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The Critics Break Down SXSW 2012

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire March 19, 2012 at 12:08PM

The best movie. The biggest surprises. The coolest venue. Hear how things shook out at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival from the critics who covered it.
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"The Cabin in the Woods."
"The Cabin in the Woods."
After 9 days, dozens of screenings, and over a hundred films, The 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival is a wrap.  To see how this year's festival fared, Criticwire surveyed the journalists, bloggers, and critics who covered SXSW on topics like the best and worst films, the biggest surprises, the best place to watch a movie, and the critics whose coverage they most admired.  Here's how things shook out.  A big thanks to everyone who participated; you can find a full list of contributors at the bottom of the post. -- MS

What Was the BEST Thing You Saw at SXSW '12?

"The obvious choice here, I think, is 'The Cabin in the Woods,' and by obvious I mean honest and 100% accurate. 'Cabin' is a master's class in the core elements of horror as a genre, as a social construct, and as a filmmaking endeavor. It may be an entertaining thrill ride on the surface, but something much smarter, and deliciously darker looms underneath." -- Brian Salisbury, Spill.com/Hollywood.com

"A dreaded question indeed amongst many 'best' movies. How about a categorical response? Best Screening Experience: 'The Raid: Redemption.' Best Documentary: 'Bay of All Saints.' Best Horror Film I Didn't Think Would Scare Me (But Did): 'Lovely Molly.'"  -- Jason Canglialosi, Mile High Cinema

"A lot of people are going to thoughtlessly disregard 'The Comedy' as a sadistic exercise in audience punishment, a cinematically weaponized inside joke for which we’re meant to serve as the punchline.  A discomforting, hyper-focused character study of an entitled fat thirty-something (Tim Heidecker) on the cusp of his inheritance, Rick Alverson's third feature plays like an early Adam Sandler vehicle as re-imagined by Sofia Coppola. Relentlessly confrontational, the film implores you to walk out while making it nearly impossible to even look away. The tricksy title was designed to encourage that reaction, but the key to cracking Alverson’s intentions is a matter of context: Despite a whole mess of laughs, (most of them sudden, awed, and involving hobo semen), 'The Comedy' isn’t referring to itself, but rather to that which its hero chronically amplifies in order to sustain himself and keep a safe distance from anyone who might force him into a meaningful moment. My favorite film of 2012 thus far." -- David Ehrlich, Movies.com

Other Films Receiving Votes For Best of Fest: "Beauty is Embarrassing," "Compliance," "Los Chidos," "King Kelly," "The Sheik and I," "Sleepwalk With Me," "Somebody Up There Likes Me," "Tchoupitoulas," "WE ARE LEGION: The Story of the Hactivists."

What Was the WORST Thing You Saw at SXSW '12?

"'Citadel.' Droll horror nonsense that starts out promising and then devolves into unimaginative B-movie blather." -- Eric Kohn, Indiewire

"The worst movie I saw was 'Nature Calls.' The worst *thing* I saw was 6th Street." -- Eric D. Snider, Film.com

Other Films Receiving Votes For Worst of Fest: "The Aggression Scale," "Black Pond," "Casa De Mi Padre," "Compliance," "Intruders," "Iron Sky," "Los Chidos," "Starlet," "The Tall Man."

What Was the MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE at SXSW '12?

"King Kelly."
"King Kelly."

"'King Kelly' for sure. It sounded excruciating, but it turned out to be daring, even trenchant." -- Ben Kenigsberg, Time Out Chicago

"Either the reasonably energetic examination of religious hypocrisy offered by 'Blue Like Jazz' or the viably irresponsible camera-phone chronicle that makes up 'King Kelly.' -- William Goss, Film.com/The Playlist

"'Fat Kid Rules the World.' Directed by Matthew Lillard? Starring the fat kid from 'Terri,' being fat again? Ugh. But there it is, all funny, warm, and sincere, like a good movie.  -- EDS

Other Films Receiving Votes For Most Pleasant Surprise of Fest: "21 Jump Street," "The Cabin in the Woods," "Citadel," "Eletrick Children," "Funeral Kings," "Girl Walk // All Day," "The Hunter," "INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE," "Lovely Molly," "Sun Don't Shine"

Excluding 'The Cabin in the Woods' and '21 Jump Street,' What SXSW '12 Movie Will Be the BIGGEST BOX OFFICE SUCCESS?

