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The Best Films Of The 2015 SXSW Film Festival

The Best Films Of The 2015 SXSW Film Festival

The queso and BBQ gorging are done, and so it’s a wrap on the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, which featured a mix of mainstream releases, smaller indie narratives, documentaries and music-based films, among many others. Our two correspondents Charlie Schmidlin and Drew Taylor have comprised their best-of highlights from the festival. The Audience Award winners are here, and the regular award winners decided by the SXSW Jury are listed here. See you in 2016!

Charlie Schmidlin
Experiencing amazing Alamo Drafthouse bumpers, built-up queues for events and anything but vegetables as a culinary option, my first time at SXSW was the best kind of ordeal. The fest was staffed by a charming, friendly staff and volunteers who organized the programming down to a science —I don’t think I attended one delayed screening the entire time. I can’t wait to go back next year —maybe after a salad first.

1. “Krisha
A wall of sound and fury with thankfully a story to back it up, Trey Schults’ Grand Jury-winning debut feature “Krisha” redefines the notion of a “personal” film. The director uses his family’s home as a backdrop to the world’s worst Thanksgiving, and plants his own mother, aunt, grandmother, as well as himself in the center of a dizzying, devastating portrait of addiction and exclusion. But it’s specifically Krisha Fairchild‘s unforgettable, unblinking performance as the black sheep aunt that anchors the ambitious camerawork from Schults and his DP Drew Daniels. And to even out the drama, here comes the ever-reliable Bill Wise as a twisted relative spouting insults and philosophy with his droll Texas twang. “Krisha” was one of the final films on my schedule, but it ended up being the surprise of the fest. Review here.

2. “Brand: A Second Coming
Though the project changed directors over half a decade before finally landing in the hands of Ondi Timoner, this documentary regarding Russell Brand could not have found a better shepherd to bring it to life (regardless of what Brand himself thought). No stranger to tracking fame and its many pitfalls (“Dig”, “We Live in Public”), Timoner creates a similarly probing work here, only centering around one individual instead of a band or reality show collective. It is truly a film where positive or negative opinions of the comedian, author, and activist are challenged and dissected, exploring both the outward contradictions in Brand’s personality and his optimistic drive. Even the more sensationalistic moments are even-handed, including Brand’s drug use, on-air mishaps and a pretty surprising excerpt of a Katy Perry interview where she simply digs her own grave. It adds up to an excellent addition to Timoner’s focus on media entrepreneurs. Review here.

3. “Trainwreck
Billed at SXSW as a “work in progress” —which is just as liable to mean “please don’t knock us if we’ve delivered an ungodly blunder”— Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck” immediately silenced all doubts within the first fifteen minutes. A unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, a misunderstood John Cena and an emotional LeBron James all provide grace notes to the assured writing and lead performance by Amy Schumer, who plays a variation on Apatow’s usual stunted adult. The casting of Bill Hader as her romantic foil is a stroke of genius, ensuring that we have at least one incredible comic and dramatic performer onscreen at all times, as well as a tangible chemistry when they’re together. Review here.

4. “Sweaty Betty
Likely the most formally daring effort (yet executed in a low-key manner) at the fest this year, “Sweaty Betty” has stuck in my mind since seeing it at the beginning of SXSW for a few reasons. There’s the lumbering community totem pig and mascot of the title; there’s Zo-Zo, the young daughter of single father Scooby that provides some truly hilarious asides; and there’s the blend of documentary and fiction that locks the narrative in an oddly compelling register. Directors Joe Frank and Zack Reed devised the film as a mirror into their own Washington D.C. neighborhood, and it sidesteps typical plot devices for an easygoing look into its characters and rapidfire interactions that make up their lives. Out of all the films at SXSW, this film was the most celebratory and warm. A musical sequence near the end that serves as a goodbye of sorts to the cast utilizing Al Green’s “All I Need” only cements that fact. A deceptively simple and singular achievement. Review here.

