A year after its in-person 2020 edition was canceled due to the pandemic, the SXSW Film Festival is bellying up for yet another virtual edition. But with a year of learning and innovating behind them — not to mention the lessons of a variety of other festivals that have gone the virtual route over the past 365 days — the SXSW team is preparing to offer up a multi-faceted event with ease. One major change: a single-serving pass that will get you (virtually, of course) into everything. (Learn more about that process right here.)
With reservations for film and episodics screenings open this afternoon, allow us to guide you toward a dozen of our most-anticipated picks for this year’s festival. Some of these titles have appeared at other events, but are just landing on U.S. shores (and screens now), while at least one is a holdover from last year’s truncated SXSW festival. All of them speak to festival’s aim to shine on a light on rising stars and talents taking a chance on something new, all at the tips of your viewing fingers.
Eric Kohn, Ben Travers, David Ehrlich, and Ryan Lattanzio also contributed to this article.
“Alien on Stage”
On screen, the “Alien” franchise might be somewhat idle for the time being, as fans — sifting through the muck of the blockbuster Disney/Fox deal — have little to do but wait for Noah Hawley’s forthcoming TV adaptation and curse the fates that we’ll never get to see the third film of Ridley Scott’s dazzlingly bizarre prequel trilogy. On stage, however, the Xenomorph is absolutely thriving.
It first broke into the theater scene a New Jersey high school’s impressive 2019 production of “Alien: The Play,” and then continued on its path towards becoming an even more acid-blooded Patti LuPone when a group of Dorset bus drivers spent a year creating a heartfelt but deadly serious adaptation that was, against all odds, destined for at least one night of greatness. Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey’s documentary “Alien on Stage” tells that story in loving detail, chronicling the amateur theater troupe’s chest-burstingly feel-good journey from Dorset to the West End as they try to forget out what they’ve made before it kills them. Sure to be every bit as funny and heart-warming as “Alien” is not, “Alien on Stage” will hopefully tide us over until “Alien on Screen” is a thing again. —DE
Avant-garde composer William Basinski’s “The Disintegration Loops” series from 2001 is widely regarded as one of the great ambient albums of all time. Built from tape loops that degraded when Basinski attempted to transfer his early work to digital, the sound is, as the musician describes it, like hearing the birth and death of a melody. Nearly 20 years after its release, David Wexler crafted a documentary homage to the recordings during the early days of the pandemic.
The film aims to capture the album’s legacy ahead of the 20th anniversary of September 11: on that day in 2001, Basinski finished the project before watching the towers collapse from his rooftop in Brooklyn. The real-time decay heard on “Disintegration Loops” became an unexpected elegy to the victims of the attacks. —RL
There are two kinds of cinephiles in this world: those who see “Andrea Riseborough stars in an unsettling psychological thriller” and thrust their wallets at whoever is doling out tickets and, well, people who don’t know a good thing. Riseborough, one of our most skilled and compelling performers, has yet to turn in a bad performance, but still seems poised for a big, splashy breakout. While this writer would gently steer viewers toward her riveting work in the underseen 2018 gem “Nancy,” filmmaker Stacey Gregg seems to have her own must-see Riseborough outing on her hands in the form of “Here Before.”
Set in Northern Ireland, the drama follows Riseborough as a bereaved mother whose already fragile life is upended by the arrival of a new family next door. Soon, she’s fixating on the neighbors’ charming little daughter and questioning the reality around her. If it sounds like a winking companion piece to “Nancy,” oh, boy, we can only hope for as much, but with Riseborough at the center, there’s little doubt it will be enthralling. —KE
Yngvild Sve Flikke’s wonderfully funny and warm “Ninjababy” recently screened at the Berlinale, the kind of crowdpleaser so charming that its appeal isn’t even dimmed by virtual (and solitary) viewing. Playing like something of a gender-swapped “Knocked Up” — imagine if it was Seth Rogen’s weed-smoking, shiftless Ben who was pregnant in Judd Apatow’s comedy, not Katherine Heigl’s straight-arrow achiever Alison, and you’ll get some sense of the film’s tone and star Kristine Kujath Thorp’s charm — and complete with plenty of raunch to go with it, “Ninjababy” ably straddles the line between humor and heart.
The film, which follows Thorp as the immature Rakel, stunned to discover she’s pregnant many, many months after an encounter, comes complete with some astute dissections of modern womanhood, thought Flikke is skilled at keeping things amusing. It’s cute, but not cutesy. Quirky, but not wacky. Mostly, it feels entirely populated with real people, and yet is still funny, no small feat in what could easily be an over-the-top comedic enterprise. —KE
“Not Going Quietly”
Activist Ady Barkan went viral in 2018 when he confronted Republican Senator Jeff Flake about tax reform on an airplane. The conversation didn’t yield any constructive results, but Barkan’s story didn’t end there. Struggling with ALS as he considered the future of his family, Barkan turned his anger over rising healthcare costs into a national cause, traveling the nation even as he struggled with his dwindling physical condition.
