2013 SXSW Film Festival—My Top Picks The fun-filled 2013 SXSW Film Festival has come to an exciting conclusion and I've returned home to sunny South Florida to take stock of my whirlwind 10 days in Austin, Texas. As I have for the past several years, I used Twitter to report from the events as they happened. Hopefully you followed along and were able to join me in experiencing the festival in real time.

The quality of this year's lineup was truly extraordinary, as usual, resulting in one of the most memorable experiences I've had there in the eight years I've been attending. SXSW 2013 wowed me from the start, so it's a formidable challenge for me to narrow down my favorites to just a few. But, as I do following every festival (62 since the start of 2006), this wrapup will conclude with my list of Top Picks. First, some statistics and overall observations about this year's event, along with my modus operandi and Top Picks selection criteria. The logistics of the SXSW Film Festival allow for attendees to easily attend four or more screenings a day. Last year, for the first time, I stayed beyond the five-day "Film-only" portion of the event through the following four days when the Music Festival is in full swing as movies continue to be shown. It resulted in a SXSW record for me. I attended a total of 36 screenings in 2012 (vs. 14 in 2011), an average of four per day. This year I surpassed that number, attending 39 screenings. I was able to catch six in one day, five screenings on three days, and four on four days, along with two on opening night. They included a television pilot (Bates Motel) and one shorts program (Texas High School Shorts). The 37 features consisted of 24 narratives and 13 documentaries. That was the largest number of docs I've seen in 62 festivals.

One reason to attend festivals is to be among the first to see a movie and this was another record year at SXSW for me. I saw a whopping 24 World Premieres -- those being seen by the public for the very first time. These consisted of 16 narratives and eight documentaries. 18 of my first 23 movies were World Premieres, including 13 in a row at one point -- also a record. The festival ended that way as well, with six of my last nine films being World Premieres, including my final two. The other 13 features included four North American Premieres and two U.S. Premieres. The remaining seven were favorites from other American festivals.

SXSW does recognize international cinema but its focus is on domestic titles. This year 32 of my 37 features were from the United States, another record. It started off as a truly American event, with my first 25 coming from the U.S. -- also unprecedented. It wasn't until my 26th screening that I saw a "foreign" film and that was from Canada. After that, three of four were from overseas. Overall I only saw four subtitled films -- two docs and two narratives, a new "low" for me (not by choice, of course, but scheduling). My festival ended the way it started, though, with eight of my last nine from America. Of the five non-U.S. films, there were pictures representing Canada, Denmark, and Poland, along with co-productions of Poland/Portugal/France and Sweden/Denmark/Norway. Of those 32 features hailing from the United States, 11 were documentaries. Therefore, I saw 21 U.S. narrative features (including 15 World Premieres), with many of those "sweet little American indies" which I crave at festivals.

One thing that film festivals offer over traditional cinemas is an exciting and informative Q&A session with the cast and filmmakers after a screening. Most titles at SXSW have at least four showings, and Q&As traditionally wane with successive ones. But that's beginning to change. Only seven of my 39 screenings did not have guests in attendance. Those with Q&As included all 21 first screenings, all six second screenings, four third screenings, and even my only sixth screening (the Audience Award encore presentation of Short Term 12) -- kudos to those filmmakers for staying. My first one without a Q&A was my 26th screening to end the sixth day, the third showing of Canada's Haunter. The remaining six non-Q&A films included the only three subtitled pictures from overseas. Therefore, only three of my 32 U.S. films did not have a post-screening discussion, and those were on the last two days of the festival. As usual, I'll be posting pictures of many of the Q&As in the coming weeks.

With the closure of the Alamo Lamar south of town, all but four of my 39 screenings were downtown. 14 were at the festival's largest venue, the legendary Paramount -- a stunning, historic 1200-seat proscenium arch theatre which dates back to 1915. My previous record there was eight. At one point I saw five films in a row there, including seven of nine at one point and 10 of 13. 10 were at the rustic Alamo Ritz, including five of six at one point. I attended five screenings at the Vimeo in the Austin Convention Center, including three in a row on my final two days. There were four at the Stateside and two in a row at the Violet Crown. The only four films I saw south of Lady Bird Lake were at the brand new Topfer Theatre at ZACH, including two of my last three screenings.

