There was a time, a scant handful of days ago, when the news that Austin’s South By Southwest festival had been cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak seemed extraordinary. SXSW is an institution, and its loss is not only a massive hit for our culture — it’s a huge blow to Austin’s economy as well. Now, of course, everything is being cancelled or postponed, from the sportsball games to the drunken holiday parades to new movies (as Dustin has been keeping tabs on here), and that’s not to mention how many of us are being asked to work from home or are struggling to buy groceries when all the shelves are empty. We are in the midst of a pandemic, and we will continue to feel its impact on our health, our day-to-day lives, our public safety, our economy, and our stashes of Clorox wipes for week and months to come. There are big things at stake here, and the news cycle is relentlessly spooling out more unsettling developments at breakneck speed.
So I hope you’ll forgive me if I turn your attention back to SXSW for a moment, because yesterday was a bittersweet day for us here at Pajiba. In a non-COVID-19 riddled world, March 13th would have been the start of the SXSW Film Festival, and if you’re a longtime reader of this site, you know that SXSW is the one and only film festival that Pajiba’s movie staff has attended faithfully together, year after year. The first time I met Dustin, Seth, Kristy, and Roxana in person was in Austin, and I was looking forward to seeing them again… like, literally right now, preferably over some margaritas and a side of queso. Heck — Roxana and Kristy and I were planning a big hotel sleepover! So yes, the cancellation of South By was a personal disappointment for all of us here — but that’s not what this article is about. You see, the reason this site is so passionate about attending SXSW isn’t just to see each other, or because of the warm weather, or the delicious queso — it’s because the wonderful, hardworking SXSW staff puts together one of the best and most diverse film festivals in the business, and has for decades. From world premieres to favorites coming out of other festivals, big names and fresh talent, shorts and docs and midnight horror — everything has a place in their film line-up and an equal chance to shine. The overall quality of their selections is just outstanding, and without fail the movie that captures me most each year is one I walked into on a whim, without anticipating it.
Unfortunately, film festivals are an opportunity for new movies to not only be seen by audiences, but by distributors — and a lot of movies that were banking on being purchased out of SXSW are in a precarious position right now, with no other premiere opportunities in sight. There is plenty of disappointment to go around right now, but we decided to try and put a positive spin on things by sharing some of the movies we were most looking forward to watching in Austin this week. We figured just because we can’t actually see them, that’s no reason we can’t still talk about them — and in doing so, highlight the wonderful work of the filmmakers and SXSW itself. Some of these movies already have release dates, and we know we’ll be able to watch them soon. For others, we’re waiting in anticipation for them to arrive on whatever screen we can lay our eyeballs on. One thing’s for certain, though: 2020 would have been another outstanding year of SXSW programming, and we’re only able to share a small fraction of all that goodness here.
So, true story: Seth and I had an agreement this year. We planned to ditch the big opening night headliner (Judd Apatow’s The King Of Staten Island starring THE Pete Davidson, of SNL/ Pajiba Homepage fame) and instead head across town for the world premiere of a documentary about musician, composer, and all-around fascinating character, Frank Zappa. Seth and I hadn’t yet agreed on who would actually review the movie, of course — I was preparing for some pretty intense roshambo rounds, or maybe drunken arm wrestling to determine that honor — but it was enough to know that we’d get to experience this one together. Too often, when I start rattling off my favorite Zappa albums or the Eastern European towns who have dedicated landmarks to his memory or mention the fact that ACTUALLY he was a film pioneer in his own right (his movie 200 Motels was the first feature to be recorded entirely on videocassette and then transferred to 35mm film), I’m met with blank stares. For whatever reason, Zappa has both massively influenced pop culture, yet always remained just out of its spotlight, and it seems like everyone either knows his work obsessively or doesn’t know about him at all. Perhaps Zappa will change all that, though, because now seems like a really good time for a little dose of Frank’s anti-establishment attitude. I mean, hell — the dude wrote a song about Richard Nixon called “Dickie’s Such An Asshole”! I can’t imagine what he’d be up to today…
The documentary, helmed by Alex Winter (Bill from Bill & Ted!) and produced by his son Ahmet, leans heavily on thousands of hours of unseen material in Frank’s personal vault. They even turned to Kickstarter to help raise the funds to digitize the material. This documentary has been years in the making, and given the level of archival access Winter had, it’s likely to be the most intimate portrait of the maverick possible. But even if it’s no more than the grainy footage and talking heads present in any other documentary, that’s just fine. Frank was different enough all on his own. As a baby, I slept in a crib underneath a Frank Zappa poster — and someday, I’ll have a whole-ass documentary about the man to show my own (non-existent) kids. — Tori Preston
I saw Free Solo, and I loved Free Solo, and I think about a certain moment in Free Solo all the time. Forgive me for this, but I’m going to quote my review here:
There’s humanity in Honnold’s admission that he’s driven by a “bottomless pit of self-loathing” and that he worries you can’t “achieve anything great because [you’re] happy and cozy.”
