Now, we return to the countdown of the best films I saw at SXSW (and many of them are quite special!)
7. I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking)
Directors: Angelique Molina & Kelley Kali
Kelley Kali performs double duty in the first Covid movie I can truly say does not depend too heavily on its pandemic backdrop to convey legitimate drama. It tells the story of a mother, over the course of a day, trying to make that last bit of money so that she can afford rent. The simple but critical goal at the center of the film allows for a performance-driven forward momentum as Danny, portrayed magnificently by the aforementioned Kelley Kali, zooms back and forth through town on her roller skates. While its small budget shows through on the filming of a couple scenes, that’s also part of the charm: the stimulus check that funded this movie plays its own role in the plot, providing some meta-irony to a mostly predictable sequence of events. The euphoria of the satisfaction provided by the last two minutes is enough to garner this film a glowing recommendation in my book; who knows, this might well prove to be a Corona time capsule.
6. Through the Plexi-Glass: The Last Days of the San Jose
Director: Liz Lambert
Striking for the content captured by Austin motel owner Liz Lambert and less for its examination of change (gentrification being the operative word), The Last Days of the San Jose is a naturalistic and practically eerie documentary about motel tenants from years ago, and what brought them there. The sheer amount she was able to capture on her video camera, seemingly unthinkable today, is the reason this movie stands out among the other docs: hours of footage from numerous tenants had to be sorted through and assembled to depict a culture. The accompanying song choices are well-thought-out and even when the energy stalls, it never gets boring. Liz Lambert fleshes out the past in a way only great documentarians can.
Director: Andrea Blaugrund Nevins
I thought it was a slight to my gender that I knew of very few female stand-up comedians, but it turns out, it’s just a product of society’s patriarchal norms! Who would’ve thought. Hysterical is an in-depth look at the history and present-day challenges of female comics in the industry. Names like Nikki Glaser, Fortune Feimster, and Margaret Cho discuss their experiences in pay distinctions, the dangers of touring, and the general misogyny experienced within this career path. The structure is engaging, and the title/transition designs which were created to resemble an open-bar look quite sleek. The ultimate take-away- stick your neck out for the underdogs- is a compelling resolve to a surprisingly educational doc experience.
Streaming: April 2nd on FX
4. Lily Topples the World
Director: Jeremy Workman
Maybe some people already know about Hevesh5, the most followed domino art channel on Youtube run by young genius Lily Hevesh. I, for one, did not, so I went into this doc completely blind. What I came out with was a sense of genuine inspiration. If this 22-year-old girl can make a living by constructing mass labyrinths of falling game pieces, maybe I can do what I love too. Lily Topples the World was a fan favorite at the festival, winning both the Critics award and the Audience award for best featured documentary. The mesmerizing domino toppling sequences make this an absolute aesthetic delight. However, that is not without counting Lily Hevesh’s legitimately interesting story: watching her confidence blossom from shy kid to the most sought-after creator in her niche is a prize in itself. By the end of the movie, I felt like a proud mother. Maybe Lily Topples the World operates at times like an advertisement for her recently produced Hevesh5 signature dominos, but who cares, really. Her entrepreneurial spirit should be applauded, and it probably does give her a boost that this documentary is awesome. It’ll be showing at Cleveland and Florida Film Festivals in April, so if you get the chance, do check it out.
3. The Sparks Brothers
Director: Edgar Wright
Brett already wrote about this doc back at Sundance, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to see it until now. I will echo the sentiments of my colleague in saying “this movie rules.” It’s hard to watch music documentaries and not feel like you’ve already seen the story a million times before, but these particular subjects, and Edgar Wright’s idiosyncratic style, elevate this “rise to success” story to something quite unique. It would not be disingenuous for me to call this my favorite Edgar Wright film. The Sparks are cunning and innovative, and they’ve been in the game for so. Freaking. Long. I can barely complain about the 140-minute runtime when I was thoroughly invested in every single one of them, a band I had never heard of coming to life before my very eyes. A well-edited amalgamation of talking heads (provided by the band and by the most random celebrities you could ever imagine), concert stock footage, and hand-crafted cartoons make The Sparks Brothers a music documentary for the ages. I have been listening to them on repeat ever since.
Director: Yngvild Sve Flikke
Unexpected! Hilarious! Poignant! All words to describe the indelibly titled Ninjababy, the international feature standout from SXSW 2021. I have an odd affinity for unplanned pregnancy movies that I can’t really trace back to any moment in time, but the fact that this still felt fresh some twenty movies after Juno is a great credit to its quality. Ninjababy follows 23-year-old Rakel in the wake of, you guessed it, a one-night stand gone wrong. But surprise, it wasn’t this one-night stand that got her pregnant: suddenly she is 6 months pregnant, unable to acquire an abortion, and trying to figure out what she is going to do. As an imaginative cartoon artist, her first instinct is to doodle her feelings away. So, she invents the titular character of Ninjababy: the baby inside her who provides the opposing force to her scattered thoughts. Besides being the most technically competent film I saw at the festival (a brilliant use of flashbacks that I will not forget any time soon), its clear-sighted script and Kristine Kujath Thorp’s knowing performance do wonders to help this stand out. All three of my top films at SXSW employ cartoon graphics to some degree in their storytelling, and Ninjababy’s are by far the funniest and the most uncomfortable. Its assessment of pregnancy and motherhood is progressive and entirely refreshing. I cannot wait for others to discover both this film’s keen sense of humor and its more heart-rending aspects. With a tagline like “It’s not love, it’s semen,” you’re sure to find something special.
1. Inbetween Girl
Director: Mei Makino
Alas! We have arrived at number 1! And no surprise, it is a coming-of-age tale. I love Inbetween Girl for a number of reasons. First, all of its characters are flawed. It makes no secret of that: its about a young girl knowingly engaging in an “affair.” Second, it balances a lot of different themes: romance vs sex, divorce, ignorance as bliss, and cultural identity. And it does it all in a balanced, level-headed way that acknowledges the complexity of an individual’s life. Third, it’s really freaking relatable. Movies that challenge you are good, but sometimes, all you need is a film that speaks to you on a personal level. I found that in Emma Galbraith’s visibly worn-out yet dynamic performance. The film recognizes its occasional melodrama by communicating it with sophistication and nuance, the typically obnoxious voiceover trend, in this case, being the film’s saving grace. Angie sees herself from afar, but she feels like she can’t fix herself in the present. It takes notes from teen confessional movies like Easy A and Diary of a Teenage Girl, but its fast-paced style and low-budget indie feel give it an edge. Its sober end was a very smart choice. Inbetween Girl is bound to speak to people just as much it spoke to me.
That sums it up for our SXSW coverage. I hope you found some more 2021 movies to keep an eye out for. In the meantime, my best-of-the-year list is available right here: https://letterboxd.com/buffedfilmbuff/list/2021-ranked/.