This year’s South By Southwest Film Festival was like no other. Thanks to the ongoing pandemic, there were no red carpet premieres, no early morning screenings, no world famous breakfast burritos and no standing in lines that rival the ones over at Schlitterbahn. Meaning? Instead of navigating the crowd of hipsters in Austin, Texas, to get to various screenings – totally worth it if the movies are Baby Driver, Booksmart, Knocked Up or A Quiet Place – festival goers watched the best of independent cinema from the comfort of their living rooms.
That’s not to say the 2021 selections didn’t stay true to the spirit of SXSW, which offers a healthy and inclusive mix of stories from innovative filmmakers around the globe covering genres from documentaries to horror to heady drama.
You’ll be hearing about a lot of the titles premiered at the fest in the coming months (some sooner than later) with the Demi Lovato documentary Dancing with the Devil being the most buzzworthy. It debuts on You Tube next Tues., March 23. Several other films promise to generate excitement this year and are likely to be picked up by streaming networks, if not released for VOD or in theaters as the current opening trend continues.
Some to look out for include: Sound of Violence (featured photo); The Fallout; Introducing, Selma Blair; The Oxy Kingpins; Who We Are: A Chronicle of Race in America; Jakob’s Wife; The Sparks Brothers; Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché; Chad; Clerk; Women is Losers; and We Are The Thousand, to name just a few.
And here are our top 10 favorites, ranked.
10. Somewhere You Feel Free
Just imagine the magic of seeing Tom Petty live and putting together his first solo album; that’s what Mary Wharton conjures in her latest documentary. Featuring never-seen-before archival footage, Wharton takes us behind-the-scenes of the Grammy Award-winning record, Wildflowers, a reflection of everything going on in his life at the time. It’s not all that informative or insightful, but it’s nice to kick back, relax, and watch Petty be king, if just for a while.
9. Broadcast Signal Intrusion
Do you appreciate subReddit, conspiracy theories, government cover-ups and underground parking garages? Well, throw that all in a blender and you get Jacob Gentry’s Broadcast Signal Intrusion, a homage to conspiracy thrillers (from Blow Up to Blow Out, Chinatown to The Conversation). Intrusion takes us down a rabbit hole of 90’s pirate broadcasts, which may or may not be linked to a string of missing women cases in Chicago, where our hero (played by Harry Shum Jr.) is taking matters into his own hands. What he discovers is what Antonioni discovered 60 years ago: the more you zoom in, the blurrier the mystery becomes.
8. Alone Together
The documentary follows singer Charlie XCX as she makes an album over quarantine, and explores how music can help us get through hard times. Even if you’re not the type of girl to chant “Boom! Clap! The Sound of my Heart!” at parties, you’ll probably find yourself humming Charlie’s infectious anthems here.
7. I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking):
At first glance, this is your typical Life is Beautiful knockoff: homeless mom Dani (Kelley Kali) tells her adorable daughter they are camping for fun while working to get them off the streets. Yet this wonderful gem is executed so humanely and honestly that it feels totally original. Every moment Kali is on screen is a moment worth watching. And her character’s everyday issues will resonate with viewers everywhere.
6. Kid Candidate
It’s always refreshing when a documentary decides to be different. This charmer follows the unexpected journey of Hayden Pedigo, a 24-year-old who runs for mayor of Amarillo, Texas. Hayden is a mix of Jimmy Carter and Andy Samberg, a man of the people who is resilient, awkward, unqualified and kind of hilarious. He’s got our vote!
Olivia Munn is fantastic as a troubled movie executive in director Justine Bateman’s directorial debut. Violet (Munn) has a great eye for scripts with box office potential, but she also has a voice in her head that gives her bad advice. Is it her subconscious? The product of a childhood trauma? Or is it something stranger, something more along the lines of the voice in Birdman? Bateman keeps the questions coming without providing easy answers, which will turn off some. But it’s a treat to watch Bateman discover a voice so singularly her own, especially with the dark, moody, existentially murky Munn right by her side.
You know something terrible is going to happen when the movie opens with a wolf eating a rabbit, a spider trapped in a glass and a car making its way up a mountain (The Shining, anyone?). It’s also not a good sign when one of the passengers in the car, Mariam (Sims-Fewer), winds up alone with her sister’s boyfriend, who is not as innocent as he looks. In this clawing, bruising, stomach-churning rape-revenge thriller, Mariam is the rabbit in the field, the spider in the glass, the lonely car making its way up a windy road, until she isn’t.
Palo Calvo and Patrick Jasmine’s story about female wrestlers in Mexico is a fairly straightforward, meat and potatoes documentary, but given what’s going on in the country right now, they didn’t have to do much besides turn the cameras on. A bracing look at what it means to be a woman in Mexico, Luchadoras follows three female athletes as they dodge punches on the mat, and wrestle with a sexist, corrupt, murderously masochistic society outside the ring.
2) Executive Order
The single most impassioned, inventive, and intelligently designed film I saw at SXSW this year was Lazaro Ramos’ Executive Order. The film takes place in a dystopian Brazil where all citizens of African descent are being shipped to Africa, an executive order passed by government officials to “make Brazil pure again.” The film is Bacurau on a global scale, Get Out without the humor. It’s Armee Guineene unleashed in movie form, a melancholic prophecy of a coming war and a sendoff to those brave African soldiers who dared to stand up and fight for their heartland. You won’t find a more invigorating movie this year.
1) In the Same Breath
There’s a quiet, heartbreaking power to Nanfu Wang’s documentary In the Same Breath. In the very first scene, we see thousands of Chinese citizens celebrating the new year, counting down to midnight as the clock ticks faster and faster. The crowd isn’t aware of the real clock ticking down or the changing winds of time – they’re too caught up in another breezy night.
When Wang cuts to empty streets and packed graveyards, doctors in hazmat suits and news stations reporting death counts, it’s clear we didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. But is that our fault? Wang’s documentary exposes how governments – most notably China’s – contributed to the ongoing pandemic with blatant lies and misinformation, making the situation much worse than it had to be. Her footage proves China knew about COVID-19 before New Year’s 2020, and decided to say nothing. The rest is history.