March 3, 2016
Austin, Texas, is known for a lot of things: breakfast tacos, extraordinary live music, the miraculous disease-curing magical goo that the locals call "queso." But for film fanatics, the appeal of the Lone Star State's bastion of wonderful weirdness can be boiled down to one specific thing: the SXSW Film Festival. (And also queso — it's really a year-round pleasure.) From March 11-19, the annual movie-geek get-together rolls out a stellar showcase of micro-indie dramas, midnight psychotronica flicks, a sidebar of music docs on everyone ranging from Gary Numan to hip-hop superproducers Organized Noize, and — just for good measure — premieres of a long-awaited new Pee-wee Herman movie and the latest Richard Linklater joint. Here are our 25 picks for the must-see movies at this year's edition.
'Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America'
Daryl Davis is a bluesman who's played alongside everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Bill Clinton. Matt Ornstein’s doc, however, is more interested in what the musician does when he's not playing licks or pounding the keys: introducing himself to members of the KKK. What started as a hobby for the Chicago-born Davis quickly evolved into a passion, as he realized that simply talking to a black man could alter the mindset of a virulent racist. Meet a man who's actually making America great again. DE
'The Art of Organized Noize'
They're god-given names are Patrick "Sleepy" Brown, Rico Wade and Ray Murray — but you know them as Organized Noise, the producers who gave the world TLC's "Waterfalls," most of OutKast's music and a whole mess of Southern hip-hop. Fellow mixing-board jockey Quincy "QD3" Jones steps behind the camera and dives into the Dungeon to chart how this trio changed the sound of contemporary music and made a few enemies (and a shitload of hit records) along the way. DF
'Artist & Repertoire'
Give it up for Mo' Wax! This look back at the life and times of James Lavelle goes into the founding of that seminal label, as well as bringing crate-digging master DJ Shadow to the masses, their collaborative project UNKLE, and helping turn turntablism into the chic music of that long-lost Nineties moment. And if you've been wondering what he's been up to since that Clinton-era heyday, we suspect you're about to get an answer. DF
One of them was a legendary stuntman who wanted to become a director; the other was the biggest movie star of the 1970s. When Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds decided to team up for an action comedy about a guy in a Trans Am and his trucker buddy hauling bootleg Coors into the deep South, everyone though they were crazy ... until Smokey and the Bandit broke box office records. Documentarian Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) does more than just chart the making of a cinema du good ol' boy landmark — he also delivers a history of he-men falling out of buildings for a living, a testament to the power of a hairy chest peeking out of a big-lapeled shirt and the history of a legendary Hollywood alpha-male friendship. DF
'Beware the Slenderman'
The Slenderman was the first genuine boogie monster of the modern age, a spooky sensation that started in an online forum and seeped across the Internet at warp speed. Tragically, the Web phenomenon bled into the analog world in May 2014 when two 12-year-old girls stabbed a classmate 19 times, in the hopes that the Slenderman might be impressed. Tracing how a meme evolves into a conduit for attempted murder, filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky's haunting doc offers an intimate look at the moment when digital folklore becomes devastatingly real. DE
Five emerging directors adapt each others' dreams into short films. The results are hypnotically senseless and often unshakably strange: a gorgeous sketch about a woodland sniper drifts into a Malick-esque portrait of an ex-con's first day of freedom; a gym teacher prepares his class for a volcano drill; a young mother who’s giving birth to an elemental monster; the grim reaper hosts a TV show about murdered black children. It's like nothing you’ve ever seen with your eyes open. DE
'Don't Think Twice'
There are very few things more agonizing than watching an improv comedy show, but walking through the second-floor window of a La Quinta Inn is probably one of them. Mike Birbiglia — whose autobiographical Sleepwalk With Me was a hit at SXSW 2012 — is someone who knows what it feels like to suffer for a laugh, so we expect that his new film about an UCB-style troupe torn asunder by one member's sudden fame will mine such pain for maximum humor. Plus Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs co-star, which is always a good thing. DE
When he was a kid, Stefan Pokorny was obsessed with role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons; later, he founded Dwarven Forge, a company devoted to making "pre-painted miniature terrain" for RPG enthusiasts. Now he's mounting a Kickstarter campaign to fund his most ambitious project yet: a huge art project that Pokorny hopes will inspire peace, love and harmony around the world via all-out fantasy geekitude. Something tells us this doc is going to roll a 20 in dexterity with this festival crowd. DF
'Everybody Wants Some!'
