While the South by Southwest Film Festival prides itself on being an innovative, edgy and forward-thinking exhibition, it is also happy to celebrate itself, nestle into its roots and promote the vibrancy that exists in its own backyard.
These two traits are not mutually exclusive, as will likely be seen in this year’s opening night selection Song to Song, the latest feature from director Terrence Malick, a native of Austin, Texas, who weaves together a romance set to the music scene of his hometown. It stars Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman, and, as in his previous film Knight Of Cups, attempts to capture the film’s setting in a way that’s rarely been seen before on camera.
That kicks off an eclectic slate of 125 films, which includes 85 world premieres and 51 coming from first-time directors.
Among the most anticipated selections is Baby Driver, the latest from filmmaker Edgar Wright, who follows up his trilogy of films featuring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost with another action-comedy starring Ansel Elgort as a young getaway driver. The film also stars Lily James, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Kevin Spacey and leans on its soundtrack, a key part of the narrative that drives the story and its protagonist forward.
Other features in the Headliners group include Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, another action-comedy, starring Brie Larson and Armie Hammer, about arms dealers and Michael Winterbottom’s On The Road, which chronicles the British rock band Wolf Alice throughout a tour.
Acclaimed indie director Joe Swanberg returns with his latest film, Win it All, which he wrote with Jake Johnson, who also stars in the film as small-time gambler that hatches a plan to make it big when he finds a duffel bag filled with money. That premieres in the Narrative Spotlight section, as does the provocative This Is Your Death, from Giancarlo Esposito, about a reality T.V. game show in which contestants end their lives, featuring Josh Duhamel and James Franco. Others to watch for include Mr. Roosevelt, the directorial debut of comedian Noel Wells, as well as Most Hated Woman in America, the story of Madeline Murray O’Heir, who is played by Melissa Leo.
The Documentary Spotlight section also holds up a mirror to Austin with the premiere of Barbecue, which explains the cultural significance of grilling meat and how the stories told around the fire help bring the world closer. The section also taps into long-time pop cultural icons and shows with Bill Nye: Science Guy, a look into the television personality’s attempt to restore science back into the dialogue in the midst of a largely political and hostile environment surrounding it. There is also Muppet Guys Talking – Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched, a previously unexplored look at five of the original Muppet performers who share insight and behind the scenes footage of their work with Jim Henson.
A couple of other documentaries carry a certain topical weight to them this year, converging with the social and political realities of our time. Erik Ljung debuts with The Blood is at the Doorstep, which follows the family of a schizophrenic, unarmed black man who was killed by a Milwaukee police officer as they look for justice. Jason Pollock meditates on a similar theme with Stranger Fruit, a look at the Ferguson, Mo., riots following the shooting of Michael Brown, captured from his family’s perspective.
A few films also reappear after premiering at Sundance earlier this year, including Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$ and Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick. Special screenings also include Ridley Scott’s classic Alien and Mamoru Oshii’s original Ghost in the Shell, a remake of which is due for release this April.
Festivalgoers will have also a unique experience this year in that badge access has been expanded to all platforms. Attendees for the film festival will also receive secondary access to SXSX music and interactive conferences, allowing for more opportunities to explore the different facets that Austin’s busiest week has to offer. That really is forward thinking.