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.   

Michael Bay Returning for LaBeouf-less ‘Transformers 4’

Because this is America, and because cash rules everything around us, of course there will be another Transformers movie. Director Michael Bay, who helmed the previous three robot orgies, said as much when he announced his two new projects: Pain & Gain, a bro-fest starring Mark Wahlberg and The Rock, and Transformers 4, which will be tentatively due in Summer 2014. In an interview with MTV, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura said that a new film will follow in the established continuity of the Transformers universe, but without any of its principal stars. That means no Shia LaBeouf, no Josh Duhamel, and no Rosie Whitley-something-or-other to continue the gripping Autobot saga.

Maybe it’s a blessing? Without the perpetual anchor of LaBeouf and his dumb family, Transformers 4 could cut the fat and be somewhat special: better characters, brisker pace, deeper mythology, nuaned emotional gravitas. Haha, nah, it’ll be like three hours of tits and lasers and flags, as always. I’ve already uncovered the movie’s subtitle: Transformers 4: Fuck Osama bin Laden. I can’t wait.

Watch the Shiny New Trailer for the Oscars

The Oscars are less than two months away and after host and producer changes, ABC just released a promo to reassure everyone that it’s going to be A-Okay. The trailer, which comes via Movieline, is a highly produced narrative short about Josh Duhamel and Megan Fox’s journey to the Himalayas in order to find host Billy Crystal. 

Oh no! They aren’t saving the best stuff for the show itself!

Besides Oscar mainstays Josh Duhamel and Megan Fox, the promo also stars Vinnie Jones as the bartender and a heavily made-up Robin Williams as the Mongolian ferryman. If there were an award for Best Oscar Promo, this would definitely, without question, get a nomination.

Prediction: "You could’ve just texted" will become the catchphrase of 2012, narrowly edging out Crystal’s "You look marvelous" after it makes its inevtitable return during the Oscars broadcast,which airs February 26.

The Drambuie Pursuit: The Liquor History Behind the Race

Last Thursday I was in Scotland kicking off the first leg of a trip known as the Drambuie Pursuit — an adventure race that takes place in the Highlands of Scotland and commemorates the legendary creator of Drambuie, “Bonnie” Prince Charlie, as he escaped from the British in 1745. The 15 teams, along with Josh Duhamel — who is also competing in the race — and myself arrived in Inverness via London after taking in the current cocktail and nightlife trends around the city. Teams from around the world met up in London to mix and mingle and learn about the incredibly rich drinking history of the UK and Drambuie’s imprint upon it, then packed up to travel through the Highlands and to the Isle of Skye to learn the entire history and really pay a whiskey drinker’s homage to a brand that holds a lot of depth and detail. It’s a two-day race that includes archery, mountain biking, boating, outdoor challenges and, of course, loads of fireside drinking. A trip that involves cocktails and travel is certainly right up my alley, but unlike a lot of boozey-branded trips, this one really does mixology history justice. I got the chance to get some detailed information on customs and mixology from Jonathan Brown, Drambuie’s Brand Heritage Director and veritable encyclopedia of the Drambuie spirit and all things Scotland.

Tell me about the what inspired the Drambuie Pursuit. The race is inspired by the flight of Bonnie Prince Charlie up to the Battle of Culloden. I use those words “inspired by” because we, in fact, do the race back to front. The race starts in Inverness and goes to the Isle of Skye where Bonnie Prince Charlie retreated from the British all of those years ago. The battle was the last of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, as the Jacobites, who were trying to overthrow the reigning throne to restore their House of Stuart, were enormously defeated. Bonnie Prince Charlie Stuart led the battle in April of 1746 in Culloden, near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands.

How long has this race been going on for to commemorate his battle? Five years … this is the fifth year.

The components to the race — are they special to the history of Scotland in some way? No, I wouldn’t say they’re native to the Highlands. I think when we sort of sat down and thought about how we could best bring the history of Drambuie to life, we obviously wanted to do it in a modern context rather than an old traditional one. So we looked for modern events like mountain biking and sailing, all sorts of things that people do now. They are very much ideal events to take place in the terrain in the Scottish Highlands, but I wouldn’t say they were native to the Highlands.

Do you have a favorite memory of races past? Apart from relief that I haven’t had to do it myself (laughs). Do you know what always strikes me through the day? You see these teams share this sense of camaraderie which just grows during the day, and you see them going through all these extraordinarily draining events … the end finish is always the most extraordinary thing. That is the end of a day that starts at half past six in the morning and goes until six o’clock at night, and here they are running across the finish line, carrying their box with the Drambuie in it. The sense of achievement and bonding, if you like, is absolutely palpable.

What do you think someone who has never traveled to Scotland will be most surprised to learn or see on this trip? I hope that they will be really knocked out by the amazing Scottish scenery and the countryside that we’re traveling through. I think the other thing that I always notice is the Battle of Culloden. It’s a very, very special place and it’s got a real feeling to it and I know people that go there and feel the hairs stand up on the back of their neck. It’s this sense of this brutal slaughter — all in a lost cause. The National Trust of Scotland owns the site now and has produced this amazing three-minute film where you are in the middle of the battle, and then you understand what happened, and you go out onto this ground where this battle took place 264 years ago. You can just feel the despair … people always talk about what a moving place it is.

