By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 14, 2014 at 11:23AM
While SXSW attracts thousands of people over the course of its nine days, the film industry is always wary about it. Sales agents and distributors are more likely to be found dissecting the business on various panels or enjoying barbecue and tacos than actually making deals for the movies in the lineup. But even if the festival doesn't attract a vibrant marketplace, the program certainly contains a lot of strong movies that are for sale. SXSW is one of a few havens for smaller American indies, which may strike some distributors as less valuable than places like Sundance, where potential commercial hits lurk in every section. Yet by that same token, the movies at SXSW are ideally suited for the more compact nature of emerging distribution models, with their emphasis on niche audiences and revenue streams from the digital marketplace.
At the time of this writing, several of this year's highlights remain without a home. With the roar of the music dying down and crowds receding from the streets, now's an ideal time to consider these options with a sober perspective.
From its remarkable 23-minute opening shot, "Long Distance" switches to a fragmented approach, capturing the conversations between a couple spending one year across the world from each other while attempting to keep their bond intact. The story largely unfolds through pixelated video chats, social media and even Google Maps they use to show off their neighborhoods. They talk and talk, out of obligation and presumed need, but with time they have less to discuss aside from their frustrations over their disconnection. It's a startling confident debut from Spanish director Carlos Marqués-Marcet, who manages to evoke strong emotions with ongoing restraint. With its universally involving plot, "Long Distance" should be able to appeal to anyone.
The initial scenes featuring young couple Bobbie (Kim Shaw) and Jude (David Dastmalchian) in director Colin Schiffli's "Animals" are so precious that it comes as a shock to discover that they're both heroin addicts. Living out of a decrepit car parked near the Chicago Zoo, Bobbie and Jude team up to keep their habit alive, which at first provides them with enough confidence to ignore the downward spiral they're trapped within. By letting the troubles creep in, Schiffli's accomplished first feature — scripted by Dastmalchian — makes their conundrum both accessible and intimately unsettling at once. As an actor, Dastmalchian's star power keeps rising, but "Animals" proves he's a talent to watch in more ways than one.
Much of the odd comedic appeal in Riley Stearns' "Faults" emerges from a pair of carefully orchestrated lead performances: Character actor Leland Orser delivers a fascinatingly offbeat turn as downtrodden author Ansel Roth, an expert in deprogramming brainwashed cult members, while Stearns' wife Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the young woman he's hired to deprogram. Delivering an icy, cryptic performance that ranks among her best — and exists a world apart from her role as a messy alcoholic in "Smashed" — Winstead's frequently inscrutable expression epitomizes this unique movie's enigmatic appeal. Imagine "Martha Marcy May Marlene" by way of the Coen brothers and you'll start to get the idea, but "Faults" is a truly original dark comedy bound to provoke conversations that last.
Margaret Brown's grand jury prize-winning look at the debilitating impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion on the lives of those at the bottom of the food change impacted by its toxic effects brings the full scale of the disaster into alarming focus. Rather than simply assailing the empty suits at BP with empirical data or righteous activism, "The Great Invisible" takes a slow-burn approach that makes its topic both shockingly real and intimate. More than an exposé of the oil industry, it's a first-rate look at communities struggling for survival in the shadow of indifference.
Director Zachary Wigon's debut focuses on a man engaged in a long-distance relationship and suddenly afraid that his lover may be lying to him; tracking her whereabouts around town, he relies on clues via Facebook, text message and emails, all of which are fluidly woven into this alluring and tenderly enacted narrative. "Short Term 12" star John Gallagher, Jr. expands his range with a quietly involving performance as he snoops around the city unraveling a mystery with personal ramifications, while the typically cryptic Kate Lynn Sheil portrays the curious object of his affection. With its emphasis on the pratfalls of 21st century communication, "The Heart Machine" is a romantic drama of the moment, and a cautionary tale for anyone who turns to the web for love.