One of the first things I heard after arriving in town for South by Southwest was “Keep Austin Weird.” It’s sort of the city’s unofficial motto, but it’s one that resonated with me over the course of my week-long trip. Though it’s hard to say whether Austin really is as weird during the rest of the year as it is during SXSW, the city exudes a certain energy that makes it the perfect place to hold such a unique event. It also helps to have some of the most passionate movie lovers in the country populating the streets, because while SXSW attracts cinephiles from all over the globe, it’s the locals (from the volunteers to the everyday attendees) who actually make you want to come back.
For anyone that followed my SXSW Blog throughout the course of the film festival, you already know that my experience was a rather positive one. In fact, of the 17 films screened during my time in Austin, there were only two that I didn’t particularly like. You’d think that would make selecting my personal favorites even more difficult, but my Top Three easily blows the rest of the competition out of the water. Here are some highlights from my reviews of those films:
[Jean-Pierre] Jeunet’s latest film, “Micmacs,” may just be his best yet – a whimsical crime caper that boasts his trademark visual style, a classic Max Steiner score, and an ensemble cast filled with familiar faces. Though it likely won’t have the crossover appeal of “Amelie,” “Micmacs” is one of the most enjoyable moviegoing experiences of the year… It’s all done so effortlessly, and with [Dany] Boon and his co-stars so charming throughout, that you’d have to be in a pretty sour mood not to walk out of “Micmacs” with a giant grin on your face.
Director Matthew Vaughn clearly understands the world that [Mark] Millar and [John] Romita Jr. have created, and that familiarity resonates throughout, from the high-energy action scenes to the colorful performances from its cast… The end result is an entertaining blend of action and comedy that, despite falling short of its ridiculously high expectations, delivers everything that was awesome about the comic and more.
3. “Four Lions”
A pitch-black satire in the same vein as “Dr. Strangelove,” [Christopher] Morris has created a film so relevant to our current political climate that many will feel guilty just for watching it, let alone laughing at all the gut-wrenching humor along the way… “Four Lions” is one of the funniest, most provocative comedies of the last decade – and one that has more to say than any of the numerous self-important war movies that Hollywood has been cranking out for years.
Of course, one of the things that makes SXSW such a great place to watch movies is the venues. The theater experience in Austin is hands down one of the best in the country – from the historic Paramount Theater to the Alamo Drafthouse. While the Paramount is typically a more star-studded affair, complete with a red carpet and the opportunity to see a movie with its director and stars sitting just a few feet away from you, the Drafthouse (both the Ritz located on 6th Street and the South Lamar, which is a short drive from downtown) is a little more intimate. Star-crazed attendees will find little in the way of celebrity sightings, but the chance of seeing a hidden gem like Best Documentary winner, “Marwencol,” more than makes up for it. Plus, midnight showings of genre films like "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil" are usually more enjoyable when you’re watching it with a bunch of fellow cinephiles.
For all the great movies that SXSW has to offer, you won’t see nearly as many as you’d like if you don’t plan your schedule beforehand. There are several factors working against you, but your biggest enemy is lines. Every screening has one, and though the 1200-seat capacity of the Paramount pretty much guarantees you’ll get in with a badge as long as you arrive early, as some unlucky attendees discovered with hot tickets like “Kick-Ass” and “MacGruber,” that wasn’t always the case. Couple that with a tightly scheduled program, an ongoing issue with movies never starting on time, and the sheer fact that the Alamo South Lamar takes about 10 minutes to get to (sorry free shuttle service, but you weren’t much help), and SXSW can sound like more trouble than it’s worth.
Still, even when things aren’t going quite as planned, everything always seems to work out. Take for instance the Sunday night world premiere of “Elektra Luxx,” a film that took 15 days to shoot, cost almost nothing to make, and yet had the star power of actresses like Carla Gugino, Malin Akerman, and Emmanuelle Chriqui to sell out the Paramount. But when the projector suddenly died midway through the movie, instead of melting down like most directors probably would, the cool and composed Sebastian Gutierrez hopped on stage to turn a bad situation into one that, at the very least, will be remembered for years to come. It certainly helped to have a guy like Gutierrez controlling the chaos, because while attendees sat around patiently to see if the projector would be fixed in time to continue the film (it wasn’t, and the screening was rescheduled for the following night), the writer/director entertained the audience by telling anecdotes about making the movie and taking questions.
Not everybody was as classy as Gutierrez. Jonah Hill was overheard heckling his own movie at the “Cyrus” screening (pretty unprofessional if you ask me), while “The Weird World of Blowfly” co-star Tom Bowker made a giant ass of himself when he hijacked the press lounge (you know, the place where writers go to work in a quiet environment) and proceeded to shout his way through a 15-minute tirade that covered everything from his movie to world politics. I’ve since joked upon my return that I didn’t encounter a single crazy person until the music portion of the festival began, but Bowker was definitely his own brand of crazy. Then again, maybe he was just trying to keep Austin weird.
If the ocean of bewildered faces in the press lounge was any indication, his little coup didn’t work, but it was certainly one of many memorable moments in my virgin voyage to SXSW. And between all the great movies I saw, the old friends I reconnected with (thanks again, Film School Rejects), the new friends I met along the way (insert shout out to the Gordon and the Whale crew here), and the $5 Milkshakes I drank to quiet my grumbling stomach, it’s one that I can’t wait to experience all over again.