Yesterday, we ran through fifteen movies that we're dying to see at this year's SXSW, but the Austin, Texas festival doesn't just have world premieres: there's also a selection of films that have played film fests elsewhere in the world over the few last months, from Venice and Toronto to Sundance and Berlin.
As it happens, we've had Playlist agents at all those festivals too, and below we've picked out fourteen known quantities, films that we can definitively say are either worth checking out, and worth avoiding (thankfully, not too many of the latter). Read on for our verdicts, and stay tuned for comprehensive coverage from SXSW, which runs from Friday March 9th to Saturday the 17th.
“21 Jump Street”
Synopsis: Two bored, fresh-faced cops are transferred to a new department and sent undercover to bust a drug-running ring in a high school.
Our Verdict: After "Bridesmaids" had a raucous reception last year, big studio comedies premiering in Austin have big shoes to fill, but according to Todd Gilchrist, "21 Jump Street" has done so with aplomb. According to our review, the film is "an instant classic. The action is exciting. The humor kills, the characters are interesting. The story is engaging." The film doesn't just land the action and the comedy, but also has a sweetness to it that really elevates it: as Todd put it, the movie "features perhaps the first action scene I’ve ever seen where I cared more about what was happening in a character’s relationship than how many kills he was about to rack up." Read that review here.
Our Grade: A
When? Mon 12th at the Paramount Theatre, opens everywhere March 16th.
Synopsis: An unlikely friendship in a small town between a funeral attendant (Jack Black) and a cantankerous old lady (Shirley MacLaine) ends up in murder.
Our Verdict: It's been an uncharacteristically long gap of four years since "Me And Orson Welles" for the usually prolific Richard Linklater, but he's back at last with "Bernie," which reunites him both with "School of Rock" star Jack Black and "Dazed and Confused" stand-out Matthew McConaughey, the latter of whom has been taking increasingly interesting projects. And according to our Leah Zak, who caught the film last summer at the L.A. Film Festival, Linklater's based-in-fact latest is something of a return to form: "It's odd, it's messy, it's true," a film that mixes "dark humor with something of a character study." Black, in an atypical role for him, and MacLaine apparently make "an excellent onscreen pair," although the film as a whole "does falter somewhat as reality sets in." Read that original review here.
Our Grade: B
When? Wed 14th at the Paramount, ahead of a limited release on April 27th.
Synopsis: A privileged hipster hangs out with his vapid pals in Williamsburg as they gradually test their limits.
Our Verdict: Rick Alverson's oddball character study, which sees dramatic performances from 'Tim & Eric' stars Tim Heidecker and Eric Warheim, plus LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, divided audiences at Sundance, but our Christopher Bell landed on the postiive side of the equation. The title might be misleading, as Alverson "uses comedy to explore a man's inability to be a human being as he constantly involves himself in situations purely for irony's sake," with comparisons drawn to John Cassavetes. A hipster satire might seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but Chris wrote that it's "a meaty film, filled with ideas unobscured by any generic narrative string, a move that shows not only the confidence of the director but his respect of the audience" Read his review here.
Our Grade: A-
When? Sat 10th at Alamo Ritz 1, Tues 13th at Alamo Lamar, Wed 14th at Alamo Village and Sat 17th at Stateside Theatre.
Synopsis: The manager of an Ohio fast food restaurant is told by a police officer over the phone to detain a checkout girl he's accused of robbery.
Our Verdict: The latest from Craig Zobel ("Great World Of Sound") became the most instantly controversial film of Sundance 2012 when it bowed in January, but our Todd Gilchrist was impressed. He acknoweldges that the film is "antagonistic," but says that it's "merely documenting the thoughtlessness and poor decisions of the people involved… in a real-life incident." While the ending drops the ball a little, exposing the film "to criticism that its prurient or exploitative," for the most part it's "an almost endlessly fascinating study of human behavior." Read Todd's review right here.
Our Grade: B+
When? March 12th and 13th at the Stateside Theater, March 15th at the Violet Crown.
