Best of SXSW 2022

From road trips and space exploration to multiverse shenanigans and the contender for Paddington’s wholesome legend crown, our Festiville team highlights the most tantalizing titles from SXSW 2022.

The theaters were alive with the sounds of boisterous attendees in Austin at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, a welcome return to an in-person event after two years without. The energy was palpable in the seats and on the red carpet, where our correspondent Annie Lyons got the scoop on Rachel Sennott’s Letterboxd account, Nicolas Cage’s first taste of the cinema experience in over a year, and much more.

Between the cinema premieres and virtual offerings, our Festiville team had our googly eyes across a packed slate that delivered horror thrills, nostalgic chills and even a multiverse or two… or three… or four… As always, once the Austin dust and the incomparable SXSW energy settled, we compared the Letterboxd community’s reactions with our own to whittle down a selection of the films that hit us all the hardest—plus some honorable mentions.

Words by Annie Lyons, Isaac Feldberg, Leo Koziol and Gemma Gracewood.


Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood

Written and directed by Richard Linklater / Streaming on Netflix from April 1

Richard Linklater’s latest stream-of-consciousness time-capsule—his first rotoscope-animated feature since 2006’s A Scanner Darkly—draws upon his own childhood in 1960s Texas. Though one of Apollo 10½’s secondary storylines tips toward the fantastic, as a Houston fourth-grader is recruited by NASA for a top-secret lunar mission, the film overall eschews a straightforward trajectory as it instead indulges a warmly meandering walk down memory lane, narrated by Jack Black.

“This semi-autobiographical sketch isn’t really a story at all so much as a sweetly effervescent string of Kodachrome memories from the filmmaker’s own childhood,” wrote critic David Ehrlich. Summed up Chadwin: “Is this basically just Linklater spewing nostalgic nothingness for an hour and a half? Yes. Did I enjoy it immensely? Yes I did. It’s a charming tale that feels personal to Linklater. It also made me feel nostalgic for a time I never even came close to living in, so he captured that feeling quite well.” Bailey put it more directly: “It’s like your grandpa droning on about drinking out of a water hose—but fun.”

We snagged a handful of minutes with SXSW king Linklater on the red carpet at the film’s premiere, where he discussed the ways we all view our past differently with the knowledge that comes from age, his affinity for working with kids, and spotlighted some of the films he lovingly references in Apollo 10½. IF

Bodies Bodies Bodies

Directed by Halina Reijn, written by Kristen Roupenian, Sarah DeLappe, Chloe Okuno, Joshua Sharp and Aaron Jackson

After someone turns up dead during a Mafia-esque party game, long-held grudges descend into a coke-fueled night of mayhem. The only SXSW Headliner without a trailer released in advance, or even much of a logline, Bodies Bodies Bodies was the fest’s biggest unknown. One peek at the stellar cast list—Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Rachel Sennott, Pete Davidson, Chase Sui Wonders, Myha’la Harrold and Lee Pace—made one thing abundantly clear: whatever this was, it was going to be funny.

That prediction proves true from the very first TikTok dance that occurs when childhood chums Sophie (Stenberg) and David (Davidson) reunite for a hurricane party with their wealthy friend group. Along for the ride is Sophie’s new working-class girlfriend Bee (Bakalova), who provides the audience’s entry point for deciphering these super-rich kids’ rotten ties. As Allanah wrote, “It felt like if Thoroughbreds and Jennifer’s Body were steeped in Gen-Z culture and expanded the female friendship dynamic to an entire friend group.”

Director Halina Reijn drew on her extensive stage background to find clever ways to block characters, while cinematographer Jasper Wolf clearly had a ball using glow stick jewelry and cell-phone screens to keep the low-light visuals engaging. The film’s dialogue leans heavily into the Gen-Z whodunit of it all, poking fun at performative politics and podcasts alike.

