Whew, what a wonderful and exhausting ten days.
After a couple days of recovery and rest, I can safely say the 2013 South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival will go down in history as one of SXSW's best. With a festival lineup that included an abundance of quality films, choosing just 10 to highlight is no easy task for any writer or critic. The documentaries were enlightening and the narrative films were captivating to say the least. However, while looking over all of the films I was able to see over the entire festival, these 10 films stood out as the cream of the crop. Full reviews for many (if not all) of these films are on their way. For now, here are some brief thoughts on each in list form. My top 10 films of SXSW 2013 are:
- Short Term 12 - My #1 most anticipated film prior to the festival's opening, "Short Term 12" won both the SXSW grand jury prize and narrative competition audience award and for good reason. No film in the entire festival lineup contained the same level of narrative complexity and level of acting performances as this foster-care home set feature directed and written by Destin Daniel Cretton. The lead performances from Brie Larson ("21 Jump Street") as the young Grace, John Gallagher Jr ("The Newsroom") as her long-term boyfriend Mason well as the supporting performances highlighted by rising star Kaitlyn Dever ("Last Man Standing") as Jayden are simply stunning. Each actor's performance left you so attached to their characters you couldn't help but swing with every emotional turn. Small in budget yet large in heart, this masterpiece has a bright 2013 to look forward to.
- The Spectacular Now - The James Ponsoldt directed adaptation of the 2008 novel by Tim Tharp and a late addition to the SXSW film lineup, this not-so-typical high school romance film is indeed every bit as spectacular as the title suggests. Starring Miles Teller ("Rabbit Hole") as the alcoholic Sutter and Shailene Woodley as the quiet yet beautiful Aimee, "The Spectacular Now" has every chance to become ordinary yet never does so. All of the performances, including the supporting performances from "Short Term 12" stand outs Larson and Dever, feel incredibly authentic and are far from the typical uninspired performances often seen in teen romance films. A recipient of one of the biggest audience ovations of the entire festival and full of laughs and tears, "The Spectacular Now" will be a must-see when the film opens nationwide in August.
- Spring Breakers - Perhaps the most divisive film of the festival, Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" is also one of the festival's best. An assaulting and stunning look into the spring break sub-culture, "Spring Breakers" pushes every button it can. Neon colors and a prominent electronic score by Cliff Martinez ("Contagion") and Skrillex helps create a surreal experience much like the spring break experience Korine ("Gummo") is exploring with the film. While "Spring Breakers" is full of quotable lines (most notably from James Franco as Alien) and layered with satire, the film's dark underlying message will hit you like a sucker punch when you have finally digested this visual and aural feast of a film. Not a film to be taken at face value, "Spring Breakers" is one of the most beautiful looking and sounding films in years and will most likely go down in film history as Harmony Korine's masterpiece.
- Cheap Thrills - The directing debut for E.L. Katz and the last film screened at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival as the Midnighters audience award winner, "Cheap Thrills" asks the question "What would you do for money?" In this case, the things Pat Healy's ("Compliance") character Craig and Craig's old high school buddy Vince played by Ethan Embry ("Brotherhood") are asked to do by David Koechner's character Colin are more humiliating and permanent as they go on. While the film is comedic throughout and definitely a good time as the audience award suggests, the dark undertones in "Cheap Thrills" are undeniable. How far would you go to pay the bills? While you are laughing during and after the film, think about that for a while.
- Evil Dead - With perhaps the most underrated acting performance of the entire festival comes "Evil Dead", the Fede Alvarez directed "rebirth" of the 1981 low-budget horror film. Jane Levy's ("Suburgatory") performance in this over-the-top bloodbath is simply spectacular. From normal Mia to demon child, Levy doesn't hold anything back and performs the role as well as anyone possibly could. As a whole, this version of "Evil Dead" may be lacking a bit in narrative depth but the blood, fun and twists are all there. If you are a fan of gore, laughs and scares then "Evil Dead" is right up your alley. However, if you are a bit squeamish, you might might lose your lunch or dinner watching this one. Again, the blood and gore level is extremely high and almost warrants an NC-17 rating. All that said, from beginning to end "Evil Dead" establishes itself as an early contender for horror film of the year.
