There's no reason not to get excited about the bigger films at this year's SXSW Film Festival, which include a work-in-progress look at the R-rated animated comedy "Sausage Party" co-directed by Seth Rogen and the clearly outrageous dog-in-peril romp "Keanu" that reunites "Key & Peele" stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (also playing as a very exciting work-in-progress screening). But those are just a small fraction of the lineup from the Austin festival, which is filled with a number of lesser known entries across multiple sections. Here are a few of the ones that have us excited.
"The Alchemist Cookbook"
Grand Rapids-based filmmaker Joel Potrykus erupted onto the SXSW scene two years ago with his deranged character study "Buzzard," which went on to find international acclaim on the festival circuit and develop a cult appeal. Following his debut "Ape," the movie was another twisted look at a disgruntled young man fed up with society and on the verge of losing his mind. His new SXSW entry, "The Alchemist Cookbook," has been programmed in the festival's edgy "Visions" section, which sends a message in itself. The story of a "self-made chemist" who lives in a trailer in the woods dreaming of being rich, "Cookbook" promises a story that's uniquely odd and quite possibly very dark. It may be different, but it still sounds like typical Potrykus.
SXSW's documentary lineup tends to favor more esoteric titles from off the beaten path. Based on premise alone, "Chicken People" falls into this trend. Nicole Lucas Haimes' non-fiction enterprise explores the oft-ignored arena of competitive poultry — and the eccentric characters attracted to the sport. With scenes set at events such as the Ohio National Poultry Show — aka "the Westminster of Chickens — "Chicken People" sounds like a Christopher Guest movie stuffed into the mold of the competitive spelling bee classic "Spellbound."
The downtrodden tale of a successful city dweller returning to his suburban roots may not be the freshest idea for a comedy, but Kris Avedisian's first feature dares to turn the formula into a pitch-black comedy filled with awkward moments. The director co-stars the titular Donald, an obnoxious interrupter for the ages. The movie finds former Rhode Island resident Peter (Jesse Wakeman) returning to his old neighborhood 15 years after graduating high school, with the sole intention of burying his grandmother. In the process, he runs into his loud-mouthed, bespectacled old pal, whose shameless means of inserting himself into Peter's life leads to a series of cringe-worthy encounters. Set over the course of a long day, "Donald Cried" is a painful nostalgia trip that's also terribly funny. Also a selection for the upcoming New Directors/New Films series, it's set to unveil a new comedic talent both behind the camera and in front of it.
"Dungeons and Dragons" obsessives are fertile terrain for cultural analysis, but documentary filmmaker Josh Bishop focuses on one man who's turned the obsession into art. Stefan Pokorny's lifelong interest in the role-playing game led him to start a company called "Dwarven Forge" 20 years ago that involves the creation of actual dungeons to surround players in the midst of the game. A compelling subject whose passion has been transformed into a career, "The Dwarvenaut" promises a lively look at the evolution of a unique creative mind.
"I Am a Hero"
An award-winner last fall at the horror-focused Sitges Film Festival in Catalonia, Spain, "I Am a Hero" adapts Kengo Hanazawa's manga about a cartoonist bit by a zombie, which leads the unhappy protagonist down a path of even greater chaos. Directed by Sato Shinsuke, the film stars Yo Oizumi (a voice actor best known for "Howl's Moving Castle"), and promises a fast-paced mixture of action sequences and blood-soaked mayhem that's bound to shake up the overwrought zombie genre in more ways than one.
One of the most buzzed-about non-fiction entries in this year's festival revolves around a notorious incident in Texas history: In 1966, University of Texas college student Charles Whitman sat with a sniper rifle at the top of the University of Texas Tower, killing 16 people over the course of 96 terrifying minutes. Director Keith Maitland revisits the scenario with a mixture of rotoscopic animation and first-person accounts of the harrowing situation that promises a bracingly new way of looking at one infamous mass shooting in an era when such horrific events are anything but history.
"Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru"
Motivational speaker Tony Robbins may not be the most obvious fit for the behind-the-scenes documentary treatment, since his sensationalist stage presence often speaks for itself, but filmmaker Joe Berlinger (the "Paradise Lost" trilogy, "Brother's Keeper") has plenty of experience with turning widely publicized events into cinematically-inspired cultural dissections. This one promises a closer look at Robbins' "Date With Destiny" seminars to explore the mania surrounding his advice as well as the energetic personality responsible for the fame.
One of the more intriguing out-there selections in the off-kilter material of its "Visions" section, this Korean entry focuses on the story of a karaoke bar that's struggling for customers and somehow lures a serial killer. The premise alone holds plenty of intrigue, but "Karaoke Crazies" is also reportedly just as bizarre as it sounds. Of course, it doesn't help that film festivals are a haven for karaoke obsessives, which makes this seemingly non-commercial title readymade for SXSW's party-loving atmosphere.