Ready for Its Close-Up

How SXSW finally got good.
SEEN HERE FIRST: South by Southwest’s film fest is now a place where a major new talent might break out.
Photograph by Michael Paolini

Forget this month’s familiar mix of overproduced Hollywood fantasy ( Mirror Mirror) and comic book jibber-jabber ( John Carter). If you care anything about the future of serious-minded filmmaking, these are the titles you should really be paying attention to: First, there’s Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, a low-key story of two gay British men who meet at a bar, hook up, and then wonder if a relationship might be possible; the film, which opened in limited release last September and can now be seen via Netflix Instant, wears its aching heart on its sleeve and asks big questions about life, love, and sexuality. Then there’s Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, a ruthlessly effective genre thriller, also from England, about a mentally unstable hit man; it opened in limited release in early February and is available through IFC On Demand. And, finally, Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin’s Undefeated, the familiar but swelling story of an underdog high school football program in Memphis and one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary. It opened in limited release on February 17 and will expand nationwide through March.

What do all three films have in common, aside from visual imagination, storytelling prowess, and an unself-conscious determination to show the audience something new? They all premiered at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival and not at the higher-profile fests like Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance. Together with a number of notable Hollywood premieres (Universal showed a work-in-progress version of Bridesmaids, Jodie Foster turned up to present her underappreciated drama The Beaver), these movies gave the long-running Austin festival an unprecedented energy and reach. Now, with its nineteenth installment upon us, SXSW at long last seems deserving of the hype and hipster devotion it has coasted on in the past.

Things kick off this year on March 9, with the world premiere of the thriller The Cabin in the Woods, the directorial debut of Lost scribe Drew Goddard. Over the following eight days, an additional 129 features will screen, 64 of which are also world premieres. The event, which began as a sparsely attended offshoot of the popular music festival, has outgrown many of its venues, usually resulting in dozens of turn-aways at screenings. Yet that doesn’t seem to dissuade more people from showing up each successive year: in 2011 there were over 66,000 attendees for the film section alone. There have also been grumblings within the entertainment industry that the organizers have been wielding their increasing influence unfairly (see “No Sloppy Seconds”). Until recently, though, I mostly regarded the festival with a shrug. What exactly were all these people so excited about?

The first time I attended, in 2001, SXSW struck me as a perfectly respectable, if hardly groundbreaking, regional affair. The best movies that year were ones that had already established their bona fides at other festivals, like Memento and Amores Perros; the films that premiered at SXSW were the sort of Texas-made, DIY efforts that would be remembered only by their creators’ close relatives. And while SXSW had its share of discoveries in the ensuing years, such as the documentaries Spellbound (2002) and Bush’s Brain (2004), these incidental pleasures were offset by the preposterous, cooler-than-thou enthusiasm of the audiences. Film festivals are notoriously artificial environments, where attendees are prone to cheer for even the most obviously fledgling artists. But at SXSW the cheerleading seemed to turn into a bizarre frenzy, a run-amok conviction that because a film was screening there, it had to be genius. The list of long-since-forgotten movies I’ve watched over the years at SXSW that were embraced by festival audiences as the next indie landmark— CQ, Observe and Report, Elvis and Anabelle, The Lookout—is endless.

Yet for all its frustrations and self-regard, SXSW slowly started to find a voice. In the mid-2000’s, the festival—then produced by Matt Dentler—began programming a series of low-budget dramedies, directed by the likes of Andrew Bujalski ( Mutual Appreciation), Joe Swanberg ( LOL), and Aaron Katz ( Quiet City). Frankly, I find most of these films, which often feature angst-ridden post-collegiates nattering for ninety minutes, largely unwatchable. But love them or hate them, there was no denying that SXSW had helped birth a new film movement—known as mumblecore—and asserted a vision of what the post–Rodriguez/Tarantino/Linklater generation of American independent moviemaking might look like.

After Janet Pierson took over from Dentler, in 2008, the lineup improved further, displaying greater global reach and more aesthetic daring. I’m not sure if SXSW is simply lucky that Sundance has overlooked some significant new works or if the current programming team has ramped up its taste level; probably it’s both. But 2009 saw St. Nick, a startlingly accomplished debut by Dallas-based director David Lowery—a movie that Sundance should be hanging its head in shame for rejecting. In 2010 the breakout was Tiny Furniture, a comedy about a drifting twentysomething, whose director, Lena Dunham, quickly became the toast of Hollywood. (She’s since gone on to create the new HBO series Girls, three episodes of which will screen at SXSW.)

Then, in 2011, everything finally seemed to come together. I saw Weekend on opening night at its mostly empty first screening, at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. (The crowds were all downtown ogling Jake Gyllenhaal at the world premiere of Duncan Jones’ Source Code.) Almost immediately afterward, buzz about the film exploded, and IFC eventually acquired distribution rights. Kill List and Undefeated were acquired during the festival, the latter at one of those all-night bidding wars for which Sundance is famous. The SXSW Film Festival had become what its music counterpart had long been known as, and what only a dozen or so film fests around the globe can claim to be: a place where a major new talent might break out.

Do I think SXSW has the power to supplant Sundance as the most important showcase for new American filmmaking? Hardly. Robert Redford’s Park City behemoth will always

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