maudlin #iSad signs. It was a classic case of transference: By virtue of having brought to market indispensable and often delightful products, a man who was by all accounts cold and awkward even by genius standards was mourned like the leader of a political movement or a pop star. Gibney — who admits that, like everybody else, he carries an iPhone, and that his hand is “drawn to it like Frodo’s hand to the Ring” — can’t quite explain why exactly this happened, but by using that question to frame the movie, he turns what could have been a simple character assassination back on us. We’re the ones constantly fondling devices that contain some piece of Jobs’s soul; in our eyes-downcast introversion, we are all Steve Jobs now, and Gibney’s movie offers up a few dozen reasons why we should not feel entirely OK with that. Also, great use of the music of Bob Dylan, whose lyrics Jobs would sometimes rewrite until they revealed themselves to be about Steve Jobs; at a key moment, instead of cueing up the album version of “All Along the Watchtower,” Gibney reaches for the frantic and exhausted live version off Before the Flood, which better suits a man remembered here as both a joker and a thief.
Best Performance in a Movie I Wanted to Walk Out of After About 90 Seconds — Kate Lyn Sheil in A Wonderful Cloud (directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko)
The first full-screen image in A Wonderful Cloud is the face of director/star Kotlyarenko, half-obscured by the vulva of a woman on whom he’s performing oral sex. He’s almost unwatchably grating as Eugene, one of those indie-film protagonists who despite no apparent social skills still manages to get laid twice in the course of a movie that takes place over 72 hours; Sheil (from TV’s House of Cards and mumblecore’s The Color Wheel) plays his ex-girlfriend Katelyn, in from New York to get Eugene to officially sign away his stake in a clothing company they founded together. They hang out, go to some parties, trade half-jokes and half-truths. Sheil and Kotlyarenko are real-life exes. She was in his web series Skydiver, itself another lightly fictionalized document of their breakup; she’s kind of the Anna Karina to his chucklehead Godard. It would be weird if their cagey back-and-forth didn’t feel authentic. Almost everything Kotlyarenko builds around their story falls flat; in addition to being a relationship comedy, the film wants to be a satire of L.A. hipster culture, which apparently still means having oblivious fruitcakes say things like “I don’t do anything without consulting my psychic.” The film takes aim at a barn made entirely out of broadsides and misses; the general sketch-comedy feel of these passages isn’t helped by the presence of Mr. Show alum John Ennis as a cartoonishly suave fashion magnate who makes Katelyn a tempting offer. I couldn’t bring myself to fully hate this movie — it’s tonally nonsensical and unfunny and amateurish, but at least it’s alive, and on a purely philosophical level I preferred its enthusiastic haplessness to the cynical professionalism of the brothers Duplass, whose latest artisanal sitcom Manson Family Vacation also played this year’s fest. But no one else in Kotlyarenko’s movie is shooting live ammo except Sheil; no one else is enough of an actor to make it seem like they feel more than they’re saying. And when “Katelyn” finally lashes out at “Eugene,” you wonder where that feral energy came from, or how a movie this thin managed to contain it for this long.
Best Yuppie Nightmare — The Invitation (directed by Karyn Kusama)
Dinner-party horror in the You’re Next/Coherence vein, and a return to form for Kusama, who came out of nowhere to win Sundance in 2000 with Girlfight and was rewarded with jobs directing the Aeon Flux movie and Jennifer’s Body. Will (Logan Marshall-Green, with a Father John Misty–ish beard) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are summoned by engraved invite to a dinner at the home of David (Michiel Huisman, of HBO’s everything) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard). The house was once Will and Eden’s, until they divorced after their son’s death in a freak accident. Except for the bars on the windows, it looks about the same. The dinner is a Big Chill–ish reunion of old friends, except for two strangers David and Eden met at a New Age retreat in Mexico, where Eden conquered her grief with the help of a healer named Dr. Joseph; the fact that one of the strangers is played by Zodiac‘s blankly terrifying John Carroll Lynch should kind of tip you off that something horrible is going to happen. You know Lynch’s face; you also know how movies work, so when the shit goes down and it turns out that Will isn’t just paranoid, it’s not a surprise. But the suspense is still excruciating; nothing really happens until everything does, and yet you feel the exquisite midcentury-modern walls closing in. Great sound design, great shot selection, brilliant knife-twist of an ending. I’m pretty sure I saw Marshall-Green leaving another movie the day after I saw this one; it’s a measure of the penetrating creepiness of Kusama’s direction that my first thought was I’m glad he’s OK.