Download: The Best of SXSW 2023: ‘Air,’ ‘John Wick,’ 'Dungeons & Dragons' and More Epic Crowd-Pleasers
I’m a few days removed from SXSW 2023; I’ve given myself time to sit with the 30+ movies and TV shows I saw at the festival. I’ve compiled of my list of favorites based on one simple criterion: These are the movies I can’t stop thinking about. Movies that surprised me enthralled me, the movies I’ll be recommending all year long. (And the good news is you won’t have to wait long to see most of these titles)
On a personal note, this is my third year covering SXSW for Awards Daily, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to go back. I remember being in college at UT Austin, exhausted, and trying to figure out which free SXSW events I could squeeze in before going home to Houston for spring break. The SXSW Film and TV Festival, now 30 years old, has always had a reputation for showcasing quirky, populist films. Of course, SXSW has always been a big deal, but back then, we might get one or two marquee titles a year with big stars, The Quiet Place, Bridesmaids, John Wick. In 2023, John Wick: Chapter 4 was just one of the dozens of films that brought A-listers to the Texas capitol. Keanu Reeves, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Viola Davis, Emma Stone, William Shatner, (the list goes on) all brought their films to SXSW, now a major stop on the festival circuit. SXSW has grown exponentially over the years in both size and influence. Our reigning best picture winner, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Andrea Riseborough’s To Leslie both premiered at SXSW last year before becoming major players in the Oscar race.
And that film-loving, wannabe journalist who would look at the SXSW schedule and think, “One day, maybe,” was in attendance with a press badge. It’s something I never expected, will never get used to, and will never take for granted. This festival means so much to me because the experience is so rooted in where I’ve been and how far I’ve come.
It seems fitting to start my recap with SXSW’s closing night film, Air, which tells the true story of how Nike executives (led by Matt Damon) signed a deal with basketball rookie Michael Jordan, building a shoe line around the man who would become a legend and revolutionizing sports marketing and giving birth to sneaker culture in the process.
When introducing the film, director Ben Affleck called the SXSW premiere one of the “most important nights” of his career. It’s been seven years since Affleck’s last directorial effort, Live By Night; he knew he needed a hit, and, in my opinion, Air absolutely delivers. The script is sharp, funny, and provides a fascinating backstory for the players involved in the making of Air Jordan. Affleck owes the success of Air to his cast—Damon and Davis are the standouts. Davis is fantastic as Jordan’s mother and advocate. Davis, in her new-minted EGOT glory, stole the show at the screening, receiving a rousing standing ovation; she steals the movie too, Air is at its best when she’s on screen, but Jason Bateman, Chris Rock, Chris Messina, and Affleck himself all get their moments to chew through dialogue—a stacked roster of great performances and fleshed-out characters. The last 30 minutes are so strong that if you’re not on board already, you’ll have no choice but to give in and cheer.
Air hits theaters on April 5.
A subcategory of films playing at SXSW was the brand origin story, with Air, Tetris, and Flamin’ Hot all diving into the stories behind the creation and spread of now-iconic products. Flamin’ Hot, which won the top audience prize at the festival, is all about Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and how Richard Montañez, a janitor at Frito Lay, used his Mexican-American heritage as inspiration to create a snack that would appeal to non-white consumers, fill a void in the market and become a billion-dollar brand.
Flamin’ Hot marks Eva Longoria’s feature film directorial debut, and it’s clear she went into the project with a clear vision and a lot of heart, employing Latinx talent in front of and behind the camera, bringing authenticity and passion to the project. Flamin’ Hot focuses on Montañez and his wife, Judy, and their drive to provide for their family and obtain a piece of the American dream. Jesse Garcia and Annie Gonzalez are fantastic, and Flamin’ Hot works as well as it does because you fall in love with the Montañez family and root for them from start to finish. I should mention that Flamin’ Hot does not address the controversy surrounding the accuracy of Montañez’s backstory. This is not a run-of-the-mill biopic but rather a fun and inspirational movie to watch with your family while munchin’ on some (Flamin’ Hot) Cheetos.
Flamin’ Hot will stream on Hulu and Disney+ on June 9.
