Last year, the SXSW Film Festival was an early casualty of the emerging coronavirus pandemic, which forced the Austin-based event to shut down for the first time in its history. Flash-forward to 2021 and the show went on… in a virtual edition. Even though viewers couldn’t attend in person, SXSW still generated headlines as the launching pad for movies you’ll likely be hearing about for the rest of the year, from the intensely personal documentary Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil to Justine Bateman’s #MeToo-era directorial debut Violet. Here’s Yahoo Entertainment round-up of the best and buzziest movies we saw during the festival.
Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil and Introducing, Selma Blair
After years of seeing their stories told by other sources, Demi Lovato and Selma Blair take control of their own narratives in two of SXSW’s buzziest documentaries. Filmed after Lovato’s near-fatal 2018 overdose, Dancing With the Devil features the Disney Channel icon-turned-pop superstar dropping one bombshell revelation after another about her troubled past, from surviving a sexual assault at 15 to her recent break-up with fiancé Max Ehrich. But the four-part series — which premieres on YouTube on March 23 — also gives Lovato’s fans reason to hope that better days are ahead for her: The singer talks about how recovery has left her in a healthier headspace, allowing her to explore her life, her sexuality and to “really live my truth.”
Introducing, Selma Blair is also filled with painful, but healing truth-telling. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2018, the Cruel Intentions star allows director Rachel Fleit to document the impact of the disease on her mind and body. When she’s not receiving intensive medical treatments, Blair reflects on her Hollywood career, and how she feels she never found her place in an industry that often demands that actresses subscribe to a specific appearance and behaviors. A candid, open-hearted portrait of a challenging life, Introducing, Selma Blair received an award for Special Jury Recognition for Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling, and is set to premiere on discovery+ later this year.
After spending a year on Zoom you don’t think you want to watch a movie set entirely on computer and phone screens. But then along comes Language Lessons, the feature directorial debut of The Grinder star Natalie Morales, who co-wrote and co-stars alongside indie stalwart Mark Duplass. The virtual two-hander centers around a wealthy gay Bay Area man (Duplass) who strikes up a friendship with his Costa Rican Spanish tutor (Morales) as tragedy hits his home and she deals with her own more mysterious strife. Morales and Duplass have cooked up something really special here, a COVID-captured, constraint-breeds-creativity story that is heartbreaking, funny and sweet all at once.
Anybody with anxiety will get something out of Violet, which is an important reminder that even if your impostor syndrome is voiced by Justin Theroux it’s still a debilitating horror that can wreck your life. Like The Assistant — Kitty Green’s underseen #MeToo movie starring Julia Garner — Justine Bateman’s directorial focuses on the daily microaggressions women like Violet (Olivia Munn) face in the workplace, whether it’s her underlings ignoring her authority or her verbally abusive boss antagonizing her. Meanwhile, that voice inside her head is always there to make things worse. While the movie has flashy debut-filmmaker flourishes — the constant on-screen text does get to be a bit much — Violet remains compelling for its entire runtime and Munn finally gets a starring role to sink her teeth into.
Alone Together, Soy Cubana and Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free
Thanks to an acclaimed global music festival that runs concurrently with the film lineup, SXSW is a reliable place for toe-tapping rock docs. The cream of the musical crop this year paid tribute to a California rock icon, a Brit pop superstar and an all-female Cuban quartet. Filmed during quarantine, Alone Together follows “Boom Clap” mastermind Charli XCX as she invites her die-hard fans into her recording studio — virtually, of course — as she makes her newest record, “How I’m Feeling Now.” Clocking in at only 67 minutes, the film isn’t as comprehensive an account of her songwriting process as you might hope, but it does offer compelling insight into how artists have to adapt to unprecedented circumstances in real time.
In contrast, Soy Cubana transports viewers back to the pre-pandemic days when musicians could literally cross borders to bring their music to the masses. A feature-length expansion of Jeremy Ungar and Ivaylo Getov’s documentary short, the film follows the four members of the Vocal Vidas on their 2017 trip from Cuba to Los Angeles, even as the Trump Administration began to curtail Obama-era Cuban policies. Save for one emotionally-charged conversation, political discussions remain largely off-the-table here as the directors focus instead on the women’s camaraderie and showmanship. It’s a vibrant companion piece to another Cuban music favorite, Buena Vista Social Club.
If you came of age in the 1990s, chances are that you grooved to multiple tracks off of Tom Petty’s blockbuster album Wildflowers, which featured such stone-cold classic bops as “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “It’s Good to Be King” and “Cabin Down Below.” Mary Wharton’s Somewhere You Feel Free compiles never-before-seen black-and-white footage from the Wildflowers recording sessions, as well as new interviews with producer Rick Rubin and Petty’s collaborators. (Petty died in 2017.) It’s an origin story for one of the most influential records of the past 30 years.
The End of Us
Bickering-couple movies can be anguishing to watch: The disappointing Kate-Leo reunion Revolutionary Road comes to mind, as does the more recently disappointing Malcolm and Marie. But add a heavy layer of smart comedy and a timely backdrop — the coronavirus pandemic, which loomed large over this festival — and you’ll get a deeply enjoyable film like Steven Kanter and Henry Loevner’s The End of Us. Ali Vingiano and Ben Coleman play an L.A. couple who hit the end of their rope at the worst of times, just as quarantining forces them to remain roommates post-split. The End of Us is so relatable in its amusing depictions of the past year’s singular struggles and frustrations, it should be put in a time capsule to preserve what life looked like in 2020… hopefully never to be replicated again.
