By Sean Boelman
Although the 2020 SXSW Film Festival was cancelled as a result of the global pandemic we are facing right now, that didn’t stop some of the filmmakers from sharing their films with critics in the hopes of building buzz for their eventual premiere when things blow over. While it’s sad that these filmmakers didn’t get to see their films premiere to packed houses in Austin, TX, they still have the honor of getting the recognition of being selected, and most of them won’t have a hard time finding another place to screen. Although there are plenty of great films in the lineup that already have distribution deals in place, those films have a list of their own. Instead, these are the films that would have had their world premiere at this year’s SXSW and need your help in driving up attention to get a distribution deal and/or a new festival home!
Best Summer Ever
Directed by Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli, Best Summer Ever is arguably the film that had the most to lose from the cancellation of the festival. A low-budget independent musical featuring an integrated cast of people with and without disabilities, this film is just an absolute ball of happiness and joy. Think Grease, but way more inclusive and wholesome, and that’s Best Summer Ever. The eight songs on the soundtrack are bright and catchy, and the script offers a tongue-in-cheek riff on teen comedy tropes (which won it the Final Draft Screenwriters’ Award). The film was set for a pretty prolific festival tour, but unfortunately, all of its screenings have been postponed for the time being. Still, it’s the type of crowd-pleasing movie that demands to be seen with an audience.
For Madmen Only
Heather Ross’s documentary For Madmen Only takes a look at the life and career of comedic mastermind Del Close. Although it is one of the safer and more conventional films to appear on this list, it earns its spot because of its entertaining and heartwarming approach to its story. Fans of the comedic medium will undoubtedly delight in getting to see footage of Close workshopping his magnum opus, the “Harold”, and interviews with various high-profile comedians who were inspired or mentored by the man himself. Because of how well-known the film’s subject and interviewees are, you can expect this film to find a home soon, as it is a good crowd-pleasing documentary.
The directorial debut of actor-turned-filmmaker John Leguizamo, Critical Thinking is an uplifting and inspiring tale of youth banding together to make the most of their situation. Although the film leans a bit too heavily on genre tropes at times, the phenomenal true story at the center of the film will allow it to connect with audiences of all ages and cultures. Even though the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it offers plenty of laughs and an uplifting message. Leguizamo is at his career best as the teacher who serves as the mentor to these kids, and the cast also features some strong performances from the young actors in the chess team. Because of the crowd-pleasing nature of the film, and the star-power attached, this won’t have a hard time getting distribution, so you’ll get to see this film sooner rather than later.
Lindsay Lindenbaum’s music documentary Tomboy is probably one of the most refreshing films that audiences would have gotten the chance to see at this year’s SXSW had it been able to occur. Giving viewers an intimate look into the lives and work of four female drummers, the film presents an important perspective on a genre of music that is often male-dominated (or at least the men get a majority of the attention). Although the film does feature stories from well-known bands, the more effective portion of the film is arguably that which follows an extremely talented young woman as she forms a band of her own. With this, Lindenbaum is able to create a film that is a passionate love letter to music and creativity.
Having gotten the support of indie filmmaker Jay Duplass, young writer-director-star Cooper Raiff’s directorial debut Shithouse earned the Grand Jury Award in the Narrative Feature Competition (via virtual judging) at this year’s festival. With a unique and brutally honest perspective on a common genre, Raiff’s film is both a ton of fun to watch and surprisingly emotionally resonant. This lo-fi dramedy is a little rough around the edges, but that is part of its charm. The script is charming and often hilarious, thanks in part to excellent performances from Raiff and his co-star Dylan Gelula. Thanks to the names that have given their support to the film, and the acclaim it has been getting, expect this one to make its way to audiences pretty quickly.
Dark City Beneath the Beat
Baltimore musician TT the Artist shows that her talents also expand to a visual medium in her hybrid documentary Dark City Beneath the Beat. Part performance film, part visual essay on the history of Baltimore club music, and completely a love letter to the city that inspired her work (both this film and her music), this is one of the most interesting sensory experiences that viewers would have had at this year’s festival. The performances are intricately choreographed and beautifully-shot, and the interviews that stitch them together provide some great insight into the creative process. This isn’t an average documentary, but it sure is an enjoyable one, especially for any fans of music.
Jeremy Hersh’s directorial debut The Surrogate may be one of the least traditionally cinematic films that was set to debut at this year’s festival, that doesn’t prevent it from being one of the most riveting. An intense and emotional examination of its central ethical dilemma, this film is as thought-provoking as it comes. Although it’s overtly political nature may cause it to be divisive among closed-minded audiences, the film does a good job of addressing both sides of the very important discussion around which it is built. The film is also notable because its lead actress, Jasmine Batchelor, gives one of the best performances of the year so far. Though the challenging nature of this film means it will be hard for it to find a fitting home that can market it properly, it will be more than worth the wait.
Experimental filmmaker Marnie Ellen Hertzler has finally made the transition into long-form filmmaking with her ambitious avant garde documentary Crestone. Exploring the lives of a group of SoundCloud rappers as they go about their daily routine in the eponymous town, making music and smoking weed, Hertzler transports the viewer into the fantasy-like world the subjects have created for themselves with some surreal visuals and an unreal sound design. No one would’ve thought that a documentary about pot-smoking rappers would have been as profound as this, but here we are. This film will undoubtedly challenge audiences and their narrative expectations, but if viewers are able to get in tune with Hertzler and her film’s subjects early on, this film will have a surprising impact.
Another directorial debut, Noah Hutton’s film Lapsis was one of the more idiosyncratic films in this year’s festival lineup. Combining sci-fi with deadpan comedy and social commentary, the film feels like a cousin of Sorry to Bother You and other great works of sci-fi satire. Hutton’s film is one that will stick with viewers long after the credits roll, as its message about the modern economy, particularly when it comes to gig workers, is very profound. This is the type of smart and creative genre picture that festivals like SXSW were made to discover, and Hutton’s voice is that which festivals in general were made to project. Of any of the films that screened for press out of the lineup, Lapsis is the one that most screams that it will achieve a cult following if distributors will take a chance on it.
The Donut King
The first film in which cinematographer Alice Gu steps into the director’s chair, The Donut King is without a doubt the most impressive documentary that was supposed to debut at this year’s SXSW festival. Although the film is certainly admirable as a foodie movie (it features some gorgeous shots of the eponymous delicacy, coupled with some phenomenal editing), it is even more effective as a story of the American Dream. The film traces its subject as he goes from a Cambodian immigrant fleeing the oppression of the Khmer Rouge to the owner of an empire of donut shops in California. Executive produced by Ridley Scott, this is an entertaining and endearing documentary unlike any other in the lineup this year. If this film goes to the right home, expect it to become a sensation when it gets released.
All ten of these great films were set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival and are currently seeking distribution.
The Snake Hole
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