SXSW Film 2018 10 films that owned SXSW 2018

This year’s South By Southwest marks my fifth time attending the film festival and, broadly speaking, was the strongest selection of movies so far. SXSW excelled at bringing in a lot of movies written and/or directed by women, and greatly promoted a lot of “outsider” voices that broadened the narrative scope and cinematic language employed.

If there was an area in which the festival was lacking, I found most of the Midnighters (with one exception, below) to be subpar. Audiences/critics/friends mostly flipped for Hereditary, Ghost Stories, and even some for Unfriended: Dark Web, but I found those to be thoroughly disappointing affairs that had issues in conception and execution.

Below are my top ten films of SXSW 2018. Most of these have been picked up for distribution, and I strongly encourage everyone to seek them out.

(Honorable Mentions: The Unicorn, Family, A Vigilante, A Quiet Place, Heavy Trip)

10. People’s Republic of Desire (dir. Hao Wu)

This exceptional documentary perfectly lays out a cultural phenomenon so alien it was shocking to witness. Examining the rise of livestreaming “stars” on platform YY in China, director Wu follows a few of these figures and their fans and watches as the weird popularity contest intersects with ideas of social mobility, financial prosperity, and an ever-changing cultural landscape. Wu does an excellent job clearly laying out the basic facts about the system that gives rise to these “ordinary” people to become famous millionaires (and backed by millionaires) by possessing only a modicum of talent. The director gets candid insights from the players involved and captures a specific moment in Chinese technology and society while the country seeks to define itself.

9. Prospect (dir. Christopher Caldwell, Zeek Earl)

Despite seeming to be disparate, the space-western is actually a prevalent subgenre in sci-fi. Whether it’s “Firefly,” “Oblivion,” or scores of other series and movies, it’s a well-worn genre mashup. Prospect joins that growing list as one of the best examples. With strong performances from Pedro Pascal and Sophie Thatcher, the film is a showcase for their characters as they navigate the harsh realm of an untamed world. There is a tremendous amount of worldbuilding that feels effortless and natural, with the filmmakers correctly assuming audiences will be able to piece together the specifics of this other universe. Concerning a father and daughter who go to a planet to harvest some space gems and get out of debt, the pair soon finds themselves run afoul by scoundrels, deranged natives, and hostile mercenaries, not to mention the difficult conditions in the environment that pose risks to them at every turn. It’s an engaging survey of a uniquely crafted universe that produces interesting character insights and tense narrative moments that will leave viewers looking to the stars.

8. The Breaker Upperers (dir. Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek)

Few comedies are as joyously bonkers as The Breaker Upperers. This New Zealand film follows two women (writers/directors Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek) and their business of breaking up couples on behalf of people in the relationship too scared or timid to do it. It reveals great depth of compassion and caring for all of the characters while going off in surreal, hilarious, and unexpected tangents. There are sequences in this uproarious movie that are instantly iconic and will stay with viewers long after it ends, sending them into giggling fits. With crackerjack timing and pitch perfect writing, The Breaker Upperers is an incredibly charming film about friendship, love, and the power of Celine Dion.

7. Thunder Road (dir. Jim Cummings)

Based on the incredible short film of the same name, from the same writer/director Jim Cummings, Thunder Road is a character study of a man with a lot on his mind and with a life that didn’t end up quite as he pictured it. Reeling from the death of his mother, the dissolution of his marriage, and the ongoing stresses of trying to be a good father, a police officer (also Cummings) awkwardly attempts to get through his days without losing control. The movie is equal parts incredibly funny dialogue, awkward comedy, and very honest and human deliberation on the space between where we thought we’d end up and where we are now. It’s a beautiful film that can be uncomfortable one moment, uproariously funny the next, crushingly tragic after. Yet it always feels of the same piece without any tonal whiplash, encompassing the many sides of life.

6. Eighth Grade (dir. Bo Burnham)

It is absolutely insane how precisely Bo Burnham is able to distill the experience of being in eighth grade. Those interminable awkward years that seem to stretch forever, where nothing is right and somehow everyone is on the outside looking in are captured perfectly in this film. Elsie Fisher shines as a regular girl trying to navigate the choppy waters of pubescence and social media, while Josh Hamilton is tremendous as her devoted but unintentionally dorky dad. No matter when you were that age, or what you dealt with at that time, there are universal truths. It never feels cloying or like standard indie dramedy fare, but instead like a refreshingly honest and accurate portrayal of why it sucks so much to be 13 years old.