Meanwhile, the whole cast is aces, but as Jason noted, Shiva Baby star Sennott deserves special mention: “She’s an absolute firecracker, the kind of performer who gets a laugh no matter what she’s saying or doing.” We tracked down Sennott on the red carpet to chat a little about taking on another stressful part, and her love of Letterboxd. AL

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert / In theaters March 25 via A24

Leave it to writer-director duo Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan to open up SXSW with the ultimate “you just have to see it” conversation-starter. When laundromat co-owner Evelyn Wang (a tour-de-force Michelle Yeoh) finds herself in tax trouble with IRS agent Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), she just wants to make it to her Chinese New Year party without any fuss. But once a guardian of the multiverse hijacks her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), Evelyn must take a journey through infinite versions of herself, some representing her deepest erased regrets.

Everything Everywhere All at Once makes good on its title, concocting a “cosmic gumbo” of colliding genres and references that shies away from easy classification. Buttplugs, dildos, googly eyes, hot dog fingers, Wong Kar-wai homages—it’s “The Tree of Life brought to you by Adult Swim,” says Jackson.

In typical The Daniels fashion, absurdity only makes up one side of the coin. “They have a way of blending absurd physical comedy with the most heart-wrenchingly quiet moments that is stunningly unique,” writes Caitlin. As the film’s multiverses expand, so do its life-affirming philosophies on what it means to choose your present moment.

Equally crucial is Evelyn’s relationship with daughter Joy (breakout star Stephanie Hsu). The volatile but immense mother-daughter bond grounds Evelyn’s journey, and ultimately helps her find a way toward healing generational trauma. “Probably the most powerful argument against cynicism I have ever seen,” notes Marvin, while Emily makes her allegiances known: “Put Michelle Yeoh in everything. Put Michelle Yeoh everywhere. Michelle Yeoh all at once.” AL

It Is in Us All

Written and directed by Antonia Campbell-Hughes

Cosmo Jarvis, so potent in Lady Macbeth and The Evening Hour, delivers a powerhouse lead performance in Antonia Campbell-Hughes’ dreamlike, slow-gathering drama about a man drawn to the teenager (Rhys Mannion) who almost killed him in a car crash. Agonized in his isolation, fracturing under immense psychic pressure, Jarvis’s performance captures the gradual implosion of a man who does not know his own nature, even as the film’s oppressive atmosphere suggests ghosts surrounding him on all sides.

Winner of SXSW’s Special Jury Recognition for Extraordinary Cinematic Vision, It Is in Us All is “short, simple, stripped-down and yet swelling with such immense and intricate feeling like it’s constantly threatening to burst,” says Jackson, calling it “a story saturated by men in front of the camera but unmistakably haunted and motivated by the specters and gaze of women throughout.” 

Campbell-Hughes “is so good at setting the scene that it’s sort of exciting to spend this much of a movie not [knowing] where it’s going, even if the tone is so muted as to be nearly opaque,” added Jason, while a more mixed review from Taylor noted that Jarvis “is one leading role in a good major film away from being a successor to the Tom Hardy type.” IF

Nika

Directed by Vasilisa Kuzmina, written by Kuzmina and Yuliya Gulyan

Bolstered by a star-making turn from Elizaveta Yankovskaya, who won SXSW’s Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Performance, this tragic portrait of a former prodigy is lyrically wrought and utterly devastating in its evocation of lives forgotten and lost to the ravages of time.

The film was inspired by the life of Soviet child poetess Nika Turbina, whose fame faded as she navigated her twenties under the influence of alcoholism and her controlling mother (Anna Mikhalkova). Shot in striking widescreen on gorgeous Kodak 35mm, Nika marks a particularly auspicious debut by writer-director Vasilisa Kuzmina and her co-writer Yuliya Gulyan; they “have crafted a film as delicate as it is explosive, allowing Nika the woman a space in a narrative mostly dominated by her exploited childhood,” wrote film critic Marya E. Gates, calling it one of her favorite films at the festival. 

Nika really is outstanding,” adds Bretton, who saw the film twice and awarded it five stars. “A second watch has allowed me to catch the careful moments of build-up towards its various reveals and revelations, while also allowing me to soak in more of the vibrant cinematography and electric blocking.” IF

Slash/Back

Directed by Nyla Unnuksuk, written by Unnuksuk and Ryan Cavan

Inuit writer-director Nyla Innuksuk takes us to remotest Nunavuk for her debut feature Slash/Back, which had Letterboxd members including Andrew buzzing: “Hot damn, this was a lot of fun. Plays like a cross between The Thing and The Goonies with a cast made up entirely of young, Indigenous women, who are all so great in the film. I got a lot of Attack the Block vibes.”

