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South by Southwest Must-See Films

SXSW (South by Southwest), which runs from March 13-22 in Austin, Texas, is almost three festivals in one. There is a Film Festival which has really grown in stature since the Festival was founded in 1987, (this year a record number of 145 feature films will be shown, from 1372 entries alone for films in narrative competition). Though the Festival is massive and can accommodate a number of cinephiles, the inclusion of parallel Music and Interactive Festivals, along with the sheer number of films on offer, means that often smaller and less-heralded films playing at the Festival slip through the cracks, which is a mistake. Every film included here moved us in some way or another. These films made us laugh, they made us think, and most importantly, they made us feel. Because if you are going to South by Southwest, (and yes, the festivals name is a nod to Hitchcock), or catching up with these films after the festival, we will point you in the right direction.

Narrative Feature Competition

Quitters

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SXSW Film: The film feels as though it is in the vein of Noah Baumbach or Woody Allen, though director and co-writer Noah Pritzker presents his own unique style (and presents a beautiful San Francisco setting with Quitters, which was formerly known as Gist). A clever take on privilege and bonds within families, the film is brimming with great performances by adults (Mira Sorvino, Greg Germann, Saffron Burrows and Kieran Culkin to start), but it is the performance by the next generation that propels Quitters to must-watch territory, especially when handling some very advanced material. Morgan Turner shines as Natalia, and Kara Heyward from Moonrise Kingdom gives a heartbreaking performance as Etta. But every film needs a protagonist, and this ensemble features a dynamite lead in Ben Konigsberg, who is cringingly affective as Clark.

SXSW Music: A gorgeous score by veteran David Shire.

SXSW Interactive: This film lingers and is as much about ethics as anything.


Uncle John

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SXSW Film: This film crackles with so much intensity, and is more of a slow burn than perhaps any other film that is playing at the Festival. Steven Piet and Erik Crary’s film would not have worked without the performance by John Ashton, playing very much against type (not playing a police officer as in Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run and Gone Baby Gone). Ashton is electrifying as the weathered Uncle John, and though much of the film takes place in the city of Chicago, with his nephew Alex Moffat’s Ben and Jenna Lyng’s Kate navigating an awkward office romance, the spectre of Ashton’s Uncle John looms large throughout the film.

SXSW Music: The end credit song is handled perfectly.

SXSW Interactive: The film is very much about the new versus the old.

Narrative Spotlight

Mania Days

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SXSW Film: Rare is the film that comes around where after watching it and feeling its tremendous impact, it is evident that it is going to be life-changing. It is fair to say that Paul Dalio’s Mania Days can potentially become one of these films. We imagine that there will be a lot of tears flowing in Texas at the beauty of Dalio’s film, a manic-depressive romance between Katie Holmes’s Carla and Canadian Luke Kirby’s Marco. Dalio layers the film with so much imagery, colour and energy and the passion between the two leads, both channelling parts of themselves that has not been seen on film lends the film an ethereal, dreamy charge that will resonate even more when the final reveal is unveiled. Stunning.

SXSW Music: Paul Dalio does the music for the film, along with writing, editing, and appearing in the film as well.

SXSW Interactive: Spike Lee is executive producing the film.

Documentary Spotlight

Bounce: How the Ball Taught the World to Play

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SXSW Film: Another element of the festival is the SXsports, and the ideal film to be featured as part of this program is Jerome Thélia’s far-reaching and meaningful documentary Bounce. Starting with its opening shot in the Congo, to a very scary game of ba’ that absolutely must be seen to be believed, (at times we were worried about Thélia’s well-being), to a discussion of play fighting versus actual fighting, and footage of monkeys at play, there is so much in Bounce for the sports connoisseur to enjoy, and will have us looking at the archetypes at play in our favourite activities.

SXSW Music: The end credit song explodes with intensity.

SXSW Interactive: This film is a whole new ballgame.


Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro

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SXSW Film: Perhaps one of the more upbeat films at the Festival, this documentary by Michael LaHaie and Chris Wilcha will appeal to fans of comedy that recognize the darkness underneath. As much as the film is funny, (at times, uproariously so, as Notaro’s matter-of-fact delivery and inability to break makes her jokes even funnier), there is an undercurrent of loss. This feeling extends from a long list of tragedies that befell Notaro, (again, that she delivers serious news with a straight face, which makes it all the more heartbreaking). Some of the more existential mediations by Notaro’s opener, Canadian Jon Dore, add to the sense of existential dread. Ostensibly a film about what happens when Notaro’s fans compete to host the comedian in non-traditional venues, the film is just as much a movie about what it is like to be on the road and how to brave the unfamiliar. And there are Montreal Expos references.

