Ranking the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival

In March 2020, South By Southwest was one of the first major global events to cancel because of the COVID-19 epidemic. It was a real blow to ticketholders, artists, and the city of Austin, but of course it was only a sign of things to come.

A year later, SXSW finally returned, but in a new form. The 2021 festival was online-only. It was better than nothing, and actually had its advantages for this reviewer, but people did miss the camaraderie of in-person events and the vitality of downtown Austin and its many venues.

The 2021 film slate was strong in spite of the difficulty of producing content in 2020. Here’s our ranking of 18 features, in ascending order:

Offseason struggles through a thin metaphor about a tourist trap town that goes “dead” in the offseason, after the boys of summer have gone. There isn’t an original beat in it, but it’s almost worth watching for a strong supporting performance by Melora Walters (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). She’s a recently deceased Hollywood actress who hails from an island village that harbors a dark secret. Her daughter (Jocelin Donahue) uncovers the mystery all too quickly when she visits the island for the first time to tend to her mother’s grave. The townies feel off right from the jump, except for the one whose role is to provide exposition that the dead actress already provided in flashbacks. The daughter zips through an arc from skeptic to believer that culminates in a lackluster flash of Lovecraft lite. Reviewer ranking: 2628/3087

A, forgive me, dormant music documentary about a significant yet short-lived recording studio on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Some of the greatest tracks of the late 1970s and early 1980s were recorded there, including Dire Straits’ monumental Brothers in Arms album as well as material by Elton John, The Police, The Rolling Stones, Jimmy Buffett, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, and more. Artists and former employees of the studio reminisce about the days of free-flowing booze, great music, and sunny vistas, but there’s a sense that you really had to be there. It came to an end in a one-two punch of hurricane and volcanic ash, and the documentary crew received special permission to film at the ruined studio that sits inside the island’s uninhabitable exclusion zone. The music and stories are pleasant enough for fans of boomer rock, but the concert DVD Music for Montserrat that raised money for the island after the eruption is still the best movie on the subject. Reviewer ranking: 2388/3087

A reunion between two old lovers, one of whom has since transitioned, aims for brutal emotional honesty but ultimately feels pat and manufactured. It takes place over the course of a night in a restaurant, bar, backyard, and art studio in the college town where Kris (Pooya Mohseni) and Naomi (Lynn Chen) dated during their student days. Naomi now works there as a professor while raising her two children, and the visiting Kris hopes to reminisce about the good times they had without talking about the painful way it ended. Kris’s stories about discovering her gender identity and learning to live as a woman are touching, and what Naomi cautiously reveals about her frustrations with career and family are relatable and sometimes heartbreaking. Unfortunately the movie takes too long to get to the core of these characters and their conflict, and when it does it abandons verisimilitude for melodrama and unlikely coincidence. An unearned epilogue suggests a vision not fully realized, which at least mirrors the way the two characters feel about their lives. Reviewer ranking: 2394/3087

Creators respond to the world around them and work with what they have, so it’s no surprise that there are a couple of COVID stories on this year’s South By slate. The most modest of them is The End of Us, about a young couple who breaks up on the cusp of lockdown and has to quarantine together for the next several months. It’s an exceedingly realistic, small-scale drama dotted with Zoom dates, furloughs, bread-baking, mask-making, dog adoption, socially-distanced walks, and other day-to-day markers of the era. Actors Ben Coleman and Ali Vigniano are believable and likable as two people making mistakes and working on themselves in a time of restrictions. If their COVID-era story is ultimately forgettable, it’s because it is so normal. Movies like The End of Us will be valuable time capsules for future viewers who want to get a sense of what 2020 was like for many people. Reviewer ranking: 2681/3087

Violation is a disjointed revenge narrative centering on two English sisters and their significant others. The younger sister’s husband owns a lot of land in the American countryside — beautiful, misty, forested land which the camera highlights in generous macroscopic and microscopic shots. With equal patience and reverence, the movie details a murder and its grisly aftermath, but a scrambled and incomplete storyline leaves too many questions unanswered. Madeleine Sims-Fewer co-wrote, co-directed, and stars as the elder sister determined to be her sibling’s “white knight.” Her character’s psychology is fairly compelling, but there isn’t enough payoff for the work the movie asks us to do to understand it. People who prefer their horror extreme will find certain moments riveting but many more tedious, whereas viewers with a more psychological bent will find a lot of smoke and not much fire. Reviewer ranking: 2347/3087

