With a year to prepare after becoming one of the first major American events derailed by the coronavirus in 2020, the virtual 2021 South by Southwest multimedia festival did an admirable job of socially distancing four days of screenings, comedy, musical performances and more. And while staring at a computer screen from my couch at home could never replicate the excitement of the real thing in Austin, TX, one filmgoing element remained the same as in past years: namely a cinematic slate so jam-packed that no single reviewer could possibly watch everything on the schedule. But here are my favorites of the movies I did get to see, all (hopefully) coming soon to a streaming service or (fingers crossed) maybe even an actual movie theater near you.
In general, indie narrative features are harder to pull off than documentaries since it’s challenging for writers, actors, and directors to replicate the effortless, compelling weirdness of real world human behavior — a degree of difficulty that only increased during quarantine. Yet first-time filmmakers Mallory Everton and Whitney Call overcome those challenges with ease, transforming their life-long offscreen friendship into hilarious onscreen chemistry as sisters rushing to rescue their nana from a COVID-infested nursing home. Co-directed by Everton and fellow Utah sketch troupe cohort Stephen Meek, the road trip comedy also has the advantage of being one of the first movies to fully chronicle the early days of the pandemic, from fears of touching gas pumps to exasperating interactions with mask-eschewing family members. We’ve spent so much time mourning that finally being able to laugh at our recent suffering definitely feels like a welcome first step on the road to recovery.
2. ALIEN ON STAGE
The title says nearly everything you need to know about the premise of this irresistible goofbag of a documentary by co-directors Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey. A group of British bus drivers adapt Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction horror film “Alien” as a holiday charity theatrical production and the results are just as charming as you’d expect. Like a real-life “Waiting for Guffman” combined with the ingenuity of the group of teens who remade “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in their backyard, part of the fun is waiting to see how the amateur dramatists will attempt to replicate various iconic moments from the big budget source material. But then the stakes and suspense increase as the inexperienced cast and crew are invited to recreate the production in a professional West End theater, generating visceral opening night jitters for any viewer who’s ever had the anxiety dream (or real life sensation) of appearing onstage in front of a packed audience without being fully prepared for your role.
One interview subject refuses to discuss IF women are funny, since the answer is so obvious — yet she and a wide range of female comics in the Andrea Nevins documentary “Hysterical” are happy to speculate why such a question would even be asked in the first place. Tracing the distaff history of stand-up from industry trailblazers like Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller (who challenged social mores disguised as outsized characters) to relative newcomers like Kelly Bachman (a rape survivor who gained notoriety by mocking Harvey Weinstein to his face during one of her gigs in 2019), the film addresses a wide range of serious issues via a hilarious series of interviews and performance clips.
4. SWAN SONG
The iconic German actor (and Warhol alum) Udo Kier delivers a moving, sardonic, career best performance in Todd Stephens’s salute to Pat Pitsenberger, an openly gay hairdresser the writer/director remembers from his days growing up in Sandusky, Ohio. More fanciful character study than factual biopic, Stephens’s film is a bittersweet rumination on mortality and loss as his protagonist encounters various real and imagined figures from his past (including Jennifer Coolidge in fine villainous fettle as a vengeful former protégé) during a quixotic pilgrimage to beautify the corpse of a local doyenne.
5. UNITED STATES VS. REALITY WINNER
So many horrible things happened during the Trump era that it was nearly impossible to keep up with all the injustice. Yet Sonia Kennebeck’s undisguised advocacy documentary works overtime to ensure the memorable name Reality Winner won’t be forgotten as the twentysomething whistleblower serves time in federal prison for revealing the NSA’s coverup of Russian interference in the 2016 election. For those unfamiliar with the case, Kennebeck’s film is a disturbing, clear-eyed dissection of a legal system unmoored from common sense to silence uncomfortable truths — and if it all seems a little one-sided, it’s largely because the other side refused to be interviewed.