SXSW Music: The final venue features a singing performance that cannot be missed, and some of Notaro’s famous friends bookend the film as well.

SXSW Interactive: The film will be playing on Showtime after the Festival.


Sneakerheadz

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SXSW Film: When the SXSW Film schedule was first released, this film about sneaker collectors and culture was one of the first that seemed like essential viewing. Playing as part of SXsports, David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge’s film does not disappoint. The film focuses upon the men, (mainly, though Samantha Ronson appears as a ‘head) with such beautiful colour, sound, and neat little graphical touches, (having each Sneakerhead introduced along with their shoe size is inspired). In short, the film almost mirrors the shoe subculture itself, as if the filmmakers have teamed together to create a functional product that also fits many of the features of a true collector’s item.

SXSW Music: Wale is in the film as one of the ‘heads and in musical form as well. Drummer Rick Marotta has created a powerful beat that helps drive the film throughout. Run DMC’s My Adidas is properly represented as well.

SXSW Interactive: The ‘heads are more diverse than first thought, but clearly linked by their love (and obsession) of sneakers.


T-Rex

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SXSW Film: For starters, lay off on searching for information about Claressa “T-Rex” Shields until after watching the film. Admittedly, we knew very little about Shields other than that she was a boxing hopeful for the 2012 Olympics in Beijing. Therefore, her journey played out in real time for us, and it was incredible to experience the amount of access co-directors Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari were able to gain into Shields’s life in and outside the ring. And though it may be clichéd to say that the documentary is hard-hitting, the filmmakers are so great at presenting intimate access into Shields and those around her: her coach, her mother, her sister, to the point that the name Shields is almost the opposite of what the audience receives. The journey is fascinating and the attempt to present all-access pays off very noticeably.

SXSW Music: The end credits song provides a jolt, but there is appropriate music throughout.

SXSW Interactive: The film is just the beginning, as Shields remains awe-inspiring.

Visions

Ava’s Possessions

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SXSW Film: Writer / director Jordan Galland has accomplished a difficult feat with Avas Possessions the musician has made a film which seems like one thing, a kind of a comedic morning after Demonic possession movie, (and really, how many of these have we seen already?). But Ava Possessions, which is the third feature from Galland, a musician, is like a really well-formed song. While it appears to be one beat, it’s an entirely different one instead. Therefore, do not sleep on the film, because throughout the proceedings, Galland is sprinkling some clues, and the unfortunate Ava (Louise Krause) has no memory of what came before, but the audience can be more aware. Featuring some surprising cameos from actresses from Girls, Orange is the New Black and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the film is a master class in direction— and misdirection.

SXSW Music: As one might expect from a film by an accomplished musician, the soundtrack rocks, with some mainstream fare, and some hidden gems. The score is appropriately peppy also, and composed by Sean Lennon.

SXSW Interactive: You’ll be possessed to see the film as quickly as possible.


BARGE

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SXSW Film: The best kind of film is one that does not inform its audience of its intentions. It drifts along, kind of like a towboat, and helps people form their own conclusions. Such is the world of Ben Powell’s BARGE. The players are quite different from each other, some older, some younger, some corrupted, others less so, but they each have their reasons for wanting to be on the boat, (as does Powell, one assumes). The mastery that the director exhibits is to editorialize by letting the camera linger on a hidden sign, on a sight ahead on the water, to tilt his camera slightly out of frame for a while, and then return to the spot he started. In short, Powell does so much with BARGE, but we would not know that we were drifting in a particular direction unless we pay attention to the towboat following the barge. Powell presents the next infusion of cinéma vérité.

SXSW Music: Soundman Will Patterson places a song from the New Orleans Delta blues that works so well in the context of the film.

SXSW Interactive: Amazing that this unfamiliar landscape could feel so much like home.


