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SXSW 2019: 14 Must-See Films at This Year’s Festival, From ‘Us’ to ‘Booksmart’

From returning Austin favorites to newbie talents to watch out for, we've got over a dozen new films you can't miss at this year's festival.

The annual South By Southwest Conferences and Festivals — which pretty much everyone knows as SXSW — is hitting Austin, Texas later this week, armed with fresh film offerings (plus music, interactive, and a litany of exciting panels and conversations) and, with it, the promise of a brand new festival-going season. As ever, the annual gatherings is playing home to dozens of feature films and shorts, and while there’s plenty to anticipate seeing, we’ve waded through the lineup to pick out the ones we’re most looking forward to checking out.

From SXSW regulars like Harmony Korine and Lynn Shelton to rising stars like Olivia Wilde and the comedy duo D.A.D.D.Y. and marquee names like Jordan Peele, this year’s SXSW Film Festival has a robust new slate. Here are the ones that look most promising. Stay tuned for more on SXSW’s Episodics section. The 26th edition of the film festival runs March 8 – 17 in Austin, Texas.

“The Art of Self-Defense”

A young girl is raised by wolves, and forms a bond with the animals that even her birth parents can’t break. Violence ensues. A seedy writer is hired to kidnap and “deprogram” a brainwashed cult member, only to find that his grip on the world may not be strong enough to get the job done. Violence ensues. Dark comedies that drip with irony and use a warped sense of humor as a backdoor to heartbreak, the films of Riley Stearns are clever and crooked and just waiting for the cult following they deserve. His latest, “The Art of Self-Defense,” is poised to serve as a wrist-snapping handshake between Stearns and a wider audience. Promising to bring a wistful and giddily what-the-fuck energy to a template pioneered by “The Karate Kid,” Stearns’ second feature tells the story of a vulnerable Kentucky man (Jesse Eisenberg) who enlists in his local dojo after being attacked on the street. Co-starring Alessandro Nivola as a charismatic sensei, and Imogen Poots as someone who probably doesn’t need saving, “The Art of Self-Defense” is sure to be one of the hardest-hitting movies at this year’s festival. —DE

“The Beach Bum”

"The Beach Bum"

“The Beach Bum”

Neon

Six years after “Spring Breakers,” Harmony Korine finally returns with another Florida-centric odyssey about outcasts living by their own rules. “The Beach Bum” is Korine’s riff on stoner humor of the Cheech and Chong variety and stars Matthew McConaughey as a wandering poet named Moondog who gets caught up in various misadventures. The cast also includes Zac Efron, Jonah Hill, and Martin Lawrence, who is long overdue for a return to film comedy. Then there’s Snoop Dogg as Moondog’s right-hand man Lingerie, who helps the artist piece his life together even as it goes up in smoke. Behind the scenes, Korine has reunited with his “Spring Breakers” cinematographer Benoit Debie, so it’s safe to expect a riveting blend of sumptuous visuals, off-beat locales, and quirky plot twists, tied together under a singular vision of society on the margins as only Korine can tell it. —ZS

“Booksmart”

Actress-turned-filmmaker Olivia Wilde has been honing her craft for years now, boning up on filmmaking by working with some of cinema’s most exciting auteurs (she starred in Morano’s “Meadowland,” and the pair seemed to have adored working alongside each other) and helming short films and music videos (include a 2016 banger for the Red Hot Chili Peppers). It’s high time she made her feature directorial debut, and “Booksmart” sounds like a hell of a fit for the budding director. With a screenplay that includes contributions from rising comedic stars like Katie Silberman and Susannah Fogel, the film stars indie faves Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as a pair of besties who realize during the waning days of high school that they didn’t have as much fun as they should have. So they set about fixing that, in the minimum of time. It sounds fun and frisky, but with so much talent behind the camera, expect it to have a ton of heart, too. —KE

“Boyz in the Wood”