"It won’t be, but I hope it’s 'The Imposter.' -- Christopher Campbell, Movies.com

"October's 'Sinister,' screened under the guise of secrecy, feels like a sure thing for Summit. It has too many dead kids running around not to be." -- WG

"Summit's freaky Ethan Hawke vehicle 'Sinister,' which played in the 'Secret Screening' slot at the festival. It's pretty damn scary so word of mouth will likely keep it going beyond opening weekend success. On a smaller scale, I'd have to say 'Bernie' stands a chance at playing decently in limited release, while 'King Kelly' and 'The Aggression Scale' could do well on VOD." -- EK

Other Films Receiving Votes For Likeliest Box Office Breakout of Fest: "Fat Kid Rules the World," "Funeral Kings," "The Raid: Redemption," "Safety Not Guaranteed."

Is SXSW an Easy Festival to Cover or a Hard Festival to Cover?

"It's an extremely fun festival to cover, but one that's seems trickier than most to guess possible breakouts from ahead of time -- the Oscar-winning 'Undefeated,' for instance, flew completely under my radar last year. This also means that serendipity leads to some great discoveries -- like 'Weekend,' the first screening of which I ended up catching because MUBI's David Hudson was heading that way and I tagged along. I don't know that I would have picked it from the line-up on my own, but it turned out to be one of my favorite films of the year." -- Alison WillmoreMovieline

"It can be easy if you're organized and use your time wisely."  -- Britt Hayes, ScreenCrush.com

"Very difficult to cover. The spread out nature of the venues can be a huge pain in the ass." -- Devin Faraci, Badass Digest

"SXSW is an incredibly difficult fest to cover, and factor into the magnitude of that statement that I live here in Austin. Not only are the venues stretched across town, and not only is parking in Austin akin to the most painful oral surgery you could suffer without anesthetics, but the overlap with the music festival makes downtown an enormous, pulsing clustercuss. But hey, at least Austin has terrible public transportation, right?"  -- BS

"I don't know that any fest is 'easy,' but I will say that having two Alamo Drafthouses as venues makes it possible to see more films a day than at other fests. It sounds funny to say that food availability is a boon, but it really is. SXSW is the only place I'd ever attempt 6 films in a day. -- Jonathan Poritsky, The Candler Blog

"Considering how wide and varied its selection is, I would probably say it’s one of the more difficult ones to cover. Even now, I’m regretting all the films I didn’t get to see that ended up winning audience and jury awards. But, considering I don’t cover the film-festival beat regularly, I suppose you should take that with a grain of salt in my case; I spent as much time at SXSW trying to catch up with much-discussed titles from previous festivals -- films like 'Compliance' and 'Keyhole' that were already generating buzz long before being picked for inclusion at SXSW -- so that probably took away precious time from making the kinds of discoveries that other, more full-time film critics/journalists were making every day." Kenji Fujishima, The House Next Door

How Did This Year's SXSW Compare With Previous Years?

"Perhaps it's just my short memory but it felt like there were a lot more people there this year, mostly for Interactive. Interactive is everywhere when you're there for film, and this year that component seemed more overpowering than in years past (I've attended since 2010). As to the slate, it felt very close to those I've seen in the past, a very wide swath across the cinema spectrum. I can't think of a stone left unturned, which is why this fest keeps finding so much success. They really do put on a good show for just about every audience (well, maybe not for kids)." -- JP

"It didn't feel as powerful as prior years; there were fewer films that felt as impactful as last year, which gave us 'Bellflower,' 'Sound of My Voice,' and 'Kill List.' While I can't think of a single film I disliked, none of them blew me away." -- BH

