SXSW Film Festival: The best films celebrate the cinema and going to the cinema

Similar but definitely different. Familiar but not the same.

It’s hard to pin down how best to describe the first in-person edition of the South by Southwest Film Festival since 2019, returning to its native Austin, Texas. So much has happened since then, the world has changed, people have changed, that even when the festival hit its sweet spot of combining freewheeling entertainment one moment and new discoveries the next, it still flexed like a muscle could feel, who was not used to being bent. Festival director Janet Pierson, speaking in introductions to film screenings, always spoke with pleasant surprise at how the festival’s ‘vibe’ had returned.

There were high-energy premieres like Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis on Everything Everywhere All at Once, Sandra Bullock and Daniel Radcliffe on The Lost City, and Nicolas Cage and Pedro Pascal on The Unbearable Weight of Massive. Talent.”

It’s an unfortunate fact of SXSW that these premieres often divert attention from other titles, leaving movies that should be livelier outbursts like the self-discovery comedy Spin Me Round, starring Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Alessandro Nivola and Molly Are Shannon, or a low-key thriller about the perils of aging, The Cow, starring Winona Ryder and Dermot Mulroney, struggles to be noticed in all that’s going on.

One film this year that combined the best of both sides of the SXSW experience was Bodies Bodies Bodies. Directed by Halina Reijn, the film is a classic crime thriller told with Gen Z wit, playfully skewering the ways in which therapy language and awakened ideology can be used to explore petty selfishness and forgotten to mask privileges.

Irreverent and outrageous with something terrifying at its core, the film, which is released by A24 later this year, features a tight-knit cast that includes Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Pete Davidson, Rachel Sennott, Myha’la Herrold, Chase Sui Wonders and Lee Pace. Sennott, who directed 2020’s virtual SXSW breakout title Shiva Baby, received particularly strong credit for what could be an even bigger breakthrough performance.

Patton Oswalt (right) and writer, director and actor James Morosini in I Love My Dad.

Patton Oswalt (right) and writer, director and actor James Morosini in I Love My Dad.

(Hantz movies)

This year’s awards included Grand Jury winner “I Love My Dad,” written, directed, and starring James Morosini in what is said to be a semi-autobiographical story about an estranged father who pretends to be a young woman online to meet his father employ son. The catfishing dramedy featured a particularly strong performance from Patton Oswalt as the morally questionable father of Morosini’s character.

A special jury prize for extraordinary cinematic visions went to the cast and crew of the atmospheric Irish thriller It Is In Us All, starring Cosmo Jarvis. Upon accepting the award, producer Tamryn Reinecke was excited to note that the project would be her film debut as well as the debuts of filmmaker Antonia Campbell-Hughes and actor Rhys Mannion, and they were grateful for the encouragement.

A Special Award for Breakthrough Performance went to Elizaveta Yankovskaya in Vasilisa Kuzmina’s “Nika,” the heartfelt fact-based story in which she plays 20-year-old Nika Turbina, who rose to fame as a young child in Russia as a poet and strives towards becoming find in her life as soon as she gives up writing and reciting her works.

On the documentary side, the Grand Jury Prize went to Rosa Ruth Boesten’s Master of Light, the story of George Anthony Morton, a classical painter trying to start his life anew after 10 years in prison. A Special Jury Award for exceptional intimacy in storytelling went to “Bad Axe,” in which filmmaker David Siev examines racism in his own hometown through the struggles of his Asian-American family. Another Special Jury Award for Role in a Documentary Feature went to Steve Glew for Pez Outlaw, directors Amy Bandlien Storkel and Bryan Storkel’s story of how Glew attempted to make a fortune selling rare Pez dispensers.

The festival rolled out its awards on Tuesday but will last until the premiere of the upcoming third season of FX series Atlanta on Saturday.

Lily Gladstone stars as Tana "The Unknown Land"

Lily Gladstone stars in The Unknown Country as Tana, a grieving young woman on an unexpected road trip across the American Midwest.

(Morrisa Maltz)

The awards only scratched the surface of films yet to be discovered in the festival’s program. Directed by Morrisa Maltz, The Unknown Country combines documentary elements of people encountered along the Midwestern highways with a fictional story of a woman grieving the death of her grandmother. The film centers on Lily Gladstone, known to some from Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” and soon to many more from Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon”, a compulsively watched performer who seems incapable of a wrong moment and captures the lyrical ambiguities of Maltz’s patient, watchful sensibility.

One film that certainly got people talking was Beth de Araújo’s Soft & Quiet. Narrated in real-time, the film begins with the first meeting of a seemingly harmless group of women, which turns out to be a collection of white supremacists who quickly escalate into a heinous hate crime. The film’s style and story seeks to capture how easily violent rhetoric turns into violent action, with a dynamic that leads to some deeply uncomfortable moments to be reckoned with.

Eliaveta Yankovskaya as Nika Turbina in the film

Eliaveta Yankovskaya as Nika Turbina, who rose to fame as a young poet only to fight later in life in the film “Nika,” directed by Vasilisa Kuzmina.


In the past, film festivals were often able to detach themselves from reality and take place in their own bubble, in which the outside world withdrew. This year at SXSW, the events of the rest of the world – some locally in Texas and others around the world unfolding in Ukraine – never seemed far off for many people. And somehow the intervention of the outside world only made the experience of the festival richer and more emotional. Nowhere was this clearer than at the festival’s awards ceremony, when Kuzmina, the Russian director of Nika, accepted the acting award on Yankovskaya’s behalf.

“Actually, I would say that this is the moment I’ve dreamed of all my life,” said Kuzmina, “but we cannot ignore the fact that there is a human tragedy in Ukraine right now. Our hearts are broken. I just want to say it out loud.

“I was really proud that our film was mostly made by women and played by women. It’s extraordinary because women’s voices always stand for equality, they stand for peace, they stand for humanity,” said Kuzmina. “I believe that cinema is the universal language that will help us to communicate and unite us all but not divide us and that can speak directly to our hearts.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-03-18/sxsw-film-festival-best-highlights-wrap SXSW Film Festival: The best films celebrate the cinema and going to the cinema

Caroline Bleakley

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