The capital city of Texas prides itself with their motto “Keep Austin Weird” and it spills over into their well-known events — especially South by Southwest (SXSW). Since its debut in 1987, the festival has become a holy trinity of music, interactive and film — and it has grown into a premiere festival and conference which attracts people from all over the globe. In particular, the film festival has remained consistent with its brand, featuring numerous films that range from unorthodox art house pics to bold comedies to risk-taking drama to the unapologetically bizarre genre features. At the same, all the films seem to connect in a “weird” way that makes a statement and resonates with audiences. If Sundance and TIFF had a rebellious sibling who liked to shake things up an make things fun when it came to film festivals, SXSW would be exactly that. From March 8-17, SXSW will continue the tradition with a whirlwind of weird, but its the horror and political films that seem to shine. Considering the current climate, it is more than appropriate.
This year’s lineup tallies up a whopping 131 feature films with 101 making their world premiere. On the TV side, the fest will have 12 episodic pilots and 5 episodic premieres — and not to mention the 101 short films and 25 VR projects on the slate. It’s a lot to take in, but each film, episodic, short and their lineup of keynote and featured speakers continue to make SXSW a sought-after festival, putting equal weight on horror, comedy, drama and genre.
The festival is also upping the ante when it comes to inclusion and representation with female filmmakers accounting for 49 of the feature films and 23 films being helmed by people of color. Women also have a strong showing on episodics, with three of the premieres and eight of the pilots helmed by females. Meanwhile, people of color directed three of the episodics and six of the pilots. For the shorts, there was a strong showing of representation with 59 women and 38 people of color helming projects. On the VR side, 10 females and nine people of color are represented. This speaks to the festival’s drive for unique and inclusive storytelling, giving different points of view that aren’t normally seen in huge festivals.
The films, TV series and various projects on SXSW’s program fall on a spectrum of horror and politics, which to many people don’t seem mutually exclusive these days. From straight “untethered” horrors to new political heroes to immigration to films with women and people of color at the center, SXSW is doing the most when it comes to feeding us a hearty helping of heightened reality in 2019.
SXSW GOES HOLLYWOOD…ON THEIR TERMS
Since its inception, the SXSW Film Festival has grown into a massive platform for big-time studios and A-listers to debut their projects. Films and TV shows like 21 Jump Street, Furious 7, Cabin in the Woods, Girls, Silicon Valley and even last year’s Ready Player One have all bowed at the fest. Despite being very Hollywood-driven films in an indie-cool space, the film give the perfect amount of glitz without compromising the uniqueness of the genre-centric fest.
This year, SXSW boasts Jordan Peele’s Us as their opening night film, a straight horror pic starring Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o and Black Panther breakout Winston Duke rather than a social thriller like Peele’s Academy Award-winning Get Out. SXSW’s inclusion of Us speaks to its sly relevance of the festival when it comes to award season favorites. Last year, A Quiet Place made its world premiere at SXSW and it went on to be an award season contender. This bodes well for Peele’s latest at Universal. His history with premiering at festivals worked in his favor considering Get Out debuted at Sundance and went on to receive an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Speaking of Academy Awards, Oscar winner Charlize Theron stars alongside Seth Rogen in the world premiere Lionsgate’s The Long Shot directed by Jonathan Levine. The film follows a diplomat with a spotless reputation (Theron) and her relationship with a hard-partying journalist (Rogen) as they try to keep their relationship under wraps. Oscar-winning actress Helen Hunt also makes an appearance at this year’s fest with the world premiere of the very haunting pic I See You from Adam Randall. Richard Wong’s dramedy Come As You Are stars Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe alongside Grant Rosenmeyer, Hayden Szeto, and Ravi Patel in a loose remake of the 2011 Belgian film Hasta la Vista.
Spring Breakers Harmony Korine returns to SXSW with his brand of subversive filmmaking with the world premiere of The Beach Bum starring Snoop Dogg, Zac Efron, Isla Fisher, and Oscar-winning actor and native Texan Matthew McConaughey as a rebellious rogue named Moondog. Another Texas favorite, Austin native and four-time Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke will also make an appearance at SXSW in Logan Marshall-Green’s Adopt a Highway, a Blumhouse and Divide/Conquer pic that follows an ex-con fresh out of prison who cares for a baby he finds in a dumpster.
Olivia Wilde will show us her directing chops for the first time with the world premiere of her teen comedy Booksmart while Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz will make their own feature debut with The Peanut Butter Falcon starring an A-list roster of actors including Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, and Bruce Dern. The film follows a young man with Down syndrome who runs away from the retirement home where he lives to chase his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.
Other notable studio pics making their debut at the fest include Universal’s comedy Good Boys starring Jacob Tremblay as well as the supernatural horror The Curse of La Llorona from Warner Bros. and New Line. Netflix’s The Highwaymen will make its world premiere at the fest with Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson playing former Texas Rangers who team up to catch the notorious outlaw duo of Bonnie & Clyde. And what better way to close the fest with the ultimate scare of Paramount’s reboot of Pet Sematary starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, and John Lithgow.
