“Most Beautiful Island”
A short, stressful, and utterly spellbinding debut that transforms the immigrant experience into the stuff of an early Polanski psychodrama, “Most Beautiful Island” was a worthy winner of the SXSW Grand Jury Prize for best narrative feature, and might prove to be a breakthrough moment for a major new talent: Spanish actress Ana Asensio not only wrote, directed, and produced this fraught metropolitan thriller, she also appears in just about every frame.
It would be criminal to reveal too much about what happens to her character, a Manhattan immigrant who’s struggling to make a life for herself in the big city and in for the longest night of her life, but it’s thrilling to watch the anxiety of neo-realism as it slowly bleeds into something that resembles the suspense of the orgy sequence from “Eyes Wide Shut.” Creating a lucid sense of reality only so that she can defile it with a wicked pivot towards madness, Asensio’s film creates a vision of immigrant life in America (and its value) that’s all the more urgent for how it uses genre elements to exaggerate the experience. People will be talking about this one, which is as weird as it is timely, and an indie distributor would be wise to hop on it for a slow-roll summer knockout. Read IndieWire’s full review here. — David Ehrlich
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Imagine a Tony Robbins session with a bunch of testosterone-fueled convicts and you’ll start to get an idea of SXSW documentary Grand Jury Prize winner “The Work,” an emotionally riveting documentary that may very well be the most powerful group therapy ever caught on camera. Co-directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous gained access to a tense four-day session at Folsom State Prison, where inmates engage with civilians in intimate conversations about their repressed frustrations. Scene by scene, their masculine armor falls away, and the tears erupt with volcanic intensity.
The minimalist scenario, almost exclusively set within the confines of a nondescript room, foregrounds the visceral process of confronting anger and regret through a fascinating collaborative approach, with results that are alternately terrifying and cathartic. At a time when America’s prison system remains more broken than ever, it’s essential viewing. Read IndieWire’s full review here. —Eric Kohn
Sales Contact: Andrew Herwitz, The Film Sales Company, email@example.com
“Bad Lucky Goat”
The first feature from Colombian director Samir Oliveros is one of the best debuts of the year — and a great indication of things to come. Oliveros’ minimalist story takes place over the course of a single day on the tropical island of Port Paradise, where a pair of teen siblings accidentally ram into a goat while driving around town and fighting, then spend the remainder of the movie trying to figure out what to do with the carcas.
The playful narrative careens from a series of exotic locales, from rastafari drum makers to a climactic cock fight, with a blend of naturalistic dialogue and magic realism that’s both charming and unpredictable. The vivid backdrop creates an infectious atmosphere to this lighthearted romp, which stands toe-to-toe with Ozu in its depiction of angsty kids at odds with their surroundings. Yet Oliveros manages to use the rich environment to imbue the proceedings with an otherworldly quality that tips into fantasy and creates the sense that anything could happen. It’s a genuine crowdpleaser that deserves more crowds. —EK
Sales Contact: Samir Oliveros, Solar Cinema, firstname.lastname@example.org
Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund’s tender relationship drama “Now, Forager” was a sleeper hit on the festival circuit in 2012 that stood out in the New Directors/New Films lineup this year. “La Barracuda” is further evidence of their understated storytelling talent. This beautiful, haunting drama stars Alison Tolman (the first season of FX’s “Fargo”) as Merle, the Austin-based daughter of a recently-deceased country music star whose life is changed when British singer Sinaloa (extraordinary newcomer Sophie Reid) shows up at her doorstep and claims they’re sisters.
While Alison is initially wary of Sinaloa’s advances, she eventually embraces her newfound sibling and her carefree, nomadic ways. However, Sinaloa makes no secret of her resentment of the family her father preferred to raising her, and the slow-burning tension gradually transforms this quiet material into a suspenseful journey. But the real focal point of “La Barracuda” has less to do with the way Sinaloa talks about her problems than her ability to sing them. Not since “Broken Circle Breakdown” has a movie used country melodies so effectively to convey its characters’ internal turmoil. Word of mouth could propel “La Barracuda” to wider audiences, and its talented cast is well-positioned to tie the release in with concerts, which are usually reliable ways to get people off their couches and into the theater. This one deserves it. —EK
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After brief stints on “SNL” and “Master of None,” Noël Wells has found her true calling — as a filmmaker. Wells’ first feature, which she wrote, directed, and stars in, finds her playing Emily, a struggling actress in Los Angeles doomed to an endless cycle of auditions. But just before you think you’ve heard this one before, Emily’s called back to her old home in Austin, where her cat is dying and her ex-boyfriend has moved on with his life in their old home. Not since “Young Adult” has a return to old haunting grounds gone so hilariously wrong. Emily’s messy attempts to resurrect her abandoned life leads to a series of awkward showdowns, drunken revelry, one-night stands and some first-rate punk rock.
The whole thing builds to a comic set piece in which Emily confronts her past mistakes and learns to move on. Wells guides the material dangerously close to whimsical overload, but salvages the situation with a raw performance and a penchant for cringe comedy that could play well with audiences keen on alternatives to bland studio romcoms. And if the studios want to improve that situation, they might want to give Wells a call. —EK
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Bob Byington’s movies are an acquired taste — smarmy portraits of oddball characters alienated from society at large — but anyone who has appreciated his blend of surrealism and deadpan performances in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and “Seven Chinese Brothers” will appreciate more of that humor in “Infinity Baby,” a wry blend of corporate satire and relationship comedy. The black-and-white feature takes place in a near future in which abortion has been deemed illegal, but the government has placated the left by allowing companies to run wild with stem cell research. The result is an insane startup run by a stern executive (the reliably hilarious Nick Offerman) in the business of producing infants that don’t age. Kevin Corrigan and Martin Starr play an irreverent couple tasked with selling people on the idea.
