Oh reader, you have no idea how much I missed Austin, Texas this year. Oh how I wish I travelled all the way to Austin from my little corner of the world in Canada to attend South By Southwest, a city I have not been to in person since 2019. This is SxSW year number FIFTEEN for this weary film fest traveler and I had to do it all from my couch and office chair back home instead of travelling the cinemas in downtown and Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar to get my indie cinema fix.
With that said, this year at SxSW Online was still a busy one as we featured many reviews and filmmaker interviews from all backgrounds. We encourage you to click on the top menu links and read up on all of them!
Both Austin-writer Antonio Quintero and stuck-in-Canada yours truly look back on the just-wrapped SxSW 2021 Online edition with our respective ten-best of feature films this year. Here we go….
Top 10 of SxSW Online 2021 by Jason Whyte, Always-Busy-Editor-At-Large:
#1. Delia Derbyshire: The Myths & The Legendary Tapes
(United Kingdom, dir. Caroline Catz)
A movie that came out of nowhere and one that I just took a chance on late one night while plowing through screenings, DELIA DERBYSHIRE became my own “discovery”, if you will, and a movie I would have never likely seen if Austin was open and I was running inbetween screenings. DELIA DERBYSHIRE: THE MYTHS & THE LEGENDARY TAPES is about this titled fascinating woman who was the god-mother and creator of Electronic music, pioneering this new wave in a woman-oppressed 1960’s London. Filmmaker Caroline Catz made a movie that I swear was just made for my own pleasures; it shows the process of design, creation and even goes so far to channel feelings and synrochities of the time, all the way down to physical tape editing. Catz herself plays Delia in fascinating recreation sequences that makes this part documentary and part narrative that reminded me, in a strong way, of the doc BECOMING BOND that played at SxSW a few years ago where filmmaker Josh Greenbaum brought George Lazenby back to life. Here, Catz takes it even further by recreating Delia’s story through narrative than just a barrage of talking heads and clip shows. I know that DELIA will not be for everyone with many sections of the movie in abstract mode but the doc also hit all my pleasure centers of a throwback to UK life, sound development and counterculture in a bygone era with most of it told in a drugged haze; it also rewards patience too, including a moment between Delia and one of her co-workers that is a long, perfect hold on a thought in a sequence so memorable I wanted to frame it and hang it on my wall. Winner of the Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award at SxSW this year (honoring “a filmmaker whose work strives to be wholly its own, without regard for norms or desire to conform”), this unforgettable and endlessly fascinating docu-narrative almost seemed like it was made for my tech-savvy ways, but I loved it all the same.
(Norway, dir. Yngvild Sve Flikke)
A for-adults drama comedy that I feel like is never made in North America anymore, this joyous and very funny slice-of-life feature from Norway is about Rakel (a true star performance from young Kristine Thorp) a party-loving young woman who suddenly discovers she is six months pregnant and has her entire free-spirit young adult life thrown into a tailspin. She does NOT want to be a mother but still insists on finding out who impregnated her, all the while rejecting the idea that she will soon become a mother. Director Yngvild Sve Fikke shows Rekal’s open sexuality, partying ways and vulnerability without judging; she’s flawed and she knows it, but it’s also refreshing to see her stand on her two feet and reject the standards of everyone around her. NINJABABY is also about Rakel as an artist, who uses animation to balance the world around her, all the way to her future kid already taking form in her head as a hand-drawn sidekick who gives an additional running commentary to the world around her that is an original and memorable concept. With touches of storytelling that reminded me of LOOK WHO’S TALKING and JUNO but on a level all its own, I feel like this will eventually be Americanized and remade, so seek out NINJABABY and don’t look back.