SXSW: SOUTH BY SCARY WEST
In addition to banner titles like Us, Pet Sematary, and The Curse of La Llorona, SXSW has a flood of horror pics from up and coming filmmakers to deliver enough scares to keep you up at night — or give you laughs.
The horror comedy Snatchers from Stephen Cedars and Benji Kleiman tells an off-center story of a teen who ends up pregnant with an alien baby. Extra Ordinary is not necessarily a straight horror, but there is an occult element to the film from Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman and starring Will Forte, Maeve Higgins and Barry Ward. In it, a sweet small town driving instructor named Rose must use her supernatural talent to save the daughter from a washed-up rockstar who is using her in a satanic pact that will reignite his fame. Tales From the Lodge from director Abigail Blackmore also brings the funny, poking fun at the horror genre while telling the story of a group of friends spend the night telling scary stories and they soon become aware of another, very real horror tale unfolding around them.
SXSW also gives a double dose of home invasion stories including Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s Villains starring Bill Skarsgard, Maika Monroe, Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Donovan as well as Richard Bates, Jr.’s Tone-Deaf starring Silicon Valley‘s Amanda Crew and T-1000 himself, Robert Patrick.
AOC, BETO, AND “THE WALL”…OH MY!
With the political landscape shifting (or on fire, depending on how you look at it), SXSW has plenty of films to whet your politico palette.
Stacy Abrams and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be attending the fest as speakers and AOC’s Sundance doc Knock Down the House will also make an appearance in Austin. In addition, David Modigliani’s Running with Beto, which gives a behind-the-scenes look at Beto O’Rourke’s campaign to unseat Ted Cruz in the US Senate will make its world premiere.
Seeing that Austin is so close to the southern border, an epicenter of immigration controversy, it is more than appropriate for SXSW to screen films of the sort. Building the American Dream directed by Chelsea Hernandez follows three immigrant families who are rising up to seek justice and equality in an industry rife with exploitation. Flavio Aves’s The Garden Left Behind tells the intersectional tale of a Mexican trans woman struggles to build a life for herself as an undocumented immigrant in New York City.
And what would immigration be without addressing that “Wall”. In the Ben Masters documentary, The River and the Wall, five friends venture into the unknown wilds of the Texas borderlands to document the environment before a wall is built. The Wall of Mexico from Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak may not have a direct relationship with 45’s wall, but the title suggests that it is. The film follows a young white handyman on a ranch, hired by a wealthy Mexican-American family, finds himself caught between disgruntled locals and the family’s outrageously decadent daughters and discovers that something quite unusual is happening at the ranch.
Other socially and politically aware pics at the fest include the LGBTQ-focused State of Pride doc from Oscar-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman who venture off to three very different communities to take an unflinching look at LGBTQ Pride fifty years after the Stonewall uprising.
Narrated by Woody Harrelson, the Bill Haney doc Breakthrough touches on the world of science, as a harmonica-playing scientist fights against the odds (and naysayers) to find a cure for cancer.
And last but not least, Kathy Griffin is back with her first-ever comedy concert film, Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story. The focus of the film is — you guessed it — the aftermath she faced after being part of a federal investigation following the release of her now infamous photo depicting Donald Trump.
Episodics are fairly new to SXSW and it continues to grow. This year, SXSW will feature the series finale of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s cult Comedy Central buddy stoner romp Broad City. YouTube’s breakout hit Cobra Kai will crane kick its way into SXSW with a screening special screening of the second season — with Ralph Macchio and William Zabka in attendance!
Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens will be making a splash at the fest with a full-scale event for the Amazon Prime Video series based on the book by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The mini-series stars Michael Sheen, David Tennant, and Jon Hamm and is set in modern-day Britain and centers on a fussy angel Aziraphale (Sheen) and the loose-living demon Crowley (Tennant) as they join forces to prevent the coming of the Apocalypse.
OWN’s David Makes Man from Dee Harris-Lawrence and Oscar-winning screenwriter of Moonlight Tarell Alvin McCraney will make its world premiere. Based on McCraney’s own life, the story follows a 14-year-old prodigy from the projects who is haunted by the death of his closest friend. FX will sink its teeth into SXSW with the world premiere of the Jemaine Clement and Paul Simms’s vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows based on the film of the same name directed by Clement and Thor: Ragnarok‘s Taika Waititi.
Other TV series taking a bow in Austin include Hulu’s comedy Shrill starring Aidy Bryant, AMC’s supernatural drama NOS4A2 starring Zachary Quinto as well as Netflix’s upcoming animated anthology Love, Death & Robots from Tim Miller and David Fincher, which probably won’t be suitable for all audiences.
