I got the chance to attend the SXSW Film Festival for my first time this year, and was impressed with the enthusiastic and respectful vibe of the festival, the warm reception from Austin locals and out-of-town festival goers alike, and — importantly! — the films. Below, my four takeaways from covering SXSW, and my rundown of best of the fest, buzzy titles I missed, and disappointments.
1. Strong lineup. Of all the films I saw, I would approximate that half I really liked, and none I disliked. As anyone who’s been to a festival knows, these are pretty good odds. The Narrative Competition section was a particular standout, boasting titles like Chris Eska’s “The Retrieval,” a meditative and lushly paced African-American Civil War drama featuring good performances and gorgeous cinematography, and Ruben Amar and Lola Bessis’ “Swim Little Fish Swim,” a portrait of artistic idealism clashing with the realities of grown-up life, set against a vibrant New York cityscape (it also stars co-director Bessis, a charming young Frenchwoman who is a dead ringer for Rose Byrne). Meanwhile, Joe Swanberg’s latest, “Drinking Buddies,” is one of the better and more observant relationship films I’ve seen in a long time.
2. The benefits of arriving late. I didn’t arrive in Austin until late Sunday afternoon, by which point the festival had been in full swing for more than two days. I was worried this would put me at a disadvantage in terms of coverage, but it actually helped things considerably. SXSW has a massive lineup, and it can be hard to know what one most wants to see. This is aided by having a few days of buzz preceding one’s arrival. Also, in being late to the party, I was able to hit a few titles premiering later in the game that weren’t receiving much coverage, like Sean H.A. Gallagher’s terrific suburban drama “Good Night,” and Narrative Competition title “Burma,” which was uneven but featured notably strong performances. (The film went on to win the Grand Jury Award for Ensemble Cast.)
3. Don’t stick to the plan. I’ve often found at festivals that the films I’m most anticipating ultimately disappoint, while the titles I’m less familiar with, that I attend as a spontaneous change of plan, bowl me over. Hitchcock diehard that I am, I was really looking forward to the “Bates Motel” series preview, starring Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, and then ended up hating it (despite the appealing casting). Meanwhile, a last-minute swing by “William and the Windmill,” the Grand Jury documentary-winner focusing on Malawian wind-energy inventing whiz William Kamkwamba (of “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” fame), proved delightful, and an insightful portrait of varying cultural definitions of success and fulfillment.
4. The solitude of the festival reporter. Not only was it my first time at SXSW, it was my first time attending a film festival solo for multiple days in a row. (My boyfriend, a fellow cinephile, is usually my partner in crime at such events.) Austin’s bustling downtown, which reaches epic proportions during the multi-tiered festival, is well laid-out for rambling around by oneself, even at night. And there’s a certain liberty to being the sole dictator of one’s own schedule.
But I certainly felt the loneliness, particularly during long waits in line (abated slightly, of course, by other friendly badge holders), and then the post-screening scamper back to my conveniently-located hotel room, knowing that I had hours of writing ahead of me. (I love writing, and hate sitting down to write.) But the loneliness was instructive. Pushing through it is a skill I will continue to hone, while also learning to balance my time and stress levels so, in the future, I can head to the occasional fest party without feeling like a mountain of missed screenings and writing hours is looming over me. Yes, that’s right: I didn’t go to any SXSW parties. Film nerd, indeed.
BEST OF THE FEST:
“Before Midnight” (dir. Richard Linklater)
“Drinking Buddies” (dir. Joe Swanberg)
“The Fifth Season” (dirs. Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth)
“Good Night” (dir. Sean H.A. Gallagher)
“Maidentrip” (dir. Jillian Schlesinger)
“The Retrieval” (dir. Chris Eska)
“Spring Breakers” (dir. Harmony Korine)
“Swim Little Fish Swim” (dirs. Lola Bessis, Ruben Amar)
“William and the Windmill” (dir. Ben Nabors)
GOOD, BUT NOT GREAT:
“Burma” (dir. Carlos Puga)
“Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” (dirs. Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin)
“Milo” (dir. Jacob Vaughan)
“Short Term 12” (dir. Destin Cretton)
“Upstream Color” (dir. Shane Carruth)
“You’re Next” (dir. Adam Wingard)
LESS THAN MEETS THE EYE:
“At Any Price” (dir. Ramin Bahrani)
“Bates Motel” preview (dir. Carlton Cuse)
MUST-SEES BASED ON BUZZ:
“The Act of Killing” (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
“Before You Know It” (dir. P.J. Raval)
“The Bounceback” (dir. Bryan Poyser)
“Coldwater” (dir. Vincent Granshaw)
“Downloaded” (dir. Alex Winter)
“Loves Her Gun” (dir. Geoff Marslett)
“Mud” (dir. Jeff Nichols)
“Prince Avalanche” (dir. David Gordon Green)
“Some Girl(s)” (dir. Daisy von Scherler Mayer)