Complex’s 15 Best Movies From SXSW

Eight days and seven nights spent in Austin, TX. Thirty movies watched. Not nearly as much BBQ eaten as one would’ve hoped. And, an even bigger fail, not one Monty Python’s Holy Grail Ale consumed inside the Alamo Ritz theater on 6th Street, located in the heart of Downtown Austin.

The 2013 SXSW Film Festival is over, and this year’s lineup of independent narrative films from various countries, diversified documentaries, eclectic shorts, and world premieres of big Hollywood movies (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Evil Dead) was quite strong. Of those 30 flicks seen, only five or so could be classified as truly bad; the most superlative of the lot, on the other hand, gave us plenty to look forward to in the coming months ahead.

You’ll especially want to keep your eyes and ears open for further news on the 15 best movies that Complex saw at SXSW, some of which have already have release dates and distribution deals in place while the rest, if there’s any justice in film land (don’t hold your breath), shouldn’t fade into obscurity and only exist as the stuff of festival-goer legend. Fingers crossed on that— we’re still wondering what the hell ever happened to Black Pond from last year’s SXSW.

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As the old saying goes—and the prophetic Nasir Jones once turned this into a song title—no idea’s original.

When it comes to storytelling, what matters is how one gets to the heart of a narrative,
not the narrative itself. Case in point: Hannah Fidell’s taut character study A Teacher.

It’s centered around a familiar concept, that of an attractive high school instructor conducting a secret love affair with one of her male students. Notes on a Scandal, much?

Yet, regardless of her script’s surface-level familiarities, Fiddell’s devastating knockout of a motion picture (which first caught a strong buzz during January’s Sundance Film Festival) never feels rudimentary. Creating a pair of believable, honest characters, she’s delivered a controlled and intricately volatile moment in time: the phase of the student/teacher relationship in which one person’s sexual interest transforms into infatuation.

Ms. Diana Watts (newcomer Lindsay Burdge in a powerhouse turn) is an Austin, TX, high school English teacher whose obsession with likable hunk Eric (the equally strong Will Brittain) is leaving her in a perpetual state of on-the-verge internal combustion. Fidell takes full advantage of Burge’s dynamite face, keeping the camera fastened on Burge’s reaction to news of a freshman female’s recently discovered, topless camera phone pic (which brings to mind a photo Watts took for Eric). Burge conveys near eruption without so much as blinking.

As A Teacher swiftly moves towards its intelligent and downbeat resolution, Fiddell captures a mood that’s reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s similarly dour The Piano Teacher—and that’s one lofty compliment. Once her film receives its Labor Day release via Oscilloscope Laboratories, you’ll appreciate the comparison.

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Filmmakers don’t always handle young love with much honesty—how often do on-screen romances get dealt with in realistic ways that viewers can relate to? The flash mob scene at the end of Friends With Benefits always comes to mind as an example of Hollywood’s inclination toward exaggerated fairy tale conclusions.

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weberdon’t seem to have any interest in those kinds of forcibly optimistic resolutions. First, they depicted a nice guy’s emotional devastation caused by an incompatible partner in (500) Days of Summer; and for their follow-up screenplay, The Spectacular Now (based on the novel by Tim Tharp), the duo has taken it back to the uncertain coming-of-age high school days. The result is an uncommonly thoughtful and powerful examination of angst. It’s also the second top-notch, character-powered dramedy from director James Ponsoldt, coming on the heels of last year’s underrated Smashed. Like Neustadter and Weber, and proven by The Spectacular Now, Ponsoldt has a special voice.

In a performance that should officially turn him into a star, Miles Teller (21 and Over) plays Sutter, an aimless, borderline alcoholic kid whose girlfriend (Brie Larson) has just broken up with him; his father (Kyle Chandler) is nowhere to be seen; and his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) isn’t exactly affectionate. To hide his self-loathing, Sutter goes about his senior year being the perpetual class clown, a jokester who doesn’t take anything seriously.