5. “They Will Have To Kill Us First
A music-centric account of events similar to the acclaimed film “Timbuktu” last year, “They Will Have To Kill Us First” charts the reactions of musicians in Mali when jihadis used military and political disorder to overtake central cities and enact sharia law. Director Johanna Schwartz follows these musicians —which include Khaira Arby, Disco, Moussa and the band Songhoy Blues as they take up residence in Bamako or Burkina Faso after being driven from their homes, resulting in a gripping, powerful documentary on the human costs of a political struggle. Songhoy Blues, who played several showcases at SXSW, have garnered renown thanks to their work with Africa Express, Damon Albarn and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner (who also provides a fantastic score for this film), but it is the story of Khaira and Disco that the film highlights, as both women attempt to stage a concert in Timbuktu facing a series of dangerous roadblocks. SXSW was rife with music documentaries this year, and this was one of the more timely and bracing.

Honorable Mentions: Speaking of music documentaries, I’d been anticipating “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” since hearing word out of Sundance, and it did not remotely disappoint, raising the bar for the genre with its haunting blend of animation, narration and intimate archival footage. For a change of pace, “808” is a fun and insightful examination of the drum machine that was key to the development of hip-hop, and is bolstered by great interviews with Beastie Boys, Afrika Bambaataa and many others. Karyn Kusama delivered her best film yet with “The Invitation,” a well-plotted chamber drama with a number of finely-tuned, sick horror turns, and “A Teacher” director Hannah Fidell honed her improv-heavy “6 Years” into a well-acted, affecting tale of young, long-term love. Bob Byington and Jason Schwartzman proved an topnotch team in “7 Chinese Brothers,” which make a rightful star out of Schwartzman’s french bulldog Arrow. Finally, keep an eye out for Jay Dockendorf’s “Naz & Maalik”, which winds a subtle, tense tale of two closeted Muslims in Brooklyn into a promising directorial debut.

Ah, South by Southwest! It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. The week-long film marathon has a way of wearing you down even while you’re having the time of your life, and this year was no exception, with a terrific mix of independent fare, cutting edge documentaries and big budget spectaculars. Unlike most film festivals, there’s a little something for everyone at South by Southwest, even if you’re not sure exactly what you’re looking for.

1. “Ex Machina
Yes, “Ex Machina” already opened overseas (see Oli’s review here), and as far as premieres at South by Southwest go, there were probably starrier or more important affairs. But that doesn’t mean that this North American bow was anything less than dazzling. Alex Garland has long toiled as one of the best and hardest working genre screenwriters in the industry, having penned everything from “Never Let Me Go” to “Dredd,” and with his directorial debut he makes another leap forward. This is a relatively small scale psychodrama about an enigmatic billionaire (Oscar Isaac at his most magnetically charming and sinister) who recruits a low level coder (Domhnall Gleeson) to beta test a cutting edge robot (Alicia Vikander). It’s heady stuff, dealing with a number of existential themes, but Garland handles the material in a spritely, inventive way, doling out information and adding in large dollops of humor (It also looks gorgeous). Isaac and Gleeson are costarring in another sci-fi film later this year, and if it’s half as good as “Ex Machina,” then the Force is definitely with us.

2. “Furious 7
This was the biggest surprise at South by Southwest this year. Not only did nobody know that “Furious 7” would be playing the festival until a few hours beforehand, but it was also a surprise in the sense that nobody expected the movie to be such a profoundly moving experience. James Wan‘s franchise debut is one of the best films in the series, a pulse-pounding joy from beginning to end (just wait until you get a load of the “hot potato” climax), but it was the way that Wan and company handled the untimely death of costar Paul Walker that turned “Furious 7” into something bordering on the profound. In the closing moments of the screening here,  the uproarious Paramount Theater crowd, which had previously been hooting and hollering and clapping up a storm (they were particularly fond of Kurt Russell‘s appearance as a weathered government spy), started sniffling and holding back sobs. No matter where the franchise goes from here, it’s hard to think it will be able to top this utterly unexpected emotionality.

