CriterionCast

7 Films To See At SXSW 2021

Well, it’s that time of year once again, it’s spring festival season. Every spring, film fans descend upon Austin, Texas for what has become one of the most important and influential American film festivals on the proverbial calendar. With dozens of films scheduled to run on the SXSW website, it has remained as buzzed about a film festival as the US has in 2021, albeit in a different form. But where should one begin? Well, that’s what we’re here for. These are seven films you need to see from this year’s SXSW lineup.

7. Disintegration Loops

Starting off this discussion is the sole short (or medium length, maybe?) on the list. From director David Wexler comes Disintegration Loops, a moving portrait of legendary ambient music composer William Basinski and the legendary series from which the film draws its title. With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on the horizon, Wexler takes this precarious moment we currently live in to chat with Basinski and other contemporaries about the impact the iconic avant garde composition had not just on the music scene post 9/11, but the larger cultural conversation about this piece of shared trauma, and even how we currently relate back to it within our isolated state in 2020/21. The tapes themselves are still deeply profound, with Basinski beginning in August of 2021 to transfer tape loops that were beginning to decay to CD, quite literally giving new life to the act of dying. These loops, beautiful and haunting in their endless sadness and melancholy, became not just groundbreaking works of experimental music, but almost anthemic for a world that seemed to be crumbling. Wexler chats with Basinski over video, giving a strangely timely aesthetic to an otherwise brisk medium-length bio-doc, one of the more fascinating documentaries at this year’s SXSW Film Festival.

6. Recovery

Another COVID-19-related film, this time one that’s a bit less heady. Actually, the breeziness found within Recovery is one of the reasons it is so fascinating. The first pandemic-related film that doesn’t live in the river of despair that is isolated life, Recovery is a fun, feather-light comedy following two sisters who, upon the initial break of the pandemic, decide to retrieve their grandmother from a retirement home that appears to have gone to seed, if you will. Directed by Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek, this road trip comedy relies not on some strange “urgency” brought on by the subject matter, instead it fosters real chemistry between the two leads, played by Everton and Whitney Call, who are a total joy to watch. There is some discussion here about life in a pandemic, particularly with regards to attempting to foster relationships, but instead of drowning viewers in perceived urgency (I’m looking at you Locked Up) it takes viewers across the country with the pandemic standing as little more than window dressing. Light, fluffy and most importantly fun this is one of the more delightful discoveries of SXSW 2021.

5. Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free

Now for something a bit less “under the radar.” I hesitate even putting this on this list as, of course it’s worth taking a glance at as it is, after all, the Centerpiece Film of this year’s festival, but Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free is not just a puff piece about a fallen music legend. Directed by Mary Wharton, Somewhere takes a look at the recording of Petty’s legendary 1994 album Wildflowers, often discussed as his magnum opus. Begun as an attempt at producing a solo record after years of working as the lead of the Heartbreakers, Wildflowers proved to be Petty at his most alive and vital, documented here through newly discovered archival materials. Pairing these incredible 16mm films with new interviews from those who were there in the moment, Wharton’s film is an essential, urgent document of a master artist working at the very height of his powers, and using those powers to break free from stagnation. The black and white photography gives the film a timeless quality, a quality of returning back to one’s roots, back to the very beginning in hopes of launching forward into unknown waters. It may be a pinch long for those with little knowledge of Petty beyond the hits, but fans of his will find it hard to find a more textured and powerful portrait of the late artist.

