The Most Exciting Films From This Year’s South By Southwest

This year the film portion of the South by Southwest Conference had thirteen entrees that premiered at Sundance and a number of studio-funded projects destined for wide release, meant primarily to bolster the star power attending the daily and nightly Paramount theater premieres. This is not a bad thing—rather, it’s a testament to how vital the SXSW Film Conference has become to the film scene in general, a diverse conflagration of anything and everything within the strata of a theatrical experience. However, it doesn’t make breaking new, below-the-radar films any easier, especially with a bigger schedule—the much-anticipated premiere of the The East comes on the final night of the conference, after this will be published—and more theaters scattered around town.

That’s where I focused most of my efforts on the film front, catching more than 20 films—in honor of the film conference’s 20th anniversary—most of them produced on very low budgets or premiering for the first time in the United States. I skipped Burt Wonderstone and the Evil Dead reboot, as they’re flicks I’ll see in my local megaplex depending on the Rotten Tomatoes reception. I skipped Before Midnight in favor of a local Austinite’s film, quite regretfully—I’d rather pay to see the final installment of Linklater’s walk-and-talk romance trilogy, anyway. The six films listed here are the ones I found to be the most impressive and important glimpses into the cultural zeitgeist at the 2013 film conference—though there are a number I didn’t get a chance to see due to scheduling conflicts and the fact that the press screening library crammed into the convention center stairwell was so atrociously barren. But with so much paranoia surrounding pirating these days, who’s going to risk turning in a DVD to the media?

Spring Breakers

Unlike anything you’ve ever seen, the charged 1,300 plus audience at the Paramount was—as a Deadline reporter put it—both “joyful and bewildered” when the lights went up after the North American premiere. While some critics may find the surface layers of the film to be a mile wide and an inch deep, or an extended Skrillex music video, this is merely the backdrop Korine wanted to create. The slow-motion montage of barely clothed coeds binge drinking on a Florida Beach in the opening minutes of the film is the ultimate thesis statement—the youthful, primal obsession with self-destruction, beautiful imagery, carefree sexuality and complete sensory overload is all about to come into sharp focus.

With a dreamlike storyline, seedy neon-soaked cinematography, and non-linear editing reminiscent of a Terrence Malick film, Spring Breakers preys on the audience’s senses. You kind of can’t look away, whether you’re enjoying yourself or not. And—without giving up the ending—one could even argue that Korine’s work is a bizarrely magnificent statement about feminism, where the pretty, aggressive blondes in this vapid fantasy world of a St. Petersburg Spring Break are the ones who are the true gangsters.  Regardless of if you agree with any of this analysis, you should see Spring Breakers for James Franco alone, as the corn-rowed, grill-sporting thug who goes by the moniker of Alien—it’s truly a performance for the ages.

Yellow

Heather Wahlquist has appeared in relatively minor supporting roles in her husband Nick Cassavetes’s films over the past decade, which makes her leading performance in Yellow all the more impressive. In it, she plays one of those artificially gorgeous yet vividly delusional California women named Mary Holmes, who is barely holding it together. She teaches elementary school children and chases pills with vodka nips throughout the day, regularly drifting into her own alternate realities, which are equally colorful, musical, hilarious, and horrifying. As her antics get worse, she is forced to return home to her family, where Wahlquist takes us inside the core of her character, revealing the origins of her mania. The entire film, which Wahlquist also co-wrote, is a quiet yet remarkable achievement.

Good Ol’ Freda

The Beatles have been covered from just about every angle possible by now—except the one director Ryan White found for Good Ol’ Freda, when he interviewed Freda Kelly, the head of the band’s fan club for much of the ’60s and perhaps the only Beatles employee who had never broken her silence about the band. It’s a sweet film and a fascinating look at an incredibly respectful and moral person who was tasked with protecting and representing some of the most famous people in the world. White’s storytelling does reveal a few new insights into who the Beatles were behind the scenes, but the film focuses primarily on Freda, examining how someone so close to those who were literally changing the world could remain so true to who they really are as a person.

Scenic Route

Bleak tales about the insignificance of man and the brutality of the world are tough to pull off without fine acting and crackling dialogue, which is why Scenic Route works so well. Two friends, played by the diametrical opposed Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler, are stranded off the incredibly photogenic highway through Death Valley and forced to reexamine their friendship after drifting apart. The situation quickly goes from bad to worse, however, due in part to both men’s egos and stupidity, as well as a bit of bad luck—which, when you get all philosophical about it, is something that life often serves most of us in the end.

