SXSW arrives again with even more sections this year than ever before (SXedu SXSports SX Gaming SXgood SouthBites SXSW Comedy SXSW Eco SXstyle), it has gotten little ridiculous. In their move to cover anything and everything that people are thinking about, the festival has become nearly impossible to wrap your head around. Which is fine if you are me and you are really only going for one reason, great independent film. Sundance may get the accolades but SXSW is a discovery festival, where filmmakers often receive their first big break, and make those connections that will lead to that film that might play TIFF or Sundance. Oftentimes it feels like the largest, most important festival where THIS film still matters to THIS filmmaker. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to filmmakers with films premiering at TIFF or Sundance where it was all already in the hands of the distributor and the filmmaker was on to the next project. Sure, they make an appearance to chat about the film, but its not on the mind. At SXSW you will see films where the entire cast and crew are there, it’s a dream come true. They haven’t fallen victim to the malaise of success yet.
SXSW Film is as varied as the rest of the festival, with several sections that try to bring the best of film to Austin. In addition to the Narrative and Feature Competition, there are the Documentary and Narrative Spotlight and the SXGlobal sections, which honestly don’t seem to have any difference in programming than the Competition Sections other than not being in the Competitions Section. There is the Festival Favorites section, which is any of the above, but not a premiere. There is the Visions Section, where some of the most inventive filmmaking is being highlighted. At Sundance these types of films play in the Next section or the Midnight Section but the SXSW Visions section is always edgier and more dangerous. (Side note: SXSW also has a much better idea of what a midnight film is than Sundance, which throws almost anything odd in there – OUTLAWS AND ANGELS was about as far from a midnight film as you can get). The most SXSection in film is 24 Beats Per Second which showcases music docs and narratives and has always been the best at that of any festival in the world. Don’t forget the Episodic Program and Shorts Sections – Sundance Jury Award Winning THE PROCEDURE (on which I was lucky enough to be an executive producer) plays in the Midnight Shorts program.
I’ve tried to put together a mix of the films I am most looking forward to, but there are so many great ones, I’ll finish out with honorable mentions. Strangely, after a Sundance where I had NO doc picks, half of these are documentaries, which is pretty exciting. Remember, if you are heading to Austin for SXSW, leave extra time for the shuttles because our traffic sucks on a normal day, its far worse when you all are here, and try to see something out of the ordinary. Most of the films at the Paramount are getting wide release in just a few months anyway.
Section: Documentary Spotlight
Director: Irene Taylor Brodsky
Logline: Beware the Slenderman tells the story of a Boogeyman lurking on the internet and two 12-year-old girls who would kill for him. A horrifyingly modern tragedy, this film explores children’s accountability in the online age.
Why You Should Care: The creation and spread of the Slenderman mythology is one of the most interesting things to come out of the internet, and a perfect example of how everything moves much faster these days. According to the HBO press release, “Brodsky uses the (fictional) disturbing figure to explore not only the effect that Internet lore has on real-life actions, but also how the digital age is saturating the imagination and actions of children.”
Section: Documentary Spotlight
Director: Ryan Steven Green
Cast: Tony Cox, George Rossitto, Kevin Thompson, Jimmy Briscoe, Joe Gieb, Martin Klebba, Chris Romano, Joseph S. Griffo, Scott Danberg, Lydia Graber
Logline: In 1980s Los Angeles, a professional dwarf basketball team composed of recognizable-but-typecast actors finds itself the unwitting vanguard of a revolution to represent little people as something other than objects of curiosity.
Why You Should Care: This uplifting documentary features a ton of actors whose work you’ve enjoyed, its just that they’ve usually been dressed as leprechauns or ewoks. With basketball they found an outlet for their athletic skill, and dazzled audiences with their balling and comedy, leading directly to the creation of the Dwarf Athletic Association of America. Director Ryan Steven Green made one of my all-time favorite docs, CIRCLE THE WAGONS, about VW buses.
Section: Narrative Spotlight
Director: Billy O’Brien
Cast: Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Karl Geary
Logline: In a small Midwestern town, a troubled teen with homicidal tendencies must hunt down and destroy a supernatural killer whilst keeping his own inner demons at bay.
Why You Should Care: Based on a popular thriller that has been marketed to teens in the UK and adults in the US, so you can see it really is right at the edge of when a boy becomes a man (and decides to kill people). Christopher Lloyd does not do too many dark films (unless you count BTTF2) and Max Record showed a lot of promise in Where the Wild Things Are, despite the colossal mess that film made of my favorite book ever.
Section: Narrative Feature Comp
Director: Julia Hart
Cast: Lily Rabe, Timotheé Chalamet, Lili Reinhart, Anthony Quintal, Rob Huebel, Oscar Nuñez
Logline: Stuck at a crossroads in her personal life, it falls on Miss Stevens to chaperone three of her students — Billy, Margot, and Sam — on a weekend trip to a drama competition.
Why You Should Care: Admission here, I used to teach high school drama, so this film fits right in the combo nostalgia/horror in which I remember those times. I can’t even fathom having to teach now with kids on their phones and using Wikipedia to write papers. Writer/Director Julia Hart wrote last year’s THE KEEPING ROOM starring Brit Marling, a very different film than this sounds, so that should be interesting. Anthony Quintal (aka Lohanthony) is a prominent YouTube star, who created his channel at age 12 and 1.5 million subscribers.
Director: Carles Torrens
Cast: Dominic Monaghan, Ksenia Solo, Jennette McCurdy, Nathan Parsons, John Ross Bowie, Da’Vone McDonald, Janet Song
Logline: A lonely man fatefully reunites with a former high school classmate. When she spurns his advances, he takes her prisoner, only to find that she is not what she seems.
