What were the best films at SXSW 2019? Well, of course, Jordan Peele’s Us. But what else? Our correspondent Lillian Pontius-Goldblatt sat down for a chat about the Film track at SXSW and the top picks for movies we should all keep an eye out for in the coming weeks. In the process she also uncovered some tips for how to experience films at SXSW in the best way possible – especially if you’re going for the first time.
a manager heads to SXSW 2019 on the film track
Garrett Greer began his career in television as an assistant at the Kaplan Stahler Agency, a boutique television literary agency in Beverly Hills. In the following years he worked as a production fellow and manager of development at ABC Studios. From there he went to MTV, before transitioning to management at Rain Management Group. He is currently a television literary manager at Haven Entertainment. He and his husband Danny, a television writer, live in Los Angeles with their charming dog Stanley.
deciding what to see
Dandelion Chandelier: This year at SXSW, your plan was to see 18 films in four days. That’s pretty ambitious. How do you go about choosing which films to see and planning your schedule?
Garrett Greer: I’m an insane Type A person. I go through and I read the descriptions of all of the movies. Every one. And see if there is anything that jumps out at me. I really focus on what it’s about. And then usually I’ll go back through and look at the directors and actors and see if there’s anyone that I’m a particular fan of that I want to see. And then I check the Narrative Spotlight, those are the big headline movies, like Us and Booksmart this year.
Last year I prioritized those headliners because they are the most difficult to get into. But this year, actually I veered away from those and opted to go to events or smaller films instead because I know they’re going to be coming out soon in LA. At the festival, I’d rather focus on seeing things that aren’t those big-ticket, already-going-to-be-in-theaters movies. Because I might see something that I won’t have another opportunity to see elsewhere.
So, I basically make a list of all the movies that I think I’ll like. And then I go through and rank-order them from must-see to nice-to-see, all the way down. Because the way that things are scheduled, I know I’ll have to Sophie’s-Choice some things. I make a spreadsheet and then I can see where there are gaps. Then I go back to the schedule to see what’s happening at that time. Again: insanely Type A.
advice for first-timers
DC: What advice do you have for someone who might be coming to the festival for the first time?
GG: If there’s something you really, really, really want to go see, go and make sure you give yourself enough time to line up for the showing. I waited for two and a half hours to see “Us” on the opening night, and I was twenty people from the door when they reached capacity. If I had gotten in line 15 minutes earlier, maybe I would have gotten in. Still mad about that one.
Give yourself enough time, and also don’t wear yourself out. Last year I really packed my schedule and I did see everything I intended to. This year I saw less but I got a lot more sleep.
DC: What differences did you notice from last year to this year?
GG: The Express Passes are a big deal for the film festival and they changed the structure this year. These passes mean you are pretty much guaranteed a good seat at a film. Last year they opened 24 hours in advance of a screening, meaning sometimes I’d be trying to get a pass for a film on Sunday while I was in a film on Saturday. This year all the passes were released at 9am on the day before the film.
This meant that I wasn’t on my phone in movies, which was a plus, but also meant that I missed some passes because they were gone in the 30 seconds it took me to request a different Express Pass. Pros and cons to both systems.
Just make sure you know the rules for the passes and set alarms to get into the films you really want to see. These passes mean you can waltz up at the last minute, and don’t have to spend hours in line.
the best films of SXSW 2019
DC: What were the standout films for you this year?
GG: Far and away, the best thing that I saw was Booksmart.
- From SXSW: Booksmart. Told from a wildly original, fresh and modern perspective, Booksmart is an unfiltered comedy about high school friendships and the bonds we create that last a lifetime. Capturing the spirit of our times, the film is a coming of age story for a new generation. Director: Olivia Wilde. Principal Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Billie Lourd, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte
I loved it. I sat there with a dumb smile on my face literally the entire time. At one point, it occurred to me that my mouth was open, and had been open for a while, and when I had that thought, I made no move to close my mouth.
DC: Who do you think is gonna like Booksmart the most, who is the audience?
GG: I’ve said it’s female Can’t Hardly Wait, but I think it will appeal to anyone with a sense of humor and a heart — it’s just really, really, funny. Anyone who might think “Oh, it’s about girls – pass”, they’d be idiots and completely wrong. It feels like it’s for everyone. It’s raunchy and it’s sweet, and it’s a grounded portrait of friendship. It has all the things. Everyone should go see it with their best friend.
DC: Love that! OK, what else did you like?
GG: I also saw this movie called, Villains, which was about two people who break into a house and find out that the people that are in there, that own the house, aren’t quite what they seem.
It was sort of a horror-thriller, but also really, really funny.
- From SXSW: Villians. Mickey and Jules are lovers on the run, headed southbound for a fresh start in the Sunshine State. When their car dies after a gas station robbery, they break into a nearby house looking for a new set of wheels. What they find instead is a dark secret, and a sweet-as-pie pair of homeowners who will do anything to keep it from getting out. Directors: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Principal Cast: Bill Skarsgard, Maika Monroe, Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Donovan
DC: So for Villains, who is the audience for that?
