As cliched as it may sound, the "must-see" movie at SXSW 2011 is Natural Selection, a joyful bittersweet story filmed in Smithville, Texas. From the opening moment, writer/director Robbie Pickering pulls viewers in for a fun and passionate ride from the pinnacle of conservative Christianity to the lows of the wrong side of the law.
The film focuses on Linda White (Rachael Harris), a barren and lonely Christian housewife in her 40s, who leads a sheltered existence in suburban Texas. Stringent religious convictions forbid Linda and her husband Abe (John Diehl) from copulating without the intent of procreating, resulting in an asexual marriage that has left Linda frustrated, lonely and full of shame. To compensate, she lives her life for everyone but herself.
After Abe suffers a stroke, Linda discovers that he has been keeping a secret -- donating to a sperm bank for over 20 years. From his hospital bed he asks her to find his 23-year-old biological son Raymond who is living in Florida. Linda sets off on a quixotic journey to find Raymond (Matt O'Leary) and bring him back before her husband passes away. Along the way, she develops a relationship with the troubled Raymond as they share their intimate secrets, allowing her to come to terms with herself and thereby discovering her own path.
In 1969, my mother and her best friend waited in line for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid five times without ever getting in to see it. Her parents, unbelieving, went to the four-plex, and also were turned away twice due to sold-out shows before getting in. Such was the power of Newman and Redford in the days before internet ticket services like Fandango. Carrying a film pass at SXSW this year feels almost like a return to that era.
Film passes are an economical way to enjoy the fest if you plan to take in six or more films and don't have the funds or time to volunteer in order to get a badge. Entry to films goes first to badgeholders, then to those with a film pass, and finally to people who are buying individual tickets.
Here are a few tips on what to expect (and how to survive) when using the SXSW Film equivalent of the music wristbands.
- Expect the unexpected. I arrived early and spent three hours at the front of the line for Hesher this weekend at Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, failing to gain a seat when there wasn't enough room for some 30-50 badgeholders ahead of me. The passes ARE printed with a warning to avoid screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse locations due to their smaller size. However, I felt confident most people would be downtown catching the world premiere of Paul at the Paramount. Boy, was I wrong, as people had a tendency to pick a venue and stay there for the day. They'd walk out of the Drafthouse and right into line for the next screening, which happened to be mine. I understand there was room to spare at the Paul premiere.
Light day, schedule wise. I was going to see two screenings, but only ended up making the world premiere of The Beaver. I really do want to see The Innkeepers, but with a three-hour gap and a less-than-pleasant experience as an audience member, I wasn't up for dealing with crowds for three more hours.
The Beaver is the story of a man (Mel Gibson) coping with major depression through a puppet. Screenwriter Kyle Killen is an Austinite, and his "quirky" script topped the Black List, which showcases the best unproduced screenplays. Director and co-star Jodie Foster and actor Anton Yelchin came to town for the screening, with Foster flying in from the Paris set of her latest film, Carnage. Deflecting the issue of scandals surrounding Gibson, Foster focused on the film and the script. Jette interviewed Killen for SXSWorld magazine, so pick up a copy to read more about him; you can find them at ACC, and conveniently just outside the Vimeo theater.
Any film that gives away a critical plot device before the first scene starts is clearly ambitious. Aaron Rottinghaus' feature film debut Apart is just that, an intricately layered romantic thriller about a young man haunted by the past he cannot remember.
Inspired by a rare psychological disorder (folie à deux or ICD-10, F.24) that occurs when two people share delusions where the only known cure is separation, Apart reveals itself slowly as Noah Green (Josh Danziger) is recovering from an unrevealed trauma. As Noah recovers, it's clear he's not aware of all that transpired before he ended up in the hospital.
Flashbacks depict a strong bond with childhood friend and would-be sweetheart Emily (Olesya Rulin), now absent from his life. Apart doesn’t so much play fast and loose with chronology, as it deliberately teases at what could have been and can never be, making it all the more poignant. More importantly Rottinghaus’ script (based on a story by Rottinghaus and Danziger) underscores the ‘why’ while teasing out details, mimicking Noah’s quest to reconcile with his past and his childhood companion. With the ultimate reason known before the first shot, Apart isn’t focused on a flashy reveal, and instead puts it where it belongs, in a very human story.
An estimated 800-900 people gathered last night to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Ain't It Cool News (AICN) with a special secret screening at the crown jewel of Austin theater, the Paramount.
In the 15 years since Harry Knowles started the site from his hospital bed after hurting his back, AICN has shaken the very foundations of Hollywood. It has brought to their knees studios that have produced unworthy pictures as well as lauding countless works that might otherwise have gone unsung. AICN has cultivated and sculpted the face of Austin movie culture, benefitting from and cross-promoting with Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas as both have grown to become household names. In 2005, AICN announced the founding of the greatest genre film festival in existence, Fantastic Fest which brings together fans, filmmakers, and big names from around the world for the seventh year this September. If the Alamo Drafthouse is the heart of the Austin film community, AICN is its soul.
