Critic's Picks: SXSW's Greatest Breakthroughs

5:56 PM 3/11/2016

by John DeFore

THR film critic John DeFore ranks the most important South by Southwest premieres of years past, including movies by Lena Dunham, Paul Feig and John Sayles.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

South by Southwest's film section launched in 1994, long after the music side had set the world on fire, and most would agree it took some time to find its own place in the cultural universe. Okay, lots of time. For years it was simply an excellent chance for locals to get early looks at discoveries — think Memento, Amores Perros and Napoleon Dynamite — made at other festivals.

But indie filmmakers started gravitating here for the good vibes in the Aughts, and this decade has found that scene bearing fruit. The quality of premieres has increased dramatically, studios have made the fest a go-to launching pad and the local populace has become a barometer for certain kinds of pictures. Oh: And Franklin Barbecue is here. And the Alamo Drafthouse.

In celebration of this year's installment, here are ten SXSW breakthroughs, ranked in consideration of their impact on the filmmakers, the fans in the theater and the fest itself.

  1. 10
    10

    Helvetica

    2007

    YouTube

    A documentary about a font. Those five words might close the door at other fests, but a design-savvy crowd in Austin took Gary Hustwit's stylish doc to heart, happy to hear how a Fifties typeface ushered in a Future of sleek machines and free-flowing information.

  2. 9
    10

    Great World of Sound

    2007

    YouTube

    This scrappy picture saw Craig Zobel move from the cult web 'toon Homestar Runner to the kind of gritty parables of capitalism-gone-wrong that would later shock viewers in Compliance.

  3. 8
    10

    Spellbound

    2002

    Photofest

    The kind of lightning-in-a-bottle charmer that can convince ordinary people to pay to see a documentary, Jeffrey Blitz's film about the National Spelling Bee spawned a thousand imitators — all striving for its quirky magic, most looking like dim copycats.

  4. 7
    10

    Lone Star

    1996

    Photofest

    Befitting its title, this John Sayles drama was the brightest premiere South By Southwest offered in the first decade or so of its existence. It was also a high-water mark for the director himself, who hasn't made a film this satisfying since.

  5. 6
    10

    Monsters

    2010

    YouTube

    Though not a perfect film, Gareth Edwards's breakthrough was the kind of DIY success story the fest's music side had peddled for years. Edwards, having done his time as a visual FX artist, crafted a narrative that made the most of his talents while working around limitations. Next thing you know, he's reimagining Godzilla and signing on for a standalone Star Wars adventure.

  6. 5
    10

    Hellboy

    2004

    Photofest

    Guillermo del Toro had already proved himself enough with Spanish-language art-horror films to get this movie made. But sneaking the film here two weeks before its official premiere was a perfect move: Del Toro's scholarly mastery of genre lore hits the sweet spot with Austin's geek elite, and buzz they delivered after this midnight screening helped pave the way both for the director's popcorn-friendly entertainments and for his subsequent magnum opus Pan's Labyrinth.

  7. 4
    10

    Trainwreck

    2015

    Photofest

    No, she didn't exactly arrive here an unknown. But sketch/standup sensation Amy Schumer proved she could sustain a feature in Judd Apatow's uproarious rom-com, which was just outrageous enough to be noticed but had a big, soft heart underneath.

  8. 3
    10

    Bridesmaids

    2011

    Photofest

    His buddy Apatow demonstrated the fest's receptiveness to big studio comedies in 2007 with a Knocked Up sneak peek, but Paul Feig had yet to enjoy a hit as director when he brought the work-in-progress Bridesmaids to the Paramount. In the years since, every big early-summer comedy has sought its own SXSW Bump, including Feig's own Spy last year.

  9. 2
    10

    Creative Nonfiction

    2009

    YouTube

    Never heard of this featurette? Perhaps you've heard of its writer-director, Lena Dunham, who caught then-new fest director Janet Pierson's eye and came back the next year with Tiny Furniture. In 2012, years before it launched its "Episodics" TV showcase, the fest premiered Girls, and the rest of the world caught up to a talent SXSWers had known for years.

  10. 1
    10

    Mumblecore

    2005

    YouTube

    The Duplass brothers had already shown The Puffy Chair to Sundancers when they premiered it on their home turf, but the 2005 fest found them sharing the schedule with Joe Swanberg (debuting with Kissing on the Mouth) and Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation). The next year, Greta Gerwig would pop up in Swanberg's sophomore outing LOL. For better or worse, a cinema subgenre was born — and filmmakers would subsequently spend years trying to shake the name that somewhat arbitrarily lumped them all together.

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