best films of sxsw 2016

The 2016 SXSW Film Festival is over, so you know what that means: it’s time to sift through the wreckage and hand out imaginary awards created by a jury composed entirely of a single writer. Welcome /Film’s SXSW Awards, where the categories only exist as an excuse to talk about the best movies that I saw at this year’s fest.

This was a strong year for a typically strong festival – as usual, everyone involved outdid themselves. For a complete look at everything I saw, you can head over here. But now it’s time to take the stage and start handing out fake trophies to a bunch of movies that deserve actual accolades.

best films of sxsw 2016

Best Film: Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols‘ fourth film is his best yet. A beautiful ode to the hardships and joys of being a parent and a stunning science fiction adventure, Midnight Special is the complete package and a massive step forward for a filmmaker who has been on the cusp of greatness for some time now. Although this is an exciting film, filled with special effects and action, it retains the distinctly Southern tone that made Mud and Take Shelter such joys. Nichols is just a fine storyteller – if he weren’t making movies, he’d be sitting on a porch, pouring you a glass of ice cold lemonade and offering to tell you the one about the super-powered kid and his parents, who fought the forces of God and government to save their child. Remarkably made and beautifully acted, Midnight Special is folksy and thrilling, low-key and awe-inspiring. Here’s to a future full of more Jeff Nichols movies.

best films of sxsw 2016

Best Male Performance: Joel Edgerton in Midnight Special

Every single actor in Midnight Special is phenomenal, but Joel Edgerton has the trickiest part and he nails it. As the friend who gets pulled into the action by Michael Shannon‘s character, he has to be our avatar. He has to represent us. So when something incredible happens, his reaction is our reaction. When the film reveals its biggest secrets, his bewilderment belongs to us, too. And you couldn’t ask for a finer audience representative. Edgerton plays an everyman like no one’s business and you won’t find a better collection of reaction shots in any film released in 2016. It’s such a natural, charismatic, and surprisingly funny performance that you can’t help but wonder why too many Hollywood films fail to utilize him this well. It’s lovely, subdued work from an actor we need to cherish more.

best films of sxsw 2016

Best Female Performance: Gillian Jacobs in Don’t Think Twice

Anyone who has watched Love and the late, great Community knows that Gillian Jacobs is a comedic force to be reckoned with, but Don’t Think Twice offers us a side of her we haven’t seen before. As a struggling New York City improv comic who is terrified of change, Jacobs is both hilarious and heartbreaking, using jokes and silly voices and comedic business to mask the pain that is dragging down her every moment. A standout in a strong ensemble, she is the movie’s thesis in a nutshell: the biggest laughs often emerge only after a great deal of trial and pain. Her performance is a beautiful blend of the comic and the tragic, a sad clown for the modern age.

best films of sxsw 2016

Best Animal Performance: Abbie in In a Valley of Violence

Sorry, cat from Keanu. You were not the most impressive animal in a SXSW film this year. While In a Valley of Violence didn’t quite work for me, Ti West‘s strange little western features one of the great movie dogs of all time in Abbie, the adorable and fiercely loyal canine companion to Ethan Hawke‘s weary gunslinger. Abbie offers everything you could possible want in a cinematic pooch: she attacks bad guys on command, fetches hats, and provides hilarious reaction shots to all of the human action. She’s just plain photogenic – the camera loves her in a way usually reserved for old school movie stars. It’s a shame that the movie doesn’t just give in and make her the main character.

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