The fun-filled 2011 SXSW Film Festival has come to an exciting conclusion and I've returned home to take stock of my whirlwind week in Austin, Texas. This was the second year I used Twitter to write post-screening capsule reviews of all the films I saw. Hopefully you followed along and were able to join me in experiencing the events in real time.
The quality of the lineup was truly extraordinary, as usual, resulting in one of the most memorable experiences I've had there in the six years I've been attending. This year's festival wowed me from the very first screening so it's a formidable challenge for me to narrow down my favorites to just a few. But as in previous years, and as I do following every film festival I attend (53 since the start of 2006), this wrapup will conclude with my list of Top Picks.
First, some statistics. This year I attended a total of 15 screenings. These included 14 new films along with the "Ain't It Cool News 15th Anniversary," a secret movie hosted by the iconic genre journalist Harry Knowles. Despite the best attempts of the public to guess what the film would be, nobody imagined that Harry would present 1981's Dragonslayer
. Perhaps even more exciting was the surprise appearance of the legendary Guillermo Del Toro as co-host.
One reason to attend festivals is to be among the first to see a film. All but three on my list were World Premieres -- being seen by the public for the very first time. Those remaining three included two North American Premieres -- Caught Inside
, which had just opened in Australia, and Paul
, which was released overseas a month prior to SXSW -- and Sundance favorite Win Win
SXSW does recognize international cinema but its focus is truly American. 12 of my 14 new films were from the United States. The other two were from the UK (Attack the Block
) and Australia (Caught Inside
). I saw two of the eight films in the Narrative Feature Competition (96 Minutes
and American Animal
). There was also one documentary on my list (Foo Fighters
One thing that film festivals offer over traditional cinemas is an exciting and informative Q&A session with cast and filmmakers after screenings. Every film I saw this year had a Q&A afterward, no exceptions. Most films at SXSW have at least three showings, and Q&As traditionally wane with successive ones. But that's beginning to change. All but one of my films were first screenings but even the second screening I attended had a Q&A. As usual, I'll be posting pictures and video of many of the Q&As this coming week.
I spent more time downtown than I expected to. A record eight of my screenings were at the festival's largest venue, the legendary Paramount -- a stunning, historic 1200-seat proscenium arch theatre which dates back to 1915. At one point I saw four films in a row there, six out of eight. Only three were out of town at the Alamo Lamar, at which I'd seen over half my films the year before. And just two were at the Alamo Ritz downtown. I saw one film each at the Rollins and State.
Please keep in mind that every film I saw was enjoyable and I'd recommend them all. Of the 14 new titles there are 10 I'd see again. So I had to make some tough decisions. I've narrowed the list down to my Top Picks using a 1-5 rating scale. No films deserved only 1 star (1 = avoid at all costs) and none rated 2 stars from me either (2 = not recommended). Four films were good enough to merit a 3 (I recommend it). The remaining 10 included four titles with a rating of 4 stars (I'd definitely see it again) and five that merited 5 stars -- titles I'll add to my DVD collection. So those five films make up my Top Picks.
Here is my list of Top Picks from the 2011 SXSW Film Festival. Countries of origin are listed in parentheses. Also included are links to my pictures and interviews.
TOP 5 PICKS
(in alphabetical order)
Attack the Block
(UK) -- Set in a "typical" working class neighborhood in gritty South London, this dark comedic drama features a diverse group of teens out to defend their neighborhood from a mysterious unseen force. In my requisite spoiler-free fashion, I can say little more regarding the plot although one can rest assured that this film is NOT what it appears to be at first glance. Executive producer (and accomplished director in his own right) Edgar Wright and writer/director Joe Cornish have teamed up to bring to the screen (finally) a totally unique take on life in hardscrabble London and the restless bands of kids who roam the streets at night. More than anything, the film establishes a level of authenticity rarely seen in movies that have tackled similar subjects. And it's no wonder why. Director Joe Cornish allowed the kids -- non-professional actors, culled from the neighborhoods in which the story takes place -- to retool the script, writing their own dialogue on the spot ("I wouldn't use words like that, I'd say it this way"). The result is so refreshing and the boys' bonds so dynamic that Attack the Block
breaks through as one of the finest films I've seen all year and one of my Top 5 Picks of the 2011 SXSW Film Festival. See my pictures of Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, along with actors Nick Frost and Luke Treadaway at the Q&A
A Bag of Hammers
(USA) -- This is the second feature from writer/director/producer Joseph Kahn (his only previous film was 2004's Torque
). He's one of the top music video directors in Hollywood and it's quite evident in this visually and aurally stunning motion picture. Listen to my audio interview with star Josh Hutcherson
Five Time Champion
(USA) -- Directing from his own script, this sweet little American indie is the third feature for Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor
). The movie features breathtaking performances from Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, and real-life New Jersey State Champion high school wrestler Alex Shaffer as Kyle. See my pictures of director Tom McCarthy with Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, and Alex Shaffer at the Q&A
and listen to my audio interview with Tom McCarthy & Alex Shaffer
There is one other film I want to honor which didn't make the list only because it is, as with all rock docs, recommended more to those familiar with the artists and their music. Foo Fighters
moved me to the point of tears. While the story may have broad appeal, there are certainly those for whom such a film would not hold much interest. For Foo Fighters fans, though, it's a must-see.
I also loved Source Code
(see my pictures of the Q&A and capsule review
) and Bridesmaids
(which was billed as a "work in progress") but consider them to have been more theatrical previews than festival films since they were already scheduled for wide release.