Honeytrap

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SXSW Film: The movie Honeytrap is inspired by real event, a horrible incident that took place in Brixton, South London. But what is so incredible about Rebecca Johnson’s film is that even people that know the true story, that have been inspired to seek out the actual reality of the film, are no less shocked by the events that take place. This story is about Layla, a Trini, who is the new girl in town, is forced to attend school for wayward youth. There, Layla, (played by star-to-be Jessica Sula) meets Troy, (Lucien Laviscount, also bound for stardom). The two engage in a whirlwind romance. But when all seems right, Layla experiences a violent encounter which is extremely difficult to watch. This turn of events affects the remainder of the movie. We see things becoming complicated and Johnson seems to make the audience feel complicit in not stopping the events taking place. The horror of Honeytrap is watching a situation unfold that is entirely avoidable and yet oddly familiar,. This exploration into gang culture by a director experienced in the subject is fully realized and well worth watching.

SXSW Music: Troy is a rapper, and some of his performances first attract Layla, and we can see how much his performances move her.

SXSW Interactive: Honeytrap leaves us weakened, which speaks to Johnson’s powerful directorial skills.


Petting Zoo

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SXSW Film: The best descriptor we had heard about Petting Zoo before SXSW was that the film is better than Boyhood, which seemed like strange praise. But then when the film revealed itself, in the coming of age story of a pregnant teenager, the comparison seems somewhat appropriate. And not to denigrate Boyhood in any way, as the film stands on its own, but certainly the ending of that film, in which Mason faces great uncertainty about the future, finds parallels in Micah Magee’s tender and heartbreaking tale of Layla (played superbly by newcomer Devon Keller). The film is set in San Antonio, as Magee was a native Texan before moving to Berlin and the film will play especially well with locals familiar with the surroundings. But the best part of Petting Zoo is that the film has a universal appeal, and though a reflective, and often heartbreaking film, the growing up process experienced by Layla, though singular, will serve to educate everyone.

SXSW Music: The soundtrack is extremely eclectic, and The Water by Johnny Flynn featuring Laura Marling is a heartfelt inclusion.

SXSW Interactive: The film is quiet when the need arises.

Midnighters

The Corpse of Anna Fritz

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SXSW Film: We love Midnight. The time when the seemingly ordinary becomes extraordinary, and it is not called the witching hour for nothing. At the Midnighters program at SXSW, the film that immediately jumps out, from a really promising slate, is The Corpse of Anna Fritz. The film, by Spaniard Hèctor Hernández Vicens simply seems made for festivals, as actress Anna Fritz, fresh from an appearance at Cannes, is dead. Introverted Pau, who tends to the morgue has to take a picture of her lifeless body, and then send it to his friends Javi and Ivan. And then things really get messed up.

SXSW Music: Honestly, the only sound that you are going to hear is your heart beating extremely fast. This film does not let its audience loose.

SXSW Interactive: We are scared to even say any more.


He Never Died

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SXSW Film: Finally a little bit of Can-Con at SXSW—sort of. The film He Never Died, by Jason Krawczyk, an American, was shot and edited in Toronto, and features many familiar Canadian actors (Jordon Todosey from Degrassi, David Richmond-Peck and Steven Ogg, to name but a few). However, the film belongs to Krawczyk, and to his leading man, seminal punk legend, and occasional actor. Henry Rollins. His character of Jack is such a difficult role to play- loner, shut-in, man who leads an unorthodox lifestyle. Even though his presence seems unsettling at first, the casting is masterful, especially when it is revealed that Rollins and Jack lead similar lifestyles: no drinking, no smoking, no drugs. The atmosphere in the film is as thick as can be, and can best be described as Toronto Noir, although the placelessness is ever-present, the film could be set anywhere.

SXSW Music: Rollins and his line memorization are very much spoken word. There is a musical credence throughout, (a version of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands at the beginning is immaculately fitting)

SXSW Interactive: There is so much more to the film than what we have shared.

24 Beats Per Second

Danny Says

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SXSW Film: Ever know one of those people who just seem to be super connected with really influential friends? Imagine if that same person, oh, we don’t know, was the manager of the Ramones, and hung out with Lou Reed and Nico, and was friendly with Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick. Now, this same guy was the editor of the magazine that broke the story that the Beatles were quote unquote “bigger than Jesus”, and discovered the Stooges and MC5 and kept this going and was very close with John Cameron Mitchell, and probably so many others that we lost count. Sounds impossible, right? Wrong! Danny Fields is this person, and so much more, and what is surprising is that outside of Brendan Toller`s documentary, not many people had even heard of the guy! Well, his story is pretty incredible and the film is sublime in how it captures the man, through animation, anecdotes, and answers to what Danny Says.