4. Dear Mr. Brody

Continuing this run of documentaries on this list (2021 is a banner year for this festival on a non-fiction front), Dear Mr. Brody comes from director Keith Maitland and tells the story of one Michael Brody Jr. who, in 1970, promised to give the entirety of his $25 million inheritance to those who wrote to him describing why they’d need the money. With the hope of bringing about a wave of global peace, Brody’s story is one that’s much knottier than that broad recap may hint towards. With the 1960’s firmly in the rear-view and a fraught decade ahead, Brody’s attempt at bringing about world peace garnered him press the nation over. This captivating new documentary is collected from not just new interviews with the men and women who knew the oleomargarine heir, but also drawn from troves of letters found one day in a storage locker by a woman named Melissa Robyn Glassman whose boss, producer Edward R. Pressman, once attempted to make a movie about Brody’s story. Described as a story worthy of Billy Wilder, this documentary is propulsive and engrossing, a portrait of one man’s attempt to change the world only to be undone by his own demons. Very much a story that feels of this moment, Dear Mr. Brody is both a biographical documentary and also a portrait of the perverse, corruptible power of fame and the proverbial spotlight.

3. The Oxy Kingpins

Arguably the most conventional documentary on this list, The Oxy Kingpins may also be the most infuriating. While the COVID-19 pandemic may be taking the headlines (rightly), there’s a still-raging epidemic killing thousands of people in the US, and this attempts to give faces to those within this world. Directed by Brendan Fitzgerald, Kingpins takes a first hand account of the ongoing opioid crisis in this country, looking at everyone from global manufacturers to the drug dealers selling pills on the black market. The first film under The Young Turks’ TYT Productions banner, this feels very much of a piece with that collective’s investigative approach, getting a deeply researched cross section of players involved in this world while carrying with it a distinct and clear voice. The film’s structured relatively conventionally, particularly given the onslaught of issue-focused docs that have become part and parcel of the streaming world, but what makes this an essential work is the sense of urgency given to the film through its clear voice. There’s a reason why someone like Adam McKay is aboard here as a producer, with Kingpins feeling very much like a dry run for the inevitable Perdue skewering we’re going to get from a McKay film down the line. It’s a timely portrait of a crisis eating this country from the inside.

2. The Lost Sons

The final documentary on this list is another aesthetically conventional documentary given true import by a story that literally feels too strange to ever be true. The Lost Sons tells the story of Paul Fronczak, a man who has lived many a life. Quite literally a stolen baby when he was born, Fronczak was kidnapped from a hospital in Chicago, only to potentially be abandoned some 15 months later. At the age of ten he discovered a series of newspaper clippings about his presumed parents mourning the loss and ultimately celebrating the return of a young baby. Is this him or is he actually someone else? This discovery sends him on a life-long journey for truth, told here in exquisite, thrilling detail by director Ursula Macfarlane, and reteaming CNN Films with RAW, the same duo that brought about the equally thrilling Three Identical Strangers. They’ve also worked together on a previous film, The Imposter that lives somewhere in this same type of mistaken identity documentary universe. Here, however, the film’s given even more weight through the excellent structure and editing, and photography that seems ripped right out of a blockbuster thriller. In a world where these type of true crime documentaries are a dime a dozen, to see one that’s not only fascinating but expertly constructed is a rare occurrence.

1. The Feast

Topping this preview is one of the more exciting entries in the Midnighters section, the section for which SXSW may in fact be best known nowadays. Directed by Lee-Haven Jones and penned by Roger Williams, The Feast is a fascinating, volatile and grotesque journey into the lives of the 1%. Spanning more or less one night, the film invited viewers into the world of a wealthy governmental family living in the Welsh mountains, who, upon setting up a dinner party for a couple close friends (well a close friend and someone they want to rope into a get rich scheme) encounter a strange young woman tasked with serving them dinner. What follows is a chilling and disturbed descent into proverbial madness, with Jones and Williams crafting a biting, if not entirely subtle, satire about conspicuous consumption in the final days of global capitalism. “After you’ve taken everything, what will be left?” is the question, and complete chaos and violence is more or less the answer. The film does take a second to get moving, but Jones’ direction is shockingly assured and textured, with it getting more and more surreal as the film progresses. Surely not everyone’s cup of tea, this will no doubt be one of the talks of the proverbial town as the festival begins on Tuesday, March 16.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.

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