I felt incredibly, wholly seen by that moment, in the acknowledgment of clawing, numbing fear that nothing you ever do will be good enough and that sometimes the only way to cope is to do something that feels a little bit insane, and that is the story of how I began rock climbing. I’ve fallen sort of rapidly in love with the activity and am a little bit obsessed with the intensity it requires, and that’s why I’m so wholly interested in seeing The
Alpinist. The latest film from the iconic Peter Mortimer, who helped co-found the REEL ROCK Film Tour, is a documentary about the renowned young climber Marc-André Leclerc. A free soloist, somewhat like Alex Honnold, who was already setting insane routes in his early 20s, Leclerc was accompanied by Mortimer for two years as he climbed around the world. Mortimer has a deft hand for encouraging his profile subjects to do more than just talk about the
technical side of climbing (think about his previous film The Dawn Wall, and how much Tommy Caldwell opened up about the trauma of being taken hostage in Kyrgyzstan during a climbing trip), and I’m fascinated to hear what Mortimer might have coaxed out of, or captured, from Leclerc. There’s an element of tragedy here because Leclerc passed away in Alaska in 2018, and I was unbelievably moved by a profile of the young climber that I read in Outside magazine, so I’m very intrigued by—and preparing for the overwhelming emotion of—The
Alpinist. — Roxana Hadadi
Arkansas, directed by Clark Duke (Hot Tub Time Machine, Kick-Ass) and starring Duke, Liam Hemsworth, Vivica Fox, John Malkovich, Michael K. Williams and Vince Vaughn — was a late addition to the lineup. However, I read only the synopsis of the movie — about drug couriers (Clark, Hemsworth) and a drug-kingpin named Frog (Vaughn) — and I was not only sold on the movie, I immediately ordered the John Brandon book upon which it is based. Here’s what The San Francisco Chronicle writes about the book: “Arkansas rants against the machine, in a voice combing Raymond Chandler’s side-of-the-mouth noir with Quentin Tarantino’s gleeful psychopath wit and Mark Twain’s episode romance of the journey.” As someone from Arkansas, I cannot see this movie (out in select theaters, on Apple, Amazon and On Demand May 1st) soon enough. — Dustin Rowles
Beastie Boys Story
Some of my best childhood memories are thinking back on me and my young, dumb (and very white) friends jumping around the basement while trying to rap along to “Licensed To Ill” for as long as our parents would put up with it (it was never for very long!). Of course, the Beastie Boys became so much more, as musicians and men, than that childish album, which is why Adam Yauch’s passing back in 2012 was an absolute gut punch. In fact, I still haven’t been able to pick up the beautiful “Beastie Boys Book” that sits on my bookshelf because I’m not sure I’m emotionally ready. Which is why I’ve been so hype for the upcoming Beastie Boys Story. Sure, it’s going to stream on Apple TV+ next month, but this documentary, put together by close friend and collaborator Spike Jonze, felt like the kind of event worthy of the heightened experience that comes with a screening in Austin’s Paramount Theater. In that room, surrounded by other fans, likely with Mike D, Ad-Rock, and Yauch’s family also in attendance, there might have been a catharsis for me. Maybe it wouldn’t have lived up to my emotional expectations but damn it, South By at its best creates something amazing. I’ll still watch this the day it drops online. And I’ll probably still cry. But it won’t be the same without that SXSW magic. — Seth Freilich
The Green Knight
Look, I don’t know what to say here that hasn’t already been said about The Green Knight. The film is directed by David Lowery, who we know can make bangers in the form of the Pete’s Dragon live-action remake (arguably the best Disney remix so far) and the Robert Redford vehicle The Old Man & the Gun. Dev Patel, who has summarily flooded
all our basements. Some extremely weird surrealist fantasy shit added into a renewed spin on the classic Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain, who travels to find the mythical Green Knight! The giant hand in the trailer! Dev’s head on fire! Is that a dude in a bear suit? Is Dev’s sidekick a talking fox? GIVE IT ALL TO ME. The Green Knight was going to have its world premiere at SXSW, and will be released by A24 on May 29, and if you don’t think Dev is rightfully leading all our brown actors coming for your prestige-white parts, you aren’t paying attention. — RH
