The top films from the 2014 SXSW Film/Music/Interactive festival

Faults. Photo courtesy of Snoot Films.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – The 2014 SXSW Film/Music/Interactive festival has been over for two weeks now and while it was another year filled with great films, there is still an ominous feeling surrounding this year's festival. A drunk driver killed two people and injured 23 people on March 13th on Red River Street and 11th Avenue. The death toll is up to four now, and Rashad Owens, 21, is now facing capital murder charges with bail set at $3 million. While it was my first time attending SXSW, it will be hard to forget this tragic incident despite the good times I had seeing movies, catching up with old friends, and seeing live music. SXSW started a donation drive, "SXSW Cares" for the victims and within 24 hours they had raised $40,000. Totals are now up to $55,000. You can still to donate to help out the remaining victims still in the hospital.

The SXSW programming team, lead by Jarod Neece, found smaller scale fare with big-name actors and documentaries with important issues, as evident in the 27 films I saw. The films generated terrific advance buzz, and many of them hopefully will find distributor homes.

The standout film was, without question, director Margaret Brown's (The Order of Myths) eye-opening and devastating documentary jury winner, The Great Invisible. The film should have no problem finding distribution and/or a cable provider to snatch up this alarming tale on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Gulf Coast. It follows the effect on the local families in nearby communities after the spill, workers on the oilrig, and attorney Kenneth Feinberg in charge of BP's $20 billion settlement fund—the closest person associated to BP interviewed. The documentary starts at the beginning of the spill on April 20, 2010. 11 workers were killed and something along the lines of 4.2 million barrels of oil flooded into the sea over the following 87 days. Finding any truth of what the hell went wrong and how does a man-made catastrophe like this ever get fixed is staggering. Stephen Stone, a survivor of the oil spill, struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and is quick to point out how much guilt he has from the accident. Stone's interview and Gordon Jones, whose son died in the explosion and who has yet to hear from BP on when they can settle their claim, are just two of many chilling and sad stories from the accident. A bright spot is found in local man, Roosevelt Harris, who continues to deliver meals to struggling families in the area since they have not received payment for losing their job or for injuries. It really hits the hardest toward the last third of the documentary when it is revealed that more oil drilling is taking place in the Gulf Coast and BP is leading the charge bidding on ocean space to set-up more rigs to find the "black gold." This seems to be an ongoing endeavor with no chance of slowing down anytime soon. The disclaimer, "BP declined to participate and to be interviewed for this film," is not a surprise—only something that enrages you more.

Many of the narrative features explored dark terrain, heightened anxieties, desolated characters searching for meaning, and overall wickedness. The superior of the bunch was writer/director Riley Stearns' fascinating cult dramedy Faults, starring an impressive Mary Elizabeth Winstead and a breakout performance by notable character actor Leland Orser (Seven, The Guest). Production designer James Connelly brilliantly captures the 1980's look and cinematographer Michael Ragen zeroes in on Ansel Roth (Orser) who's in debt and about to give up on his job as a deprogrammer, until he is approached by couple whose daughter Claire has joined a cult called "Faults." Ansel accepts the job mostly in order to repay his debt. When Ansel finds Claire, he locks her up in a hotel room to begin the weeklong process of deprogramming Claire before he brings her back to her parents. While there are cracks in Ansel's system, he seems to be making progress until an enforcer who orders him to start paying his debt sooner than later puts Ansel in a bind. Ansel leaves the hotel to ask Claire's parents for some upfront cash and upon his return discovers that Claire is gone by way of some suspected unusual magic. Stearns' script is darkly funny without being preposterous. Comparisons to the Coens brothers material is not far off. It's suspenseful without being heavy-handed. The strangely original thriller with endless conclusions abound makes it one of the better cult narrative phenomenon in recent years (Martha Marcy May Martha, Sound of My Voice, and The Master to name a few).

Writer/director John Magary's The Mend doesn't have the fantastical approach that Faults does, but it deserves much praise for injecting life into the routine family/sibling rivalry with a career best performance from Josh Lucas as Mat, a semi-adrift man without much of plan. Mat invites himself over to his younger brother Alan's (Stephen Plunkett) house for a party. The two have not seen each other for three months, but it might as well be three years as the two really cannot stand one another. The next morning, Alan and his girlfriend Farrah wake up late for a flight, forgetting that Mat has crashed on their couch. A few days later, Alan returns early from the trip without Farrah (who had planned on purposing). Without digging too much in facing the facts, Mat and Alan begin to reconnect. The whereabouts of Farrah are still unknown when Mat's on-and-off-again girlfriend moves in with her son. Magary's script could be likened to a shaggy-dog attempt of John Cassevetes 1970's work, giving the actors creative outlets to explore the material in this slow-moving but effective drama. Lucas and Plunkett's performances feel authentic in a typical love/hate sibling relationship; watching the rusting decay come between the brothers sheds much insight into their past regressions without spelling it out. The narrative at times seems aloof in working toward a viable ending, though. The film features a massive string quartet musical score by Judd Greenstein and Michi Wiancko, which creates just enough tension without forging any revelations to the story and plays a darker theme brewing further and further into the brothers' own personal inferno.