"The Raid: Redemption."
"The Raid: Redemption."
"Try as I might, I can't pretend as if something wasn't simply a bit off this year. Chalk it up to the miserable rain and cold early on, or the repetition of particularly milquetoast pre-show bumpers, or a sense of fewer indie discoveries (which could be explained by my first year attending Sundance prior and thus bringing the averages down by taking titles like 'The Raid,' 'Shut Up and Play the Hits' and 'V/H/S' out of the equation). I certainly enjoyed the festival, but compared to years past, it fell ever-so-slightly short." -- WG

"The doc programming is getting better and better. I loved a lot of them. But midnights were worse than usual I think." -- CC

"I found the narrative selection a bit weak, but the docs were outstanding." - DF

"This was my sixth year covering SXSW and I saw more good movies than ever before. Part of this is because I followed a lot of word-of-mouth and actively avoided seeing bad movies (I know a lot of people expected 'The Babymakers' to be good, but I was not one of those people, and I'm glad I skipped it). As I mentioned in Indiewire's '12 Favorite Moments from SXSW' article, I was very glad that I didn't see any movies that really qualified as 'mumblecore.' This faux movement has finally splintered off in a number of directions and the diversity of the work has allowed SXSW to solidify into a much broader showcase for lo-fi or otherwise ambitious filmmaking that a lot of other major festivals won't show or properly highlight." -- EK

Does SXSW Need Press & Industry Screenings or is it Better Served By its Egalitarian Attitude?

"Look, I get the whole 'It's better to see a movie with an enthusiastic audience full of 'regular' people!' mentality. That occasionally even makes sense. But P&I screenings would make it exponentially easier for press to cover the big movies, and would also free up those 100 seats for more of those 'regular' people. And the fact is, the P&I covering SXSW *are* regular movie lovers. Nothing would be lost by adding P&I screenings, provided we had the option of attending public screenings too (since some writers like to cover the Q&A's)." -- EDS

"The vast majority of SXSW's best films are Sundance / Berlin / Rotterdam holdovers, but I choose to see them in Austin because I dig this particular festival experience. With a few major exceptions of the 'Kill List' / 'Cabin in the Woods' variety, SXSW simply doesn't premiere all that many great movies. Attendees have learned to steer clear of the narrative competition, the Emerging Visions section offers up far more misses than hits, and the midnight line-up was gutted to the extent that Sundance and even TriBeCa have delivered stronger rosters. As a film festival, SXSW is heavily skewed towards the festival part, but so long as they continue to provide the most enjoyable means of seeing the circuit's big new titles while occasionally rewarding a shot in the dark with offerings like 'Electrick Children,' I'll continue to come. P&I screenings might be more convenient for us press folk, but they'd take away from SXSW's egalitarian charm, emphasizing the films over the people to an extent that the festival's comparatively meager line-up simply can't support. P&I screenings would make the SXSW experience less distinguishable from Sundance (for example), and while that in and of itself might not send me elsewhere, it might mark the beginning of a sea change away from what makes SXSW such a highlight of my year.  I think the system is fine how it is."  -- DE

"I've always loved that press, industry and the public see screenings together at SXSW, an alternative to the insulated feeling P&I screenings can have. But it also provides added stress about getting shut out of films you've been assigned to cover, as the festival has grown and screenings seems to fill up earlier and earlier. I appreciate and made use of the press screening library the festival's made available, but it's opt-in and many filmmakers chose not to include a copy of their film there. It'd definitely make my festival experience a little easier to have P&I screenings of some of the world premieres." -- AW

"I suspect that P&I screenings will become inevitable within the next five years as the fest grows. But like a true Austinite, I dislike change that favors industry over community, so I'm hoping SXSW Film can keep the current system working for as long as possible." -- Jette Kernion, Slackerwood

"I don't know about press screenings, but maybe just more availability to the screening library -- more films and longer hours. What would be really helpful is a limited number of preferred press seats for every screening, not just those reserved by the publicists, as they don't always get back to you. It'd be as simple as adding a box to check on the SXXpress passes forms: 'Are you press?' 'Yes!' The less time we have to wait in line, the more time we have for coverage. Still, I'd rather attend public screenings; there is way more energy and you get a stronger feel for audience reaction, especially in Austin."  -- JC

"Press and industry screenings would be a bonus, but I didn't have trouble getting into the films I wanted to see." -- BK

What Other Critic's Coverage of SXSW Did You Most Value?

