One of the main lures of any major film festival is the opportunity to get an early peek at some much-anticipated movies. But it can be equally rewarding to happen upon the unheralded works and unexpected gems simply because they fill a hole in your schedule.

One of the main lures of any major film festival is the opportunity to get an early peek at some much-anticipated movies. But it can be equally rewarding to happen upon the unheralded works and unexpected gems simply because they fill a hole in your schedule. This year’s SxSW offered both types of experience in abundance.

Before Midnight

Before Sunset, Richard Linklater’s 2004 follow-up to 1995’s one-night-in-Vienna romance Before Sunrise, ended on such a beautifully realized epiphany between the characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the notion of following it up with a third movie feels almost sacrilegious. Then again, there was a time when a second movie didn’t seem like such a hot idea, either. But for the third time now, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have pulled off a minor miracle; Before Midnight is the logical conclusion to the trilogy in every way. (At least until the trio decides to make a fourth movie. Before Happy Hour?) It would be a shame to reveal too many details, even though, like its predecessors, Before Midnight is nearly plotless. Let’s just say it picks up the story of Jesse and Celine eight years later, and proves once again that conversation is character, and that sometimes the most romantic movies are all talk and (almost) no action.


Computer Chess

Andrew Bujalski helped kicked off the mumblecore movement in indie film with his micro-budgeted 2002 debut,Funny Ha Ha. With his latest effort, former Bostonian and current Austinite Bujalski takes a big leap forward by looking backward. When friends encouraged him to shoot a feature on video, Bujalski responded by finding the most outdated equipment possible: black-and-white tube video cameras dating back the late ‘60s. The result is a movie that looks like no other; it’s like a documentary artifact discovered in the vault of a local television station. Form perfectly suits content, as Computer Chess centers on a convention of geeks gathering in a seedy hotel in the early ‘80s to pit their primitive chess programs against each other. The way these oddballs interact with each other (as well as the hotel’s other peculiar denizens) is unpredictable, often funny, and always entertaining, and the questions the movie raises about artificial intelligence are more relevant today than ever.

 

 

Drinking Buddies

Another one of the founding fathers of mumblecore, the prolific Joe Swanberg has had at least one film play SXSW every year since his debut, 2005’s Kissing on the Mouth. It’s safe to say his lo-fi, loosely structured, often sexually graphic movies have not been universally beloved, but even the most ardent Swanberg haters may embrace Drinking Buddies, which was acquired by Magnolia Pictures after the festival. Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson are employees of micro-brewery who often take their work home with them. Although they are romantically involved with, respectively, Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick, they’re undeniably more compatible with each other than with their partners. But as this heavily improvised comedy demonstrates, being too compatible isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially when the beer flows as freely as it does here. All four leads are outstanding, with Johnson in particular delivering an endearing, potentially star-making performance, and the freewheeling vibe favored by Swanberg helps generate a more persuasive reality than is found in most romantic comedies.

 

 

Rewind This!

Anyone who grew up during the home video explosion of the 1980s will find a lot to like in this documentary ode to the VHS era. If anything, Josh Johnson’s film is a little too comprehensive, as it comes at its subject from nearly every conceivable angle. Rewind This! touches on the early days of home video, when VHS beat out the arguably superior Beta format for consumer dominance; the “film school” aspect of video store culture, through which many of today’s filmmakers learned their craft through repeated viewings of favorite tapes; the wild world of straight-to-video movies and bizarre lost “classics” that have never surfaced in other formats; the collector culture and the mini-revival of VHS; and on and on. For those of us of us a certain age, Rewind This! is a nostalgic treasure trove, but it might be even more enjoyable after one more pass through the editing bay.

 

 

We Always Lie to Strangers

Perhaps the least rocking movie ever to play SXSW, We Always Lie to Strangers transports us to a strange little Ozarks town called Branson, Missouri, population 10,500. Branson is so odd because it draws over 7 million tourists per year on the strength of its entertainment attractions, all of which are corny and wholesome enough to make Hee-Haw look like subversive art. We Always Lie to Strangers is less about the people who visit than those who make a living in Branson…or at least try to make a living. For every successful act like Andy Williams or Yakov Smirnoff, there are a dozen small dinner-theater companies like the Magnificent Variety Show struggling to stay afloat. Co-directors AJ Schnack and David Wilson delve deep beneath the surface of an ultra-conservative subculture to find it made up of very different personalities, from the spitfire dancer Elisha Connor to the openly gay single father Chip Holderman. You might never want to go to Branson itself, but you won’t regret spending an hour and a half visiting via this fascinating documentary.