This SXSW midnighter looks to have strong stoner classic potential. Music video director Ninian Doff makes his feature debut in the story of three trouble-making teens from Glasgow sent to the Scottish Highlands to build their character. Pitted against the straight-laced peers who take their team-building exercises seriously, the city boys are constantly looking to venture off path and smoke weed, until they come across supernatural force that threatens their lives. The SXSW program describes it as “an anarchic cocktail of generational politics, hip-hop loving farmers, and hallucinogenic rabbit shites.” Sold. —CO

“Extra Ordinary”

“Extra Ordinary”

SXSW

The Irish filmmaking duo Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman go by D.A.D.D.Y. for their inventive commercial work, and if that doesn’t intrigue, you’ve been reading too much news. For their feature film debut, the directors have cooked up a supernatural comedy in the vein of “What We Do in the Shadows.” Set in rural Ireland, “Extra Ordinary” stars Brooklyn-based comedian Maeve Higgins as Rose, a driving instructor with supernatural abilities she’d rather tune out. When washed up rockstar Christian Winter (Will Forte) makes a deal with the devil to restore his former glory, it’s up to Rose to save a local girl from being used for his Satanic purposes. It’s been five years since Forte showed off his serious acting chops in “Nebraska,” and since then he’s mostly done a string of bigger budget studio comedies and TV. “Extra Ordinary” marks Forte’s return to indies by way of a quirky comedy that could put him back in critics’ good graces. —JD

“The Hottest August”

Brett Story’s poetic documentary weaves together dozens of characters and settings throughout New York City in August 2017, exploring a scorching metropolis dense with anxieties about the future. With the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in recent memory, and fears ranging from climate change to working-class struggles, Story’s ambitious non-fiction collage merges its abstract visuals with sociological curiosity. Story previously delivered a mesmerizing look at a single location’s identity with 2016’s “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes”; here, she expands her canvas to encapsulate New York — as a microcosm for humanity itself — from virtually every angle with audacious cinematic energy. Already a hit at the diehard documentary gathering True/False, “The Hottest August” is sure to please SXSW crowds eager for documentaries that go beyond the formula of talking heads. —EK

“Jezebel”

After years of titillating audiences as co-founder and chief content officer at the popular online platform Black&SexyTV, Numa Perrier makes the leap to feature filmmaking with her debut, “Jezebel.” Selected by the Tribeca Film Institute for its Through Her Lens program in 2016, “Jezebel” is based on Perrier’s own story. The film follows a 19-year-old who, in order to help make ends meet, is introduced to the world of fetish cam girls by her older sister, who works as a phone sex operator. Described by the filmmaker and visual artist as a “somewhat bizarre sexual coming of age story,” the film chronicles a period of her life during which she got quite an education on men and learned much about her own sexuality. Audiences — especially fans who have followed Perrier’s story via her House of Numa blog — should expect something unabashedly intimate and raw in “Jezebel.” Starring promising newcomer Tiffany Tenille, the cast of the indie feature also includes Perrier playing her older sister, as well as Perrier’s real-life daughter, Rockwelle Dortch. —TO

“Mickey and the Bear”

“Mickey and the Bear”

SXSW

Annabelle Attanasio could have coasted to a lucrative career as a supporting actress in CBS procedurals, but the former “Bull” star wanted more for herself, and found the courage to leave that (extremely troubled) show after its second season in order to write and direct her debut feature. A coming-of-age drama that’s grounded in the cold realities of growing up in modern America, “Mickey and the Bear” is centered around Camila Morrone (so magnetic in last year’s “Never Goin’ Back”) as a Montana teenager who’s struggling to reconcile her responsibility to her grieving, opioid-addicted father (James Badge Dale) and her own dreams of a better life on the west coast. A story about the complicated relationship between family and independence, the film shines a spotlight on two compelling American actors — both on the cusp of stardom in their own ways — and reintroduces us to a third, whose true calling might have been found behind the camera. —DE

“Porno”

While SXSW has always been a horror-friendly festival, from premiering blockbuster hits to promoting envelope-pushing indies, only one horror-comedy made the narrative competition cut this year: Keola Racela’s feature film debut “Porno.” The film follows a ragtag group of teens in a small Christian town who discover the movie theater where they work used to play dirty movies. When they find the hidden film in the basement, according to the SXSW synopsis, “they unleash an alluring succubus who gives them a sex education…written in blood.” A Columbia film grad with three shorts and a Student Academy Award to his name, Racela’s work is marked by inspired visuals and a dark sense of humor. Recent indie horrors like “Cam” and “Raw” found success addressing sexuality in ways both frank and feminist — here’s hoping “Porno” does the same. —JD

