Given the subarctic winter we've been experiencing in the Northeast this year, South by Southwest (SXSW), which takes place annually in balmy Austin, Texas, was something we were looking forward to even more than usual. Warm weather, spicy Mexican food, and the hottest movies imaginable all added to create a thoroughly thawing experience.
There wasn't a single OMG-you-have-to-see-this movie like there was last year, when "Short Term 12" made its debut, but the festival's lineup was quietly powerful, full of movies that were easy to miss, but at your own peril. There were a handful of loud, shout-y debuts, but some of those missed the mark completely, leaving room for the smaller movies to reach in and steal my heart.
So, a rundown of all of the movies we saw at SXSW -- some were odious, some were wonderful, but all of them we were very happy to watch... and not only because it got us out of the chilly northeast.
Writer/director Richard Linklater has always been fascinated with time. Whether it's the last day of high school in "Dazed and Confused," or the prolonged romance between an American goofball and the French woman who stole his heart ("Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset," and "Before Midnight"), Linklater has long been consumed by the way time works on us personally and the way it's illustrated cinematically. And "Boyhood" is his thesis project, a breathtaking, wholly transcendent work that following a young actor (Ellar Coltrane) from the age of 6 through 18. Watching "Boyhood" is nothing short of a transformative experience -- there's never been anything like this attempted before and it's unlikely anyone will be able to try something like it again. (Props should also be given to Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who play the parents and are there through the whole thing.) Linklater has proven himself, over the years, to be one of the world's greatest living filmmakers, but "Boyhood" puts him into another category altogether. This is the stuff of legend, at once small and delicate and at the same time nearly cosmic in scope, made up of the fine, nearly granular details of everyday existence that contribute to who we are as human beings.
2. 'The Infinite Man'
Well, this was a surprise. "The Infinite Man" is a tiny Australian romantic comedy about a man (Josh McConville) who uses his technical expertise to travel backwards in time and prevent the breakup between him and his love (Hannah Marshall). That's really the whole movie -- it's two people, circling each other in time. And it was the most quietly devastating and imaginatively inventive movie at the festival, a canny mash-up of "Primer," "Groundhog Day," and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" that asks the question: If you could do it again, what's to say that it would actually be better? Watching "The Infinite Man" is a galvanic experience, particularly when the threads come together and unravel again, and the movie, written and directed by Hugh Sullivan, is all around jaw-dropping, from the deeply committed performances to the movie's uncanny editing. "The Infinite Man" is just the best. Woe to those who missed out on it at this year's festival (we're praying it gets picked up very, very soon).
3. 'The Guest'
Last year, screenwriter Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard unveiled their hotly anticipated, unceremoniously shelved home invasion thriller "You're Next" to an enthralled SXSW crowd (I was there). This year, they were back with an entirely different beast altogether: "The Guest," which, simply put, is like the greatest direct-to-Cinemax action movie ever forged. If that sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise, I'm not -- this is like a hypodermic needle full of joy injected directly into your blood stream. I loved it. The less you know about the story, the better, but I'm comfortable saying that it concerns a soldier, played by "Downton Abbey" star Dan Stevens in a hypnotic, star-making performance, who visits the family of his deceased army buddy. From there things get... weird. This is the best thing Barrett and Wingard have ever done -- a deeply stylish, emotionally satisfying action movie with a mesmerizing synth score that sounds like it came from an '80s John Hughes movie (courtesy of Stephen Moore) and at least one more breakthrough performance by former athlete Maika Monroe. This was one of the few movies that got picked up out of the festival and for good reason -- it's totally f-ing brilliant.
4. 'Only Lovers Left Alive'
How has it taken this long for Tilda Swinton to play a vampire? Well, whatever the reasons... she's a vampire now and that's all that matters. In American master Jim Jarmusch's slow burn vampire movie, Swinton plays an ageless vampire reconnecting with her once and future love (played by "Thor" baddie Tom Hiddleston) and dealing with a younger vampire who is up to no good (Mia Wasikowska). There are no wild vampire attacks or people turning into bats; instead Jarmusch's emotionally honest film deals with the way that people would talk to each other if they've been around for hundreds of years. In Jarmusch's world, immortality is pretty groovy. And who better to spend it with than Swinton?
