South By Southwest (SXSW) 2022 was a sort of ground zero for new documentaries, even more so than Sundance. There seemed to be more docus available than feature films, and luckily many of them were fantastic. SXSW had a lot of strong offerings that ranked high on my list out of the 40 or so screeners I watched. I didn’t get to check them all out (as I’m pretty sure my eyes were going dry out from so many films in such a short period of time), but I definitely got a chance to see some of the most intriguing looks at the world around us through new, fresh eyes. There were a lot of surprises here, too. There were plenty of documentaries that didn’t excite me, and by the end they made the list of my favorites from the entire festival.
So without further adieu, let’s look at some of the best documentaries I watched at SXSW.
1 “Nothing Lasts Forever “
We all know the horrors and sham of the diamond industry, but “Nothing Lasts Forever” is a scathing examination of the biggest lie we’ve ever been sold. The focus of the film isn’t so much the controversies of mining and blood diamonds, but more so about how much Da Beers has created an entire empire from a little more than good marketing of a worthless product. That’s right, diamonds are worthless. “Nothing Lasts Forever” is a fascinating look at the industry at hand, and how they’ve had to wrestle with indistinguishable synthetic diamonds created in a lab and sometimes more pure and better than actual diamonds. Even if you know everything about the industry already, “Nothing Lasts Forever” is still worth checking out.
2 “Crows are White “
Talk about a documentary that transforms in real time halfway through and takes on another life of its own. Where “Crows are White” starts and where it finishes feel as if they’re two different stories loosely strung together by the same director, but the journey is more than worth it and the film’s conclusion is a worthy, purposeful payoff. Beginning as a look into a sect of reclusive monks in the mountains of Japan, the documentary slowly becomes more of a look at religion and religious traditions, and a self discovery through those struggles as the director struggles to learn to balance his rebellion with tradition. It is truly fascinating on both accounts, and really ends up telling an incredibly personal story that resonates a lot with my own life. This was a sleeper hit for me, but I can’t recommend “Crows are White” enough. Oh there’s nothing quite like a young monk obsessed with heavy metal and creme brûlée. It’s the joy you didn’t know you needed.
This is one of two biopic documentaries I had no desire to check out and ended up being one of the best viewing experiences of the festival. “Sheryl” is a kind of behind the music look at the life and career of Sheryl Crow told from her own perspective and interviews with a few friends and family sharing the talking head screen. It is a much more fascinating story than I ever anticipated, and really shines a light on how influential her work has been. It also speaks to how hard she works and how talented she is, and how important her vast musical catalog has been over the last few decades. She’s an incredible woman, and is very open and vulnerable here as “Sheryl” examines her life. I was not expecting to love this film as much as I did, but I definitely think everyone should check this out.
4 “Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off “
The second biopic entry I had no interest in but found myself enthralled with, “Until the Wheels Fall Off” also presents a truthful and personal look at the pioneer of skateboarding. I’m not a skater and never really have been, so the idea of a documentary highlighting a guy I only know from playstation games wasn’t all that interesting to me. But like “Sheryl,” this film demonstrates the rise, fall, and rise again of someone who has dedicated their life to their passion, even before that passion was something that could be done as a career. It is a tremendous documentary, and is really well crafted and worth a watch even if you don’t care about skating, or Tony Hawk. “Until the Wheels Fall Off” has made me a fan of both.
5 “Clean “
This is one of the more difficult watches when it comes to documentaries of the entire festival. That’s largely due to the subject matter and the film’s main protagonist, a trans woman who underwent incredible trauma and ultimately gave her entire life to her passion and business. “Clean” follows the life of Sandra Pankhurst who leads one of the largest trauma cleaners in Australia. They clean the worst of the worst, from crime scenes to hoarder houses and everything in between. It takes a strong stomach and true exercise in compartmentalization to clean blood from the walls of a double homicide, and the film doesn’t shy away from the traumatic environments these workers endure on a daily basis. It’s like “Hoarders” on steroids, and film does well to highlight Sandy as the driving force behind the film. If you can stomach it, I highly recommend “Clean.”
6 “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down “
What an incredible story of perseverance and survival in the face of unimaginable circumstances. “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” is so good, and it wasn’t even on my list of films to watch. I actually intended to start it late at night as a last ditch effort to squeeze in one more screening. I thought I was going to pass out and not finish it, and instead I was so enthralled with the story and Giffords’ journey I ended up finishing it in the wee hours of the morning. I can’t say enough about how amazing this film it is. It’s part gun control commentary, part personal recovery, part redemption, and yes, even part love story all rolled into one. Every aspect of this story is intriguing, and I really can’t wait for more people to check this one. “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” is a triumph of a documentary and I highly recommend you check it out whenever it becomes available.
7 “Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks“
I was never a big fan of “Kids in the Hall” as a sketch show. Not that it wasn’t funny, I just missed the mark of their impact on comedy culture. I actually recognize them more from their solo work than their troupe efforts, but “Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks” does an incredible job taking viewers through the journey of how everything they became actually came to be. The film really lets us get to know these comedians, both together and apart, and delivers a lot of insight into just about every aspect of their lives and challenges of wrestling with success and failure. It’s a really fun and funny look at an incredibly influential comedy troupe, and is honest in its approach in a way that can create new fans simply by learning more about each of them and their work.
8 “I Get Knocked Down “
Who knew there was enough material to examine from the one hit wonder band Chumbawumba that isn’t just about their hit song “Tubthumping.” The song definitely places incessantly throughout the entire film also to the point of becoming wearisome, but its repetition is intentional as the song is meant to be kind of haunting theme in the lead singers life. “I Get Knocked Down” is more about someone still reeling from unintentional success and fall from the top, and trying to recapture and re-channel the anger that fulled the band’s youth. It is a fun and funny look at a mid life (or old life as the lead singer is now in his 50s) crisis and how we deal with the next chapter in our lives by reexamining the past. It is better than it ever should be, and “I Get Knocked Down” is worth the watch.
9 “Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets “
It’s the hot new trend right now to capitalize on events that just occurred less than a year or two ago, and Gamestop and AMC short squeeze is no exception. There have been a number of attempts to capture the insanity of the events that took down a hedge fund and literally saved both businesses from the jaws of defeat. But “Diamond Hands” is the most honest approach and explanation of what happened and who actually made it happen. The documentary never tries to glamorize these retail traders as heroes or geniuses. It even opens with a guy in a medieval knight helmet (for anonymity) saying “we’re just a bunch of idiots.” Highly stylized and willing to never take itself too seriously, I would go as far as to say that “Diamond Hands” is the best look at this strange, once is a generation event.
10 “The Thief Collector“
Last but certainly not least, “The Thief Collector” is a wild story that seems too strange to be true. It is of course, and is a kind of “they got away with it, but how” speculative look at one of the most mysterious and brazen art robberies in the last 30 years. It’s hard to really describe everything that happens here, as it bounces around from reenactments to recounting events from people who were directly or indirectly involved or affected by the crime to speculation of many, many other crimes that may or may not have been committed by the elusive and sadly deceased couple. You would think that there wouldn’t be much else to examine after a painting goes missing then resurfaces 30 years later in a random estate in the middle of nowhere New Mexico, but “The Thief Collector” really does a good job mining every possible perspective and outcome of this very strange and inconclusive story.