Synopsis: A trio of Dublin teens break into a posh house in the city, leading to a night that they'll never forget.
Our Verdict: The third feature from Jim Sheridan's daughter Kirsten ("Disco Pigs," "August Rush"), Jessica Kiang was won over in Berlin by "as accurate a portrait of the interactions, language and attitudes of a particular segment of Irish youth as we have seen on screen, probably ever." The characters go through "phases of chemical highs and emotional lows," whch does tire on the viewer eventually, particularly with a botched ending, but ultimately Jess found "much more here to admire than critique," particuarly in the young cast who approach the film "with absolute conviction." Catch up on her full review here.
Our Grade: B+
When? Sat 10th at the Alamo Lamar, March 12th at the Violet Crown, March 13th at Alamo Ritz, and March 17th at the Stateside.
Synopsis: Documentary about a family whose youngest son disappeared, only for a Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin to claim, three years later, to be their missing child.
Our Verdict: Few documentaries made such a splash out of Park City as "The Imposter," the feature debut of British reality TV veteran Bart Layton. Telling an incredible story in a style not unlike "Man On Wire," the film "utilizes reenactments and first-person interview footage to create a vivid account of a story whose actual details seem impossible to parse out" according to Todd Gilchrist, who saw the film for us at Sundance. An even-handed, twisty tale in which Layton "does a spectacular job," it's "a great commentary on the subjectivity of any event," even if the film might leave a few too many loose ends dangling. Read the full review here.
When? Sat 10th and Thurs 15th at the Alamo Lamar, Tuesday 13th at the Paramount and Wednesday 14th at the Alamo Slaughter.
Synopsis: A 15-year-old Mormon girl believes herself to have immaculately conceived after listening to a rock-and-roll tape.
Our Verdict: The debut of writer/director Rebecca Thomas, we weren't expecting much from "Electrick Children" when it opened the Generation section of the Berlinale, but for our correspondent there, Jessica Kiang, it turned out to be a nifty little surprise. Featuring an excellent lead performance from "next next big thing" Julia Garner, and with top support from former child stars Rory Culkin and Liam Aiken, the film features "enjoyably fish-out-of-water scenarios that steer just clear of twee." It takes a dive in the third act, which is "too pat, and feels too written and directed," but the performance are certainly to be savored. Read Jess' review here.
Our Grade: B
When? Fri 9th and Tues 13th at the Stateside Theatre, March 10th and 15th at the Violet Crown.
Synopsis: A gangster (Jason Patric) explores a house haunted by memories of his past.
Our Verdict: Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is always a tough nut to crack, but according to James Rocchi, who saw his latest in Toronto last year, he might have gone too far this time around: the film is "a crowded smorgasbord of genre picture tropes and haunted house tricks that leaves your eyes and brain distended with both far too much to absorb and far too little to sustain." It's an undeniably "beautiful and bizarre" film, but also "locked and puzzling," and for the first time, James "got a sense of a filmmaker who's lost sight of how to take his audience along with him." Read his full TIFF review here.
Our Grade: D+
When? March 11th at the Alamo Lamar, Wed 14th at the Stateside and March 17th at the Alamo Village.
Synopsis: A young man, his father and his troubled sister put a hit out on their monstrous mother in order to collect on her life insurance, only for the hitman, an ex-cop, to complicate things.
Our Verdict: Austin, Texas is more or less a perfect place for William Friedkin's adaptation of Tracy Letts' play, which stars Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon to unspool, but it played pretty well when I caught it in Venice last year. The film is a real return to form for Friedkin, "a nasty, grimy, ultra-violent piece of work" (it earned an NC-17 from the MPAA), which also manages to be "furiously entertaining." Highlights are a "spectacularly good" Juno Temple and a revelatory McConaughey, who displays "a focus, a stillness that we've never seen before." Read that Venice review here.
Our Grade: B+
When? Saturday 10th at the Paramount, before a limited release later in the year.
Synopsis: Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") takes an epic documentary look at the life, career and music of legendary reggae artist Bob Marley.
