In this festival report from way back before Neil Miller even lived in Austin, he shares his ten favorite films of the 2008 SXSW Film Festival.
As we make our arduous journey back to Ohio from the vivacious, quirky town of Austin, buried deep in the heart of one of the most misunderstood states in the union — they gave us Bush, but also great BBQ, it is really confusing — we find ourselves looking back at the week that was at SXSW. All in all, we saw an amazing group of films and experienced a festival atmosphere that is second to none. Being simple suburbanites from Ohio, we never expected to be captivated and awed by anything in Texas, but “South by” (as the locals and veterans call it) is something amazing, indeed.
To celebrate our wonderful week in the heart of Texas, a week where the epicenter of the film world shifted some 1,400 miles to the east — a place with great BBQ and even better people.
10. Medicine for Melancholy
Great narrative features were seemingly overshadowed by the innumerable documentaries that took center stage at SXSW, but Barry Jenkins’ story of two African American youths struggling to find their place in the hipster culture of San Francisco was one of the most beautifully made, well-acted films we had seen all week. Playing out like a love letter to the city by the Bay, Medicine is a sober reminder of what great independent film is all about.
9. Dreams with Sharp Teeth
Leave it to a wonderful doc to leave me feeling completely ashamed of my own lack of culture. Having only every been aware of Harlan Ellison, I was pleasantly surprised with Erik Nelson’s vibrant, well-paced doc. Nelson doesn’t stray away from showing the eccentric, often abrasive side of the famed sci-fi author, leaving us all interested, engaged and entertained. For those who need to be introduced, this film is a great way to meet Harlan Ellison.
8. Beautiful Losers
Deep down, everyone yearns to be a part of something bigger than themselves, something that is special for many people across the world. For a group of revolutionary artists, most of whom came together in the early to mid-1990’s, doing what they loved and saying “screw the rest” led them to lead a street-culture revolution that has effected modern American culture like few have before it. Aside from being a big part of the movement, Aaron Rose also chose to make a very engaging and colorful documentary, chronicling the rise of these “beautiful losers” as well as the bumps along the way.
7. Blip Festival: Reformat the Planet
Both Brian and I reached a unanimous concensous here — Blip Festival was one of the most fun, interesting docs, nay, films of the entire festival. It chronicles a movement sweeping the nation that involves making music from classic gaming machines such as the Nintendo Gameboy — something any geek can get behind. But it isn’t just a geek movie, it is brilliant music documentary as well.
6. Nerdcore Rising
From a music documentary that will play well with geeks to a serious geek movie that includes music. It was almost a tie between Blip Festival and Nerdcore Rising, but we quickly remembered how much fun it was to spend 90 minutes with MC Frontalot, the centerpiece of this homage to nerdy rap, affectionately known as Nerdcore Hip-Hop. It is out there, but when seen through the eyes of its faithful fans and its dedicated artists, the world of Nerdcore is anything but silly — it is wicked fresh, yo!
They say that sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. In the case of documentary filmmaker Caroline Suh, it is good to be both. She got very lucky with an incredibly interesting set of subjects, the student body presidential candidates of Stuyvesant High School in New York, and showed off her talent when she framed them in one of the most socially relevant, light-hearted films of the festival. Fun and oozing with charisma, this film was one of many unique and well-crafted docs of South By’s 2008 lineup.
4. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
I know that it might be hard to believe, but that Judd Apatow guy has struck gold again. This time we get “Freaks and Geeks” star Jason Segel, “Veronica Mars” starlet Kristen Bell and whacky British icon Russell Brand in a comedy about losing love, healing your wounds and, well, gratuitous penis exposure. But besides the cock-shots, Sarah Marshall is hardly forgettable — in fact, it is going to be easily remembered as the gut-busting comedic all-star of this year’s fest.
3. The Promotion
When you think about a story that pits two grocery store assistant managers (Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly) against each other in a war to see who will earn the big promotion, your mind is probably drawn to comparisons with Dane Cook’s Employee of the Month. But let me say this — bring those thoughts with you when you see The Promotion, as it will make the experience that much more satisfying. It is incredibly intelligent, dark and downright hilarious at the same time. Seann William Scott gives an illuminating performance and John C. Reilly seals the deal with his expressive, subtle brilliance.
2. Dear Zachary
Our final film of the festival, Dear Zachary was the single most emotionally heavy experience of the entire week. We had heard from Cinematical editor Erik Davis that this was one of the most powerful films he had ever seen, and he wasn’t kidding. The story of a man trying to assemble the life of his beloved friend who was brutally murdered, so that his friend’s unborn son can know his father, it goes from being a sweet tribute to a shocking, gut-wrentching true story that will leave any audience in a pool of its own tears. It is one of those films that is too important to be missed.
1. Second Skin
Everyone knows someone who is a little too into their video games. World of Warcraft, Everquest and Second Life, among others, have all drawn people into an online community where anyone can be who they want to be and, in many cases, be someone special to a lot of other people. It is a trend that transcends being a cultural fad or phenomenon — and thanks to Juan Carlos Pinieiro’s vivid, fascinating documentary, we can all get a little crash course in how to understand the world of online gaming and its addictive nature. For gamers, this is your movie — finally someone gets you. For others, it is a 101-level college course for understanding an entire generation.
Honorable Mention: Super High Me – While Super High Me would serve well as one hell of a stand-up comedy DVD, it wasn’t quite good enough to compete with the onslaught of fantastic documentaries that played at this year’s festival.
Movie We Are Most Disappointed to Have Missed: Body of War – This one seemed to be getting bucket-loads of good buzz from critics and festival-goers alike. Allegedly, it delivers a very powerful message without being too preachy. As well, it is directed by Phil Donahue — which is cool in its own right.