In recent years, the SXSW Film Festival has grown in stature to become a key launchpad for many kinds of movies — anticipated studio comedies, edgy documentaries, and low-budget narrative features have all found taken flight at the Austin gathering. The addition of television series has further complicated SXSW’s profile, to the point where both media receive nearly the same level of attention.
The 2019 edition was an especially fertile example, as Jordan Peele’s horror sensation “Us” kicked off the proceedings with a level of enthusiasm that remained in place in the days ahead, with many other crowdpleasing movies and television shows. Setting aside the obvious (sorry, “Us”), here are some of the biggest highlights.
Harmony Korine’s unorthodox portrait of jubilant Florida stoner Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) portrays a man whose guiding ambition in life is to find bliss every step of the way. Moondog is a role only McConaughey could play: an aimless and charming being who lives moment to moment, taking the good with the bad — and Korine positions his creations within a Thomas Pynchon-meets-Beach Boys vibe. “Spring Breakers” cinematographer Benoît Debie once again paints with the blues, pinks, and oranges of the Florida sky and its neon lights after dark. But this time, Korine has eschewed cynicism for a sunnier perspective. “The Beach Bum” is a sincere attempt to capture the essence of a man whose existence is a fascinating, indulgent vacation from the seriousness of the world burning all around us. –CO
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Olivia Wilde’s entry into the high school comedy genre is an ode to “good girls,” as the studious Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are determined to join the party and break loose one time before graduation. What’s most impressive about Wilde’s directorial debut is the confidence with which she drives this rapid-fire movie —which features a big music cue every two to three minutes — by weaving effortlessly through the sharp turns: comic, bizarre tangents, action comedy, verbal wit, vulgar sight gags, and tender sincerity. Wilde stirs up the troupes of the teen comedy and delivers a unique female-focused, empathetic romp that — like its precedent in “Superbad” — serves as a celebration of friendship. Molly and Amy are destined to become iconic movie BFFs in this soon-to-be teen classic which will be consumed by generations to come. –CO
“Broad City” (Comedy Central Special Screening)
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s jubilant Comedy Central show got the send-off it deserved at this year’s SXSW, as the festival broke precedent to screen a known program’s finale instead of a new series’ premiere. The festival aired the final three episodes back-to-back for a packed crowd, so that fans got to watch it alongside the co-creators and stars as Abbi and Ilana bid their goodbye to their small screen creations. You’ll be hearing no spoilers from us, but it was an emotional affair, made only more so by the post-screening Q&A that included multiple standing ovations and a surprise appearance from “Broad City” guest star Hannibal Buress. Everyone can (and should) tune in for the final episodes as they air on Thursdays this month, but Austin’s lively event did right by these landmark ladies. —BT
“David Makes Man” (OWN Pilot)
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s serialized debut preserves many beloved staples from his past work. Not only are there a lot of meaning to be found in waves crashing and full moons rising (for all those “Moonlight” fans out there), but the story of a young boy trying to help his single mother and little brother make their way through the projects of Southern Florida deals with time in fits and starts. There’s a stillness to many scenes, as David (Akili McDowell) explores the emotions tearing him up inside, but the story moves forward with bouts of emotional spontaneity. Executive produced by Michael B. Jordan and Oprah Winfrey, “David Makes Man” is a personal story for McCraney, and his intellect and passion shine through in the pilot. —BT
There are recognizable music doc elements in this film about the life and death of rapper Lil Peep (aka Gus Elijah Åhr): The rise to fame, the realities of the music business versus loyalty to the music scene that grew around him, the painful childhood that fed his music’s truth, and the drug abuse that ushered his demise. Peep only died at the age of 21 in November 2017 and the film — executive produced by his mother Liza Womack and Terrance Malick, an old friend of Lil Peep’s grandfather Jack Womack — is told through the emotional and fuzzy lens of mourning. It’s here that co-directors Sebastian Jones (part of Malick’s editorial team) and Ramez Silyan (a videographer who filmed and knew Peep) are able to find poetry in the wealth of raw, lo-fi archival images, as they explore Gus’ creation of his musical alter ego and the very open question of if the young idealist was capable of finding a balance between the two. –CO