SXSW Music: Oh, incredible, but look to the title of the film, which is a Ramones song.

SXSW Interactive: Danny is going to be at SXSW!


The Jones Family Will Make a Way

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SXSW Film: Whether you’re a believer or a scoffer, there’s no denying that the hand clapping, foot stomping blazing call and response energy of gospel music is inspiringly divine. Pentecostal preacher Bishop Jones and his family have been electrifying their congregation with their sparkling brand of gospel for years. Even though they perform for Southern audiences beyond their small Texas town, they can’t seem to secure the recognition and success that they deserve. With financial worries weighing on Bishop Jones broad shoulders, he questions his chosen path in life. But the fortunes of the Jones Family might just change for the better when a gospel-loving atheist resolves with missionary zeal to spread the good news of the soul-stirring music of the Jones Family Singers.

SXSW Music: Preaching to the choir.

SXSW Interactive: Hopefully the same.


Made in Japan

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SXSW Film: Of all the films at South by Southwest, this was the one that perhaps surprised the most. The thinking was that it would be a conventional account, or at least a conventional account of an unconventional human being. Tomi Fujiyama is by no means representative of the norm, as she is a country singer from Japan, and Josh Bishop’s film makes light of this fact early on, by asking its audience for what it thinks Japan is most known, and country singing does not land particularly high on the top of the list. And yet while the backstory is fascinating, Tomi’s life following a non-straight path, it is the little things, like the pride she experienced when she was signed to Columbia, a big deal for a Japanese person. Also, the fact that she was so well received at the Grand Old Opry, makes the modern portion of the film such a curveball. Such an unexpected ending.

SXSW Music:
Tomi’s performances at an advanced age are pretty amazing, her version of Tennessee Waltz in particular.

SXSW Interactive: The narrator’s voice should sound pretty familiar: it belongs to Elijah Wood, who also produces.


The Ceremony

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SXSW Film: Focusing on the matronly French dominatrix Catherine Robbe-Grillet and her circle of intimates, The Ceremony presents a thoughtful perspective on the subculture of consensual dominance, submission and bondage. Through personal interviews punctuated by stylized depictions of Dionysian BDSM rituals, the documentary unmasks the erotic exercises of Robbe-Grillet’s circle as not only practices of titillation but also self-understanding and personal growth, showing that the sensual and cerebral can meet in an intimate embrace.

SXSW Music: Score is appropriately minimal.

SXSW Interactive: Dominance, submission and bondage is suddenly en vogue in mainstream culture, but this film delivers.


Free Entry

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SXSW Film: Finally, the perfect film for SXSW, a film about two girls from Hungary attending a music festival. Of course, V and Betty (Ágnes Barta and Luca Pusztai) have more difficulty navigating the Sziget Festival than imagined, and this brisk film by Yvonne Kerékgyártó features the big upside and the sad downside of a music festival. The film is extremely interesting because the girls seem to switch roles in the middle of the film. The focus at first appears to be on the alpha V, (which is a pseudonym, of course), as she dominates the decisions, and seems to control her best friend throughout. But the perspective shifts suddenly, and clearly, as the major player seems to become Betty, and her journey in and out of the Festival transports her into some very surprising situations.

SXSW Music: Obviously, being set at a music festival, there are pretty infectious songs, and the film incorporates the big and the small in a way that many films cannot. A key moment is when a character performs an intimately vulnerable version of a song from Nuggets.

SXSW Interactive: Worth attending.


Kings of Nowhere

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SXSW Film: The title of the documentary Kings of Nowhere from Betzabé García sounds like a different film than it would set out to be, and certainly the film is pretty hypnotic, as it begins with an uninterrupted and quite difficult to capture long shot of the inside of a boat. But then the film reveals its intentions, capturing the residents of a town that should no longer exist, seeing as how it is submerged under water, and many of the other residents have long since fled. But there is a spirit in the (non)action that Garcia captures that makes the post-credit reveal all the more heartbreaking. A masterpiece.

SXSW Music:
A child band appears at one point, in a performance that surprises in its appearance.

SXSW Interactive: The Spanish title is more appropriate, but it is still a revelation that Garcia received this level of access.

Written by Charles Trapunski and Reza Rad