Drinking Buddies

There’s a incredibly unique tone to Drinking Buddies, thanks in part to director Joe Swanberg’s technique of having his actors tightly improv every scene in the film. It’s also probably because his core cast consists of seasoned professionals like Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston, and—most impressively—Olivia Wilde, who really shows off her dynamic acting chops while also looking crazy hot. The result is a romantic dramedy—if that’s even a thing—that qualifies as one of the more realistic unrequited love stories that has worked in a while.

Cheap Thrills

The first film purchased at South by Southwest this year—by none other then Drafthouse Films, who held the world premiere in one of their theaters—this fine dark comedy is ultimately a real-world fable about what desperate men will do for money. Made on a shoestring budget with a quality cast (Pat Healey, Sara Paxton, David Koechner, and, by far the most impressive transformation, Ethan Embry as a tough guy) Cheap Thrills is a testament to true independents of the past that deserve to break through to a wider audience. It manages to break new ground and entertain, while keeping its message hidden until the very last frame.   

A Sit Down With the Director and Cast of ‘Ceremony’

Before Jesse Eisenberg was cast in that movie about Facebook coming out on Friday, he was in rehearsals for a small, sweet indie movie called Ceremony. Once Eisenberg jumped ship (can you blame him?), he was replaced by BlackBook New Regimer Michael Angarano, initially cast as Eisenberg’s best friend. It was up to the young actor to portray the unbearable heartache of Sam, a sort of hipster doofus set on winning back the heart – and ruining the wedding of – his much older ex-girlfriend, Zoe, played by Uma Thurman. The directorial debut of 27-year-old USC grad Max Winkler (who previously worked on the Michael Cera-starring web series Clark and Michael), Ceremony counts Jason Reitman among its executive producers, a good sign when it comes to hunting for distributors. We sat down with the ambitious young director, Angarano, and Jake Johnson (whose scene-stealing performance as Zoe’s boozy brother is a highlight) shortly after the film’s well-received Toronto International Film Festival premiere to discuss the physical rigours of directing, heartbreak, and Uma Thurman-inspired erections.

Was the premiere a nerve-wracking experience? Max Winkler: I wasn’t nervous about the movie – I’m very confident about the movie. Mike Anganaro: The first half-hour, my heart was just beating really fast because it’s a funny movie, and if people don’t laugh at every funny thing, that makes me nervous.

And did that happen at all? Max: I wasn’t in the theater. I was heavily sedated.

Why? Max: It’s hard for me to watch. I’ve seen the movie so many times, I feel like if I watch it anymore I won’t have the sort of love for it that I have. I’m really proud of the movie and I’m really, really proud of the actors’ performances in it. That’s the part that really kills me. There are certain parts I love and certain parts I wish I could do differently, how anyone feels in any sort of artist project. So it’s hard for me. I would come in and peak and they saved me a seat in the back for the very end.

Did you ask the cast how certain jokes played afterwards? Max: They all came to me in the back room and my face was white. There’s a very famous saying that filmmakers, especially Jewish ones, don’t believe any of the good press, they only want to read the bad press, which I think is very accurate. I took Michael aside and he said that it was very good, and I took Jake aside in front of everyone and I was like, “Jake, come outside with me,” so I took Jake outside and he told me it was good, which I still don’t believe.

Jake’s performance in particular slayed the audience. Max: I think the thing that really excites me the most about the movie is: people know Jake, they know Mike, but they’re really doing something different from what they’ve done before. They have sort of wheelhouses that they’re very comfortable in, and I think anyone who sees it will fall in love with these guys. Lee Pace, Reece Thompson, we have all these sort of amazing young talents that are anchored by Uma, who’s really fantastic. That part really excites me. Jake: One of the reasons I was anxious before, was that we all really like working with Max. Max was my good friend before this but as actors he allowed all of us to make choices, and when you know the director’s with you and kind of steering the ship, it’s a really nice thing. That doesn’t always happen, you’re not always allowed to just try things and go for it.

Max, do you think people will doubt you because of your young age? Max: I’m sure people always will. Max: Here’s the reality: there’s probably a number of first time filmmakers or directors who do go off the rails, not to say that I’m better than them, but I’m so neurotic that I just surrounded myself with really professional, incredible people from my crew to my actors. Jake: I didn’t know what I was doing. Mike: The first day was crazy for all of us, we kind of got in over our heads. Jake: I think things got a lot more comfortable by the second day. Max: Yeah, the second day was fine, the first was one of the worst days of my life. Jake: I freaked out because I had six days off and I went back to L.A. and I talked to Max and I felt like it was where one of my buddies was going to have to be like, “We have to let you go, it’s not personal, you were so good…”

Were you filled with doubt that day when you got home? Max: I could honestly not believe how much my feet hurt. I was dumbfounded by how much my body hurt. I was in training for this like a fucking boxing match, and I couldn’t believe how I felt. I had to wake up the next day at 3:30 in the morning and it felt disgusting and shocking to me.

