Getting ready to pack the car and head back to Dallas after my annual indulgence of documentaries on the Big Screen at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin.  I’m the only person I know who comes to Austin every year, doesn’t see a single band or a single movie star (well, maybe one) and power-watches documentaries only for days on end.  This year’s festival felt a bit uneven…maybe it was what I chose to see versus the programming, but I missed seeing more docs from foreign directors that I found so inspiring in past years.  Nonetheless there were some strong docs that hopefully will be finding their way to wider distribution soon.  Here were a few favorites.

American: The Bill Hicks Story…a portrait of a great mind so far ahead of his time and so “make you cry” funny.  Also, a great recreation of an era using animated stills, a la “The Kid Stays in the Picture.”  Never say you don’t have good b-roll…MAKE good b-roll.  This filmmaker did.

His and Hers…charming, beautifully shot stories of Irish women talking about their relationships with the significant men in their lives from the cradle to the grave.  A simple idea, brilliantly executed.

The Oath…a chilling look at Al Qaeda from the inside.  Tough, virtuoso filmmaking by a persistant Laura Poitras.  Brava.  Gorgeously shot by Kirsten Johnson.

Beijing Taxi…the stories of working class Chinese in the months leading up to the 2008 Olympics, as seen through three portraits of taxi drivers.  For someone like me who often demonizes the Chinese government, it is fascinating to see the real lives of workaday people in China, who are just slogging along trying to make a little better life for themselves and their families, just like the rest of us.

Canal Street Madam…I had every possible human emotion during this film…from questioning the filmmaker’s integrity to feeling depressed and repulsed by the life choices of the subjects, to being unable to stop watching, and ultimately to cheering for the main character to triumph.  It’s a mixed bag for certain, and I’m still conflicted about it, but ultimately this film about three generations of women who operated and worked a New Orleans brothel that served a high powered clientele of politicians and community leaders, shines a light on the way all women are seen and treated in twisted culture that both worships and demonizes sex.  Everyone should watch this film and then call me…I can’t stop thinking about it and talking about it.

When I Risebeautiful, lyrical, haunting portrayal of opera star Barbara Smith Conrad, a remarkable diva who was one of the first African American undergraduates at the University of Texas.  Banned from starring in the school opera because of her race, she nonetheless stayed and graduated from UT after a firestorm of controversy and national press.  A little civil rights story with big implications, this film shows the power of history the power of the spirit and how one woman’s grace and talent triumphed over small minds.  Inspiring, inspiring, inspiring.  A simple tale well told.  Probably my favorite film of the festival.

There was ONE narrative film that managed to sneak into the mix that I loved:

All My Friends are Funeral Singers…a quirky story of a psychic medium living in a house full of spirits with a musical score and songs performed live by indy band Califone.   I had never heard Califone before…but I was interested in seeing a film with a live score that wasn’t an old silent film from the 1920’s.  Turns out that Califone had done a lot of new scores for old films, but this time, decided to write and create a new film along with all the music.  Really exciting…this seamless integration of music and film was fun to watch.  I will download the whole album for certain.