SXSW: The Recovery

Turkey_Bowl.jpg This was my third year to attend the South by Southwest Film Festival, and my best yet. Part of that's because I'm now familiar with the ins and outs of the fest and have learned how best to game the system: allow plenty of time for shuttle trips, eat whenever possible, and get up early each morning to hop in the Express Pass line in order to guarantee entry to films that day that you absolutely have to see.

But a bigger part of it was because I was free this year to see just the movies I wanted to see. Stringing for corporate entities has its perks, don't get me wrong, but it also means you have to cover high-profile stuff that might not pique your interest, or worse (to me), that's guaranteed to open wide. SXSW always has an interesting mix of smaller fare that's more typical fest material and bigger, wide-release genre movies that tend to land in the geek/fan/mainstream wheelhouse. This year, that meant Source Code and Paul, as well as the Paul Feig-directed comedy Bridesmaids. If you have to cover those premieres and events for a corporate entity, so be it. But I was lucky enough that the publisher of Pajiba and other staffers were usually up for the high-profile stuff, which meant I could go see smaller movies whose distribution paths were less certain. (Some of my favorites from the fest still don't have distribution.) I think that, unless you have to cover those movies for traffic or editorial purposes, it's utterly pointless to spend time seeing them at a festival when you could instead see something different, smaller, potentially more rewarding. Paul is going to open on almost 3,000 screens, and Source Code will see a similar wide release; there's no such guarantee for the other movies, which makes it all the more vital to see them if/when you can.

That's why I skipped the big narratives, as well as major documentaries like Conan O'Brien Can't Stop and Morgan Spurlock's The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It's not that I don't want to see them (I do), or that I have doubts about their quality (I'm told they're both wonderful). It's that I know they'll see release. The same can't be said for some of the other films on my list.

Here's what I saw:

  • Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times: A solid and engaging documentary about the Gray Lady, though I would've liked a bit more narrative structure.
  • New Jerusalem: A quietly observed and often beautiful film. Deliberately paced, but in a good way. Moving character study.
  • Turkey Bowl: My favorite narrative feature of the entire festival. Totally fun.
  • A Bag of Hammers: I actually walked out about an hour in. The two lead characters are inherently unlikable -- they steal cars at funerals -- and I don't buy into scripts that give a jerk one quasi-sensitive scene and then expect him to be treated as a human. The tonal whiplash and maudlin sensibility didn't do the flick any favors, either.
  • Wuss: A good premise -- what happens when a weak teacher is pushed too far by a student? -- but a middling execution. A dark comedy is still a comedy; this started out that way and slid into dull drama.
  • The Other F Word: Warm, funny, sweet, engaging, why aren't you on Netflix saving this to your queue already?
  • Sound of My Voice: Totally compelling. Shot, acted, and directed with skill, and set up in a series of simple chapters, the narrative deals with a pair of documentarians trying to uncover the truth about a woman leading a cult in the San Fernando Valley. It played Sundance as well, but there's still no distribution as of this writing.
  • Undefeated: A stirring, moving documentary about lower-income black students playing football in Memphis. I cried multiple times. It would take a man of stone not to.
  • Buck: Another thoroughly captivating doc, Buck follows horse trainer Buck Brannaman and explores his life, tragic childhood, and what makes a good horseman. Another real-life tearjerker, but never falsely manipulative.

I also had a chance to organize and sit on a panel this year, one I dubbed "You Are Not a Publicist: Criticism vs. Advertising." It went well, with plenty of spirited discussion among the panelists and great questions from the audience. I also attended James Rocchi's "From the Sausage Factory: Inside the Film Press" and Will Goss' "The Blogger Centipede: How Content is Eroding Credibility." They were both wonderful, and they offered plenty of talking points for people in our business. All three panels dealt with the same messy issues of credibility, integrity, and honesty in criticism and journalism, and they explored them from their own perspectives. I was honored to be involved in the fest this way, and to see my friends do the same. I'm not sure yet if official video will be put online, but here's a clip someone shot at the "Blogger Centipede" panel: