The SXSW Film Festival has never been seen as a marketplace for new movies on par with Sundance or Cannes, but the Austin gathering nevertheless provides the first glimpse of many new titles without distribution. While the latest edition came to a close over the weekend, a number of its memorable ingredients remain unsold. Whether that’s simply because buyers have already passed on them or simply haven’t had a chance to consider their options, these movies continue to be fresh, conversation-worthy options that deserve audiences far beyond one city in Texas. Here are 10 highlights that deserve a future in theaters and VOD.
Alex Sichel died before the completion of this personal and idiosyncratic portrait of her experiences with cancer, but her voice is evident in every scene of the heartfelt project. Completed by Elizabeth Giamatti (who accepted a directing prize for the project at this year’s SXSW), the movie tracks Sichel’s existential questions as she prepares to face the inevitable. Additionally, Sichel compliments details from her own experience with a scene from a scripted project starring Lili Taylor as a woman in a similar situation. While Sichel endures good and bad days alike, Taylor’s character represents the filmmaker’s spiritual ideal — open to her imminent death and endlessly curious about the feelings it calls up. The resulting project is equal parts candid diary film and meditation on mortality unlike any other movie about its topic. Despite the downbeat vibes, however, “A Woman Like Me” is ultimately galvanizing in its ability to confront a topic all too frequently relegated to whispers. To that end, its triumphant qualities should speak widely to anyone facing similar hurdles — or afraid that they one day might.
“Brand: A Second Coming”
Few American audiences know much about comedian-turned-activist Russell Brand beyond his roles in a handful of studio comedies, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek” chief among them, but documentarian Ondi Timoner’s engrossing portrait “BRAND: A Second Coming” does a considerable job of bringing the uninitiated up to speed. The extensive two-hour running time only slightly hinders a simultaneously amusing and powerful encapsulation of Brand’s journey from outrageous provocateur to enlightened zealot preaching for social change. Timoner tracks Brand from his humble beginnings in Essex through the rocky early stages of his career, which culminated in psychotic standup performances and a drug-fueled meltdown. Somewhere along the lines, through his discovery of meditation and a desire to emulate historically canonized leaders ranging from Ghandi and Malcolm X to none other than Jesus (whose physical appearance he cleverly mimics), Brand becomes a cogent mouthpiece for the underprivileged. Timoner illustrates the specific rationale for Brand’s decision to shift further away from pure entertainment. It’s the ideal justification for his curious trajectory and a terrific starting point for anyone unfamiliar with it. Read the full review here.
The seventh grade members of heavy metal band Unlocking the Truth received national acclaim after the young African American musicians’ skilled performances went viral on YouTube. The overnight fame ultimately led the trio to a widely publicized $1.8 million deal with Sony Music for five albums. Director Luke Meyer (“Darkon”) captures the group’s quixotic journey with remarkable access to backroom dealings as the kids gradually develop a deeper understanding of the business tactics threatening to consume them from every direction. Meyer’s camera uncovers numerous contrasts, including one meeting with scheming white executives who present the band with a binding contract while one of them dolefully plays games on his phone. Later, they receive professional instruction from a coach who attempts to smooth out the vocals and refine the band’s style — essentially commercializing their sound.
Meanwhile, garrulous agent Alan Sacks (who discovered the Jonas Brothers) positions himself as a paternal guide to the group even as his own objectives are called into question. “I’m not stupid, Allan,” says vocalist Malcolm Brickhouse, and with news that the band has left Sony and plans to sue the label, it’s clear that their process of awakening continues to take new turns. Whatever happens next, “Breaking a Monster” captures a fascinating chapter in the group’s troubled history — and provides a savvy perspective on the dangers of the entertainment industry at large.
With its crisp black-and-white photography and snazzy effects, Benjamin Dickinson’s mesmerizing science fiction thriller “Creative Control” cleverly envisions a technology-dominated society that’s right around the corner. But the particulars of the plot, in which the Brooklyn-based developer of new augmented reality glasses loses touch with the world around him, imbues the target of its critique with a sharp contemporary edge. It’s at once otherworldly and familiar. Read the full review here.
“Hot Sugar’s Cold World”
Deemed “a modern-day Mozart” in the opening credits, the star of “Hot Sugar’s Cold World” isn’t your average musical prodigy. Adam Bhala Lough (who previously documented an eccentric musician with the unreleased Li’l Wayne documentary “The Carter”) follows the efforts of the rascally Nick Koenig, née Hot Sugar, who records sounds all around him in ongoing attempts to craft electronic beats from original sources. These range the snapping noises of dissolving candies in a woman’s mouth in the wacky opener to philosophical ramblings shared with the film’s subject by no less than astrophycist Neal Degrasse Tyson.
