The South by Southwest film festival officially opened for business today, featuring a stacked lineup of independent films guaranteed to garner buzz, although most of them won't be in the running for any prizes. The “in competition” lineup at SXSW remains a proving ground for less-prominent indies that didn’t make the Sundance crowd, and until recently the Jury Award winner would often fade into quick obscurity (does anyone remember Made in China or Wellness?). But 2010 narrative feature winner Tiny Furniture launched Lena Dunham to stardom, and last year’s Short Term 12 was a jewel of a movie which got some serious awards traction for its star Brie Larson.
The festival has also become a place for commercial or, rather, more commercial fare to have splashy premieres and screenings. Last year, for instance, the festival marked the beginning of the ignominious run of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and the start of the Spring Breakers phenomenon. A variety of "festival favorite"—movies that have premiered at other festivals—also stop by SXSW. This year those include Jason Bateman's Bad Words, Richard Linklater's Boyhood, and the Michael Fassbender-starring Frank. Some of the films looking to break out of Austin include:
The Heart Machine: SXSW has been good to actor John Gallagher Jr. Last year a movie featuring the Newsroom star, the wonderful Short Term 12, won the festival's Grand Jury Prize. He's back this year in The Heart Machine, where he plays a guy who develops a relationship online with a girl who he believes to be in Berlin. When he starts doubting her real-life whereabouts he starts searching for her in his own city, New York.
Veronica Mars: There's something perfect about the fact that the Kickstarter-fundedVeronica Mars movie is having its world premiere at SXSW as one of the headliners. Both the movie and the festival are sort of hybrids: decidedly indie entities that wormed their way into broader public consciousness thanks to cult-like fan bases. When Veronica Mars finally screens Saturday, we should have all of our questions answered: Does Veronica still have her murder-solving talents? Will Veronica end up with Logan or Piz? Will this be any good? Here's hoping, marshmallows!
Chef: Jon Favreau's food truck movie will show at Tribeca but has its world premiere at SXSW. Favreau himself stars, but the movie also features a ton of other stars including Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey Jr. Favreau himself is really pushing this as his return to his Swingers days.
Neighbors: This comedy starring Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen as a married couple who go to battle with a frat led by Zac Efron is having its "worldwide debut" in the headliner section as a "work in progress." Based on the trailer the verdict is definitely still out on this Nicholas Stoller joint, so we'll have to wait and see.
This year's other headliners include Nic Cage's Joe, a David Gordon Green, which has good reviews in Venice, and Predestination, an Australian sci-fi movie starring Ethan Hawke.
Cesar Chavez: Y Tu Mamá También actor Diego Luna directed this Cesar Chavez biopic starring Michael Peña, which is having its North American premiere in the Narrative Spotlight section of the program. The film is being released later this month.
Faults: It's felt like Mary Elizabeth Winstead has been on the cusp of breaking out in a big way for some time now. And here's yet another chance. Faults, which is directed by her husband Riley Stearns, stars Winstead as a girl under the influence of a cult.
A Night in Old Mexico: Robert Duvall plays an old—shocking, we know—rancher who goes on a road trip with his grandson, who is played by the boy from War Horse, Jeremy Irvine. The film is directed by Emilio Aragón, a Spanish multi-hyphenate. This seems like a good role for Duvall, who could use a career revival.
Beyond Clueless: This documentary basically sounds perfect. It's narrated by Fairuza Balk and explores teen movies. Per the SXSW schedule: "Part adolescent fever dream, part roving visual essay, the film puts Hollywood's high school under the microscope on a quest to lay bare the genre's beating heart." This sounds perfect. We want it now.
Before I Disappear: This already has some pedigree, since it’s based on 2012 Oscar-winning short film Curfew, a drama about a depressed New Yorker who interrupts a suicide attempt to babysit his niece. Writer/director Shawn Christensen is reprising his lead role alongside Fatima Ptacek, and the supporting cast is full of familiar faces: Richard Schiff, Emmy Rossum, Paul Wesley, and Ron Perlman.
Fort Tilden: A shaggy-dog story of not very much happening at all, as two 20-something friends (comedian Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty) struggle to get to the Rockaways for a beach party they were invited to by two cute guys (comedian Griffin Newman and Jeffrey Scaperrotta). The movie was Kickstarted by its directorial team Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers and is going for an After- Hours-meets-Romy-and-Michelle vibe (although given its Brooklyn setting and female leads, inevitable comparisons to Girls will set in).
Wild Canaries: It's a small-scale whodunit from Lawrence Levine and Sophia Takal, who have been plugging away in the New York indie scene for a while now with little-seen but well-received features like Green. They’re also the stars of this maybe-murder-mystery about a Brooklyn couple investigating the death of their elderly neighbor. Alia Shawkat, Annie Parisse, and Jason Ritter will feature too.
Honeymoon: Part of the Midnights screenings, it is a sinister-sounding psychological romantic drama where newlyweds Rose Leslie (Ygritte on Game of Thrones) and Harry Treadaway find themselves drifting apart, maybe because of supernatural forces? It all starts after Leslie wakes up naked in the woods for no good reason. We've all been there, that's not easy to just brush off.
Oculus: Another Midnights horror effort starring Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) and Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) as sisters trying to clear their imprisoned brother's name by proving that a mirror committed the crime he's accused of. That'll be easy. It's worth nothing that this film is produced by WWE Studios, pretty much a golden standard of quality.