SXSW Festival round-up: Highlights included ‘Air’ premiere and Audience Award winners ‘Flamin’ Hot,’ ‘Mustache’

The curtain has dropped on another South by Southwest, but this was no ordinary year for the Austin-based tech and media event. Two days after the festival started, “Everything Everywhere All At Once” claimed seven Oscars and gave it the bonafide of having premiered a Best Picture winner (2022’s slate also produced a Best Actress contender in “To Leslie’s” Andrea Riseborough). Now considered an “Oscar launchpad,” SXSW unsurprisingly attracted more than its usual share of attention.

“Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” filled this year’s Opening Night slot. The movie got a warm reception and looks to spearhead a new franchise for Paramount. Laura Bradley (The Daily Beast) thinks it does an admirable job balancing accessibility and fan service, writing, “Those who have played Dungeons & Dragons will find plenty of details to love in ‘Honor Among Thieves’ (including an excellently deployed owlbear), but the film also avoids egregious pandering and excessively loud Easter eggs.”

SEE SXSW 2023: 15 most anticipated movies premiering at this year’s film festival [PHOTOS]

Announced as a surprise Closing Night premiere after festivities had already kicked off, Ben Affleck’s “Air” was greeted by highly enthusiastic reviews. The movie follows Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro’s (Matt Damon) efforts to expand the apparel company’s basketball division and secure a historic licensing deal with then-rookie Michael Jordan. Affleck co-stars as former CEO Phil Knight

Peter Debruge (Variety) calls “Air” “this generation’s ‘Jerry Maguire,’” while Ryan Scott (/Film) compares the movie to “Moneyball” and proclaims it “a performance-driven, human piece of filmmaking that lives or dies by the words on the page.” He also praises Alex Convery’s “compelling” script but reserves his most effusive words for the film’s director: “It feels damn good to have Affleck back behind the camera. It feels good having someone who cares this much about making adult-oriented, non-franchise, crowd-pleasing movies doing so again with theaters in mind.” Valerie Complex (Deadline) echoes that sentiment, writing, “He’s grown as an actor and director but is best when doing both.” 

This is Affleck’s fifth directorial feature; three so far have gotten supporting actors an Oscar nomination–”Gone Baby Gone” (Amy Ryan), “The Town” (Jeremy Renner) and “Argo” (Alan Arkin). With Viola Davis, about whom Affleck had nothing but gushing things to say at the film’s premiere, playing the baity role of Jordan’s hard-nosed mother, “Air” could very well extend both that trend and SXSW’s representation during awards season. 

SEE 2023 Sundance Film Festival: ‘Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie’ and 14 other documentaries that could contend for Oscars next year [PHOTOS]

Affleck also stars in Robert Rodriguez’s “Hypnotic,” a sci-fi thriller about a detective who stumbles upon a reality-bending government conspiracy while trying to find his daughter.  Ketchup Entertainment announced a May 12 release date shortly after Rodriguez screened a rough cut to an adoring crowd of fellow Texans. Peter Debruge writes, “Taking a page from ‘The Matrix,’ ‘Limitless’ and ‘Memento’–and whole chapters from sci-fi trickster Philip K. Dick–this slick mix of special effects and practical ingenuity puts Affleck in a fun position, and the slightly grizzled star’s still got the clench-jawed charisma to pull it off.” 

Helena Andrews-Dyer (The Washington Post), Tomris Laffy (Variety) and Richard Lawson (Vanity Fair) comprised the Narrative Feature Competition jury and selected “Raging Grace” as their favorite film. Its official synopsis reads, “An undocumented Filipina immigrant lands a job taking care of a terminal old man, securing a better life for her and her daughter, but a dark discovery threatens to destroy everything.” Jessica Scott (Nightmarish Conjurings) says the film “excels at jump-scare suspense and psychological horror” and praises lead Maxine Eigebmann for “grounding both in a sensitive and nuanced depiction of fierce survival.” Jordan Mintzer (The Hollywood Reporter) is less complimentary but writes, “This debut feature from British-born Filipino writer-director Paris Zarcilla gets its message across despite all the jump scares and haunted house hysteria.”

SEE 2023 Sundance Film Festival concludes: Highlights and studio acquisitions include ‘Past Lives,’ ‘A Little Prayer,’ ‘Flora and Son’

Brittany Snow’s directorial debut, “Parachute,” picked up two prizes–the jury’s acting award for “Yellowjackets” star Courtney Eaton and the Thunderbird Rising Special Award, which “acknowledges a first-time feature director and stellar ensemble cast for their brave exploration of a pressing modern issue,” for Snow. The movie addresses body dysmorphia through the eyes of a young woman (Eaton) who strikes up an ill-advised relationship with a charming stranger (Thomas Mann) shortly after being discharged from a rehabilitation facility. 

The film received mixed reviews upon its premiere. Jason Bailey (The Playlist) lauds the cast, which includes Joel McHale, Dave Bautista, Gina Rodriguez, and Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, writing, “Every actor has a chance to shine because the script is so psychologically introspective; it’s a movie that captures how people act in their most private moments.” Jude Dry (IndieWire) is more dismissive, criticizing the script and pacing: “There’s very little structure to the narrative…and neither character is charismatic enough to help this ambling bittersweet romance leave a mark.” Of the film’s lead, whom “Yellowjackets” fans can expect to see more often in the Emmy-nominated Showtime thriller’s second season (premiering March 26), Nate Richard (Collider) writes, “Eaton is exceptional…capturing not only the physical components of the character but also her delivery and showing emotion that never feels melodramatic or overacted.”