Using a hybrid style that blends fact and fiction, the filmmaker takes us deep into Hot Sugar’s quixotic mindset, to the point where it’s often unclear when we’re watching real events. The filmmaker’s chapter-based structure follows the character through relationships and various bizarre experiments with sound, while repeatedly cutting away to Twitter and gifs that underline the digital universe that props up his existence. At one point, “Cheap Thrills” star Pat Healy surfaces as an illegal fireworks dealer, one of many cases where it seems as though we’ve drifted into Hot Sugar’s fantasy life. Elsewhere, the musician introduces us to his octogenarian friend Bill, a WWII veteran whose face is covered with tattoos. The absurd character hails from the Harmony Korine playbook of surreal, ridiculous creations that nonetheless suggest a kind of otherworldly beauty. Hot Sugar himself walks that line — both with his oddball personality and the consistently surprising music at the root of his creativity, which the movie explores and eventually inhabits with largely satisfying ingenuity.
More than once in writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ grimly fascinating drama “Krisha” (which won the Grand Jury Prize for best narrative feature), the camera slowly closes on the title character’s troubled face. With her wizened features, sunken eyes and unkept white hair, Krisha (Krisha Fairchild, the filmmaker’s aunt) wears the beaten down look of a woman baffled by a world that has slipped beyond her grasp. Shults’ dizzying filmmaking technique compliments that distant gaze, as he chronicles the alcoholic woman’s attempt to convince her estranged relatives that she has managed to stabilize her life over the course of a Thanksgiving dinner that careens into chaos. It’s no surprise that things don’t go as planned, but “Krisha” derives an extraordinary sense of mystery around the nature of the character’s problems — and whether she indeed possesses the ability to control them. Read the full review here.
“Peace Officer” won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at SXSW for more than one good reason: Scott Chrisopherson and Brad Barber’s unsettling look at the militaristic behavior of American police forces contains unsettling parallels with recent headlines around the country. It also features a powerful character whose story captures the essence of the problem in a nutshell: Retired sheriff Dub Lawrence founded his state’s SWAT team decades ago; the very same organization later killed his stepson in a standoff that could have ended with more productive results. Now, Lawrence continues searching for justice while helping others explore similar misdeeds. “Peace Officer” chronicles the terrifying process by which officers have grown all-too-comfortable pulling the trigger in ambiguous situations, and so the recollections of close calls are nearly as terrifying as the fatal ones. The movie offers proof that in today’s climate, no one is entirely safe from a dangerous showdown, though advocates such as Lawrence continue to work on changing that.
The story has made the rounds for years: In 1982, a trio of 11-year-old Mississippi boys — Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb — launched an elaborate attempt to remake “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Over the course of eight years, they more or less completed the task, and the result took on a mythological dimension. Eventually noticed by horror director Eli Roth, the now-adult figures responsible for “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaption” enjoyed newfound appreciation for their accomplishment and eventually landed a meeting with Steven Spielberg himself. However, as Jeremy Coons and Tim Skousen’s enjoyable documentary “Raiders!” makes clear, even then the story wasn’t quite finished: The boys never managed to shoot one crucial scene, and in adulthood, they finally attempted to finish the job. Directors Jeremy Coons and Tim Skousen shift between contemporary footage of the ambitious new shoot and the lively history of the original project, which garnered some local media attention before the men drifted apart during adulthood. It’s this surprisingly dark chapter in their lives that endows the movie with more appeal than the basic facts already out there. More than that, in an era dominated by amateur image-makers, it’s a keen testament to the ability for a passion project to last the ages. Read the full review here.
“Uncle Kent 2”
At first, “Uncle Kent 2” presents itself as a prolonged inside joke on the micro-budget American film scene — the kind of referential conceit with the capacity to please the same limited crowd familiar with the movies in question. But that barely gets to the essence of this deliriously strange and hilarious stoner comedy, which delivers one innovative dose of absurdity after another with a liberating energy that never slows down. In its relentless silliness, “Uncle Kent 2” provides the ultimate rebuke to formulaic storytelling, but it’s less heady than pure head trip. The story of animator Osborne’s peculiar attempts to make a sequel to Joe Swanberg’s 2011 comedy about Osborne’s life, “Uncle Kent 2” finds the character suffering from a strange condition in which he hears music in his head. Later, he heads to Comic Con, where the world literally falls apart all around him. Or something like that. Above all else, with a goofy, disorienting style, director Todd Rohal delivers a uniformly satisfying look at creative frustration. While not the most obvious commercial bet, “Uncle Kent 2” offers so much wacky fun its potential as a cult classic is undeniable. Read the full review here.
The spirit of horror maestro Lucio Fulci is alive and well in Ted Geoghegan’s wildly entertaining haunted house thriller, in which a middle-aged couple copes with the death of their son by moving to a remote home in the New England countryside. Naturally, the place winds up being inhabited by a demonic presence that requires fresh blood every 30 years or so. Despite a retro style that mimics the alternately awkward and menacing tone of the seventies and eighties titles it calls to mind, “We Are Still Here” still manages to deliver an enjoyable series of surprises — a “Wicker Man” style showdown with deranged locals, a seance that leads to one character’s wicked demise, and an ill-fated makeout session all contribute to the sense that anything could go wrong for the movie’s lead couple, and so it does. Plus, indie horror actor-director Larry Fessenden (“Wendigo”) surfaces in a delightfully unhinged role as one of the couple’s aging hippy pals who eventually gets possessed by deranged forces, leading to one of his best performances since his breakout vampire drama “Habit.”