SXSW 2015: The Films You Shouldn’t Miss

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SXSW_2015_Family_CMYK-02Preston Barta // Editor

When it comes to the world of independent cinema, it’s tough to follow in the footsteps of Sundance each year, but the South by Southwest Film Festival tends to just about match the festival juggernaut with its incredible and diverse mix of features, shorts and documentaries.

According to the announcement from last month, 145 films will screen over the course of nine days, including 60 features from first-time filmmakers, 100 world premieres, 13 North American premieres and 11 U.S. premieres.

The films were selected from a record 2,385 feature-length film submissions, composed of 1,614 U.S. and 771 international films.

The Austin-based festival, running March 13 to 21, already announced a handful of its heavyweights back in early January, such as Russell Brand’s documentary titled BRAND: A SECOND COMING and Michael Showalter’s HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS. Now that SXSW has unveiled its full line-up, and with the event only a few days away, let’s see what films you should be excited about.

Headlining films worth waiting in line for

Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac star in EX MACHINA. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac star in EX MACHINA. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

There are a handful of headlining films that promise to bring the star power to Austin when SXSW takes over. The first of these heavy hitters is Alex Garland’s world premiere of EX MACHINA. Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson (both to appear in J.J. Abram’s STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS later this year) star in the thrilling story of a quest to prove the emotional intelligence of a robot. While there are other films this year tackling this very subject, such as CHAPPIE and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, I’m sure none of them will be as cold, brutal and realistic as EX MACHINA. It only helps that the writer of 28 DAYS LATER and SUNSHINE, Alex Garland, is in the director’s chair.

Al Pacino plays a man who tries to come to terms with a past crime that cost him the love of his life. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

In MANGLEHORN, Al Pacino plays a man who tries to come to terms with a past crime that cost him the love of his life. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

This year, director David Gordon Green (JOE, PRINCE AVALANCHE) returns to the capital with MANGELHORN, starring Al Palcino and Holly Hunter. Spinning a story of grief, loss and love, MANGELHORN could very well be a festival favorite.

Festivalgoers should really be anticipating Michael Showalter’s long-awaited feature debut starring Sally Fields titled HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS. The film follows a grieving, lonely woman who decides to reinvent herself and join the local hipster scene. SOLD!

Rounding off the sure-to-be exceptional headliners is LOVE & MERCY, a film that paints an unusual portrait of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson. Sure, we’ve seen many bios on the troubling times of big name musicians, but this one, directed by Bill Pohlad (who produced 12 YEARS A SLAVE and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN), may have the ingredients to cook up something fresh.

Festival leftovers ready to be reheated and served again

THE LOOK OF SILENCE. Photo courtesy of Drafthouse Films.

THE LOOK OF SILENCE. Photo courtesy of Drafthouse Films.

Then again, who needs all the big Hollywood stuff when there are plenty of hidden gems to discover coupled with movies coming in with obvious buzz? Some of the major features rolling in are from Austin filmmakers whom already have made big splashes at other film festivals, including Joshua Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer, perhaps best known for directing the Academy Award-nominated documentary THE ACT OF KILLING, brings his follow-up, THE LOOK OF SILENCE, to his home state. The film has received nothing but positive reviews out of Toronto. With its focus on a family that survives the genocide in Indonesia, expect THE LOOK OF SILENCE to continue its climb to triumph.

Ryan Gosling steps behind the camera in his directorial debut, LOST RIVER. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Ryan Gosling steps behind the camera in his directorial debut, LOST RIVER. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Bound to pull in a big crowd is Ryan Gosling’s LOST RIVER, starring Christina Hendricks, Saorise Ronan and Eva Mendes. About the discovery of a magical underwater town, Gosling’s directorial debut isn’t going to shy away from elements of surrealism. If you’ve seen the trailer, the film echoes the work of David Lynch (BLUE VELVET) and Nicolas Winding Refn (ONLY GOD FORGIVES). While LOST RIVER didn’t receive much love out of Cannes last year, there’s no denying it certainly looks interesting. We’ll just hope it flows in the right direction for the Austin audience.

