SXSW 2013: The Best of the Fest

Another film festival, another slew of movies devoured by a town hungry for the great, the unusual and the memorable. Instead of simply listing our favorites, Loquacious Muse and yours truly decided to honor specific aspects of the many films we had the opportunity to see, in our 2013 Best of SXSW Awards.

 

Most Universally Beloved:

LM - "Cheap Thrills"

This brutal flick from director E.L. Katz took the festival by storm after its Day 1 midnight screening, and ended up being the first acquisition of SXSW thanks to the Austin-based Drafthouse Films. Even the most cynical of reviewers were praising the dark comedy's searing comment on modern social structure and lead actors Pat Healy, David Koechner, Ethan Embry and Sara Paxton all break out of their respective molds with their surprising and engaging performances.

WG - "Short Term 12"

I'd initially written off Destin Cretton's drama based on work-related priorities and its sure-to-be-corny premise concerning the troubled teenage tenants of a foster care home. It only took minutes after its world premiere to change my mind, as one rapturous reaction after another arrived on my Twitter feed, and when I finally caught up with it in the wake of winning the festival's Grand Jury Prize, it wasn't hard to see why it'd garnered such acclaim. This is a carefully tempered look at the turmoil of teen and adult life alike, laced with natural humor and performed to perfection by all involved, and while I fear that such fervent praise may unfairly inflate one's expectations of the film by the time it sees a theatrical release, this really is something special.

Most Pleasant Surprise:

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LM - "Good Night"

It's difficult to tell from the trailer, where one may be distracted by the clear lack of a high production value, but what "Good Night" lacks in technical prowess, it more than makes up for with its fully-realized characters, lived-in relationship dynamics, devastating story told with a delicate authenticity, and a stellar ensemble that lands every moment. "Good Night" takes place in one evening, as a woman gathers all of her closest friends to celebrate her 29th, and as they will soon discover, final birthday. The Anti-Cancer-Movie Cancer Movie, "Good Night" avoids sentimentalism and cliche at every turn, even subtly commenting on our current economic landscape, and is absolutely one of SXSW's hidden gems. Recognizable faces include "Girls"' Alex Karpovsky, "It's a Disaster" writer/director/actor Todd Berger, and Austin mainstay Jonny Mars.

Also check out: Our review of "Drinking Buddies"

WG - [TIE] "Drinking Buddies"/"The Fifth Season"

To see a new joint from the prolific Joe Swanberg in Austin was far from surprising, but to see one this well-polished, emotionally astute and frequently funny was something else. Then, on the furthest end of the spectrum (which is to say, subtitled and starless) fell a bizarrely fascinating Belgian feature about a small village's struggle to cope with an endless winter when spring simply never comes, resulting in dead crops, thinning livestock and a generally manic group think among the villagers. One would be hard-pressed to pick two other titles that more adeptly represent the wide range of cinematic delights on which SXSW has built its reputation over the past two decades.

Biggest Disappointment:

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LM - "Haunter"

I absolutely adore Vincenzo Natali, and "Splice" is one of my favorite movies of the past decade, so my expectations were probably way too high going into his fifth feature film starring the now-well-into-teenagehood Abigail Breslin. While the concept of a haunted house story told from the perspective of the haunter is certainly intriguing, the story never comes together and the scares are next to non-existent. It's a shame to experience something so flat from someone so talented. Alas...

WG - "At Any Price"

It's not that I had particularly high hopes for Ramin Bahrani's latest drama going in, given the mixed reactions out of Toronto and Telluride last fall, and it's not even that I had high hopes during the film's first two acts, intended as an honest portrait of multi-generational Iowa corn farming but overshooting the mark in terms of sheer earnestness. But then Something Happens, and although "Price" isn't entirely redeemed by this distinct shift in agenda, it was a long-awaited indication that Bahrani had weightier themes on his mind. A shame, then, that his third act doesn't happen to belong to a better, more compelling movie.

Also check out: Our review of "Haunter"

Best Sequence:

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LM - [TIE] Gareth Evans & Timo Tjahjanto's "V/H/S/2" segment

"V/H/S/2"'s collection of supernatural horror vignettes is incredibly strong, with only the wrap-around story overtly lacking, but the best sequence is easily Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto's "Safe Haven," which follows a group of journalists as they strap on their hidden cameras and investigate a cult. Not only is the short filled with disturbing imagery, but it is legitimately frightening and somewhere along the way takes a turn for the completely bonkers, so much so that when the film actually took a small moment to breathe, my entire midnight audience burst into applause. Whatever you might be imagining this sequence contains, let me assure you -- you're not even close. "Safe Haven" must be experienced to be believed. Warning: not for the faint of heart.

