The real beauty of film festivals is not the films you go in excited to see -- it's the films you're happy you saw when the whole thing is over. When the 2013 SXSW Film Festival began, the buzz was all about the world premiere of the Evil Dead remake and an already infamous screening of Spring Breakers, but now that the dust has settled smaller films have emerged and captured the attention of the film world.
These are not necessarily the 10 best films to screen at this year's SXSW, but they are 10 films that went into the festival without overwhelming buzz and left as favorites. These are movies that either premiered at SXSW or first made a true splash at this fest (so no You're Next or Much Ado About Nothing), a combination of award winners and personal favorites. They're the films you should keep an eye on as they (hopefully) arrive at a theater or VOD service near you within the next year or so.
And now, presented in alphabetical order, our top 10 discoveries of SXSW 2013.
Before You Know It
In a year heavy with quality LGBT films in both the narrative and documentary categories, Before You Know It emerged as one of the best films of SXSW. A documentary following the lives of three gay senior citizens as they struggle with their age and their sexuality, P.J. Raval's film walks a fine line between tragedy and comedy, finding joy and sorrow in each of its subjects. What could have been a hot-button doc about a very sticky moral and political subject sidesteps the BS and simply delivers a heartbreaking, uplifting and life-affirming collage about what it means to be gay in modern America. This is a beautiful, humane movie.
There are two immediate testaments to the quality of Cheap Thrills. First, it won the Midnighters Audience Award in a year where the lineup was almost impossibly strong. Second, it was scooped up by Drafthouse Films almost instantly following its debut screening, making it one of the first films out of this year's SXSW to secure distribution. The harrowing, darkly hilarious story of a jobless father who finds himself competing in a series of dares to amuse a wealthy (and incredibly sick) couple, Cheap Thrills manages to be a scathing indictment of our capitalistic society while simultaneously being the kind of film you want to see with an audience so you can hear everyone's horrified reactions.
Director Joe Swanberg has been a staple on the indie film scene since 2005, pumping out more films every year than seems humanly possible (six of them in 2011!). Although not everyone has loved his loose, improvisatory "mumblecore" style, Drinking Buddies looks poised to win over everyone who has doubted his work so far. With a ludicrously good cast that includes Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson, Drinking Buddies was a common SXSW answer to the question "Do you know what I was expecting to hate but actually really loved?" It's difficult to say if this will be Swanberg's big leap into the mainstream (probably not), but it sure feels like it could be. Keep your eyes on it.
Loves Her Gun
There was no shortage of Austin-based films at this year's SXSW, but none were as unsentimental as Loves Her Gun, which begins as a quirky character drama before drifting into darker, weirder territory. Unlike many of the independent films of this list, Geoff Marslett's second feature film screams Indie! from frame one, wearing its microbudget as a badge of pride. The unpolished filmmaking adds a layer of grimy reality to the whole thing, allowing the grainy cinematography to act as a stylistic choice. Although there are better films than Loves Her Gun on this list (it's a little rambling and aimless for much of its second act), there are few that represent ragtag, run-and-gun Texas filmmaking as well. There's a reason it won the SXSW Louis Black Spirit of Texas award.
The "Inspirational high school sports story" is an entire subgenre of documentary at this point, so something like Medora has to work overtime to impress us. And wouldn't you know it, it does! Although seemingly centered on a struggling high school basketball team in Medora, Indiana, the film carefully weaves the chronicle of the team's attempt to win just one game for the season into a larger tapestry, examining how small-town America is slowly deteriorating and communities are losing their purpose, their pride and their citizens. Medora doesn't necessarily come off as a great place to live in the film, but it certainly comes off as a community worth saving. Can the road to recovery start with a few basketball wins? It certainly can't hurt. You've seen films like this before, but Medora is quietly powerful, refusing to sugarcoat reality.
Although any film buff worth his or her salt should be at least vaguely familiar with filmmaker John Milius, this documentary on his life should prove educational and entertaining for just about everyone… and if you don't know his work, it's going to send you running to Netflix. A comprehensive look at Milius' life from his early days as a screenwriter to his controversial directorial career, the film is a hilarious and often harrowing collection of amazing Hollywood stories told by a jaw-dropping lineup of talking heads, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. Even if you think you know John Milius, you sure as hell haven't heard the likes of these guys wax poetic about it. This is required viewing for fans of '70s cinema and the icons it spawned.
The Other Shore
There are definitely problems with The Other Shore, chief among them the fact that due to the circumstances of its subject, it doesn't have an ending. However, the film's abrupt conclusion is a minor wrinkle in one of SXSW's most thrilling documentaries, an experience that begs to be seen in a theater with an audience. Chronicling marathon swimmer Diana Nyad's multiple attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida, The Other Shore is one part Rocky, one part horror movie as Nyad and her crew brave all kinds of physical and emotional horrors to see her swim 104 miles through choppy, shark-infested waters. At its best, it's an enthralling and beautifully shot journey that flips between uplifting sports story and nightmare with the blink of an eye.
Why should we care about VHS? Rewind This! takes that one simple question and proceeds to answer it in extensive, extremely entertaining detail, taking us back in time to explore how the home video revolution began before showing us why it remains vitally important in the era of high definition. Utilizing talking heads that range from educational to hilarious, the film finds the perfect mixture of nostalgia and forward thinking, acknowledging the past while taking a bold look at what a world free of physical media will look like. If you don't care about VHS or were born after they were gone, Rewind This! will make a believer out of you.
Short Term 12
The winner of the Narrative Competition Grand Jury Prize as well as the Audience Award, Short Term 12 may be the big discovery of SXSW this year, the little film that seems best positioned to be a major player throughout the rest of the year. Earning equal acclaim for Destin Cretton's direction and Brie Larson's lead performance, Short Term 12 takes audiences inside the workings of a foster care facility, examining everyone who lives and works there with honesty, restraint and authenticity. Expect this one to get picked up by a distributor real soon… and then expect it to pop up in the end of the year awards conversation.
The winner of the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award, Zero Charisma isn't just the best film of its category, it's one of the best films to come out of SXSW 2013, period. A brutal combination of too-real comedy and emotionally honest drama, it feels like a definitive statement on the state of nerd culture right now. Although the character of Scott Weidermeyer (an immature, unstable, RPG-loving loser) could have been unbearable, actor Sam Eidson and directors Katie Graham and Andre Matthews embody him with a shocking amount of depth, allowing us to laugh with his frequent poor decisions instead of at them. Ultimately, somehow, the film puts us on his side (and we stay there!) as he destroys seemingly every aspect of his life through one selfish action after another. Films this sad shouldn't be this funny and films this funny shouldn't be this sad. Zero Charisma is a triumph.