by Bears Fonte | 03.20.2013
The dust has settled and the massive influx of cool hip trendsetters have returned to their various blogs across America (and Europe); SXSW has finished another year of putting Austin at the heart of the entertainment convergence of music, interactive, and film. I’ve been an avid SXSW Music attendee for years, so really diving into SXSW Film for the first time was a blast. I got a late start, as I was at the Taos Shortz Film Festival the opening weekend, but by Sunday I threw myself full force at the packed schedule. There are so many films playing, in so many groupings, it can be hard to really master the SXSW schedule. I decided to focus on a few areas, the Midnighters, because they rarely played against the other films, the Shorts, because they were easily accessible in the giant Vimeo theatre, and the films with Austin/Texas connections. Of course, I made time to see AFF regular James Franco’s new film SPRING BREAKERS (he steals the film) and the film I had most wanted to see at Sundance but got closed out, THE SPECTACULAR NOW. James Ponsoldt, an AFF Alum (2004’s JUNEBUG AND HURRICANE), really shines with SPECTACULAR, a simple film about love and growing up that could have felt cliché if it had not been so full of deep characters and heart.
This year SXSW really showcased an excellent selection of Local or Texas films. Some of them had played Sundance (PRINCE AVALANCHE, UPSTREAM COLOR, MUD, A TEACHER – which I loved) so what I was really looking forward to catching was the new ones, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. Chris Eska’s THE RETRIEVAL really transports the viewer to another time and pace, slowly creeping through a tension-filled battlefield until it all unravels at the end. The film features some phenomenal performances from the entire ensemble, although Tishuan Scott brought home the Special Jury Award for Acting as a former slave and fugitive murderer. The interplay between his character and the Uncle and Nephew team sent behind Union lines to fetch him back really drive the drama. It was great to see an independent film with limited resources pull off a period (and war) piece. Another favorite, the beautiful heart-warming documentary BEFORE YOU KNOW IT follows three elderly gay men as they discover their place in the world during the golden years of life. With three subjects that couldn’t have been more cinematic if they had been written in a script, PJ Ravel’s film acknowledges that you don’t loose your sexuality with age, even if your drive becomes refocused. Another great film with local roots was Brian Poyser’s THE BOUNCEBACK, a sort of anti-rom com about a guy who returns to Austin to stalk his ex and ends up meeting someone else. A hilarious film that features an extensive Air-Sex sequence and shot all over Austin, THE BOUNCEBACK is the kind of film that could have been made with someone from the Twilight franchise but thankfully was not. It should have a nice long run on the festival circuit. My favorite local film was ZERO CHARISMA, a comedy about a DND Gamemaster whose three-year long campaign gets hijacked when a hipster invades his gaming group and charms his nerdy friends. Equally funny and touching, Sam Eidson dominates the film with his desperate attempt to remain on the throne of his own carefully crafted world. This is the kind of quirky comedy that really, despite being made in Austin, could play anywhere and really find an audience.
Looking at the shorts program, a lot of my favorites from SXSW were ones I had already seen at Sundance including SOCIAL BUTTERFLY, SKIN and BLACK METAL. NECRONOMICA played as sort of the comic side to BLACK METAL and really stood out for its levity in a rather bleak program (Shorts 2). In sort of an extreme version of Bill and Ted’s, NECRONOMICA finds a band fraught to find a way to be the most evil band in the world (hint: it involves a goat head). In Shorts 1, SEQUIN RAZE gave the viewer an inside look into the questionable morality of reality television and really stood out. My favorite new short played during Shorts Program 3, IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S ME, a disturbing and hilarious tale of things going from bad to worse when a girl tries to break up with her boyfriend and ends up killing him instead (and that’s just the first two minutes). Although most of the Midnight Shorts were a little un-narrative for me, I loved the fake trailer HELL NO, a series of horror films where smart characters make rational decisions deflating any attempt at typical horror scenarios. I also loved the music video of a teddy bear killing every other toy in sight in VENGEANCE RHYTHM.
And while I am thinking about staying up late, the Midnighters Section offered some of SXSW’s most consistently entertaining features including the return of YOU’RE NEXT which has become sort of an Austin legend after wowing audiences at its original screening at Fantastic Fest and then being pulled for its final two screenings. It’s the kind of film that gets people cheering along with each kill and featured a great cameo from (SXSW Midnighter and Sundance director – THE RAMBLER) Calvin Lee Reeder at the end. My favorite Midnighter was the aptly named BIG ASS SPIDER! (I actually heard someone ask the director what the film about). A monster movie in the old fashioned sense of the art from director Mike Mendez, BIG ASS SPIDER! isn’t afraid to laugh at itself and ethnic stereotypes. It was some of the most enjoyable minutes I had in a theater in a long time. Yeah, it’s silly, but it works. It even had classic three act structure.
However, my favorite film overall was a documentary A BAND CALLED DEATH. A perfect example of what SXSW does best, the film was a music doc, about a seldom heard proto-punk band from Detroit. The band was in attendance, and played shows at SXSW Music. They also signed merch after the screening. Formed in 1971 by three African-American brothers who wanted to sound like The Who and MC5, Death recorded a legendary lost album that was rediscovered in a blaze of online mp3 trading. The band, now reformed although missing one of the original brothers who has sadly since passed, infamously refused to change their name when offered a record contract. The lost brother told his kin that someday someone was going to come looking for their music, and he turned out to be right. A BAND OF DEATH was picked up in February by Drafthouse Films so I suspect you will be able to see it shortly at an Alamo near you.
SX is just the first festival in a full year here in Austin, with Cine Las Americas coming up in April, Fantastic Fest in September, and Polari Film Festival and our own Austin Film Festival in October, to name a few. Austin really is a great town in which to be a filmmaker or film lover.
– Bears Fonte
Austin Film Festival Director of Programming
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