This year’s South by Southwest Film program encompassed 134 Feature Films including 101 World Premieres, 9 North American Premieres, 3 US Premieres, and 64 films from first-time filmmakers. I watched 27 of them, and after reviewing two in detail, I don’t want to leave y’all in the dark about the rest.
Directed by Paul Solet
Pushed to his breaking point, a master welder in a small town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains quietly fortifies a bulldozer with 30 tons of concrete and steel. He seeks to destroy those he believes have wronged him.
This documentary is as suspenseful as a thriller, and while I usually don’t care for reenactments in such films, they did an outstanding job mixing news footage, original recordings of the perpetrator, interviews with witnesses and the reenactments together to form a wholesome picture of an event that made nationwide headlines in 2004, but was overshadowed by the death of Ronald Reagan the very next day. Highly interesting and a shockingly true crime story!
2. “Body At Brighton Rock” (3/10)
Written & directed by Roxanne Benjamin, with Karina Fontes, Casey Adams
An inexperienced park employee discovers a body on a remote mountain trail and must stay with it overnight in the wilderness, facing her darkest fears in the process.
This crude genre mix never satisfies, and the stupid behavior of the main protagonist is aggravating. Suspense was only provided via jump-scares and overall it felt like a blown-up short movie. The cinematography alone was worth sitting through this movie.
3. “Running with Beto” (8/10)
Directed by David Modigliani
Follow Beto O’Rourke behind the scenes of his breakaway campaign to unseat Ted Cruz in the US Senate. With intimate access to the candidate, his family, and the team, this film captures Beto’s rise from a virtually unknown individual to a national political sensation.
This documentary is very personal and highly emotional, and the filmmakers do a great job highlighting how hard Beto worked to win this race, and even though the outcome is known, it highlights that the ambitions of this young politician are far from being over. It’s a great film for anyone interested in a modern political campaign, or learning more about who Beto O’Rourke is a person.
4. “Go Back to China” (7/10)
Written & directed by Emily Ting, with Anna Akana, Richard Ng
After spoiled rich girl Sasha Li blows through half of her trust fund, she is cut off by her father and forced to go back to China and work for the family toy business.
While the plot is rather generic and rather predictable, this is a film with its heart and soul in the right place. I also enjoyed how it discussed many common family issues without ever feeling as dramatic as a soap opera, which makes it very relatable.
5.” The Beach Bum” (7/10)
Written & directed by Harmonie Korine, with Matthew McConaughey, Isla Fisher, Snoop Dogg, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence
“The Beach Bum” follows the hilarious adventures of Moondog, a rebellious rogue who always lives life by his own rules.
This is a film that is going to divide the audience. Many will criticize the lack of story or character development, while others will praise the nihilistic and nonconformist humor and the stoned enthusiasm McConaughey puts into his character. It’s definitely not as great as “Spring Breakers” is, but as a stoner comedy it works. Just don’t go watch it with higher expectations than that.
6. “Long Shot” (8/10)
Directed by Jonathan Levine, written by Dan Sterling, Liz Hannah, with Chalize Theron, Seth Rogen, Andy Serkis, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Bob Odenkirk
Hard-hitting political writer Fred Flarsky reunites with his first crush, current US Secretary of State, Charlotte Field. The film redefines “international relations” with a profane, funny, and unexpected love.
Often romantic comedies are divided in two halves, a very funny beginning that turns into a cheesy romance in the second act. “Long Shot” doesn’t make that mistake; instead the film manages to keep up a good balance throughout the movie. The jokes are hilarious, the romance is believable and relatable, and the actors do a really good job. What more can you ask for in a rom-com?
7. “Knock Down the House” (7/10)
Directed by Rachel Lears, Written by Rachel Lears & Robin Blotnik, with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Paula Jean Swearengin, Cori Bush
A young bartender in the Bronx, a coal miner’s daughter in West Virginia, a grieving mother in Nevada, and a registered nurse in Missouri run for Congress in 2018. One of their races becomes the most shocking political upset in recent US history.
While this documentary wasn’t as gripping as the one about Beto, it is still captures the energy and motivation these four woman bring in their campaigns, and particularly the part about Alexandria Ocasio Cortez gives hope for the political future of this country.
8. “The Art of Self-Defense” (9/10)
Written and directed by Riley Stearns, with Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Set in the world of karate, Eisenberg plays a man who is attacked on the street and enlists in a local dojo, led by a charismatic Sensei, in an effort to defend himself.
This grotesque comedy was one of my personal highlights this year. The humor is very special and too dark for some viewers. The style of this film is hard to describe, but it’s kind of a “Karate Kid” meets “Napoleon Dynamite” experience. Eisenberg does a fantastic job, but the real MVP here is the script from director Riley Stearns, with some of the funniest dialogue I’ve heard in a while.
9. “The Highwaymen” (7/10)
Directed by John Lee Hancock, written by John Fusco, with Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, Kathy Bates, Kim Dickens
The outlaws made headlines. The lawmen made history. This is the untold story of the legendary detectives that brought down Bonnie and Clyde.