Slash/Back didn’t have the biggest budget of this year’s new school of sci-fi horror, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue, and may even have helped the film’s effectiveness. Says Brad: “Funny, cute, and kinda badass. A true indie with a small community coming together to make it happen. Also some rad practical effects mixed with solid CGI sprinkled throughout.”

Ahead of the film’s SXSW premiere, we interviewed director Nyla Innuksuk and her Inuit ensemble about Slash/Back’s unique location, authentic casting and killer soundtrack (Halluci Nation, Tanya Tagaq). We’ll leave the last word to AnnSmajstrla: “Was this the best acting ever? No. Was it amazing to watch a group of badass girls from a small Canadian village fuck shit up in the best way? Hell. Yes. No one fucks with the girls from Pang!” LK

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Directed by Tom Gormican, written by Gormican and Kevin Etten / In theaters April 22 via Lionsgate

The sheer meta-ness of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent got to the heads of some Letterboxd members attending the film’s SXSW premiere, but who could blame them? As RSCusick wrote, “There’s a scene in the film where Nic Cage is in a theater watching a ‘Nick’ Cage movie, and this happened as he was in our theater watching this film, and I swear we came close to the universe folding in on itself.”

As Cage clarified to us, he stars as director Tom Gormican’s imagined version of himself: a neurotic, egomaniac actor strapped for work who gets inadvertently roped into a CIA investigation after meeting mega-fan Javi (Pedro Pascal). While meta comedies are nothing new, it’s difficult to think of another actor with the same mythos and memes who could pull this reference-filled, audience-friendly concept off. Cage proves he’s in on the joke throughout, particularly via an outlandish younger version of himself named Nicky.

Cage and Pascal’s camaraderie gives the film its emotional core, as their characters connect over movie magic and start dreaming up a screenplay together. “Their chemistry was such an incredible delight to watch. I would watch them in ten more movies together,” Ezra shares. The pair’s bond ultimately broadens the film’s homage to movie making as a whole; the consideration that Cage’s over-the-top performances resonate because he loves the craft so much is a heartfelt one. Bretton predicts: “One of the most unique studio comedies in years, and it might be the film that [unites] Film Twitter…” AL

The Unknown Country

Directed by Morissa Maltz, written by Morrisa Maltz, Lily Gladstone, Vanara Taing and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux

Lily Gladstone hails from the Kainai, Amskapi Piikani and Nimii’puu tribes of Blackfoot country, and has been garnering attention on the indie circuit thanks to her standout work with Kelly Reichardt in Certain Women and a brief part in First Cow. Ahead of her role in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon later this year, she delivers a star turn as the lead in The Unknown Country, a meditative, generous and luminous docu-drama.

Writer-director Morissa Maltz has experience in the realms of photography and arthouse cinema, where her first feature Ingrid made an impact on the festival circuit. The concept for the road-movie style of The Unknown Country came together when she met Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux whilst getting her hair done in Spearfish, North Dakota; they became fast friends. The journey of Gladstone’s character to discover her Native roots became the center of the story—a pilgrimage to honor the memory of a recently deceased grandmother. The film took half a decade to come together and it shows in the care and craft of this story and its cinematography.

Semi-fictionalized vignettes with real people Maltz met on the road flow in and out of the fictional narrative of Gladstone’s magical journey. ZacharyBinx was “spellbound at this tale of a grieving woman who travels the country in search of something… beautiful blend of narrative/documentary filmmaking that feels effortless, from the eccentric characters she meets to the epic landscapes.” Hammertonail agrees: “exquisite visual beauty… [due to] attention to detail and a willingness to allow the equally moving landscapes of face and terrain ample room to breathe… Maltz is determined to tell a grand fable subtly camouflaged by everyday concerns.” LK

X

Written and directed by Ti West / In theaters now via A24

Ti West’s latest celebrates two ’70s grindhouse specialties—horror and pornography—as it pays expertly crafted tribute to the outsider spirit that inspired up-and–coming filmmakers to make such down-and-dirty pictures. Centering on a crew (including Mia Goth, Brittany Snow and Scott Mescudi) that heads to a secluded strip of 1979 Texas to make an adult film in a run-down farmhouse, unbeknownst to its elderly owners, X certainly bears surface similarities to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—“The Texas Backshot Massacre” snarked LME—but its savvy editing style and narrative explorations of exploitation distinguish this as far more than a mere homage.

