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The 12 Best Films From SXSW 2012

March 27, 2012  |  8:53am

SXSW has become one of the largest film festivals in the United States and certainly one of the most enjoyable. But as with any collection of movies this big, it takes some work to separate the wheat from the chaff. After countless hours of watching movies, we’ve pared it down to the 12 Best Films of SXSW.

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12. Eden
The plot of Megan Griffiths’ thriller seems too far-fetched and cruel to believe—an innocent teenager is kidnapped and forced into four years of sexual slavery in a warehouse just a few miles from her own house before finally escaping. But not only does this type of thing happen in America, it did happen to Chong Kim, on whose incredible story the film is based. It doesn’t work at every moment. I found some of the scenes overdone and thought Griffiths lingered a bit too long on the many scenes of violence and humiliation. But the story is an important one, and the acting is outstanding, particularly from Special Jury Award winner Jamie Chung. This is her first real chance to show her acting chops in a big project, and she’s obviously much more talented than her previous projects (The Real World, Sucker Punch, The Hangover II, etc.) have allowed her to show.—Michael Dunaway

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11. Trash Dance
The premise of Andrew Garrison’s fascinating documentary Trash Dance is intriguing enough in and of itself—choreographer Allison Orr creates a performance using as “dancers” the men, women, and vehicles that collect your garbage. The tagline “How can a garbage truck dance?” is especially inspired. I was eager to see the film when I thought it was entirely composed of that performance, and I was initially disappointed to learn that most of the movie is composed of the story behind the show. But it’s actually that footage that provides the heart and soul of the film. As much as anything else, it’s a paean to the nobility of labor. It’s both inspired and inspiring.—Michael Dunaway

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10. Booster
The most exciting aspect of a film festival may be the opportunity of discovery. For any critic or cinephile, there’s nothing like discovering a film you’ve never heard of, by filmmakers you’ve never heard of that you connect with and appreciate on countless levels. Booster, though not without its faults, was this film for me. Writer/director/editor Matt Ruskin, who started his career with documentaries Glen of the Downsand and The Hip Hop Project, has sheer talent as a filmmaker. Working with cinematographer Tim Gillis, he captures Boston’s underbelly honestly yet sensitively to draw sympathy—in place of judgment—from its criminals. The actors, of course, help make this a reality. Playing Simon, a petty thief whose incarcerated brother asks him to commit a string of armed robberies that will prove his innocence, Nico Stone holds the film together as a young man caught in moral dilemma. Stone’s deep and dark eyes speak further into his conflicted circumstances, in which he contemplates his criminal life. Channeling the early work of Martin Scorsese, it’s this introspection—the pit between crime and morality—that makes Booster so pertinent.—David Roark

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9. Her Master’s Voice
In reading the SXSW synopsis I would never have expected this to be one of my favorite films of the festival. After all, in my book ventriloquists fall somewhere between animal acts and dance improv when it comes to entertainment. But this documentary about Nina Conti’s rise as one of the world’s top ventriloquists and her journey to Venthaven, the resting place for ventriloquists’ dummies, is like being on the inside of a Hitchcock film. Conti’s exchanges with her wooden friends go beyond entertainment. It’s Jungian analysis for all to see. It’s one thing when the audience is unsure of where the act is going. But it’s quite another when the artist herself makes self discoveries through conversations with her partners.—Tim Basham

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8. ¡Vivan las Antipodas!
Victor Kossakovsky was the recipient of the True Vision Award at this year’s True/False Film Festival, and this film shows why. It’s an examination of four sets of “antipodes”—pairs of cities or towns that are exactly opposite each other on the surface of the Earth. Kossakovsky points out in a title card that antipodes are actually relatively rare, since most of the Earth is covered by water. It’s left up to the viewer to decide what deeper meaning, if any, to impart to that fact. Kossakovsky is a master filmmaker, and any of the footage, taken on its own, would be compelling. But each time he composes a chapter by choosing which footage to marry up, the juxtapositions are striking.—Michael Dunaway

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7. Dollhouse
Fans of Kirsten Sheridan’s previous work, including August Rush (which she directed) and In America (for which she co-wrote the script and was nominated for an Academy Award), proceed with caution. Dollhouse is NOT your father’s Kirsten Sheridan film. But proceed you should nonetheless, because it’s a fascinating character study and exploration of the careless nihilism of youth and what it takes to transcend it. Shot from a script derived primarily from improv, the film opens with a group of teenagers breaking into, and trashing, a posh house by an Irish lake. Just what has happened previously in the house, and who these people are, will become significant in surprising ways. It’s an incredibly disturbing film, but one that will ultimately stay with viewers long after they leave the theater. A brave film from Sheridan—and a moving one.—Michael Dunaway

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6. Searching for Sugar Man
“The Story of the Forgotten Genius” is such a well-worn formula for music docs that it was parodied more than three decades ago in This is Spinal Tap. As Malik Bendjelloul begins to tell the story of Rodriguez, the Dylanesque folk rocker who released two apparently brilliant albums in the early Seventies, then disappeared, it appears he’s on a familiar road. But he’s got a major ace up his sleeve – the road takes a sharp left turn when we learn that bootleg recordings catapulted Rodriguez to stratospheric heights of fame in apartheid-era South Africa (when a record store owner is asked if Rodriguez was as big as the Rolling Stones, he replies “Oh, much bigger than that.”). In fact, his uncensored depictions of sex and drugs were so thrilling to South African musicians that he became the patron saint of the Afrikaner punk movement, which in turn laid the groundwork for the organized anti-apartheid movement that eventually brought the regime down. It’s just a shame that Rodriguez never lived to see it – he burned himself to death onstage in the middle of a show. Or overdosed in prision. Or shot himself alone in his apartment. Or… could he still be alive? —Michael Dunaway