As your career progresses do you think you’ll start doing bigger budget films? Max: I’d love to have as big of a budget as I can. That being said, I wouldn’t be able to direct a movie that I didn’t feel an incredible, personal connection to. Jake: I want that quoted and in 15 years when– Max: When I’m directing Marmaduke 3.

How did you guys nail the heartbreak thing so well? Max: I was heartbroken when I wrote this and I was just shattered, and I felt like I was the smartest person in the world and the only person to ever feel this kind of pain that no one else could feel. I thought my Dad was crazy for telling me it would pass and my friends were crazy, and I was just obliterated man.

Was it by an older woman? Max: Yeah.

Was she getting married? Max: She wasn’t getting married but I fucking–it was easy to write. I think we all kind of know that heartbreak, in one way or another. We’re all very similar, the three of us, in how we kind of view life and love.

Mike, did you pull from past experiences, because in some of your scenes, it was like, Yeah this guy has felt that way before. Mike: The filming of the movie came at such an important time in my life. I hadn’t worked in like a year and half, which I think was really attributed to how special and novel the movie and the experience felt for all of us. I was making a bunch of genuine, new friends and it was overall a very cathartic experience for all of us. Overall, the whole thing felt like it had this special tint to it, like catching lightning in a bottle, aside from that first day that was horrific. We were all talking before the movie, the three of us especially, how this movie could be really good and it would be a really fun experience, and after the first day we were like Is this going to be the worst thing any of us have ever been a part of? Literally, that was almost the feeling. Max: I didn’t think it was that fucking bad! I was in New York prepping the movie, and I knew these guys were going to be in the movie whether anybody liked it or not, so I had these guys start hanging out, which was really awkward. Jake: He called Mike and he goes,”I have another actor,” and I had to audition for this movie a lot of times so finally Max was like “Well, Jake is in the movie, let’s have him audition with Michael.” So we were basically forced to have a play date.

What did you guys do? Jake: Hung out at my place. Max: You got your hair wrapped didn’t you? Jake: Yeah, we did each other’s hair.

How important was Jason Reitman’s involvement in all this? Max: Incredibly. He’s somebody who makes the movies that he wants to make, on his terms, and incredibly well. He wants something, he gets it. I think one of the most important things is to just know what you want. My first couple movies were with his company, one that I was going to direct but didn’t end up doing, and one that I wrote for him to direct. He’s incredibly decisive and he knows how to get what he wants.

Was he key to getting funding as well? Max: Oh my god, completely. A lot of people probably wouldn’t have taken me seriously with his name not there, and his name is so important to so many people. You just don’t make your first three movies that successful. He’s incredible. He was helpful in the editing and the writing of the script and he gave great notes. He was truly vital.

After your work with Clark and Michael and now Ceremony, it seems that you have an attraction to characters who think they’re the shit but really aren’t. Max: I loved doing Clark and Michael, but that was all them. I don’t take any credit for that. I was just happy to be there. I think there’s something really pleasing for an audience to watch a character have a very different perception of themselves than the rest of the world does.

That’s what translated right off the bat in Ceremony. Max: That makes me so happy because that’s my biggest worry, that some people truly don’t get that. They’re like, Wow, who’s that asshole wearing the cool suits? The suits are ugly for a reason. He’s not Clark Gable, he’s not Cary Grant. He’s a little boy who’s scared and wants his mother and has no idea who he is.

Michael was originally supposed to play Marshall correct? Max: Yes. Sam was originally going to be played by Jesse Eisenberg, but he left for very obvious reasons and we all gave him our blessing and we support him. Mike: Watching Jesse play Sam in rehearsal, it definitely influenced how I played Sam in a way. I didn’t know what it was going to be on day one.

Would Jesse have been able to grow a mustache? Max: Michael’s mustache was fake. Mike: That’s why people say I look like I’m 25 in the movie because honestly, for the first twenty minutes, I can’t smile. Max: I think those characters are my favorite. There’s a real sadness to those characters but they’re also very funny. I think Jeff Daniels in Squid and the Whale is the best example of that character. I think that’s one of the best characters of all time. He was so funny and you laugh at him, but there’s a real sort of sadness to him. I just love those kind of people.