5. Upgrade (dir. Leigh Whannell)

This was the lone Midnighter that truly struck me as an inventive, fun, and unexpected ride that ends up being a total genre crowdpleaser. Writer/director Whannell takes many influences — William Gibson, James Cameron, Neill Blomkamp, Richard Stanley’s Hardware, Frank Henenlotter — puts them all into a blender and serves up the bloody results. In the not too distant future with cybernetic implants, police drones, and self driving cars, a gearhead (Logan Marshall-Green) finds his life irrevocably shattered by a group of killers. Thanks to a technological advance, he’s able mete out his revenge while getting closer to the truth behind the soulcrushing event. Whannell directs the hell out of this film, with inspired camera angels and rigging to really add a propensity to the events as well as excellent practical gore f/x to make the violence hit that much harder. Marshall-Green is great as the everyman on a path of vengeance who must work with this latest hardware upgrade to get what he wants. It’s funny but not goofy; familiar while still being unique; and above all a lot of fun.

4. Isle of Dogs (dir. Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson’s latest is an animated triumph that excels in its ability to deliver sweet truths in an un-saccharine manner. The voice cast is perfect as rough and tumble dogs trying to survive after being cast to Trash Island. There they rescue and befriend a young boy looking to reclaim his beloved dog. Like the best of Anderson, the film is visually delightful, a comic triumph, but also oddly touching in ways that are hard to pin down. A tale about the need to befriend and defend others is perfect for these times, and the cast and crew bring delirious life to it in a way that plays out perfectly. Isle of Dogs is at once part of the cloth of Anderson’s filmography while remaining stunningly unique and utterly charming.

3. Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley)

An apocryphal mash up of Brazil and Bamboozled with a pinch of Idiocracy, Boots Riley’s feature debut is a provocative dark comedy that goes to extreme lengths to deliver a timely message about race, class, and late-stage capitalism. A black telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield) discovers the secret to success when he employs his “white voice” (David Cross) to charm his prey. Soon he is moving up in the company, leaving behind his anarchic artist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) for a chance at the big time with a possibly evil but definitely racist billionaire (Armie Hammer). This film continually finds new ground to mine and new topics to explore without seeming unfocused or slapdash. Instead it all grows from a look at society bending to insidious corporate growth at the expense of its own humanity, while being distracted by awful entertainment and diverting viral successes. Riley’s movie is terrifying in moments because it doesn’t seem that far removed from where the world may head, but always comes back with a bold, often shockingly accurate joke. The strong cast greatly bolsters the film as it goes off in a bizarre (but fitting) third act that is impossible to anticipate and unlikely to be forgotten.

2. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (dir. Morgan Neville)

Mr. Rogers was always the square on PBS that spoke slowly in measured tones while donning a nice cardigan. But the fact of the matter is that, as it becomes more fashionable (and possibly necessary) to adopt cynicism as a means of confronting the world, Fred Rogers’ acts of kindness were truly revolutionary and defied the status quo. Neville’s incredible documentary follows Rogers from his childhood to his death, speaking with family and friends about the icon and the way he shaped a radical approach by treating children’s emotions as valid. The film also makes great use of archival footage from the show, interviews, and behind the scenes that paint a well-rounded portrait of a man who just wanted to do Good in this world. The film is funny, sad, poignant, and unpredictable; just like the tumultuous emotional rollercoaster of life. Many people (including me) teared up at different times during the screening; not necessarily because it was sad, but because it was so sincere and truthful. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? makes a strong argument for the canonization of Fred Rogers, but will also leave viewers clamoring to be the best people they can be.

1. Blindspotting (dir. Carlos López Estrada)

The moment the end credits arrived for Carlos López Estrada’s brilliant film Blindspotting, I knew I had witnessed something unique. Written and starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, the film centers on a few days in the life of two friends at different points in their lives in Oakland. Diggs plays Collin, who is finishing up his probation and will soon be moving out of his halfway house. Casal is Miles, a loyal hothead and huckster that does what he can to help out his family. After a cop shoots an unarmed man in the back in front of Collin, the two start finding themselves revisiting memories, re-examining their priorities, and figuring out where they fit in. Blindspotting sounds incredibly deep, which it is, but also happens to be one of the funniest films in years, with a musical influence that maintains a thematic rhythm. It is a timely tale of substance that isn’t afraid to get silly while examining two men at a crossroads, a city in transition, and souls hanging in the balance. By combining La Haine with School Daze and Friday, Carlos López Estrada and company create a refreshingly honest and human portrait that is relatable but insightful, all with great visual flourishes and expertly written script. It is a great film to experience with an audience, to feel those disparate emotions ripple through the crowd.

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