If it’s March, and you suddenly find film Twitter clogged with mentions of low-budget, offbeat cannibal horror films and throw-downs over the best barbecue rub recipes, it can only signal one thing: the imminent arrival of the SXSW Film Festival. The Austin-based multi-platform event (which incorporates both an interactive and music festival too) gets bigger year-on-year, but has made it a point of pride to remain involved in developing and promoting new and emerging indie talent and championing off-the-wall, midnight madness-style genre flicks, while also becoming the somewhat unlikely testing ground for big studio comedies. All those impulses are in full force this year, and so in advance of packing our intrepid reporters off Texas-ward on Friday, we took a look into the program and came up with the 20 titles we’re most excited about.
Synopsis: A pair of twentysomethings who have known each other since childhood and been romantically involved for six years find their relationship tested by career concerns and outside temptations.
What You Need to Know: Director Hannah Fidell was marked out as a rising star following her 2011 short film “The Gathering Squall,” based on a Joyce Carol Oates story, and her 2013 debut feature, “A Teacher.” Both those films showed Fidell’s interest in the minutiae of young people navigating early relationships, and “6 Years” is clearly in the same vein, starring SXSW 2015 mascot and “American Horror Story” star Taissa Farmiga (who appears elsewhere on this list too) and “Boardwalk Empire“‘s Ben Rosenfield as the central couple, with “A Teacher” star Lindsay Burdge returning in support. With a Narrative Competition berth here, and a fair bit of buzz behind her, this could be a breakout moment for Fidell.
“7 Chinese Brothers”
Synopsis: An alcoholic sad-sack lands a job at a Quik Lube and falls for his boss, but will he be able to pull himself together enough to win her, while also dealing with his loyal doggy, his lazy best friend, and his cantankerous grandmother?
What You Need to Know: Director Bob Byington‘s last feature, “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” not only pleasantly surprised our reviewer, it also won the Audience Award in Locarno, so Byington’s return would have our curiosity piqued even without such a strong cast. But add in support from rising star Tunde Adebimpe, along with Eleanore Pienta, Stephen Root, and Olympia Dukakis, all revolving around a central Jason Schwartzman turn that sees him appear in every scene, often alongside, as the program tells us, his real-life French Bulldog Arrow? With Schwartzman on a bit of a roll of late, and our notorious soft spot for dogs, we’re definitely looking forward to this one.
Synopsis: Struggling with memory loss following a bout of demonic possession, Ava is in recovery in group therapy and hopeful of reconnecting with her friends and family, but there’s a bloodstain in her apartment and she is plagued by nightmarish visions of the demon’s return.
What You Need to Know: Composer, musician, and now three-time feature director Jordan Galland (“Alter Egos,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead“) has assembled a stellar indie cast for this blackly comic horror/thriller which plays in the Visions section of SXSW, dedicated to “audacious, risk-taking artists in the new cinema landscape.” Starring Louisa Krause, Whitney Able, Deborah Rush, William Sadler, Zachary Booth, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Carol Kane, Dan Fogler, Jemima Kirke, and Lou Taylor Pucci, and featuring music by Sean Lennon, “Ava’s Possessions” could just be the kind of funny/scary/self-aware treat that the SXSW audience craves — certainly the teaser gives a good idea of its arch, none-too-serious tone.
Synopsis: In the summer of 1989, 9-year-old Ted lives with his father in a crumbling hotel in the American West, and the boy’s darker impulses are further unleashed with the arrival of a mysterious drifter.
What You Need To Know: Quietly, Elijah Wood’s been turning into something of a movie magnate: his Spectrevision company was behind genre-tinged fare like “Cooties” and, best of all, “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” one of the best films of last year. The former Hobbit’s latest producing credit comes with this dark-sounding coming-of-age tale, the feature debut of writer-director Craig Macneill, who’s had a couple of shorts at Sundance, and written by Macneill and Clay McLeod Chapman. Newcomer Jared Breeze has the lead role, while David Morse and Rainn Wilson play his father and the drifter (both are exec producers too). It’s unclear at this point whether it’s a pure genre picture or something that’s more of a hybrid, but either way, we’re intrigued.
“The Final Girls“
Synopsis: A young woman grieving the loss of her mother, who was an ’80s scream queen, finds herself transported, along with her friends, into the world of one of her mother’s old films. Reunited with her mother inside the movie, she has to use all her ingenuity to escape horny camp counselors and machete-wielding maniac killers alike.
