The 10 Best Films I Saw SXSW

As a SXSW virgin who’d been to Austin before for Fantastic Fest, I had a blast feasting on the manic energy of this city. When South by Southwest comes to town, it’s like Austin has rattled its cages and let the monkeys loose in the best way. For seven days, it was nothing but movie-watching, taco-eating, party-hopping, standing-and-eating and, because there are no press screenings, hurry-up-and-waiting. Rowdy fetes are held almost every night across the city’s many dark and irresistible dives. I stayed downtown, smack dab in the middle of things, which made for a more chaotically immersive stay than my first Sundance earlier this year, where I met a far more punishing climate. But like Sundance, or any of the best film festivals, the city is abuzz each night with the kind of lively movie chatter you can’t get anywhere else.

As always, SXSW programs a fair share of titles from the festival circuit, from Cannes and Venice to Sundance. For every slot, when you catch up on a buzzy fest film, you may miss a world premiere or competition title. Rumors abound, for example, that award-winning Indiewire fave, the standout sci-fi “Creative Control,” may end up at this year’s Cannes, whose director Thierry Fremaux was trawling the Austin lineup for potential candidates. 

READ MORE: SXSW Wrap and Winners: Distributors, Pay Attention to These Films

Many SXSW rookies, including “Krisha” Grand Jury Prize winner Trey Edward Shults, have their fingers crossed as they sift through distribution offers. Seeing as last year’s Grand Jury winner “Fort Tilden” only just got picked up by Orion Releasing, it remains to be seen how effective a launchpad SXSW 2015 will be. 

Without further ado, here are the best films I saw at the festival this year:

1. “Creative Control” (SXSW premiere)
This deliciously inventive sci-fi comedy imagines what tech-addled millennials will look like in near-future New York. Writer/director Benjamin Dickinson also stars as an advertising hotshot whose company teams with an augmented reality startup on a new prototype that’s something like Google Glass on amphetamines: you can record and edit basically everything you see and do, and he ends up using the technology to create his dream, albeit holographic, sexual partner.

By night, he’s swilling pills and loading up on scotch and womanizing, unbeknownst to his yoga instructor girlfriend (Nora Zehetner). This fast-gabbing SXSW premiere was shot in silvery black-and-white by Adam Newport-Berra, who nods to “Manhattan” (explicitly in several scenes) as much as Dickinson seems to be conjuring a talkier but equally misanthropic Antonioni, whose films are also about the glass (both real and imagined) between us all that blocks our ability to connect. “Creative Control” is currently seeking US distribution.

2. “Heaven Knows What” (Venice premiere)
The Safdie brothers assembled a cast of non-actors, including the film’s brave star Arielle Holmes, off the mean streets of New York for this raw-nerved verité drama of love and heroin addiction spiraling out of control that burrows into “Panic in Needle Park” territory. Caleb Landry Jones, the only professional actor here, anchors this suffocatingly powerful work as Harley’s (Holmes) on-and-off and also drug-addicted boyfriend Ilya, a stringy-haired transient who is barely tolerating the needy Harley’s (Holmes) excesses, from her toxic infatuation with him to her scratchy need to get high. This hairsplitting, tense, invasive but never exploitative junkie docudrama, which RADiUS picked up after its rapturous Venice premiere, shadows the nervy Harley — whose movements very closely mirror Holmes’ own — as she trawls the mean streets for a fix, a favor, or a place to crash.

RADiUS will open the film later this year. No release date has been set.

READ MORE: How the Safdies Made “Heaven Knows What” with a Real-Life Ex-Junkie

3. “Love and Mercy” (TIFF 2014 premiere)
This Brian Wilson biopic is as wily and loose-limbed as the man himself, a dreamy and delirious ode to the troubled genius behind The Beach Boys. “12 Years a Slave” and ‘Tree of Life” producer Bill Pohlad has made a dazzling directorial debut that busts all the conventions of the movie biography, focusing on both Wilson’s disorderly heyday and his late-career nervous breakdown and subsequent entrapment by the notorious Dr. Eugene Landy. Paul Dano plays the spacey, quietly fraying ’60s Wilson — who was just starting to go solo to dip his toes in the world of orchestral pop — while Cusack plays Wilson in the mid-1980s, when the creatively bankrupt musician’s moods ran the gamut from catatonia to jumpy anxiousness. And you fall in love with Elizabeth Banks as never before as Melinda Ledbetter, the strong woman who comes to his rescue.

Roadside Attractions opens the film June 5, 2015.

