2012 was an interesting year for cinema—whether it be Hollywood franchise blockbusters, independent stage-play-turned-comedies , or haunting and heartbreaking foreign dramas. In the first half of the year, we saw young filmmakers such as a Brit Marling, Benh Zeitlin, and Leslye Headland debut their innovative and fresh take on modern stories, with films that established them as unique new voices of independent American cinema. Hollywood staples David O. Russell, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and Whit Stillman once again pleased audiences and won critical praise for their idiosyncratic features. And then there were the beautifully guttural foreign films from Michael Haneke, Miguel Gomes, and Leos Carax that constantly reinvent, not only what film can be, but the experiential nature of cinema as well.
So as the year draws to a close and we begin to anticipate next year’s film slate, here’s the best in BlackBook’s film coverage of the past twelve months—highlighting our favorite films of 2012 that will linger on in history and the one’s to breakout next year’s biggest stars.
Well, it’s Friday the 13th again and statistically speaking, that means 21 million Americans are spending their day paralyzed by fear, running around like Melancholia-esque Charlotte Gainsbourgs. But what better way to hide from the demons clawing at your brain or the things that go bump in the night than to sink yourself into a cinema seat and enter someone else’s world for a few hours? There’s something about seeing a midnight movie or even a late night film alone that feels like the ultimate escape from all that’s been plaguing you throughout the week, so we’ve rounded up our favorite films showing throughout the city. Now you have somewhere to hide whether you’re in the company of friends after one too many whiskeys or simply alone and on the run.
The Mark Twain quote “truth is stranger than fiction” is oft-repeated in documentary reviews, and it’s tough to think of a film where the saying is more accurate than The Imposter, an eerie and fascinating docu-thriller being released nationwide this Friday. The premise hooks like a top-notch narrative: a 13-year-old boy disappears one summer evening outside of San Antonio in 1994; three and a half years later, someone claiming to be him turns up in a village in southern Spain, telling tales of kidnapping, torture and clandestine military sex rings. The apparently traumatized teenager is sent home to his overjoyed family, though as the title suggests, this person has actually taken on this young man’s identity, a con man trying to escape his own past. The twists and turns only pick up from there, inevitably leading to a rich conversation after the film ends and a possible realization that even you—your unflappable self—may have been duped.
There are two elements of The Imposter that make it one of the most memorable documentary experiences you may ever have. The first are the constant reenactments that have feature film-quality production value, making it seem as if you are watching both a documentary and a fictional narrative at the same time. The second, the core of the film, is the interview with Nicolas Bourdin, the imposter himself, who speaks openly and candidly about the entire experience. You come to realize that not only are you seeing a bizarre, real-life mystery unravel, but the film also explores the psyche of a rare species: the chameleon in human form. While the forgettable narrative feature entitled The Chameleon was chronicled the same story in 2010, it neglected to delve into the most important aspect of the story: why would someone do this? I had the opportunity to chat with the English filmmakers, director Bart Layton and producer Dimitri Doganis, about how they made the film, differentiated it from the narrative feature panned a few years before and what they ultimately believed to be true.
How did you come across the story in the first place? Bart Layton:I found it at a friend’s house in a Spanish magazine called Interview, which is basically high-end journalism and pornography mixed together—a magazine that could only exist in Spain. In this issue was a story about Frederic Bourdin, aka the Chameleon as he is better known, and it hooked me. After a bit more research of both British and American press, we discovered the story of how he impersonated Nicholas Barclay, the young boy who disappeared in Texas. As a documentary filmmaker, you wait forever to happen upon a story as compelling as this one and most people don’t ever find it.
Had The Chameleon already gone into production when you started on this? Dimitri Doganis:I think it had, but we didn’t know anything about it until we got to A&E in New York. But they weren’t even remotely bothered by it, especially after seeing the premiere at Tribeca. BL: I forbade anyone on set from seeing it, ourselves included. No one from the production was allowed to see it while we were making our film. DD: From the beginning, we had a very strong conviction that you cannot tell this story better as a scripted, fictionalized version as it no longer has to be real. BL: The power of it is that it’s true. It’s actually not very plausible as a fictional story. You need it to have actually happened for it to work. You wouldn’t buy it! DD: People still struggle with it after they’ve seen it. Every few Q&As, someone will ask if it’s based on a true story…
How did you convince Frederic Bourdin to talk to you and be the centerpiece of the film? DD: We knew the only way to do this story justice was to have Bourdin telling it from his perspective. So we put our development team on to tracking him down.
How long did that take? DD: Not long. He’s not hard to find. He’s incredibly hard to deal with, however. BL: Specifically to win his trust. He wanted to make sure we were serious, so he made us bring him to London and we chatted about the approach of the film and how he would be telling his story in his own words. He’s someone who is deeply suspicious of everyone and has never been pleased with how he has been portrayed in the media in the past. DD: He has a history of seeking out the media’s attention but then, perhaps, not necessarily enjoying the results of it. BL: As soon as we won his trust and he agreed to be in the film, we did the main interview with him. It took 2 days, but for all we knew this was the only shot we would get with him, due to his rather sketchy history.
Did he ever manipulate you first-hand? BL: When you sit with him, you feel yourself feeling sorry for him, which is despicable. And he’s the only one who looks straight into the camera in the film, looking us all right in the eye and tells us the story he wants to tell. In a way, we wanted to allow him to manipulate us and in turn manipulate the audience, because that’s what the film is ultimately about—manipulation. Competing versions of the truth—the way we are deceived and the ways we deceive ourselves. DD: You know how some people have perfect pitch in music? He has perfect pitch with human emotions. He wins trust, sympathy and will learn what buttons to push with people almost immediately. BL: You can be charmed by him.