#3. The Sparks Brothers
(United Kingdom, dir. Edgar Wright)
As always, there were a lot of music docs at South By Southwest and many solid ones, but THE SPARKS BROTHERS is some kind of revelation and made me want to boast that it’s “THE GODFATHER of music documentaries!” right after I watched it. Edgar Wright, no stranger to SxSW with his BABY DRIVER and ATTACK THE BLOCK being among the more memorable moments of Austin, has crafted a furiously paced, relentless 143 minutes that just fly by as we get a look into the should-be-more-famous-than-they-are Sparks and its brother-team Ron and Russell Mael who are not only unique personalities with their daily routines but also incredibly passionate and full of life. Not only do we get a treasure-trove of vintage clips, photographs and gorgeous black-and-white interviews that get right down into their world, but THE SPARKS BROTHERS is also a complete breakdown of their entire discography that doubles as a surprising throughline to UK music culture over the last few decades. The wealth of information that Wright provides here is so exhilarating that I could have spent another hour or even two with this movie. I was already a Sparks fan but seeing this relentless, epic-length doc gives them the recognition that they deserve, and even people who have never heard of them will be inspired.
#4. Lily Topples The World
(United States, dir. Jeremy Workman)
And there are even more subjects than Delia Derbyshire and Sparks that inspired me at SxSW this year. Young Lily Hevish, also known as Hevesh5 on YouTube and falls under the title of “The Domino Girl” has created an entire business for herself out of the entertaining world of toppling over dominoes and recording the results. If you have ever seen these viral clips on YouTube or seen her work on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, you already know the visual beauty, but LILY TOPPLES THE WORLD jumps all the way into her bright, positive world and shows how she all puts it together and builds a business with her proud parents and supporters around her. Lily always seems to always have a smile on her face, and LILY TOPPLES THE WORLD comes from filmmaker Jeremy Workman whose THE WORLD BEFORE YOUR FEET made my Top 10 of SxSW 2018 and personally inspired me to get in better shape, go on walks more and explore the world around me. With LILY, he takes it a step further into showing that your potential and even crazy-sounding ideas can now work in an ever-changing future, and he shows that he is one of the best doc talents working today.
#5. The Fallout
(United States/Canada, dir. Megan Park)
Making great comments on school shootings and the effects that it has on its students that survive (we never really seem to ever notice the survivors in media), THE FALLOUT was one of the big breakthroughs of SxSW this year, winning the Grand Jury Narrative award. For me, this announced a bold new talent in Canadian filmmaker Megan Park right in the first few minutes as we see a school shootout from the perspective of Vada (Jenna Ortega, also one of the most talked about youth performances at the festival this year) and her personal aftermath, forging new friendships and her troubled relationship with her family. THE FALLOUT feels real and plays real throughout but is also great and entertaining cinema, and I am hoping it finds a very successful release down the road in these troubled times.
(United States, dir. Malcolm Ingram, 2020 Spotlight)
Of course I knew I was going to greatly admire a documentary on director, podcaster and all around good-guy Kevin Smith, but what surprised me about Malcolm Ingram’s wonderful look at the ever-changing Silent Bob’s persona is just how sweet it is and how it features a great support system around Kevin, something that I feel a lot of people overlook. From his best friend Jay, his wife Jen to even all of the stellar filmmaking talent that have stuck with Kev over the years along with a quick but memorable look at his movies and collaborations over the past few decades, it all balances right back onto the kind, generous and talkable Smith who really is one of the nicest people you will ever meet on the film circuit.
#7. Under The Volcano
(Australia, dir. Gracie Otto)
UNDER THE VOLCANO is a very high-energy and instantly loveable tribute to a small but pivotal Air Studios Montserrat off the coast of Australia featuring a treasure trove of fascinating stories about the creation of music via Elton John, members of The Beatles post-breakup, Dire Straits, Sting-slash-The Police and many more with lots of wonderful vintage photos and clips, ending it all with The Rolling Stones’ pivotal STEEL WHEELS album before the eventual demise of the studio thanks to the nearby volcano deciding to make their contribution. While I sometimes tire of the usual talking-head-clip-show documentaries, filmmaker Gracie Otto has a lot up her sleeve here as UNDER THE VOLCANO also utilizes vintage photos and footage from that area along with candid interviews and stories of the world which is fascinating and a lot of it has never been seen before. There are still a lot of old clips here, mind you, but there’s also such a heart and drive to this documentary that a lot of people may not know about. This doc is a LOT of fun from beginning to end and a great throwback to the music from that era. Now I really want to run the MUSIC FOR MONTSERRAT concert doc on DVD!
