“Analysis paralysis” is slang for an inability to make a decision. When the condition becomes chronic, it’s known as aboulomania. And when it involves 132 feature films screening for a week-plus in March (alongside shorts, TV episodes, virtual reality, musical and comedy performances, gaming and interactive exhibitions in a haze of relentless day drinking) it’s called the South by Southwest Conference & Festival in Austin, Texas.
Fortunately, there may be a cure for the latter condition, thanks to Culture Vulture’s 100% organic, holistic, FDA-uncertified guide to healthier viewing at SXSW 2018.
Step one begins with a quick self-assessment: are you the kind of person who’s going to be in Austin, TX on March 17 for the closing night screening of indie auteur Wes Anderson’s new all-star stop-motion canine adventure film “Isle of Dogs”? If so, that’s clearly a no-brainer, can’t miss screening (especially for fans of the director’s previous animated charmer “Fantastic Mr. Fox”). But even if you won’t be there for the last day of the fest, symptoms of FOMO (fear of missing out) are simple enough to prevent in this case, since Fox Searchlight Pictures will be releasing the movie in theaters nationwide on March 23. See? That was easy! One film decision down, just 131 to go!
Likewise, if you’re in Austin on March 9, the obvious SXSW screening to attend is the festival’s opening night selection, “A Quiet Place”, starring Emily Blunt and director John Krasinski as a couple forced to remain absolutely silent to avoid supernatural forces (or at least that’s what they tell the kids, in a strategy that may quickly go viral as the top parenting tip of 2018). But again, FOMO is a thing you WON’T have to fear with this one, since the picture will be in wide release starting April 6. Two down, 130 to go…
…and now, the selection process becomes a bit more difficult and strategic. For instance, since I’m usually exhausted after hours of screenings (and…y’know, day drinking), I rarely make the festival’s annual slate of bizzaro and horror-themed “Midnighters” – though if I can somehow find the energy, the two I’d most like to see are “Ghost Stories” with “Fargo”’s Martin Freeman because, (A) Martin Freeman, (B) it’s based on an Olivier-winning stage play, and (C) when it comes to horror, I generally prefer British spooky to Blumhouse bloody (though the famously low-budget fright film producer will also be premiering a currently untitled late night offering about the ever menacing “dark web”).
But another Midnighter that caught my eye is “Ajin: Demi-Human”, Katsuyuki Motohiro’s live-action adaptation of a Japanese anime series, which not only has a flat-out bonkers trailer but also seems to promise enough high-adrenalin immortal demi-human on demi-human ultra-violence to keep even the sleepiest film reporter awake into the wee hours of the morning.
As for NON-graveyard shift viewing, meanwhile, here are the Top Ten Must See screenings I’ll be aiming for at SXSW 2018:
1. “The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From A Mythical Man”
Premise: The title says it all in this documentary from Tommy Avallone about America’s unofficial goofball Zen master.
Must See Factor: It’s not assuming I’m gonna go to the concession stand at this screening and suddenly discover Bill Murray behind the counter serving my popcorn…but knowing Murray, I’m also not ruling anything out.
Premise: A wealthy pioneer (Robert Pattinson) travels into the lawless Old West to marry his sweetheart (Mia Wasikowska).
Must See Factor: Ever since their indescribably weird 1997 premiere feature Plastic Utopia, David and Nathan Zellner have kept the indie flame alive in Austin with uniquely unpredictable stories and characters that are always worth checking out (plus, it’s hard to resist the surreal cognitive dissonance of one-time ultra-low-budget actors/auteurs sharing a screen with the erstwhile sparkly vampire of the mega-hit “Twilight” series).
3. “Support the Girls”
Premise: An ensemble dramedy about the employees of a Hooters-style “breastaraunt”.
Must See Factor: No, it’s not what you think (though it’s not NOT the tight tank tops). But really, like the Zellners, the main draw here is the prospect of seeing the latest work from another SXSW (and mumblecore) veteran, writer/director Andrew Bujalski, whose character-driven indie features (including 2013’s amazing “Computer Chess”) are always bursting with a distinctive blend of humor, poignancy, and deep dish humanity.
4. “Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes”
Premise: The life of the black Superman, Muhammad Ali, relayed through a dozen-plus conversations with TV’s whitest talk show host, Dick Cavett.
Must See Factor: Ali reading the phone book would be fascinating, but hearing him discuss his astonishing life (and the still timely issues of race and politics) with an interviewer as incisive and peculiar as Cavett is the definition of must see.
5. “Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story”
Premise: A documentary about the eponymous Manchester performance artist best known for performing within a papier mâché head as his alter-ego, Frank Sidebottom.
Must See Factor: A fictionalized version of Seivey was portrayed by Michael Fassbender in Lenny Abrahamson’s “Frank”, one of my favorite films of 2014, so I’m intrigued to learn more about the actual man behind the mask.
6. “Science Fair”
Premise: High school students from around the world compete for a spot in an international science fair.
Must See Factor: I’m always a sucker for competition documentaries (like “Karaoke Fever” or “Spellbound”) featuring interesting real people with passion and talent in pursuit of a very specific goal…plus, science!
7. “Hearts Beat Loud”
Premise: A Brooklyn teen (Kiersey Clemons) starts writing songs with her father (Nick Offerman) before heading off to college.
Must See Factor: Offerman’s a charismatic dry martini in every role he plays and the premise sounds like the sweetest of sweet vermouth.
8. “The Gospel of Eureka”
Premise: Southern Evangelical Christians and drag queens join forces in this small town documentary.
Must See Factor: You had me at Evangelicals and drag queens.
9. “Eighth Grade”
Premise: Actor/comedian Bo Burnham makes his feature directing debut with the coming of age tale of a 13-year-old girl’s final week of eighth grade.
Must See Factor: Going through eighth grade is hell, but it’s usually pretty entertaining from a safe distance, plus any film co-starring reliable indie stalwart Josh Hamilton is usually worth a look.
10. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Premise: Morgan Neville goes behind the sweaters to reveal the secret, sordid life of the seemingly gentle, loving TV icon, Mr. Rogers.
Must See Factor: Apparently, there weren’t really any sordid secrets in Fred Rogers’s life, mostly just love and gentleness…and in scandal and shooting plagued America 2018, that’s a neighborhood I’d definitely love to inhabit, at least for 94 minutes or so.