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15 Films We’re Anticipating at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival

The Young Wife

The SXSW Film and TV Festival is officially underway, and this year marks quite a few significant milestones for the organization. For one, this is the event’s 30th iteration, and the first one that Claudette Godfrey oversees in her brand new role as Festival Director, taking over the position that Janet Pierson occupied for 15 years. (Natalia Keogan interviewed Godfrey shortly before the fest kicked off, which you can read here.) This also feels like SXSW’s ostensible “comeback” since COVID, with the festival implementing a concerted focus on reconvening on-site in Austin, Texas. This year’s lineup certainly reflects a return of sorts, featuring a wide array of anticipated titles that includes buzzy debuts, exciting sophomore features and intriguing episodic works from filmmakers both emerging and established.

Boasting a robust program after a few years of relatively scaled-back offerings, the Filmmaker staff assembled a list of 15 films that we’re particularly excited for at the 2023 edition of SXSW, which runs through March 19.

Angel Applicant. There’s the concept of art as therapy, and then there’s the concept of a specific artist as a therapist, which is how debuting filmmaker Ken August Meyer introduces the Swiss-German painter Paul Klee at the start of his Angel Applicant, premiering in the SXSW Documentary Feature Competition. At the beginning of the 21st century, Meyer, an art director at Wieden+Kennedy, is struck by systemic scleroderma, a life-threatening autoimmune disease that causes scarring and tightening of the skin and which can damage internal organs. As he embarks on a treatment path, Meyer finds solace as well as a kind of wisdom in the images of the early modernist, who also suffered from the disease, which was posthumously diagnosed. (The term “systemic scleroderma” didn’t come into existence until 1950, ten years after Klee’s death.) Warm and surprisingly playful given its subject matter, Angel Applicant is both a cinematic memoir of reckoning with disability as well as a work of unconventional art criticism, demonstrating how formal elements of painters’s late works can have their roots in both the mental as well as the physical. — Scott Macaulay

Louder Than You Think. Music documentaries rarely offer the new footage or stories they’re supposed to offer fans, but Jed I. Rosenberg’s debut feature delivers long-unseen material Pavement fanatics will devour. The film takes its name from the recording studio run by the band’s troubled original drummer, Gary Young, whose formative and chaotic time with the band in their first years is retold, with newly-unearthed concert and interview footage, by the now-grizzled musician and his startlingly honest former bandmates. — Vadim Rizov

Problemista. Actor-comedian Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton team up for the former’s feature debut as writer-director, which will have its world premiere in the Headliners section at the festival. Torres plays Alejandro, a fledgling toy designer from El Salvador who’s eager to bring his unique vision to New York City. With his work visa on the brink of expiration, he expands his job prospects and begins working as an assistant for a capricious art world outsider (Swinton) as a last-ditch effort to stay in the U.S. and realize his dream. Mining from elements of his own lived experiences (and hopefully implementing his wonderful brand of surrealist humor), the former SNL writer and co-creator of the bilingual HBO series Los Espookys is sure to deliver something equally odd and enchanting. — Natalia Keogan

Citizen Sleuth. In the nine years since Serial, the “true crime podcaster” has become, variously, a career goal, sociological type and object of satire. In Citizen Sleuth, world premiering in SXSW’s Documentary Spotlight section, debuting director Chris Kasick considers his voluble, no-filter subject—Emily Nestor of the Mile Marker 181 podcast—from all of these angles while also producing a work that is something of a moral reckoning for the popular audio genre. In 2011, Jaleayah Davis, a 20-year old Ohio woman, died in a horrible drunk-driving accident, her head severed from her body. Or was it murder? A young West Virginia woman, Nestor grew up obsessed with Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs as well as true crime shows like Forensic Files. In 2018, with a $400 microphone and a laptop recording program, she launches the multi-season Mile Marker 181, dedicated to “the truth” behind Davis’s death. Soon the show is hailed by Vulture—writes Chanel Dubofsky, “It’s only the second episode, and I’ve already started drawing weird crime-scene diagrams and hypothesizing as to what Kristen was doing with Jaleayah’s keys”—and attracting ubiquitous audio sponsors such as Warby Parker and Away Suitcases, with Nestor a mini-star on the crime convention circuit. Nestor’s rise and fall (her current Instagram ID’s her as “true crime pariah”) has been well documented on Reddit, but Kasick’s capturing of her trajectory, and particularly the timeline of her differing public and private views, is queasily riveting. The obsessional Nestor seems always eager to fill whatever size memory card Kasick is able to put in his camera, with the director occasionally lobbing off-screen questions a la Errol Morris (Kasick previously worked for the veteran documentarian) that nudge his subject to some degree of ethical introspection—a line of inquiry that Kasick comes to realize he must also address as well. — SM