Filmmaker Nicholas Bruckman was tracking Barkan over the course of his dramatic call to arms and captured the delicate process that Barkan faced as he navigated personal and political concerns. Originally set to premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, Bruckman’s movie is poised to be a crowdpleaser about the power of citizen activism to fix America’s healthcare crisis at a moment when it couldn’t be more relevant. —EK
“The Spine of Night”
In the wake of Sundance hits “Flee” and “Cryptozoo,” grassroots 2-D animation may be on the verge of a comeback in the feature realm. Three’s a trend, and “The Spine of Night,” which premieres in SXSW’s midnight section, confirms this one on a roll: The zany-looking fantasy saga uses rotoscope technology to assemble an impressive ensemble cast that includes everyone from Richard E. Grant to Patton Oswalt, Lucy Lawless, and Betty Gabriel.
Reportedly inspired by both cult animator Ralph Bakshi’s work and fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, the visually dazzling story revolves around a mystical plant that destroys the planet, as the man who uncovered its power lords over a broken world. The “ultra-violent” movie is said to include plenty of wild magical twists and grisly showdowns made all the more involving for the graphic nature of its storytelling. It’s exactly the kind of DIY technology and brazen artistry that SXSW loves to support. —EK
Any movie starring Udo Kier as a retired hairdresser fleeing an Ohio nursing home on a journey of self-discovery is already appointment viewing for fans of the German cult film actor. But throw Jennifer Coolidge into the mix as one of his former clients whose dying wish is for Kier to style her final hairdo is probably must-see SXSW viewing for many more. “Edge of Seventeen” writer and “Another Gay Movie” filmmaker Todd Stephens directs this campy comedy co-starring Michael Urie of “Ugly Betty” and Linda Evans of “Dynasty,” who add to an already queer-tastic cast. —RL
Justine Bateman was only a teenager when she shot to superstardom overnight thanks to her role as Mallory Keaton on “Family Ties,” and she was barely in her twenties when the Hollywood machine decided it was done with her just as fast. From there, Bateman has engaged with showbiz on her own terms and cobbled together a fascinating, multi-faceted career that has seen her write, produce, launch a clothing design company, and even testify before Congress in favor of net neutrality. Now she’s stepping behind the camera for her debut feature as a director, and she’s doing so with a project that reflects her decades of experience in an industry that makes everyone feel like an impostor.
“Violet” stars Olivia Munn as a film executive who’s found a degree of success by listening to the negative voices in her head; the ones that tell her that her shirt looks ugly, or that no one wants her around. And then, one day, she realizes the voices have been lying to her for her entire life. How Justin Theroux factors into that story remains to be seen — fingers crossed he doesn’t just do the voices — but Bateman’s drama promises to be textured with a lifetime of earned wisdom about self-worth, the messages we get from the world around us, and how to adjust their volume low enough that we can still hear ourselves under all the noise. —DE
“Women Is Losers”
Inspired by the Janis Joplin song of the same name, Lissette Feliciano’s “Women Is Losers” follows the unlikely path of one-time Catholic school girl Celina (Lorenza Izzo) after some life choices through her for more than a few loops. Promising vibrant period details and a strong cast of rising female stars, “Women Is Losers” looks to marry stand-up-and-cheer entertainment with some tough twists, and we’re eager to watch all of them play out. —KE
“Made for Love”
Hot off “Palm Springs,” Cristin Milioti embarks on another science-fiction pseudo-romance, though this darker tale might involve less dance routines. Hazel (Milioti) is a thirty-something looking to escape her suffocating 10-year marriage. But before she can break free from Byron (Billy Magnussen), the tech billionaire implants a chip in her brain that allows him to not only track her, but read her “emotional data.” Hazel soon holes up with her widower father (Ray Romano) to try to make a plan, as “Made for Love” takes the twists and turns you might expect from executive producers like Patrick Somerville (“Maniac”) and SJ Clarkson (“Collateral”). —BT
“The Girlfriend Experience,” Season 3
More than three years after the second season of “The Girlfriend Experience” premiered, the Starz anthology drama is back for more. Season 1 paired Riley Keough with Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz. Season 2 saw the same writing and directing team telling two stories in dueling seven-episode arcs. This time, Anja Marquardt serves as the screenwriter and director for all 10 episodes, which follow Iris (Julia Goldani Telles), a neuroscience major whose interest in the eponymous experience is to gain an edge in London’s competitive tech world. But soon, she begins to question whether her venture into the realm of high-end escorts is really her doing, or if other forces are at play.
Executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, “The Girlfriend Experience” has delivered some of the best directed scenes of television this decade, and the stories have yet to disappoint. —BT
At the top of any TV fan’s must-see list since Amazon handed out a two-season order back in July 2018, “Them” is an anthology horror series from executive producers Lena Waithe and Little Marvin. The latter wrote the first season, which is set in 1953 and follows a Black family who moves from North Carolina to an all-white Los Angeles neighborhood. At first, their new home appears perfect. But the neighbors next door and forces from another world soon disrupt their idyllic existence, threatening to taunt, ravage, and destroy the peaceful family. Cast members include Deborah Ayorinde (“Luke Cage”), Ashley Thomas (“Top Boy”), and Alison Pill (“Star Trek: Picard”). —BT