The second half of the South by Southwest Festival is generally focused on the music side of things. But Paste Film Editor Michael Dunaway points out four films that you really shouldn’t miss. Coincidentally enough, they’re all from first-time feature directors. Your ears need a break anyway, so go see a great film!
One of the breakout hits of Sundance last year, Spencer Susser’s Hesher was immediately acquired but went through over a year of distribution limbo before hitting the festival circuit again in 2011. Joseph Gordon-Levitt must be especially anxious for this film to see the light of day, because his performance as the title character is award-worthy, a complete inhabiting of as unique a personality as you’ll encounter in film. Rainn Wilson is also excellent as a man paralyzed by overwhelming sadness, and the presence of Natalie Portman should ensure that ticket sales are no problem. Get this film into theaters now! Hesher manages to be at once a sober and bighearted look at grief and loss, and a hilarious ride with the most enjoyably anarchistic character in ages.
Someone whose name I didn’t catch on a Sundance bus gave me what turned out to be the perfect description of Bellflower. “It’s like 500 Days of Summer,” she said, “except if, once the girl leaves the guy, instead of getting sad and mopey, he starts burning and blowing stuff up and the movie turns into an acid trip.” That’s pretty much it. But although it shares some plot similarities with 500 Days and the anarchistic spirit of Hesher’s main character, Evan Glodell’s debut is much more daring and experimental than either of those two films. It experiments with timelines, unreliable narrators, and with different film stock and filters. Plus it has flamethrowers and a home-customized muscle car that shoots fire from a pair of elevated exhaust valves. And an opening quote from Lord Humungous. If you’re not dying to see this film by this point in the review, maybe it’s best you just stay away. Bellflower rocks.
Sound of My Voice
Much has been made of comparing Sound of My Voice to the other Sundance film that Brit Marling co-produced, co-wrote, and co-starred in, Another Earth. And understandably so: that’s a stunning accomplishment for anyone, let alone a relative newcomer like Marling. But the comparisons and contrasts shouldn’t obscure the fact that Zal Batmanglij’s first feature is remarkable on its own merits. It’s a film that keeps the viewers, like its protagonists, on their toes constantly, never providing the answers they crave, even to the very end. The central plot revolves around a hipster couple attempting to infiltrate and expose a cult led by a woman who claims to come from the future. But that mission will test their relationship, their view of themselves, and even their view of the possible. It’s a film that will keep you thinking long after you’ve left the theater.
A Bag of Hammers
This is a movie that can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a madcap comedy or an intricate drama, and that turns out to be a very good thing. Most films marry their comedic and dramatic elements by watering down each to create a somewhat consistent tone. But A Bag of Hammers repeatedly juxtaposes sharp, quick-cutting wisecracks with sober treatments of some truly heart-rending issues. The back-and-forth could give you whiplash in an inferior movie, but first-time director Brian Crano makes it work in spades. In fact, it’s one of the most moving comedies in years. It doesn’t hurt that he draws such wonderful performances from his actors. Rebecca Hall — who will win an Academy Award someday — is superb, and Jake Sandvig is an excellent comedic sidekick. Carrie Preston gives the film an incredible anchor with a heartbreakingly desperate performance. But Jason Ritter is the story here. He’s hilarious, he’s charismatic, he’s effortless on screen. When he has a run of physical comedy midway through the film, you can almost feel the audience fondly remembering his father. And his father would be proud, of this movie and of his rising star of a son.