This may come as a surprise, but Tetris is easily my favorite of the “brand” movies at SXSW. The film stars Taron Egerton as a video game developer intent on obtaining the rights to Tetris and bringing the game to the masses, traveling to the USSR, and forming a friendship with Tetris inventor Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov). Egerton is phenomenal as a well-intentioned but over-zealous businessman, delivering legal and video game jargon at a mile-a-minute and making it all so effortlessly entertaining. I appreciated all of the tiny, clever ways Tetris gameplay was incorporated into the film. Best of all, despite knowing that Tetris is a global hit, I was still on the edge of my seat, wondering if they were going to make it out of the USSR alive.
Tetris is an engrossing and very well-executed political thriller arriving on Apple TV+ March 31.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves:
The greatest compliment I can pay Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is that despite never having played D&G a day in my life, I had an absolute blast watching Dungeons & Dragons. The film does a great job of planting easter eggs and paying homage to the game while also introducing the world to novices like me. I, admittedly, went into Dungeons & Dragons, the opening night film, with middling expectations—video-game adaptations, The Last of Us aside, have a terrible track record, but Dungeons & Dragons breaks that streak. Perhaps the biggest shock of SXSW is not only that Dungeons & Dragons is loads of fun but that at the core of the film is a story of found family that left me in tears. Dungeons & Dragons is self-aware, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and leans into its humor while also dialing up the fantasy and action. Sophia Lillis is the standout for me among the cast, with extra brownie points for Hugh Grant hamming it up as yet another delectable villain. Extra, extra brownie points for Regé-Jean Page literally leaping off the Paramount stage to take a picture with a fan.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves arrives in theaters March 31.
John Wick: Chapter 4:
Being in the audience for the premiere of a Keanu Reeves movie is akin to being in the presence of a rock star. The audience went wild for Reeves, and he leaned into it, exuding pure star magnetism that very few people at SXSW or anywhere else possess. John Wick: Chapter 4 was this year’s not-so-secret screening, and Austinites came out in droves, the fully-packed house erupting in screams and applause every time Wick took down another would-be assassin. For my money, Chapter 4 is the strongest entry in the John Wick franchise, packed with action and style.
Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is particularly stunning, and the stunt work keeping the seemingly indestructible John Wick afloat is truly impressive. The film somehow manages to keep an endless barrage of bullets and shootouts from feeling repetitive.
See John Wick: Chapter 4 on the biggest screen you can find beginning on March 24.
Joy Ride, the directorial debut from Crazy Rich Asians and Raya and the Last Dragon screenwriter Adele Lim, is a comedy following four friends on a trip to China. Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Sabrina Wu, and Stephanie Hsu have an easy, natural chemistry, leading an all-Asian cast in film that takes the girls’ trip premise for a fresh, new spin, delivering the laughs and raunch in equal measure. Joy Ride is the best possible title for this movie because it’s a joy to watch and an absolutely wild ride.
Joy Ride arrives in theaters on July 7.
Last July, the SXSW Film Festival announced that it was officially changing its moniker to the SXSW Film & TV Festival. It’s been a long time coming, in the decade since Lena Dunham’s Girls became the first show to screen at the festival, episodic programming has become a mainstay in the festival’s schedule. In its first year as an official TV festival, SXSW’s programming included premieres of American Born Chinese, Blindspotting season 2, the Elizabeth Olsen and Jesse Plemons drama Love & Death, and Swarm, by far my favorite of the stacked roster.
I feel as if trying to describe Swarm would be a disservice to the show. I went in knowing nothing except for the title, and experienced shock, after shock watching the first two episodes with the late-night crowd on the opening night of SXSW. Dominique Fishback stars as ‘Dre, a young woman enthralled with a Beyoncé-like singer named Ni’Jah, a Houston-born, cross-genre superstar who releases a visual album titled “Festival” calling out a cheating husband.