This is an authentic looking historic thriller drama, but while the filmmakers didn’t do anything wrong in particular, they just don’t show us anything we haven’t seen before either. The actors do a great job, but particularly Costner invokes memories to his earlier movie “The Untouchables” where he plays Elliot Ness going after Al Capone. “The Highwaymen” a good film, but it feels like there was more potential to it than just to de-romanticize the story of the famous outlaw couple.
10. “Booksmart” (9/10)
Directed by Olivia Wilde, written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman, with Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudekis
Told from a wildly original, fresh, and modern perspective, “Booksmart” is an unfiltered comedy about high school friendships and the bonds we create that last a lifetime. Capturing the spirit of our times, the film is a coming of age story for a new generation.
This was another of the festival highlights and will definitely become a cult movie for millenials. With many parallels to “Superbad,” Olivia Wilde makes sure “Booksmart” has its unique voice and is appropriate for the times we live in, where many jokes that worked 10 years ago don’t do well anymore. Funny, heartfelt, and really well made, this is one of the films you can’t miss in 2019!
11. “Run this Town” (7/10)
Written & directed by Ricky Tollman, with Ben Platt, Nina Dobrev, Damian Lewis, Scott Speedman, Mena Massoud
A political aide tries to corral his brash, outspoken boss when a young researcher at a newspaper gets word of a scandal that could make or break both of their careers.
This could have been a very generic political thriller inspired by “All the Presidents Men,” but a unique perspective and the casting clou of Damien Lewis playing former mayor of Toronto Rob Ford in a fat suit make it interesting to watch. For fans of the genre this will definitely do, but if you’re less interested in politics, I’d rather suggest something else.
12. “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter ” (9/10)
Directed by Erin Lee Carr
Teen Michelle Carter’s actions shocked the nation – but what really happened behind closed doors? This HBO special showcases the prosecution’s point of view and alternately the defense’s. Which side do you fall on?
The first part of this documentary is quite conventional, but only when the perspective changes halfway and a more wholesome picture forms, it’s suddenly not so easy anymore to decide what’s right and what’s justice. An eye-opening experience that teaches that behind every story is far more than a headline suggests.
13. “Stuffed” (8/10)
Directed by Erin Derham, with Allis Markham, Jaap Sinke, Ferry Van Tongeren, Travis De Villiers, Daniel Meng, Wendy Christensen
“Stuffed” is a documentary feature film about the surprising world of taxidermy and the passionate artists across the world who see life where others only see death.
Everyone knows what taxidermy is, but almost no one knows the effort behind it, or the people that do it. The group portrayed here couldn’t be more diverse, and everyone has his own personal drive, method, and process. This is definitely worth watching, it’s one of the most interesting documentaries I have seen recently.
14. “Good Boys” (7/10)
Directed by Greg Stupnitsky, written by Lee Eisenberg, Greg Stupnitsky, with Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon
Three pre-high-schoolers try to attend their first kissing party, which leads them on a one-day-odyssey of bad decisions.
The basic premise is to make an R-rated comedy starring kids and it works out well. It’s best when the genre conventions are undermined by their innocence. That being said, as a whole the film doesn’t have to offer much else. It’s entertaining, but probably won’t be able to reach the cult status of “Superbad.”
15. “I See You” (6/10)
Directed by Adam Randall, written by Devon Graye, with Helen Hunt, Judah Lewis, Owen Teague
Strange occurrences plague a small town detective and his family as he investigates the disappearance of a young boy.
This was another movie that had good potential, but ultimately didn’t live up to it. The story is told from three perspectives and pacing and script are pretty good; it keeps you constantly wondering what’s going on. However, the filmmakers make confusing decisions in key scenes, and when the mystery is finally revealed, it just doesn’t feel right.
16. “Aquarela” (8/10)
Directed by Victor Kossakovsky, written by Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques
“Aquarela” is a deeply cinematic journey through the transformative beauty and raw power of water. Filmed at 96 frames-per-second, it’s a visceral wake-up call that humans are no match for the sheer force and will of Earth’s most precious element.
This is something for fans of films like “Baraka” or “Koyaanisqatsi,” and if you have never heard of those, google them and have a look. These films are rather meditative than informing and completely rely on the beauty of the filmed subject. Not for everybody, but surely an experience for the mind.
17. “Teen Spirit” (8/10)
Written & directed by Max Minghella, with Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall
The film follows Violet, a shy teenager who enters an international singing competition with the help of an unlikely mentor. Driven by a pop-fueled soundtrack, “Teen Spirit” is a stylish spin on the Cinderalla story.
This beautifully shot movie is carried throughout by Elle Fanning and her voice. She does an outstanding job performing and acting at the same time, and Zlatko Buric is a wonderful scene-stealer. The story doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it keeps the drama low and surprises in the right moment, so the foreseeable outcome still has a fresh taste to it. A movie that reflects the millennial zeitgeist where anybody can become a star.
