SXSW Film 2019 10 favorites from this year’s film festival

I knew it’d be a daunting task to follow up last year’s lineup. SXSW 2018’s Film Festival contained bona fide classic titles that wound up on many year-end lists — Eighth Grade, Upgrade, Hereditary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Blindspotting, A Quiet Place, Sorry to Bother You — exceptional films that received a tidal wave of praise for being innovative, original, and entertaining in ways few movies can match. So it felt unlikely that SXSW 2019 Film Festival could reach those same heights, and unfortunately, for the most part, it didn’t.

One area in particular that still requires improvement is the “Midnighters” programming. The Midnighters is meant to host weird genre films (screened around midnight) that are bizarre but engaging; maybe bloody or grotesque, but still of a quality that keeps horrorhounds like myself entertained. Over the past three years, this programming has been slipping, with just a scant few titles being exceptional. This is a perplexing state of affairs, as SXSW has had better and better genre fare in the main programming slot, especially this year, but the Midnighters is a case of diminishing returns that could use a reboot of how these titles are sourced and scheduled.

But while SXSW may not have had as banner a year as previous, it still delivered a lot of solid entries. The following represents my favorite 10 of the 24 movies I saw, titles that I think are worth celebrating and checking out.

Us (dir. Jordan Peele)

Speaking of intimidating acts to follow, Jordan Peele’s sophomore film after Get Out had a lot to live up to considering how massive his first foray into horror turned out. Luckily for audiences, he delivers an exceptional movie filled with riveting imagery, gripping sequences, and phenomenal performances. While the social commentary in Us isn’t as direct as the previous title, there’s still a lot going on in Peele’s script and film that looks at division across the nation, in our families, and in ourselves. While the entire cast is pitch perfect, Lupita Nyong’o shines as the matriarch that shepherds her family through the bloody affair with these disturbing doppelgangers.

Little Monsters (dir. Abe Forsythe)

Every time the zombie subgenre is brought up, it feels oversaturated, offering no new ideas. Yet every year, there are still a few totally brilliant revisionist takes that utilizes the living impaired in a genius manner, forcing audiences to reevaluate what life remains with these undead monstrosities. Writer/Director Abe Forsythe’s Little Monster is an incredibly entertaining horror comedy that places a kindergarten field trip into the center of a zombie apocalypse, with only three adults to help them — their earnest teacher (Lupita Nyong’o, again!), a host of their beloved TV show (Josh Gad, playing against type), and a shiftless chaperone who doesn’t seem to have any nurturing bones in his body (Alexander England). The movie is full of hilarious lines, brilliant character moments, and incredibly inventive sequences that delight, with a secretly sweet, beating heart at the center of this gorefest.

The Art of Self-Defense (dir. Riley Stearns)

An absurd takedown of toxic machismo and “alpha” mentalities, Stearns’s comedy has dialogue that feels like exposition dumps found in Yorgos Lanthimos films or some of Wes Anderson’s catalogue. That dryness and surreality of the situation fuels this tale of a weakling who gets drawn into the alluring mystique of a shadowy local dojo that empowers him to activate his inner 1980s action hero. It’s a hilarious, dark, and shocking film that’s somehow both entirely unique and oddly familiar.

Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window (dir. Andrew Hevia)

Something that should be a pretentious, off-putting ego trip turns into an unexpected joy with this documentary. Hevia, shooting mostly in “first person” style, documents his rash decision to travel to Hong Kong and follow artists there, documenting their work and understanding their world. And all of this is covered by second-person narration delivered by what sounds like a text-to-speech program. But what would seem to be a solipsistic travelogue about an ugly American goes through to the other side to become a universal story about feeling unmoored without direction. This feeling is perfectly communicated by Hevia, who throughout it all still manages to highlight elements of Hong Kong culture that are unfamiliar to most Westerners.