Like Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Max: I feel like there’s this sort of taboo thing, where people kind of turned their back on Wes and denounced him as the creator of bad hipster culture. I think anyone that says that is foolish. He’s one of the best working directors around, and he’s incredible and his movies are amazing. I grew up watching Bottle Rocket. My dad took me to see it at Century City and I think that was the first sort of artistic aesthetic that I was influenced by, and so whether I knew it or not, the intent was not to do it. It was really based on my relationship with an older woman.

Speaking of which, Uma Thurman is amazing in this. Max: So fucking good. The scene where they finally kiss was the first sort of love scene I’d ever done so I was so squeamish and nervous, I felt like a little kid. Mike: I was really nervous but when we were rehearsing the scene she really took the bull by the balls at that point, she literally like, choreographed that whole scene by herself. She’d be like, Alright, well you’re going to– Max: You were erect by this point. Mike: Totally.

Hearts on Fire: ‘Paper Heart’s’ Charlyne Yi & Jake Johnson

Comedian, musician, actress and Knocked Up standout, Charlyne Yi didn’t believe in falling love. She didn’t think it would ever happen for her, and wanted to explore how other people were dealing with the phenomenon. The documentary/narrative hybrid, Paper Heart follows Charlyne in her quest to get to the meat of the human heart via interviewing average people on a roadtrip across America, maybe meeting Michael Cera and interpreting her findings through handmade puppet dioramas. Now the confusing part: the actors involved play themselves, aside from Jake Johnson who plays the film’s actual director, Nicholas Jasenovec. Charlyne and Jake (Jake playing Nick and Jake as himself) share a sibling-esque bond, both in the film and during their press tour and are equally invested in the success of their project. Hearts will break across America if this indie flick (drops today) doesn’t hit it big.

In the film you’ve said that everyone was playing a version of themselves. Was it ever hard to snap out of the pretend you? Charlyne Yi: Oh, no. I couldn’t wait to get out of it. I’m so used to being loud and having my hands fly around and I think I had to contain myself as the character Charlyne. It was nice to let loose and a lot of times when they would cut I would just start singing MC Hammer songs.

Jake, did Nick give you notes during filming, on himself? Jake Johnson:He just gave me joke ideas. A lot of the inspiration would come because he would say something. Since we’ve been in New York, he’s calling himself the Urban Cat because even though he doesn’t live in the big city, this is where the Urban Cat belongs. So, if we were shooting Paper Heart, I would do a scene where I would then reference the fact that I’m an Urban Cat and belong in the big city.

How much of the film was scripted? CY: 50 percent was documenting, 50 percent was based off of a 5-page outline. JJ: Right, but there was no script, everything was improvised.

How long were you on the road? CY: About 5 weeks? JJ: 5 weeks on the road and then two and a half weeks with Michael [Cera] in LA.

What was life like on the road? Rock star lifestyle? CY: Whenever we did go out to bars, we would rudely interrupt each other by having our fart war. We had a fart war throughout most of the trip. I remember when one of the guys was hitting on a girl in a bar and I ran in between them and farted and so I kind of crushed their rock star dream of hitting up the ladies

But how were you traveling? JJ: We were in an eleven-seater van. It’s the van that you actually see in the movie. We went from LA to New York. CY: Very snug. JJ: We stayed at cheap hotels along the way and would travel for probably 8 to 10 hours a day shoot an interview and do some scenes on the side of the road. Charlyne and I were in the back of the van the whole time in the last row, switching off who was at the window who was in the middle with the cooler. We wanted to keep our on-screen connection going — life imitated art, or art imitated life, whatever that is — but we were always back there talking. When we’d do a scene, we’d pull over, Nick would grab a camera and we would just try to continue the tone of what we were doing in the car mixed with Nick’s reaction what was going on and what was happening in the story of the movie.

How did you find the individuals that you interviewed? JJ: Eileen Kennedy? CY: Yeah, I was gonna make up a joke, but, Eileen Kennedy. She cast reality TV shows before, and she drove out two weeks in advance looking up lists that we compiled of sorts of people we’d like to meet and she pre-interviewed people. She went from town to town like asking, ‘Do you know where these sort of people hang out? Do you have any references?’ She would show us videos through the internet and we would see the pre-interviews. She even went to a Polygamist area where we were hoping to interview and it was a shaky camera and she sees some like pilgrim-esque kids digging in the backyard and she’s like, ‘Oh my God and then she turns around to the right and she sees a pick-up truck and a guy with a shot gun and she’s like, ‘Okay, let’s get out of here.’ She had quite an adventure herself like kind of dictating where we would go whether or not we’d get into trouble or not.

