Oscar Contenders from the 2023 SXSW Film Festival

Only one week after Everything Everywhere All at Once made history as the first film to premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival to win Best Picture, the 2023 South by Southwest Film Festival concluded, with a slew of films from an array of genres for us to fervently anticipate – and more than a few potential awards contenders, too.

Sure, genre titles like Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among ThievesJohn Wick: Chapter 4, and Evil Dead Rise might have been the buzziest of the bunch thanks to the fact that they all belonged to pre-existing franchises (and to be fair, they did enjoy some great reviews as well), but the indie scene experienced significant success of its own this year, thanks to the star-studded sports biopic Air, comedies that left sold-out crowds in stitches like Emma Seligman’s Bottoms, and everything in between. But to get to the bottom of what films might have the most staying power – and biggest awards prospects – as the year goes on, let’s separate ’em into a few categories first.

New Comedy Classics

Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri in Bottoms

Many a modern comedy classic has premiered at SXSW – from Knocked Up to Bridesmaids to 21 Jump Street and countless others – and most recently, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart made its debut here just four years ago before becoming a generational fave on “Film Twitter.” This year, Emma Seligman’s Bottoms seems best poised to follow in that film’s footsteps, charming crowds thanks to its comically chaotic concept centered around “two unpopular queer high school students [who] start a fight club to have sex before graduation” and the dynamic duo who brings it to life, Bodies Bodies Bodies‘ Rachel Sennott and The Bear‘s Ayo Edebiri. We should’ve expected excellence given that it’s writer-director Emma Seligman’s follow-up to the equally hysterical Shiva Baby, but even still, it’s nice to see that 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and know we have a real hit on our hands. Booksmart wasn’t a major awards contender, but star Beanie Feldstein did receive a Golden Globe nomination (while the script received WGA and BAFTA nods), so let’s see how high this one could fly.

Other comedies that made a splash at this SXSW included Adele Lim’s Joy Ride – with the Crazy Rich Asians screenwriter making her directorial debut – which follows four Asian-American women who travel through Asia in search of one’s birth mother. This cross-country (literally) comedy has an all-star cast topped off with Emily in Paris‘ Ashley Park and Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s Stephanie Hsu, and although it doesn’t seem to be aiming for awards, its current 100% on Rotten Tomatoes promises a good time regardless. And last, but certainly not least, there’s the Megan Stalter-led Cora Bora, centered around a woman named Cora who returns home when sensing her open relationship is on the rocks to win her girlfriend back, only to discover that it’s “much more than her love life that needs salvaging.” While not quite acclaimed as these last two comedies (currently holding an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes), anyone who’s seen Hacks knows that Stalter is a bonafide star, and most everyone says she’s in top form here, which is all we really need.

Directorial Debuts

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in Problemista

SXSW is a hot launching pad for up-and-coming directors making their feature film debut every single year (as just seen with Joy Ride‘s Adele Lim), and 2023 was no different, with Julio Torres’ Problemista becoming one of the buzziest. Following an aspiring toy designer (Torres) whose work visa runs out and has to turn to assisting an erratic art-world outcast (a scene-stealing Tilda Swinton) to stay in the country and realize his dream, the film is said to be a subversive, surrealist comedy that simultaneously has loads to say about the modern immigrant experience, and with A24 already secured as a distributor, a robust awards campaign could be in the film’s future (especially with that 100% Rotten Tomatoes score), at the very least in indie and debut competitions. Additionally, Eva Longoria premiered her long-awaited Flamin’ Hot Cheetos biopic Flamin’ Hot, which proved to be quite the crowdpleaser and is now scheduled to be released on Hulu and Disney+ this June. While some knocked it for its conventional trappings (resulting in a 71% on Rotten Tomatoes), reactions were genuinely warm across-the-board, and it walked away with the 2023 SXSW Headliners Audience Award – and that’s not nothing.

Biopic Bonanza

Ben Affleck in Air

Speaking of biopics, Flamin’ Hot wasn’t the only one making a splashy debut at this SXSW, as Apple TV+’s Tetris – releasing March 31 on the streaming service – also made an appearance, with lead Taron Egerton earning expected praise even by those who found the Cold War-era film about Henk Rogers’ efforts to bring Tetris to the masses to be a bit formulaic overall (giving it an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes). But one biopic that did walk away with white-hot buzz was Ben Affleck’s Air, sharing the story of how Sonny Vaccaro (played here by Matt Damon) brought about a game-changing partnership between a then-rookie Michael Jordan and Nike’s fledgling basketball division, which “revolutionized the world of sports and contemporary culture with the Air Jordan brand.” Amazon is giving this one a full theatrical rollout beginning on April 5th (their first for a film of theirs since 2019’s Late Night) which already showed a lot of confidence in the final feature, and these rave reviews (a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes) back that confidence up. Of all the films on the list, I’m maybe most bullish on Air‘s awards chances, due to the blend of an all-star ensemble and The Academy’s favorite genre (the biopic), but let’s see how big it becomes at the box office first, as if it can become a critical and commercial hit, then it’ll have some real heat.

After catching Air myself last night – as someone who wasn’t only skeptical of the film’s awards prospects but simultaneously knows absolutely nothing about basketball – I was thoroughly surprised by how much I enjoyed myself. It’s a classic “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” crowdpleaser to its core, but one that’s so well-done – with a razor-sharp script, propulsive pacing, and an all-star ensemble – that you don’t even care. I don’t think it’s the deepest biopic in the world, which is one thing I’m mulling over as I try to assess where it’ll end up in the awards race, but it’s just so damn entertaining that it could will itself into the conversation regardless, especially if crowds rally around it. Aside from the aforementioned snappy, Sorkin-esque script (I continually noticed shades of Moneyball here, another major Oscar contender in its day), the performances across-the-board are all pitch-perfect; if it becomes “the real deal,” it’d be a slam dunk (ha) SAG Ensemble nominee. In particular, Matt Damon is doing some of his best work yet as the steadfast and endearingly stubborn Sonny Vaccaro (with an instantly iconic speech in the final stretch that brings the house down), while Viola Davis provides the ending with its emotional impact and steals all her scenes as you assume she would. I can easily foresee both gaining traction in some respect.

Now, I don’t believe Air is the “heir apparent” to Everything Everywhere All at Once and destined to repeat all its success, but if this year’s SXSW gave us any bonafide Oscar bet, it’d be this one.

Written by
Though Zoë Rose Bryant has only worked in film criticism for a little under three years - turning a collegiate passion into a full-time career by writing for outlets such as Next Best Picture and Awards Watch - her captivation with cinema has been a lifelong fascination, appreciating film in all its varying forms, from horror movies to heartfelt romantic comedies and everything in between. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she made the move to Los Angeles in 2021 after graduating college and now spends her days keeping tabs on all things pop culture and attempting to attend every screening under the sun. As a trans critic, she also seeks to champion underrepresented voices in the LGBTQ+ community in film criticism and offer original insight on how gender and sexuality are explored in modern entertainment. You can find Zoë on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd at @ZoeRoseBryant.

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