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COMMENTARY: In frigid Texas, a warm return to in-person festival-goers at SXSW 2022

At the in-person return of one of the Lone Star State's most global events, there's nothing like bumping into new companions or making new discoveries.

SAN ANTONIO — The Boston folks didn’t seem to mind it. Neither did the New York cohort. And the Midwesterners who gladly lined up for two hours outside on Day 1 as the sun slowly set? “Brisk,” they called it. 

As for us Texans, including those who didn’t have to travel far for the in-person return of the SXSW Film Festival this weekend, we’ve come to know a thing or two about random arctic blasts (just don’t mind our shivering when the wind picks up). Regardless, this weekend’s chilly temperatures couldn’t numb the excitement, nor did it. That was never really in the cards.

Not when there’s a chance to catch a glimpse of Jamie Lee Curtis, Nicolas Cage or Sandra Bullock entering the Paramount Theater, its marquee aglow; not when the film festival lineup has been this varied and wide-ranging; not when you finally enter a heated theater lobby, bags checked and queue cards in hand, ready to await the discoveries on the big screen. 

Discovery is the main commodity at SXSW, the biggest event of its kind for Texas—a wide-ranging showcase for music, tech, TV, comedy, movies and the people building the futures for each field. Tens of thousands arrive to listen, talk and network in the heart of the state, which is why, in certain respects, this year marks the festival’s real return after a few years, having gone largely virtual in 2020 and 2021. The 2022 festival runs through Sunday, March 20.

Discovery is also something that’s been in desperately short supply over the last two years, unless it’s discovering within ourselves new depths of willpower, fortitude and grace that we’re talking about. But it’s a heckuva lot more fun when we leave that emotional introspection to our movie stars, which is at least part of the reason SXSW’s organizers hit the bull’s-eye with their opening night selection, the superb and superbly bizarre Michelle Yeoh-led fantasy-drama “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” about a woman caught in a web of familial conflict who gets sucked into a multiversal conflict. 

The crowd ate it up, with a steady stream of applause, cheers and hollers. “Everything Everywhere All At Once” may be one of the more boundlessly creative films to release in some time, but if you didn’t know any better you’d swear the packed Paramount audience had never seen a movie before. The cinema can have that effect; the cinema can still have that effect. Even rounding a corner and coming upon a long line an hour before entering screening means more movie-lovers both casual and carnivorous to mingle with. “What have you seen?” “What have you liked?” “What images have stuck with you?” (And, because this is Texas, darnit: “Where’s the good barbecue at”?). 

The crowd of “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” which was directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, didn’t know what they were in for even if they had some rough idea of the directors’ eccentricity. The same couldn’t be said for the crowd which amassed at the same venue roughly 12 hours later for “Until the Wheels Fall Off,” a Sam Jones-directed documentary about the life and career – and trials and tribulations – of one Tony Hawk. For the most part, unlike Kwan and Scheinert’s genre smorgasboard, “Until the Wheels Fall Off” delivers mostly exactly what you’d expect it does. 

Does that make for a slightly less interesting movie? Yes. Did the crowd come halfway to a standing ovation during its most memorable sequence when Hawk made skateboarding and sports history by landing the first 900 in history at the X Games? Yes. Hawk was a man of the people for those two hours, and the movies have always been excellent at conjuring newfound enthusiasm for even the most familiar of men. 

A more homogenous crowd returned Saturday evening for a double-billing of big-budget, studio-backed action comedies–the kinds of movie experiences we were deprived of the last couple years. “The Lost City,” starring Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum and Daniel Radcliffe, is a throwback of sorts. And a pleasurable-enough one at that. But I found myself far more enthusiastic for the final movie of the night, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” a movie starring Nic Cage as Nic Cage that is a celebration of all things Nic Cage. The bigger your familiarity with the legendary actor’s body of work, the more in on the fun you’ll be. But you’re also never out of the fun. 

Movies can still do that. Movies can still be an embrace like that. Which is why my experience watching something rather generic and performance-powered as “The Lost City” was undoubtedly more satisfying than the handful of movies I had the ability to watch early. The most common refrain from directors, producers, actors and festival organizers alike introducing their films during the festival’s first weekend is also the one you didn’t mind hearing over and over again: It feels incredible, and surreal, and hopeful to be able to watch movies together again. 

There’s much more to come in the next several days, including intimate documentaries, throwback blood-and-guts guilty pleasures, short-movie programs, musical biographies, boundary-pushing projects and the world premiere of “Apollo 10 ½,” an animated memory piece from Richard Linklater, one of the most renowned Texas directors working today. These movies will be coming to your small screens eventually — some sooner rather than later — but I heartily recommend you watch at least some of them in theaters if and when you feel safe enough to do so. We’ve got months and months of big-screen discoveries to catch up on, and there’s nothing like the  democratizing dark of the theater to make it all a bit more potent. 

Yeoh said it best and most enthusiastically when introducing “Everything Everywhere All At Once” Friday night: “Movies are shared experiences, and this is where we belong: Together, sharing the emotions, the laughter, the tears.”

Of course, it’s just the cherry on top when you’re out of the unseasonal Texas cold.

Follow David on Twitter at @RealDavidLynch for continuing coverage of the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

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