South by Southwest 2013 | Wrap-up
Docs, horror and Sundance alums dominate South by Southwest.
AUSTIN—“Wonder how many people would show up at SXSW if it were retitled the ‘Rejected by Sundance Festival,’ ” New York Post critic Kyle Smith tweeted during the Austin fest’s second day. Indeed, conventional wisdom places South by Southwest a notch down the pecking order from its Utah cousin. Unfairly characterized or not, this year’s lineup suggested a can’t-beat-’em, join-’em attitude, going unusually heavy on Sundance alums. Shane Carruth confounded fresh audiences with Upstream Color, a puzzler that, in a different way from his Primer, rethinks conventional montage. First-time feature director Joseph Gordon-Levitt appeared with his serviceable porn-addiction comedy Don Jon, a kind of Silver Linings Playbook of beating off. Hometown fixture Richard Linklater prefaced a screening of his rapturous Before Midnight by celebrating SXSW’s 20th year of showing movies. Austin resident Andrew Bujalski brought his experimental comedy Computer Chess. Shot with 1969 video cameras and set during a computers-only tournament circa 1980, this dryly hilarious film parlays Aspergian single-mindedness into a riff on the relationship between technology and happiness.
As gratifying as these selections were for a non–Park City attendee like me, a sense of what-have-you-got? inevitably surrounds the premieres. Chicago’s own Joe Swanberg surprised with Drinking Buddies, his first film to cast mainstream actors. Partially shot at Revolution Brewing, Empty Bottle and Black Rock, it turns on two couples (Olivia Wilde and Ron Livingston; Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson) separately tempted to infidelity. Marred by typical improvisational flailing, the film nevertheless bucks expectations, maturely shaping its narrative around missed connections and not-quite-spoken feelings. Swanberg acts in a supporting role in Zach Clark’s indescribably strange White Reindeer. Only partly ironic, this Christmas story follows a real-estate agent (Anna Margaret Hollyman) whose yuletide season is dominated by tragedy—as well as coke binges with strippers, a swingers’ party and compulsive online shopping.
The narrative-feature winner, Short Term 12, came in and went out as the most-buzzed title. The type of low-key indie frequently described as “modest,” Destin Cretton’s movie owes its raves to lead Brie Larson, who plays a staffer at a home for damaged adolescents; in a bit of too-pat backstory, her character has a troubled past of her own.Avoiding the obvious traps, the film exudes tenderness, even if it might not be a breakout in another context.
Horror went over big, beginning with opening night’s presentation of the half-tedious, half-inspired, loudly whooped reboot Evil Dead, which should never be shown without a Bruce Campbell Q&A. Unformed as satire yet unrelentingly, comically nasty as a thriller, the Funny Games–esque Cheap Thrills finds estranged friends (Ethan Embry and Pat Healy) subjecting themselves to the dares of a rich playboy (David Koechner).
Overabundant with testimonials from Lucas, Spielberg and Coppola, the entertaining doc Milius looks past the caricature of an ursine reactionary to make a case for the artistry of John Milius, the eccentric screenwriter-director behind Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn (and the inspiration for John Goodman’s Big Lebowski role). But by far the best nonfiction title was Our Nixon, a found-footage assemblage culled from 500 reels of near-forgotten material. The White House tapes are old news, but less well-known is that top Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin were 8mm enthusiasts during their time at the White House. Using news clips as glue, Penny Lane and Brian L. Frye’s distillation of these home movies goes light on bombshells but crafts a singular portrait of the insularity and serial glad-handing surrounding the disgraced President. Who knew the breakout filmmakers of SXSW 2013 would be men convicted for Watergate?