Christopher Llewellyn Reed attends the annual South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin
For the third year in a row, I attended the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, during the week of March 12-19, 2016. Following Sundance, in January, and Berlin, in February, SXSW is, like them, as much market as showcase, where the fortunes of many an independent (and not so independent) filmmaker can be made … or, at the very least, where those directors can (somewhat, maybe) recoup their production costs.
In recent years, Netflix has emerged as a major buyer at the festival, along with more traditional (i.e., theatrical) indie distributors like A24, Cinedigm and Oscilloscope, to name but a few. And it’s not all brand new films, either, as the “Festival Favorites” category allows attendees to check out selections that have yet to be released, but have met with acclaim at previous venues, like Sundance and/or Toronto.
Whether one heads down to the Lone Star State as viewer or exhibitor, SXSW offers a wonderful opportunity to check the pulse of cinema in our age of almost constant digital-media innovation and disruption. The verdict? The movies are alive, well, refreshingly diverse and bubbling over with creative energy.
This time, in addition to traveling with students from the Department of Film & Moving Image at Stevenson University, as I did last year, I covered the festival for Hammer to Nail, a national online film site, reviewing films and conducting interviews with directors and actors in attendance. These activities kept me quite busy, but this workload was worth it, as I was able to have conversations with fascinating people, many of whose movies I was aching to see, anyway.
Some of these films may make it to the upcoming 2016 Maryland Film Festival, which I also plan to attend and cover, both for this publication and Hammer to Nail. In advance of that glorious local event, I offer this summary takeaway of the highs and lows of what I saw at SXSW. If you want a complete list of the award winners (should that matter to you), check out the SXSW website. For now, here are my recommendations, in alphabetical order:
The Bandit (Jesse Moss, Director) with Burt Reynolds
Director Jesse Moss (Speedo), in this highly entertaining documentary, tells the story of the friendship that drove the making of the #2 film at the 1977 box office: Smokey and the Bandit (#1 was Star Wars).
Stuntman Hal Needham – who had doubled star Burt Reynolds for years, and become his best friend in the process – came up with the disarmingly simple idea of a story about a Southern “good old boy” and his pal (illegally) transporting Coors beer across state lines, and presto, a hit was born. More than just a film for fans of Smokey (though such folk are well served, too), The Bandit is a moving portrait of friendship and loyalty and a great bit of film history, to boot. It zips along like the black Trans Am driven by its protagonist, providing good cheer and good times for all.
Claire in Motion (Annie Howell/Lisa Robinson, Co-Directors)
My favorite narrative (fiction) film of the festival, Claire in Motion stars Betsy Brandt (Marie on Breaking Bad) as a woman whose husband, Paul, goes missing after a routine hiking trip, leaving her alone to care for their son. Soon, she discovers secrets about Paul that leave her shaken, unsettled by the knowledge that her stable life was built on a possibly shaky foundation.
Filled with great performances – Brandt is just one of a super ensemble that includes Anna Margaret Hollyman (Small Beautifully Moving Parts), Sakina Jaffrey (Linda Vasquez on House of Cards) and newcomer Zev Haworth – Claire in Motion is a tour-de-force drama where the stakes only seem small, yet are about as big they get. This is independent, small-budget filmmaking at its very best.
The Dwarvenaut (Josh Bishop, Director)
The Dwarvenaut, another documentary, is the story of one Stefan Pokorny, possibly the most obsessive artist you’ve never heard of. The founder of Dwarven Forge, a company that makes models and miniatures for use in elaborate Dungeons & Dragons adventures, Pokorny is himself a model of a man, leading by example as one who has truly followed his childhood dreams.
Born in South Korea to an American father and Korean mother, Pokorny was adopted by a married immigrant couple in Brooklyn, the mother Italian, the father Czech. A troubled youth, he found his way when his parents put him in a special high school for the arts, and then later translated his graphic and sculptural abilities into the production of detailed worlds for his fellow gamers. This is a brilliant portrait of a unique individual (and his friends), from a sure-handed director, Josh Bishop (Made in Japan), and is a great film for those looking for an unusual tale unlike any other you’ve seen.
Hunter Gatherer (Josh Locy, Director)
Andre Royo (“Bubbles” on The Wire), plays Ashley, a man just out of prison as the film begins. He is the kind of person who can’t keep friends since he is always begging for favors and never delivering on his promises. Like an overgrown boy, he is tolerated but not loved. When he tries to reconnect with an old flame, he is, for sure, rebuffed. But does Ashley ever lose hope? No, and that is his appeal as a main character: he is fully confident that he can succeed.
