The film conference may be the least influential of the three portions of South by Southwest, due primarily to the fact it has so much competition amongst other film festivals out there. Interactive has launched a few hundred million-dollar ideas that we all now have access to on our smart phones, and the music conference showcases some the best brand new artists in the world on a yearly basis. Yet film, despite consistently having a fantastic, unique lineup every year, could be considered the underachieving middle child. When an independent filmmaker looks to premiere the next Napoleon Dynamite, they look to Sundance or Tribeca first; when an Oscar-winning director has made his or her passion project, it’s across the pond to the austere Berlin or Cannes Festivals. SXSW Film falls into the upper middle of most top tier Indie submission lists.
This may be due to the fact that SXSW is more diversified as an event then the other fests that focus almost solely on the art of filmmaking—they don’t have to share attention with another medium. However, sleeper films are truly beginning to break at South by—last year the virtually unheard of sports documentary Undefeated was picked up by The Weinstein Company, and went on to win the Academy Award for best Documentary Feature.
So I went in search of sleepers at this year’s film conference. I definitely didn’t see all the films I intended on seeing, those that were getting post-screening buzz heard in various badge lines or while fiddling with my scheduling app, waiting for a film to begin. However, the five films I have listed below are the best of the ones I saw at the conference, all worth the price of admission.
Unlike any documentary you will ever see, The Imposter tells the true story of a thirteen year-old boy who was abducted in San Antonio in the mid ’90s. Three and a half years pass with no trace of the child before a person claiming to be him is picked up by authorities half a world away in Spain. The family is notified and the boy is returned home to America—despite the fact that it is in fact someone else pretending to be this boy, an imposter, as the film’s title suggests. Director Bart Layton sews together interviews with the Imposter himself and the boy’s family with beautifully photographed narrative feature-length reenactments, making you feel as if you are watching something between a narrative and a documentary—in short, something wholly unique. The film is such a perfectly intense and fascinating experience that I honestly can’t stop recommending it to everyone I see. The Imposter will be out in July through Indomina.
Somebody Up There Likes Me
The third feature from off-beat Austin director Bob Boyington is undoubtedly his best yet, which feels like a tightly written, fast-paced Wes Anderson comedy with the darkly humorous stylings of something from Eastbound and Down’s Jody Hill. Comedically, nothing is sacred in this film. The sharp, straight-faced banter between leads Keith Poulson and Nick Offerman (best known as Ron Swanson in NBC’s Parks and Recreation) is hilarious yet quietly philosophical. Despite some forgivable Indie film mistakes (focus, dammit and mind the camera’s reflection), Boyington is poised to become a new, aggressively brilliant voice. At the time of this writing, Somebody Up There Likes Me does not have distribution.
Fat Kid Rules the World
Remember the tall, lanky, funny guy who was one of the killers in Scream? Or the narrator of that off-beat cult classic SLC Punk? Well, it turns out he can direct, too. Matthew Lillard fell off many people’s radars when he became Shaggy in the Scooby Doo franchise—something he admits to me made him feel like a sellout. Yet, as all true artists out there, he had a passion project and the young adult book Fat Kid Rules the World, for which he had done the book on tape for nine years prior, was it. A finely acted, funny teenaged tearjerker with Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready doing the original score was the result—a spectacular achievement for a first-time director working with a budget of less then a million dollars. At the time of this writing, Fat Kid Rules the World did not have a distributor.
Richard Linklater is synonymous with the Austin film scene and Bernie is a welcome reminder of just how talented he truly is. He’s been on the latter end of hit-and-miss recently, with features like Me and Orson Welles and Fast Food Nation being considered box office and critical failures and A Scanner Darkly suffering mightily from a hellish production. However, all will be forgotten with Bernie, the funny East Texas true crime Americana tale starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McCounaughey, based on the article by Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly. As career history has shown, Linklater may be at his best when he returns to his roots. Bernie will be released through Millennium Entertainment in late April, early May.
What everyone will soon realize is that the Duplass Brothers are proving themselves to be some of our generation’s best filmmakers. They consistently tell engaging and funny yet intimately personal stories, despite their seemingly amateurish shaky-cam, blurry style of HD cinematography. It only reinforces the notion that great storytelling, direction and acting will trump low-production value every time. The Do-Deca-Pentathalon, a story of two overly competitive brothers trying to rekindle their relationship, harks back to their earlier, truly-Indie films like The Puffy Chair, Hump Day, and Baghead—before they had A-List casts and major studio backing for projects like Cyrus and the upcoming Jeff Who Lives At Home. Acquired at SxSW this year, The Do-Deca-Pentathalon will be released by Fox Searchlight and Red Flag in June.