With 100 world premieres selected from 2,385 submissions, this year’s SXSW Film Festival rivals Sundance for the sheer volume of new work that will be unveiled during the 22nd edition of the festival, which runs March 13 – 21 in Austin, Texas. However, SXSW stands apart from other festivals with its unique identity, which is dominated by much smaller titles in its narrative and documentary competition sections — both of which have grown from eight to 10 films. In a phone call with Indiewire, festival producer Janet Pierson emphasized that the overall selection reflected a meticulous process in which every film was programmed to fit the agenda of the festival as a whole. "We pick each one for a very specific reason," she said. "I know it’s hard for people to get their heads around, but that’s the desire from our side."
To elaborate, Pierson offered her thoughts on a number of titles throughout this year’s lineup. For more insight from Pierson on this year’s program, head to Thompson on Hollywood. Read the full lineup here.
For the first time in several years, SXSW will open with a documentary. "BRAND: A Second Coming" focuses on comedian Russell Brand’s career resurgence after falling on hard times. Directed by veteran filmmaker Ondi Timoner ("We Live in Public"), it’s one of several non-fiction selections across multiple sections at SXSW this year that tussle with the challenges of fame. With respect to "BRAND," Pierson said, "It’s a really interesting look at celebrity and platform — what somebody does with the attention they’re garnered. It came up a lot in submissions this year."
Other examples include SXSW alumni Jeffrey Schwarz’s "Tab Hunter Confidential," which deals with the 1950s rock musician’s struggles with his closeted homosexuality, and Adrien Brody’s efforts to restore a 19th century building in upstate New York recounted in the documentary "Stone Barn Castle." Pierson calls the latter selection "a really beautiful film about an actor and what he does in his off-camera time." Then there’s "Son of the Congo," which deals with NBA star Serge Ibaka’s journey from coping with violence in the Congo to finding success on the basketball court. "It’s about his responsibility to his place, and what’s expected of him," Pierson said. Additionally, following on the heels of the acclaimed Tig Notaro documentary "Tig" that premiered at Sundance, "Knock Knock: It’s Tig Notaro" follows the deadpan comedian on a national tour of house party appearances.
SXSW’s Visions section has been a major focal point for discoveries ever since Lena Dunham’s first feature "Creative Nonfiction" landed there in 2009. But it’s also a place for stranger, off-beat titles that take on a unique identity at SXSW. "Some of my favorite films are in that category," Pierson admitted.
This year, curiosities include Todd Rohal’s "Uncle Kent 2," which is actually a sequel to Joe Swanberg’s 2011 feature about indie actor and "Adventure Time" animator Kent Osbourne. Another SXSW regular is producer Kim Sherman, whose previous credits include SXSW favorites "Sun Don’t Shine" and "You’re Next." She produced Visions selection "One and Two" (which premieres this month at the Berlin Film Festival), from "Rich Hill" co-director Andrew Droz Palermo.
Reflecting the increased relationship between SXSW’s Film and Interactive, "Disaster Playground’ is the second feature from French designer and filmmaker Nelly Ben Hayoun, who has previously lectured at the SXSW Interactive conference on high concept installation work. Her British-produced feature is described in the official festival announcement as a look at "the real-life heroes seeking to save our civilization from the next major asteroid impact." According to Pierson, "It’s pretty nuts. She comes at it from a completely different perspective. It’s a space movie." Pierson also singled out another British film in Visions, "Honeytrap," which revolves around the true story of a teenager girl who arranges for the boy in love with her to be murdered.
Competition Standouts and Beyond
Per usual, all the films in SXSW’s competition sections are world premieres. But they aren’t entirely unknown variables — at least for anyone who has been paying attention to the festival scene in recent years. "We look for world premieres that have a distinctive point of view or a specific filmmaker voice," said Pierson. This year, that includes Hannah Fidell, who first arrived on the scene with the Sundance sleeper hit "A Teacher," about a high school student who has an affair with his instructor. Fidell’s sophomore effort, "6 Years," revolves around a couple whose relationship takes a series of unexpected turn. Writer-director Alison Bagnall (a screenwriter of "Buffalo ’66") last came to SXSW with her Greta Gerwig-starring "The Dish and Spoon." Now she’s back in SXSW competition with "Funny Bunny," billed as a "serious comedy" about "an anti-obesity crusader and a trust fund man child." The cast includes perennial indie star Kentucker Audley (fresh off the Sundance premiere "Christmas Again") and also includes "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely" director Josephine Decker.