Also making an appearance at SXSW is Sundance favorite THE OVERNIGHT, directed by Patrick Brice. The offbeat comedy stars Adam Scott (PARKS & REC), Jason Schwartzman (RUSHMORE) and Taylor Schilling (ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK) in a funny narrative about what people will do to strengthen their marriage. A powerful cast and writer-director (Brice, who directed last year’s SX comedic scarefest CREEP) should make for the best sex comedy of the festival, if not year.

And then, there is another comedy likely to produce some laughs, and that is RESULTS, starring Guy Pearce (MEMENTO), Cobie Smulders (HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER) and Constance Zimmer (HOUSE OF CARDS). It has a great cast like THE OVERNIGHT, but instead of tackling marriage, it takes on friendship, fate and… sheer bad luck it seems. It’s got a BURN AFTER READING kind of vibe, and we’re down for that.

In the narrative and documentary spotlight

Robert Sheehan and Rupert Grint star in MOONWALKERS. Photo courtesy of Mars Distribution.

Robert Sheehan and Rupert Grint star in MOONWALKERS. Photo courtesy of Mars Distribution.

For the narrative and documentary feature competitions, there are eight films in each category looking for recognition, including Alex Winter’s documentary titled DEEP WEB, a feature that explores the rise of a new Internet.

Of the features on this year’s roster, Bob Byington’s 7 CHINESE BROTHERS with Jason Schwartzman and Olympia Dukakis has caught our eyes. The upcoming film is about a haphazard alcoholic who tries to his life unstuck. The word is Schwartzman is in every scene of the movie, and from the clips on Youtube, you can expect Schwartman to give one of his most nuanced performances– in what is sure to be a crowd pleaser.

Malin Akerman stars in THE FINAL GIRLS. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Malin Akerman stars in THE FINAL GIRLS. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

If I told you the director of A VERY HAROLD AND KUMAR CHRISTMAS has a movie at SX, you may roll your eyes. But if I told you he is returning with a comedy-horror along the same lines as SCREAM and THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, maybe you’ll direct your attention towards this film, THE FINAL GIRLS. It has a very unique concept about a young woman grieving the loss of her mother, who was an ’80s “scream queen.” And on top of that, the young woman finds herself transported into one of the worlds of her mother’s old films. Crazy killers, ’80s horror gags and screams galore just may be what this festival needs to kick it off on the right foot come opening night on Friday.

Attention, HARRY POTTER fans: Rupert Grint, best known for his role as Ron Weasley, is back on the big screen after a string of low-key films. This time, Grint ditches the magic tricks to play the manager of a rock band who gets mixed up in the biggest con of all-time: to fake the famous 1969 moon landing. There are theories out there that Stanley Kubrick worked with the U.S. to fake the moon landing, and MOONWALKERS explores that theory. So color us curious.

The most exciting aspect of a film festival may be the chance of uncovering something special. For any critic or cinephile, there’s nothing like finding a film you have never heard of, from a filmmaker you also have never heard of, but wholeheartedly appreciate right off the bat. Andrew Droz Palermo’s ONE & TWO just may be that movie.

The supernatural thriller zeroes in on a family that lives an isolated existence (think THE VILLAGE, but cooler) and explores their unusual abilities. Palermo presents us with his first feature length film after working the last few years as the cinematographer on a handful of shorts, docs and films, such as YOU’RE NEXT and 6 YEARS (also a SXSW selection).

Destined TV hits

The cast of UnREAL. Photo courtesy of Lifetime.

The cast of UnREAL. Photo courtesy of Lifetime.

Over the last few years we’ve seen an explosion of exciting, new material on non-theatrical platforms. So it was only a matter of time before SX introduced a category centered on television/web series, which it did last year.

In this year’s “episodic” screening category we have two strong candidates to become exceptional shows. First of which is Steve and Nancy Carell’s satirical take on police procedurals. Lead by Rashida Jones (PARKS & REC) and Hayes MacArthur (LIFE AS WE KNOW IT), ANGIE TRIBECA is the NAKED GUN-like cop comedy that TV needs.

And lastly there is the Lifetime drama UnREAL, co-penned by BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER showrunner Marti Noxon, which satirizes and deconstructs reality dating shows. With a talented cast – including Constance Zimmer, Shiri Appleby and Freddie Stroma – UnREAL is guaranteed to be a total blast while also showing the dirty side of television.

For all information on screenings and badges and/or tickets, visit sxsw.com/film.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.