I attended my first SXSW Music festival in 1994 but began volunteering in 2000. I've been a web competition preliminary judge, crew chief for the trade shows and information booth, and a SXSW Interactive panels liaison. However, the most memorable time has been spent in the trenches of the SXSW Music Festival with Special Venues, handling line management and crowd control at film premieres and music showcases. Even now I am still awed by the sheer number of venues, bands, and attendees that seem to double every year.
Despite my involvement with SXSW, it wasn't until I watched Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW that I truly understood the birth and evolution of the largest music industry event in the world. This documentary from the Austin film, video, animation and documentary company Arts+Labor offers an intimate perspective on how four guys living on next to nothing -- Roland Swenson, Louis Black, Louis Jay Meyers and Nick Barbaro -- created a benchmark for alternative culture.
I met and spoke recently with Arts + Labor co-founder and president Alan Berg, who directed Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW. See what he had to say about the movie after the jump.
Last night, the SXSW Film Festival presented most of its awards, except for a few audience awards. It's a pleasure to see Austin-connected films all over the list. Natural Selection, shot in nearby Smithville, practically swept the Narrative Feature categories, including the Audience Award; while former/sometimes Austinites Kyle Henry and Heather Courtney won the Best Editing award in the Documentary Feature category for Where Soldiers Come From. (I agree that the editing in that film is absolutely amazing.) The Narrative Shorts jury award went to Pioneer from Dallas filmmaker David Lowery, a short that premiered at Sundance this year.
In the Texas-specific awards categories, Steve Mims and Joe Bailey's documentary Incendiary: The Willingham Case (pictured above) won the Louis Black Lone Star Award. The Texas Shorts jury award winner was 8, directed by Julie Gould and Daniel Laabs, which Don Clinchy says was "the most poignant and bittersweet film" in the Texas Shorts lineup this year. Look for his feature on the Texas Shorts collection soon.
The full list of awards from last night's ceremony is available after the jump. On Saturday, we'll find out the audience award winners in the Lone Star States, 24 Beats Per Second and Midnighters categories.
Deciding which movies to see at film festivals can be a crap shoot. Some incessantly hyped films with great pedigrees can be enormously disappointing. On the other hand, some largely unpublicized films don't come across well in trailers and synopses, so you skip them, only to hear later that you missed a truly great time at the movies. Still others seem worth a look, so you give them a chance and discover that they are, well, worth a look, but not memorable.
And then there are rare indie gems like Five Time Champion that remind you why you go to film festivals.
Be prepared for a gushing review of this stellar film, one of the best I've seen in ages. Oh, if only all movies were such a pleasure to review; the greatest challenge in reviewing Five Time Champion, which had its world premiere at the Paramount on March 12, may be finding enough superlatives to describe its many charms without being repetitive.
Set and filmed in Austin and Smithville, Texas, Five Time Champion is equal parts teen romance, coming of age story and commentary about the complicated nature of relationships at every stage in life. The protagonist is 13-ish Julius (Ryan Akin), a smart, scientifically gifted kid who's in the awkward throes of sexual exploration with his girlfriend, Shiley (Noell Coet). Complicating matters are the obvious charms of his classmate Teena (Gabi Walker), who's ready to take Shiley's place at the first available opportunity. Further complicating matters is Julius's general ambivalence toward sex; he wonders if he's gay, especially since his long-gone father, Harold (Robert Longstreet), is rumored to have left his mother for another man. Julius's confusion about his own sexual orientation leads to horrifying self-destructive behavior.
We interrupt this festival coverage to rave about the tremendously positive reception of Austinite Emily Hagins' third feature film, My Sucky Teen Romance.
Sure, we're totally biased -- at least I am, and I'm not the only Slackerwood contributor who is. I contributed to the crowdfunding, and I know many people who worked on the movie, including Emily. Our Mike Saulters was an extra. But I'm very pleased to report that the Paramount had to open up the balcony for the world premiere of My Sucky Teen Romance. It didn't quite fill the theater to capacity, but the lower balcony had a big lively crowd, which is always a great thing for filmmakers, especially once the SXSW music festival starts. Emily is one of our own, and she's done us proud, just like we knew she would.
On Friday night, Austin-based filmmaker Aaron Burns brought his first feature-length film, blacktino, to the Paramount Theatre for its world premier. It was an event worthy of SXSW opening night. A food truck was parked on 7th Street, giving out free tacos to the crowd. A photo backdrop was setup for people to take pictures. Even the director was out -- buzzing a bit from opening-night adrenaline -- walking the line and greeting the enthusiastic crowd.
The movie started late, due to delays in seating, but once it did the crowd was no less enthusiastic. Every credit was given a loud cheer. If they showed those awful "FBI warnings" before cinema films, I think even that would have gotten applause. This clearly was a hometown crowd rooting for the home team. They even applauded a shot of the Austin skyline, later in the film.
Blacktino is a dark teen comedy about drama nerd Stefan Daily (Austin Marshall), born of an African-American mother and a Hispanic father. Daily lives with his Nana (charmingly played with a small dose of Betty White spunkiness by Selma Pinkard). In his spare time, Stefan writes music and keeps a blog. His school is divided into rigid cliques, and it's not that there is a lot of hostility among the groups -- they just don't mix.