10 days, 40 films later, and not only has this year’s SXSW Film Festival been a shockingly great success, but while I was unable to see every feature shown during the festival, the ones I did get a chance to check out were more often than not quite wonderful.
However, these are the cream of the crop. The best of the best. These are the 10 best films (so no, sorry Lena Dunham fans, the brilliant trio of episodes of ‘˜Girls’ shown this year won’t count) of this year’s SXSW Film Festival.
The titles are linked to the reviews on the site.
10. The Announcement
When it comes to SXSW, not only do the documentaries shown often garner much of the public’s gaze, but they often stand up as the very best batch of films that the festival has to offer. Hence why there are a pair of documentaries here, one of which is where this list starts. Following the story of ‘Magic’ Johnson and his now iconic announcement that he is indeed HIV positive, the film is an absolutely heartbreaking look at the battle against HIV and AIDS and how this one man may now be the world’s most important fighter of the disease. Looking into how this announcement became a truly world changing event, the film is beautifully made by journalist-turned-director Nelson George, and is easily one of the most affecting films screened during the festival. It’s now airing occasionally on ESPN, as part of their 30 For 30 series.
Guy Maddin doing a haunted house film. What could be better? One of the most polarizing films screened during the festival, Maddin’s new film is flawed (it’s far too long and a bit self indulgent) but it’s also incomprehensibly imaginative, and masterfully crafted. Featuring haunting black and white cinematography, and performances that are equally as hard to forget, this may not be Maddin’s crowning achievement, but ‘minor’ Maddin is still greater and more inventive than nearly everything else put out into theaters.
Slots 7 and 8 are saved for what may be the two biggest breakouts of the festival. Performance wise, no actor or actress proved to take SX by as big of a storm as on Dree Hemingway. Taking on the role of a porn star looking for reason in this world, Hemingway is proving to be this year’s Elizabeth Olsen, giving what may very well be one of the best performances of this year’s festival. The film itself is a tad bit flawed (it’s quite rough around the edges and a tad shrill in moments), but Hemingway’s performance and the film’s aesthetic sense is so strong and assured, that it’s from a collective of voices that we will be hearing from a lot more in the future.
The biggest shock of SXSW 2012. Coming to us from first time filmmaker Rebecca Thomas, the film follows the story of a young Mormon girl who believes she has become pregnant by a song she heard on a new tape deck. The premise sounds wildly silly and pretentious, but what follows is a film so steeped in realism and a love for not only music but the world it both inhabits and breeds, that the neo-Malickian stylistic touches really make for a film to be reckoned with. Not for everyone, the film may seem absurd to most, but without one touch of sarcasm or pretention, Children is such an assured debut feature that with the collection of top notch performances also found here, this is all around one of the best American filmmaking debuts we’ve seen in quite some time.
6. 21 Jump Street
In a calendar year that has seen a handful of filmmakers jump from animation to live-action, who would have thought that it would have been Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller that would have made a better film than the likes of Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton. Their take on the beloved cult ‘˜80s TV series and send up of that very concept, the film is one of 2012’s funniest films, and also one of its most charming. Both Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are career-best here, with chemistry as on fire as some of the explosions found within the film. Gorgeously crafted and featuring one of the funniest scripts in quite some time, this may very well be the funniest American comedy since Anchorman. If not longer.
Now, hopefully this ranking will be enough to get you interested, as this is the one film on the list that I do not want to spoil. Not only does the film not open until October 5th, but, while it doesn’t rely on its story in a way that spoilers would ruin it, it is a premise that will work wonders on those who know little about it. Easily the scariest, or better yet, creepiest, horror/thriller I’ve seen in ages, Sinister isn’t a film that’s so much frightening as it is just upsetting. A truly haunting thriller, the film will leave you wanting more of its brooding electronic score and great Ethan Hawke performance, and also leave you wishing as though you could burn out the images that will forever be embedded into your brain. Scott Derrickson has become a name to be reckoned with.
The Oscar nomination should have been hint enough, but no amount of nomination could do this film justice. A gorgeous look into loss and its effect on those still living, the film features some of the year’s strongest performances, and a Bergman-esque sense of style and existentialism that is hard to find these days. Not as religiously or spiritually bound as Bergman’s work, the film is just as pensive and thoughtful as the auteur’s, and just as darkly comedic. Not taking itself all that seriously, the film allows breathing room for both its cast, and its viewers. Just pure, unadulterated emotion and humanity.
3. Girl Model
Documentaries don’t get much heavier. Looking into the shady world of modeling, the film is a lo-fi and absolutely devastating essay on the effects of the self destructive world of modeling can have on those involved, no matter the level. The roughness around the edges adds to the level of dread and brutal honesty that follows, culminating in a documentary that is as impossible to forget as it is tough to sit through. Just great non-fiction filmmaking.
90+ minutes of literal non-stop action. That is what one should expect walking into The Raid: Redemption. Gareth Evans’ take on the martial arts action film, the film features an aggressively simple premise, with aggressively one note characters who do aggressively silly things. However, what makes this film stand hand and shoulders above all but one film this SXSW, is the choreography. Featuring a handful of set pieces, the film not only crafts a pair of what may very well be some of this generation’s greatest set pieces, but makes for a film that is so incomparably enthralling that you literally will have to peel your face off of the screen. Featuring gorgeous direction, a stunning score and some of the best choreography ever crafted in an action film, this is the populist actioner that we need more of.
And honestly, it’s not even close. A charming bit of comedy in the guise of a time travel film, Safety features a quartet of brilliant performances ranging from a charmingly twee and immensely heartfelt performance from Aubrey Plaza to such a brutally real turn from Mark Duplass, all wrapped up in a romantic comedy that is so full of truth it’s almost unbearable. A film inherently about both the loss of time and the loss of loved ones, this film has the uncanny ability to build to great laughs, while also getting the theater a tad dusty, and ultimately culminating in a finale that will leave you audibly cheering. Say what you will about the film’s conclusion and how it may or may not work given the world set up in the previous 80 or so minutes, this is all around not only the very best film of this year’s festival, but it may very well stand to be the very best independent comedy that we’ve seen in years.