#8. Best Summer Ever
(United States, dir. Michael Parks Randa & Lauren Smitelli)
It would seriously take a heart of stone to resist this beautiful, life-affirming movie that is simultaneously a fun summer musical comedy but also representing disabled actors in movies, a subject I have followed with great passion since crying with tears of joy from the documentary BECOMING BULLETPROOF all the way back at Vancouver International Film Festival in 2014 and more recently with THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON, which was also on my top list of SxSW 2019. Originally part of the 2020 lineup and featured at the festival this year (CLERK, above, was also under this banner), a simple story of a girl named Sage trying to find her way in a new school and as well as supporting all of her friends around her. Bright, happy and full of spirit, this brought so many tears of happiness to my face and is a lovely support of disabled actors and filmmakers in the movies. Bonus points for presenting the movie in a fully accessible format with subtitles, sing-along lyrics and a comfortable volume level for the hearing sensitive! Freestyle Media recently came on board with distribution and I look forward for BEST SUMMER EVER to reach more audiences in 2021.
#9. The Lost Sons
(United States, dir. Ursula Macfarlane)
Giving me the same sense of urgency that SxSW alum DEAR ZACHARY did over a decade ago, Ursula Macfarlane’s powerful and investigative doc is, like its lead subject, on the search for truth to find out who this man really is and what happened. The main subject is Paul Fronczak (pictured above) who was 10 years old when he found out that he was kidnapped as a newborn from his parents, and later realizes that he is not their biological parents at ALL. What follows is a full investigation from Paul into his true identity, and what is revealed as he digs deeper. Macfarlane’s absolute goal here is remarkable; we also get involved as a viewer looking for a needle in a haystack and really makes us wonder about all of the unsolved stories that could potentially be around us. Produced by CNN Documentary Films and coming out later this year, THE LOST SONS will definitely inspire some intense discussion.
#10. I’m Fine Thanks For Asking
(United States, dir. Kelley Kali, Angelique Molina)
A movie filmed and indirectly about our current pandemic and the effect it has on personal struggles, filmmakers Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina filmed this intense and involving a no-nonsense mom named Danny (co-director Kali) who wants nothing more to get into a new apartment to take care of her daughter Wes (Wesley Moss) after being widowed and living in a tent “for fun” as Danny promises to her daughter. Taking place over the course of a VERY long and unpredictable day, I want to think of our hero as a hustler in a way, but a good one; Danny never cuts corners, she never takes the easy way out (the movie even wisely handles a romantic encounter with an old school friend), finalizing in one of the very best final acts out of any movie I saw at SxSW this year that warmed my heart with its honesty. It’s a hard-fight to get there as I personally wanted to e-transfer her a few hundred dollars just so she didn’t have to pawn an important heirloom, but I’M FINE THANKS FOR ASKING is overall a rewarding experience of an American Indie and thankfully didn’t push the current world issue into the forefront.
Top 10 from Antonio Quintero – Our wonderful and prolific Austin-based writer!
#1. INTRODUCING, SELMA BLAIR
(United States, dir. Rachel Fleit)
Actress Selma Blair reveals living with Multiple Sclerosis, which she was diagnosed with just a few years ago. INTRODUCING SELMA BLAIR is one of the best documentaries I have seen about someone living with a Chronic illness. Blair is brave in showing how the disease affects her everyday life and her family. One of the most emotional films I ever saw at SXSW and Selma Blair is brave in participating in this documentary.