After a drunken bender, he gets woken up on a stranger’s front lawn by Amy (Shailene Woodley), a slightly nerdy, far less popular classmate who reads comic books and has never had a boyfriend. There’s an immediate connection, and it doesn’t take long for Amy to fall head over heels as she inspires Sutter to confront his family issues and finally approach life with a straight face. But in The Spectacular Now, love doesn’t necessarily conquer everything. Ponsoldt’s film isn’t concerned with taking the safe way out—it’s at times surprising just how real The Spectacular Now keeps it, sending its characters headfirst into heartbreak, downward spirals, and physical harm.

And when the characters suffer, you’re right there with them. Aside from its resonant themes, The Spectacular Now is furthermore a showcase for two of the best under-30 actors. Teller and Woodley have an effortless chemistry, even as their characters really go through it emotionally. When Sutter endangers himself by pushing back against what’s good for him, you can’t help but feel for the guy; as Amy becomes more and more blinded by her first love, you’re own heart melts watching her helplessly encounter desire’s darker sides. And when Sutter delicately pops Amy’s cherry, it’s a tender, excellently performed and masterfully staged moment.

Last year, the sleeper hit The Perks of Being a Wallflower blindsided critics with its atypically frank and fearless depiction of high schoolers who don’t just flirt with chicks, bump uglies, and goof around in class—that film’s characters are just as complicated as those in the best adult drama. Now that we’ve got The Spectacular Now (which will open theatrically in August), it’s officially a burgeoning trend: the mature, reality-based teen movie. This is a very good thing.

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Short Term 12 has many scenes that resonate to the core, but there’s one in particular where writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton lets his creative mastery shine.

In the eponymous foster care facility, 17-year-old Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is only a few weeks away from his 18th birthday and subsequent release back into normal society. Up until this point, he’s been quiet and resistant to close interactions with anyone else inside Short Term 12. His unknown backstory comes to light, though, during a raw, profane, and powerful rap he’s just written about the neglectful relationship he had with his drug-involved mother. As counselor Mason (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher, Jr.) beats a drum alongside of Marcus and listens on with compassionate ears, the teen spills his heart out the only way he knows how to: through the written, rhythmic word.

It’s those kinds of earnest shots of rich characterization that define Short Term 12, an all-access look into the lives of both the underprivileged kids who’ve done nothing to deserve their situations and the sympathetic adults who help them despite having their own issues to worry about. Calling the shots inside Short Term 12 is Grace (Brie Larson), Mason’s on-the-low girlfriend who’s brilliant when it comes to connecting with disenchanted youngsters. She’s also harboring some dark inner demons, and when a new girl (Kaitlyn Dever) checks in and slowly reveals that she’s the victim of parental abuse, Grace’s ability to relate to such trauma points the imaginary “Help Me” sign towards her.

The most impressive aspect of Cretton’s exceptional story is how he never teeters into melodrama. The film’s heavier scenes are perfectly pitched, hitting high-points of emotional eruption without going too far. His technique for keeping Short Term 12 grounded? Finding the right times to add naturalistic levity. Taking its poignant subject matter into account, Cretton’s knack for deriving big laughs from likable characters simply being themselves is apparent throughout the film—there’s not a single false moment or forced joke.

Which, of course, wouldn’t be possible if not for his altogether spot-on cast. Given the most to work with, Larson is Short Term 12’s breakout. Having already shown big range in diverse projects like Rampart and 21 Jump Street, she’s able to blend her comedic timing, dramatic chops, and previously unseen explosiveness into a multi-layered character who’s ultimately the film’s center. Short Term 12 won the Grand Jury Award for SXSW’s narrative competition earlier this week, guaranteeing that it’ll continue to win festival audiences over (yesterday’s screening ended with nearly a full minute’s worth of applause)—meaning, Larson’s agent should anticipate an influx of phone calls and emails in the coming months.

Films of Short Term 12’s ilk are what festivals like SXSW are all about: little productions with large amounts of quality in search for people to discover them. There are, naturally, exceptions in every fest, but when something like Cretton’s film comes along, it’s a reminder of why long screening lines and late nights working on laptops are all worth it.

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Read the full list here.

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