What is your favorite way to drink Drambuie? I’ve become a great drinker of Drambuie and ginger beer. Historically I’ve always been an on-ice man or a Rusty Nail man, but I like what we call the “Ginger Nail,” which is Drambuie, ginger beer and a wedge of lime squeezed in the top. It is the most wonderfully refreshing way of drinking it, and you’re still getting the taste of Drambuie coming out of it.

Why do you think Drambuie is such a favorite among the drink fanatics and mixologists? There are so many websites and cocktail pages dedicated to the spirit. I think it is for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons is the brand itself because is a very iconic Scottish brand, and if you think about what else comes from Scotland and you think about Scottish whiskey, whiskey comes from a distillery, and there’s lots of whiskeys. Drambuie has lots of different whiskies in it, but the thing about Drambuie is that it is part of Scotland’s heritage. You can find links to Drambuie in castles, on battlefields, historical sites … to be sure you’d expect that. But you can also find it in dance, in song, in literature. It just permeates. It links into so many different places, and I think it gives it such a huge sort of personality. The second reason is because, at the risk of sounding simplistic, it is incredibly versatile. People for far too long have thought about Drambuie only in terms of its Scottish contents — in it being a warming liquor that you drink on ice or with a Rusty Nail. Now that mixologists are really starting to understand that it’s got these amazing herbs and spices and sensory oils, that you’ve got the sweetness that has the honey as well as the whiskey, it just opens up so many different avenues that you can do with it. I think people are being a lot more adventurous in their creations. And everybody’s got a Drambuie story. So many people you meet say “oh yeah, I had Drambuie when I was 20 and we were skiing and somebody set it on fire,” or “we had a night on Drambuie and I had the worst headache in my life. The next morning.” It’s a right of passage for some, and maybe that ticks them off for a year or two but they become used to it.

I liked how you sort-of outline how Drambuie was woven into the fabric of the history of the culture. What is the social and cultural atmosphere of the Highlands and the Islands right now in terms of gathering, eating, drinking? I think there is a difference between the cities and highlands of Scotland. I think the old concept where a bar was a bar which women and children didn’t go into and men went into drink and it was pretty straightforward — that has undoubtedly moved on. The Broadford Hotel where we’re going on Friday night has got a public bar; it’s also got a lounge bar. I think there’s been a lot of movement throughout the years … bars are getting to be a little bit more of a social gathering spot rather than just a drinking place. I wouldn’t try and classify them, in the same way as going to a city, there are a number of places you can go to to drink that are so varied and so different. You can say that is true in the Highlands as well. You’ll get a very good opportunity to have a look at some when you go to London. We’ll be at Broadford, and we’ll be experiencing other atmospheres in other places. Many of the gathering spot are hotels, linked to hotels, and some are just bars on their own in Highland towns. There are great differences in style and variation, but most places I would say are quite traditional. There is a reputation for heavy drinking in the Western Highlands as there is in Scandinavia and in other places. And obviously social problems that go with that.

What are some uncommon drinking customs in Scotland? Flaming, which is where you set fire to the top of the alcohol, is done with Drambuie for celebrations. I spend a lot of time in Scandinavia, and when I first went out there there was a drink called the Drambuie Dragon that was six drops of Tabasco, in a shot glass, and then Drambuie. You throw it down and you get the wonderful taste of the Drambuie, the warming and the smoothness and suddenly you get to the Tabasco. And that was very popular in Scandinavia in the late 90s … it’s fun and you laugh about it, and I’ve certainly had a few and hope I never have to ever have one again. It’s not a very good way to enjoy it, but like I said, some things are passed down as rites of passage, and Drambuie is part of those rites in Scotland.

Links: Levi Johnston vs. Conan O’Brien, Chelsea Handler vs. Paris Hilton

● In light of infidelity claims, Fergie says in this month’s Cosmo that husband Josh Duhamel loved the extra weight she put on for her role in Nine. [Us] ● Levi Johnston is steaming mad at Conan O’Brien — or at least his manager is — over the William Shatner sketch mocking Johnston and his supposed Twitter account, claiming they will sue if the show doesn’t retract the sketch. [TMZ] ● Busy Phillips called out Chad Michael Murray as a “douche” at the Paley Center event for Dawson’s Creek, adding that “she’s not worried about burning bridges with CMM.” [zap2it]

● Chelsea Handler doesn’t really think Paris Hilton likes her show, despite the heiress telling her otherwise; Handler replied to Hilton: “You can’t love my show if you can hear.” [oneindia] ● There’s a live action/CG-animated Yogi Bear remake coming our way, with Dan Aykroyd as Yogi, Justin Timberlake as Boo Boo, and Anna Faris as a documentarian following the two. [EW] ● NBA star Rashad McCants says his cheating storyline on Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami was all an act, as he and Khloe had broken up months before. [P6]