Maybe the sweetest movie on the 2021 SXSW docket, Swan Song stars septuagenarian character actor Udo Kier as a retired hairdresser who was once a local legend and gay icon in Sandusky, Ohio. When one of his former clients dies, he escapes the nursing facility he has lived in for some twenty years and slowly makes his way to the funeral home to fix her hair for the big send-off. Along the way he discovers a reviving rust belt town that he no longer knows, and that no longer knows him. Swan Song often requires you to suspend your disbelief — for example, that the protagonist would happen to visit his favorite old dance club on the very night of its final drag show — but Kier’s blend of flamboyance and grief is grounded enough to keep viewers invested. The movie is a valentine not only to a real-life “Liberace of Sandusky” whose picture we see in the closing credits, but to an unsung generation of gay men who spent their lives in small towns where acceptance could be fickle and contingent at best, and where friendships could make the difference between hope and despair. Reviewer ranking: 2381/3087

It’s getting harder and harder to dismiss dystopian films as exaggerations, and after 2020 few would make that mistake with Executive Order, wherein Brazil’s government begins forcibly deporting “high-melanin” citizens to Africa. The movie follows two well-off black Brazilians, a lawyer (Alfred Enoch) and his pregnant wife (Taís Araújo), as the faceless soldiers of a patronizing white government abducts their neighbors, family members, and friends. The movie is billed as a thriller and a resistance film, but it’s too slow and overly-wordy for that, and is more comparable to the one-man-against-the-system fantasies of the 1970s like …and Justice for All and Network. It replaces the grainy shadows of those movies with eye-popping, super-wide frames that juxtapose color and chrome, diversity and sterility. Some cultural details and turns of phrase are lost in translation, but the central idea is terrifying universal in an era when borders are closing and nationalism and white supremacy are surging. Executive Order is not only a good-looking movie, but a timely warning. Reviewer ranking: 2487/3087

If you live in a major city, there’s a decent chance you’ve seen a skyscraper with the WeWork logo plastered on its upper floors. You may have dismissed it as just another trendy tech startup, or if you watch financial news you might remember its abortive IPO rollout and subsequent bankruptcy. What you probably don’t know is the extent to which WeWork was not really a business at all, but a cult of personality that ensnared celebrities, venture capitalists, and a lot of wide-eyed young people with more to lose than they knew. The documentary details the toxic, messianic psychology of former CEO Adam Neumann and his crunchy, new-age wife Rebekah, and traces the boom and bust of the business they said could “elevate human consciousness” by renting desks. Investigative journalists have done a lot of that legwork already in the wake of WeWork’s headline-grabbing fall from grace, but the documentary distinguishes itself in its decision to spotlight young employees who gave up jobs, homes, and relationships for the communal and controlling WeWork lifestyle. The documentary’s weakness is that the story isn’t over yet. Though ousted from WeWork, the Neumanns have recently been trying to convince parents to place their children in a system of bizarre, for-profit schools under the cringy banners of WeGrow and SOLFL (Students of Life for Life, pronounced “soulful”). A sequel seems sadly likely. Reviewer ranking: 1925/3087

The coolest and creepiest concept in a South By film this year belongs to Broadcast Signal Intrusion, a fine study in paranoia and obsessive pattern-finding. Harry Shum Jr. stars as “James,” probably not his real name, who comes across an unsolved media crime that may be linked to his wife’s apparent suicide several years before. Over a period of many years, a tech-savvy prankster hijacked local TV signals in order to air creepy homemade videos that may have contained subliminal messages regarding the disappearance of several women. James combs through old VHS cassette tapes and obscure message board posts from hobbyists who collect these “broadcast signal intrusions,” the most unsettling of which are known as “the Sal-E Sparx incidents.” A series of mysterious strangers guide James on his search for the twisted mind behind Sal-E Sparks and the truth about his wife. Moody and haunting, Broadcast Signal Intrusion shows director Jacob Gentry’s command of the paranoid style, but whether its unanswered questions are a feature or a bug depends on the viewer’s own tolerance for going down rabbit holes. Reviewer ranking: 1699/3087