When someone like Will Forte calls your film “wildly stupid in the right way,” you know you’re on to something, and Irish directors Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman — who also go by the zippy acronym D.A.D.D.Y. — are definitely on to something with their feature filmmaking debut. “Extra Ordinary” follows lapsed medium Rose (the delightful Maeve Higgins), who has given up talking to ghosts until distraught dad Martin (Barry Ward) begs her to help find his missing daughter. Look no further than Forte as one-hit-wonder pop star Christian Winter, who has taken the concept of making a deal with the devil to literal ends, and is in desperate need of a teen virgin sacrifice to get him back on the charts. Blending genuine chills with gags that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Edgar Wright joint, Ahern and Loughman cook up a comedy that blends the supernatural with the a finely tuned sense of what makes being a human so funny and weird. Unexpectedly bloody, with a generous dash of late-in-life coming-of-age, it’s a wickedly fun first feature, and hopefully the sign of many more delightfully stupid things to come. —KE
SXSW’s documentary grand jury prize winner exists on a continuum of recent documentaries about the Syrian Civil War, alongside recent Oscar nominees “Of Fathers and Sons” and “Last Men in Aleppo.” Directors Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts provide a similarly upsetting look at the daily terror of living with the threat of attack at every moment. Waad’s document of her time in Aleppo takes on a unique intimacy, unfolding with her own first-person narration as she addresses her daughter, who was born in the midst of the national crisis. Conflicted about bringing a new person into this dangerous world, Waad laces her revealing home video footage with provocative insights into her family’s ongoing conflict, while providing an uncompromising view of the disasters at hand. While her camera observes horrific imagery from the hospital where her husband saves some lives (and witnesses the loss of many others), “For Sama” becomes as much an expose of life during wartime as a measured explanation for why she decided to stay put all the same. It’s first-rate reportage and a thrilling cinematic illustration of family bonds all at once. —EK
Director Hilary Brougher’s first film since 2006’s “Stephanie Daley” is a tender, intimate, and blatantly personal work about Catskills resident and community college teacher Lila (Talia Balsam), whose stable life is thrown into upheaval when her husband (Scott Cohen) confesses that he has had a child with another woman. The poetic fallout finds Lila exploring a romance with a younger man, plotting revenge on her husband, and roaming the astonishing natural scenery in her suddenly vacant home, as she comes to grips with an unexpected new stage of life when she least expected it. This wise, understated, and exquisite acting showcase is one of the most enticing entries in the SXSW narrative competition, precisely because its emotional power has been designed to sneak up on you. —EK
It’s no fun watching a movie that retreads old territory, but “Olympic Dreams” calls to mind an impressive array of precedents with fresh energy: “Medium Cool” meets “Before Sunrise” by way of “Lost in Translation,” director Jeremy Teicher’s two-hander about a romance at the 2018 Olympic Games has all the emotional beats and charm of the bigger-budget romcoms at this year’s SXSW. The first feature-length narrative shot on location at the Olympic Games, the movie finds a note-perfect Nick Kroll as a lonely volunteer who bonds with a soul-searching cross-country skier (real-life athlete and filmmaker Alexi Pappas) as the pair wander the lively environment and contemplate their own mutual sense of alienation. Despite the experimental gamble of its non-fiction backdrop (and a skeleton crew composed of the filmmaker and his two actors, who share writing credits), “Olympic Dreams” manages to become a sweet, wistful, and affecting window into the unique ecosystem of competitive sports and the way they can become a microcosm of more universal struggles. Kroll gives his best performance as a well-meaning romantic uncertain about his future, while Pappas has all the jittery energy of a star whose acting career deserves to be as fertile as her athletic one. —EK
“Revenge Tour” (Indie Episodic Pilot)
Breakups are hard — and common, overused emotional fodder for short films and freshman features alike. But Kahlil Maskati and Andrew Carter put a fresh spin on heartache by being as upfront as possible with their audience. When Derek “Milkshake” Qamar (Kahlil Maskati) introduces himself, he says he’s angry. At first, that doesn’t really come across. He works a monotonous, micro-managed nine-to-five office job, but he barely shows any emotion in his desk chair. He plays basketball with his friends, but even getting on his feet can’t stir up any earnest action. It’s only when he slips on his orange headphones and steps behind the mic that we learn what’s really going on, and Milkshake’s frank, vicious verses cut to the bone as quickly as you’ll step to their beats. “Revenge Tour” isn’t nasty or cruel, but it is a pilot about how one person’s self-help can hurt others, and gauging whose value matters most. Sharply paced, well-acted, and told with passion, “Revenge Tour” earned its special jury recognition at SXSW. —BT