A couple of months on from Sundance, and a few weeks after Berlin wrapped up, and we’re about to hit the third major movie event of the year, as the SXSW Film Festival gets underway on Friday. The festival has grown in importance, giving a certain kind of indie picture (and studio flick) a boost as spring gets underway, and the last few years have seen “Undefeated,” “Monsters,” “Bridesmaids,” “21 Jump Street,” “Weekend” and “Cabin In The Woods” among those buoyed by SXSW audiences.
On the surface, the 2013 line-up doesn’t seem to be as strong as in previous years: there are fewer big high-profile premieres, and more leftovers from Sundance and other festivals. But dig a little, and you’ll find plenty that should make the trip to Austin more than worth it. And isn’t discovering a hidden gem or two what a film festival is all about? Check out our ten picks below, and let us know what you’re looking forward to.
Synopsis: Five friends head to a remote cabin in the woods and find a spooky book that unleashes all kinds of evil on them.
What You Need To Know: Another SXSW, another spooky cabin in the woods. The runaway hit of last year’s festival was Drew Goddard‘s meta-horror “The Cabin In The Woods,” but this year, the irony quotes are being removed, with the remake of Sam Raimi‘s “Evil Dead” getting its world premiere at the festival. While some have been wary about this one, the “Evil Dead” remake has smacked of confidence from the get-go. Raimi and Bruce Campbell are producing, so have presumably signed off on things, Diablo Cody helped rewrite the script, and the posters proclaim that it’s “the most terrifying film you will ever experience.” We don’t know about that, but trailers suggest that first-time director Fede Alvarez has gone back to the intense feeling of the first film, really putting his cast (toplined by excellent “Suburgatory” star Jane Levy) through the wringer, with an emphasis on practical effects over CGI. Everyone’s been talking the right talk on the film, and it does look unusually promising for a horror remake, but we’ll see if walks the walk at SXSW.
When: Friday March 8th at the Paramount. Opens in wide release on April 5th.
Synopsis: Two friends, Kate and Luke, work together in a craft brewery. Their relationship has been platonic, and they’re with other people, but just as Luke’s girlfriend starts to demand a commitment, sparks begin to fly.
What You Need To Know: The prolific, sometimes infuriating figurehead of the mumblecore movement, Joe Swanberg is a talented and important filmmaker, but his output in recent years has taken the quantity-over-quality approach, the films increasingly becoming self-involved, and looking like excuses for the actor/writer/director to make out with topless actresses. His last few films have made little impact, but his contribution to horror anthology “V/H/S” marked a move towards the mainstream, one that seems to continue with “Drinking Buddies,” which sees him work with big-name actors for the first time. Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson take the lead roles, with Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick in support (and Swanberg nowhere to be seen on the cast list). Everyone involved is talented, and it’ll be interesting to see how they adapt to the Swanberg style. Will this do for him what “Cyrus” did for the Duplass Brothers? Or is the same old thing with more recognizable faces involved? We’ll find out in a few days.
When: Saturday March 9th at the Paramount, with further screenings on Sunday 10th at the Alamo Village, Wed 13th at the Topfer Theatre, and Sat 16th at the Rollins Theatre.
Synopsis: Lisa and her family were killed in 1985, but Lisa has only just realized that she’s a ghost. When a new girl moves into their home, she must protect them from the spirit of a serial killer.
What You Need To Know: Vincenzo Natali is one of those talented genre filmmakers whose work, starting with debut “Cube,” has been consistently interesting without ever quite taking him to the next level. Four years on from his gleefully perverse, underrated “Splice,” Natali’s back with “Haunter,” an intriguing spin on the haunted house tale that sounds like a straight-faced take on “Beetlejuice,” with “Little Miss Sunshine” star Abigail Breslin in the lead and veteran character actor Stephen McHattie as the villain, the Pale Man. It’s a neat conceit, and one with serious crossover potential if it works. Recent festivals have seen horror hits like “Insidious” and “Sinister” get big boosts — could we see the same happen with this?
When: A midnight screening on Saturday March 9th at the Alamo Ritz, followed by screenings at the Violet Crown on Sunday 10th, and the Alamo Ritz again on Wednesday 13th.
“Short Term 12”
Synopsis: Grace, a twentysomething supervisor at a foster-care facility, is forced to confront her own past when she forms a bond with a troubled new arrival.