Writer/director/star Patrick Brice's feature debut Creep definitely lives up to its title, in large part and thanks to star/producer Mark Duplass' goofy and unhinged performance as Josef, who invites Brice's Aaron up to his secluded house to film him for the day. Aaron found the job on Craiglists, which pays well and states that "discretion is appreciated." In a hilarious nod to the Michael Keaton film My Life, Josef wants to create a movie for his unborn child to remember him by. This all seems normal at first, until Aaron's ready to leave the house. Josef prevents Aaron to leave by stealing his car keys until he has a drink with him. Creep is like a monotonous reality television story until at the halfway point when Aaron answers the phone and discovers from the caller that Josef might not really say who he is. Brice's feature is very funny, if uneven throughout, with plenty of dark undertones of an unstable man approaching death in an unusual way. One scene includes a complete freak-out moment of Josef wearing a terrifying Halloween mask called "Peach Fuzz" that's incorporated with a dance and still makes me laugh. Brice's narrative is something more than a "Single White Male" situation, but its not far off the beaten path in treasuring its more quiet moments, than its more sudden thud of an ending.

Not every film was dark and filled with horrible situations. Some were just plain entertaining. Take writer/director Dan Beers' incredibly silly-yet-predictable-to-a-fault's film Premature, a Groundhog Day/American Pie mash-up achieving minor success in screwball comedy. One has to keep Groundhog Day director and recently passed Harold Ramis in mind while watching it; the comic genius might have done a bit more with the material. High school senior Rob (a complete find and stellar John Karna) is living a very awkward day on repeat. His mom walks into his room to see Rob's waking up to a wet dream. By the time Rob gets to school, his day goes from bad to worse as his pants get sprayed with urine, leaving him to change into women shorts for his interview with a rep from Georgetown University. Rob cancels his plans to watch the spelling bee with his adorable BFF Gabrielle (Katie Findlay from AMC's The Killing) for an after-school "tutoring session" with hot and easy Angela (Carlson Young). When Rob arrives at her house, Angela puts the moves on him and a  brief make-out session leaves Rob on the verge of climaxing. Right before he does, he wakes up in bed again with the same wet spot from the day before. Or is it still the same day? Rob is left reliving the same day until he gets it right, similar to Bill Murray's weatherman Phil in Groundhog Day. While the story wears thin, Beers' copycat sex comedy is brought to life by supporting actor Craig Roberts playing Rob's best friend Stanley, Alan Tudyk and especially Karna's deadpan performance.

One of the more anticipated films of SXSW was writer/director/star Lawrence Michael Levine's Wild Canaries, a follow-up to his excellent first feature Gabi on the Roof in July. Wild Canaries had its heart in the right place, it just left more to be desired. Making reference to the Thin Man series with a mixture of Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery, Barri (Sophia Takai) and Noah's (Levine) courtship is put to the test when the Brooklyn couple discovers their elderly neighbor Sylvia has died. Barri takes it upon herself to play detective, thinking the woman was murdered. Her first suspect is the son, Anthony. Against Noah's wishes, the two are wrapped up in searching deeper and deeper into the case. The couple's constant bickering becomes tiresome after a while to the point you'd almost wish they would end things. Eventually, a few too many subplots are in play, including a romantic triangle involving Barri's lesbian friend played by Alia Shawkat and Noah's former girlfriend, along with a blackmail plot. The whodunit eventually becomes less interesting. Both Takai and Levine's performance are solid, but the busyness of the plot and a more focused approached to character development would have made Wild Canaries fly more often than sink.

One cannot talk about SXSW without mentioning the absurd number of bands (close to 1,200) playing shows well into the wee hours of the mornings. What I learned was sometimes an impromptu show is more enjoyable than waiting in line for hours in hopes of catching a glimpse of Damon Albarn or Snoop Dogg. One of the shows I saw was Minneapolis' own Koo Koo Kanga Roo on the back patio of Chain Drive, the oldest LGBT nightclub in Austin. It was well worth attending to watch duo Bryan and Neil dance, jump, and engage a crowd of mostly older folks. In attendance was Minneapolis' own 4onthefloor's Gabriel Douglas, Mark Mallman, and Blake Iverson. It was also great to see the Athens, Georgia's dance/pop duo Yip Deceiver featuring former members from Of Montreal playing to a mostly inattentive crowd at Half Step with a brisk 30-minute set featuring songs of from there latest album Medallius, including singles "Get Strict," "Obnoxia," and "Lover" to bring the crowd to their feet toward the end of their set.

Top Ten Films of SXSW 2014

1. The Great Invisible

2. Faults

3. Joe (dir. David Gordon Green)

4. The Mend

5. Buzzard (dir. Joel Potrykus)

6. Oculus (dir. Mike Flanagan)

7. American Interior (dir. Gruff Rhys & Dylan Roch)

8. Obvious Child (dir. Gillian Robespierre)

9. Two Step (dir. Alex R. Johnson)

10. Wicker Kittens (dir. Amy C. Elliott)

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    Jim Brunzell III's picture
    Jim Brunzell III

    Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins [at] yahoo [dot] com) was born in the 70's, went to school in the 80's, played sports in the 90's, and has been writing on film for the Daily Planet since 2007.  He is also the Festival Director and programmer for the Sound Unseen Music/Film/Art festival in the Twin Cities, lead programmer for the Flyway Film Festival in Pepin and Stockholm WI, the creator of "The Defenders" series at the Trylon microcinema and has been working on a novel since finishing college.  You can follow Jim on Twitter at (@JimBrunzell_3).