SXSW: A Game-Changing Year for an Unpretentious, Refreshing Fest

Titles like 'Short Term 12', 'The Short Game' and 'Mud' showed programming savvy

Austin, Texas — In future years, the industry will look back at 2013 as a game-changer for South by Southwest (SXSW). After gradually improving its standing over the two previous decades with such big-studio premieres as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Bridesmaids,” and earning indie cred with discoveries like “Tiny Furniture” and “Weekend,” SXSW turned a corner on the eve of its 20th anniversary.

Before, people never knew quite how to pin down the event, which shares real estate with a rapidly expanding interactive conference and an already-massive music happening. The programming tends to vary wildly from year to year, making it hard for outsiders to pin down — or rely upon — the tastes of fest head Janet Pierson and her staff. But this year’s lineup brought their strengths into focus, revealing picks such as “Short Term 12,” “The Short Game” and man-child comedy “Awful Nice” that were sincere, unpretentious and refreshingly populist.

If anything, the choices left me feeling snobbish by comparison, given the expectations I put on other fests to serve up niche-interest art pics and high-minded heal-the-world stories. The SXSW team would just as soon make you laugh. Or cry. Just so long as you feel something.

Instead of wasting spots on lesser offerings by established auteurs, the way Cannes does, they gamble early on promising up-and-comers and then invite them back when they make good on that potential. Paying off this year were “The Bounceback” director Bryan Poyser and strangely technique-averse mumblecore godfather Joe Swanberg, whose “Drinking Buddies” demonstrates that he could make a “real movie” after all (attracting Anna Kendrick and Olivia Wilde as collaborators).

Here is a festival that doesn’t think twice about programming populist fare on opening night, booking back-to-back premieres of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” and “Evil Dead,” and then tying things up this Saturday with another huge-leap-forward offering from a returning SXSW veteran, “The East.” Like director Zal Batmanglij’s 2011 debut, this edgy thriller takes place as much in the mind as it does on the screen, assigning Brit Marling (who might have been a cult leader in “Sound of My Voice”) to infiltrate an anarchist cell.

“The East” is just one of maybe a dozen Sundance premieres making their second stop in Austin, though instead of picking under-the-radar gems this year, Pierson went with some of Park City’s top titles — “Don Jon,” “Before Midnight” and “Prince Avalanche” — as well as one whose appeal is lost on me: Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color,” a semi-avant-garde but mostly just obtuse thriller with weird visuals and no sense of poetry. To me, it feels like “The Tree of Life” as designed by a mathematician, though it’s still a gutsy programming choice.

More telling than which Sundance pics Pierson invites are the films that festival missed. Just imagine how SXSW’s profile would change overnight if a genuine Oscar contender were to begin its journey here.

That could happen. The film that won the narrative competition, “Short Term 12,” really is that good. Don’t be surprised to see Brie Larson’s name resurface during awards season for her complex, multi-dimensional performance as a group-home supervisor trying to work out her own issues while holding down the fort. Think “Half Nelson” without the crack smoking. Or “Stand and Deliver” without the climactic calculus test. Drawing from personal experience at a home for runaway and abused teens, Destin Daniel Cretton delivers a wonderfully etched, beautifully acted story of a young woman determined to improve the lives of others whose own outlook changes in the process.

On the doc side, “These Birds Walk” tells a true-story variation on the same idea, focusing on an organization in Pakistan that caters to street children and runaways. Docs have long been one of SXSW’s strengths, and among this year’s discoveries, “The Short Game” (essentially “Spellbound” with junior golfers) has a bright future, as does jury favorite “William and the Windmill,” about a Malawi youth who received world attention for building a windmill for his family and now must cope with the expectations the world puts on him to succeed on the international stage.

Other great docs include “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton,” about the San Francisco filmmaker/poet who counted Pauline Kael among his early loves; “I Am Divine,” focusing on the drag legend’s contributions to the John Waters canon and culture at large; and “Continental,” in which Steve Ostrow relives the history of New York’s most (in)famous bathhouse.

One of the biggest surprises of SXSW this year was just how LGBT-friendly much of the program is. From my college days in Austin, I remember once requesting a review copy of a gay-themed book. The publicist, also a U.T. grad, wrote back, “Sounds like things have changed a lot since I was in Austin.” Though the city has had its own queer-themed film fest five years longer than SXSW, the latter long shied away from gay movies. Then, in 2011, Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend” won the audience prize. And now, in addition to the three docs I just mentioned, Yen Tan’s “Pit Stop” — a poignantly observed look at two lonely, small-town Texas gay men and the people of significance in their lives — had no trouble finding a crowd.

Just goes to show that SXSW is a festival for those seeking cinematic connection. It’s not fancy. Or fabulous. But it is genuine, with a lineup curated by instinct from among thousands and programmed from a place of sincerity. Every time I run into someone in town, they can’t help but rattle off the half-dozen films that moved them this week.

From where I stand, the best is “Mud,” a 2012 Cannes selection that makes its final fest stop before release in writer-director Jeff Nichols’ new adopted home. “Mud” represents American myth-making at its finest, a lyrical tale of two Arkansas boys who encounter an escaped fugitive on the secret island where they go exploring. Few American directors capture the flavor and feel of the South like Nichols, and this one immediately enters the pantheon of stories about the true fabric of our country, where adventure and dreams and poisonous snakes all meet in one inextricable snarl — a lot like they do at SXSW.

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