Anhell69. Early in his first feature, Colombian director Theo Montoya announces that his social network is a graveyard thanks to the number of friends that have died young (from overdoses or street violence), but their death proves grimly generative. Partly composed from interviews with young queer friends (eight of whom died during the film’s production), Anhell69 springboards off their deaths to create a visually dazzling fictional storyline interweaved with the more straightforward footage, in which their ghosts, red-eyed like those in Uncle Boonmee, return to roam Medellín. After making its premiere at the Venice Critics Week, Anhell69 arrives at SXSW fresh from its US premiere at True/False. — VR

Pay or Die. Scott Alexander Ruderman, who lives with Type 1 diabetes, and Rachel Dyer collaborate on this documentary whose inspiration was the moment Ruderman aged out of his parents’ health insurance at the age of 26 and struggled to afford the price of insulin. Their film follows three families whose ability to provide themselves with the insulin they need to stay alive is impacted by events outside of their control, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The third family’s story is the bleakest, the tale of parents whose son died from rationing his insulin. In a filmmaking world where many social issue docs have vague, unrealizable calls to action, Pay or Die, premiering in the SXSW Documentary Competition, comes armed with a website touting very practical, real-world efforts viewers can undertake, and it premieres at the festival alongside a panel on the issue featuring film subject Nicole Smith-Holt and Mayo Clinic Research Physician Dr. S. Vincent Rajkumar, moderated by Texas Representative James Talarico, who is supporting legislation capping insulin costs. — SM

The Young Wife. A group of friends and family join a young woman, Clementine (Kiersey Clemons), and her partner, River (Leon Bridges), in a country home for a celebration of what she calls her “non-wedding day”—a term of rhetorical jiu jitsu designed to personally and politically reframe both her own and society’s expectations around the concept of lifelong commitment. From Pushkin and Chekov to Festen and Rachel Getting Married, the convening of large groups in varying forms of isolated architectural Petri dishes for family events have provided dramatists with rich, explosive settings for social critique. In her second feature, premiering in SXSW’s Visions section, writer-director Tayarisha Poe conveys her nuanced, sometimes hilarious, and always politically-incisive vision through not only cutting dialogue and impressive performances, particularly by Clemons, but dazzling mise en scene. Unexpected lighting changes, camera moves, and choreography combine with slow-motion flashbacks and inventive on-screen graphics to continually toggle the viewer between Clementine’s urgently conflicted inner spaces and the cacophonous expectations of the outside world, personified by those vibrantly clad (the costume designer is Laura Cristina Ortiz) relatives, pals and coworkers. Going back to her web series and then first feature film, Selah and the Spades, Poe has always had impeccable taste in collaborators, and among the strong team here are her returning cinematographer Jomo Fray as well as, as composer, filmmaker Terence Nance. — SM

Bottoms. 25 New Faces of Film alum Emma Seligman follows her acclaimed 2020 debut Shiva Baby with Bottoms, which she co-wrote with Rachel Sennot, who stars in both. Sennot and Ayo Edebiri play two unpopular high school seniors who concoct a desperate ploy to hook up with cheerleaders before graduation by forging an all-girl fight club. With Shiva Baby serving as a high-anxiety trip through a comically unfortunate funeral rite, it’ll be fascinating to see how Seligman and Sennot weave an overarching tale of blood and gutsiness in high school (with an explicitly queer heart, of course). — NK

You Were My First Boyfriend. Cecilia Aldarondo made Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces list in 2015 on the basis of her in-progress feature documentary, Memories of a Penitent Heart, about her gay uncle, who died of AIDS in the 1980s, as well as, wrote Vadim Rizov, “the tensions of ethnic identity, Puerto Rican culture’s relationship (and frequent inability to tolerate) the LGBT spectrum, the history of AIDS and gay culture in the ’80s…” In 2020 she returned with Landfall, about the impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico and, wrote Brett Story, “an exquisite film, by turns tender and compassionate, cinematically adventurous and self-assured, and politically unflinching in its indictment of those moneyed interests now feasting on the US colony’s organized neglect.” So, on paper, Aldarondo’s newest, a hybrid doc premiering in SXSW’s Documentary Competition, seems a real change-up, with the filmmaker directly incorporating her own personal experience in what’s dubbed “a high-school reunion movie turned inside-out.” But with the program blurb promising not just an exploration of teenage fantasy but also a consideration of “the subtle violence of cultural assimilation,” it’s clear that You Were My First Boyfriend will tap into the filmmaker’s real strengths in connecting the personal with the political in cinematically inventive ways. — SM

