The Best Movies We Saw at SXSW 2015

By  · Published on March 25th, 2015

If you’ve been reading Film School Rejects for a while you know that we’ve covered a lot of film festivals in our day. This process usually involves anywhere between two and four of our finest writers traveling to a festival and reviewing as many movies as possible. This usually gives us a nice mix of reviews – we catch some of the headliners (often studio movies looking for a little festival bump) and plenty of indies (undistributed movies looking for a buyer). This year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival yielded a different result, to a certain extent.

The coverage team included yours truly and Chief Critic Rob Hunter. And whether we planned to or not (we sort of planned it), we ended up seeing very different slates of movies. Rob’s festival included a lot of independent films, leading him to a number of wonderful discoveries. Conversely, my festival was spent chasing after the big name movies, the unfinished headliners and even bits of footage from a new movie shown after a very old one. He went indie while I swam with the mainstream. This not only provided vastly different experiences, it also provides an interesting perspective on SXSW itself. It’s the kind of festival that doesn’t hang its hat on just one thing. Part of what makes SXSW fun is that you can go see a movie in the morning that may never hit theaters and in the evening you can see a big studio release months in advance. For better or worse, it’s the rare festival designed with Average Joe Badgeholder in mind. But we’ll talk more about that later.

Before the festival began, we gave you a list of the Movies You Should See at SXSW. Today we are going to provide our list of the Best Movies We Saw at SXSW. This includes Rob’s recap of the best discoveries he made and my list of the best mainstream stuff. With our powers combined it makes for a pretty solid list of movies you should track as the year goes on.

First, the five best from Rob Hunter:

The Invitation

Will and his girlfriend are invited to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife in the home they once shared – before their son died and she ran away to Mexico. She’s back now, remarried and happier than ever, but as Will and other old friends settle in for the evening he can’t help but feel that something is wrong. There’s a lot to admire about Karyn Kusama’s long-overdue return to feature films, from the sharp performances to the the perfectly managed atmosphere, but the most impressive aspect of it all is the film’s balance between empty paranoia and justified suspicion. It’s a fantastically entertaining and dread-filled watch that keeps you on edge throughout. (The Invitation makes for a perfect companion piece to another SXSW film, The Overnight, which would have made my top five of the fest if I hadn’t already seen it previously.)

He Never Died

Jack leads a simple life consisting of sleep, Bingo and a somewhat mysterious diet, but when two women enter his life – a possible romantic interest and the grown daughter he didn’t know he had – the truth of his past comes calling with a bloody vengeance. Henry Rollins may not be a finely tuned actor, but the combination of fierce power resting just beneath his skin and his wonderfully gruff and dry line delivery work to create a character that entertains utterly and completely. Part black comedy, part bloody action movie, Jason Krawczyk’s feature debut is a gritty noir with a supernatural twist that puts a creative spin on the well-tread formula of a nobody who stumbles into a fight with some organized thugs. Violent, bloody and very funny, this is the kind of surprise gem that film festivals are designed for.

The Nymphets

A man who should know better picks up two young women (teens?) who may not know what’s good for them, and soon the three of them are partying at his apartment sharing stories, glances and mind-games. Writer/director Gary Gardner begins with a simple and straightforward premise, but as the night goes on it becomes clear that none of the trio are all that in sync with their own desires let alone those of the others. Sex, yearning and humiliation all come into play as they make moves and counter moves on each other for purposes known and unknown. It’s funny and sexy, but more than that the film offers viewers a glimpse into one hell of an awkwardly honest and painful evening.

We Are Still Here

A couple retreats to a remote house in Upstate New York after the death of their grown son, but as they settle into the winter with their grief they begin to suspect long-ago deceased tenants may still be roaming the halls. New homeowners, an old house, neighbors warning them of the home’s haunted past – we’ve seen this setup before, but writer/director Ted Geoghegan keeps things fresh and terrifying with some incredibly bloody set-pieces, an interesting back story and some fun nods to the genre. Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden up the genre credibility even further, but the biggest compliment I can pay the film is the admission that it made me jump three times. And I never jump.

Roar

A woman and her three grown children head to Africa to visit her husband and their father who’s been working on a research project involving the continent’s big cats – lions, leopards, cheetahs, panthers, tigers (for good measure) – but they soon find themselves surrounded and overrun by dozens of the large felines. Look, there’s no real plot here to speak of and most of the performances (aside from maybe Tippi Hedren and Melanie Griffith) are sketchy at best, but the pure madness of the film’s production carries it through to the end. The cast and crew were actually immersed in the action with the animals – filmed across several years, the production resulted in dozens of severe injuries including cinematographer Jan De Bont’s scalped head and Griffith’s torn calf – and it’s clear that every frame is in violation of all manner of laws both legal and purely of common sense. Drafthouse Films unearthed this slice of cinematic insanity from the obscurity of its 1981 opening for a re-release next month, and fans of nature horror and live-action Disney films (which it most assuredly isn’t) should make a point of checking it out.