3. “All Things Must Pass
Speaking of heartbreak, there’s unexpected melancholy in nearly every frame of Colin Hanks‘ energetic documentary about the history of Tower Records. Even the jolliest moments are tinged with sadness, as you know that this entertainment giant would fall, thanks to overtly ambitious expansion plans and the rise in internet piracy. Tower Records was hugely important to any pop culture aficionado of a certain age, and what Hanks does so eloquently is emphasize not only the conceptual bravado of the chain but the genius personalities behind the brand (led by the company’s founder Russ Solomon). This is a documentary that will make you long for the glory days of spending endless hours browsing for records, seeking out those hidden gems (they had a terrific soundtrack and score department), while simultaneously making you appreciate all the hard work that went into crafting and curating those same stores. Unlike most stories about downfall, it wasn’t one thing that doomed Tower, but a number of disparate factors —greed wasn’t even ultimately to blame, but rather optimistic naivete. Gorgeously shot and ingeniously edited, this film should be the next big documentary crossover.

4. “Trainwreck”
While this was billed as a “work in progress” cut, Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck” seemed finer and more finessed than bigger projects that were reportedly finished (“Spy‘ could stand to lose a few minutes). Apatow’s greatest directorial triumph yet, “Trainwreck” benefits from being a full court collaboration with its writer and star Amy Schumer, who plays a messy magazine writer who falls for a more straightlaced sports doctor (Bill Hader in a leading man-status forging performance). Schumer is a revelation, and the movie positively spills over with big laughs and even bigger heart, embroidered by terrific supporting performances by Tilda Swinton, LeBron James (seriously), Brie Larson, Colin Quinn and Vanessa Bayer. Mark my words: when it opens in mid-July, this movie is going to be a sensation.

5. “Hello, My Name Is Doris”
If “Hello, My Name is Doris” had been directed by Alexander Payne instead of Michael Showalter, then you would already be hearing Oscar talk for the lead performance by Sally Field, who plays a 60-something schlub who falls in love with a much younger man in her office (Max Greenfield, from “The New Girl“). What could have been a one-note gag is instead a highly nuanced and detailed exploration about happiness and hope, featuring spot-on performances not only from Greenfield and Field but Tyne Daly, Natasha Lyonne and Jack Antonoff (from pop band Fun). “Hello, My Name is Doris” is the kind of independent comedy that in the wrong hands could have come off as cutesy and obnoxious, but with Showalter in charge, it’s emotionally resonant and laugh-out-loud funny.

More shoutouts: There were more movies worth singling out from this year’s festival, like the phony HBO sports documentary “7 Days in Hell” starring Andy Samberg and Kit Harrington; it flew under most people’s radar but made me laugh so much I almost peed. There were a number of exceptional documentaries at the fest, like Rodney Ascher‘s terrifically terrifying “The Nightmare,” a haunting account of sleep paralysis that was scarier than any of the actual horror movies that played the festival; Hollywood biography “Tab Hunter Confidential;” political doc “Best of Enemies” (which already caused a stir at Sundance) and “Raiders!,” a documentary about little kids reenacting “Raiders of the Lost Ark. Oh, and the five minutes of “Midnight Special” they showed during the Michael Shannon/Jeff Nichols panel was better than a lot of features I saw (“Unfriended,” “7 Chinese Brothers,” “Manglehorn“). I’d also like to single out my friend Charles Hood‘s “Night Owls,” a zippy romantic comedy starring Adam Pally and Rosa Salazar

Browse through all our coverage of the 2015 SXSW Film Festival by clicking here.

Here’s all our reviews ranked in order of grade for your further perusal. 
Krisha [A]
Tab Hunter Confidential [A-]
Brand: A Second Coming [A-]
Raiders! [A-]
Naz & Maalik [B+]
Life In Color [B+]
Manson Family Vacation [B+]
Twinsters [B+]
Nina Forever [B+]
Peace Officer [B+]
For Grace [B+]
Sweaty Betty [B]
All Things Must Pass [B]
Spy [B]
A Wonderful Cloud [B]
7 Chinese Brothers [B-]
808 [B-]
6 Years [B-]
Furious 7 [C+]
One And Two [C]
Unfriended [C]
The Boy [C-]
Rolling Papers [C-]
Get Hard [D-]

SXSW Talks
Ryan Gosling and Guillermo Del Toro Talk “Lost River”
Amy Schumer Discusses “Trainwreck”
Michael Shannon and Jeff Nichols Talk “Midnight Special” and more.

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