I had the chance to attend SXSW this year, and took the opportunity to see as many film premieres as I could – twenty to be exact. Needless to say, I got very acclimated to Austin’s various theaters. I am not able to, nor am I interested in, reviewing every film I saw in depth. That being said, this ranked list should give readers a feel of whether an individual film is worth seeing. Let’s get into it.
20. The Cellar
dir. Brendan Muldowney
This was without a doubt my least favorite film of SXSW. For a festival full of experimental and risk-taking films, The Cellar is by far the most boring and banal piece of media I saw. I won’t reveal too much of the plot, as the plot really doesn’t matter, so just know this Irish horror film adheres to the mold of cliché scares that have been around since The Conjuring (2013).
I will mention one plot point, if only because it infuriated me so much: the main character takes a series of math problems she found in the titular cellar of her house to a math college. There, she meets a professor who is new to the school. The professor, rather than just helping with the problem because he’s good at math, explains that he was in a car accident. The blunt trauma subjected to his head during the crash gifted him with genius-level math intelligence. That is exactly how the film explains it, and it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. That’s a pretty good signifier of the film overall. Skip.
19. Swimming with Sharks
created by Kathleen Robertson
This premiere of a Roku Original Series (which just sounds apocalyptic in itself) was much more competent and interesting than The Cellar, but is definitely more offensive. Burrowed in the self-fellating world of Hollywood, the series’ first two episodes come across as nothing more than a rip off of Netflix’s You for straight men with power complexes. There are four sex scenes in the first two episodes, two of which are completely unnecessary and more than a little cruel and fetishistic. Skip, there’s better porn out there.
18. Lover, Beloved
dir. Michael Tully
Lover was the film that I was the most skeptical about going in, and it also marks the line between "skippable" and "worth a watch.” It’s a big screen “adaptation” of a one-woman show. I struggle to use the word “adapt” here seeing that the film is little more than a recording of said one-woman show. The medium of film does nothing to elevate the story being told, and frankly, a live production would have allowed for more interaction from the audience and reaction from the actress. It simply didn’t need to be made. Vega, however, is great in it; just give her something else to do in the future.
17. I Love My Dad
dir. James Morosini
I think I Love My Dad is the film I differ the most from other critics on. It won the Jurors Award for a reason – it’s well-crafted and incredibly executed with a lot of heart. I just didn’t find it particularly funny. I’ve never found the “so-embarrassing-you’re-forced-to-cringe” brand of comedy particularly compelling. It's fair to say, despite the wonderful Patton Oswalt, the film was a bit of a disappointment for me. However, if that style of humor appeals to you, you’re going to love it.
created by Roberto Patino
DMZ is another television premiere and the first thing on this list I can say I really enjoyed. Rosario Dawson and Benjamin Bratt in particular are great here, and the art direction is adequate in portraying New York after a brutal civil war divides the country. It should definitely win an award for production design. It falls behind the other works here by simply not being interesting or ambitious enough. I just didn’t get enough from this first episode to put it any higher than 16. It's worth a watch if you like dystopian stories (it's from the creator of Westworld) or Rosario Dawson.
15. The Last Movie Stars
created by Ethan Hawke
The was the best episodic premiere of the festival. Studying the lives of Paul Newman and Joann Woodward, this mini-series is definitely one I’m going to follow to its conclusion. Unfortunately, its heavily pandemic-influenced production holds it back from transcending its mold. Perhaps the next episodes will bring it all together. It's perfect for fans of documentaries and old Hollywood stories.
14. Under the Influence
dir. Casey Neistat
The David Dobrik Documentary, as it will come to be known, was a pleasant surprise. Neistat's filmmaking is competent, and he successfully detaches himself from the story despite being so close to it. It also avoids being a glorified Youtube Drama video, which is what I expected. Instead, it’s well-reasoned and executed, and, most importantly, fair. If the psychology of social media interests you, give it a watch.
13. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
dir. Hugh Wilson
Number 13 is where I draw the line between “good for a certain audience” and “go watch it when you get the chance.” Unbearable Weight is just a great time, especially in the theater. It’s funny, entertaining, and self-referential in the best way. Cage and Pascal give knockout performances here, exploring a hypothetical Nick Cage in the Nick Cagiest fashion possible. It'll get its wide release on April 22.
12. Until the Wheels Fall Off
dir. Sam Jones
This documentary tackles the career of Tony Hawk, focusing on his career as a professional skateboarder. It’s incredibly engaging and informative, which is exactly what documentaries are for. Its only real flaw is a lack of interest in exploring Hawk’s flaws in-depth, but maybe Hawk is just that cool of a guy. It airs on HBO on April 5.
11. 2nd Chance
dir. Ramin Bahrani
2nd Chance tells the story of the insane and charismatic man who invented the modern bulletproof vest. Despite its at times heavy subject matter, the film is actually an incredibly fun and breezy watch. Made by a fiction film director, it features great camera work and stellar editing, alongside the natural charisma of its subject. Give it a watch. Check out Lydia's full review of it from Sundance.
dir. Scott Lebrecht
A personal favorite of mine thanks to my love of Jurassic Park, Spaz follows the life of Steven “Spaz” Williams, an animator who invented the process by which films like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 were made. Another film full of comedy and heart, this film surpasses the ones before it thanks to a more focused documentary narrative. It’s deftly arranged and wholly cinematic. I highly recommend it!
9. Crows are White
dir. Ahsen Nadeem
From here on, we’re splitting hair in terms of quality. Crows is chiefly about the director of the documentary who travels to a Japanese monastery, featuring a discussion on faith, tradition, love, and ice cream. I don’t want to say too much about this one, besides that you should watch it. It’s lovely.
8. Nothing Lasts Forever
dir. Jason Kohn
This is ahead of Crows due to a slightly tighter focus and structure, though it packs a bit less of an emotional punch. It discusses the global diamond trade and the scams inherent in a world where diamonds can be made in a laboratory. It feels more like a great heist movie than a doc. It's certainly worth a watch.
dir. Mariama Diallo
A number of horror films premiered at SXSW, and this was the best traditional horror film that I saw. It echoes the chorus of Get Out (2017) in some ways, but it also focuses more on the feminine side of racial injustice in supposedly liberal areas. It is incredibly well-executed and emotionally impactful. It is streaming on Amazon Prime.
dir. Jeff Baena
The emotional story of Linoleum is at the heart of what makes its filmmaking so great. Jim Gaffigan is fantastic in the lead, playing more earnest than funny in a role very different from what I expected. He plays a washed-up Bill Nye-type who builds a rocket ship in his garage. It speaks to every inner child and every person with a dream left unfulfilled. Give it a watch when it finds its home.
That is numbers twenty to six. My top five films of SXSW 2022 will be assessed in a later essay. Stay tuned.