It’s not quite back to normal in Austin, Texas, but this year South by Southwest opted for a hybrid model of online and in-person events, a recognition of both the ongoing pandemic and people’s yearning to return to the way things were. We caught 17 movies during the fest, and we’ll rank them below in descending order. That’s a departure from our previous bottom-up approach to these lists, but hey, things still aren’t normal.
1. 32 Sounds
32 Sounds may be the only movie in existence that wants you not to watch it. Periodically the movie asks you to close your eyes and simply listen — to a single sound, to a soundscape, and to the silence in between. It’s a documentary all about sound and designed to be heard, preferably with headphones. Like the best podcasts it dives deep into a topic and creates a haunting psychological effect only possible when you let your mind do the seeing. Yet it does contain visuals that will stay with you, from the physical and tactile labor of a Foley artist to the beatific faces of interview subjects as they let their most meaningful sounds transport them to other places and times. It’s the best documentary I’ve seen in my years at SXSW, but you just have to hear it yourself to understand why.
Hands down the best narrative feature at SXSW this year, Emergency is hilarious, tense, and vital. It lets you into one of the most believable bromances in film, treats you to a rollercoaster comedy of errors, and delivers a timely message about how racial identities can shape experiences in the supposedly safe spaces of higher education. Two Black students set out to make frat party history, but an emergency derails them in an increasingly high-stakes way. You should know as little about as possible about their transformative journey before embarking on it with them, so I’ll stop there. Look for it to appear on Amazon soon.
3. Fire of Love
We all wish Bill Nye a long and happy life, but the trade-off with that is that he’ll never star in a documentary as poignant and romantic as Fire of Love. Compiled from decades of explosive, awesome footage by celebrity scientist couple Maurice and Katia Krafft, Fire of Love is an artful and sensitive depiction of two people who dedicated and ultimately lost their lives in pursuit of their passion. For years they globetrotted to the world’s literal hotspots, communing with as much as studying active volcanoes — the beautiful “red” ones as well as the deadly “gray” ones. Director Sara Dosa arranges the Krafft’s best footage right up to the couple’s last moments, and her narration is a lovely tribute to their singular career. Fire of Love will linger with you.
Sarah Jones had a successful stage show in which she played multiple characters exploring the topic of sex work in an intersectional and comedic way. Naturally, there was pushback, both from sex industry professionals and from those dedicated to combating the industry’s injustices. She had an opportunity to turn the show into a movie, but since Jones was constantly learning and searching her feelings about the issue, she could not in good conscience adapt the production without updating and even upending it. I should say consciences (plural), because Jones’ four different characters all act as her guides, pushing and pulling her in different directions as she considers the perspectives of real-life pro- and anti-sex-work activists. Choosing a side on this fraught battlefield is next to impossible, since there are good-faith arguments passionately defended on both sides, but Jones does not shy away from a position. The way she gets there is both entertaining and enlightening — a tricky balance on any topic, and an impressive one to achieve when it comes to one of the most fraught topics of our time.
Shadow‘s official festival description doesn’t reveal much about the people who made it, so I’m reluctant to tell you the thing that they chose to reserve for people who watch it. And I want you to watch it, because it’s an outstanding cinematic rendition of a thoughtful, funny, preconception-shattering stage production that was too important to go unrecorded. It pushes boundaries about a societal taboo we all know we should be better about, and its command of the theater-movie subgenre rivals greats like Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street and Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off. Track down Shadow and let it expand your understanding of what’s possible.
The word “hero” gets thrown around a lot, but if it applies to anybody, it applies to people like Sandra Pankhurst. Not because she survived a horrific childhood, and not because she lived as a trans woman and prostitute during decades when (arguably) even fewer people understood those walks of life, but because of her passionate and hands-on leadership of a trauma cleaning business. The company she founded is on the scene in direst hours of need, cleaning homes after suicides, homicides, hoarder situations, and other crises of life. This documentary is often painful to watch yet impossible to turn away from, and its un-whitewashed exploration of Pankhurst’s life and career make it an indelible experience.
