South by Southwest 2012 | Conclusions
With South by Southwest closing today—and the movie portion having wrapped last night—it's high time I wrote something conclusive about my first time going. But how do you summarize a festival at which everyone not only disagrees about what's best, but comes away having seen different films?
The fact that no one seems to agree on the most important titles may be a statement in itself. As I pointed out in a conversation at Indiewire, the audiences at SXSW tend to be more receptive than those at other fests I've attended, which means that nearly every movie has a cadre of defenders. Sometimes the first buzz doesn't emerge until it's too late; after late-breaking praise, I caught only part of Omar Rodriguez Lopez's taboo-courting competition title Los Chidos just before I left Austin. (The first half was intriguing, but the narrative jury's prizewinner, Adam Leon's Gimme the Loot, was indeed the most deserving complete feature I saw from the contenders.)
Except for the world-premiering King Kelly, many of my biggest discoveries at SXSW—Bart Layton's The Imposter, Lena Dunham's Girls, Richard Linklater's Bernie—were movies that might have lives apart from this event. Still, the overall vibe is important, and the combination of friendly crowds and unknown items makes SXSW unusually casual among major festivals. You could find filmmakers who had just won awards mingling at after-parties until 2am with attendees. In many ways, it's a town conducive to marathon moviegoing: Not only is the greater Austin area home to some insanely good culinary experiences, but the local Alamo Drafthouse chain, which unobtrusively serves food during each show, negates one of the main difficulties of film festivals—finding time to eat during four- or five-film days.
Being in Texas may have enhanced the appeal of Linklater's Bernie, a snappy lark based on a stranger-than-fiction real-life case in the East Texas town of Carthage. Jack Black stars as Bernie Tiede, a funeral director involved in what the movie paints as a Sunset Blvd.–like codependency with a wealthy older woman (Shirley MacLaine). After she's found frozen in a freezer (no, it's nothing like Jeff), he confesses to killing her, and Carthage residents rally to his defense. He's a nice guy, after all, and she was mean.
As if the morality of the story weren't enough of a thicket, Linklater plays the scenario for dark comedy, treating it as a testament to Texas eccentricity (or what a recent Austin transplant I know calls the state's "fierce independence"). The gloves are a lot softer than they are in Fargo, one of Linklater's acknowledged influences, but the cast—including a hilariously disbelieving Matthew McConaughey as the prosecutor—is game, and the use of talking-head interviews (some with real Carthage residents, some with actors playing residents) is provocative. Millennium Films plans a release April 27.
William Friedkin's great Killer Joe, which I covered at Toronto, might also count as a case of Texas on steroids—but what's more Austin than Austin? A graduate of mumblecore (an indie-film movement that, rightly or wrongly, is widely associated with SXSW), Sun Don't Shine's Amy Seimetz shared the Chicken & Egg award for women's filmmaking with Megan Griffiths, whose Eden is a grim, life-based story of kidnapping into sex slavery. While Sun Don't Shine was a more taut and ambiguous affair than we've come to expect from the mumble-crowd, tweeness reigned supreme in Bob Byington's Somebody Up There Likes Me, a time-hopping fantasia that suggests nothing so much as Synecdoche, New York enacted by the young actors performing Death of a Salesman in Charlie Kaufman's film.
One of the most widely acclaimed titles was the Ross brothers' Tchoupitoulas, a docu-poem that traces what appears to be one night in New Orleans through the eyes of three boys. I ran hot and cold on its all-purpose wonderment, but its curiosity—its interest in spending time with any musician or reveler who passes by—embodied the main sentiment of the fest: a sense that every avenue might be worth exploring.