Richard Linklater had been teasing that his first post-Boyhood movie would be a "spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused" — and this tale of a rookie college baseball player (Blake Jenner) getting to know his fellow teammates does indeed feel like a distant cousin of that modern hanging-out classic. Based very loosely on the director's own experience, this is the type of movie that considers party first and foremost a verb and plays to Linklater's strengths, i.e. a casual attitude towards plot and the ability to turn rambling conversations into a cracked poetry. And like that earlier movie, it reminds you that the dude has a great eye for young talent; if this film doesn't do for Glen Powell what Dazed did for Matthew McConaughey, we'll take a fastball to the family jewels. DF
'Gary Numan: Android in La La Land'
We all know that Gary Numan scored a big hit in 1979 with "Cars" and his paranoid-android take on electronic music; what you might not know is that he suffered from Asperger's syndrome, which — along with a trouncing from an insensitive music press — presaged a long "where is her now?" phase of his career. Directors Steve Read and Rob Alexander detail the rise, fall and phoenix-like return of an alt-music pioneer. We assume that Numan's friends contributed some talking-head testimonials here — the question is, were they electric? DF
'Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death by Audio'
When underground Brooklyn music venue Death By Audio was shuttered in November 2014, its demise signaled the end of an era for Williamsburg's music scene; the space had played an instrumental role in launching bands like A Place to Bury Strangers and Dirty on Purpose. Fortunately, DBA cofounder Matthew Conboy had the good sense to film just about everything that happened between news of the warehouse space's closing and its raucous final night. Filled with killer concert footage, this rock doc bottles that brief moment in time when the neighborhood was suspended between a history of gentrification and a future of corporation. DE
'I Am Belfast'
Filmmaker, film historian and peerless first-person-essayist Mark Cousins (The Story of Film) delves into the backstory of his Northern Irish hometown, here personified as an elderly woman. (Technically, it should be called She Is Belfast, but we ain't quibbling.) Imagine a travelogue mixed with free-form musings, much wandering about and a deep dive into how this particular city has played a part in the country's identity crisis, and you're about halfway there. DE
'In a Valley of Violence'
Deviating even further from the slow-burn horror that's positioned him as the heir apparent to Wes Craven, Ti West (The Innkeepers) branches out with a Western revenge saga about a drifter (Ethan Hawke) who blows into a small frontier town with a fedora, a dog, and a serious thirst for revenge. Eventually joined by two sisters who run the local inn (Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan), our hero's quest for vigilante justice is sure to be accented with an unholy smattering of the red stuff. DE
American Horror Story veteran Lily Rabe is an emotionally paralyzed high school teacher who's forced to chaperone three of her students on a trip to a drama competition. As the titular professor begins to form an uneasy bond with one of the teen thespians (the electric Timotheé Chalamet, who first made noise in last year's SXSW hit, One & Two), this delicate, unassuming drama finds a way to thread a coming-of-age story with some decidedly more adult matters. DE
'My Blind Brother'
Robbie (Adam Scott) is a blind swimmer whose handsome looks have become an ironically crucial part of his identity. Bill (Nick Kroll) is the decidedly less sexy sibling who has always been there to point his brother in the right direction. Rose (Jenny Slate) is the woman they both trip over themselves for. Adapted from her short of the same name, Sophie Goodhart's feature debut uses one of SXSW 2016's most star-studded casts to tell a story about the bumps and bruises of of the ties that bind. If she's able to sustain the darkly comic energy that made the original so special, this will be the ruefully touching breakout film of the fest. DE
Back in the 1960s, a collective of surfers, psychedelic explorers and straight-up hippy-dippy freaks dubbed themselves the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Their mission: expand the world's consciousness through LSD. The result: numerous bad trips, a few doors of perception kicked open, and a how-to blueprint for the modern drug trade. Filmmaker William A. Kirkley (Excavating Taylor Mead) spells it all out for you, maaaaan. DF
'The Other Half'
It's only a matter of time before Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany becomes a big-screen force to be reckoned with, and this desperate romance could be the thing that sparks her explosion. Acting opposite her longtime boyfriend (Tom Cullen, who was the toast of SXSW when Weekend premiered there in 2011), the actress plays a bipolar woman in love with a self-destructive guy who’s never recovered from the disappearance of his little brother. It’s hardly the first hyper-intense drama about two lost souls scraping each other away from rock bottom, but this one should course with chemistry and conviction. DE
'Pee-wee’s Big Holiday'
Seventeen years is a long time to wait for a new Pee-wee Herman movie — but everything about the manchild in the grey flannel suit's return to big- and small-screen glory (this is a Netflix joint, after all) suggests that the wait will have been well worth it. After meeting a hunky actor named Joe Manganiello (played by hunky actor Joe Manganiello), our hero is forced to leave his hometown for the first time and venture cross-country to New York. Cue roadside encounters with a Faster Pussycat trio of tough chicks and the Amish, dream sequences, musical numbers, much candy consumption and some primo balloon fart noises. Even the trailer will make you giddy.