Malcolm Ingram’s Clerk is about as good as you could ask a feature-length documentary about Kevin Smith to be. In fact, it might be more enjoyable than any movie the Jersey-born writer-director has put out in quite some time. Besides recapping his entire career film-to-film — from Clerks and Mallrats to Tusk and Jay and Silent Bob Reboot — the movie also examines Smith’s wider pop-culture impact, including the early View Askew message board that really did presage Twitter. Ingram also speaks to the filmmakers that inspired Smith, including Richard Linklater, as well as the filmmakers he inspired — most notably Jason Reitman. Whether you like his work or not, Smith is influential in more ways than one and the movie does a solid job of proving that.
Inbetween Girl and Women Is Losers
The coming-of-age genre gets a much-needed creative kick with two stories of young women from different eras who are similarly forced to grow up fast. Mei Makino’s debut feature, Inbetween Girl, stars Emma Galbraith as Angie Chen — a biracial high-schooler living in Galveston, Tex. Leery of romance after living thorough her parents’ traumatic divorce, Angie can’t resist embarking on a secret affair with her friend and Big Man on Campus, Liam (William Magnuson) who is technically in a committed relationship with an aspiring Instagram influencer (Emily Garrett). It’s a classic John Hughes set-up, but Makino’s script is carefully attuned to the nuances of contemporary teen life and has a progressive attitude about female sexuality and friendship that’s too-often absent from the movie’s ’80s predecessors. And Galbraith’s terrific performance establishes her as a rising star to watch.
Lorenza Izzo delivers another standout SXSW star turn in Lissette Feliciano’s Women Is Losers, a ’60s-era period drama named after the Janis Joplin song. Cast out by her immigrant parents after she becomes pregnant, teenage Celina (Izzo) has to make her own way in a male-dominated world that seems specifically designed to limit her opportunities and choices. Even potential allies like a seemingly helpful bank manager — played by Kim’s Convenience star Simu Liu — turn against her when she makes decisions for herself and her young child. Behind the camera, Feliciano devises a heightened style that allows Celina to break the fourth wall as she also tries to shatter glass ceilings.
Alien on Stage
Alien on Stage may not be the flashiest documentary you’re likely to see this year… but it’s likely to be among the most enjoyable. A group of chain-smoking British bus drivers put on a no-budget stage production of Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 classic Alien, and a documentary film crew tags along to chart its journey from a disappointing debut to a sold-out West End production. As a documentary, it’s perfectly functional, but it’s the play itself that makes this a must-see for Alien fans or just fans of feel-good stories. By the time the film gets to the actual performance on the West End, I was squealing with delight right along with the audience.
A monologue from a deeply troubled woman who laments her inability to run away from her nightmares sufficiently sets the tone for Carnage Park director Mickey Keating’s return to SXSW. Offseason is one of two films at the fest (along with Elle Callahan’s Witch Hunt) from Eric B. Fleischman and Maurice Fadida’s prolific disruptor Defiant Studios and stars new-school Scream Queen Jocelin Donahue (Insidious 2, The House of the Devil) as a New York woman who — along with her boyfriend (Joe Swanberg) — becomes trapped on a cursed island after her mother’s grave is desecrated. Like any effective creepfest, it all plays out like one extended nightmare. Fans of moody arthouse horror like The Witch and The Lighthouse might want to give this one a chance.
The second directorial effort from longtime genre producer Travis Stevens gives Barbara Crampton a long-overdue starring role, and — as if that weren’t enough — her on-screen husband is played by genre legend Larry Fessenden! While Jakob’s Wife doesn’t quite live up to his fantastic debut, The Girl on the Third Floor, which Yahoo Entertainment loved enough to recommend this past Halloween, it’s still an absolute blast that would have killed if it played in a packed house at the festival. There are enough practical effects and terrifically gory payoffs here to make this more than worthwhile for horror fans. Thanks for bringing back the Nosferatu buck teeth, Travis — and take that, hot Twilight vampires!
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
Horror lovers, prepare to add a whole bunch of new titles to your “must-watch” list. Kier-La Janisse’s expansive three-hour deep dive explores the lasting legacy of age-old folk tales on horror cinema. Spanning eras and nations, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched features a gold mine of film clips that run the gamut from obscure ’70s British witch movies to Japanese ghost stories to American slasher favorites like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Interviews with genre experts add context and continuity to these varied tales of the macabre, and illustrate how the fears of the past linger on in the present day. While you’ll definitely have seen some of the movies Janisse covers, rest assured that you’re going to discover films you’ve never heard of… and need to see immediately.
Swan Song is notable for its inspired casting alone: Legendary German character actor Udo Kier — whom you’ll most definitely recognize even if you don’t know his name — gets a rare starring role after decades of playing villains and second-fiddle characters. Kier plays a flamboyant former hairdresser who escapes his retirement community in order to take a long walk across a small town to style a dead woman’s hair. I didn’t know that I needed to see Udo Kier in drag lip-syncing to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” but I’m glad I did. I can’t think of another performance like this in his prolific career and writer-director Todd Stephens makes the most of it.