If you’ve never been down to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest (whether it’s for the music and film festivals or the interactive conference), it’s something that you need to experience at least once, because the city exudes a vibrant and welcoming energy that makes it very hard not to have a good time. This year marked my third consecutive trip to the SXSW film festival, and though my virgin voyage was a bit of a baptism by fire, I was practically oozing the confidence of a grizzled veteran this time around. I knew exactly what to pack, how to plan and what to expect when I got there.
At least, that’s what I thought, but Mother Nature has a funny way of messing up your plans. From airline-wide delays that had me sprinting across Dallas-Fort Worth airport to catch connecting flights, to the miserable weather that I was greeted with when I arrived, it wasn’t exactly the greatest start to my trip. Apart from the almost non-stop rainstorms that put a damper on the opening weekend festivities, the only thing that could have made it any worse was if the movies I had chosen to see weren’t very good. And sure as the rain continued to fall (from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon, with hardly a break in between), there were more duds than normal at this year’s event.
It’s not that I expected to love every movie that I saw at the festival (you’d have better luck winning the lottery), but some of them – including star-studded comedies like “Nature Calls,” “Frankie Goes Boom” and “Small Apartments” – were so terrible that even a direct-to-DVD release would be more than they deserve. “Nature Calls,” in particular, is so egregious that I almost left before the first act was even over, and I’ve never walked out of a movie in my life.
Fortunately, I was able to catch a number of really good films as well. In addition to the long-delayed horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods” and director William Friedkin’s controversial crime thriller “Killer Joe,” there were three movies that I enjoyed so much that they’ll likely end up on my Top 10 list by year’s end. Below are highlights from my reviews of those films:
1. “Sleepwalk with Me”
Most stand-up comics probably only dream about making a movie as funny and honest as Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me,” let alone one that marks their directorial debut. Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s films in a lot of ways… if you weren’t a fan of Birbiglia beforehand, you will be afterwards.
2. “Safety Not Guaranteed”
A character-driven dramedy with equal parts humor and heart, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a beautiful film about the human spirit that is impossible to ignore. [It’s] original, humorous, heartfelt and, perhaps most importantly, filled with immense hope.
3. “The Raid: Redemption”
“The Raid” is an unrelenting, action-packed can of whoop-ass that delivers one of the most crowd-pleasing moviegoing experiences of the past decade. This is about as close to non-stop, wall-to-wall action that I’ve ever seen… including what is easily some of the best close-quarters combat ever committed to film.
The week got better as the weather improved, and although I didn’t carve out nearly as much free time to explore the city as I had originally planned, I did happen to stumble upon a cool sports park operated by Nike in support of their new FuelBand, a USB fitness bracelet that tracks your activity throughout the day. Taking up nearly an entire block, the park featured a basketball court, a miniature skate park, and a turf soccer field that allowed me to blow off a little steam in between screenings. I even spoke with one of Nike’s on-hand representatives about the new FuelBand, and was so impressed by the short demonstration that I contacted the company about getting one of the in-demand devices to review for Bullz-Eye.
It was nice to get out and kick the soccer ball around for a while, but it was one of just many small thrills during my trip. I also had the pleasures of meeting director Bobcat Goldthwait (who was at the festival with his new film “God Bless America”) during a random encounter at local hangout The Highball; I had the chance to interview Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon and Jamie Chung, among others; and I enjoyed the many delicacies that Austin has to offer, including personal favorites like Freebirds (think Chipotle but better), sandwich chain Schlotzsky’s, and of course, the delicious $5 milkshakes at the Alamo Drafthouse. My trip may have had some hiccups along the way, but as has always been the case with SXSW, the one-two punch of some great movies and that inescapable Austin charm made it yet another festival to remember.