He's a Southern man, a socially conscious author, a dedicated back-to-the-land activist and a prime proponent of civil disobedience — and Laura Dunn's docu-profile of Wendell Berry suggests that there's still more to this agrarian spokesman than a lifetime of fighting the good fight. If you're familiar with the Kentucky native's essays, you know he's as eloquent as he is ecologically passionate and profound; if you've never read any of his stuff before (and you should), prepare to have your eyes opened. DF
Sure, the Bay Area is considered by many to be ground zero for the Our Glorious Home-Computing Revolution — but as anyone who's watched Halt and Catch Fire can tell you, Texans were doing their part to bring PCs to the masses. Specifically, the good folks at Compaq, the Houston company who took on IBM and tried to produce affordable proto-laptops back in the early Eighties. Filmmaker Jason Cohen traces the rise and fall of these unsung hardware pioneers. Yee-control-alt-delete-ha! DF
'A Song for You: The Austin City Limits Story'
For 40 years, the PBS series Austin City Limits has been bringing everything from C&W legends to No Depression alt-country acts, hard rockers to bluegrass pickers to TV sets around the States; now you can find out how this Texas-based show went from modest endeavor to the longest running music program on the air. One of two docs that Keith Maitland has at the fest (see also Tower), this stem-to-stern look at the institution centered in the "Live Music Capitol of the World" traces the entire history of ACL — and oh yes, there will be concert footage guaranteed to make you salivate. DF
'Tony Robbins: I'm Not Your Guru'
Documentarian Joe Berlinger has chronicled the stories of everyone from Metallica to the Memphis Three and Whitey Bulger — and now he turns his camera on bestselling author and celebrity motivational speaker Tony Robbins. The subtitle suggests that the portrait is designed to debunk the myth that the gentle giant is a self-help godhead, though the fact that the award-winning filmmaker got all access to Robbins' annual "Date With Destiny" mega-seminar also hints that we're about to see just how thirsty this man is offstage. Of all the fly-on-the-wall docs at the fest, this is the one we're looking forward to catching the most. DF
Early on the morning of August 1st, 1966, University of Texas student and former U.S. marine Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother, then headed to campus with a virtual arsenal's worth of firearms. He took residence in a tower and, for close to 90 minutes, randomly fired upon passerbys until he was shot by a policeman. Documentarian Keith Maitland uses first-person testimonies from witnesses to recreate Whitman's killing spree from various ground-level perspectives; he also uses rotoscoped animation to lend the entire proceedings a creepy, surreal feeling of distance as a normal Texas day turns into a waking nightmare. DF
Nicolas Cage, playing a corrupt Las Vegas cop who's tempted to steal from his precinct's evidence locker, stars alongside Elijah Wood and Jerry Lewis (!) in a crime comedy directed by the bros behind Justin Bieber’s "Where Are U Now" video. Our sincerest respect to anyone who has the strength to resist that offer. Cage may be in a James Brown-level funk right now, but don't forget that he pulled himself out of his last creative tailspin by reinventing Bad Lieutenant — so we've got high hopes for any movie that gives him a badge, a mustache, and a license to scream at civilians. DE
'War on Everyone'
From the deviant mind that brought you The Guard comes another jet-black screwball comedy about a pair of cops (Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña) who are just as crooked as the perps they bring to "justice." Set along the arid border between New and old Mexico, John Michael McDonagh’s warped crime flick follows our acidic heroes as they shakedown a local strip-club owner — only to end up in a bind when their attempted extortion reveals a crime too grim for them to ignore. Co-starring Paul Reiser and Creed actress Tessa Thompson, this has cult potential written all over it. DE