The Austin Chronicle

Macon Blair Wins Sundance 2017

Grand jury prize-winner tops the list of locals done good – and bad – at Park City

By Michael Agresta, February 3, 2017, Screens

The Big Winner: A New Austin Indie Auteur

Film buffs may recognize Macon Blair as an actor from his roles in Blue Ruin and Green Room, two movies by his friend and longtime collaborator Jeremy Saulnier. But the recent Austin transplant now has a red-hot career on the other side of the camera. He was awarded the Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize for his feature film debut, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore.

The story follows a nurse (Melanie Lynskey, Togetherness) who is just beginning to lose her faith in humanity when her home is robbed. With the help of a manic, rattailed neighbor (Elijah Wood), she sets out on a half-intentional vigilante quest to recover her grandmother's stolen silverware. Blair's shaggy dog storytelling style and sure comedic rhythms are punctuated by shocking, even absurd bursts of violence, a throwback to the Nineties post-Tarantino era of indie film.

During an opening weekend dominated by offscreen frustrations (the presidential inauguration; a Saturday Women's March that snarled filmgoing traffic), Blair's opening-night premiere provided Sundance with a welcome boost of sheer celluloid fun. "They reacted to it as I hoped they would," Blair said in an interview toward the end of the festival. "They laughed at the right parts, and they cringed at the right parts. I have not been able to go to screenings since then, because I want that one to be stuck in my mind."

Readers accustomed to waiting months for buzzy Sundance films to reach a broader audience will be happy to learn that I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore debuts online later this month as a Netflix Original. Watch it and chill starting Friday, Feb. 24.

The Big Loser: Austin as a Film Production Locale

Though he's lived in Austin going on three years, Blair shot his film in Oregon. "The movie was always going to be set in a fictional, nonspecific, vaguely Southern town," he explains. "I just assumed I would shoot it in Austin, because that's where I live and that would be easiest. But when we broke down the budget, the tax incentives are better in Oregon. It was hard to argue with the math."

Blair's film features the talents of sometime Austinite Wood as well as Lee Eddy, Blair's wife and a longtime fixture of the local theatre scene. Still, there might have been many more opportunities for Austin cast and crew. "When I was writing it, there were a lot of supporting parts that I envisioned local Austin actors playing," Blair admits. "When it shifted, it worked out great, but my hope is to eventually do a movie in Austin, because there are so many great comedians and actors here."

The other Austin filmmaker with a narrative feature at Sundance, UT professor Alex Smith, also shot his film elsewhere, though his was very much a location shoot. Walking Out, which Smith wrote and directed with his brother, Andrew, takes place in a rugged, remote mountain range in modern-day Montana. It has drawn comparisons to Iñárritu's The Revenant for its wilderness survival storyline, its central father-son relationship, and its reliance on a mama grizzly to pass the first hurdle of the Bechdel test.

Walking Out's core metaphor is poignant and profoundly symmetrical – everything the father teaches on the way up the mountain, the son must put into practice to guide them back down. Introducing the film to a Sundance audience, the Smith brothers put it beautifully and succinctly: "It's about love as a form of survival."

Loser (Runner-up): Cody Wilson, King of the Austin Libertarian Tech Bros

The award for most aggravating onscreen personality this Sundance goes to Austin resident Cody Wilson, subject of the documentary The New Radical. That's not to say this film should be avoided – on the contrary, it ought to be required viewing for anyone trying to piece together what happened to civil society and radical youth culture over the past half-decade that has landed us in our current Trumpian nightmare.

You've probably heard of Wilson: In 2013, as a UT Law student, he published a CAD file on the internet that would allow anyone who wanted to build a working handgun at home using only a 3-D printer. The State Department forced him to take the file down, and he has since sued the government and is pursuing a Supreme Court hearing on grounds that his right to free speech has been infringed.

Wilson, 28, is every inch the self-hyping millennial start-up entrepreneur, but his businesses are openly corrosive to the common good. He followed up the 3-D gun concept with Dark Wallet, a bitcoin purse explicitly marketed to money launderers and other seedy operators. He's a telegenic salesman who cloaks his might-makes-right libertarianism with the rebellious cool of anti-authoritarianism, palling around with Julian Assange and trafficking pied piper slogans like "I don't believe in rights," and "I don't believe in citizenry." Wilson is an unpleasant Austin cocktail of Rainey Street and Brave New Books, but his documentary portrait can teach us much about politics among the next generation.

Winner (Runner-up): Other Texas Film Towns

While no narrative features at Sundance 2017 were filmed in Austin, two exciting entrants in this year's slate were shot elsewhere in the Lone Star State. I Love Dick, an episodic TV series made for Amazon by Transparent showrunner Jill Soloway, will immediately be the smartest thing on TV (-on-the-internet) when it debuts this spring. It was shot in Marfa, where the show is set, and the West Texas town's art legacy is central to the storyline – in particular, the figure of Chinati Foundation founder Donald Judd. Like HBO's Girls, which attempts a similar balance of the two F-words (funny and feminist), and like Enlightened, with a similarly messy, hard-to-love female protagonist, the show will attract haters, but it's a revelation.

Meanwhile, Dallas-based auteur David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Pete's Dragon) was back at Sundance with an odd, beautiful creature called A Ghost Story. Reuniting Lowery with Saints stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, the new film was shot in North Texas, but takes place across various planes of existence and time. Affleck stars as a ghost wearing a bedsheet, haunting the house of his ex-lover. If that sounds strange, it is: as strange as life, as strange as love.

Honorable Mentions

• Austin-based director Laura Dunn was back at Sundance with her Wendell Berry doc, now known as Look & See. The Chronicle spoke with Dunn about the film when it screened at SXSW 2016 – with a slightly different cut – as The Seer.

• Texas-born actor and hotshot screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water) returns to the director's chair (following 2011's Vile). His Montana Indian reservation-set thriller Wind River, starring Jeremy Renner, was one of the most sought after tickets of the festival.

• Seventh-generation Austinite Cori Stern was a driving force behind Doctors Without Borders documentary Bending the Arc. Stern is credited as creative producer and screenwriter, and much of her work on the film was done from a cabin in Wimberley.

• Austinite Patrick Bresnan was back in Park City for the second consecutive year (after last year's award-winning "The Send-Off") with documentary short "The Rabbit Hunt," set in the Florida Everglades.

• Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League's new distribution company, Neon, was on hand, acquiring three films: Anne Hathaway Godzilla franchise spoof Colossal, Aubrey Plaza-stalks-Elizabeth Olsen comedic creepfest Ingrid Goes West, and Brooklyn blue-collar teen sexuality drama Beach Rats.

• UT lecturer and filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Commanding Vision for her documentary Motherland, about a maternity hospital in the Philippines.

• A few films made brief detours to Texas: Both Al Gore's climate-change polemic An Inconvenient Sequel and big game hunting doc Trophy include onscreen Texas characters. And Bushwick, a "midnight" narrative feature, tells the story of a New York City neighborhood invaded by Texas separatist troops.

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.