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5. Fat Kid Rules the World
As an actor, until recently it could be difficult to take Matthew Lillard too seriously—not because he can’t act (he can), but because of some of his movie choices (think Scooby Doo). As a director, though, Lillard demands that we take him seriously—and we should. Emerging straight from his heart, Fat Kid Rules the World proves to be a warm and sincere directorial debut with a winning punk rock attitude. Jacob Wysocki, who shined brightly in last year’s Terri, anchors the film as Troy, a depressed and overweight high-school misfit who wants to die. In the opening sequence, he proceeds to step in front of oncoming bus to end his life, only to be saved by Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a drug addicted punker with problems of his own. In the wake of the incident, the two form an unlikely relationship that compels Troy to start playing drums in hopes of forming a new punk rock band and, thus, creates hope and change for the dejected teen—and for his family (Billy Campbell plays his stern father). It’s an insightful, heartfelt story that doesn’t avoid the harsh realities of human experience and reveals a number of pertinent truths.—David Roark

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4. Tchoupitoulas
A visual and aural feast that blurs the line between documentary and drama, Tchoupitoulas tells the story of eight-year old William, who spends an entire night exploring the sights and sounds of New Orleans. With his two brothers and their dog Buttercup, William takes the ferry from his neighborhood in Algiers Point to the Crescent City. For the next 12 hours, the affable boys explore the French Quarter. Brilliantly framed at a kid’s-eye level and edited with surgical precision, directors Bill and Turner Ross capture the amazement and wonder of a young boy peeking into a very adult world. William has big dreams: He wants to play football for the New York Giants, he wants to fly, he wants to be a lawyer, and he wants to learn to play the recorder. “You never know what life is gonna bring, so you gotta keep moving,” he explains early on in the film. Tchoupitoulas presents New Orleans in all its pulsing, brassy glory—aglow with tiny lights, paint peeling, misted with sweat and breathing to the beat provided by the snare drums of street-corner buskers. Strippers grind inside tiny theaters while sidewalk oyster vendors patter away to customers outside; time is kept only by the regular passing of the mule-pulled carriages filled with tourists. William drinks it all in with the unselfconscious, saucer-eyed wonder of the innocent. Fresh from the critical success of their film 45365, the Ross brothers offer this celebratory tribute to the legendary city of excess with exuberance, volume, and a startlingly fresh point of view.—Joan Radell

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3. The Imposter
It’s obvious The Imposter is going to be a thriller, and a thriller it is, and then some. Three years after the disappearance of their thirteen year old son, a Texas family receive word he’s been found in Spain. When they go to pick him up, they’re so desperate to believe he’s alive that they don’t even notice that the “boy” is actually a French man in his mid-twenties. Is it a monumental case of grief and hope blinding sense, or is there a darker explanation? Director Bart Layton mixes elements of documentary and narrative filmmaking seamlessly in ways I’ve never seen done before. And every character he uncovers in the drama is more of a treasure trove than the last. It’s one of the most compelling films you’ll see all year, in any genre. Truly thrilling.—Michael Dunaway

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2. Safety Not Guaranteed
Safety Not Guaranteed had already won over audiences at Sundance. The film, director Colin Trevorrow’s first narrative feature successfully rides the line between fantasy and reality, as well as comedy and drama, mishmashing genres into a pleasing culmination of distinct elements. Written by Derek Connolly, the story centers on three magazine employees—two misfit interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arno (Karan Soni), and their sleazy boss, Jeff (Jake Johnson)—who make their way to Oceanview, Washington, to get to the bottom of a newspaper ad that reads, “WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed.” The ad was taken out by Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), a jean-jacket-wearing grocery store clerk who either has a real time machine—or is completely crazy. As Darius goes undercover to find the story, the film settles into hilarious and heartfelt bliss, touching on ideas of love, trust and belief. Duplass brings it all out together in a performance that epitomizes just that.—David Roark

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1. Low and Clear
Reading the description of Kahlil Hudson and Tyler Hughen’s remarkable film—two friends who are world-class fishermen, half a country apart, take a trip to British Columbia to fly fish and reconnect—you’ll think that you’re in for a slow, meditative, deeply felt journey with lots of beautiful scenery. And it is meditative and deeply felt and beautiful, but it’s anything but slow. Having two fascinating, outspoken, and often at-odds subjects helps, as does the deft and slightly mischievous touch of editor Alex Jablonski. But most of all, Hudson and Hughen seem determined not to settle for a tone poem, to tell a real story here. And it’s mesmerizing. The best documentary of the year so far.—Michael Dunaway

The 2012 Paste SXSW Film Awards:
Best Actor: Willem Defoe, The Hunter (Honorable Mention: Mark Duplass, Safety Not Guaranteed)
Best Supporting Actor: Scott Mechlowicz, Eden
Best Actress: Jamie Chung, Eden (Honorable Mention: Dreama Walker, Compliance)
Best Supporting Actress: Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed
Best Cinematography: Booster
Best Foreign Documentary: The Imposter (Honorable Mentions: Searching for Sugar Man, ¡Vivan Las Antipodas!, and Marley)
Best Foreign Narrative: Dollhouse
Best U.S. Documentary: Low and Clear (Honorable Mentions: Tchoupitoulas, Her Master’s Voice, Trash Dance
Best U.S. Narrative: Safety Not Guaranteed (Honorable Mentions: Fat Kid Rules the World, Bernie, Booster)

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