It is fascinating to watch Royo portray a loser with the attitude of a winner. This is a master class in perfect behavioral acting, with Royo as our teacher. He is not alone, however, as he shares the screen with newcomer George Sample III (Cronies), who delivers an equally mesmerizing performance as the only guy (another sad sack) who will befriend Ashley. Hunter Gatherer may be a bit of a misanthropic ride, but it is also a film of subtle, metaphysical truths about life.
In Pursuit of Silence (Patrick Shen, Director)
Speaking of subtle, if director Patrick Shen (La Source) had his way – at least according to his new documentary, In Pursuit of Silence – our world would be filled with far more nuanced soundscapes than the bleating noise of the contemporary metropolis. In fact, it is not even cities that are the problem any more, as the many on-screen titles reveal, with the decibel levels of various locations set down for the record. Even Denali National Park, in Alaska, is not immune from intrusive human-made racket. Where can one go “in pursuit of silence”? Such is the big question asked by Shen, a phenomenally gifted visualist who finds novel ways in every frame to portray the world of sound on film. Filled with a vibrant cast of characters photographed in eight different countries, In Pursuit of Silence takes us on a journey across a planet made increasingly loud, exploring the toll of such babel on the human animal. It is an essential film for our tumultuous modern era.
Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, Director)
Actor Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), in his directorial debut, has crafted a compelling cinematic portrait of jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991). At times funny, at others tragic, the film is an improvisatory riff on the great innovator that would make the master proud. What is particularly impressive is how Cheadle opts out of the standard biopic format; instead, he chooses an impressionistic approach that flashes to and from different eras in the man’s life.
Cheadle, himself, plays Davis, and is riveting in the role. Ewan McGregor (Beginners) and Emayatzy Corinealdi (The Invitation) join him on-screen as fictional reporter and real-life (abused) wife, as we smash cut between scenes of touching drama and ugly violence. The film continues in this vein throughout, jumping around in a style that initially confuses but eventually brings all the disparate elements together at the end to show us, warts and all, what made Davis both great and awful. Human beings are complex, and a monster can still be a genius. A film to be watched by all who love both movies and music.
Ovarian Psycos (Joanna Sokolowski/Kate Trumbull-LaValle, Co-Directors)
Joanna Sokolowski (Still Time) and Kate Trumbull-LaValle (Abaayo/Sister) – in their feature-documentary directing debut – introduce us to a striking group of women, who call themselves “The Ovarian Psycos.”
This is a self-proclaimed feminist “all-women-of-color cycling brigade” that rides through the streets of East Los Angeles, at night, taking back a space so often off limits to women. Their slogan is “ovaries so big we don’t need f***ing balls.” And they don’t. They wear bandanas – emblazoned with fallopian tubes – over their mouths as they ride, not to hide their identities, but to declare their strength and independence. This is a powerful movie that brings us into the lives of these woman as they struggle to build meaningful lives in the wake of difficult family situations and histories. While occasionally cinematically uneven, this is nevertheless a vitally important film, filled with moving stories of pain and triumph.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (John Lee, Director)
What fun it was, to watch the world premiere of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday at SXSW, even though we all knew that the movie was about to start streaming on Netflix at midnight that night. Star and co-writer Paul Reubens (who plays the titular character) was there to introduce the film, as were producer Judd Apatow (director, Trainwreck), co-writer Paul Rust (also a writer – and performer – on Comedy Bang! Bang!) and director John Lee (much TV, including The Heart, She Holler). Sure to please fans old and new, alike, the film opens with a delightful Rube Goldberg-esque sequence that ends with Pee-wee in a tiny red car.
Soon, we meet Joe Manganiello (Magic Mike), whose arrival heralds a completely zany and hilarious plot twist that propels the story through the craziness to come. To be honest, I was too old to truly appreciate the phenomenon that was Pee-wee’s Playhouse when it debuted in the 1980s, but no matter.
I still liked Pee-wee’s Big Adventure when I finally saw it years later, and this new movie is a worthy successor. So even though you can’t see it with the terrific film-festival crowd that surrounded me, I still think you will have a great time. Gather the kids (there’s some innuendo, but they’ll miss it), fire up your Netflix, and prepare for nutty adventure.
SXSW – comprising music, film and interactive components – takes place in Austin, Texas, starting at the end of the second week of March. The 2016 festival ran from March 11-20, and the 2017 festival will run March 10-19.
Author Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a filmmaker, film critic and Chair of the Department of Film & Moving Image at Stevenson University.