What You Need to Know: “A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas” is probably director Todd Strauss-Schulson‘s best-known credit to date, but here he returns with jokey, meta, genre homage that could have been created in a test tube as the perfect SXSW film. Playing in the narrative competition and starring a very appealing cast in Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman, Adam DeVine, Thomas Middleditch, Alia Shawkat, Alexander Ludwig, Nina Dobrev, Angela Trimbur, Tory N. Thompson, and Chloe Bridges, we’re hopeful of a smartass, witty, and insightful deconstruction of the horror genre along the “Scream” lines, and are confident of a few good insider ’80s horror gags even if it falls short of that watermark.
Synopsis: A woman out of rehab accidentally kills a guest at the hotel where she works as a maid, and enlists her sister and co-worker to help her cover it up.
What You Need To Know: Jamie Babbitt’s debut feature, “But I’m A Cheerleader,” has become something of a cult classic over the last decade or so, but the writer-director’s struggled to satisfyingly follow it up on the big screen. She’s been a prolific small-screen helmer, though, and with recent credits including “Girls,” “Married,” and “Looking,” looks poised for a cinematic comeback with “Fresno,” which reunites her with ‘Cheerleader’ star Natasha Lyonne (who’s herself found small-screen success with “Orange Is The New Black”), who takes the lead role alongside the always-welcome Judy Greer. The premise sounds like a pleasing return to the dark comedy of her debut, and a strong cast has been assembled, with comedy stars like Malcolm Barrett, Jessica St. Clair, Fred Armisen, Molly Shannon, Ron Livingston, Allison Tolman, and Aubrey Plaza all turning up.
Synopsis: Two young men travel to meet the online girlfriend of one, a beautiful, reclusive animal rights activist.
What You Need To Know: Writer-director Alison Bagnall made a minor splash at SXSW three years ago with Greta Gerwig-starring indie “The Dish & The Spoon,” and three years on is back with a follow-up that looks to build on her success. Her latest, an oddball love triangle, reunites her with “Dish & The Spoon” star Olly Alexander (a British actor now perhaps best known as the frontman of chart-topping indie band Years & Years), along with indie-scene stalwarts Kentucker Audley and Josephine Decker, and the excellent Joslyn Jensen, who shone in “Without” a few years back. Little is known about the film otherwise, but Bagnall is talented, and the cast is intriguing: could we be about to see her have her crossover breakout?
Synopsis: An isolated 60-year-old woman, spurred by a self-help class, pursues a romantic relationship with a much younger man and finds herself unexpectedly the toast of the Brooklyn hipster scene.
What You Need to Know: Ok, we’ll admit we’re actually 60% terrified by the sound of this film, and not only because the logline makes it sound dangerously close to the granny-on-a-motorbike subgenre of wacky-old-people-acting-young, but also because writer/director Michael Showalter‘s last script, the would-be rom-com-skewering “They Came Together,” was such a disappointment. Then again, he did also co-write “Wet Hot American Summer,” and if anyone deserves a bite of the late-career resurgence, it’s probably this film’s star, Sally Field. She’s backed up by a strong supporting cast, including “New Girl“‘s Max Greenfield, Beth Behrs, Wendi Mclendon-Covey, Stephen Root, Elizabeth Reaser, Jack Antonoff, Natasha Lyonne, and Tyne Daly, so we’re crossing our fingers.
Synopsis: A man starts to believe his ex-wife, who left him when a tragedy befell their son, may have sinister intentions when she brings him back into her new life via a dinner party with her new husband in the house they once shared.
What You Need To Know: Director Karyn Kusama has not exactly had a smooth time of it since her powerful debut “Girlfight,” with her potential step-up to the big leagues, “Aeon Flux,” falling flat and eventual follow-up, “Jennifer’s Body,” not exactly setting the world on fire either. But this psychological thriller, which stars Tammy Blanchard and Logan Marshall-Green, is in a lower key both genre-wise and profile-wise than either of those last two titles, which may suit Kusama, and “Aeon Flux” writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, better, and hopefully at the very least has the potential to be one of the classier chillers in the genre-skewing Midnighters section.
Synopsis: After the end of his marriage and the death of his father, David Lamb befriends an eleven-year-old girl, and the two of them take a road trip to the Rockies together.
