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Critic's Notebook: How This Year's SXSW Film Festival Illustrated the Best and Worst of American Independent Film

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 18, 2014 at 10:42AM

Here are a few takeaways from one of the most eclectic SXSW film festivals in years.
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The Heart Machine
"The Heart Machine," an entry from this year's SXSW Film Festival.

10 years ago, when 23-year-old former volunteer Matt Dentler took on the reigns of the SXSW Film Festival, the art and industry of American cinema was in a very different place. Digital filmmaking had yet to become the market standard for microbudgets, hardly anyone relied on video-on-demand platforms to watch new movies, and the internet was rarely a plot device. One of the biggest breakouts of the year was Sundance-winner "Primer," an esoteric time travel movie that barely even made the cut at that festival -- among the only places in the country where any unconventional U.S. movie could receive a major platform.

SXSW's film programming has retained a certain familiarity even as it has grown more eclectic than ever.

Today, SXSW continues under the guidance of Janet Pierson, and remains among the foremost places to discover under-the-radar movies largely made by emerging U.S. filmmakers telling stories decisively rooted in the present. This has been its mandate for a decade: The perception of a so-called "mumblecore" movement largely emerged from the festival's willingness to showcase a community of indie filmmakers exploring contemporary youth experiences with no lofty commercial motives. The stories proliferated; now, we're in a post-mumblecore age, where SXSW simply provides a platform for all kinds of young voices, movements be damned.

READ MORE: The Indiewire 2014 SXSW Bible: Your Guide to All of Our Coverage

Dentler opened the gates to a broader range of microbudget indies just in time to take into account the influx of product: In 2007, his last full year as the festival's producer, the festival received around 3,200 submissions of shorts and features; the latest edition, which wrapped Sunday, received nearly twice as much. As a result, the programming has retained a certain familiarity even as it has grown more eclectic than ever -- representing the best and worst tendencies of American movies made outside the studio realm. Here are a few takeaways from the 2014 festival.

Technology Rules All

SXSW Interactive continues to function as the tech junkie's Mecca, and since it takes place at the same time as the comparatively smaller film portion, it's only natural for the movies to resemble the conversations surrounding them. This year's program featured a number of terrific features that engaged with the way technology has impacted modern communication. Ever since Joe Swanberg's "LOL" broke out at the festival in 2006, movies about the role of online conversations in contemporary relationships have tended to fit well with the festival's brand -- but this year, they practically burst out as a subgenre.

10,000 KM (Long Distance)

Zachary Wigon's energizingly unpredictable "The Heart Machine" involved the exploits of a curious New Yorker (John Gallagher, Jr.) striving to figure out if the woman with whom he devises an online affair (indie fixture Kate Lyn Sheil) actually lives a lot closer to him than she claims. While Wigon's slow-burn story adopts an engaging cerebral tone, it felt like an allegorical companion piece to the undeniably masterful "10,000 KM" ("Long Distance"), an emotionally sophisticated two-hander focused on essentially the same subject in more believable terms. Spanish director Carlos Marques-Marcet's delicate tale involves a young couple who attempt to remain close through online conversations after one of them moves from from Barcelona to Los Angeles.

More than simply illustrating that European filmmakers have caught the tech bug that began infiltrating American cinema a few years back, "Long Distance" proved that the fragmented devices of text messages, social media and video chats have evolved from being cheeky gimmicks and now signify profound shifts in human behavior. If the role of technology in daily affairs crops up so significantly among next year's selections, SXSW might need to give them a special section.

Documentaries Need a Better Hook

Also in need of a special section: non-traditional documentaries. SXSW can't be blamed for programming well-intentioned portraits of activist intent like "Vessel," which features the exploits of a Dutch physician who travels the world by sea to help women in need of abortion advice in countries with restrictive laws. Similarly, the tech-savvy "Print the Legend," a chronicle of the rising industry for 3D printers, fit right into the scene. But these two disparate works were slotted into a competition that also contained Margaret Brown's "The Great Invisible," a trenchant look at the economic ramifications of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Brown's poetic overview deservedly won the grand jury prize, but there was still a noticeable lack of formalist ambition throughout the section. As a result, it reflected an increasingly outmoded idea of documentary's restrictions rather than the bracingly original alternatives found elsewhere (to be fair, this problem also plagued the recent Sundance lineup).

While SXSW has often provided a healthy showcase for unique documentary snapshots like "Tchoupitoulas" and "12 O'Clock Boys," it may need to kick up its game to offer a more advanced overview of innovative approaches to documentary form. These cinematic possibilities are already receiving focused treatments at festivals like True/False -- which takes place a week ahead of SXSW -- and the upcoming "Art of the Real" showcase at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. SXSW, which has been ahead of the curve in terms of American narrative filmmaking, needs to catch up with the similar shifts taking place in this adjacent space.

This article is related to: Festivals, Reviews, Creep, I Believe in Unicorns, Fort Tilden, The Heart Machine, 10,000 KM, Buzzard, Vessel, The Great Invisible, Faults, She's Lost Control, Critic's Notebook, SXSW 2014