The 10 Best Movies and TV Shows at SXSW 2023

From surrealist comedy to a nun doing battle with AI, this year's festival had it all

March 20, 2023 8:59 am
Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in "Problemista"
Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in "Problemista"

When the pandemic hit in 2020, South By Southwest became the first major arts festival to shut its doors, starting an industry-wide public health domino over the next couple of weeks. The following year it returned as an all-virtual festival, and then migrated to a hybrid model in 2022, welcoming back smaller, subdued audiences without overwhelming theaters and venues. But that all changed last week, as SXSW returned triumphantly to its crowded, raucous form, filling Austin’s convention center, bars and taco-lined streets with moviegoers, tech experts, comedy lovers and musicheads eager to network and experience one of the largest interactive conferences in person again.

The result was a bit overwhelming. Unlike the more cloistered, industry-focused affairs at Sundance, Cannes and Telluride, South By has always embraced a public-first persona, and this year it was brimming with festival-goers packing shuttles, clogging sidewalks and sending movie lines five blocks deep. That made covering its loaded slate a bit more challenging and a lot more stressful. Attending one premiere usually meant sacrificing another, and guaranteeing a seat in between insightful keynote talks often meant arriving in line more than an hour ahead of a movie’s start time. That’s the burden and blessing of a festival’s full-fledged return, but it was hard to complain sitting in front of a large screen with a full house of fans eager to see the next big thing. 

And who could blame them? If there were any doubt that SXSW boasted similar clout to the more prominent film festivals around the world, all you needed to do was watch this year’s Oscars. The recipient of seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Everything Everywhere All at Once wrapped up a prosperous awards season that officially began a year earlier inside Austin’s Paramount Theater. Its coronation should influence filmmakers to see the festival as an awards springboard, an easy marketing ploy for SXSW programmers eager to keep attracting acclaimed filmmakers and new voices. And though it’s hard to predict another Best Picture winner from this year’s crop, the festival still supplied a reliable mix of thrills, tears and laughs, merging together 110 feature films and 22 television projects from more than 7,000 submissions. 

In the time I spent there, here are my 10 favorites (both movies and episodes of upcoming series) from the past 10 days, in alphabetical order, with the exception of several mainstream Hollywood selections due in theaters soon — such as Dungeons and Dragons, John Wick, Evil Dead Rise and Air — that screened early in Austin. 

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Bottoms (Emma Seligman)

There are close to a dozen references and inspirations that helped inform Bottoms, a ludicrous high school comedy that heightens the tropes of teenage sexual conquests and obnoxious jock culture. After a successful collaboration on their 2020 cringe chamber drama Shiva Baby, director Emma Seligman and actor Rachell Sennott re-team on the opposite end of the tonal spectrum, pulling from John Hughes, Not Another Teen Movie and Kick-Ass, for starters. In the narrative mold of Superbad and Booksmart, the movie follows PJ (Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edibiri), two lesbians on the bottom of the social hierarchy and eager to hook up with their popular crushes. They eventually hatch a plan to form an all-girls, after-school fight club, which builds to a series of violent escalations and a bloody and absurd finale with a rival football team. Marshawn Lynch as the girls’ sponsor and history teacher isn’t even the fifth weirdest thing in this movie. 

I Used to Be Funny (Ally Pankiw)

If you want a different Rachel Sennott experience, there’s I Used to be Funny, a moving meditation on sexual assault and its traumatic ripple effects. Using a parallel editing structure, director Ally Pankiw introduces Sam (Sennott), a recently retired standup comedian who has spiraled into a depressive state, concerned over the missing 14-year-old (Olga Petsa) she used to nanny. In persistent flashbacks that act as puzzle pieces, Pankiw slowly uncovers the pair’s relationship as well as the inciting incident that leads to Sam’s PTSD, which her friends (Sabrina Jalees and a scene-stealing Caleb Hearon) attempt to heal by encouraging her back to the stage. Unlike the quippy and crass jokes she slings in Bottoms, Sennott proves her chops here as a woman navigating the treacherous waters of gender politics as a female comedian. Though most movies struggle to portray legitimately funny standup, Sennott’s jokes garner authentic laughs — but it’s her quieter, darker moments that all but confirm her as a star in the making. 

If You Were The Last (Kristian Mercado)

It’s hard to find romantic comedies with two sexy actors that actually seem attracted to each other. But director Kristian Mercado, working from a script by Angela Bourassa, thankfully found a pair in Anthony Mackie and Zoe Chao. Trapped inside a self-sustainable space shuttle for the last three years, astronauts Adam and Jane have played all the movies, danced to all their music, and eaten all their pop tarts. But with no navigation and communication systems working to get them home, they start pondering the hardest question: Should they finally have sex with each other? Though they both have spouses at home, they each have needs in the black void, too. Inspired by the monotony and repetitive routine of the pandemic, Mercado leans on his two leads as they inhabit their fantastical ship’s ’80s video-game aesthetic and stave off boredom with the possibility of physical intimacy. Will they or won’t they? 

Love and Death (David E. Kelly, HBO)

You might have trouble believing the plot and characters of David E. Kelly’s latest crime drama without reading about the true events it’s based on. Set in 1980, the upcoming HBO series follows two churchgoing couples in Wylie, Texas, whose kind and unassuming lives spiral into chaos when Candy (Elizabeth Olsen), tired of having a housewife existence with her negligent husband, Pat (Patrick Fugit), decides to have an affair with her friend Allan (Jesse Plemmons). Though he’s hesitant to cheat on his pregnant wife, Betty (Lily Rabe), Candy encourages him after several conversations and pros and cons lists. It’s not a spoiler to say that Candy will eventually be accused of Betty’s ax murder (the show’s cheery and sun-dappled setting hints at the splatters of blood to come in the first episode), a development that Kelly — in similar fashion to Big Little Lies, his most recent HBO hit — plans to unspool over seven episodes. In just the pilot, Olsen and Plemmons turn this more-than-awkward escapade into must-watch television. 

