When it comes to elite film festivals, Austin Texas’ South by Southwest (SXSW) truly seems to be a critical and fan favorite. Taking place in a great town for a film fest and nestled in between lateral festivals celebrating music, food, comedy and technology, the fest has grown in esteem over the years due to excellent programming by Matt Dentler and Janet Pierson and their team, the latter of the two who has handed over the reins to festival stalwart Claudette Godfrey who’s inaugural festival as VP of Film & TV as well as Director of Film Festival Programming starts Friday.
Our lead critic Chris Reed will be in Austin and our resilient writer Melanie Addington will be covering films via screener. Other writers are also slated to handle some reviews so, be sure to keep your internets tuned to HtN. Here are Mealnie and Chris’s picks for the 2023 SXSW Film Festival…
Chris Reed’s Picks
I attended every SXSW Film Festival from 2014 to 2019, back when we never specified “in person” vs. “virtual” because we had no idea what was coming down the pandemic pike. Since then, I have not made it back to Austin, Texas. Until now. Here we go again! I am so excited to be soon heading out to a fest I truly love. This year’s slate has plenty to recommend beyond my picks on this list. Here are just some of the films I am excited about.
Brooklyn 45 (Ted Geoghegan)
I don’t often gravitate towards the Midnighters section of any festival (though you will definitely catch me at Evil Dead Rise, also premiering at SXSW). Still, this movie, from writer/director Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here), looks extremely promising. Set in the heady days following the end of World War II, it gives us a group of friends who make the ill-advised decision to participate in a séance. Brooklyn 45 offers hope for wild, supernatural shenanigans and mondo bloodshed.
Confessions of a Good Samaritan (Penny Lane)
Documentarian Penny Lane (Hail Satan?) decided, in 2017, that her life was now financially stable enough that she could take stock of her good fortune and give back, somehow. And what did she decide to do? Something very few people even consider: an altruistic donation of one of her kidneys to a complete stranger. If that sounds extreme, perhaps it is, but after watching this film you will at least consider the question of why more people don’t do it. There’s an organ shortage in the world, and we only need one kidney to live. A highly personal and poignant movie, Confessions of a Good Samaritan is essential viewing.
Joan Baez I Am a Noise (Karen O’Connor/Miri Navasky/Maeve O’Boyle)
As a Gen-Xer, I grew up with Baby Boomer parents whose musical tastes were firmly grounded in the 1960s, which meant Beatles (somehow no Rolling Stones, however), Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and … Joan Baez. Her voice filled my childhood and even today one of my favorite albums to listen to is her 1968 Any Day Now, which features her take on songs by Dylan. So, I need no special urging to sign up for a documentary about her life, musical career, and activism. I can’t wait. Plus, filmmakers Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky, and Maeve O’Boyle have a proven track record from their work at PBS’ Frontline, so this should be especially good.
Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes (Samuel Pollard/Ben Shapiro)
The beauty of SXSW is that it is multiple festivals in one. Beyond film and television, there is music, tech, and more. The “24 Beats Per Second” category offers a lot of terrific music documentaries, and Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes, a collaboration between Sam Pollard (Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me) and Ben Shapiro (not the shitty one, the one who made Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters), looks to be one of the best. Drummer Max Roach (1924-2007) lived quite the life, traveling through a wealth of different musical eras and participating not only in the artistic movements, but also the political activism, of his various times. The beat very much goes on.
Plan C (Tracy Droz Tragos)
In our current post-Roe v. Wade moment, access to abortion is more tenuous than ever. Thanks to the work of brave folks around the country and the globe, women can still access the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol (to be taken together, or just misoprostol, alone), which induce medically safe ends to pregnancies. It’s a battle to obtain and distribute these pills, however. In Plan C, director Tracy Droz Tragos (Abortion: Stories Women Tell) introduces us to a group of mostly women who put their lives on the line to ensure that others can regain control over their own bodies. Following protagonists like Francine Coeytaux and Elisa Wells—founders of Plan C, an organization that shares information on how to obtain the pills—the movie is both a testament to the impressive efforts of those involved and a call to action to all of us to do more. Fight for your rights before they go away for good.
As a big fan of Lagueria Davis’ short films, I have had my eye on Black Barbie for a while. A fantastic feature documentary that will world premiere at SXSW, the film examines the history of Barbie, Mattel, and inclusivity, or lack thereof in the toy design world. From what started with Davis asking her aunt about her love of Black dolls to looking at the timeline and history of Mattel and doll makers since the rise of Barbie, Davis weaves an important tale of what steps have been taken to improve inclusivity and where doll culture still lacks. Black people are most underrepresented in the toy design market, according to Mattel in the film. Davis asks the question of whose responsibility is it to make sure there is a representation of ethnicity, culture, and body type. The documentary includes interviews with Kitty Black Perkins, the designer of the first Black Barbie.
Another documentary spotlight is Ondi Timoner’s newest film The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution which looks at the intersectionality of finance, media, and extremism in America and what is next for the digital future. Timoner has always taken a hard look at the Internet and this looks to be no exception. Her documentary We Live In Public was an eviscerating look at how social media impacts us culturally. Using her unique sense of mixed media to drive a message, the newest film will grip your attention. The film is also a world premiere.
In headliners, Tetris is based on the story of Henk Rogers, the American video game salesman who introduced the game to the world in 1988 after partnering with Tetris inventor Alexey Pajitnov. Unlike the game, this thriller takes you into a darker world behind the Iron Curtain. Starring Taron Egerton as Rogers, the film, much like The New Americans, shows the darker side of consumerism and politics mixed with entertainment.
While premiering at Sundance, Narrative feature Theater Camp is a fun escape from more serious films in the lineup in the festival favorites category. Directed by Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon who also co-wrote with Noah Galvin and Ben Platt, the film follows the staff running a theater camp in upstate New York. The four screenwriters also star in the film alongside Patti Harrison, festival darling Alan Kim and many more. As the founder ends up in a coma, the son and the camp leaders try to save the camp from being gobbled up by the wealthy camp next door while also trying to produce theater with children. The results are predictable but delightful and anyone who ever did theater in school will relate to most of the situations. Ayo Edebiri is a real stand-out as a new teacher with limited experience.
Story Ave world premiering in the narrative feature competition is a fantastic film starring Luis Guzmán and Asante Blackk (This is Us, Landscape with an Invisible Hand). A poor choice leads to an encounter between Kadir Grayson (Blackk) and Luis Torres (Guzmán) which ends up showing a new life path for Kadir. South Bronx native is a teen artist with graffiti skills who runs from home after the loss of his brother. Running with a group of street kids, Kadir has to choose between the path he’s on and a new life. Art direction, cinematography, and Guzman make this a can’t-miss. Director Aristotle Torres made the film as a short and developed it into a feature through Sundance Labs.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm) & Melanie Addington