GG: I think anyone who liked Get Out might enjoy Villains. It doesn’t have that layer of commentary that Get Out has, but it has a similar vibe: a humorous horror/thriller situation.
DC: Cool. Next?
3. Romantic Comedy
GG: There was also this really well-done documentary just about romantic comedies.
- From SXSW: Romantic Comedy. Romantic Comedy is a documentary that goes beneath the surface of our favorite films, seeking to better understand the way we view love, relationships and romance. From It Happened One Night to Runaway Bride, from clumsy meet-cutes to rain-soaked declarations of love, these films reflect our experiences. But they’re often just as problematic as they are comforting. They’re hugely successful and deeply loved by many, but – being frequently dismissed as guilty pleasures – they have often avoided critical analysis. Helped by a chorus of critics, actors and filmmakers, and original songs by her band Summer Camp, director Elizabeth Sankey embarks on a journey of investigation and self-discovery. Director: Elizabeth Sankey. Principal Cast: Jessica Barden, Charlie Lyne, Anne T. Donahue, Laura Snapes, Cameron Cook, Eleanor McDowall, Simran Hans, Brodie Lancaster
It uses footage from all of these different romantic comedies. That’s literally the only thing you see on screen for the whole film. It really takes you through the genre: where it’s been and where it’s going. And what place it has within a cultural conversation and how the genre should maybe grow or change, or be more inclusive. That was really cool, both the story it told and how it was made.
DC: What was the strangest or most surprising thing you saw?
4. The Art of Self-Defense
GG: Actually, one of the bigger movies was the most different. It was called The Art of Self-Defense, with Jesse Eisenberg. It’s a dark Yorgos Lanthimos-style comedy.
- From SXSW: The Art of Self-Defense. The dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense stars Jesse Eisenberg and is set in the world of karate. Eisenberg plays a man who is attacked at random on the street and enlists in a local dojo, led by a charismatic and mysterious Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), in an effort to learn how to defend himself. Director: Riley Stearns. Principal Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Definitely not for everyone. There’s a lot violence in it, but I can see some people really liking it.
5. The Day Shall Come
GG: Another one that was an interesting experience was a film called The Day Shall Come.
- From SXSW: The Day Shall Come. Based on 100 true stories, the explosive new film from Chris Morris is an emotionally gripping, laugh-out-loud thriller that exposes the dark farce at the heart of the homeland security project. It is harder to catch a real terrorist than it is to manufacture your own. Director: Chris Morris. Principal Cast: Marchánt Davis, Anna Kendrick, Danielle Brooks, Denis O’Hare
It was inspired by real events about these people who are under suspicion of acts of terrorism, only to find out that the acts of terrorism have been incited by undercover government operatives. To watch this movie that seems totally preposterous and has a zany Armando Iannucci-style satire to it, and to realize that that’s based on real stories, is wild and sad.
6. Them That Follow
DC: Was there anything, besides Us that you wish you had been able to see?
GG: Long Shot I didn’t go see, the same for Good Boys but those were two of the bigger ones I know I will be able to see in theaters. There was a movie that I thought was going to fall by the wayside but then I got to go see called Them That Follow, that’s a fictional look inside this Appalachian snake handling religious sect.
- From SXSW: Them That Follow. Snake handlers are spiritual renegades belonging to an obscure, but growing, sect of American Pentecostalism: part of a century-old tradition of worshipping with venomous snakes during church services. Seeing themselves as the vanguards of salvation in a morally bankrupt world, these fundamentalists put their lives on the line — each and every week — to prove themselves before God. “Them That Follow” is a dramatic thriller that explores this dangerous and unseen way of life, deep in the wilds of Appalachia, telling the story of a pastor’s daughter who holds a secret that threatens to tear her father’s church apart. Directors: Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage Principal Cast: Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Alice Englert, Jim Gaffigan, Walton Goggins, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman
Ultimately the reason that I wanted to go see it was that Olivia Colman was in it. Obviously I’m obsessed with her, like everyone should be. It was better than most films I saw, but not in my top three.
GG: I saw some things I wasn’t as impressed with as compared to what I saw last year. It’s always difficult to choose what to see. There is so much here, it is always exciting and a little daunting.
DC: Thanks, Garrett. Excellent insights. We can already smell the popcorn.
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Lillian Pontius-Goldblatt is a senior strategist at Carbone Smolan Agency, where she leads brand projects for corporate and cultural clients, as well as the agency’s trend reporting practice. Her brand work aims to unite how organizations operate with how they exist in and respond to the real world. Cutting her teeth in nonprofit and startup organizations, Lillian grounds her work in mission and builds practical solutions for brand and communication challenges. Visit her online at: lillianpontiusgoldblatt.com