Natalie Morales directs this touching, smart, funny movie that takes place entirely over Zoom, but not because of COVID, which makes it a bit more timeless than the pandemic-specific titles above and below it on this list. Morales plays a Spanish tutor, and Mark Duplass, who co-wrote the script, is a slightly neurotic man whose husband bought him 100 weeks of online Spanish lessons as a surprise birthday gift. There’s a very early twist that shouldn’t be spoiled, but once it hits we are immediately invested in both characters, who get to know each other exactly as we get to know them: over a screen, a few minutes at a time. Language Lessons is as small-scale as it gets, but its intimacy and focus serve it well, and it has much to teach us about trust, friendship, loss, and Spanish. Reviewer ranking: 1570/3087

Hysterical is the ideal documentary about comedy. It is very thorough in its exploration of its topic — women who do stand-up and the unique challenges they face — and at the same time it is very, very funny. Hysterical spotlights current and rising stars like Kelly Bachman, whose in-person takedown of Harvey Weinstein at a New York comedy club made headlines in 2019, but also their predecessors, from established acts like Kathy Griffin and Margaret Cho to pioneers like “Mobs” Mabley who transgressed barriers in the 1950s and 60s. Clips from recent and older shows are delightful, but the sit-down interviews with the younger generation of women are the real takeaways. They are all the funnier for their unblenching honesty about what it’s like to be a woman in the stand-up industry, and director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins doesn’t shirk from calling out some of the male titans of the genre for perpetuating a boy’s club mentality. To be funny while speaking the truth is a conceit of stand-up, and Hysterical proves its power. Reviewer ranking: 1480/3087

Paul Dood is an underdog and doesn’t know it. “I can act, I can sing, and I sure as shit can dance,” he tells his audience of two on a streaming site called TrendLadder. The middle-aged Dood (Tom Meeten) works a dead-end retail job and looks after his dying mother, but he has a plan to hit the big time by entering Britain’s trendiest internet talent show, hosted by the hilariously fake Jack Tapp (Kevin Bishop). Unfortunately it all goes wrong for Dood, who can neither act, nor sing, nor dance, but that’s not the worst of it. On his way to the audition, seemingly every person he encounters goes out of their way to obstruct him, from an officious railroad employee to a corrupt priest to a wanna-be samurai, all played by archly funny English character actors. It’s all too much for Dood, so he embarks on a lunchtime vendetta that, despite his fecklessness, threatens to make him infamous as well as internet-famous. This fast-paced, soft-hearted dark comedy was a festival favorite and could be destined for cult-classic status. Reviewer ranking: 1626/3087

Potato Dreams of America feels like a work of unbridled creativity, so it’s always surprising to remember that it’s based closely on true events. Nevertheless, the movie is not content to be a mere coming-of-age autobiography, and writer/director Wes Hurley experiments freely with actor changes, style changes, and tone changes. It’s an effective way to illustrate a young life punctuated by abrupt and dramatic shifts. The first and biggest one is the fall of the Soviet Union, where young Potato spent his childhood. The next is his move to the United States with his mother, who works hard to become a mail-order bride. Along the way Potato discovers both Jesus and his homosexuality. Each twist comes with its own aesthetic, sometimes nearly theatrical and other times heavy on close-ups and montage, but always darkly, weirdly funny. Potato has a unique window on the world, and his movie is eccentric and personal enough to do it justice. Reviewer ranking: 909/3087

If you’re going to make a three-and-a-half-hour documentary on horror movies, it had better be damn near encyclopedic. Writer/director Kier-La Janisse’s Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is as close as you can get to a visual encyclopedia of a certain mode of horror moviemaking. The topic is handled clinically, but not without love. “Folk horror,” a subgenre of movies involving pagan rites, rural cults, ancient gods rising from cornfields, and so forth has clear connections to real-world political and social movements and long-term economic trends, and the movie’s interview subjects describe those connections clearly and authoritatively. But this is not a dry, bloodless lesson in film analysis. It is an organized onslaught of evocative, haunting, bizarre, funny, beautiful movie clips, each illustrating some facet of folk horror. For movie obsessives (if you’re still reading this and aren’t related to me, that’s you), this is like opening a treasure chest that contains a lost tome that gives you a riddle that leads to a maze that contains the secrets of the universe at its center. It’s a comprehensive list of 234 essential folk horror movies, organized more or less geographically and chronologically — a watchlist that could feed your obsession for a long, long time. The first and best section of the documentary focuses on the flourishing of the genre in England in the 1960s and 70s. This is followed by sections on American folk horror and international folk horror. There are things you’ve seen and things you’ve never heard of but instantly know you need to find. Many documentaries include calls to action, and the call here is to watch more movies; how could we not love it? Reviewer ranking: 893/3087

