The recent 2015 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, Texas showcased creative films, from independents to blockbusters.
Here are five films shown there that you should watch for:
1. Hello, My Name is Doris
We’ve grown up with Sally Field, from Gidget to The Flying Nun to Norma Rae to Lincoln. Her new film, though, will remind you why you love her. Doris, who has just buried her mom, is a lonely hoarder, unhappy in her job at a New York City fashion company. When a new creative director (Max Greenfield of New Girl) arrives from L.A., Field falls hard for him, even though he’s 30 years her junior. Tyne Daly shines as Doris’ down-to-earth best friend. The film takes you inside Field’s transformation from a mouse to a lioness, veering from spit-your-drink funny to wipe-your-eyes sentimental. Director Michael Showalter’s control of those shifts makes it an early contender for next winter’s awards season.
2. Being Evel
Daredevil, superstar, pain in the ass, Evel Knievel held the attention of America for about a decade starting in the mid-1960s. This film makes the case that he is the godfather of the entire extreme sports industry, which encompasses everything from skateboarding to snowboarding to Knievel’s old trick, motorcycle jumping. Wildman Johnny Knoxville has produced a homage to the man who held the Guinness World Record for most broken bones — 433 — in a lifetime. The film documents every spill and mega-event. In the end, Knievel’s downfall is as swift as his ascent, though there’s a bit of redemption in the end. Being Evel will introduce a new generation to the old showman, who died of lung disease in 2007.
3. A Poem Is a Naked Person
Les Blank’s film about piano wizard and songwriter Leon Russell, shot between 1972 and 1974, hasn’t been seen until now. It’s easily one of the prolific filmmaker’s best efforts. Not a single person under 30 who I talked with here at SXSW knew who Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Russell was, and perhaps this film will change that unhappy state of affairs. Blank, who died in 2013, was my favorite documentarian, having spent a lifetime exploring two of life’s most interesting subjects: music and food. Blank could shoot music performances like a member of the band, use his camera like a paintbrush and tell stories with stream of consciousness editing that always seems just right. A signature sequence in this new film mashes up footage from a Tulsa, Okla. performance, the public demolition of a downtown building there and the horrifying spectacle of a snake consuming a chick.
4. Love and Mercy
This feature tells the Brian Wilson story, one of the saddest tales in pop music. Wilson was one of the brothers who formed The Beach Boys and the creative engine behind the group’s biggest hits. Mental illness forced him off the road and confined him to bed for several years. Paul Dano, round faced and wild eyed, plays the young Wilson; John Cusack is Wilson later in life. Paul Giamatti, in scenery-chewing mode, plays Wilson’s Svengali, a therapist named Eugene Landy, who cuts him off from friends and family and controls his medication and every detail of his life; Elizabeth Banks is the woman who helps liberate him from Landy. The film has a happy-ish ending, and Brian Wilson was in the house in Austin at its premiere. But the real gem is the score by Atticus Ross, who sampled dozens of Beach Boys hits to create a series of brilliant music sequences that bring us inside Wilson’s disordered but brilliant mind. And those glorious harmonies don’t hurt either.
5. She’s the Best Thing in It
Documenting the life of veteran character actor Mary Louise Wilson, this film introduces us both to the craft of character acting and to a strong and compelling character. Wilson won a Tony in 2007 for her work in the Broadway musical Grey Gardens, and then, she says, couldn’t get parts, because producers feared that her rates would jump. Although she lacked any teaching experience, Wilson was hired by Tulane University in New Orleans to teach a workshop in character acting. The film documents her growth as a mentor and teacher to those aspiring performers. The 79-year-old Wilson has just opened in the hit Broadway revival of On the Twentieth Century.
Two more movies to put on your radar:
Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, which director Judd Apatow showed as a work in progress: filthy, touching, funny.
The Look of Silence, MacArthur genius Joshua Oppenheimer’s followup to his Oscar-nominated film, The Act of Killing. It’s the same story, but another approach to revealing the monsters behind the murder of one million innocent people in Indonesia in 1965-1966: frightening, stunning, brilliant.
Steve Mencher writes about culture, politics and technology for Next Avenue, AARP and other publications. He’s also a jazz musician with the Willis Gidney Quintet. Follow him on Twitter @menschmedia.