Everything We Saw At The 2016 SXSW Film Festival

Few film festivals offer the breadth and variety of SXSW and this year was no exception. During my eight days there, I saw gentle comedies, brutal horror movies, fascinating dramas produced on shoestring budgets, inventive documentaries and even an R-rated animated film about talking food. It was one helluva week.

Here is everything that I watched, including the (often very good!) movies that didn't get full reviews.

Shiloh Fernandez

Don't Breathe

Once Don't Breathe finds its rhythm, it becomes one of the most relentless horror movies in recent memory, a non-stop assault that finds that fine line between crowd-pleasing and shit-your-pants terrifying. Fede Alvarez already showed horror fans that he wasn't kidding around with his vicious 2013 Evil Dead remake, but Don't Breathe is his and his alone, proof that his brand of intensity can operate when removed from a beloved franchise. [Full Review]

don't think twice review

Don't Think Twice

This is the world of Mike Birbiglia's Don't Think Twice, a thoughtful comedy tinged with both melancholy and hope. Set within the New York City improv comedy scene, Birbiglia's sophomore effort as a director captures the joy of creation and the agony of creative stagnation – anyone who has ever struggled to make something will laugh and cry and find a great deal of the film hitting very close to home. [Full Review]

Everybody Wants Some

Everybody Wants Some

Everybody Wants Some has been billed as the spiritual sequel to Richard Linklater's 1993 masterpiece Dazed and Confused and that is not inaccurate. While that film explored the last day of high school in 1976, this film throws us into the first days of college in 1980. Both films care more about character and connection more than dramatic incident and both feel like time capsules. Linklater deftly sidesteps straightforward nostalgia, presenting a vision of the past that is warm without being worshipful. The film is as immersive as any science-fiction or fantasy film – this unnamed Texas town and its unnamed university are so detailed and rich that you can get lost in them. By inviting you into the intimate lives of these characters, Linklater asks to live amongst them and inhabit their world. [Full review]

hardcore henry trailer

Hardcore Henry

Hardcore Henry looks and feels more like a video game than any other movie ever made, but there are uncomfortable hiccups in bringing this language to the big screen. Some of the worst aspects of gamer culture are on display here, from cringeworthy comedy that feels like it could be generated by a pimple-faced preteen on the other end of an Xbox headset to the film's rather unfortunate depiction of women (they're dumb strippers at best and a Gamergate talking point at worst). There's little room for nuance in this movie, which goes from zero to one hundred in the first ten minutes before breaking the sound barrier during the all-bets-are-off climax. During its lowest moments, Hardcore Henry stops feeling like Crank and starts feeling (rather appropriately) like Gamer. There are attempts at Paul Verhoeven-esque cheekiness that don't quite land – if RoboCop is a symphony, Hardcore Henry is a grimy punk rock show put on by a guy who hasn't quite mastered his instrument. [Full Review]

I am not a serial killer

I Am Not a Serial Killer

A lot of movies bend over backwards to feel like a long-lost horror film from the '70s or '80s, but I Am Not a Serial Killer makes it look effortless. Director Billy O'Brien has crafted a thriller that feels like it walked out of another decade without ever calling attention to itself, which a refreshing feat indeed. The film is more than its subtly out-of-time style, though. As a young sociopath who constantly fights his homicidal tendencies, Max Records anchors the film, taking a character who could have been "Dexter Jr." and making him his own. As the seemingly supernatural murderer who is menacing the area, Christopher Lloyd reminds us why he's a national treasure. There is nothing slick here – just good 'ol fashioned meat and potatoes genre storytelling, part mystery and part feature feature. It's a fine, bloody little meal.

in a valley of violence review

In a Valley of Violence

Ti West and his cast and crew have composed a love letter to a specific kind of schlock and the results are just plain weird. The big performances, the straightforward plot, and the gory violence of the climax all feel like familiar seasonings in a big bowl of spaghetti western – we're just not used to seeing these elements in play today, where the average western tends to bend over backwards toward respectability. In a Valley of Violence is at its best when it's being funny and it can be really, really funny. When the film reaches its climax and the blood starts to gush and the familiar story goes off the rails in a spectacular fashion, you can really see what West was going for. This is more pastiche than parody, which makes the humor harder to pin down. The film wants you to smirk at every scene, even as the the excellent musical score reminds you of other, better films in the genre. [Full Review]

jack goes home

Jack Goes Home

Although it gets points for sheer ambition, Jack Goes Home is a scattered and messy, a psychological horror film that shoots for the moon but fails to achieve lift-off under the weight of its own ideas. Writer/director Thomas Dekker begins with a simple premise: Jack (Rory Culkin) goes home after the death of his father and things get really weird as he uncovers dark and horrifying secrets about his family. But the film is unfocused, unsure of what it wants to be and throwing dozens of concepts at the wall to see what sticks. Jack Goes Home is intense, but it isn't fun and it's rarely interesting. The sheer nerve on display is impressive, but it's not enough to overcome messy storytelling and eye-rolling twists. However, Lin Shaye brings some serious crazy to the table as Jack's unhinged mother and that's the gift that keeps on giving.

