Shakespeare to Napster: The 2013 SXSW Film Festival Raids the Pop-Culture Closet

With 133 movies unspooling over nine days, there's a lot to see at this year's South by Southwest film festival

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There are a lot of movies to choose from at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, which begins this Friday in Austin, TX. No fewer than 133, in fact, screening in eighteen different categories ranging from “Narrative Spotlight” to “24 Beats Per Second” to “SXGlobal” — an almost overwhelming feast of cinematic entertainment across the nine-day event.

But this year’s offerings reflect a somewhat more mainstream bent than one usually expects from the festival; alongside the traditional independent shorts and documentary features from around the globe, there are also the world-premieres of Steve Carrell’s new movie, a remake of the modern horror classic Evil Dead, and Joss Whedon’s first post-Avengers release. With so much going on, which movies should you look out for? Herewith, a handy guide to the films we think will be among the best, the strangest, and the most entertaining…

Upstream Color
The second feature (pictured) from acclaimed Primer writer/director Shane Carruth has been the subject of Internet discussion and conspiracy since the first trailer appeared last year, with only minimal information about the movie sneaking out since then. Promising a story about two people “drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism,” is this a science-fiction romance? A biological horror story? Or something else entirely?

Much Ado About Nothing
Making its U.S. debut at the festival before its wider release later this year — it’s already screened in Canada and Scotland – is Joss Whedon’s re-telling of the William Shakespeare comedy. Filmed, incredibly, over two weeks of downtime during his Avengers shoot (because, of course, who wouldn’t want to juggle a $220 million movie with an entirely different project?), Much Ado might be the kind of movie English-lit teachers have been praying for to get “the kids” into the Bard. We think it could be the 21st-century answer to Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet.

Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine’s movie about an ill-fated getaway for four college girls divided critics upon its premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival (Time’s Richard Corliss called it “all surface and sham,” while others thought it Korine’s “most fully realized, purely satisfying feature film since Gummo“), but that may be the point; mixing sex, drugs, and Skrillex, Spring Breakers could reposition the one-time wunderkind as a Russ Meyer for today’s post-Internet audience.

I Give It A Year
Those pining for a rom-com featuring lovelorn but emotionally inept Brits here’s something just for you: This movie from first-time director Dan Mazer, perhaps best known as a co-writer of both Borat and Bruno. Will he bring those movies’ love of shock comedy to the normally cosy rom-com genre? A quick glimpse at Steven Merchant’s wedding toast from the trailer answers that question (Yes).

It sounds like the set-up for some strange pop-culture joke — “What do you get if you pair Bill from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure with a one-time giant in online music-sharing?” — but Alex Winter’s new documentary about the rise and fall of Napster promises to explain the history of online file-sharing from inception through today, told from the perspectives of those who use it, and those who claim that it’s ruining their livelihoods.

Our Nixon
We’ve heard what Richard Nixon was like in private, but this wonderfully bizarre new movie offers an alternative view of our 37th President — who, lest we all forget, was not a crook. Assembled from Super-8 footage shot by three White House aides during Nixon’s presidency — eventually seized during the Watergate investigations — Our Nixon makes an already complicated man a little more complex.

In Your Dreams – Stevie Nicks
Part of the “24 Beats Per Second” strand of music programming, this behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Nicks’ first solo album in a decade sounds to us like it’s-horrrible-but-I-can’t-look-away viewing. Co-directed by Nicks (along with Dave Stewart — a.k.a. The One That Wasn’t Annie Lennox in Eurythmics —  who also co-writes and co-produces the album in question) and partly funded by Nicks’ record label, this may be the most oddly-compelling vanity project in some time.

With a trailer that looks like a Portlandia skit and a claim that the movie is “told through a series of cinematic tweets,” it’s might be possible for another movie to be more of-the-moment than Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva’s self-confessed “comedic satirical sci-fi pop musical” — but I’m not sure it’d be safe to go further and find out.

The Other Dave
Some people are just plain unlucky — and then there’s Dave Manning, who had already survived injury by shovel, chainsaw, steel beam and a broken neck by the time that he was struck by lightning. If that isn’t enough to make you want to hear his story, then you’re one sadly jaded soul.