- Some Girl(s) - An adaptation of the stage play of the same name, "Some Girl(s)" tells the story of a young man's attempt to reconcile past relationships before he goes through with his imminent wedding. The young man, played by Adam Brody ("The O.C."), is a deceiving character who never quite takes responsibility for anything as Brody's brilliant performance portrays. The young man's ex-girlfriends featuring the likes of Kristen Bell ("Veronica Mars") and Zoe Kazan ("Ruby Sparks") each have their own painful story to tell and each actress performs their role in this episodic drama with remarkable skill. It's this episodic style that allows this film to never stall or feel stale despite the limitations set by the exact dialogue from Neil LaBute's stage play.
- We Always Lie to Strangers - An inside look into the struggles and lives of some performers living in the country tourist destination that is Branson, MO, "We Always Lie to Strangers" (WALTS) comes in as my favorite documentary of SXSW 2013. "WALTS" allows you to see what lies behind the patriotic and wholesome fanfare we the public can see in Branson on a daily basis. As the film begins to end, it's hard not to feel attached to people you never even knew existed only minutes before. These stars of the Branson strip are no different than you and I. We all have family, money and job issues. As the U.S. economy struggles, so does Branson. To many tourists, Branson is an escape into the good ole American bubble. A bubble separating us Americans from the economic and personal struggles we all have. However, as the film shows, Branson is still America. The performers have nowhere to escape their struggle. It's this revelation and they way it's revealed that allows "WALTS" to truly shine.
- The Network - Perhaps the most important documentary of SXSW 2013, "The Network" does a fantastic job of revealing how difficult the task of setting up and operating an independent media outlet in Afghanistan truly is. The film superbly told the story of how the network that is TOLO TV came to existence, how it operates, the dangers the network faces, the uncertainty ahead and various other difficulties the network's staff must handle on a regular basis. These difficulties include the risk of defectors leaving the network and the lack of any experienced staff when creating the network only a short time after the fall of the Taliban. Perhaps not to some people's liking, "The Network" does not end in any sort of a tidy fashion and rightfully so. Uncertainty reigns in Afghanistan right now as coalition troops prepare to leave and the final quarter of the film focuses on that scary uncertainty for the Afghan people. The topic of Afghanistan's uncertain future provides a post-film discussion topic as brilliant as the film itself. "The Network" should have a steady place in journalism and political science classrooms for years to come at the very least.
- Mr. Angel - Perhaps the film that surprised me the most during the whole fest was "Mr. Angel," a provocative documentary based on the life of transsexual porn star Buck Angel. A rarity in the porn world, Buck is a porn star who looks like a man yet has female genitalia. Born a girl and now featuring almost every physical characteristic of a man, Buck is a charismatic and electrifying figure as this doc shows. While following Buck as he works on the porn circuit, "Mr. Angel" focuses more on his struggle to be accepted by the public and his family for who he is rather than focusing on his sexual exploits. It's this documentation of his work for acceptance and his personal and family hardships that makes this film powerful and a must see for LGBTQ advocates everywhere.
- V/H/S/2 - Built around supernatural thrills and scares, "V/H/S/2" takes an even fresher take on the "found footage" horror sub-genre than its predecessor. Perhaps in an attempt to widen its appeal, the second installment has a stronger comedic element and the gamble pays off. The scares and gore still exist but neither feel as obligatory or forced as they did in the first installment of what is now turning into a indie horror series. "V/H/S/2" will have you peeking between your fingers, laughing your head off and having a good time. After all, having a good time is the whole point right?
Want to see some of these films? Keep an eye out for these films if and when they arrive back in Austin theaters and digital services in the coming year. I'll be sure to keep you posted at my twitter account, @LSUduck.