What You Need To Know: Everytime we think we have Brie Larson figured out, she turns around and surprises us. The former popster and Disney Channel star first turned up on our radar in “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” she’s continued to impress over the last few years in “Rampart” and “21 Jump Street” among others, and she now gets her first proper lead role in “Short Term 12.” The second feature from “I Am Not A Hipster” director Destin Daniel Cretton, and an expansion of his short film of the same name, the film already has a degree of acclaim attached to it: the short won the Jury Prize at Sundance in 2009 ,and the feature script took a prestigious Nicholl prize. Larson has what seems to be a pretty meaty part, she’s got solid support from John Gallagher Jr (“The Newsroom“), Rami Malek (“The Master“) and Melora Walters (“Magnolia“), and we’ve heard some seriously great buzz about not just her performance, but also the film in general. Definitely one to keep an eye on.
When: Sunday March 10th at the Alamo Ritz, with extra screenings on Monday 11th at the Violet Crown, and Thursday 14th at the Topfer Theatre.
Synopsis: A man learns that his long-running stomach problems are caused by a demon baby living in his colon.
What You Need To Know: What, you need to know more than that one sentence log-line? What part of “demon baby living in his colon” doesn’t sound appealling? Well, if you need more to convince you, “Milo” marks a new film from Jacob Vaughan, who’s spent the decade since his acclaimed debut “Dear Pillow” doing editing work on films like “In Search Of A Midnight Kiss,” “Jeff Who Lives At Home” and “Black Rock,” with sometime collaborators the Duplass Brothers executive producing. This one marks something of a change of pace, being a horror-comedy toplining ex-“The State” member Ken Marino, and with the welcome faces of “Community” star Gillian Jacobs, Peter Stormare, Patrick Warburton, Mary Kay Place and Stephen Root also featuring. The genre’s notoriously tricky to get right (as Marino’s old colleagues Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant discovered at Sundance with “Hell Baby“), but the premise is so bonkers, and the cast so full of ringers, that we’re certainly prepared to find out if Vaughan can deliver.
When: Sunday March 10th at the Alamo Ritz, also screening at the Alamo Slaughter on Monday 11th, the Paramount on Thursday 14th and the Topfer on Fri 15th.
“Loves Her Gun”
Synopsis: After being attacked in the street, a woman moves from New York to Austin to feel safer, and gets involved in Texas gun culture.
What You Need To Know: As far as hot-button issues right now, guns and gun control are about as topical as it gets. After all the tragic incidents of the last twelve months, and political pledges to get guns under control, it’s likely to dominate headlines for some time to come, which makes the premiere of “Loves Her Gun” well-timed. The second feature from director Geoff Marslett (making a sharp about-turn from his previous effort, the animated “Mars,” which screened at the festival in 2010), it promises to dig into the allure and the danger of guns in a way that could well end up catching the zeitgeist. And it features what buzz suggests is an impressive turn from lead Trieste Kelly Dunn, who turned heads a few years back in the excellent “Cold Weather.” It’s under the radar, for sure, but the teaser trailer (watch here) has enough to make us keep an eye on this one over the next couple of weeks.
When: Sat March 9th at the Violet Crown, further screenings at the Topfer on Monday 11th and Friday 15th, and the Alamo Village on Tuesday 12th.
“Kelly & Victor”
Synopsis: A young couple meet in a Liverpool nightclub, and soon embark on an affair, one that has potentially dark consequences.
What You Need To Know: “Kelly & Victor” picked up a lot of buzz on the festival circuit last year, and gets its U.S. premiere at SXSW, which could see it follow in the footsteps of earlier British-made festival hits like “Weekend” and “Attack The Block.” The feature debut of music video veteran Kieran Evans –who’s worked on videos for the likes of Saint Etienne, Kylie Minogue and Doves and helmed the music doc “Vashti Bunyan: From Here To Before” — it toplines rising stars Antonia Campbell-Hughes (“Bright Star“) and Julian Morris (“24,” “Once Upon A Time“) as the central couple. Packed with some fairly graphic sex scenes, and a soundtrack curated by legendary indie label Domino Records, including cuts from Wild Beasts and King Creosote among others, from most of what we’ve heard, this could be one of the hidden gems of the festival.
When: Saturday March 9th and Thursday March 14th at the Violet Crown, plus Tuesday 12th at the Stateside.
Synopsis: Two estranged best friends are on a road trip together when their truck breaks down, leading them to fight not only each other, but for their survival too.
