Cinema Scholars takes a look at some of the many buzzworthy titles from SXSW Film and TV Festival 2023. The event kicks off on Friday, March 11, and runs through Saturday, March 18.
Though much of the country is still caught in Winter’s frosty grip, early signs of Spring are popping up in the southern states. In Texas, this means bluebonnets, spring break trips to South Padre Island, and, of course, SXSW. Every March, college kids make their timely escape before Austin is inundated with revelers from around the globe for the ultimate tech/film/music festival. Last year marked the careful return of the massive event after a two-year Covid hiatus. So SXSW 2023 is anticipated to be a much-needed rebound to the fest’s full pre-pandemic glory. Here are some of the most anticipated selections from this year’s SXSW Film and TV Festival.
Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Topping last year’s Opening Night/World Premiere of award magnet Everything Everywhere All At Once will be a tough act to follow. With Austin’s penchant for “keeping it weird,” the SXSW programming team didn’t sway too far from the formula with this year’s festival opener, Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. While an adventure blockbuster may not exactly be in line with high-brow festival Oscar bait, the geeky IP fits the quirky ATX vibe nonetheless.
In contrast to the three much-maligned DND films that dotted the early 2000s, the early buzz around Honor Among Thieves gives the new outing a tentative thumbs up from enthusiasts of the role-playing game. This is promising, especially considering the film’s cool-nerd pedigree via former Freaks and Geeks actor-turned-director John Francis Daley.
In typical fashion, the film follows a ragtag assortment of lovable thieves, able warriors, mysterious sorcerers, and other standard DND characters on a pinnacle mission. Only this time, the group seeks to correct a previous campaign that went horribly wrong. Another deviation from the previous parade of DND outings? It seems that Honor Among Thieves eschews any super-seriousness in favor of good ol’ fun akin to the actual gameplay. With Chris Pine leading a cast including Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Sophia Lillis, and Hugh Grant, the star power is strong with this one too. Let’s hope this version of the beloved game is worthy of the nostalgic hype.
No, Rachel Sennott is not the name of a highly anticipated SXSW film. It is, however, the name of the talented actress who completely stole the show at last year’s SX premiere of the Gen Z horror romp Bodies Bodies Bodies. Much to the delight of anyone who discovered the actress then (or in her breakout role in the 2020 indie charmer Shiva Baby), Sennott is returning to the festival with not one, but two feature films.
In the “dark dramedy,” I Used To Be Funny, Sennott plays Sam, a nanny by day and struggling stand-up comic by night. When one of her former teenage charges goes missing, Sam’s current resolution of her own PTSD is at odds with memories of her experiences with the girl and whether she should help. Dark, indeed. But if writer/director Ally Pankiw takes full advantage of Sennott’s special brand of endearing comic relief to temper the heaviness, I Used To Be Funny might just be the heartwarming tearjerker we need.
In her second SXSW ‘23 feature film, Bottoms, Sennott does double duty as co-writer and lead. The comedy also reunites Sennott with Shiva Baby writer/director Emma Seligman, who also co-writes. In Bottoms, a couple of high school outcasts scheme to create a fight club to woo cheerleaders. Again, it takes a certain personality and level of comedic prowess to ground such a ridiculous premise. So it will be interesting to see how the filmmaking duo pulls this one off. Either way, Sennott is lining up to be a darling of the fest once again.
SXSW has always featured a strong documentary program, and the 2023 Film and TV Festival is no exception. With over two dozen features and numerous short docs to choose from, there is something for nearly anyone.
There are art/artist documentaries like Angel Applicant (coping through art), Geoff McFetridge: Drawing A Life (meaning of life through art), or Art For Everybody (posthumous revelations about a beloved artist). There are bio docs like Being Mary Tyler Moore, The Lady Bird Diaries, and You Can Call Me Bill (Shatner, in this case). And then there are the always-entertaining pop culture docs like this year’s A Disturbance In The Force (about the notorious 1978 Star Wars holiday special) or The Herricanes (about Houston’s ill-fated women’s tackle football team). Not to mention the numerous “rock docs” that compliment the music side of the fest featuring artists like Joan Baez, The Indigo Girls, Little Richard, and The Zombies.