Eight years ago at South By, I saw a magical little documentary called Brooklyn Castle, which was an intimate look at a Brooklyn junior high school’s chess program. This film hit a real sweet spot for me, which is why I was really looking forward to the world premiere of Critical Thinking, a movie about a Miami school and the impact that a teacher (John Leguizamo, who also directs) has when he takes their chess team to nationals. It’s based on a different true story, set over a decade before Brooklyn Castle, but the surface similarities are obvious. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good Stand and Deliver/Lean On Me-type of story, and this has all the markings of following those molds, only with chess. I hate going into a movie with preconceived notions, but there’s almost no way I’m not going to love this thing and I’d like it now please. The film already has a distributor, so I’m sure I’ll get to see some day, hopefully soon. Just not this weekend. Which means I may just have to go watch Brooklyn Castle again, instead - it’s available for rent from a number of streaming services and I really can’t recommend it enough. — SF
Boy’s State —
The Boy’s State program exists in all 50 states, but I suspect it’s a lot more potent a program in the South. Basically, it brings together the “cream of the crop” of high-school boys, who spend a week on a college campus, form a government, and are told repeatedly that they are the “cream of the crop.” I attended Boy’s State in Arkansas, and in retrospect, my assessment of it is that it was a very good place for high-school boys to network and, more importantly, keep the good ole’ boy network intact from generation to generation (Mike Huckabee and the current governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, spoke at my Boy’s State). I don’t have particularly fond memories of the program, which — best I can recall — felt like a dry-run for joining a frat. This documentary — which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance — tracks a week with Boy’s State in Texas and sold for a record $12 million, the biggest ever for a documentary acquisition. — DR
Small Engine Repair
You know what was really good news this week? That constant panty dropper Jon Bernthal is starring in a new TV adaptation of American Gigolo, which, yowza! Bernthal often has excellent taste in projects—Ford v. Ferrari, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Widows, Sweet Virginia, that brief appearance in Wind River that is just so perfect—and Small Engine Repair, which was slated to play at SXSW, is no exception. The directorial debut of John Pollono, who wrote the David Gordon Green-directed, Jake Gyllenhaal-starring Stronger which deserved more attention than it got, has a practical murderer’s row of talent. Bernthal, fellow character actor Shea Whigham, and Pollono himself play longtime friends, all blue-collar men, who all love and care for Frank’s daughter. One night, some sort of secret—some sort of strange situation that Frank doesn’t really explain—brings them all togetherand in contact with a rich guy who couldn’t be more different from the trio. The film’s marketingmaterials describe it as a “twisty drama,” and excuse me, Whigham and Bernthal excel at those! I’m really curious where Small Engine Repair could go, especially because the thriller genre is deeply underserved and we need more of them! — RH
PG (Psycho Goreman)
Every year, I try to hit at least one of SXSW’s Midnighters — i.e. their late night horror movie premieres. I’ve seen some truly bizarre and brilliant things off that docket, and this year it was PG (Psycho Goreman) that caught my eye. “Siblings Mimi and Luke unwittingly resurrect an ancient alien overlord who’s been entombed beneath their backyard” reads the description, but it’s the promise of some ludicrous Saturday Morning TV/Power Rangers style action infused with cartoonish violence, a throwback E.T. vibe and some possibly terrible rubber alien suits that really had me pumped. — TP
Promising Young Woman
You might recognize Emerald Fennell from the delightful British drama series Call the Midwife, where she plays Nurse Patsy Mount. Or perhaps you clocked her name in the credits of Killing Eve, where she’s one of this superb and subversive espionage-series’ writers. Well, this multi-hyphenate makes her feature directorial debut with Promising Young Woman, a rape-revenge thriller that’s trailer teases smash-the-patriarchy fervor with plenty of style and a haunting cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” In a SXSW line-up littered with big stars, wild loglines, and tempting topics, this Festival Fave was at the top of my must-see list.
With tousled blonde hair and a savage smirk, Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra Thomas, a young woman who was once a med student at the top of her class. But after a traumatizing event changes her world forever, she sets out on a mission of vengeance to take down not only the bad men behind that heinous night, but also all the self-proclaimed “nice guys” who could be responsible for more. You know the type. The friendly dude at the bar who promises a drunk girl a ride home, then abruptly sidetracks to his place for one more nightcap. That guy is about to meet his worst nightmare. And I can’t wait to watch. — Kristy Puchko
Header Image Source: Universal Pictures