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The Top Five Movies I Saw At SXSW 2023

Founded in 1987 as a music festival, the Austin, TX event known as South by Southwest (a.k.a., SXSW) added films to the mix in 1994 (which your humble correspondent has been reviewing for various media outlets since 2008).

And after sifting through 2023’s scores of narrative and documentary listings for a dozen (mostly indie — sorry, John Wick 4) screenings to attend, here are my top five favorites (hopefully) coming soon to a big (or even small) screen near you.

1.  LAST STOP LARRIMAH

Even in a notably strong year for SXSW films, this true crime whodunnit featured a more vivid ensemble of memorable characters than most other fictional or documentary features at the fest — chief among them a hard drinkin’, shit talkin’ Irish expat named Patrick “Paddy” Moriarty who vanished from the quasi-ghost town of Larrimah, Australia in 2017, leaving behind about a dozen equally eccentric neighbors and just as many plausible theories about who killed him and what happened to his body.

Was he baked into a pie?  Fed to a crocodile?  Or worse?

Technically, the case has never been solved and director Thomas Tancred keeps you guessing before a final clue leads to a clear, satisfying (if not legally admissible) conclusion.

2.  A DISTURBANCE IN THE FORCE

It’s impossible to create a cult classic on purpose.  Instead, an authentic attempt to make something good must instead go horribly awry, as was the case with the infamous 1977 fiasco The Star Wars Holiday Special, a star-studded variety show so inexplicably, surreally terrible that it’s inspired decades of parody, homage, and debate despite airing exactly once on network TV (and the fact George Lucas did his damndest to erase it from the annals of pop culture history).

So, how exactly did a massive cinematic hit result in one of the worst TV shows of all time?

Co-directors Jeremy Koon and Steve Kozak weave together an affectionate tapestry of archival footage and exasperated interviews to solve the mystery while exploring larger themes about the necessity of artistic failure and the lost joys of pre-ironic entertainment.

3.  THE ORDINARIES

Like a live-action Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, this German-language feature by writer/director Sophie Linnenbaum (co-scripted by Michael Fetter Nathansky) depicts a world comprised entirely of cinematic characters and tropes.

Yet beyond all the clever set pieces and sight gags (i.e., a family that keeps bursting into full-scale musical numbers, friends reaching out to each other across the divide of a split-screen phone call, etc.), the strength of the film is the way the premise literalizes mass media’s tendency to prioritize the voices and stories of “main characters” (i.e., wealthy, attractive people in sexy locales) over “background” (the commoners who serve them) and “outtakes” (whose perspectives are edited out of reality to avoid making the ruling class uncomfortable).

4.  CONFESSIONS OF A GOOD SAMARITAN

Fun fact: people with brains featuring larger than average amygdalas are more likely to be altruistic.

That’s just one of the things Penny Lane discovered after deciding to donate a kidney to a stranger while chronicling her journey in a funny, sardonic, and often thought-provoking documentary which delves into the nuts and bolts of the procedure as well as tougher questions about what individuals owe to each other and society at large, the consequences of doing good, and whether it matters if we end up improving the lives of people we don’t like.

5.  IF YOU WERE THE LAST

Two live astronauts (and a dead one) drift in space with no hope of rescue.

Sounds grim, yet thanks to a sharp script by Angela Bourassa and the undeniable chemistry of co-stars Zoë Chao and Anthony Mackie, director Kristian Mercado transforms what could have been a bleak tale of space horror into an authentically charming romantic comedy (complete with low-fi special effects depicting how fizzy romantic feelings can transform even the most sterile surroundings into a distinctive landscape of the heart).

 

 

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