By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 30, 2014 at 3:5PM
Today’s announcement of the 2014 SXSW lineup — most of it, anyway, since another 10 titles will be announced next week — kicks off another phase of anticipation for chunks of fresh North American cinema before the Sundance fervor has even really settled. With 76 world premieres out of a total 115 and 68 first-time filmmakers, the program is guaranteed to introduce a large crop of new voices and plenty of room for discovery. While it’s too early for anyone on the outside to drill too deep into the quality of the lineup, festival head Janet Pierson has seen it all, and offered Indiewire some thoughts on the program.
There are fewer films than usual, but not that many.
With the Alamo South Llamar undergoing renovation, the festival has been urged to shrink its lineup to compensate for having fewer venues at an event already struggling with excessive crowds. But the programmers, faced with 6,482 submission (a 14% increase from last year), barely gave into the pressure: The program only contains 18 less features from last year. “I guess we didn’t cut as much as we thought we did,” Pierson told Indiewire. “I can’t even really get my head around the fact that we had to cut the program. The numbers are really malleable and whatever could fit in, we fit it in.” Both the “Documentary Spotlight” and “Visions” sections are slightly smaller, but as a whole the scale of the program mirrors previous editions.
Sundance leftovers are a pretty small piece of the pie, but you can still see plenty of festival highlights alongside the new titles.
SXSW can’t ignore the impact of Sundance, which kicks off the year and contains a number of films that could just as easily fit into the SXSW lineup. But the Austin gathering limits its Sundance pickings to 14 titles. “What we decide to show from Sundance is a highly selective process for us that has to do with fine-tuning our lineup,” Pierson said. “I celebrate the films that are wonderful at Sundance.” Recent Sundance favorites in this year’s program include Austin resident Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” and activist documentary “The Case Against 8.” However, SXSW also contains films that have premiered at bigger festivals like Toronto and Cannes but may receive better context from SXSW’s funkier atmosphere, like Alejandro Jodorworsky’s “The Dance of Reality” (a 2013 Cannes premiere), the Mike Myers-directed documentary “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon” (Toronto 2013), and the ethnographic portrait “Song from the Forest” (IDFA 2013).
Still, SXSW is mainly a venue for discovering new talent.
The festival’s “Visions” section has previously hosted early work from newcomers like Lena Dunham (“Creative Nonfiction”) and Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”), so it remains the most intriguing focal point for welcome surprises. While Pierson hesitates to single out too many films from the section at this junction, when pressed, she offers one: Joel Potrykus’ “Buzzard.” Potrykus’ wicked debut feature “Ape” was a hit at the Locarno Film Festival two years ago but barely made a dent in the U.S., although a handful of audiences found the movie’s twisted portrait of a disturbed standup comedian to offer a nifty change of pace from the usual upbeat quality of so many character-based comedies. “Buzzard” is poised to follow that path, with a description that promises “Devil masks, metal, video games, Mountain Dew, and a Party Zone.” For Pierson, “it’s a very singular vision. It was new to me, and it’s cool.”
Not every Vision film is automatically low profile. Pierson pointed that two films in the section have recognizable faces that could’ve merited their placement in Narrative Spotlight but belonged elsewhere: “Creep,” a drama about a man who responds to a Craigslist job that’s not what he expected, was written by and stars Mark Duplass; the futuristic sexual politics drama “Space Station 76” stars Liv Tyler and Patrick Wilson. Pierson said both films “were almost in Spotlight, but they’re unique, odd, not conventional. They speak to what visions are, so they belong there.”
In Spotlight itself, Pierson mentioned a handful of intriguing titles, including Riley Stearns’ “Faults.” Anyone paying attention to short films on the festival circuit last year likely encountered Stearns’ fleeting dark comedy “The Cub,” about a young girl sent by her parents to be raised by wolves. Stearns’ first feature, co-starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Leland Orser, revolves around another kind of non-traditional parenting — in which a couple hires “an expert on cults…to kidnap and deprogram their brainwashed daughter,” per the official description. Pierson called the movie “taut” and “different from the other” movies with recognizable faces. Also in Spotlight: Anja Marquardt’s “She’s Lost Control,” which includes a lead performance from Brooke Bloom, seen at the festival last year in competition entry “Swim Little Fish Swim.” In “She’s Lost Control,” Bloom plays a New York surrogate partner who starts to fall for one of her clients. Pierson said it was “really simple and really beautifully done.”
Another name largely known from his history at SXSW is Irish director Terry McMahon, whose “Charlie Casanova” played in competition three years ago. “The world didn’t embrace it the way we did,” Person admitted, but expressed hope that he lands more recognition for his followup, “Patrick’s Day,” about a man “with mental health issues who becomes intimate with a suicidal air hostess.” Co-starring Kerry Fox and relative newcomer Moe Dunford, “Patrick’s Day” contains “higher production values and softer sensibilities,” according to Pierson, but remains “sharp and political.”
Don’t look at the competition for the next “Short Term 12.”
Winning the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW can go a long way toward putting certain movies on the map, and it certainly helped boost the profile of last year’s “Short Term 12,” which took home the prize and landed a lucrative distribution deal with Cinedigm. That history might instigate certain expectations for the 16 films in narrative and documentary competitions, but Pierson dodges questions about potential breakouts until the juries get a chance to sift through their options. “Every year is a fresh year,” she said. “People want to know what’s this year’s ‘Short Term 12,’ but it doesn’t exist.” She added that the programmers don’t place a major distinction between films in and out of competition. “There’s a lot of fluidity between Vision, Spotlight and Competition,” she explained. “If a film speaks to us in a certain way, has a kind of presence, that’s how we make the decision — except for being a world premiere, there’s no rigid criteria for competition.”
That being said, Pierson doesn’t avoid describing prototypical SXSW film characteristics that the programmers often seek out. “We want films that speak to the culture, things about what’s important now,” she said. “We want films that move us, those that might cross over with the music and interactive sections. We’re looking for films with tremendous initiative made for nothing. So there are notes you want to hit.”
Yes, there are trends in this year’s lineup.
Film festival programmers frequently must face questions about possible trends in their selections long before they’ve had a chance to actually consider them. Despite that challenge, Pierson gave it a shot. “It always surprises what emerges,” she said. She noted that several films in the lineup deal with time travel, including two Australian adventure stories: “Predestination,” starring Ethan Hawke, and romcom “The Infinite Man,” about a character attempting to experience the perfect romantic weekend, “Groundhog Day”-style. Then there’s the post-apocalyptic love triangle drama “The Desert,” in the SXGlobal section. “They were all done so differently that it became kind of fun to have a bunch in them.” She also pointed out a large volume of environmentally-friendly films, including documentaries “The Great Invisible,” about the destructive impact of oil spills, and “Above All else,” which revolves around a “former stuntman and high wire artist” getting involved in a protest against the development of an East Texas pipeline. “We always have interesting cult figures,” Pierson added, singling out documentaries about “Community” creator Dan Harmon and agent Shep Gordon as two documentary subjects receiving the treatment this year. Additionally, “there’s an incredibly strong immersion in Latin and Spanish-based films” — at least a dozen that quality as having Latin American roots. Pierson pointed out that one of the narrative competition entries, long distance relationship drama “10,000KM,” hails from Spain, as does “Timecrimes” director Nacho Vigalondo’s latest thriller, “Open Windows” and Diego Luna’s biopic “Cesar Chavez.”
Nevertheless, the portrait of SXSW’s program visible from the current program is subject to change once the rest of the world gets to take a look. “It’s true, there are no obvious trends,” Pierson said. “It would be more honest for me to say I don’t know.”