SXSW Awards and Headliners

Ken August Meyer’s Angel Applicant (2023) Photo: Jason Roark

This year’s SXSW runs through the weekend, but the festival likes to present its awards before the crowds start thinning. On Tuesday evening, the jury for the Narrative Feature Competition—critics Helena Andrews-Dyer, Tomris Laffly, and Richard Lawson—gave its top award to Paris Zarcilla’s Raging Grace, praising its “heady blend of horror, history, and midnight humor” and calling it “a resonant, urgent work about labor, legacy, and diaspora.”

Max Eigenmann plays Joy, an undocumented Filipina immigrant who takes her daughter Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla) to every opulent house in London she cleans. In one semi-abandoned mansion, something’s off. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer finds that Raging Grace “gets its message across despite all the jump-scares and haunted house hysteria. That message is simple but effective: In a world where immigrants toil at the behest of a privileged ruling class, to the point where they’re sometimes more indentured servants than free individuals, the horrors of everyday life far outweigh anything that a movie could invent.”

A Special Jury Award for Performance went to Courtney Eaton, who plays Riley, a woman fresh out of rehab who falls for Ethan (Thomas Mann), a nice guy with his own addiction issues, in Brittany Snow’s directorial debut, Parachute. “Riley is a real meal for any good actor (which Eaton is), a complicated and frequently sympathetic character who also, occasionally, does wildly unlikable things and acts unforgivably toward the people who care about her,” writes Jason Bailey at the Playlist.

Eric Branco won a Special Jury Award for Cinematography for his work on Aristotle Torres’s Story Ave, in which a Puerto Rican MTA conductor encourages a kid from the South Bronx to hone his talent as a graffiti artist. Bronco’s “richly layered, studiously cinematic compositions and fluency with the streets of NYC both deepen and enrich the viewing experience,” says the jury.

Documentary Feature Competition jurors Mae Abdulbaki, Joel Anderson, and Allegra Frank presented their top prize to Ken August Meyer’s Angel Applicant. Meyer, an art director at Wieden+Kennedy, has been diagnosed with systemic scleroderma, a life-threatening disease that tightens the skin and attacks the internal organs. The Swiss-German painter Paul Klee suffered from the same disease, and it began to affect his art as he spent the years of the Second World War in isolation in Switzerland.

“Warm and surprisingly playful given its subject matter,” writes Filmmaker’s Scott Macaulay at the top of his interview with Meyer, “Angel Applicant is both a cinematic memoir of reckoning with disability as well as a work of unconventional art criticism, demonstrating how formal elements of painters’s late works can have their roots in both the mental as well as the physical.” At the Daily Beast, Matthew Jacobs finds the film to be “a cathartic viewing experience destined to leave many people in tears, but what’s incredible about Meyers’s film is how funny it is. His narration blends wry observational humor and poetic musings to create a remarkably optimistic portrait of life’s uncertainties.”

Sophie Compton and Reuben Hamlyn won a Special Jury Award for Innovation in Storytelling for Another Body, the story of a young engineering student who has discovered that her face is being widely used in deepfake porn. “Another Body works best as a detective story and falters as a sociological study,” finds Robyn Bahr in the Hollywood Reporter. “The film refuses to separate sexuality from nonconsensual sexualization, so it creates a false narrative that [its subjects] must be pure and desexualized subjects for us to feel sympathy for them.” At the Film Stage, John Fink, too, has a few problems with the film, but nevertheless declares it to be “essential viewing.”

SXSW also gives awards to short films in several categories as well as to music videos, television pilots, extended reality projects, and poster designers. The full list of winners and jury statements is right here.


“Big names, big talent,” announces SXSW at the top of its Headliners program, and the festival has delivered even more than it promised. On Monday afternoon, days after the title was already being whispered all across Austin, SXSW presented a “secret” preview screening of John Wick: Chapter 4. Slated to open on March 24, “the epic culmination of the flamboyantly brutal death-wish-meets-video-game-meets-the-zen-of-Keanu-Reeves action series,” as Variety’s Owen Gleiberman calls it, is being cheered for the fight sequences staged by stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski. But critics are also docking points for the running time (nearly three hours) and what Gleiberman refers to as the “hushed, portentous, ritualistic verbal showdowns” between the bloody clashes.

The original John Wick (2014) “thrives on simplicity,” writes Derek Smith at Slant. “Chapter 4 does see martial arts legends Donnie Yen and Scott Adkins fighting John Wick for the first time—and the pair are involved in two of the three best fight scenes—but it also spends an inordinate amount of time spinning out Wick’s backstory and further building out the already needlessly convoluted mythology of the series.”

SXSW 2023 opened with Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, whose Game Night won over audiences and critics in 2018 and has since been ripening toward comedy classic status. Based on the role-playing game whose popularity in the 1980s was a major inspiration for Stranger Things, D&D:HAT is “a feast of fan worship that has the good sense to invite in the uninitiated,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “It’s homage and gentle parody at once, seeking to capture the energy of playing the game with friends rather than trying to seriously literalize an expansive world.”

The film stars Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, and Hugh Grant, and in Rolling Stone, David Fear suggests that we think of it as “your average mash-up of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, some MCU flotsam and jetsam, and all those ’80s action-comedies all of us used to watch over and over again on DVD.” D&D:HAT is an “admittedly better-than-it-ought-to-be casserole of fantasy film leftovers.”

Rolling Stone’s David Fear has gotten a kick out of Bottoms, the second feature from Emma Seligman, who directed Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby (2020). Seligman and Sennott have cowritten a story about two unpopular queer high school students (Sennott and Ayo Edebiri) who, in their quest to score with cheerleaders, inadvertently launch a female fight club. Bottoms is “a meaner, leaner, more uncouth Booksmart, with less inhibitions and sharper teeth,” writes Fear. “There’s an off-the-cuffness to its raunchiness, which is then offset even more by montages of women going full Tyler Durden on each other. Some viewers will be turned off by the violence. The women themselves, however, seem to have an On-switch flipped.”

For Jake Kring-Schreifels at the Film Stage, Bottoms is “a riotous affair, a lacerating and hyper-violent insult fest that pulls from Wet Hot American Summer, But I’m a Cheerleader, and Not Another Teen Movie and still manages to carve its own surrealist place in the genre’s rich pantheon . . . What would a high school movie look like if its queer characters ended up as jock-slamming, hierarchy-upending heroes? Bottoms is this year’s righteously indignant, big-swing answer.”

In Problemista, his debut feature, Julio Torres plays an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador trying to land a job in New York before his visa expires. And he finds one, working for an art critic (Tilda Swinton) who aims to stage a show of paintings by her husband (RZA)—who has had himself frozen after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Isabella Rossellini narrates.

“Torres has made a career out of crafting idiosyncratic, otherworldly comedy that nevertheless captures cultural moments, like his ‘Papyrus’ or ‘Wells for Boys’ sketches on SNL, or how Los Espookys, which mixed magical realism, some of the most bizarre imagery on TV, and fantastically sharp commentary,” writes Rafael Motamayor for IndieWire. Variety’s Peter Debruge may find Problemista “overly kooky and all-too-quixotic,” but for Motamayor, it’s “possibly the best movie about the Latino experience in the U.S. out of SXSW. The otherworldly magical realism helps heighten the absurdity of the immigration system without it weighing on the humor of the story.”

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