Our Verdict: Probably the biggest-ticket music documentary of the year, the film, originally intended to be directed by Jonathan Demme, finally bowed at Berlin last month. Jessica Kiang was there for us, and found the two-and-a-half run time a little much, saying that "the film's exhaustive approach at some point becomes simply exhausting." There are brilliant moments; the first third "which details Bob's childhood and tracks him right up to the birth of the reggae sound, is pretty terrific," for instance. But disappointingly, Macdonald is too enamored of his subject, and his "instincts for drama seemed dulled here by reverence." Read more from our review here.
Our Grade: B-
When? Sun 11th and Fri 16th at the Paramount, Mon 12th at the Alamo Slaughter, and Wed 14th at the Alamo Village. Hits theaters and VoD on April 20th.
“The Raid: Redemption”
Synopsis: A special forces team try to take down a feared drug lord from inside an apartment block, but have to fight their way out of a building full of vicious killers.
Our Verdict: Arriving with killer buzz from TIFF and Fantastic Fest, "The Raid" was a midnight favorite at Sundance, and by all accounts, including Todd Gilchrist's, one of the best action movies in years, with the non-stop fight scenes having "a momentum and energy that's undeniably palpable," with "some of the most invigorating, tableau-like storytelling in recent memory." While action dominates cinema screens, the Indonesian film from Welsh director Gareth Huw Evans is "the sort of film to which most b-movies aspire." Read Todd's review here.
Our Grade; A
When? Sun 11th at the Paramount before it's released in theaters on March 23rd.
“Safety Not Guaranteed”
Synopsis: A couple of newspaper reporters are sent to investigate a classified ad placed by a man who is recruiting companions for a trip back in time.
Our Verdict: This quirky comedy, which stars Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation"), Jake Johnson ("The New Girl") and Mark Duplass ("The Puffy Chair") was one of the big crowd-pleasers at Sundance this year. Our man Todd Gilchrist wasn't among the raves, but found a lot to enjoy, particularly in the winning trio of central performances, with Plaza "refreshing," Duplass "focused and sincere" and especially Johnson and his "miraculous comedic timing." He found the film a little familiar, but also wrote that it was "more grounded, genuine and moving than its conceit suggests." Read the original review here.
Our Grade: B-
When? Sat 10th at The Paramount, then Tues 13th at the Alamo Slaughter. Goes on release on June 8th.
“Searching For Sugar Man”
Synopsis: A documentary from filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul about '70s Detroit folk-pop artist Rodriguez, who reportedly killed himself on stage, and the two South African fans who tried to get to the bottom of the life of their mysterious hero.
Our Verdict: Firmly under the radar before Sundance kicked off, "Searching For Sugar Man" was one of the pleasant surprises in Park City, and this year's entry in the "documentary to remind white people of all the great music in the world they don't know about," according to Todd Gilchrist's review for us. The film serves both as a reminder of Rodriguez's music, which survives "as much for its social consciousness as its remarkable melodic complexity," but also a portrait of "a person who felt a need to explore himself creatively, had the talent to do so, and then possessed the grace to deal with his failure in a simple, pragmatic way." Read that original review here.
Our Grade: A-
When: Wed 14th at the Paramount Theater. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film later in the year.
“Shut Up And Play The Hits”
Synopsis: Concert doc focusing on the Madison Square Garden farewell show of James Murphy's dance-punk band LCD Soundsystem.
Our Verdict: We're big fans of James Murphy's band, and as such this film was one of our most anticipated of Sundance this year. Fortunately, according to our correspondent William Goss, it didn't disappoint, with his review suggesting it lives up to the quote that opens the film: "If it's a funeral, let's have the best funeral ever." Skillfully directed by filmmakers Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern, who nail the "alchemy of fleeting bliss" of the gig, it's "less of a documentary and more of a document," but it should appeal even to those unfamiliar with the band. It's fans who'll be in ecstasy, though. Read the original review here.
Our Grade: A-
When? Wed 14th and Fri 16th at the Vimeo Theater, Thur 15th at the Stateside.