Villains (dir. Dan Berk & Robert Olsen)

There’s a surprisingly large subgenre in which criminals cross paths with the even darker side in a sort of noir/horror split. Found in movies like Sssss, From Dusk Til Dawn, and Don’t Breathe, it’s a chance to take tough characters and pit them against exceptionally tougher situations. What Berk and Olsen get right in Villains is that the main criminal characters (played by Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe) are fully realized and endlessly interesting. They are fuck-ups and somewhat dimwits, but also skilled and overall well-intentioned. Rather than have them be complete scumbags whose torture you delight in, these are the types of Elmore Leonard crooks who you root for as they match wits against their deranged captors (Jeffery Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick). It’s funny, unexpected, twisted, and a total trip of a film.

Extra Ordinary (dir. Mike Ahern & Enda Loughman)

At SXSW 2014, a small horror comedy called Housebound played that I still love very much (and you should definitely seek it out). Five years later, it’s successor has arrived in the form of Extra Ordinary. While not as good as Housebound, it’s still incredibly enjoyable, as it uses common horror tropes and imagery in a small town for great comedic effect. A former medium (Maeve Higgins) must use her gifts to help a man haunted by his dead wife while also fending off the Faustian plans of a one-hit wonder (Will Forte). There are so many absurd and awkward bits that play brilliantly with the amount of character work given to each member of the cast. It’s a total delight that has a really impressive visual style and an incredibly appealing sense of humanity about it.

Boyz in the Wood (dir. Ninian Doff)

One wouldn’t expect a dumb, crass, comic take on The Most Dangerous Game to also have a lot of insight into the tensions between Baby Boomers and Millennials, and yet that’s actually what ends up being at the heart of Doff’s film. Three juvenile delinquents and one overachiever are stuck in the Scottish highlands, as they compete for the Duke of Edinburgh prize to navigate the wilderness. Soon, masked noblemen seeking to hunt them down beset the dimwitted teens. Doff adds a lot of visual flair with the introduction of psychedelic drugs and the naturally gorgeous vistas. Juxtaposed against this take on urban explorers out of their element are hapless cops who are out of their own element and who would be much better served tracking down the local bread thief. It’s not razor-sharp wit, but there is a host of funny moments that prove charming in their own ramshackle ways.

The Peanut Butter Falcon (dir. Tyler Nilson & Mike Schwartz)

Quirky characters go on a literal journey together and discover much they didn’t know about the world… and themselves. This describes a plethora of indie dramedies — and also The Peanut Butter Falcon. This film doesn’t break the mold — though, at least its lead with Down syndrome is portrayed by an actor who actually has Down syndrome — but it manages to highlight why this plucky formula works so well. Zack Gottsagen, Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts all turn in memorable performances. No, it isn’t reinventing the wheel, but it gives voice to people who are often overlooked in a part of the country, the southeast, and tells a sincere story about growth and dreams in the process.

Yes, God, Yes (dir. Karen Maine)

For numerous religions across the globe, sex and guilt are inexorably tied. Any curiosity about the mystery behind what pleasures exist are pushed to the shadows, and shame is visited on any who dare ask rather biologically important questions. Maine’s film is a great tale of a teenage girl’s (Natalia Dyer) sexual awakening while in the Catholic faith in the early 2000s, when sexy chat rooms were just the beginning and porn was a few clicks away. The film is an honest look at that turbulent time when any sense of impurity or impropriety can weigh heavily on a person who is constantly told how wrong and bad it is to simply have urges and curiosity. The film will be familiar to anyone who grew up in faiths or households where such topics were associated with sin, and it is a hilarious display of wrestling with the apparent hypocrisy and judgment of so many while finding one’s own path.

Amazing Grace (dir. Alan Elliott & Sydney Pollack)

Culled from footage originally shot over two nights in 1972 for an unrealized TV special directed by Sydney Pollack, Amazing Grace is a stunning gospel concert film that finds Aretha Franklin at the height of her popularity and power, returning to her gospel choir roots for packed houses. It is an incredible performance to take in, and the entire re-edited film has an electricity of a revival performance that will truly energize the soul. Since it’s all raw footage, the film appears sloppily directed, with random zooms on uninterested faces, or directionless pans across a group of people, or scores of crew members visibly in shots. But that lack of polish gives it a real immediacy, where it suddenly feels more like where the audience is in that hot Los Angeles church in 1972, bearing witness to an incredible moment that can never truly be replicated.

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