What You Need To Know: It wouldn’t be SXSW without the name Duplass cropping up a few times, and one collaborator debuting a feature this year is Ross Partridge, who appeared as an actor in “The Freebie” and “Baghead,” and co-produced “The Do-Deca Pentathlon.” 15 years after his little-seen feature debut “Interstate 84,” he’s back in the director’s chair, as well as taking the lead role, for this adaptation of an acclaimed novel by Bonnie Nadzam. It sounds much (much) darker than the sort of thing you usually get from a Duplass pal, which makes it all the more intriguing, and Partridge’s got a strong supporting cast involved, including Jess Weixler, Joel Murray, and, returning to his indie roots, Scoot McNairy.
“Manson Family Vacation“
Synopsis: A pair of estranged brothers, one of whom is a successful, loving family man, the other a drifter with an unhealthy obsession with the Charles Manson, go on a road trip tour of the Manson Family murder sites.
What You Need to Know: Speaking of Duplasses, this is the directorial debut of editor J. Davis, but this comic thriller boasts the Duplass brothers as executive producers and stars Jay Duplass (as, perhaps surprisingly, the non-fuck-up brother) and Linas Phillips, who also appears in another SXSW title in “Uncle Kent 2” (see below), which is based on a Joe Swanberg movie. With that sort of provenance it might be tempting to simply assume this will be another mumblecore meander, but the offbeat premise, and our abiding love for Duplass as an actor since the wonderful “Transparent,” means we’ve higher hopes than that for this Narrative Competition title.
Synopsis: A CIA agent and a rock manager team up to help Stanley Kubrick fake the moon landings.
What You Need To Know: Unlike co-stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, Rupert Grint has struggled slightly to escape the shadow of Ron Weasley, with few of his post-Potter pics making much of an impression. “Moonwalkers,” at least, should be more memorable, if only for its bonkers logline, and the chance to see Grint paired in one of the unlikelier buddy team-ups imaginable with Ron Perlman (“Misfits” star Robert Sheehan also stars). “Death At A Funeral” writer Dean Craig penned the script, acclaimed commercials helmer Antoine Bardou-Jacquet (who was behind the famous Rube Goldberg-ish Honda ad) makes his feature debut, and it’ll either be complete rubbish, or totally amazing.
“Raiders!”/”Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation”
Synopsis: Kind of a real-life “Son of Rambow,” the documentary “Raiders!” tells the story of three men who made a fan version of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as teenagers, as they reunite in adulthood to finish their magnum opus. The film itself, “Raiders of the Lost Ark: the Adaptation,” often described as the greatest fan film ever made, will also screen.
What You Need to Know: The documentary is co-directed by first-timer Jeremy Coon, producer of “Napoleon Dynamite,” and director Tim Skousen, who previously made feature doc “Zero Percent.” And it stars the now-grown men behind the fan film, Eric Zala (director), Jayson Lamb (Cinematographer), and Chris Strompolos (Producer), as they meet again in their 30s to build a replica plane and blow it up in order to complete the film’s final scene, with contributions from the likes of Harry Knowles and Eli Roth. It’s kind of irresistible.
Synopsis: After her colleagues are exposed, a CIA analyst is forced to go into the field.
What You Need To Know: The film has a little less competition now that rival Sacha Baron Cohen spy-com “Grimsby” has been delayed into 2016, but in a year full of espionage flicks, from “Kingsman” to “Spectre,” “Spy” needs a reason to stand out from the pack. As the latest female-driven comedy from Paul Feig, whose “Bridesmaids” was a smash in Austin four years ago, and who’s about to go off and make the “Ghostbusters” reboot, the film should have that, and a SXSW premiere will surely help give it a boost ahead of the film’s May release. Toplining Melissa McCarthy, but with a more low-key persona that could win over those who’ve grown fatigued of “The Heat” star, the movie, like “Trainwreck” (below), has an intriguing supporting cast, with comedic ringers like Allison Janney and Rose Byrne rubbing shoulders with unlikelier faces like Jude Law and Jason Statham. Can Feig and McCarthy go three-for-three?
“Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine“
Synopsis: Documentary investigating the life and legacy and critiquing the mythos of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, told through interviews with those close to him at various stages of his life.