One of the curious and, occasionally, most frustrating consequences of attending multiple films back-to-back is coming across trends which may or may not have been as apparent if not for the quick succession of these themes. Perhaps it's because I see so many low budget American narratives at festivals, causing conventions and romantic comedy tropes to become tiresome, but I find myself tuning out a lot sooner than I used to. Here's a template for an indie trying to be mainstream: Begin with voiceover describing every character. For example, "This is my sister Bonnie. She broke up with her husband over a bad meatloaf. This is her girlfriend Kate. Kate likes to walk around the house with nothing on but a clown nose..." Make sure one of the first scenes is an overhead shot of the protagonist(s) in bed. If the first shot isn't a bed it's a car. At some point, have the leads say, "I have something to say." "No, I have something to say." "Okay, you first." "No, you first."

While death and issues surrounding grief are not uncommon topics, I first noticed this plot trend in 2009 when my favorites from Sundance (The Greatest) and Tribeca (Accidents Happen) both involved families grieving over the loss of a child and how parents and siblings come to cope with these tragedies. At one festival I saw six films centered on fathers dying of smoking-related illnesses. Three of these opened with a shot of a man lying in bed hooked up to tubes, coughing his lungs up. One movie opened with a young girl asking her mother, "Mommy, is daddy going to die?" The very next one opened with a young boy asking his mother, "Mommy, is daddy going to die?" I kid you not. I just sat there shaking my head.

I had an equally surreal experience at Sundance in 2011. The first six pictures I saw all dealt with death. The first five of these included death and guns. Two involved death, guns, and suicide. One juggled themes of death, guns, and homophobia. And one had death, guns, suicide, and homophobia (the very first one I saw). I found myself walking into theaters saying, "Please don't let this be about death..." It wasn't until my seventh screening that I finally found a film without any of these four themes. But my very last movie there was, like the first one, about death, guns, suicide, and homophobia.

In 2012, themes lightened up a bit. Days of darkness and depression gave way to festivals filled with relationship dramas. Most of my films dealt with the struggles between parents and children, especially fathers and sons. "Write what you know," the old adage says, and screenwriters did just that. All had touches of humor, mirroring real life which, for me, is one of the definitions of an indie.

Of the 34 features I saw at SXSW last year, 18 had death as a major plot point. But that was actually a relatively small percentage compared to many recent festivals (admittedly the numbers are skewed by my penchant for horror). Whether comedic drama or dramatic comedy (sort of like partly cloudy and mostly sunny -- I never could tell the difference) my favorite films in 2012 made me laugh and cry, often within the same scene. That's the power of cinema.

What's the trend for 2013? This year's Sundance Film Festival will go down in the books as "Porndance," as the week was filled with tales of love, lust, and sex bordering on soft pornography. Even just among the selections I saw, there was the steamy eroticism of movies like Two Mothers, A Teacher, Concussion, and Pit Stop, as well as some of the movies that actually had porn as their subjects, including Don Jon's Addiction, Interior. Leather Bar., The Look of Love, and Lovelace. But far from being filled with shock value, these dark and occasionally not very titillating films were intended to be mass appeal, very carefully edited for R productions more appropriate for Lifetime movies than the art house.

Many of the sexy favorites from the last Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals showed up at SXSW this year, including Don Jon (formerly Don Jon's Addiction), Spring Breakers, A Teacher, and Pit Stop. Issues surrounding mental illness, featured in recent pictures like my 2011 Top 10 Pick Take Shelter, are now in vogue and the focus of two my SXSW favorites this year (which I won't mention here as just naming them could be spoilers). But grief and death are back as major plot points, playing a prominent role in more than half of my 37 features. There were plenty of relationship dramas but I could count the number of comedies on one hand and I only saw movie I could label a "family film" (When Angels Sing).