"Spring Breakers" - "Everytime"

The moment I fell in love with "Spring Breakers"? White grand piano. Britney Spears. Pink unicorns. Holy hell.

WG - the fourth act of "Evil Dead"

Just when it seems like Fede Alvarez and friends have rung the original film's demons-in-the-woods premise for all its worth -- an admittedly grueling but nonetheless familiar pick-'em-off routine -- the skies literally unleash a torrent of blood and those still left standing are put through some genuinely squirm-worthy situations (complete with sickening make-up effects) before capping the whole shebang off with a jaw-dropping gesture that certifies this version's status as the downright goriest studio feature in ages. I know, I know, it reads like so much hype, and yet after the sheer audacity of the climax, I couldn't help but give them a hand.

Best Soundtrack:

Grow Up Tony Phillips - Tony Vespe Still

LM - "Grow Up, Tony Phillips"

Easily the strongest aspect of Emily Hagins' fourth feature, "Grow Up Tony Phillips," is the soundtrack by Santiago Dietche. Although some of his band Growl's rock songs are used in the film, most of the music was written specifically for the film. Hagins and Dietche were extremely collaborative, the latter providing Hagins with samples as the shoot went on, so she could envision the accompanying soundtrack for each scene as they were shot. The work between these longtime friends pays off, helping to set an essentially sweet, contemplative tone. To give you an idea of what you'll be in for, Dietche is influenced most by Nick Drake and Elliott Smith and refers to his style as "ramble folk."

WG - "Twenty Feet from Stardom"

This one's a bit of a lay-up, given that Morgan Neville's documentary is all about the history and influence of background singers, but as such, the film's soundtrack is crammed with warm, welcome standards from Lou Reed to David Bowie. Perhaps the most impressive inclusion are the raw recording tracks from the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," which manage against all odds to revitalize that overplayed tune simply by emphasizing that iconic female wail over Jagger for a change.

Also check out: Our interview with "Grow Up, Tony Phillips" writer / director Emily Hagins

Best Chemistry:

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LM - Jake Johnson & Olivia Wilde, "Drinking Buddies"

In "Drinking Buddies," Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde play close friends and co-workers who have that constantly drinking, constantly flirting type of relationship that can never move to the next step on the surface because they are both dating other people. But without that barrier, can friendships like that really translate into something more? Or is the "drinking buddies" dynamic sacred and not to be messed with? These questions are explored in Joe Swanberg's latest, as Johnson and Wilde depict a very specific type of relationship rarely seen on screen. Although the point of their characters is that they do not have to technically cross a sexual line for this story to be told, it is undeniable that they would have the chemistry to support that shift -- at least for most of the film. The fact that their sexual chemistry is undermined when faced with what the reality as a romantic couple might be is what makes "Drinking Buddies" stand out from the relationship movie pack. This is neither a film nor a chemistry that you've seen before.

WG - the biological compounds, "Upstream Color" LisaGay Hamilton & Yolonda Ross, "Go for Sisters"

This overlong mystery doesn't exactly mark a return to form for director John Sayles -- it has the plot and visual personality of your average TV movie -- but it's steadily anchored by the easygoing back-and-forth between the estranged Bernice (Hamilton) and Fontayne (Ross). The title comes from the age-old suggestion that these two could pass for siblings, and as they find themselves repeatedly ostracized by circumstance on either side of the U.S./Mexico border, their continual bonding is easily the film's greatest asset, reason enough to give it a watch.

Most Heartbreaking Scene:

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LM - "Before You Know It"

This documentary from filmmaker PJ Raval follows three elderly gay men tackling the difficulties of aging in a society that already ostracized and challenged them on the way there due to their homosexuality. One of these men discovered after his wife died that he had a yearning to dress in women's clothes, and in one particular instance, attends a gay nightclub in drag -- a courageous move, yes, but extremely difficult to watch, as the man's loneliness seems to almost pour out of him as the younger gay men surrounding him seem to only interact out of pity, if at all. As he dances alone in the vast club, complete with wig, skirt and padded bra, your heart can't help but break as you realize the lack of support system not only he, but countless people in his position, have as they reach the twilight of their years.

WG - "The Act of Killing"

Joshua Oppenheimer's shaggily assembled but ultimately riveting documentary about former leaders of Indonesian genocide who agree to proudly re-enact their crimes has no small number of memorable moments, whether it's the recurring sight of tubby politicians in drag or the sickeningly casual demonstration of ideal killing techniques. It's only when the film's subject, Anwar Congo, participates in one such reenactment and then sees it played back that he seems to finally comprehend the extent to which he has executed countless innocents, and that moment transform the dark novelty of Oppenheimer's efforts into something more profound.