5. 'The Raid 2'
A few years ago, director Gareth Evans walked out onto the stage of the Paramount, the biggest and most impressive SXSW venue, to introduce his film "The Raid." He took a couple of steps forward, turned to the crowd, muttered, "I hope you like violence," and then walked off the stage. What followed was one of the more uproarious SXSW responses to a movie ever. Sadly, things didn't go so smoothly this time around: the first screening was shelved due to technical difficulties relating to the movie's subtitles and another screening was held at midnight, not exactly the ideal time for a 3-hour-long martial arts epic. No matter, "The Raid 2" is just as good, if not better, than its predecessor, a truly flabbergasting collection of action set pieces that are equally beautiful and horrendous. Instead of being confined to a single building, "The Raid 2" breaks out -- into jails and car chases and seedy pits of depravity and sin. In a weird way, it's something of a crime world epic. And yes, Gareth, we still like violence.
One of the biggest SXSW premieres also turned out to be one of the best movies of the festival. "Neighbors" is Universal's big summer comedy, about a frat house (led by Zac Efron) that moves into a peaceful neighborhood, right next door to lovable new parents (Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen). The movie is profoundly funny. Since the trailers have, thus far, given away nothing (it's all too dirty to put into the marketing materials anyway, even the red band trailer), neither will I. Just know that it's a scream. Visually, the movie is tremendously exciting too (director Nicholas Stoller cited "Enter the Void" as a reference point), with some of the greatest party sequences ever. And while the movie is being sold as a battle between Efron and Rogen, the real star of the movie is Rose Byrne, who turns what could have been a fairly forgettable performance into a genuine comedic tour de force. No joke: she's the real star of "Neighbors," a weird and weirdly relatable new comedy that will have you howling in the aisles come May.
Talk about weird: "Frank" is a movie where Michael Fassbender, one of the most handsome human beings currently inhabiting planet Earth (alongside Dan Stevens), hides his face inside a giant papier-mâché mask for most of the movie. Don't worry; it still works. The titular Frank is played by Fassbender and based, in part, on the life of British comedian Chris Sievey, whose Frank Sidebottom alter ego had a similarly bizarre existence (and strange mask). Frank is the leader of an eccentric band with an unpronounceable name (Sononprfbs) that soon welcomes a young member (Domhnall Gleeson), which changes the dynamic in all sorts of insane ways. Co-written by British journalist Jon Ronson, the movie has a wild, unpredictable spirit and is also really funny and surreal.
"Paranormal Activity" producer Jason Blum had two of the best films at SXSW this year (more on the second one in just a minute), which is pretty insane. "Creep" is sort of like the unholy union of "What About Bob" and "Fatal Attraction." A young filmmaker (played by co-writer/director Patrick Brice) answers a strange ad requesting filming services. He treks to the northern California cabin of an eccentric man (co-writer Mark Duplass), who says that he has cancer and that he wants to record himself for his unborn child, citing the Michael Keaton movie "My Life" as inspiration. Then things get weird. It's hard to talk about it without giving anything away. But this is one of the most unexpected, frightening movies at the festival and a true testament to Blum's willingness to try new things and not just crank out sequels to preexisting properties.
9. 'Obvious Child'
Imagine if "Knocked Up" was actually real and you'll have an idea about "Obvious Child." Featuring a star-making performance by New York comedienne Jenny Slate, it tells the story of a struggling Brooklyn hipster (not those!) who becomes pregnant and, like an actual human being, decides to have an abortion. It's hilarious, it's heartbreaking, and it's totally genius (full of fine supporting performances, too, from people like Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, and David Cross). Writer/director Gillian Robespierre is a serious talent and someone to look out for; this was one of the more unexpectedly moving experiences of the entire festival. Somewhere, Judd Apatow is shaking his head in shame.