“South Mountain”

Director Hilary Brougher’s first film since 2006’s “Stephanie Daley” is a tender, intimate, and blatantly personal work about Catskills resident and community college teacher Lila (Talia Balsam), whose stable life is thrown into upheaval when her husband (Scott Cohen) confesses that he has had a child with another woman. The poetic fallout finds Lila exploring a romance with a younger man, plotting revenge on her husband, and roaming the astonishing natural scenery in her suddenly vacant home, as she comes to grips with an unexpected new stage of life when she least expected it. This wise, understated, and exquisite acting showcase is one of the most enticing entries in the SXSW narrative competition, precisely because its emotional power has been designed to sneak up on you. Audiences are in for a pleasant surprise. —EK

“Sword of Trust”

“Sword of Trust”

SXSW

SXSW stalwart Lynn Shelton — the festival played home to the filmmaker’s earliest feature works, including “We Go Way Back” and “My Effortless Brilliance,” along with her breakout “Humpday” — returns to Austin with her newest film, a star-studded affair that boasts beloved indie talents like Marc Maron, rising star Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins and Jon Bass. Named for a literal sword of trust (a keepsake believed to “prove” that the South actually won the Civil War), the film promises to be part adventure, part conspiracy theory screed, and part journey into the heart of the Southern-fried relic black market. With Shelton at the helm and Maron at the center, expect an experience that’s simultaneously talky, funny, wild, and real. —KE

“Tito”

Director Grace Glowicki’s unique feature-length debut is one of the most exciting entries in SXSW’s always compelling Visions section, which has launched everything from “Uncle Kent 2” to Joel Potrykus’ “Relaxer.” With “Tito,” Glowicki stars as an introverted man — you read that right — terrified to leave his house, at least until he encounters a friendly neighbor (Ben Petrie) willing to coax the character out of his shell. Opening with post-apocalyptic dread before it evolves into a buddy movie until a jolting experiential twist in its final act, “Tito” is the sort of visionary work that film festival audiences deserve to discover on the ground, and bodes well for the career of a filmmaker willing to tackle complex themes (gender identity and social biases both come into play) with a singular voice. —EK

“True Stories”

Following Talking Heads’ success with the Jonathan Demme concert film “Stop Making Sense,” frontman David Byrne was given carte blanche in 1986 to make this musical satire about a fictional Texas town’s 150th anniversary. The film consists of vignettes of “normal” everyday characters – with a pitch-perfect ensemble led by Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray and John Goodman – and a roaming narrator played by Byrne, who described the film as “a project with songs based on true stories from tabloid newspapers. It’s like 60 Minutes on acid.” Recently restored by the good folks at Criterion, “True Stories” is set for fresh acclaim at SXSW, where Byrne will be in attendance to introduce a new generation to his movie. —CO

“Us”

Lupita Nyong'o stars in Jordan Peele's new horror film, "Us." (Universal Pictures)

“Us”

Universal Pictures

First off, it’s Jordan Peele — the fellow who wrote and directed a little horror film titled “Get Out,” for which he earned a spot in history, becoming the first ever African-American screenwriter to win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2017. And this time around, he’s brought a star by the name of Lupita Nyong’o, as well as “Handmaid’s Tale” star Elisabeth Moss along for the ride, in a project that’s been shrouded in mystery since it was first announced. Those elements collectively should be enough to excite, but the release of the first trailer in December only further stoked enthusiasm, promising something ominous and eerie, with more secrets to spare. “Us” revolves around a family on vacation that winds up being pursued by a supernatural presence that looks just like them — or something like that. Whatever Peele has cooked up for audiences in “Us” will probably be the talk of Austin days after it makes its world premiere on opening night. At least fans outside of the festival bubble don’t have to wait long to catch up: It’s in theaters later this month. —TO

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