#2. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
(United States, dir. Kier-La Janisse)
Kier-La Janesse’s new documentary is a huge treat for cinephiles like me. WOODLANDS is a complete breakdown of Folk Horror film from around the world. I recommend you have a notepad or your Letterboxd account open while watching the documentary as you are going to want to write down all the films and series they mention. There were so many films in this documentary I never heard before!
#3. Lily Topples the World
(United States, dir. Jeremy Workman)
Lily, a lonely adopted Chinese girl finds happiness in tumbling domino blocks. She shares her creations in YouTube and end up creating a large following. Her hobby would lead her to a career, her own business, working on films, and meeting celebrities of all types. A great story about a girl that turns her hobby into a career. This is a great American success story. Just seeing the domino block construction that lily and her team create are worth watching this documentary. If you just want to watch a fun documentary; watch this one.
(Mexico, dir. Paola Calvo, Patrick Jasim)
An amazing documentary about the life of female professional wrestlers living in the City of Suarez, Mexico. These women must balance their love of wrestling and their family in the most dangerous city in the world.
(United States, dir. Mickey Keating)
A Lovecraftian inspired horror! A woman visits her mother’s island hometown just its closing after her discovering her grave has been desecrated. Once arriving at the island, she notices there is something weird with the localsm and now she must find a way to escape of this island with her life. Director Mickey Keating has put together an amazing slow burn horror with a memorable third act. A modern version of SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH!
(Norway, dir. Yngvild Sve Flikke)
A hilarious comedy from Norway. A woman learns that she has been six months pregnant without knowing. She now must carry the baby to term. At the same time, she must figure the father of the baby. She records her pregnancy in a comic book she is drawing, called Ninja Baby. This is hilarious about a woman having to deal with the life changing event of having a child. It’s more like an adult version of LOOK WHO’S TALKING.
#7. Dear. Mr. Brody
(United States, dir. Keith Maitland)
In 1970, Michael Brodie Jr., the heir to a margarine fortunate promises to give away $25 million of his fortune to the public. All they must do is to send a letter telling him how much money they need and the reason they needed it. This turns his life into a nightmare. This is the true version of the monkey paws wish. Decades later the filmmaker of this movie discovers thousands of unopened addresses to Mr. Brodie. She makes it her mission to read this letter and even find the people that wrote these letters. We Many great stories and items in these letters. I can’t believe they haven’t made about movie about this amazing story. I am amazed I never heard of this story before.
#8. Under the Volcano
(Australia, dir. Gracie Otto)
In 1977 Sir George Martin built the Air Studio in the Caribbean island of Monserrat. It was an amazing recording studio for an artist that wants to record an album in a place that is far away from civilization. Many amazing Records were recorded in this studio such as: Dire Straits Brother in Arms, The Police Synchronicity and Ghost in the Machine, and many others. Sadly, Air Studio was destroyed by a combination of Hurricane Hugo and the island volcano erupting. You get to see how the atmosphere of this island and its people influence the artist that recorded in Air Studio. It also features an amazing soundtrack!
(United States, dir. Malcolm Ingram)
A journey thru the life and career of filmmaker Kevin Smith. We get to see the stories of his films and behind the scenes footage/pictures of his films. You get to see how he films affected his life. Even if you a person like me that find his filmography mixed; you will see in this documentary, Kevin Smith is an amazing human being. It also features the hilarious narration of Kevin Smith and how he is surrounded by some amazing real-life characters.
10. Jakob’s Wife
(United States, dir. Travis Stevens)
The Sophomore outing of Director Travis Stevens is even better than his first one (THE GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR). This one features the amazing duo of Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden as a married couple that must face a supernatural creature that has invaded their small town. It features great practical effects and its hilarious. A great horror comedy. This feels like a Stephen King story injected with humor.
That’s a wrap on SxSW 2020!
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