X “delivers exactly the kind of sun-soaked slasher smut I love,” wrote Ian West (no relation). “This isn’t just some dopey, throwaway, cringe throwback with grindhouse filters and ‘scene missing’ reel hokum, like we’ve seen so many times over the past decade,” West continued. “This is a real movie—no winks or egregious nods to the audience, no ties to existing legacy shit, and it utilizes the old slasher template better than the majority of new slashers could ever hope.”

Added Brianna Zigler: “Despite a few quibbles, I think most importantly Ti West is one of the best filmmakers we have still making actually fun horror movies.” And judging from Demi Adejuyigbe’s review (“This movie convinced me to never shoot porn in Texas in the ’70s again”), X may have even saved a few lives.

For Journal, we interviewed Ti West about the palpable ingenuity of this A24 slasher and making movies about making movies. IF


Honorable Mentions

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp, written by Fleischer-Camp, Elisabeth Holm, Nick Paley and Jenny Slate

“BREAKING NEWS: Paddington the Bear has been dethroned as the most wholesome and lovable cinematic character.” Say it ain’t so, Chadwin! But if anyone’s going to give Paddington a run for his money, a one-inch-tall shell is a worthy competitor—or, better yet, the new crossover event of our dreams.

Premiering first at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival before hitting SXSW, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is the feature adaptation of Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate’s 2010 stop-motion creation, which has since spanned multiple shorts and picture books. Expanding off the original premise, Fleischer-Camp plays a fictionalized version of himself who starts filming short documentaries of Marcel (Slate) after discovering the ingenuous seashell and his grandmother Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini) living in his Airbnb. Marcel enjoys performing for Dean’s camera, but he’s still grappling with the abrupt loss of his extended shell community after a previous tenant stormed out with a hastily packed bag.

Tailor-made for the “christopher robin core” crowd, the mockumentary balances Marcel’s ruminations on grief with his comedic hot takes on everything from dogs to raspberries. Slate’s voice performance crackles with pathos, lending weight to the character’s endearing observations. Ethan Rubenstein praises the “tactile world of household-item Rube Goldberg machines”, adding that “the shallow-focus cinematography and use of Hiroshi Yoshimura’s ambient works in the soundtrack really add a layer of serenity to this story that is more paced with the change of the seasons rather than the passing of time”. AL

Anonymous Club

Directed by Danny Cohen 

SXSW has a naturally strong cross-over between its film and music fests in the form of the 24 Beats Per Second program of music documentaries. This year, amid good stories about Chumbawumba, King Crimson, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Sheryl Crow, and luthier Reuben Cox, the stand-out film for us is Danny Cohen’s 16mm Kodak-film portrait of the period in the life of Australian musician Courtney Barnett between her albums Tell Me How You Really Feel and Things Take Time, Take Time.

Anonymous Club, “so raw and quiet and introspective,” writes Claudia, is as beautiful a portrait of the changing landscape of mental health as it is of a songwriter’s process. The film captures Barnett at a time when the musician is struggling to tell us how she really feels, even while asking her growing legion of fans to do the same. In the face of questions from an increasingly curious media and the documentarian himself, she quietly records her thoughts when she’s alone, and Cohen uses these audio musings to stunning effect as voice-over juxtaposed with the relentless cycle of show, shower, sleep, bus, soundcheck, warm-up, repeat.

It’s a privilege to observe the fragility involved in being an artist in public, and refreshing to hear Barnett call herself “a fuckin’ moron”. Anonymous Club is hopeful, funny and cathartic; Cohen shows Barnett’s mental health and grasp of her fame both improving in subtly unscripted ways, via decisions such as what to do with her hair. The film is due out in August, and here is Gabriel’s advice: “Watch it on the big screen. Borrow a copy from your local Video-Ezy. Watch it Saturday night, still a little hungover. Flat lemonade. Microwave rogan josh. Fall asleep with 25 mins to go. Finish it Sunday morning.” GG

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