March is set to come in like a lion once more at the 31st running of the legendary Austin, TX pop culture lollapalooza known as SXSW. Founded in 1987 as a music festival, the annual South by Southwest experience now includes everything from live comedy podcasts and blockchain panels to virtual reality gaming and a Ferris wheel of cheese.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the festival will also screen more than 100 features and short films this year (not to mention web and TV previews, pilots, and miscellaneous episodic content), making it literally impossible for any single viewer to see everything…which is where Culture Vulture’s strategic anti-FOMO viewing guide comes in.
With so much to see and do, the trick to navigating SXSW successfully comes down to what one former Texas governor used to call “strategery.”
For instance, I won’t arrive in Austin until the second day of the festival, meaning I don’t have to make a choice about whether to wait in line for the buzz-tastic 3/8 world premiere of “Us”, comedian turned writer/director Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his groundbreaking 2017 horror film “Get Out”. And while I’m eager to see the unnerving tale of a family terrorized by doppelgangers, I also know I’ll have another chance to catch the film when it opens in theaters across the U.S. on 3/22/19.
On the other hand, skipping the “Us” premiere at SXSW also means I won’t get to see a Q&A afterwards with the director and stars (including the luminous Lupita Nyong’o) — while missing other films at the fest could mean losing my chance to see them on the big screen (or, in some cases, anywhere at all).
Thus, a handy formula to remember when planning your own viewing schedule is SxSW (i.e., scarcity times star wattage), resulting in the following calculations for my Top Ten Must-See titles of the 2019 film fandango:
1. KATHY GRIFFIN: A HELL OF A STORY
Whether you love or hate the controversial comedian, this performance film about Kathy Griffin’s no good, very bad year (after her photo with a fake bloody Trump head brought down the wrath of the actual president) is one of the buzziest premieres of the week, and while it’s bound to show up on big and/or small screens eventually, there’s currently no wide release date scheduled (and in any case, seeing the fiery redhead in person is always a hoot, particularly when she’s in fine fightin’ form).
2. BECOMING LESLIE
Until his sad passing in 2012, Leslie Cochran was as much a fixture of Austin as SXSW itself, making director Tracy Frazier’s documentary about the bearded, full-breasted, frequently pantsless icon, homeless eccentric, activist for police accountability, and three-time mayoral candidate an absolute can’t miss check on my film calendar. Plus, it’s only appropriate to view this particular film in the city its subject fought to keep weird, especially since it may be difficult to see elsewhere.
3. HOW REDNECKS SAVED HOLLYWOOD WITH JOE BOB BRIGGS
Listed as both a documentary and a special event in the festival schedule, this survey of American redneck cinema (including an explanation of “the existential difference between Forrest Gump and Sling Blade”) appears to be some kind of moonshine-flavored multi-media one-man show, boosting both its star wattage and scarcity (though even if you miss the experience in Austin, all is not lost since it may still be coming to a theater near you according to JoeBobBriggs.net)!
Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan were rightly praised (for their directing and acting work, respectively) in the 2017 coming-of-age dramedy “Lady Bird” — though the film’s secret weapon was the title character’s scene-stealing best friend, played by the incandescently charming Beanie Feldstein. But nobody puts Beanie in the corner for long, least of all Olivia Wilde (making her feature directing debut), who cast the actress as a brainy teen hoping to catch up on all the fun she missed while studying on the eve of graduation in this high school dramedy scheduled for wide release on May 24.
5. FOR SAMA
Most people go to the movies to escape their problems and the grim realities of the 24/7 news cycle, which can make it difficult to catch in-depth documentaries on serious topics before they disappear from theaters (if they’re distributed at all). But one of the strengths of festivals like SXSW is the opportunity to catch glimpses of nearly unimaginable realties, like filmmaker Waad al-Kateab’s five-year chronicle of her life in Aleppo during her nation’s seemingly endless civil war. I’ve often wondered how day-to-day life is even possible for the Syrians trapped in the midst of such carnage — and since “For Sama” currently has no scheduled release date, its festival screenings may be one of my few chances to find out.
6. GOOD BOYS
“Eighth Grade” was a South-By favorite in 2018, and this year Gene Stupnitsky (in his directorial debut) presents a far less mature XY chromosome rejoinder (scheduled for wide release in the U.S. on August 16) about a trio of sixth grade boys (spoiler alert!) acting dopey. And while producer Seth Rogen is arguably more A-list than indie, his screenings are usually a hoot and his stoner laugh has become as much a fixture of the fest in recent years as the werewolf fiddler on Sixth Street.
7. HER SMELL
The catalogue description had me at “Elisabeth Moss as a ’90s punk superstar” — and though writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s drama about the aforementioned musician’s struggles with sobriety and the ragged downslope of fame hits theaters on April 12, there’s some definite appeal to seeing this particular film amid all the real-life rock-and-roll rumbling of South-by-Southwest (not to mention the star wattage component of potentially seeing “Mad Men”‘s beloved Peggy Olsen in person).
8. KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE
Speaking of star wattage (and no offense to Beto O’Rourke, whose 2018 Senate race is the subject of its own documentary at the festival), it’s hard to think of a South-by-Southwest celebrity with more rock star mojo than Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’ll be speaking with Briahna Gray (“The Intercept”) at the Austin Convention Center on March 9 as well as appearing in a documentary by Rachel Lears (recently acquired by Netflix for distribution) about four of the women who ran in the wave elections of 2018.
9. MUSEUM TOWN
Even if I wasn’t a fan of and frequent visitor to the town of North Adams and its signature attraction, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (a.k.a. Mass MoCA, described in program notes as the largest of its kind in the world), Jennifer Trainer’s documentary about a funky working class town invaded by art world hipsters sounds like the ideal psychic palette cleanser in a time of rampant rural/urban tribal divisions. Bonus points for what promises to be an eclectic soundtrack featuring honorary locals Wilco who (along with narrator Meryl Streep) may help to bring the film to the attention of a wider audience.
10. SWORD OF TRUST
SXSW has always been one of the prime incubators for the left-of-center, slice-of-life indie film movement known (affectionately and derisively) as “mumblecore,” and writer/director Lynn Shelton has always been one of the subgenre’s brightest lights (thanks to past efforts like the hilariously uncomfortable “Humpday”). Sadly, her films are frequently underwatched outside the festival circuit, though “Sword of Trust” combines that potential scarcity with the star wattage of comic/podcaster Marc Maron (as a cranky pawnshop owner, natch) in a story of family dysfunction and “Southern disillusionment.” SxSW = Must See.