The term “festival goggles” refers to the heightened reaction that a movie can receive when seen by viewers surrounded by the stars and filmmakers amid the buzz and excitement of an event like the multimedia lollapalooza South-by-Southwest in Austin, TX. But now that a month has passed and the initial hype has died down, here are the top five screenings that continue to stick with me after SXSW 2019 (coming soon — hopefully — to a big or small screen near you):
1. FOR SAMA
The winner of the festival’s documentary feature competition is a harrowing achievement: an eyewitness chronicle of life (and gruesome death) in the city of Aleppo from the initial student protests against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad through the brutal civil war that followed. In the middle of it all is filmmaker Waad al-Kateab, whose home videos of her sweet friendship and eventual marriage to a local doctor transform over time into a real-life horror movie of bloody floors in a decimated clinic where medical staffers risk their lives treating the victims of constant bombing raids against the civilian population by Russian warplanes in league with Assad. The periodic imagery of raw grief, dying mothers, and dead children is agonizing to watch, creating a relentless backbeat of anxiety for the safety of the people captured on camera (including the filmmaker’s own infant daughter, Sama) — yet al-Kateab (and co-director Edward Watts) have shaped the footage into a narrative about the resilience, humanity, love, and even humor shared by neighbors, friends, and family either stranded in the hellish scenario or determined to stay and support the resistance against a dictator with no compunctions against killing his own people.
Where to see it: according to the PBS website, a “broadcast version” of “For Sama” will premiere on “Frontline” and Channel 4 “later in this year”).
2. KATHY GRIFFIN: A HELL OF A STORY
The title of Kathy Griffin’s self-funded concert film (directed by Troy Miller) isn’t fake news: the controversial comedian definitely shares one hell of a story in this funny, frightening one-woman show (intercut with a few bits of backstage material) about the infamous (yet fully First Amendment protected) photo of her clutching a ketchup-covered Trump head and the personal and professional repercussions that followed — the loss of most of her gigs and endorsements, her mother thinking she’d joined al-Qaeda, death threats (including some with return addresses, since “Trumpers are not academics”), and the administration getting even with Griffin by putting her on the no-fly list and attempting to charge her with conspiracy to assassinate the president. Yet for all the friends she lost, enemies she made, and pain she experienced in the wake of the scandal (including right-wing trolls harassing her sister Joyce as she was in the final stages of cancer), Griffin also gained unexpected allies (like a long-time reality show nemesis and a gay fan who defended her via a hilariously mean letter to Anderson Cooper) as well as this instant classic combination of stand-up, catharsis, and resistance.
Where to see it: as of this posting, “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story” has not yet secured a distributor.
3. SWORD OF TRUST
Ultimately slight yet consistently entertaining, writer/director Lynn Shelton’s latest indie comedy of manners (co-scripted with former “SNL” featured player Mike O’Brien) attempts to defuse Red State/Blue State tensions by simply laughing at them. Marc Maron powers the movie, doing the cranky mensch voodoo that he does so well as Mel, a pawn shop owner with a troubled past living in Birmingham, Alabama (by way of Albuquerque and New York City) who stumbles into a bizarre netherworld of Confederate conspiracy theories when a Southern native (Jillian Bell) inherits a strange family heirloom from her deceased father and attempts to sell it for big bucks with the help of her spiky girlfriend (Michaela Watkins), a self-described bubbling cauldron of rage. Together with Mel’s hapless assistant manager (Jon Bass), the group alternately squabbles and bonds as odd twists and questionable decisions complicate a seemingly simple business transaction — but the unpredictable plot mostly serves as an excuse to spend 88 minutes soaking in the banter of the film’s likably eccentric shaggy dog ensemble.
Where to see it: IFC Films has acquired distribution rights but a release date is pending.
4. BECOMING LESLIE & NOTHING STAYS THE SAME: THE STORY OF THE SAXON PUB
It’s a bit of a cheat to include two films in the fourth slot of a five-item list, yet they’re such a perfectly matched set they could practically be intercut into one supersize documentary about the changing face of Austin, TX (and American cities in general). The first, “Becoming Leslie” (directed by Leslie Frazier) is a profile of Leslie Cochran, the sort of urban misfit whose ubiquity makes them well-known in a community even if few people actually know them personally. Frazier is one of those who did and her warts-and-all portrait of the charismatic, self-destructive, queer, homeless embodiment of the phrase “Keep Austin Weird” delves into the mysteries of her iconoclastic subject and his enigmatic past while also serving as a bittersweet meditation on the way his passing in 2012 coincided with the fading weirdness of a tech boom town seemingly intent on driving out the artists and eccentrics who put it on the map in favor of venture capitalists and luxury condos — a transformation viewed from a slightly different perspective in “Nothing Stays the Same,” a documentary by Jeff Sandmann about the ongoing battle against the very same forces determined to Make Austin Normal. Back in the laid back slacker days of the early ’90s, Joe and Judy Ables purchased a dive called the Saxon Pub and managed to hold onto most of the regulars (like the old-timer who says, “One bar is enough for me and it’s this one”) while slowly building the venue into a beloved local institution thanks to its human, intimate scale and a residency program allowing its stable of recurring performers to build up a loyal fan base over time. Yet with “condo canyons” springing up all around them, the Ables eventually lose their lease, threatening both their livelihoods and those of dozens of working singer-songwriters and bands already struggling to survive in the city — until help arrives from an unlikely source in a positively Grinch-ian twist as one of the very same developers responsible for jacking up rents suddenly realizes maybe it’s NOT such a great idea to drive all the musicians out of the “The Live Music Capital of the World.”
Where to see it: “Becoming Leslie” & “Nothing Stays the Same” have not yet been acquired for distribution.
5. MUSEUM TOWN
Meanwhile, on the diametrically opposite end of the economic spectrum, there’s Museum Town (directed by Jennifer Trainer), the story of business people attempting to save a community by attracting (rather than displacing) artists. North Adams, Massachusetts was a booming factory town until the shuttering of its primary employer, Sprague Electronics, resulted in economic devastation so extreme that flooding the whole area was (half-jokingly) suggested so that wealthy neighbors in Williamstown could enjoy waterfront property. But then a visionary alliance of capitalists, politicians, and culture vultures (including staff from the Williams College Museum of Art with a timely assist from David Byrne, whose work helps to win over a skeptical yet Talking Heads-loving Republican governor) repurposed the sprawling Sprague campus into Mass MoCA, one of the largest contemporary arts and performance venues in the U.S. Boasting an amazing soundtrack of musicians associated with the town’s central attraction, Trainer’s approach to her subject is effectively multidimensional, serving as a history of the museum, a retrospective of its exhibits, and an insider’s depiction of the nuts-and-bolts process of making (and displaying) art while simultaneously giving voice to locals who aren’t yet feeling the economic benefits in an era where “nobody’s got money but every place is a bank” and who fear MoCA will merely turn North Adams into a “bougie…summer home” for rich New Yorkers. Yet the true heart of the movie is Ruth Yarter, bridging the gap between the two positions as a laid-off Sprague employee reborn as a museum volunteer learning to love contemporary art.
Where to see it: “Museum Town” has not yet been acquired for distribution.