Maybe sympathy is a finite resource. That’s the charitable interpretation of why politicians, the media, and ordinary people in the USA, Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, et al. decided to despise, disown, and forget the mostly-teenaged girls who left home to become “brides” of ISIS. They were kids, usually children of immigrants, who did not feel at home. They fell prey to internet propaganda, something few of us can honestly say we have never done. They went to the caliphate expecting a paradise. They found slavery, rape, disease, and death. They have paid dearly for their naivety. Their surviving children are paying for their young mothers’ naivety as well. The long-suffering Kurds look after these ISIS widows and their kids, running the dangerous, dirty camps where the now-stateless women are confined. The women’s home countries have stripped them of their citizenship and defined them as terrorists, refusing to acknowledge the degree to which they were victims of ISIS, psychologically and physically. A selection of women bravely share their stories with each other, with their Kurdish administrators, and with the documentary crew — stories that could expose them to reprisals within the camps; stories that, however horrifying, are unlikely to move the hard-hearted residents of Europe and America who have decided that some people, however young, however brutalized, are not worth forgiveness or second chances. It takes a special kind of hope to put this documentary into the world, and I hope it pays off. Reviewer ranking: 587/3087

Think about your favorite buddy comedies. Do you think the actors really liked each other? How long had they even known each other? Whitney Call and Mallory Everton have known each other for a long time, and it shows. Watching their characters riff feels like spending time with your best friends on your best day. It must be nearly as natural and effortless as they make it look, because they wrote and produced this COVID-inspired road trip movie in only eight weeks (“I don’t recommend it,” one said in the online Q&A). The pace of the jokes, the way they flow into each other, the ease of each pivot from silly to witty to irreverent, is something you just can’t fake. The result is not only hilarious, it’s aspirational. I had so much fun with these characters and their journey (it involves mice, a nursing home, a dick pic, roller skates… you just have to see it) that I watched the movie twice, which I have never done during a festival. I can’t wait to see what Everton and Call do next. Reviewer ranking: 191/3087

After a school shooting, we usually learn a couple of names: that of the shooter, and that of the “spokesperson,” the survivor who faces the cameras or logs on to Twitter to remind an increasingly numb populace that thoughts and prayers are not enough. We forget the names of the victims quickly, and we never know the names of hundreds or thousands of anonymous survivors. The Fallout is a reminder that those unknown kids and their pain matter, too. In this fictional movie about a very real topic, two such survivors are Vada (Jenna Ortega) and Mia (Maddie Ziegler), girls from different social circles who huddle together in a school bathroom during an active shooter event. Vada thinks she’s fine because she can control her emotions. The deeply wise screenplay, and a therapist Vada’s parents make her see, know that that’s not really true. To avoid feeling unpleasant feelings, Vada and Mia retreat into their own world, cutting off former friends and family members. What they give each other is valuable, if frightening and confusing to others and sometimes to themselves. Yet there is also value in reconnecting with oneself and one’s community after coming face to face with life’s fragility. Going through that arc with Vada is, if not a pleasure, then a balm, thanks to Megan Park‘s excellent writing and direction. The Fallout is a hard but validating movie that feels authentic to an experience that nobody should ever have. Reviewer ranking: 266/3087

A once-in-a-generation masterpiece of myth- and hero-making, The Spine of Night is more than just a great movie. It is the kind of movie that will inspire new artists and set a new bar for their work, particularly in the arena of fantasy animation. “Hyperviolent,” adult, racially diverse, and feminist, it is like the promise of Ralph Bakshi, Gary Gygax, Conan, He-Man, and Xena fulfilled and given new intensity and purpose. The voices of Lucy Lawless and Richard E. Grant anchor a cast that also includes Betty Gabriel, Patton Oswalt, and Joe Manganiello, but it’s not a movie about individuals. Good or evil, strong or weak, each character is only a piece of a larger story that extends beyond the runtime of the movie. The Spine of Night has images, ideas, and worlds to spare; a scene midway through in which a mage and warrior battle atop a citadel as a great eye opens in the sky would be the centerpiece of a lesser movie, but here it is only foreshadowing. Occupying a realm beyond criticism, The Spine of Night is nothing less than a new touchstone. Reviewer ranking: 117/3087

As these movies become more widely available, you can rank them on your own Flickchart and influence their position on the global chart.

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