Most Likely To Make You Stop And Think About Your Relationship:

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LM - "Before Midnight"

To reveal too much about the third in Richard Linklater's trilogy would be doing an irrevocable disservice, but "Before Midnight'"s sneaky punch to the emotional gut absolutely must be commended. This roller-coaster ride will delight, devastate, shock, inspire and bring you to tears when you least expect it.

WG - "Some Girl(s)"

Daisy von Scherler Mayer's screen version of Neil LaBute's stage play very schematically but effectively proceeds through several different relationships in the life of our nameless lead (Adam Brody), examining how they began, how well (or -- more often -- how poorly) they ended and the lasting repercussions. It's a well-written manifestation of everyone's compulsion to compare new prospects against those who have already come and gone, searching for the same ideal qualities and avoiding the same dreadful mistakes. If you can't relate to any of that, then I envy you such a healthy/shallow love life.

Most Likely To Be Nominated For A Bajillion Spirit Awards:

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LM - "Short Term 12"

It's almost a shame that this is technically director's Destin Cretton's second film even though he began work on it before shooting "I Am Not A Hipster," as it would certainly be a shoe-in at next year's Spirit Awards in the "Best First Feature" category. Still, this intimate, honest and authentic look at life in a foster care home should expect to be showered with even more love than last year's SXSW Grand Jury Winner, "Gimme The Loot," and if both Brie Larson as lead Grace and the warm John Gallagher Jr. as her boyfriend Mason don't receive nominations for their performances, something is very, very wrong with the universe. Exaggeration shmaggeration.

WG - "Short Term 12"

I mean, duh. Go ahead and put money on it now.

Ensemble To Watch:

I Give It a Year - Simon Baker and Anna Faris

LM - "Coldwater"

This unflinching depiction of horrors that occur in juvenile delinquent "rehab" centers was mostly made to help shed light on an issue too often ignored by mainstream society, but this is no mere message film. The cast of mostly unknowns, including PJ Boudousque (dead ringer for a young Ryan Gosling), Chris Petrovski and Nicholas Bateman deliver this story with unwavering commitment and an intensity on par with the best of them. Director Vincent Grashaw clearly has a strong eye for talent, casting lead Boudousque mostly going off his gut. It's hard to believe none of these actors has been discovered before Grashaw put them in his film, but it's safe to say it's only a matter of time before they become household names.

WG - "I Give It a Year"

This would-be middle finger to the so-called "Brit-com" formula might have come across as just so much bile were it not for Rafe Spall's endearing lack of social graces, Stephen Merchant's more aggressive brand of offensiveness, Rose Byrne's wide-eyed fluster, Minnie Driver and Jason Flemyng's deeply bitter banter, Olivia Colman's equally funny sense of spite, Simon Baker's self-assured charms or Anna Faris' meek modesty. Together, they ensure that Dan Mazur's comedy is something closer to the rare laugh-a-minute affair oft promised by so many misleading ad blurbs.

Best Lead Character:

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LM - Scott (Sam Eidson), "Zero Charisma"

The only reason that SXSW Narrative Spotlight Audience Award winner "Zero Charisma" exists is because filmmakers Andrew Matthews and Katie Graham were inspired by the Simpsons' "Comic Book Guy" archetype and wanted to explore that in a realistic fashion. The result is a protagonist who is so obnoxious, delusional and self-important, you find yourself astonished by the fact you still care about him. There is a little bit of Scott (ironically portrayed with loads of charisma by Austin comedian Sam Eidson) in all of us who self-identify as geeks, but rarely do we get to see those bits thrown together to present this particular type of metal-loving, RPG-making, nemesis-having nerd as the lead character in a film. If Matthews, Graham and Eidson did their jobs correctly (which they did), audiences will find themselves talking about the controversial Scott well after the credits roll.

WG - Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman), "White Reindeer"

Even as Zach Clark's comedy wavers between arch melodrama indebted to Douglas Sirk and a more grounded sense of grief, Hollyman's lead performance as a yuletide widow is a steadily funny, flawed, fascinating thing, whether she's going on dead-eyed online shopping binges, attempting to enjoy her new neighbors' swinger party or having a shoplifting spree with her newfound stripper pals. By the time Suzanne seems to have found some measure of inner peace, it's not hard to feel like the poor dear has very much earned it.

Loquacious Muse's Top Five:

-"Short Term 12"

-"Before Midnight"

-"Good Night"

-"Zero Charisma"

-"Drinking Buddies"

William Goss' Top Five:

-"Short Term 12"

-"The Act of Killing"

-"Twenty Feet from Stardom"

-"The Fifth Season"

-"Cheap Thrills"