Another name that stands out is Patrick Wang, whose tender drama about the aftermath of sudden death, "In the Family," was a sleeper hit in 2011 that landed on several critics lists even as it remained largely under-seen on the festival circuit. With his SXSW competition entry "The Grief of Others," Wang turns his attention to another mourning process: Based on the novel by Leah Hager Cohen, the story involves the aftermath of a newborn baby’s death and its impact on a small family’s dynamics.
Notably, none of these titles feature big stars. "We look for elements that aren’t too famous," said Pierson. "Sometimes, if the subject matter or stars are too well-known, that will drive them into the Narrative Spotlight section."
Hence, perennial Austin filmmaker Robert Byington returns to that category following the successful arrival of his 2012 comedy "Somebody Up There Likes Me" with "7 Chinese Brothers," which stars Jason Schwartzman as man who learns to tell the truth. Another name that stands out is current Oscar nominee Robert Duvall, delivering his first effort as writer-director since 2002’s "Assassination Tango" with "Wild Horses," which involves a missing person case on a Texas ranch. Duvall also produces and stars alongside his wife Luciana Duvall and James Franco.
Among the Spotlight titles, Pierson also mentioned the Natasha Lyonne vehicle "Fresno," which stars the "Orange is the New Black" actress as a lesbian who deals with the sex addiction plaguing her sister (Judy Greer) as they both land dead-end gigs cleaning hotel rooms in the titular city. "It’s really funny," said Pierson.
A Familiar ‘Trainwreck’
Following on the heels of last year’s successful "Neighbors" premiere, SXSW continues to be a platform for lively studio comedies. This year, one of those slots goes to Judd Apatow’s ensemble piece "Trainwreck," which will screen as a work-in-progress. Notably, the movie has more than a few connections to the SXSW environment, starting with its cinematographer — Jody Lee Lipes, also a director whose credits include the SXSW-premiering 2010 documentary "Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same." Lipes also shot Dunham’s "Tiny Furniture" and several episodes of "Girls"; his latest documentary "Ballet 422" opens in limited release this Friday.
Additionally, "Trainwreck" shares a producer with "Bridesmaids," another SXSW hit, and the cast includes Brie Larson, a SXSW discovery when she appeared in the Grand Jury Prize winner "Short Term 12" two years ago.
A World Abroad
Last year, SXSW included one standout feature in its competition from another country — the gentle long-distance relationship drama "10,000 KM." But Pierson said programmers have put a greater effort into building up the international presence in the SX Global section this year. She singled out the Polish feature "15 Corners of the World," which "has a gorgeousness to it," and the Swedish-produced "The Ceremony," the story of a French dominatrix. "It’s got this grand theatricality to it," Pierson said. She also plugged the Danish feature "Good Things Await," which focuses on an aging farmer coping with changing times, and the Colombian drama "Montre Adentro," the tale of mule-driving brothers journeying to the top of the Andes. "It’s slow, but really classically observed," she said.
The festival continues to develop its "Episodics" section, which is focused on showcasing new television programs. SXSW programmers only selected series premieres that haven’t yet aired rather than ongoing programs. Pierson noted that one of this year’s selections, "unREAL," is based on a short film that premiered at the festival two years ago. The dramatic series offers a fictional look behind the scenes of a dating competition show. Pierson also singled out "The Comedians," an FX show directed by "Curb Your Enthusiasm" regular Larry Charles that stars Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. "They’re 30 years apart and have to work together," she said. Meanwhile, the "¡ZOMBIE" — a CW Network show about just that — marks creator Rob Thomas’ first effort after "Veronica Mars," which premiered its feature-length follow-up to the hit series at last year’s festival.