It’s a cliché that people receiving Oscars thank everybody in their lives in a rapid-fire rush of names, but the reality is that many people who contribute to successful movies never get even that much credit. Take Steve “Spaz” Williams, the digital animator who was largely responsible for the T-Rex in Jurassic Park and the T-1000 in Terminator 2. He had to fight his old-school bosses to make these iconic creatures as good as they could be, and his reward was to see them take home the golden statue and run him out of the industry. Spaz isn’t exactly a people person; he has a self-sabotaging personality that cost him not only his Hollywood career but two marriages as well. This documentary gives him long-overdue credit for his behind-the-scenes contributions to movies that forever changed movies, and it also works as a psychological portrait of a flawed artist. If you’re a fan of his flicks, you owe it to yourself to hear his side of the story.
For the second time in this recap I’m going to mention Bill Nye, because in Linoleum Jim Gaffigan has a double role: first as a Nye-esque TV scientist on a public access channel, and then as a similar but more presentable replacement host when the show goes national. If this sounds a bit odd, it’s supposed to, and that’s just the beginning. Linoleum is sort of a cross between Donnie Darko and American Beauty in its vaguely-uncanny suburban setting and heightened reality, but with a latter-day space race twist. It plays with time and memory in a way that many space-themed movies do, and it has a disquiet nostalgia that keeps you off-balance. Unfortunately, an overlong third act outlasts the mystery, and the movie’s offbeat wistfulness shades into cloying sentimentality and melodrama. The sophomore feature from 34-year-old director Colin West, Linoleum is far from a perfect film, but it has definite stylistic and conceptual appeal.
9. We Are Not Ghouls
If you lived through the “my country, right or wrong” ethos of the George W. Bush years and paid attention to how the tragedy of 9/11 became a blank check for the government to imprison and torture its supposed enemies, this documentary about an injustice committed in the name of national security will make you angry all over again. It follows a U.S. armed forces defense attorney who had to fight two governments and wage a media war against her own employers to get her client, a young inmate at Guantanamo, due process. The ethical and legal lapses of Bush- and Obama-era officials are put on blast, and we get to see how one true believer on the prosecution team became so skeptical of the justice of the American position that he resigned rather than participate in Guantanamo’s kangaroo court. There is little that separates this documentary from a longform thinkpiece in The Atlantic or on The Daily Show, but as a work of oral history it is eloquent and cogent.
Jethica is a fresh approach to a ghost story, and at the crossroads between revenge and compassion it chooses the harder path. Set at a barren homestead in modern-day New Mexico, two old friends must deal with the restless spirits of men they killed. It’s an awkward and unexplored fact that the title of the movie is based on one of the ghosts being a lisper, but what the movie lacks in sensitivity toward speech impediments it makes up for with an original kind of empathy for the deceased. In this movie, death does not free either the dead or the living from the problems that beset them on this side of the veil. When easy solutions prove ineffective, what remains is the difficult, incremental work of coping. Payoffs are earned but closure is elusive in this unique work of magical realism.
11. The Pez Outlaw
Documentaries about fanatical hobbyists are something of a cottage industry, and compared to greats like King of Kong, The Pez Outlaw is just another one. Still, there’s something undeniably satisfying about seeing another loon — a loon who could be any of us, if we had the selfish courage to give ourselves over to our side hustles — go through the rise, fall, and maybe rise again of many an amateur zealot before him. In this case we dive deep into the world of Pez dispenser collecting, which turns surprisingly quickly into cloak-and-dagger industrial espionage in post-Cold-War Europe. Reenactments help enhance the drama of this fun but middling effort.
12. Spin Me Round
A great cast and an irresistible premise don’t quite pay off in this adventurous thriller comedy from Duplass Brothers Productions. It takes too long to hit its predictable beats, and some of the most compelling threads wind up as loose ends. Still, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Zach Woods, Molly Shannon, Alessandro Nivola, and other players have charisma that overflows the cup, and they’re enough reason to give this a watch. Olive Garden restaurants are one of the comedy world’s lowest-hanging fruits, but I admit, I’m not yet tired of laughing at its pretentions. Spin Me Round uses the faux-Tuscan food chain’s inherent absurdity to pay homage to, of all things, the erotic thriller Eyes Wide Shut. The combination should be more fun than it is, but it’s wacky enough that it literally can’t fail to elicit a few chuckles.