And now a selection of the best films screened by yours truly:

Ex Machina

What writer/director Alex Garland (Sunshine, Dredd) has accomplished with Ex Machina is nothing short of a modern sci-fi masterpiece. It’s the rather simple tale of a young man (Domnhall Gleeson) who is tasked by an innovative and eccentric billionaire (Oscar Isaacs) to be the human element in a Turing test. In short, he’s there to see if the mechanical body of Ava (Alicia Vikander) is fit with a mind that contains true artificial intelligence. Is Ava just like a human? The film is permeated by tense, atmospheric moments and meticulously realized intimacy. It asks difficult questions about creation, the guidelines of what make us human and the very nature of interaction. It’s wonderfully acted and even more brilliantly written. On the basis of being a beautifully shot, hauntingly scored film alone it is worth a watch. But the performances of its three leads elevates the visuals and makes Garland’s thoughtful script leap out at us. Of all the films I saw at SXSW this year, this one has stayed with me. It is driving interesting conversations about what makes us human, about sexuality and about what motivates us to push technology forward. It’s a lot more than just an exercise in whether or not your iPhone would like you if it had free will.

Hello, My Name is Doris

There’s a very simple appeal this film from Wet Hot American Summer and The State alum Michael Showalter: it’s about Forrest Gump’s mom hitting on Schmidt from New Girl. If that doesn’t make sense, let’s make this even easier: it is 95-minutes of Sally Field being the most adorable version of herself. In fact, there’s a scene in which Field, as the titular Doris, is learning about electronic dance music so that she might ultimately woo her much younger coworker (played by the infinitely charming Max Greenfield from New Girl). She begins to dance and all at once an entire lifetime of Sally Field being awesome is realized. Also, you heart grows to three times its normal size. Doris has heartfelt moments, funny moments and plenty of the awkward you might expect from a movie in which a much older woman attempts to woo a younger man. But it’s never slight in its approach. Perhaps its greatest quality is the earnest nature in which it handles Doris’ story. She’s funny, but she’s a well-rounded character. The same can be said for Greenfield’s character and a host of wonderful supporting players (the likes of Natasha Lyonne, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Beth Behrs, Stephen Root and Kumail Nanjiani, all of whom are great). It came as no surprise that Doris won an audience award this year at SXSW, as it was quite simply enjoyable.

Sneakerheadz

Of the documentaries we saw at this year’s festival – and by no means did we have a chance to see all of them – none had the kind of zip that allowed Sneakerheadz to become so memorable. In its exploration of a subculture of collectors, this doc from David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge finds a host of vibrant characters and stylish players. It goes beyond the collection of Air Jordans and explores a global style phenomenon that, for better or worse, has inspired a generation of collectors. It never shies away from the troubling aspects of sneaker collection – that kids in rough neighborhoods are bullied and sometimes killed because of what they have on their feet – but it also celebrates the sense of community and entrepreneurial spirit that exists within sneaker culture. As someone who has been obsessed, at least periodically, with various things – be they movie posters, LEGOs or even trading cards as a child – it’s always awe-inspiring to see how such passion manifests. Sneakerheadz is a tribute to that passion, a cautionary tale and a monument to looking fly, all wrapped into a brisk 73-minute movie.

Trainwreck

It’s odd to think that a technically “unfinished” movie could make its way onto our list, but let’s get one thing straight: as far as we can tell, Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck needs no more work. Amy Schumer headlines the movie as a young writer for a men’s magazine whose lifestyle involves a lot of traditionally bad decisions. In Amy’s world, monogamy is unrealistic and there’s no reason to change. That is, until she meets a nice sports doctor (played by Bill Hader) who gives her a reason to change. Trainwreck is the kind of comedy that gives us a number of things of which we can’t get enough. First and foremost is Amy Schumer, who proves herself to be an absolute force of nature. She is the energy that drives this film. Second is a number of fun supporting performances – SNL’s Vanessa Bayer, Tilda Swinton, Dave Attell, Brie Larson, the aforementioned Hader and yes, even Lebron James are all wonderful as they orbit around Schumer’s dynamic performance. The story is a very basic New York rom-com formula, but Schumer and co. bring it to life with so much verve that we don’t even notice. We’re too busy laughing very hard.

Adult Beginners

In the past year we’ve learned a lot about the comedic range of Rose Byrne. In Neighbors, she was a wonderful companion to Seth Rogen and the bro-frat goofiness of Zac Efron and Dave Franco. In Paul Feig’s espionage spoof Spy, which also screened at SXSW, she was a razor sharp and deviously witty nemesis for Melissa McCarthy. And in Adult Beginners she shares a great deal of the comedic load while Nick Kroll, in a surprisingly heartfelt performance, shows off his dramatic chops. Together they are engaging as a pair of siblings dealing with the various strifes that life has put upon them. Along with Bobby Cannavale, who plays Byrne’s husband, they form one of the most unique and surprisingly affecting ensembles we’ve seen in a while. Adult Beginners has plenty of laughs but it also has plenty of heart. The directorial debut of Lost in Translation producer Ross Katz feels like a real dramatic coming out party for Kroll, who has spent much of his career being very silly (and extremely funny) on FX’s The League and his own Kroll Show. Should this film find an audience, Kroll’s screen presence could take a big next step, deservedly so.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the upcoming One Perfect Shot TV show (HBO Max, 2021) and the co-host of The Storm: A LOST Rewatch podcast. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)