What You Need to Know: We’re not wholly sure if Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney‘s prodigious recent work rate has always been for the best as regards the quality of his films, but even his lesser entries are seldom less than fascinating, and here he has again taken on a timely and controversial subject. After knocking against the church of Scientology with his Sundance title “Going Clear” earlier this year, Gibney takes on a much more widely held sacred cow in Steve Jobs, whose iconic status as a visionary certainly merits closer examination. With Danny Boyle’s Michael Fassbender-starring narrative feature on Jobs due to land in the fall, it will be interesting to see what Gibney brings to light here.
Synopsis: In two narrative strands unfolding in the same neighborhood, a maintenance man dreams of turning his 1000lb pig into the Washington Redskins’ mascot, but when the pig starts to pick up some publicity, unforeseen events occur; while elsewhere, two single fathers and best friends have their day off changed when they’re suddenly given a dog.
What You Need to Know: A wholly homegrown and wholly first-timer affair, newcomers Joe Frank and Zachary Reed are co-writers, co directors, and co-producers on this debut feature, which stars a cast of unknowns and is photographed and edited by Frank too. Borne of a desire from the longtime friends to start a series of films that shows their neighborhood in a more positive light, it has a little heat behind it, sounds like an endearingly offbeat but authentic story, and while we love festivals for providing new showcase outlets for rising filmmakers, we also love the idea of the completely new discoveries who arrive seemingly from out of nowhere. Frank and Reed just might fit that bill.
Synopsis: A life-long commitmentphobe is forced to reevaluate her approach to love and sex after meeting a charming sports doctor.
What You Need To Know: The quote-unquote work-in-progress, big comedy preview has become something of a SXSW tradition in recent years: summer movies like “Bridesmaids” and “Neighbors” got their first airings in Austin in not-quite-but-essentially done form. This year, that box is ticked by Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer‘s eagerly-anticipated “Trainwreck.” Penned by and starring the fast-rising stand-up and Comedy Central sketch comedy actress, and directed by the comedy titan, it promises to be a foul-mouthed inversion of the romantic comedy. Schumer’s reliably awesome, and with Apatow, they’ve assembled the most amazingly eclectic and eclectically amazing cast of 2015, with Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Tilda Swinton, LeBron James, Ezra Miller, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Daniel Radcliffe, Norman Lloyd, and many others all involved. Could the talk of this year’s festival turn out to be a movie that’s only a special presentation?
“Uncle Kent 2″
Synopsis: This deliberately un-synopsizable venture is less a sequel than an surrealist investigation into the nature of sequels, as Kent Osborne, star of Joe Swanberg‘s “Uncle Kent,” journeys to San Diego Comic-Con to attempt to put together “Uncle Kent 2,” but comes face to face with his own crumbling sanity instead.
What You Need to Know: Already starting out on the ludicrous premise that we live in a universe in which a film like the no-budget, hyper-indie “Uncle Kent” might ever warrant a sequel, writer/star Kent Osborne claims to take a “Gremlins 2” approach in using the first film as a springboard to explore the nature of sequels, yet in a firmly oddball, mumblecore environment. Directed by Todd Rohal, himself no slouch in the wtf no-budget indie world (“The Catechism Cataclysm,” “Nature Calls“) and co-starring “Uncle Kent”‘s Swanberg, Jennifer Prediger, and Tipper Newton, this may be hopelessly self-indulgent or a total blast but it’s guaranteed to be unlike anything else in this year’s lineup.
“We Are Still Here“
Synopsis: Attempting a fresh start in New England following the death of their teenage son, a couple discover that their new town hides a dark secret: their new house “awakens” once every 30 years to demand a sacrifice.
What You Need to Know: The directorial debut of horror writer and producer Ted Geoghegan, this sounds like a classic haunted house horror, which may lack a little in the originality of its premise, but potentially makes up for it with the straight-facedness of its execution, making it a potential antidote to some of the jokier and more tongue-in cheek genre offerings in the SXSW lineup. Starring “Re-Animator” cult star Barbara Crampton, along with Andrew Sensenig, Larry Fesseden, Lisa Marie, and Monte Markham, even the trailer looks like a good, old-fashioned, unreconstructed horror film, complete with creepy townsfolk, squawky soundtrack, and what looks like a fair lashing of gore.
Synopsis: A female Texas Ranger doggedly reopens a 15-year-old missing persons investigation that she believes may in fact be a murder case. Convinced the crime was committed on a ranch belonging to a wealthy landowner, she pursues a dangerous line of inquiry, at the same time as the ranch owner’s estranged son returns unexpectedly.
