Is SXSW Film Festival The Best Fest?

on Tuesday, Mar. 20th

Jonathan Poritsky covered the 2012 SXSW Film Festival in Austin.

Film festivals are odd beasts. Movie lovers, industry professionals, critics and filmmakers come from all over the world to watch movies, spend some quality with one another and essentially plot out the futures of a few lucky artists. At least that’s the idea. When viewed from the outside, film festivals must seem like silly, self-congratulatory things. If we’re being honest, in a certain sense they are.

So why have I headed to Austin for the past three years to go to the SXSW Film Festival and Conference? This question has been on my mind for the months leading up to this year’s fest and still rattles around my brain now that I’m back in the comfort of my home. What is the point of the expense, the time, and the physical strain?

I should perhaps mention that I cover three major fests a year and the other two, Tribeca and The New York Film Festival, are in my backyard. SXSW is the only one I am able to dedicate whole days to; the others I sort of cover in passing as I go about my daily routines. Many cities have a film fest, and some have many, but there is something quite singular about the show they put on Austin for SXSW. It has a little bit of everything for everyone.

Unlike some other fests, SXSW feels like it is about audience and community enjoyment. Unlike fests where success is measured in distribution deals (though there certainly is that kind of buyer-seller aspect to it) SXSW seems content to draw a big crowd and leave them talking. As such, year in and year out they put together a slate that is a pretty good barometer of where American independent cinema is. These aren’t the films that win all the most Oscars (I believe NYFF holds that honor) or make the most money at the box office. Yet somehow, every year the films that tend to stick with me screened at SXSW.

I saw 20 feature films at this year’s fest, and even that smattering (the fest screened 132 features and 132 shorts) gives a good reading of cinema’s pulse. The fest’s opening night film, Drew Goddard’s “Cabin in the Woods” is a genre bending horror film that was met with great appreciation from the Austin crowd. In advance of SXSW I held this film, produced and co-written by TV super-creator Joss Whedon as an example of festival gluttony, the kind of screening that has more to do with drawing a crowd than upholding any kind of cinematic tenet. What can I say? I was wrong.

I hardly saw any documentaries at this year’s fest, but those I did see at least gave a decent insight into the form. Avi Zev Weider’s Welcome to the Machine, the filmmaker’s rumination on technology after in vitro fertilization yields him and his wife triplets, is something of a mess, albeit one that at the very least takes chances. Weider fails to play with the narrative form of the documentary, but the film offers the kernel of an idea that is definitely interesting, if not cinematically ripe.

Brooklyn Castle, which had its world premiere at SXSW, is the kind of documentary that wins both hearts and awards. Chronicling a year in the lives of junior high school chess players at P.S. 318, a Brooklyn public school that has won more chess championships than any other junior high in the U.S., it is an affecting film that puts a human face to a very political, and volatile, issue: education. I’ll be damned if Brooklyn Castle isn’t short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar already.

On the narrative side, I saw a few films that I feel privileged to have been at the world premieres of. Jonathan Lisecki’s Gayby is a great romantic comedy with protagonists that don’t fall in love. This story of a straight woman and her gay best friend trying to conceive offers a lot of laughs amid the controversy of its plot. As Lisecki told me when I interviewed him, besides the usual suspects who deride the gay community at every turn, “there are probably some gay people that are mad at me because a gay guy has sex with a woman, but it is a farce.”

Funeral Kings, by brothers Kevin and Matthew Mcmanus, turned out to be one of my great surprises of the fest. I went to the film’s first screening on a whim, but I loved it. For all of its flaws, Funeral Kings manages to tell an emotionally honest story that nails what it feels like to be a fourteen year-old boy.

I had the great pleasure of attending SXSW in 2010 and going to the world premiere of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. That film, which was released on DVD last month through the Criterion Collection, felt special when it first played the fest; outstanding, really. Judd Apatow liked it enough to pluck the young Dunham from her world of indie cinema and produce a television show for the budding talent. “Girls,” which begins on HBO April 15th, premiered its first three episodes at SXSW. If the raucous crowd at the Paramount Theater is any indication, it looks like the network has a hit on its hands. The series takes the best of Dunham, Apatow and HBO and swirls them around until you have a deeply affecting, brutally honest and utterly hilarious sitcom. Think “Sex and the City” meets “Dream On” meets “Seinfeld”. Only it’s nothing like any of those shows. Yeah, there, you’ve got it.

Even the worst films I saw had their champions (though the aforementioned Welcome to the Machine had none) which, I think, says a lot more about the film festival than it does about me. There will always be films that I, as a critic, dislike, but what’s harder to find are films that I completely discount that my colleagues rave about. SXSW isn’t afraid to screen films that have a niche audience, films that can’t even be taken seriously by a subset of film lovers (or just me) but definitely work for someone. And that’s what makes it one of the great American film festivals. If you’re looking for a triple-distilled, some would say watered down, slate of films, then look somewhere else. The programmers of SXSW don’t really care if they piss a nerd like me off. If only more fests used that as a working model.

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