The 20th Annual South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin is coming to an end, which makes this as good a time as any to look back at this year’s festival and see how it fared compared to other festivals.
For us, the festival really acted like catch-up from the Sundance Film Festival, which we skipped this year, so lots of the movies we saw from Jeff Nicholl’s Mud to Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color to David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight were movies that had already been seen and raved about out of other film festivals.
Still, there were plenty of high profile world premieres of movies looking for distribution including Bryan Poyser’s The Bounceback, Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, Eric Heisserer’s Hours, Daniel Mazer’s I Give It a Year and lots more.
Even so, there weren’t a ton of deals made at this year’s festival, at least not at the time of this writing. Drafthouse Films, based out of Austin’s Alamo Theaters, made the first move, picking up E.L. Katz’s thriller Cheap Thrills, one of the most popular movies in the Midnighters section, and shortly after, Vincenzo (Cube) Natali’s twist on a ghost story, Haunter, starring Abigail Breslin, was scooped up by IFC Midnight. Other than that, very few of the other movies, including a number of surprisingly mainstream comedies, have not been picked up for distribution yet.
For the most part, it was a solid festival with more good than bad and even the most disappointing movies we saw were mediocre at worst.
That brings us to “The Best of the Fest” and as far as I was concerned (and for my fourth film festival in a row), my favorite movie was a documentary–actually, one of the few that I saw–and that was Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet from Stardom (Radius-TWC), which takes a look at the place of the back-up singer and how important they were to the history of music with the film shining a spotlight on the likes of Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, the Walker Family, Judith King and many more. The film shows how they’ve found a place singing within a group and creating a blend of voices, something that’s often harder than being up front and the center of attention. Besides putting the place of the back-up singer into historical and political context and showing the struggles they’ve faced, Neville’s loving look at the “unsung heroes” of popular music finally makes their names known while showcasing their amazing voices with a solo spotlight. Although I didn’t get around to writing review, I’ll probably be seeing the movie again before its release and it’s almost guaranteed a “Chosen One” in my weekly Box Office Preview column whenever it comes out. In fact, I wouldn’t be even remotely surprised if Neville’s movie is one of the five docs nominated for an Oscar for this year.
Even though I liked that movie more than anything else I saw, I was equally impressed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon (Relativity), a character comedy about sexual addiction, co-starring Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore, which I have a good feeling will end up in my Top 25 for the year. The movie is incredibly funny but also quite poignant in its look at a guy who has trouble getting past his porn-watching habits.
In the past, I’ve been hit or miss on Joe Swanberg’s work, but for whatever reason his decision to work with better known actors like Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick for his new comedy Drinking Buddies really helped make it one of his strongest films even if it’s improvisational nature might not be quite accessible as other comedies. I also enjoyed the gory fun of Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead, which is a worthy successor to the Saimi Raimi-Bruce Campbell trilogy about demonic possession.
And here are the thoughts from ComingSoon.net’s resident reviewer Joshua Starnes, who also attended South by SouthWest and saw a few movies we didn’t get around to.
This year’s SXSW Film Festival had a lot going for it; a lot of quality, a lot of eccentricity, and a lot of fun. Basically everything you want from a good festival. The movies on view this year were so different from one another it’s hard to pick favorites, or even compare them in any meaningful way. But that’s not going to stop me from trying.
At the top of the list is Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. Picking up another nine years on from Before Sunset, Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy once again pull off the trickiest act in film and make it look beyond easy. They have made a film about two people walking around and talking that will draw you in as surely as any potboiler. Linklater and his actors have rapidly upped the stakes here, ignoring the easily pleasing romance of the first two films to focus on a more difficult subject: the true hardship of making a long-term relationship last. It’s easy to love someone for one night; it’s hard to love them for 10 years. It’s not just the best film of the festival but the first great film of the year.
In a way, mature views on romance is the tie that binds the best films of the festival. If Before Midnight is about love gone right and how bad that can be, Jeff Nichols’ Mud is about love gone wrong and how much worse that is. Boasting what may be Matthew McConaughey’s best performance–and that’s not as easy to say as it once was–Nichols’ third film is the kind of Gothic grotesque he has been aiming for his entire career and finally managed. A slow boil of a film that manages to match McConaughey’s crazed backwoods convict with a truly excellent performance from child actor Tye Sheridan to create a sort of American “Great Expectations.”
Close behind is Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. A black and white, minimalist film filled with stylized Elizabethan English, it is almost made not to attract a wide audience, which is too bad as Whedon has found hidden depths in Shakespeare’s most romantic comedy, depths brought out so much better it turns out without a lot of pageantry to distract viewers. Filled with veterans of Whedon’s other work, the leads are not quite magnetic enough to make the Bard’s language sing the way it needs to, or to overcome Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry who not only steal’s every scene but quickly makes off with the entire film. Honorable mention must go out to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, an insightful comedy and well-conceived first work from the actor-writer-director.
If you missed any of ComingSoon.net or ShockTillYouDrop.com’s coverage of this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, here’s the full list of movies we covered with links to all the reviews and interviews that have been posted so far:
A Teacher (Oscilloscope Labs)
You’re Next (Lionsgate August 23)
We also have a 6/10 review of A&E’s new drama “Bates Motel” starring Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga, which you can read here.
That’s it for this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. If you enjoyed our coverage and want to see more film festival coverage here at ComingSoon.net, please make sure to comment below and let us know!