Perhaps one of the most anticipated documentaries of the festival is STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie. The film was a huge success at The Sundance Film Festival in January where Fox was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation following the film. Now, director Davis Guggenheim brings his intimate look at the beloved actor to Austin for what’s sure to be another round of emotionally charged adoration for Fox and his journey before and after his Parkinson’s diagnosis.
TV Premieres and Pilots
It is impossible to deny the impact of TV and streaming series on the entertainment/cinematic landscape. Once considered the red-headed stepchild to film and theater, television has officially proven its legit caliber in quality productions. And in recent years, SXSW has led the charge in shining the festival spotlight on some of these small-screen up-and-comers. The SXSW Film and TV Festival program for 2023 is teeming with episodic offerings.
After closing out SXSW 2022 with the season premiere of his award-winning show Atlanta, Donald Glover is back in Austin for another round. This time with the world premiere of his comedy/horror series Swarm, streaming soon on Prime Video. Here’s hoping Glover’s talent and charisma translate to this genre series as well.
Apparently, Candy Montgomery’s infamous axe incident is worthy of two series. Jessica Biel turned in the performance of a lifetime in last year’s Hulu series, Candy. And now the true crime classic gets the David E. Kelly treatment for his new series Love and Death, premiering at SXSW 2023. The HBO Max streamer features Elizabeth Olsen as Montgomery and also stars Jesse Plemmons, Lily Rabe, Patrick Fuget, and Krysten Ritter.
In addition to programming star-studded streaming premieres, SXSW also saves some love for their independent TV pilot competition. This year finds potential shows like comedian Kevin Yee’s A Guide To Not Dying Completely Alone competing against Chuchi and Adeliz, a buddy comedy with a socioeconomic twist. With runtimes of only 5-20 minutes, it’s a cool way to see episodic concepts in their infancy.
No festival is complete without at least a few nail-biters menacing the schedule. Thankfully, programmers for the SXSW Midnighters section understand the assignment. Here’s a sampling of the spine chillers and offbeat thrillers that round out the carefully curated festival.
Dueling perspectives pit a questionably doting couple against a nosy neighbor deep in the secluded Mongolian woods in Aberrance. Think The Shining, only with a Mrs. Kravitz next door.
In Ted Geoghegan’s Brooklyn 49, a reunion of close childhood friends in 1945 turns into a bloody séance. Following the success of Geoghegan’s last horror outing, We Are Still Here, hopes are high for this latest effort.
A young woman escapes a brutal life when she is recruited by a mysterious lady who trains her and her new roommates to kill a local crime boss in Furies. In addition to writing and directing, triple-threat Veronica Ngo also stars in the Vietnamese action/thriller.
In the sci-fi thriller Monolith, a struggling journalist is obsessed with uncovering answers about an otherworldly artifact she discovers. With a single location and a cast of one, director Matt Vesely uses simplicity to craft a high-concept mystery.
And last but certainly not least, the SXSW Headliners category gets to join the genre fun with one of this year’s most buzzed-about horror flicks, Evil Dead Rise. Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell are attached as producers only. There is no Ashley Williams to be seen. And it doesn’t take place in a cabin in the woods. Nevertheless, Evil Dead Rise unleashes a new saga in the phantasmagorical universe created by Raimi and Campbell over 40 years ago. It’s not the first time Deadites have invaded SXSW. Fede Alvarez’s 2013 Evil Dead redux brought the house down when it premiered at the festival that year. Fingers crossed that this new take on the beloved franchise will be as worthy.
The SXSW 2023 runs from March 11-18, so stay tuned for more coverage coming up soon!