READY OR NOT, HERE IT COMES
SXSW is bold that it is known for playing studio films that have yet to be finished to audiences — something that is normally reserved for high-profile execs and Hollywood gatekeepers. In the past years, they have played films that are works in progress including the R-rated animated pic Sausage Party and the Academy Award-nominated The Disaster Artist (both coincidentally feature Franco). This year, SXSW continues with their work-in-progress screenings with Michael Dowse’s Stuber which stars Kumail Nanjiani as a mild-mannered Uber driver that picks up a cop (Dave Bautista) who is hot on the trail of a brutal killer.
The fest will also feature a work-in-progress screening of Shangri-La from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? director Morgan Neville. The documentary puts the spotlight on the legendary music producer Rick Rubin. And considering SXSW has a huge music component, it’s the perfect venue to make its unfinished debut.
Self-sufficient filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’s Red 11 will make its world premiere at the fest and although it won’t be a work-in-progress screening (the film is finished), Rodriguez will pull back the curtain to give a masterclass in micro-budget guerilla filmmaking, featuring behind the scenes moments from his film which he made for $7,000. Yes, you heard that right — $7,000. Written by Rodriguez and his son Racer, the film follows Rob, an independent filmmaker, who loses his investor’s money only to find out his investors are the Cartel. He checks himself into a medical research facility to pay off his debt, but quickly realizes it won’t be that easy.
SXSW AND THE 4% CHALLENGE
The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Time’s Up announced the 4% Challenge at Sundance. The campaign urges producers and actors in Hollywood to commit to working with a female director within 18 months to increase the number of female directors in the 1200 top grossing films which has been sitting at 4% since 2007. With 49 out of 131 films at SXSW being helmed by women, the fest is doing their part with films that vary in genre.
Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust stars Marc Maron, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins and Jon Bass focuses on a curmudgeonly pawnshop owner and his man-child sidekick team as they team up with an out of town couple to cash in on a family heirloom: a sword (hence the title) which, according to alt-history conspiracy nuts, is proof that the South won the Civil War.
In the New Zealand film Vai, nine indigenous female filmmakers from different Pacific islands collaborated to write a script in five days and create a portmanteau feature film. Nicole Whippy, ‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Matasila Freshwater, Amberley Jo Aumua, Mīria George, and Marina Alofagia McCartney, Dianna Fuemana, and Becs Arahanga worked together while on their respective islands to film this feature explores the journey of empowerment through culture, over the lifetime of a woman named Vai.
In Numa Perrier’s Jezebel, we are introduced to a 19-year-old (Tiffany Tenille), who works as a fetish cam girl in order to make ends meet as her mother faces the last days of her life. Based on a true story, the story details how her job affects her life and relationship with her sister. Directed and written by Emily Ting, Go Back to China tells a different family drama with Anna Akana starring as a spoiled rich girl who is cut off by her father and is forced to return to drama to move to China to live with her demanding father and estranged stepsister and work for the family toy business.
Other female-helmed movies on the SXSW slate include Grace Glowicki’s Tito about a man who befriends a cheerful intruder while on the run from predators. In Kestrin Pantera’s Mother’s Little Helpers, we are introduced to Joy Pride, a flower child project from the ’70s who learns she has weeks to live. As a result, her estranged children come together to do right by a mother who always did them wrong.
Set in the early ’00s during the days of AOL, the drama Yes God Yes from Karen Maine finds a Catholic teenager who has just discovered masturbating and struggles to suppress her urges in the face of eternal damnation. Adding to the Catholic theme, Pollyanna McIntosh gives us the horror Darlin’, a visual sequel to The Woman which McIntosh also starred. The film, a feral teenage girl is taken into strict Catholic care and prepared for her First Holy Communion.
THE DOCS KEEP ON COMIN’
The surge of riveting documentaries in the past year continues in 2019 with numerous documentaries and SXSW has a diverse slate of films that range from the heartbreaking to the weird.
In For Sama, directors Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts tell the story of a young woman’s journey through love, war and motherhood across five years of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria.
In the two-part HBO documentary, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter sheds some light on the “texting suicide case” that shocked the world. In another famous, but very different case that caught the attention of the world, director Aaron Kunkel tells the story of one pop culture’s most famous ponzi schemes in recent history in The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story. Through interviews with members of TRL boy band pioneers *Nsync and the Backstreet Boys, Kunkel exposes how — and why — the fraudulent record producer screwed over some of our favorite pop artists. The festival will feature the world premiere of the Paramount Network’s I Am Richard Pryor about the late pioneering comedian. And seeing that SXSW has a huge music component, Bluebird will also make its world premiere and give audiences a look at the Bluebird Cafe, a Nashville landmark that serves as an origin of music superstars like Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift.
SXSW loves exploring the counterculture and niche hobbies with their films and continue to do so this year with Rebecca Stern’s Well Groomed, which focuses on the world of competitive creative dog grooming as well as Stuffed, Erin Derham’s in-depth look at taxidermy enthusiasts. Then there is Why Can’t I Be Me? Around You from Harrod Blank and Sjoerd DijkRusty, a film about a 53-year-old male race enthusiast named Rusty who decides to get breasts and, in turn, a new identity that affects his life.
See the complete SXSW Film Festival lineup here.