The first of many things that fascinated me about Swarm is that it makes no effort to hide the similarities to Beyoncé and the Bey Hive and, in fact, fully embraces them. A title card reading “any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events” depicted “is intentional” opens the pilot episode. Asked during the post-screening Q&A whether a certain star who shall remain nameless had seen the show, Janine Nabers, who co-created Swarm with Donald Glover, replied, “Of course,” although her team later walked back the statement. I’m desperate for a behind-the-scenes podcast digging into the legal ramifications of making a show like Swarm. It’s just so bold. Swarm tears into modern “stan culture,” social media, and internet toxicity with unflinching ferocity. And that’s just one of the layers of the plot.
Fishback is phenomenal, selling every twist and turn with sincerity and nuance. Be aware that there is no shortage of violence and gore in Swarm; I was squirming the whole time while also being on the edge of my seat. Swarm wants you to be uncomfortable and then to stop and ask yourself, “why?” Give yourself over to it because it’s truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Swarm already has people buzzing; all seven episodes are streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie:
In my opinion, the greatest strength of any SXSW lineup in the documentary selection and my greatest regret of the 2023 cycle is not making it to more of them.
I’m so happy I did make it to the screening of STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie, with Fox and director Davis Guggenheim in attendance. Fox, as charming and funny as ever, took in the multiple rapturous standing ovations he received with grace and genuine appreciation, being welcomed by the crowd with adoration and respect.
Still uses a combination of clips from TV and film appearances, archival footage, and subtle recreations to trace Fox’s rise from wannabe actor to TV breakout to box office star to how the icon dealt with his shocking Parkinson’s diagnosis at just 29 years old.
As Guggenheim told the crowd, the team didn’t set out to make a documentary about Parkinson’s disease; they wanted to make a documentary about Michael J. Fox. And they have succeeded brilliantly. Yes, Still addresses Fox’s disease. The title is, in part, a reference to the debilitating tremors those dealing with Parkinson’s must live with, but Still is really about how Fox found inner peace, overcame addiction, and found a new way forward after an unexpected blow.
Editor Michael Harte brings together hundreds of hours of footage from Fox’s performances with his candid conversation with Guggenheim to create an endearing and insightful career retrospective. My only complaint is that I wish the documentary were longer (a rarity these days). I would have loved to spend more time in Fox’s company. Still is fun, funny, and full of joy, a celebration of Fox’s star power and his once-in-a-generation comedic talent that made him a sensation.
STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie comes to Apple TV+ on May 12.
Problemista is the first feature film from comedian Julio Torres, who produced, wrote, and stars in the film as Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer who takes a job as an assistant to an eccentric artist (Tilda Swinton) in an effort to maintain his work visa. Problemista is not without problems; it’s a bit overstuffed and unfocused, a victim of too many good ideas fighting for your attention. But I loved how unique, thought-through, and complete the world-building is. Problemista is a confident debut from Torres, whose voice and vision as a filmmaker bursts through with color and style while the script delivers a razor-sharp satire of the immigration system, workplace culture, and high society.
If I had an award to give for the best performance of SXSW, I’d give it to Swinton, who delivers her boss-from-hell ire with cutting precision. It’s one of Swinton’s funniest and most memorable performances. Problemista, in my opinion, is the most promising of the directorial debuts I saw at SXSW.
A wide release date for Problemista has not been announced; the film will be distributed by A24.
Saving the best for last, Bottoms was my absolute favorite film of SXSW 2023.
Bottoms is the second feature film from Shiva Baby writer/director Emma Seligman, joining forces once again with star Rachel Sennott with the two co-writing Bottoms together. If you’re expecting Bottoms to be a spiritual sequel to Shiva Baby, think again. The two films could not be more different in tone and style. Bottoms is a queer, teen, high school comedy about two best friends (Sennott and The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri) who start a “female fight club” self-defense class in an effort to spend more time with their crushes. Bottoms is more in the vein of Not Another Teen Movie than Booksmart in its comedic sensibilities (that’s a compliment); it’s fresh, sex-positive, outrageous, and downright hilarious. Bottoms is destined to become a new comedy classic, and as an audience member pointed out in the post-screening Q&A, it’s the kind of movie I wish was around when I was in high school. I’m desperate to see it again because I missed so many jokes from laughing so hard.
A release date for Bottoms has yet to be announced.
Thank you, SXSW, for the adventure of a lifetime! I can’t wait for next year!