The lost art of the opening title sequence is still, well, lost, as only a few of my films kicked off the old-fashioned way and they tended to be docs (Downloaded, Rewind This!, Good Ol' Freda). When Angels Sing was the only narrative with notable opening graphics. Of the rest, about 25% began with credits superimposed on the action and the remaining 75% launch right into an opening scene followed by credits or just a title card. Fortunately, fewer indies are resorting to the conventions like the "opening bed shot" or voiceover narration. The few times these were used I felt they were necessary. As usual, the budget of a project is in direct proportion to how recognizable the needle-drop songs are (third party material) and number of crane, helicopter, and plane shots. Occasionally there are the lucky indie filmmakers who can call in favors or have major artists who so believe in the work that they cut or waive the traditionally high licensing fees. SXSW 2013 was particularly notable in its hosting the World Premiere of Good Ol' Freda, which included a handful of original Beatles tracks, a very rare feat in motion picture history. According to Rolling Stone, "Mad Men forked out $250,000 last season for a clip of 'Tomorrow Never Knows'." That's more than the entire budget of many independent films here.

Every year fewer and fewer films are actually, well, films. Or at least not shot on film stock. It wasn't that long ago when digital cinematography, primarily utilizing the RED camera, was a curious oddity. This is now becoming the norm, while the Arri Alexa system is rapidly taking its place alongside the ubiquitous RED ONE (and newer EPIC) as digital camera of choice. This also allows many movies to be projected in the 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio ("scope") as opposed to the common 1.85:1 ("flat") which was the traditional format for indies featured at festivals. I used to mark "scope" in my notebook next to those films which were few and far between. This year I noted the rare "flat" where it appeared since two out of three of my 21 U.S. narratives were in the 2.39:1 widescreen ratio. Only the docs still rely on the "flat" format (11 of 13).

This was one of the best SXSW Film Festivals in my eight years attending. There were about a dozen disappointments for me out of the 37 features I saw. But most met or exceeded expectations, including several very pleasant surprises. So please keep in mind that even the "worst" ones on my schedule here could, theoretically, be among the best at other festivals, and would make my Top Picks from those respective fests. Just because you don't see a title listed below doesn't mean I didn't love it -- just that a "Best of" list that includes over half the films I saw isn't really valid.

I've narrowed the list down to my Top Picks using a 1-5 rating scale. First, I've separated the 24 narratives from the 13 documentaries and chosen about one third of the total for singling out -- the best of the best. Among the narratives, no films only deserved 1 star (1 = avoid at all costs). Three got 2 stars (2 = not recommended), five narratives got a 3 (I recommend it), and there were eight with a rating of 4 stars -- ones I'd not only recommend but also would see again. That leaves eight that merited 5 stars -- films I'd recommend, see again, and add to my DVD collection. So those eight "must own" films make up my Top Narratives. The documentaries break down like this: Two deserved only 1 star, none received 2 stars, two films merited 3 stars, and four docs received a 4 from me. That leaves five with a rating of 5 stars and a place on my list of Top Documentaries. So I'll honor those eight narratives and five documentaries.


Here is my list of Top Picks from the 2013 SXSW Film Festival. I'll be adding reviews and links to my Q&A pictures and video interviews over the next several weeks.

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TOP 8 NARRATIVES (in alphabetical order)


Before Midnight -- see my Q&A photos + capsule review

Coldwater -- see my full-length review and Q&A photos

Evil Dead -- see my Q&A photos + capsule review

Imagine -- see my review

Mud -- see my Q&A photos + capsule review

Plus One -- see my Q&A photos + capsule review

Snap -- see my Q&A photos + capsule review

When Angels Sing -- see my Q&A photos + capsule review

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TOP 5 DOCUMENTARIES


Artifact -- see my review

Broadway Idiot -- see my intro + Q&A photos + capsule review

Downloaded -- see my Q&A photos + capsule review

Medora -- see my Red Carpet and Q&A photos + capsule review

Sound City -- see my Q&A photos + capsule review


Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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  • Author: Larry Richman
  • Posted: March 20, 2013
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