What You Need To Know: He’s had a slightly rough ride so far — his acclaimed Black Listed script “The Beaver” was virtually buried after star Mel Gibson was disgraced, while his excellent TV series “Awake” and “Lone Star” were both swiftly cancelled — but we still reckon Kyle Kinnen is one of the more interesting and distinctive writers out there. Which is why “Scenic Route” grabbed our attention. On its own, the idea of a version of Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” starring “Transformers” actor Josh Duhamel and Jack Black substitute Dan Fogler isn’t a wildly appealing one, but with Killen (who has something of a homecoming here, as an Austin native) scripting, this could be more interesting than it looks on paper. And the visuals may be distinctive as well, thanks to commercials veterans the Goetz Brothers making their feature debuts here. It’s a bit of a flip of a coin, but maybe this could show us Duhamel and Fogler in a whole new light?
When: Friday March 8th and March 15th at the Topfer Theatre, then Saturday 9th at the Alamo Slaughter, and Tuesday 12th at the Alamo Village.
Synopsis: An aimless young man decides to climb Mount Kilimanjaro after his girlfriend leaves him.
What You Need To Know: The excellent Brian Geraghty didn’t quite get the boost off “The Hurt Locker” that his co-stars Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie did. He’s popped up here and there (“Flight,” the terrible “ATM,”), but either hasn’t been taking, or hasn’t been offered, the same big-money roles as his two former colleagues. But things are looking up: Geraghty just joined the cast of “Boardwalk Empire,” and the next week sees him headlining a promising-sounding indie at SXSW. While it could be seen as not a world away from its competition, the title and premise at least suggest some ambition beyond another movie about an aimless slacker. And the cast that first-time writer and director Walter Strafford has assembled is a good one, with Geraghty joined by Alexia Rasmussen (“Tanner Hall“), Abigail Spencer (“Mad Men“), Bruce Altman, Jim Gaffigan and Diego Klattenhoff (“Homeland“). Hopefully the film is the showcase that Geraghty’s been deserving of for the last few years.
When? Saturday March 9th at the Stateside, then Sunday March 10th at the Alamo Slaughter, and Tuesday 12th at the Alamo Ritz.
Synopsis: On the eve of his wedding, a writer travels the country to make amends to past lovers.
What You Need To Know: For all the cinematic crimes that Neil LaBute has been responsible for (“Lakeview Terrace,” “The Wicker Man“), he can still be an incisive writer, on stage and screen, when it come to the politics and power balance between men and women, as demonstrated by earlier work like “In The Company Of Men” and “Your Friends And Neighbors.” Which is why it’s promising that this film version of one of his better plays is on the way, and it tackles the kind of subject matter he made his name on. Directed not by LaBute, but by Daisy von Scherler Mayer (who was behind “Party Girl” and “Madeline,” but more recently has been working on TV shows like “Mad Men“), this sees the charismatic, still somewhat underused Adam Brody take over a role played on stage by Eric McCormack and David Schwimmer, with Emily Watson, Jennifer Morrison, Mia Maestro, Zoe Kazan and Kristen Bell making up those he’s visiting along the way. Whether von Scherler Mayer is able to make the source material cinematic is the big question (though the country-hopping structure should help), but the play and cast are strong enough that this can’t really be a disaster, and could well turn out as one of the better films of the festival.
When: March 9th at the Topfer Theater, followed by Monday 11th and Tues 12th at the Alamo Village, and Friday 15th at the Stateside Theatre.
Honorable Mentions: We’re not quite convinced by the festival’s big opener, the Steve Carell and Jim Carrey led comedy “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” but hopefully the cast and festival slot indicate that it’s better than the average comedy. Also catching our attention: Michelle Monaghan and Radha Mitchell in drama “Gus“; horror “Plus One” from “Last House on the Left” director Dennis Illiadis; lo-fi comedy “The Bounceback“; “Burma” which stars Christopher Abbott from “Girls“; the Civil War-set “The Retrieval“; John Sayles‘ latest film “Go For Sisters“; “Good Night” starring the omnipresent Alex Karpovsky“; Hurricane Katrina drama “Hours” with Paul Walker and “The Wait” with Jena Malone and Chloe Sevigny.
Among the documentaries that caught our eye were “Hawking” about the genius scientist; “Downloaded,” from “Bill & Ted” star Alex Winter about Napster and the music industry; “Milius” about renegade filmmaker John Milius; “The Imposter“-goes-hip-hop premise of “The Great Hip Hop Hoax” and “The Punk Singer” about riot grrrl icon Kathleen Hanna.
Plus there are the films that have already screened elsewhere, including Zal Batmanglij‘s “The East,” Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” Northern Irish music biopic “Good Vibrations,” UK rom-com “I Give It A Year,” Joss Whedon‘s take on “Much Ado About Nothing,” Nick Cassavettes‘ “Yellow,” horror anthology sequel “V/H/S 2” and much buzzed-about slasher flick “You’re Next.” If you’re off to Austin, have a great time, and let us know what you’re looking forward to.