keanu movie

Keanu

Not every film needs to be a masterpiece and Keanu is a perfectly fine comedy filled with inspired gags and huge laughs and The Cutest Goddamn Kitten You've Ever Seen. This is crowdpleaser and it goes down easy enough. Even when it bogs down, it's a pleasant, amusing watch. Unfortunately, the most disappointed people in the audience may be hardcore Key & Peele fans – there are individual sketches from that show that offer more to chew on and consider than the entirety of this film. [Full Review]

midnight special trailer

Midnight Special

This mystery is awesome in the traditional sense of the word. The Spielberg comparisons, the Amblin comparison, are easy to make, but Jeff Nichols proves himself adept at creating moments of wonder that leave characters awestruck, their mouths hanging open in amazement. Midnight Special is filled with visual effects, but it is the cast who sells them. It is one thing to show us something incredible, but it is another thing altogether to let the sight render a character speechless, to communicate genuine awe through performance. He allows his characters to be mesmerized and, in turn, we are allowed to be mesmerized alongside them. [Full Review]

Pee-wee's Big Holiday teaser

Pee-Wee's Big Holiday

Available on Netflix right now, Paul Reubens' grand return to his most famous character is a joyous experience. Constructed with utmost care and wry wit by Reubens, co-writer Paul Rust and director John Lee, Pee-Wee's Big Holiday is charming and sweet and totally innocent, wringing big laughs from easygoing slapstick and silly wordplay. It's not quite Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (how could it be?), but this is a more than worthy sequel and a reminder that Pee-Wee Herman is one of the great comedic characters of the past few decades. And credit where credit is due: Lee and Rust place Reubens in all kinds of inspired comedic predicaments. Each set piece is special and each wacky character Pee-Wee meets is a special kind of bizarre. Bonus: Joe Manganiello steals the movie, showcasing a sweetness silliness that other movies need to start tapping into ASAP.

pet review

Pet

Jeremy Slater's screenplay is smart stuff, preying on our pre-existing horror movie knowledge to take us off guard whenever possible. Pet is more than its various twists and turns, though. That we feel sympathy for the two lead characters, that we like them and loathe them in the same scene, makes it a gleefully uncomfortable experience. The extended dialogue scenes, as each character attempts to justify their actions to the other, are appropriately squirmy. [Full Review]

sausage party sxsw

Sausage Party

Sausage Party is offensive and filthy and easily one of the dirtiest movies ever made. It final twenty minutes, which were mostly unfinished in this screening, may very well be the stuff of legend. In the Q&A that followed the screening, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon seemed shocked that the MPAA had already let them get away with an R-rating. It turns out that anthropomorphized food can do stuff in an R-rated movie that human beings cannot. [Full Review]

teenage cocktail

Teenage Cocktail

As an oddly sweet and uncomfortable drama about two teenage girls who fall in love and navigate the various barriers and boundaries of modern high school existence, Teenage Cocktail excels. Nichole Bloom and Fabianne Therese are remarkable in the two lead roles and their romance, as hormone-driven as it is, feels real and sweet and raw. Plus, any film that has the good taste to cast A.J. Bowen and Pat Healy deserves a big 'ol high five. It's just unfortunate that the film's transition into thriller territory is so very silly, leading to a denouement that is a little too obvious and preposterous, especially when compared to what came before. Still, director John Carchietta has an eye for the sublime and the uncomfortable alike and this is a promising first film from an artist with a real eye.

tony robbins

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru

I've never seen a movie quite like Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, which is essentially a self-help concert film. Director Joe Berlinger was granted access to Robbins' controversial "Date With Destiny" seminar and over the course of six 12-hour-long days, we watch Robbins as he helps visitors (who paid thousands of dollars to attend) achieve breakthroughs. The result is a fascinating film, but also a flawed one. Berlinger is enamored with Robbins and his process, selling him a great man and a healer who can do no wrong. But those who aren't on board will watch with unnerved concern – Robbins looks an awful lot like an evangelical preacher, utilizing hypnotic techniques to transform his audience into putty in his hands. It's disconcerting, fascinating footage that demands your attention...but the movie thinks the whole thing is uplifting and beautiful, refusing to even question Robbins' methods or showcase one of his many critics. The movie is practically a must-see, just not necessarily for the reasons everyone involved thinks.

tower review

Tower

It feels wrong to call Tower thrilling, but for its first hour, it is an enthralling experience. Keith Maitland leaps between perspectives to depict the horrifying escalation of the situation from every angle, ratcheting up tension. Tower is devastating, but it's also a portrait of ordinary men and women rising to the occasion to help their fellow human beings in the middle of a inexplicable war zone. It's intense. It's moving. [Full Review]

under the shadow

Under the Shadow

Everyone is calling Under the Shadow "the Iranian version of The Babadook" (our own Angie Han said as much in her review from Sundance), but Babak Anvari's terrifying new film is very much its own beast. Set in Tehran, Iran in 1988, the film follows an embittered mother and her young daughter as they live in constant fear of missile attacks from neighboring Iraq. But the fear and anxiety in the air breeds something especially awful – as people flee the city, demonic forces move in, terrorizing the leads for their own nefarious purposes. While Under the Shadow is a viscerally frightening film, it's the setting, bonded to the horror at a DNA level, that makes this a special film. Narges Rashidi's Shideh lives in a society that oppresses her at every turn, that forces her to live in constant fear, with the spirits in her home as just the latest assaults on her existence in a nation that has gone out its way to strip her of her future. Under the Shadow is terrifying before the jump scares begin.

the waiting

The Waiting

Every generation gets their version of Rear Window and The Waiting is pretty good one. Partially shot in a found footage style, the film follows (total a**hole) teenagers who decide to convince their crotchety old neighbor (James Caan, doing his James Caan thing) that his house is being haunted. As we follow their exploits through the cameras they film everything with, the film breaks into more a more traditional to showcase the perspectives of other characters...which don't always align with what the (total a**hole) teenagers are seeing. Naturally, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to their chosen victim and the ultimate revelations are surprisingly sad and sobering. It's a shame that the film itself is only intermittently thrilling, but the human drama is on point.