What We Saw At SXSW
The crowd pleasers and conversation starters from this year’s festival
South by Southwest (SXSW) famously contributed to the halting of the world in March 2020 as the reality of COVID-19 set in when the city of Austin canceled the tech, film, and music conference just one week before it was set to begin. SXSW had never skipped a year of the conference in 34 years.
The ensuing years have seen a struggle to get back on track when it comes to attendance, but the festival’s Film & TV program soldiered on, claiming a feather in its cap by hosting the world premiere of eventual Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All At Once last year.
With 2022 being the year we returned to cinemas in droves, SXSW 2023 promised to be a big year for its Film & TV program. The highly respected and beloved VP and director of the program for the past 15 festivals, Janet Pierson, stepped down in October to make way for longtime programming director Claudette Godfrey to take the reins. Pierson remains involved with the festival as Director Emeritus, still informing programming. If this year’s fest was any indication, SXSW Film & TV is in good hands with Godfrey.
Here’s a rundown of what made waves at the fest.
The opening night world premiere of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the secret screening of the North American premiere of John Wick: Chapter 4, and the world premiere of Evil Dead Rise set the tone for the festival with rowdy screenings that made fans of these geek properties ecstatic.
While D&D is likely to be forgotten, Wick and Evil Dead absolutely ripped, the latter causing an “anti-woke” heckler to throw a hissy fit during the post-film Q&A (after sitting through the credits?) and get laughed at and booed out of the theater by 1,200+ in attendance.
Tetris, starring Taron Egerton, tells the stunningly fascinating story of securing the licensing rights of the now-famous Nintendo game from Russia against the backdrop of the latter days of the Cold War.
Ben Affleck’s Air tells the story of Nike’s courting of Michael Jordan in 1984 for an exclusive sponsorship against the backdrop of the latter days of Adidas’s iron grip on American hip-hop culture.
If these films sound similar, it’s because they are essentially the same oral history story arc of men who had crazy, singular visions that would change the world. Though the obstacles and stakes are a bit different, both films succeed in telling embellished uplifting stories, though I put Air a cut above Tetris if only for its terrific ensemble performances from Matt Damon, Viola Davis, Chris Tucker, and Jason Bateman.
Also at the fest was UK teen comedy Polite Society from writer-director Nida Manzoor (We Are Lady Parts), starring Priya Kansara (Bridgerton) and Ritu Arya (Umbrella Academy). The cute coming of age story delivers on the semi-punk promise of the trailer that took the internet by storm in January and won over audiences at Sundance. Think Scott Pilgrim meets Ms. Marvel, with a touch of Rushmore.
The films that generated word of mouth and benefited from multiple screenings were mostly in the genre and midnighters category. In fact the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Award went to a horror film — Paris Zarcilla’s feature directorial debut Raging Grace.
Talk to Me, a horror film out of Australia, was a must-see early in the fest. It left me a little underwhelmed, but I think the urban legend vibe of this film will blow the minds of a teenage audience.
Furies, the rare ultra-violent martial arts action flick out of Vietnam from Veronica Ngo, was making a case for being this year’s The Night Comes for Us via a Charlie’s Angels setup and retro stylings. It boasts some intense set pieces and moments of creative fight choreography, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny overall.
Here are my favorites of the fest in no particular order.
Julio Torres’s feature directorial debut Problemista manages to showcase his trademark weird visual flair while telling a completely accessible and relatable story of a young man (Torres), who finds himself caught in the sphere of the ultimate Karen (Tilda Swinton). It’s charming and will thoroughly rock the world of anyone who’s ever dealt with a technologically inept firebrand. I could see Swinton taking home some awards for this one.
Queer. Horny. Fight. Club. What a time to be alive. Emma Seligman’s follow-up to Shiva Baby (2020) Bottoms takes no prisoners. It would be a disservice to call it this year’s Booksmart. Bottoms is more honest, funnier, and incredibly incisive in taking down small-town high school culture. Come for the performances of Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott, stay for the football team mascot with the five-foot phallus.
Yet another harbinger of the return of the raunchy comedy, Adele Lim’s feature directorial debut Joy Ride boasts an ensemble cast of Ashley Park, Stephanie Hsu, Sherry Cola, and Sabrina Wu in a transgressive crowd-pleaser with big Bridesmaids energy. I’m not waiting for this one’s release. I’m waiting for this one’s sequel.
This year’s TV premieres that will own the watercooler
Let’s take Swarm as a given. Still to come later this year, Boots Riley’s I’m a Virgo and Lee Sung Jin’s Ali Wong and Steven Yuen-produced Beef are sure to get people talking. The former chronicles a 13-foot-tall young man’s coming of age in Oakland, propelled by Riley’s signature loud visuals and class warfare political messages. The latter taps into the misplaced rage that spans class divides in post-pandemic America in a dark comedy set off by a road rage incident between Wong and Yeun’s characters. The first two episodes that were screened left me wanting more.
And that’s a wrap from Austin, Texas. It might take me 12 months to recover from this festival, but that’s just enough time for me to be ready to see you at SXSW 2024.