“Story Ave,” a feature debut from Aristotle Torres about an attempted mugging that takes a surprising turn when the would-be-victim, a New York City transit worker (Luis Guzmán), asks his would-be-assailant (Asante Blackk) to share a meal with him, won the jury’s cinematography prize. Damon Wise (Deadline) says the movie is rooted in the “hip-hop morality tales of the early ‘90s…that immediately followed John Singleton’s influential ‘Boyz n the Hood,’” and Eric Kohn (IndieWire), while trying to predict the next Riseborough-esque acting contender, writes that the film “provides Guzmán a heartfelt showcase.” “As long as ‘Story Ave’ comes out sometime this year,” Kohn argues, “There’s no question Guzmán’s team could hack a path to an Oscar campaign using the Riseborough playbook.” The press release announcing Jury Award winners called DP Eric Branco’s work “exacting,” “intimate” and “powerful,” adding, “His richly layered, studiously cinematic compositions and fluency with the streets of NYC both deepen and enrich the viewing experience.”

SEE Berlin International Film Festival: Top 20 buzz-worthy awards contenders that premiered this year [PHOTOS]

“Flamin’ Hot,” Eva Longoria’s biopic about the man who claims to have invented spicy Cheetos, and “Mustache,” a personal story of cultural assimilation in ‘90s California, won the Headliner and Narrative Feature Competition Audience Awards, respectively. Searchlight is releasing the former on Hulu and Disney+ June 9. Peter Debruge calls it “a ‘Rocky’-like crowdpleaser” and credits Longoria, in her filmmaking debut, for encompassing a wide breadth of material in only 99 minutes. “Mustache,” in which a teenager must survive a new high school and an embarrassing bit of facial hair, has been called “a greatly enjoyable ride” (Erick Massoto, Collider) and “unfailingly funny” (Andrew Crump, The Playlist) but also “underdeveloped” (John Fink, The Film Stage).

The festival, known for its particularly strong television programming, hosted premieres for Donald Glover and Janine Nabers’ “Swarm,” a dark satire about toxic stan culture led by a never-better Dominique Fishback that you can stream on  Amazon Prime Video now, and “Beef,” a road-rage comedy starring Steven Yeun and Ali Wong that Netflix is releasing April 6. But the winner of the TV Pilot Competition was “New Amsterdam” star Jocko Sims’ “Grown.” The coming-of-age dramedy, which follows a 14-year-old boy (Josiah Gabriel) coping with the loss of his father, is “told with heart and visually realized with polish and verve” and “features an ensemble cast of actors authentically inhabiting their roles, an elegant directing style, and a capacity to surprise in ways that are believable even when they blindside the audience,” the  awards announcement reads. The Audience Award for TV Premieres went to “The Luckiest Guy in the World,” an ESPN docu-series about NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton from “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James. The second season of “Blindspotting” won the Spotlight Award. 

SEE ‘Swarm’ reviews: Dominique Fishback ‘twitches and tics’ with ‘pure body horror’ in Amazon Prime Video thriller

This year’s SXSW unveiled three R-rated comedies to mostly favorable reactions. “Bottoms,” from “Shiva Baby” duo Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott, is being hailed as the “horniest, bloodiest high school movie of the 21st century” and “nothing less than a ‘Heathers’ for this generation” (David Fear, Rolling Stone). Others have compared the film, which is about two queer high school seniors (Sennott and “The Bear’s” Ayo Edebiri) who make a pact to sleep with as many cheerleaders as possible before graduation, to “American Pie.”

“Joy Ride,” starring Ashley Park, Sabrina Wu, Sherry Cola and “Everything Everywhere” Best Supporting Actress nominee Stephanie Hsu, was originally called “The Joy F**k Club,” but reviews promise that the new, safer title hasn’t robbed the comedy of its bite. The quarter plays a group of friends journeying through China to find Park’s birth mother. Eric Webb (Austin American-Statesman) calls “Crazy Rich Asians” co-writer Adele Lim’s directorial debut an “R-rated masterclass,” and Matthew Monagle (The Playlist) declares it “an instant crowd-pleaser.” Lionsgate is releasing it July 7.

SEE Jonathan Majors to play Dennis Rodman in ’48 Hours in Vegas’: ‘I never put a ceiling on myself’

“Down Low,” “a zany, frenetic and horny comedy” (Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter)  about a closeted gay man (Zachary Quinto) who gets more than he bargained for when soliciting a masseur’s (“The White Lotus’” Lukas Gage, credited as a co-writer) services received the most mixed response of the three. Jake Kring-Schreifels (The Film Stage) calls it “forced and mismatched,” but Maggie Lovitt (Collider) says director Rightor Doyle’s freshman feature is “insanely ambitious.” Both “Down Low’s” proponents and detractors, while disagreeing on its efficacy, concur that the movie goes for risky and esoteric humor instead of mainstream laughs. Comparing it to “Bros” and “Love, Simon,” Kring-Schreifels writes, “Perhaps as a matter of principle, ‘Down Low’ cuts hard against the grain of those palatable affairs, aiming for insider language and references that lead to gross-out and taboo scenarios.”

The Documentary Feature Competition’s top prize went to “Angel Applicant,” an account of one artist’s medical crisis in 1930s Germany and another’s struggle to combat the same disease, systemic scleroderma, decades later. “Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life,” a profile of the Nike and Apple graphic designer, won the competition’s Audience Award. “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, was deemed a “feature documentary that has inspired us to act for the betterment of our communities and the world” and presented with the Hope Award. 

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