If You Were the Last. Puerto Rican filmmaker and animator Kristian Mercado makes his cosmically psychedelic feature debut from a screenplay by Angela Bourassa, which was featured on the 2020 Black List. The film follows astronauts Adam (Anthony Mackie) and Jane (Zoë Chao) whose ship has been aimlessly drifting between Saturn and Jupiter ever since a major systems failure occurred three years ago. They pass the time in whatever ways they can—exercise, art, watching movies, dancing. One day, Adam proposes that they add another activity to their roster—sex. Jane is vehemently opposed to the idea, particularly because both she and Adam have partners back home on Earth. Yet as time goes on and the prospect of being saved dwindles, Jane begins to understand that there might not be that much to lose by taking up Adam’s offer. With bright, eclectic production design and endearing animation sequences that depict the duo’s deep space travels, If You Were the Last is a great vehicle for Mercado’s visual sensibility, which will likely be heightened with his next feature, the fully-animated Nuevo Rico, expanded from a short film of the same name which won the Animated Jury Award at SXSW 2021. — NK

Confessions of a Good Samaritan. With effective altruism a hotly debated topic right now among philosophers and political thinkers, and live organ donation being cited as one of its most effective forms, the timing of Penny Lane‘s new film couldn’t be better. However, this isn’t a hastily assembled archival-based zeitgeist grabber—the beginnings of this new documentary by non-fiction veteran (and sometime Filmmaker contributor) Penny Lane (Hail Satan?, Our Nixon) had its beginnings when, several years ago, Lane went through with her decision to donate one of her own kidneys to a stranger. Lane’s another filmmaker for whom the first-person element is a new one, but Confessions of a Good Samaritan will, as Lane’s films always do, expand into, says the program blurb, “a provocative inquiry into the science, history, and ethics of organ transplantation, asking an ancient question in a whole new way: Who is your neighbor, and what do you owe them?” — SM

Appendage. David Cronenberg has always been known for body-horror, but, more accurately, films like The Brood could be called mind-body horror, a descriptor that would also apply to Anna Zlokovic’s debut feature, Appendage. Expanded from her excellent Hulu-produced “Bite-Sized Horror” short that premiered just last year at the Sundance Film Festival, the SXSW Narrative Spotlight is a monster movie by way of Bessel van der Kolk, with the titular creature a literal manifestation of the young fashion designer protagonist’s anxiety. — SM

Caterpillar. Documentarian Liza Mandelup, who made our 25 New Faces of Film list in 2017, makes her sophomore comeback with Caterpillar following her 2019 feature debut Jawline. As opposed to surveying teenage social media streamers, Mandelup focuses on David, a man who’s decided to travel to India and undergo an experimental procedure to change the color of his eyes. During his trip, he encounters several other participants—mostly fellow people of color—who hope that lightening their eyes will drastically improve their self-image and, as a result, their entire lives. Complicated feelings arise when it’s revealed that these invasive “permanent contacts” have a litany of immediate side effects and complications, causing David to confront whether real personal growth can ever come from a superficial transformation.  —NK

I’m a Virgo. Sorry to Bother You’s Boots Riley directs and is co-showrunner with 25 New Face independent filmmaker (Children of Invention) Tze Chun, who has carved out a real writing career in television, on this Amazon TV series about a 13-foot-tall young Black man living in Oakland, CA, whose parents won’t allow them to leave the house. As with Riley’s feature, this is sure to mix the political with the fantastic, and after following Chun’s Twitter feed, which is full of great tips on the television business, I’m excited to see this new collaboration. — SM

Story Avenue. After a career in music videos, directing for such artists as J Cole, Nas, 2Chainz, and Ludacris, and then a development stint through the Sundance Labs, Aristotle Torres expands his 2018 short, Story Avenue, into a feature by the same name. Torres wrote about his Sundance experience for Filmmaker, and particularly about accessing grief with his actors for this story about a graffiti artist, a robbery and an MTA worker set within New York’s Latino culture. At a challenging moment he reached out to advisor Dee Rees, he wrote, and “Within minutes she offered me a solution that was so simple, yet effective. The trauma my actors were dealing with was certainly a tragedy, but there was also an opportunity to use it as a tool. I remember questioning the purity of my intent in using this tool to shape and grow the actors’ performances, and Gyula [Gazdag] replying, ‘You’re not taking advantage, you’re doing them a service as actors to honor that grief.’ That was such a moment of clarity for me…” — SM

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