Mrs. Davis (Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez, Peacock)

Near the end of a Q&A with executive producers and writers Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez, a SXSW programmer disconcertingly asked the showrunners a question using ChatGPT. At a tech conference, it was only a matter of time for that kind of stunt, but it seemed fitting for a show that envisions a future controlled entirely by an operating system. In Mrs. Davis, the eponymous character might as well be a deity, but there’s at least one nun (Betty Gilpin) railing against her AI-dominated world. In this science-fiction and religious adventure mashup, Gilpin hopes to shut down the binary-coded reality for good, but must retrieve a mythical object to have a shot. Though it takes the first two episodes to sort out a host of characters and locations, it lays an intriguing foundation for what figures to be an increasingly relevant human and technological struggle. 

National Anthem (Luke Guilford)

After spending years photographing the International Queer Rodeo throughout the American Southwest, Luke Guilford makes his directorial debut turning his portraits into protagonists. National Anthem follows Dylan (Charlie Plummer), a soft-spoken construction worker making ends meet for his mother and younger brother in New Mexico. One day, after he finds work baling hay at a queer ranch community, his world changes. At this unique homestead, he attracts its residents with his mild demeanor and locks eyes with Sky (Eve Lindley), a beautiful horse owner and barrel racer who helps him explore his sexuality against the state’s warm, sunsetting backdrops. Soon, Dylan is attending rodeos and dressing in drag, tapping into an identity that had always been dormant. It’s a gentle depiction of a group subverting the standard patriarchal idea of a cowboy, and it resists melodramatic storytelling for something honest and rich. 

Parachute (Brittany Snow)

In 2019, actor Brittany Snow tested out the director’s chair with a short film and caught the filmmaking bug. Four years later, she makes her feature-length debut with Parachute, which chronicles a young woman’s nonlinear path out of addiction. Loosely based on parts of her own life, Snow depicts the hot and cold friendship — and sometimes romantic relationship — between Riley (Courtney Eaton), struggling with body image and an eating disorder, and Ethan (Thomas Mann), who enters her life just as she’s finished time at a treatment facility. Eaton, who won the festival’s acting award, does most of the heavy lifting here, and Snow sensitively details the staggering insecurity that builds from her doom-scrolling on Instagram and comparing bodily imperfections. Instead of falling into a more melodramatic series of escalations, Parachute trusts in Eaton’s and Mann’s authentic portrayals of restless twenty-somethings trying to repair their broken selves and families, platforming a topic that deserves more dialogue. 

Problemista (Julio Torres)

A fantastical immigration tale wrapped up inside an art-world sendup and punctuated by a couple of surrealist performances, Problemista resists classification as the most unique offering at SXSW this year. Under the first-time direction of Julio Torres, the movie follows Alejandro, a Salvadoran immigrant and aspiring toy designer who links up with volatile art critic Elizabeth to keep his green card status. To ensure her artist husband (RZA) is preserved in a cryogenic freezer, she needs Alejandro’s help finding a New York City gallery to buy and display his paintings. Throughout this absurdist story, Torres flexes his inimitable comedic sensibility, one he cultivated at Saturday Night Live with some of the most popular digital shorts of the last decade. Despite the goofy flourishes he institutes, Torres quietly and effectively pushes back on the corporate and bureaucratic structures that make life difficult for those attempting to find a better life in America. It’s the kind of individual and deceptively political storytelling that reaffirms the power of movies. 

Talk to Me (Danny and Michael Philippou)

One of the breakout horror movies from Sundance this year, Talk to Me picked up a distribution deal from A24 in January and continued its festival run last week in Austin, freaking out its next round of audiences. Beyond it’s shivery premise — a group of teenagers conjures spirits with an embalmed hand — and a few jump scares, Australian brothers and directors Danny and Michael Philippou distinguish their scares with a shoulder-flinching sound design, capturing the concussive noises of heads slamming against desks and bathroom tiles. The story centers around Mia (Sophia Wilde), who gets hooked on a medium-esque game (brave participants clutch a plastered hand, light a candle and say “Talk to me,” before letting a spirit possess their bodies), and quickly becomes obsessed with finding and communicating with her deceased mother. This is the kind of high-adrenaline supernatural thriller that feels destined to crawl under your skin and leave a mark. 

You Can Call Me Bill (Alexandre O. Philippe)

In a post-screening Q&A with William Shatner, a fan asked the longtime actor and writer when he started to become “one with the universe.” Shatner couldn’t decipher a specific moment, but suggested the importance of believing in the “ooga booga” in life, being aware and present with the mystery of nature. It might as well be the thesis statement of You Can Call Me Bill, a new and thoughtful documentary from Alexandre O. Philipe, in which the 91-year-old ruminates on his career, the environment and his own mortality. Told over several chapters and interspersed with clips from Star Trek, old television roles and his Priceline commercials, the documentary resists a chronological format. Instead, it opts to let Shatner wax philosophical about loneliness, the wonder of trees, the keys to effective comedy and “taking care of the inner child.” It’s not exactly what you’d expect from Captain Kirk, but it’s a breath of fresh air.

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