Why You Should Care: My favorite character from LOST meets my favorite character from LOST GIRL in what promises to be one of the darkest films at SXSW from the description. Should I also mention my favorite character from iCARLY, or is that accidentally admitting I have a favorite character from iCARLY. This also looks to be a film where the scream queen turns the table, which in this day and age is still too uncommon.
Section: Documentary Spotlight
Director: Jason Cohen
Logline: Three friends dream up a portable computer at a Texas diner in 1981, and soon battle IBM, the world’s most powerful tech company, for PC supremacy. Compaq Computer’s improbable journey altered the future of computing and shaped the world we now know.
Why You Should Care: Fascinating documentary about the company that truly defined the modern hip corporate culture long before the bean-bag chairs and self-driving cars of google and apple. Plus that phone you have, all that it can do, goes directly back to the push for the desk top market and open architecture and releasing IBM’s stranglehold of the market. Plus it’s a Texas company! Producer Ross Dinnerstein told me about this film at last SXSW – and I’ve been anxious ever since.
Section: Narrative Spotlight
Director: Clay Liford
Cast: Michael Johnston, Hannah Marks, Michael Ian Black, Missi Pyle, Jessie Ennis, Peter Vack, Sarah Ramos, Robert Longstreet, Tishuan Scott, Lucas Neff
Logline: Neil is a questioning teen who secretly writes erotic fan fiction about popular sci-fi characters. When his classmate Julia discovers his writing, she leads him down a rabbit hole deep into the world of ‘slash’ fiction.
Why You Should Care: Fan Fiction has become a huge part of the success of any widely marketed property, and Erotic Fan Fiction is, let’s face it, the most fun to read. Who doesn’t want to read about Harry Potter and Cedric Diggory behind the Quidditch Stadium? Or Beca Mitchell and Fat Amy forced to room together on a Barden Bellas competition trip. Austin based writer/director brought a short version of this to Fantastic Fest in 2012 and it was probably the highlight of the whole festival.
Section: Documentary Spotlight
Director: Steve Mims
Logline: The story of money, power and politics and the well-organized, yet little noticed, efforts to radically disrupt and reform America’s public universities.
Why You Should Care: According to Forbes, ‘Starving the Beast’ is the widespread conservative concept that the best, possibly only, way of reducing government spending is by reducing taxes. Not properly funding the government passes the burden on to consumers (driving up prices) or the future (borrowing from China). Mims, an Austin-based filmmaker, documents this philosophical shift to reframe public higher education as a ‘value proposition’ to be borne by the beneficiary of a college degree rather than as a ‘public good’ for society. Has anyone seen David Mamet’s OLEANNA? Would be a fascinating double feature.
Director: John Carchietta
Cast: Nichole Bloom, Fabianne Therese, Pat Healy, Michelle Borth, Joshua Leonard, AJ Bowen
Logline: Annie and Jules hatch a scheme of running away and turn to webcam modeling to fund the enterprise. Although she’s nervous at first, Annie can’t argue when the money starts rolling in. But as the girls soon find out, consequences can blindside you. Sometimes violently.
Why You Should Care: It does seem about time that the perils of web cam modelling receive a narrative treatment, facts glossed over in the documentary CAM GIRLZ that I covered last year. Production Company Snowfort Pictures brought us WE ARE STILL HERE, CHEAP THRILLS and JODOROWSKY’S DUNE so you know there is going to be a bit of intelligence to this one (although they are also responsible for BIG ASS SPIDER! Which was some of the most fun I’ve ever had at SXSW – I still have the ball cap given to me by the filmmaker).
Section: Documentary Feature Competition
Director: Keith Maitland
Cast: Claire Wilson James, Violett Beane, Allen Crum, Chris Doubek, Houston McCoy, Blair Jackson, Ramiro Martinez, Louie Arnette, Artly Snuff, Seamus Bolivar Ochoa
Logline: An animated and action-packed look at America’s first mass school shooting, when the worst in one man brought out the best in so many others.
Why You Should Care: Past the local draw, the story of Charles Whitman, the sniper atop the UT Tower in 1966 holds special importance as we try to understand why our world has devolved into one where school shootings are a near regular occurrence. This film flips the perspective to focus on the victims, and the more than 100 witnesses, from faculty to students to police and media, who were a part of that fateful day. The film also uses the rotoscoping process (as seen in Waking Life) to create reenactments, so it promises to be more than a typical documentary.
Doc Features/Spotlight/SXGlobal: Accidental Courtesy, Thank You Del: The Story of Del Close, Yarn
Narrative Features/Spotlight/SXGlobal: Claire in Motion, collective: unconscious, Transpecos, The Trust, Kill Me Please
24 Beats Per Second: Gary Numan: Android in La La Land, Sidemen – Long Road to Glory, Miles Ahead
Episodic: You Me Her
Festival Favorites: Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Operation Avalanche, Newtown, Sing Street
Headliners: In the Valley of Violence, War on Everyone
Midnighters: Carnage Park, Under the Shadow, Phantasm: Remastered, Untitled Fede Alvarez / Ghost House Thriller (But Really? Come On!?!? Pick a Stupid Title Already)
Short Films: The entire MUSIC VIDEOS program because when else will you see these on the big screen, Glove (Animated Shorts), These C*cksucking Tears (Doc Shorts 1) Battlefield Casualties (Midnight Shorts), 1985 and Two Cities (Texas Shorts).
And just to get you excited about the Music Videos program, here is one of them, SON LUX – CHANGE IS EVERTHING, an eye-gasm old school animation from Nathan Johnson (composer BRICK, LOOPER) made with 200 push pins, 500 feet of rubberized thread and about 3,000 photographs.