What You Need to Know: Every decade since the ’70s, revered veteran actor Robert Duvall has directed a single film. And in the 2010s, it looks like that slot will go to “Wild Horses,” after 2002’s slow, tepidly received “Assassination Tango,” and 1997’s terrific “The Apostle.” A modern-day crime story with a Western-ish backdrop, it stars Duvall himself, alongside James Franco, Josh Hartnett, Adriana Barraza, and Luciana Duvall and promises to be a rich character drama in amongst so much flashier genre fare. It is also, as far as we know, Franco’s only film in this festival, which is in itself remarkable.
Reissues, Special Presentations & TV events
There are a couple of special presentations we’ll be keeping an eye out for too, notably the remastered 30th anniversary print of John Hughes‘ perennial teen favorite, “The Breakfast Club,” along with the restoration of curio, “Human Highway,” which was co-directed by Neil Young and Dean Stockwell back in 1982, as well as a screening of “The Road Warrior” followed by a talk by George Miller, because why do you need any more reasons than that?
As ever, SXSW is showcasing some interesting properties for the small screen as well, in particular TBS‘ spoof police procedural “Angie Tribeca,” co-created and directed by Steve Carell and starring Rashida Jones, Hayes MacArthur and Alfred Molina; “The Comedians,” a meta mockumentary directed by Larry Charles, which stars Billy Crystal and Josh Gad as mismatched comedians attempting to mount a TV show; “UnREAL,” created by ‘Buffy,‘ “Mad Men,” and “Glee” powerhouse Marti Noxon, which details the behind-the-scenes goings-on at a reality dating show and stars “Girls“‘ Shiri Appleby and Craig Bierko; and TV movie “7 Days in Hell,” a tennis rivalry mockumentary starring a massive cast including Andy Samberg, Kit Harington, Michael Sheen, Will Forte, Lena Dunham, Fred Armisen, Mary Steenburgen, Karen Gillan, John McEnroe, and Serena Williams.
With such a massive lineup, of course there are many other films that are on our radar but just didn’t make the cut above, the most high profile of which is the Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart-starrer “Get Hard.” But we’re also looking forward to debut feature “Naz & Malik“; “A Wonderful Cloud” from director Eugene Kotlyarenko starring Kate Lyn Sheil; and “I Dream Too Much,” directed by Katie Cokinos and starring Eden Brolin and Diane Ladd. We’ve a morbid interest in necrophiliac Midnighter title, “The Corpse of Anna Fritz,” and cannibal horror, “He Never Died,” if only for the seemingly perfect casting of Henry Rollins in that one. And we’re perhaps a little more dubious about “Bone in the Throat,” starring Ed Westwick and Tom Wilkinson and based on an Anthony Bourdain memoir; Craig Roberts‘ directorial debut, “Just Jim,“ starring Roberts and Emile Hirsch; and “Mania Days,” starring Katie Holmes, but as ever, we’re very willing to be proven wrong.
Perhaps more enticing is the expansive documentary section that we’ve only glancingly touched on above, with titles such as “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story,” about the pioneering anti-cyber-bullying crusader; “All Things Must Pass,” about Tower Records; “Peace Officer,” in which an ex-Sheriff investigates police shootings in his district; “Theory of Obscurity,” a doc about little known punk band The Residents; speaking of punk, there’s also “The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead“; and continuing the music theme there’s Mavis Staples documentary “Mavis!” as well as “Jaco,” about Jazz musician Jaco Pistorius, and “Made in Japan,” about Japanese country music star Tomi Fujiyama.
“Son of the Congo,” “She’s the Best Thing In It,” “Twinsters,” “A Woman Like Me,” “GTFO,” and “Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro” all sound worth checking out too, while mileage may vary on SXSW opening film “Brand: A Second Coming,” as it does with its subject, British TV & Radio Personality/actor/agitator/self-propagandist/Katy Perry-ex Russell Brand.
And as ever, there are many films we’ve already seen playing SXSW this year — click on the title for our reviews of:
If you’re heading to Austin, hope this is useful to you, and if not, then it’s at least a good primer for the coverage you can be looking out for from us starting Friday when the festival begins. Anything we missed, anything you can’t wait to see? Let us know below.