How about the family? Were they cautious about talking to you? DD: They felt like they had been misrepresented in the press, as well. What we had to do was convince them they were integral to the vision of the film. We wanted them to tell the story from their point of view and that we needed to see it through their eyes. [The Chameleon] cast them in an awful light and we had to have a number of honest conversations with them before they understood that we were trying to do their side of the story justice. BL: I’m pleased that they were pleased, in the end. We showed it to them before Sundance and they felt it was honest to their experience.
How about Frederic Bourdin? What did he think? BL: He actually hasn’t seen it yet. We want to screen it with him and that’s been tough to arrange. I think he’ll… well, I actually don’t know what he’ll think. There’s no way to tell with someone like him.
The film conference may be the least influential of the three portions of South by Southwest, due primarily to the fact it has so much competition amongst other film festivals out there. Interactive has launched a few hundred million-dollar ideas that we all now have access to on our smart phones, and the music conference showcases some the best brand new artists in the world on a yearly basis. Yet film, despite consistently having a fantastic, unique lineup every year, could be considered the underachieving middle child. When an independent filmmaker looks to premiere the next Napoleon Dynamite, they look to Sundance or Tribeca first; when an Oscar-winning director has made his or her passion project, it’s across the pond to the austere Berlin or Cannes Festivals. SXSW Film falls into the upper middle of most top tier Indie submission lists.
This may be due to the fact that SXSW is more diversified as an event then the other fests that focus almost solely on the art of filmmaking—they don’t have to share attention with another medium. However, sleeper films are truly beginning to break at South by—last year the virtually unheard of sports documentary Undefeated was picked up by The Weinstein Company, and went on to win the Academy Award for best Documentary Feature.
So I went in search of sleepers at this year’s film conference. I definitely didn’t see all the films I intended on seeing, those that were getting post-screening buzz heard in various badge lines or while fiddling with my scheduling app, waiting for a film to begin. However, the five films I have listed below are the best of the ones I saw at the conference, all worth the price of admission.
The Imposter Unlike any documentary you will ever see, The Imposter tells the true story of a thirteen year-old boy who was abducted in San Antonio in the mid ’90s. Three and a half years pass with no trace of the child before a person claiming to be him is picked up by authorities half a world away in Spain. The family is notified and the boy is returned home to America—despite the fact that it is in fact someone else pretending to be this boy, an imposter, as the film’s title suggests. Director Bart Layton sews together interviews with the Imposter himself and the boy’s family with beautifully photographed narrative feature-length reenactments, making you feel as if you are watching something between a narrative and a documentary—in short, something wholly unique. The film is such a perfectly intense and fascinating experience that I honestly can’t stop recommending it to everyone I see. The Imposter will be out in July through Indomina.
Somebody Up There Likes Me The third feature from off-beat Austin director Bob Boyington is undoubtedly his best yet, which feels like a tightly written, fast-paced Wes Anderson comedy with the darkly humorous stylings of something from Eastbound and Down’s Jody Hill. Comedically, nothing is sacred in this film. The sharp, straight-faced banter between leads Keith Poulson and Nick Offerman (best known as Ron Swanson in NBC’s Parks and Recreation) is hilarious yet quietly philosophical. Despite some forgivable Indie film mistakes (focus, dammit and mind the camera’s reflection), Boyington is poised to become a new, aggressively brilliant voice. At the time of this writing, Somebody Up There Likes Me does not have distribution.
Fat Kid Rules the World Remember the tall, lanky, funny guy who was one of the killers in Scream? Or the narrator of that off-beat cult classic SLC Punk? Well, it turns out he can direct, too. Matthew Lillard fell off many people’s radars when he became Shaggy in the Scooby Doo franchise—something he admits to me made him feel like a sellout. Yet, as all true artists out there, he had a passion project and the young adult book Fat Kid Rules the World, for which he had done the book on tape for nine years prior, was it. A finely acted, funny teenaged tearjerker with Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready doing the original score was the result—a spectacular achievement for a first-time director working with a budget of less then a million dollars. At the time of this writing, Fat Kid Rules the World did not have a distributor.
Bernie Richard Linklater is synonymous with the Austin film scene and Bernie is a welcome reminder of just how talented he truly is. He’s been on the latter end of hit-and-miss recently, with features like Me and Orson Welles and Fast Food Nation being considered box office and critical failures and A Scanner Darkly suffering mightily from a hellish production. However, all will be forgotten with Bernie, the funny East Texas true crime Americana tale starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McCounaughey, based on the article by Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly. As career history has shown, Linklater may be at his best when he returns to his roots. Bernie will be released through Millennium Entertainment in late April, early May.
The Do-Deca-Pentathalon What everyone will soon realize is that the Duplass Brothers are proving themselves to be some of our generation’s best filmmakers. They consistently tell engaging and funny yet intimately personal stories, despite their seemingly amateurish shaky-cam, blurry style of HD cinematography. It only reinforces the notion that great storytelling, direction and acting will trump low-production value every time. The Do-Deca-Pentathalon, a story of two overly competitive brothers trying to rekindle their relationship, harks back to their earlier, truly-Indie films like The Puffy Chair, Hump Day, and Baghead—before they had A-List casts and major studio backing for projects like Cyrus and the upcoming Jeff Who Lives At Home. Acquired at SxSW this year, The Do-Deca-Pentathalon will be released by Fox Searchlight and Red Flag in June.