"Drew McWeeny, all the folk at Film School Rejects." -- CC

"I find myself partial to David Ehrlich's daily diaries over at Movies.com."  -- WG

"I don't usually have time to read reviews/other coverage during SXSW, but I make an exception for the daily recaps on Reel Distraction. Every year, Micah attends the first part of SXSW Film and sees 5-6 films a day, and portrays the festival experience wonderfully." -- JK

"Drew Tinnin at Gordan and the Whale, Scott Menzel & Matthew McKeague at We Live Film, Peter Martin at Twitch Film and Jacob Hall at Movies.com." -- JC

"To be honest I couldn't pick one out. The hive mind of Twitter was my most important advisor this SXSW." -- DF

"I saved most of my colleagues' full reviews for after the fest, when I'd be more prepared to really engage with their arguments, so Twitter was really my go-to critical resource. My follow list = endorsements, unless we're talking about someone I follow out of spite."  -- DE

What is the Best Venue to See a Movie at SXSW?

"At other fests, it's tough to find time to eat during four- or five-film days. The two main Alamo Drafthouse theaters ensure that isn't a problem." -- BK

"First off, everyone's answer should be one of the Drafthouses, with their perfect viewing conditions and pecan porter milkshakes. The Paramount is a historic dump with terrible sight lines, the State has such front-loaded sound that it made the dialogue in most films virtually indecipherable (FIX THIS, SXSW), and the Violet Crown -- while lovely, and equipped with ghost pepper cake balls -- practically required you to win The Hunger Games in order to gain entry. For me, it's the Ritz. Sure, it's not quite as, er, ritzy as the Alamo Lamar, but there's something warm and fuzzy about that place, and its downtown location makes it a mad dash away from the big premieres at the Paramount."  -- DE

"Alamo South Lamar. It's the best theater in town, but it also provides everything you need: benches outside to get work done and talk with friends between screenings, a more organized system for lines, and close proximity to the Highball for meals, drinks, and the film critic's festival staple for sanity: karaoke." -- BH

"The Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar is easily the best venue. It has all the parking, it is refreshingly removed from the raging disaster of downtown Austin, and, though it doesn't seat as many patrons as the Paramount, it's seats do not make you regret the tragic misfortune of being born with legs." -- BS

"The Paramount, because you can almost always get a seat, and watching movies with a big crowd can be electrifying." -- JK

Final thoughts on SXSW '12?

"As far as I'm concerned, SXSW is a major festival worthy of consideration alongside the likes of Sundance, Cannes and Toronto. This year's program, which had a number of world premieres worthy of discussion over the next 12 months and beyond, proved that beyond a doubt -- as did the typically festive atmosphere." -- EK

"This was the year for documentaries profiling older musicians out of the public eye (and perhaps thought dead), all of which were good: 'Beware of Mr. Baker,' 'Paul Williams Still Alive,' and 'Searching for Sugar Man.'" -- JK

"They need to figure out if they really want film people and music people around at the same time, because the whole conference puts film people below the music stuff. If they want us sticking around they should accommodate us better after Wednesday. That’s not just press but filmgoers too." -- CC

"I do not have any other thoughts on this or any other subject." -- EDS

Contributors to The Criticwire SXSW '12 Survey

Christopher CampbellMovies.com
Jason CanglialosiMile High Cinema
David EhrlichMovies.com
Devin FaraciBadass Digest
Kenji FujishimaThe House Next Door
William Goss, Film.com/The Playlist
Britt HayesScreenCrush.com
Ben Kenigsberg, Time Out Chicago
Jette Kernion, Slackerwood
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
Jonathan Poritsky, The Candler Blog
Brian Salisbury, Spill.com/Hollywood.com
Eric D. Snider, Film.com
Alison Willmore, Movieline

This article is related to: South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW)


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