Within their 2013 festival, SXSW Film has found a clever method to remind each audience of the many ways film festivals discover and nurture talent. In celebration of their 20th anniversary, SXSW has been rolling archival festival bumpers before each screening. Bumpers are those short pieces (typically running between 30 and 60 seconds) that thank festival sponsors, audiences, filmmakers, and volunteers for their support. Since SXSW has a great tradition of inviting festival alumni to create these bumpers and give them some narrative heft, they’re now able to draw from two decades of what are essentially little-seen short films by major directors that have emerged on the festival circuit.
One of the most striking bumpers is by frequent MFF alum David Lowery (director of MFF 2011 Opening Night Short Pioneer), whose forthcoming Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was one of the breakthrough films of Sundance 2013, and stars Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, and Keith Carradine. This 2010 SXSW bumper entitled “Soundstage” is an artful encapsulation of the dreamlike aesthetic he brings to his work:
Another bumper, 2007’s “McGriddles,” was directed by Joe Swanberg and stars Andrew Bujalski, a nice distillation of the sharp humor and charm the two brought to Swanberg’s feature Hannah Takes The Stairs.
It’s an intriguing moment to revisit the early work of these pioneers of handcrafted digital cinema, as both have exceptional new features in the SXSW 2013 line-up that seem to mark bold new phases in their careers. Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies is perhaps the film audiences expected from him after 2009’s Noah Baumbach-produced Alexander the Last, which was his most conventionally polished and accessible film to date. Instead, for several years Swanberg turned inward for a series of deeply personal micro-budget films such as Silver Bullets and Art History (both MFF 2011). Drinking Buddies, set in and around a craft-beer brewery in Chicago, is shot by Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Ben Richardson, and brings in a winning cast of familiar faces such as Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Ron Livingston, and Jake Johnson. As with Lynn Shelton’s recent work, the film depends on these established actors embracing the conversational tone and spontaneous working methods that distinguish most of Swanberg’s filmography; and as with Shelton’s recent films, the cast more than responds to the challenge, yielding results that are warm, hilarious, and emotionally resonant. Drinking Buddies wowed a packed house in the historic, 1200-seat Paramount Theater, a triumphant moment in a fascinating and still-evolving film career. It would seem to mark not so much a move to the mainstream as the mainstream moving toward Swanberg.
Bujalski’s Computer Chess, on the other hand, is a masterpiece with no obvious creative precedent. Set circa 1980 and, in a challenging but brilliant move, shot on period-specific analog video, the film takes us inside a subculture of offbeat personalities who camp out in a hotel conference hall, attempting to create the first computer system capable of beating human chess masters. But as the film builds into a Robert Altman-worthy ensemble comedy, it also takes on unexpected surreal and even hallucinatory notes, largely thanks to the rich subplot of a self-help event simultaneously taking place in the hotel. Computer Chess is funny, daring, and utterly unpredictable; each creative risk—and there are many—pays off brilliantly. Simply put, if I see a more original film this year, I’ll be quite surprised.
Lowery, Swanberg, and Bujalski all have the biggest films of their respective careers poised to emerge in 2013. In so many ways, SXSW 2013 has been a great reminder that well-curated, forward-looking film festivals like SXSW and MFF offer unique opportunities for audiences to share in the early discovery of major film artists, and to continue to follow them as they grow and evolve.
- Eric Allen Hatch, MFF Director of Programming