18. “Days of the Whale” (8/10)
Written & directed by Catalina Arroyave Restrepo, with Laura Tobón, David Escallón
Two young graffiti artists from Medellín defy a criminal gang when they decide to paint the mural of a whale over a threat written on a wall.
From Colombia comes this gripping street art drama with authentic street art and a grippingly realistic portrayal of the way of life in a gang-controlled neighborhood. The fact that the main protagonist is a young woman (just like the writer & director) in this South-American drama only underlines what a special film this is. Not only for graffiti fans!
19. “Everybody’s Everything” (7/10)
Directed by Sebastian Jones, Ramez Silyan
This documentary follows the story of artist Lil Peep (Gustav Ahr) from his birth in Long Island and meteoric rise as a genre blending pop star and style icon, to his death due to an accidental opioid overdose in Arizona at just 21 years of age.
Assembled from countless hours of personal footage, live streams, concerts, and interviews, this is a wholesome portrait of a driven artist with a troubled soul. It’s very personal and moving, and I really enjoyed it despite not being a fan of Lil Peep’s music.
20. “Them that Follow” (8/10)
Written & directed by Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage, with Olivia Coleman, Kaitlyn Dever, Walton Goggins
Set deep in the wilds of Appalachia, where believers handle death-dealing snakes to prove themselves before God, this is a story of a pastor’s daughter who holds a secret that threatens to tear the community apart.
The religious fanaticism portrayed in this film is very troubling, because it doesn’t happen on the other side of the world, but in this very country. The script is very emphatic and slow paced, and the brilliant performances leave you behind with goose bumps. Very intense drama!
21. “Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World” (8/10)
Written & directed by Hans Pool
This documentary explores the exclusive world of Bellingcat, a highly skilled and controversial collective of “citizen investigative journalists” dedicated to redefining breaking news in the 21st century.
In times of “Fake-News” and Russian disinformation campaigns it can be hard to figure out whom to trust. Regular citizen from all over the world now use their skills and publicly available data and do research on their own, with stunning results. Highly interesting documentary that shows how important it is to maintain a healthy portion of skepticism, and what big impact a small group of people can have.
22. “IRIS: A Space Opera By Justice” (10/10)
Directed by Andre Chemetoff, Armand Beraud
“IRIS” is a film adaptation of Justice’s “Women World Wide” live show from 2017 to 2018, which is widely regarded as the greatest live electronic concert created. Recorded in an empty and invisible space, “IRIS” focuses on the impressive production and music.
This is a must-see for anyone who likes electronic music, impressive light choreographies, or space graphics. This is simply the best lightshow I have seen in my life. Also, they announced in the Q&A that they don’t plan to publish it widely but rather make it an event at selected theaters. If you have the chance to watch it, don’t hesitate! It might be your only chance to watch this brilliant concert film!
23. “Salvage” (7/10)
Directed by Amy C. Elliot
The Yellowknife dump, and its massive unrestricted salvage area, has played a central role in this remote Canadian city’s civic and social life. Can a colorful group of thrifty locals save it from city bureaucrats determined to close it down?
This was rather a TV-documentary and only an hour long, but it had heart and told a nice story of a dying generation that rather fixes or reuses something than throwing it away, as well as a little David-vs-Goliath story.
24. “Stuber” (7/10)
Directed by Michael Dowse, written by Tripper Clancy, with Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista
When a mild-mannered Uber driver picks up a cop hot on the trail of a brutal killer, he’s thrust into a harrowing ordeal where he has to keep his wits, his life, and his five-star-rating.
“Stuber” is another movie in this year’s selection that is a product of its time. While Austin is already covered in rental scooters, the Uber-hype finally reaches the big screen. This film is ok, and fans of the actors will love it, but similar to “Good Boys” it doesn’t explore its full potential, but is mostly saved by funny performances from its main cast. The hand-made action and refusal of gross-out-jokes make it a good watch for a Sunday afternoon.
25. “Us” (9/10)
Written and directed by Jordan Peele, with Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
“Us” pits an average American family against a terrifying opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.
Need I say more? This film is already in everybody’s mind, only to be outrun in interest now by the last season of “Game of Thrones.” I liked it just as much as “Get Out,” and it will be interesting to see if Jordan Peele can repeat the insane success of his previous movie; it’d be well deserved.
26. “Apollo 11” (10/10)
Directed by Todd Douglas Miller
A look at the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon led by commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin.
Completely assembled from original Apollo footage and without any narration, this brilliant documentary serves as a time capsule for us who weren’t born yet when humans first set foot on the moon. It’s fascinating how far we got with so little; today every smart phone exceeds the computing power of back then! A must watch!
27. “Pet Sematary” (6/10)
Directed by Stefan Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer, written by Jeff Buhler, with Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow
Sometimes dead is better: Another adaptation of Stephen King’s mega bestseller tells the story of a father, that is pushed beyond the extreme by the grief for his family.
This is just another uninspired remake/adaptation that no one asked for. It moves away from the themes of the book and doesn’t add much that the first movie already had. Filmmaking off the racks, SXSW would have deserved a better closing movie this year, I recommend rather reading the book instead, that is pure horror!