Did anyone butt heads on the road? JJ: Nick and Charlyne did a little bit in terms of creativity. We just became like brother and sister. We fought, but it’d be more like joke-fighting where we’d punch each other in the arms. Rather than fighting, we’d just would go through extreme phases of being annoyed at each other. I can’t sleep in vans so whenever she would fall asleep I would go, ‘HEY CHARLYNE,’ and wake her up, then I’d go, ‘Were you sleeping?’ Now what we’re doing in press is, my brother and I had a thing growing up where we’re always allowed to hit each other in the face—not punch but slap—and I said [to Charlyne], ‘You’re allowed to hit me whenever you want during an interview.’ We were doing live TV in San Diego and they asked me a serious question, and I’m taking it all seriously and I’m like, ‘Well, stepping into the character of Nick…; and I’d just feel this giant slap across the face.

How did the interviewer react? JJ: He was like,’Whoa whoa, whoa. She just hit you?’ And then I just kept rolling with it ’cause that’s part of the joke.

You’re not hitting her back, right? JJ: I hit her back. CY: He hits me back, but not on TV. He’s afraid that people will think he’s… JJ: Abusive. You can’t have a mustache and hit a girl Charlyne’s size.

What was the most honest, inspirational thing that you heard from the people you interviewed? CY: My favorite thing was the first interview with Mike, the guy that was playing pool. After all that talk about who his true love was, he realizes maybe he was wrong. I really loved his honest reaction, and I thought that was interesting, when he was unsure about what love is when he was so sure at the beginning of that hour interviewing him. JJ: I liked the little blond kid, David, at the playground. When he was describing the ideal date was seafood.

Everything the kids say in the film is so adorable, but was all of the footage that cute? CY: There was a lot of yelling and chasing and me being pushed around so there was so much footage of just hecticness and wild yelling. There was footage that we really wanted to keep in when the kids took over took the microphone and started to interview the crew. The crew just didn’t expect it, so like the camera guy Ben was like, ‘Um—I—I don’t know if I’ve been in love.’ You get these real reactions of people being intimidated by children.

Did you have to cut a lot of that for time constraints? CY: Yeah, and I also think we tried to make each segment an appropriate amount of time. Each person had a certain amount of time to tell what the story was and I think at a certain point you kind of got what the idea was.

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Any particular places that you loved from the road? JJ: I really loved New Mexico. CY: There’s this old restaurant with this humongous tree and the roots were breaking the brick floor and like through the roof. JJ: It was in old-town Albuquerque. It just felt like a part of America that I hadn’t seen. CY: This is so stupid, but in Flagstaff, I saw one of my favorite sunsets. It was really gorgeous and I was like, ‘Ugh, this is so beautiful. Why are the sunsets so much prettier everywhere besides like Los Angeles?’

Did the road trip instill a travel bug in you at all? CY: When I got home I was like, ‘Yes! I’m home!’ And then there was a part of me that wanted to get back on the road again. I missed the adventure.

Did your success at Sundance make you think of the film any differently? CY: No, I thought, ‘Awesome, people are gonna be able to see the film.’ JJ: When we made the film, we were told that it would go to DVD for sure, and they were going to do basically one screening in New York and one in LA and that was guaranteed. When we got into Sundance, we thought, ‘We might have a chance at getting distributed,’ but we weren’t sure. And then we won the [Waldo Salt Screenwriting] award, and we found out that Overture was gonna get behind it. I think the winning of the award and the reception at Sundance gave the movie a chance, which felt pretty great. So, we hope it goes. At Overture, they’re all saying like, ‘We don’t know how it’s gonna go, it depends if people like it, because this is going to be a word-of-mouth movie.’ So if people like it and they tell people then we have a chance, if they don’t, then we’ll see it on Netflix in a year and a half.

How’d you work with the dioramas that explain people’s love stories? Did your dad help? CY: He helped me with all the wood-cutting and mechanics, but I did everything else. He just helped me cut the wood because I’m not strong enough. It was really fun making the puppets, but I felt mildly crazy. I remember people would call me and I’m just like, ‘Don’t bother me right now. The puppets are staring at me I have to finish them. I have a deadline.’

Do you think that the documentary slash narrative hybrid is going to be a new trend? CY: I don’t know if there’s others. Well, there’s Borat… JJ: I don’t think it’s necessarily a new trend. CY: I think we used it particularly just to tell this story. I don’t think we’d ever use it again. I don’t know if other people are going to use it after this, we’ll see. JJ: I think they will because it’s cheap to do.