This is the second Jason Blum joint to knock my socks off at SXSW: the tale of a two siblings (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites) who face off against a haunted mirror that was responsible for a familial tragedy decades earlier. This ingeniously structured (it toggles back and forth between the first incident and the kids, now all grown up, trying to destroy the mirror) and downright tragic, this is one of those scary movies that makes you jump up in your seat and sleep with the lights on. It's probably the spookiest movie since "The Conjuring" and will go a long way in making Gillan a household name (she'll also be a blue-skinned baddie in this summer's hotly anticipated "Guardians of the Galaxy").
11. 'Before I Disappear'
Expanding a short film into a feature is always a dicey proposition, even more so when the short film is an Oscar winner. Thankfully writer/director/star Shawn Christensen wasn't deterred, and decided to expand his acclaimed short "Curfew" into a full-length movie. The movie concerns a drug-addled loser who, on the night he's finally decided to commit suicide, is called by his sister and told to take care of his young niece (Fatima Ptacek). There are gangsters (hello Ron Perlman!), dance numbers, and, of course, emotional breakthroughs. But nothing feels forced or schmaltzy. It's also visually daring, nearly wondrous, and might be the best late night New York movie since Martin Scorsese's "After Hours." So there.
What could go wrong when a young, newly married couple (played by Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie) retreats to a family cabin for a getaway? Well, it turns out that there are some "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"-style goings-on in the area and, well... The less said the better. The feature debut of super talented (and really nice) filmmaker Leigh Janiak, the movie combines David Cronenberg-style body horror with deep emotionality, to create a one-of-a-kind experience that isn't too dissimilar from last year's Sundance (and SXSW) breakout "Upstream Color." When you're that close to someone, would you even recognize if they weren't the person you thought they were? While this might have been too much of a slow burn for hardened genre fans, the mixture of the otherworldly and deeply identifiable was an intoxicating brew for me.
13. 'Wolf at the Door'
This is an emotionally devastating Brazilian kidnapping thriller. Initially it seems much more pedestrian: a child is taken and her two middle class parents are endlessly interrogated. But then the film starts to take on additional dimensions and a "Rashomon"-like structure with an increasingly shifty perspective. But the movie reaches its tragic finale, you'll be a puddle. This is the kind of powerful genre filmmaking we rarely see in the United States.
14. 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
This was one of the hottest tickets at SXSW: a screening of the new Wes Anderson living dollhouse, featuring an "extended" Q&A with the director afterwards. And with good reason: it's really, really good. Basically, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which follows the insane antics of a concierge (Ralph Fiennes) in a fictional eastern European country on the brink of war, is Anderson's version of "Inglourious Basterds," a whimsical take on World War II by an artist unencumbered by actual history. The movie has a violent, melancholic tone that is quite different than most of Anderson's films and it's easily his most engaging feature since "Fantastic Mr. Fox."
15. 'What We Do in the Shadows'
An oddly beguiling faux documentary about a house of New Zealand vampires, from the "Flight of the Conchords" principles Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement (they co-wrote, co-directed, and co-star). In terms of establishing a distinct mood and tone, few movies at the festival were better than "What We Do in the Shadows"; this thing is dripping in a very fun, goofy atmosphere that is positively infectious. It was also great to see a movie that knew when to get out. At 80 minutes, it never outstays its welcome. It also had the best title sequence of the festival, set to Norma Tanega's obscure 1966 folk song "You're Dead."
16. 'Leave the World Behind'
This documentary, about the farewell tour of electronic music group Swedish House Mafia, was captivating, even from someone who barely understands the current dance music craze. The three dudes who make up the band, DJs/producers Axwell, Steve Angello, and Sebastian Ingrosso, are real characters, and their bickering is partially what made them call it quits. It's that heart of sadness, in a movie about people who make music for people to jump around and do drugs to, that gives "Leave the World Behind" its singular power. Also, the footage of them performing live is pretty mind blowing, even if you can't remember a single song after you leave the theater behind.