Meanwhile, an agitated loner (Kieran Culkin) careens through a series of relationships, rejecting one woman after another when they fail to find approval from his mother. If any of that sounds appealing to you, trust us: “Infinity Baby” hits its modern targets with plenty of bite, not unlike the way Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” did a decade ago. There and gone in just over an hour, the movie is a charmingly deranged dystopian comedy readymade for the VOD market. —EK
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A wise and wistful love letter from one remarkable character actor to another, John Carroll Lynch’s “Lucky” returns 90-year-old Harry Dean Stanton to the dusty desert environs he shuffled through in 1984’s “Paris, Texas,” and offers the rawboned legend one of the best roles he’s had since. Beginning as a broad comedy before blossoming into a wry meditation on death and all the things we leave behind (a transition that kicks into gear when one of Stanton’s old friends shows up and steals the show), Lynch’s directorial debut is a wisp of a movie, blowing across the screen like a tumbleweed, but it’s also the rare portrait of mortality that’s both fun and full of life.
With a supporting role by no less than David Lynch, who plays a distraught bar regular who won’t be happy until he’s reunited with his missing pet tortoise, President Roosevelt. John Carroll Lynch, who’s worked with everyone from Martin Scorsese to Albert Brooks, doesn’t explicitly borrow from any of his directors, though it’s clear from his careful precision that he learned a little something from all of them. Read the full review here. —EK
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“Muppet Guys Talking”
Frank Oz’s intimate and informative documentary featuring five Muppet creators and puppeteers talking about their work sounds like total fan catnip, but it’s also a moving look at the power of creativity and collaboration. At just over an hour, it’s a brisk watch packed with fun insights and moving chestnuts about life and work. Instructional without being pedantic about it, it’s one of the most truly satisfying films to emerge from the festival. Distributors looking for a documentary that covers a subject with a built-in, long-standing fanbase would do well by this one, but it could also be a big winner for more academically inclined outfits, who could get this charming doc into every middle school in America. Read our full review here. —Kate Erbland
The marketing possibilities alone are reason enough for buyers to take a good look at C.A. Gabriel and Renee Felice Smith’s ambitious and fun romantic comedy. The directorial debut for the pair puts a twist on some old genre tropes and tricks, bolstered by the appearance of a foul-mouthed puppet, a weird gag involving characters removing literal masks and a signature cocktail that’s as gross as it is inventive. Romantic comedies are already in short supply at the box office, why not take a chance on one that features a couple with genuine chemistry (Smith and Matt Bush) and some smart commentary on the genre itself? It’s a win-win. —KE
Sales Contact: UTA
A raw fiction debut that feels like a romantic comedy with all of the bullshit taken out, Peter Mackie Burns’ London-set “Daphne” is a remarkably real and well-realized big screen version of an archetype that has given birth to some of the best new television on both sides of the pond: The self-destructive single girl. Cut from the same cloth as Mickey in “Love” or, uh, Fleabag in “Fleabag,” Daphne vibrates with the singular sense of self that makes those other characters feel alive and indifferent; and thanks to Emily Beecham’s outstanding lead performance in the title role, she’s able to achieve it in just a fraction of the time.
This is a modest movie, one that feels more like a snack than a meal, but it’s so vivid and disarming precisely because it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel or deliver its red-haired heroine unto salvation. Its lack of an obvious hook might scare away the boutique distributors who usually snack on British fare, but strong reviews could bolster strong interest in advance of a long life on Netflix, and Beecham’s star is only going to rise from here. Read our review. — DE
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“Song of Granite”
For a film that taps into the natural beauty of Ireland, it seems a bit counterintuitive for Pat Collins to have shot his biopic of traditional Irish folk singer Joe Heaney in black-and-white. Nevertheless, this pristinely photographed anti-biopic still captures the inner passion and outward majesty of both the singer and his country of origin. Heaney’s life unfolds in three chapters, from the first inklings of his vocal talent as a young boy in the village of Carna through his sojourn across continents. Collins’ film floats through these generations, incorporating some unconventional formal elements along the way. Though light on details about the usual milestones of Heaney’s achievements, “Song of Granite” harnesses the spirit of his music in an unexpectedly dreamlike way. Read our full review right here. —Steve Greene
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“I Am Another You”
A portrait of a young Florida street kid is at first a fascinating exploration into the concept of freedom as seen through the eyes of director Nanfu Wang (“Hooligan Sparrow”), who had recently come to the U.S. from China when she started filming. This documentary transitions into something completely unexpected when Wang travels to Utah, two years later, to meet her subject’s family. The film is about the layers of perception and the complexities of mental health, while also solidifying Wang as a major new voice in the world of nonfiction filmmaking. —Chris O’Falt
Sales Contact: Josh Braun, Submarine
“The Secret Life of Lance Letscher”
Profiles of artists are common in the documentary world and on the surface Sandra Adair’s film about Austin collage artist Lance Letscher checks off many of the genre’s conventions. Yet, the film does a remarkably good job of capturing an artist’s process, while making a satisfying connection between Letscher’s not always easy life and his art. Adair, who is Richard Linklater’s long time editor, has created a film that is subtly complex, but feels lived in and familiar. —CO
Sales Contact: John Sloss, Cinetic Media