13. Omoiyari: A Song Film by Kishi Bashi
I have a Ph.D. in U.S. and Japanese history, but there’s still plenty I don’t know about the dark chapter of Japanese-American internment during WWII. That’s not surprising, because even descendants of camp survivors often don’t know much about it. That was the goal that underlay the internment policy: to erase the collective memory and identity of Japanese-Americans, to force them to suppress who they were and to conform to the dominant American culture in order to prove something that should not have been in question — their right to be called Americans, and their innocence of the crimes of their ancestral country’s government. Musician Kishi Bashi, an American Nisei, tries to augment the documentary’s rather textbooky historical information with a more subjective approach, using music to convey a sense of longing and loss. (Most of his songs are original, but in one rather amusing moment he covers “Ue o muite arukо̄” by Kyū Sakamoto to an audience of mostly young listeners who seem to have little idea that it topped the U.S. charts some 60 years ago.) Images of Kishi Bashi standing in the still, overgrown ex-camps of the Mountain West are neat, and his songs are pleasant, but the two angles of the documentary don’t quite gel. Though it covers an important topic with earnestness, the effort is a bit less than the sum of its parts.
14. Pretty Problems
A handful of characters gather for a wild weekend in wine country, and it takes them a while to learn what the audience realizes early on: that they’re all pretty insufferable. To be fair, that’s the movie’s thesis — that at a certain level of privilige, all your problems are mere “pretty problems,” well removed in scale and seriousness from the problems of the 99%, and that this is the dehumanizing fruit of wealth. The titular issues include how many cases of biodynamic wine to buy, which recreational drugs to do, which boutique shops to throw your money at, and above all who’s coming to the party. It’s not all that enjoyable to watch a pair of outsider protagonists try to fit into this world, and it’s not all that believable when they resist its allure in favor of their own unresolved problems. As social commentary the movie is too simplistic and manufactured, though some of its set pieces — a shaman who helps rich people change the vibe, a murder mystery game that breaks out in real violence, a silent disco that turns into a bad trip — feel like things the writers might have experienced. Their connecting tissue is just too thin.
15. A Vanishing Fog
The filmmakers behind this experimental approach to a climate change message movie have seen a bit of Tarkovsky and want you to know it. They have mimicked that past master’s long shots and his misty post-apoctalypticism, but despite a captivating, full-bodied effort from lead actor Sebastian Pii, the movie does not find the penetrating macroscopic or microscopic insights of a Tarkovsky script. Though this shortcoming proves fatal to the movie’s efforts to move and inspire, as a visual poem it is still a remarkable achievement. Cinematographer Gio Park’s footage of the Andean countryside is absolutely astonishing, even better than the award-winning Emmanuel Lubezki cinematography in The Revenant, whose star Leonardo DiCaprio also appears in the credits of A Vanishing Fog.
16. Crows Are White
Crows Are White is a fragmented project from a filmmaker who feels that his soul is divided between his Islamic home culture and fundamentalist family, his secularist adopted homes in Europe and America, and a Japanese Buddhist temple where he’s determined to find spiritual guidance behind closely-guarded walls. It was clearly a frustrating documentary to make, and one that nearly broke its maker. It’s also a frustrating one to watch, because what’s clear to viewers who are conscious of the traps of exoticism and magical thinking about other cultures is that the mission is doomed from the beginning. You can travel and have transcendent personal experiences that reshape your faith and worldview and sense of self, but you can’t force those moments to happen; there’s no Buddhist sage or Islamic rule or atheistic social ethos that can resolve your internal contradictions for you. Crows Are White allows a patently quixotic quest to overshadow its most interesting content about a grueling Buddhist ritual and an elliptical family drama, and as a result it is unsatisfying on any of its terms. Still, the filmmaker’s commitment to persevering through many setbacks is admirable.
17. Raquel 1:1
An empty and toneless slog, Raquel 1:1 tries to be a bold departure from conservative religious orthodoxy, but it has nothing of its own to say. The idea is that Raquel, a feminist teenager undergoing stigmata, will usher in a new testament that corrects some the most embarrassing bits of the first two: the parts that concern women’s place in church and society. Yet the movie forgets to create any content for chapter one, verse one of the book of Raquel, and instead drags its flat characters through a needless reenactment of Jesus’s final days. Muddy and preachy, Raquel 1:1‘s lone highlight is a vivid final shot that ought to have been the movie’s jumping-off point.
What We Missed
Top of my wishlist are Pirates, Women Do Cry (from the filmmakers behind my favorite movie of 2020, Cat in the Wall), a couple of Dolly Parton-related projects, and Everything Everywhere All at Once. I wish I could watch everything, all at once or otherwise, but there just aren’t enough hours. If you saw or are looking forward to seeing anything from this year’s SXSW slate, let us know about it below, and submit it to the ever-growing Flickchart database!