17. 'Veronica Mars'
As a longtime "Veronica Mars" superfan, the movie hit all the right notes, although I completely recognize that, to someone unfamiliar with the series, it might as well have been in Greek and with Armenian subtitles (running backwards), it would have made so little sense. Still, it was good to see plucky young P.I. Veronica (Kristen Bell) returning to her hometown to solve one last murder mystery. Occasionally cheap-looking, the movie delivered where it needed to: in the snappy dialogue and parade of "hey, it's me!" familiar faces. Also, it was very cool to hear her say the F-word. Take that, UPN censors!
18. 'Two Step'
This southern-fried crime movie follows a young boy, whose grandmother just passed away, and the small time criminal looking to take advantage of the money that's been left to him. The movie clearly owes a huge debt to the work of East Texas author Joe R. Lansdale, who was successfully adapted into the much more satisfying Sundance breakout "Cold in July," but the fact that "Two Steps" takes some surprising turns is appreciated. The fact that the movie sets itself up one way and takes a very drastic detour is both its biggest asset and largest fault. Still: it's hard to criticize something for doing the unexpected.
19. 'Doc of the Dead'
This fairly interesting documentary examines why zombies have infected popular culture and features interviews by a number of the genre's heavy hitters (among them: "Night of the Living Dead" director George A. Romero, "Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman, "World War Z" author Max Brooks, and "Shaun of the Dead" co-writer and star Simon Pegg). This doc is heavily detailed but ultimately lightweight, lacking a definitive answer as to why zombies are so big right now; enjoyable but inessential.
20. 'Godzilla' (1954)
Right before this screening started, everyone was theorizing that they would instead show this summer's "Godzilla." They didn't. So we were treated to the original 1954 "Godzilla," a movie that, political subtext aside, is so insanely boring and lame. This is a movie that has aged so poorly that it almost fails to impact at all. Quite frankly, the 1998 Matthew Broderick version might have been more thrilling (no joke). At least we got a cool Mondo poster out of it.
21. 'Space Station 76'
This movie has a ridiculously cool concept -- what if the futuristic notions of '60s utopians, like JFK and Walt Disney, actually came true? The movie is set on a scientifically sound space station in the year 1976, full of retro-future design work and weird sci-fi shout outs (Kier Dullea has a brief role!) but not even the game cast (Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler, Jerry O'Connell, Matt Bomer) can get this movie's heart rate up. It's beautifully constructed but frightfully dull (seriously -- at some point I tried to psychically will something, anything really, to happen). In space, no one can hear you snore.
22. 'Bad Words'
Jason Bateman makes his directorial debut, starring as a middle-aged man who enters spelling bees. Yeah, it's sort of funny, but largely dependent on how amusing you think Bateman trash-talking little kids is.
23. 'Among the Living'
The insane French filmmakers behind the recent, totally wonderful horror movie "Inside" attempt to make an ultra-violent Amblin movie; the results are unconvincing and not at all scary. While some of the kids' performances are great, the movie ultimately falls apart, first descending into silliness and then, unexpectedly, into sappy sentimentality. Blah on all counts.
"The Infinite Man" was the high point in time travel movies at SXSW, "Predestination" was the low point. This movie, which makes about as much sense as a rambling nut on the street corner, is about gender identity and sexual politics but also about a super secret time traveling bureau that is trying to prevent a catastrophic terrorist attack. Or something. This is making it sound much cooler than it is (it's not cool at all). Hawke is notable for starring in one of the best movies of the festival and one of the absolute worst.
Jon Favreau's much ballyhooed return to independent filmmaking is a bewilderingly ego-saturated, disturbingly drama-free comedy about a chef who gives up the high life to run a food truck with his precocious young child. Self indulgent, unfunny, and profoundly dull, this is what happens when someone tries to recapture the tactile grittiness of his youth after making "Cowboys & Aliens."