4. “The Look of Silence” (Venice premiere)
Denmark-based director Joshua Oppenheimer joins the ranks of truth-seekers Albert Maysles and Werner Herzog with this companion to “The Act of Killing.” Oppenheimer artfully turns to the victims of the 1965 Indonesian killing machine that wiped out thousands of innocent people, including the brother of Adi, who movingly asks the perpetrators: “Why?” Unlike so many documentaries today — artless and/or po-facing — Oppenheimer is actually directing, and you can feel his voice guiding us through the messy leftovers of human atrocity. This tremendous film won SXSW’s Audience Award for documentary.

Drafthouse Films releases on July 17, 2015.

WATCH: Joshua Oppenheimer on Reinventing Documentary for “The Look of Silence”

5. “Lost River” (Cannes premiere)
Why is David Lynch our only reference point for weirdness? At Cannes 2014, critics were quick to tear Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut to shreds upon first blush. This darkly thrilling fairytale ride is weird indeed, but Gosling is after more than just that. Christina Hendricks is oddly cast, but affecting, as a desperately broke single mom who takes a gig at a freaky underground club where men act out their baser instincts. Iain De Caestecker plays her oldest son, Bones, a teenager who wants to escape this shitty, broken-down town. Cinematographer Benoît Debie shot all of Gaspar Noe’s movies and is the best thing about “Lost River,” crafting dazzling, lurid, pop-colored images that plant this film firmly in a dream space.

Warner Bros. releases day-and-date in theaters and on VOD April 10 in NY and LA.

6. “Krisha” (SXSW premiere)
Like a rookie version of “A Woman Under the Influence” without the laughs, “Krisha” is a dangerously serious family drama that spans the course of a Thanksgiving Day, as the title character—a painkiller-addicted ex-alcoholic right on the edge of the wagon—reunites with her estranged, leery relatives for the first time in years. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults casts his own relatives, shooting in nine days, and it’s a bit of a stunt. But his focused direction does yield some breakout performances, including Shults’ aunt Krisha Fairchild in the leading role. She’s not quite Gena Rowlands but fans of Cassavetes’ unhinged blond bombshell will enjoy how Fairchild dramatically juggles showboating, tenderness and rock-bottom sadness.

Currently seeking distribution.

7. “Tab Hunter: Confidential” (SXSW premiere)
If you don’t know Tab Hunter, a svelte Hollywood hunk who got his screen start in 1950s war pictures, no problem. Jeffrey Schwarz’s latest documentary tribute un-closets Hunter for a new generation of fans. And god, was he gorgeous. The film chronicles his meteoric movie career and how he managed to remain (mostly) secretly gay the entire time, carrying on affairs with athletes and actors including the elusive Anthony Perkins, at whom the film takes a good long look, while maintaining ambiguous relationships with women such as Natalie Wood for the public eye.

A distribution deal is imminent for Schwarz, who directed impassioned LGBT docs “I Am Divine” and “Vito.”

8. “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” (SXSW premiere)
Described as “a renegade, but legit,” “a study in contrasts,” “a monk among priests,” “maniacal” and “a rebel,” Steve Jobs is sketched in contradictory terms by human documentary factory Alex Gibney. This bracing film at first seduces you with the charms of the man, and then guts you with what a tricky riddle he was, an at-times sociopathic mogul who flew close to the Sun, touched it and never quite fell as he should have. You’re left feeling as troubled about the titular man in the machine as you are its director, and that’s a great thing.

“The Man in the Machine” was predictably picked up by Magnolia, which has distributed seven Gibney flicks, for 2015 release.

READ MORE: Alex Gibney Doesn’t Pander to Steve Jobs in His Unsparing New Doc

9. “6 Years” (SXSW premiere)
Though at points skewing too closely toward melodrama, writer/director Hannah Fidell’s tale of young love going sour contains bitter, relatable truths and knockout performances from Taissa Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield. It’s no small wonder that Netflix picked up global rights to this film from producer Mark Duplass, who along with his brother Jay Duplass inked a four-picture deal with the streaming company. “6 Years” has universal appeal in spades, two lovely lead performances and a whole lot of truth. (My review is here.)

Netflix will release “6 Years” later this year.

10. “The Automatic Hate” (SXSW premiere)
Director Justin Lerner (“Girlfriend”) pitches his second feature, this low-key but effectively eerie family drama, as “The Celebration” meets “The Long Goodbye.” He lures us into an unstable world of fucked-up, broken families with the bait-and-switch of a thriller before upending everything by dropping in an incest plot. Davis’ (Joseph Cross) curiosity about his many long lost blond (very Hitchcockian that way) cousins leads him down this road, and toward the most explosively uncomfortable dinner party scene ever.

“The Automatic Hate” is currently seeking US distribution.

Ryan Lattanzio is a staff writer for TOH at Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter.

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