South by Southwest (SXSW) is the best week of the year for film fanatics. Period. It's in a wonderful place (Austin, Texas), sweetened by a lovely atmosphere that mixes the highbrow appreciation of erudite film nerds with the go-for-broke excitement of genre enthusiasts. There's nothing quite like it in the world of film festivals -- the vibe at SXSW isn't something that's easily replicated or translated; it just is.
We were on hand to take it all in and report back. Our interviews from the festival will be coming soon, along with the films that they accompany. But we also wanted to rank every film that we saw, in order of best to worst. This year's crop was pretty wonderful, even those in the back half of the list are still pretty great. (There were a couple of stinkers, but that happens at every festival.)
So sit back and relax, while we take you on a tour of the greatest film festival on Earth. Apologies for its tardiness; the queso-and-BBQ detox took longer than expected.
1. "Ex Machina"
Sporting the queasy eeriness and social consciousness of a top tier episode of "The Outer Limits," Alex Garland's "Ex Machina" is a science fiction masterpiece and one hell of a ride. Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, an office drone who is recruited by his reclusive boss, a genius billionaire named Nathan (Oscar Isaac). What is advertised as a week with his enigmatic hero instead becomes much more bizarre when Caleb is asked to beta test Nathan's newest technological breakthrough: a lifelike robot he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander). Things, of course, go horribly wrong. Featuring chilly production design and a nifty electronic score by Geoff Barrow (from UK trip hop group Portishead), "Ex Machina" seduces you with its sleekness and intellectualism. But there are surprises to be had here, as well. It's not all existential conundrums and scary robot shenanigans; there's heart and humor and (yes) humanity. The results are nothing short of unforgettable.
2. "Furious 7"
One of the biggest surprises of the festival was the inclusion of franchise sequel "Furious 7" into an already-packed line-up of buzzy indies and big time Hollywood features. But it ended up being one of the most welcome surprises for another reason: it was pretty amazing and unexpectedly emotional (the send-off for Paul Walker was beautiful and touching). The series has always been good about grafting other genres onto its underground street-racing framework, and this movie is a revenge picture, with the brother of the previous baddie (Jason Statham) tracking down our rowdy racers one-by-one. Throw in an insanely convoluted narrative that involves some kind of magical program called the God's Eye (because of surveillance) and Kurt Russell, issuing his bad-ass mystique while essentially collecting a paycheck, and "Furious 7" make take the cake as the crown jewel of the entire franchise. A big shout-out to Vin Diesel for taking the lead memorably and director James Wan for somehow managing to pull it all off.
3. "All Things Must Pass"
Talk about unexpectedly emotional: Colin Hanks's documentary chronicling the rise and fall of Tower Records is the kind of thing that should be more interesting from a cultural perspective but ends up being deeply moving and quite sad. Part of what makes "All Things Must Pass" so compelling is the fact that the founder, Russ Solomon, was such a character. He dreamed of a record store where you could get anything and then he made that dream come true. But overextending the brand and the development of digital forms of music delivery ultimately doomed Tower Records. What "All Things Must Pass" does, brilliantly, is present the death of Tower Records as not just the sad story of ambition outweighing practicality, but a major cultural and social blow to the United States. The movie's silver lining coda (hey, there are Tower Records shops in Japan!) doesn't make the longing any less powerful.
As a director, comedy kingpin Judd Apatow is admittedly hit-or-miss. And his decision to direct someone else's screenplay, especially one from the relatively unproven Amy Schumer, was something of a surprise. But it ended up being the best thing that he could have possibly done, because "Trainwreck" is a quietly affecting triumph and probably the best thing Apatow has ever directed. Schumer plays the titular trainwreck, a young professional in New York City who has a hard time maintaining a committed relationship, drinks too much, and is generally a mess. She's a writer for a glossy magazine and is assigned a profile of a prominent sports doctor (played by Bill Hader); they fall in love and she starts to re-evaluate her entire life. That sounds really pat and cheesy; it's not. It's naughty and whip-smart and keenly observant. And the supporting cast, which includes everyone from LeBron James to Tilda Swinton, is ridiculously on point. When this movie opens in mid-July everyone will be talking about. And for good reason: It's amazing.
5. "Hello, My Name Is Doris"
It's seemingly impossible for actresses not named Meryl Streep to get great roles if they're past the age of 40, but Sally Field might have been given the role of her career in this charming independent comedy. "Hello, My Name is Doris" stars Field as a woman who works at a catalogue and who falls in love with a much younger man who has just come to the company (Max Greenfield, from "New Girl"). While this sounds like a one-joke movie, and a potentially mean one at that, director Michael Showalter (from "Wet Hot American Summer") directs the movie with grace and tenderness, keeping a close eye on emotional realness and sensitivity. If Alexander Payne had directed this movie, it would already be garnering Oscar talk for Field. As it stands, it still might.
6. "The Nightmare"
With "Room 237," director Rodney Asher turned conspiracy theories about Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" into a diabolical descent into madness. His follow-up, "The Nightmare," is more outwardly scary, tackling the subject of sleep paralysis and night terrors into the stuff of sleepless nights and cowering under the covers. Asher uses horrifying reenactments and the testimony of those affected by this strange anomaly, instead of talking-head interviews with doctors or those who have studied the phenomenon, which gives the entire movie a more personal, profound dimension. (Like "Room 237," it also has a metatextual component, since this condition was the basis for "Nightmare on Elm Street.") Oh, and did I mention that it was scarier than any actual horror movie that screened at SXSW this year? Because it was. Asher is one of the premier documentarians working today, able to meld pop culture and genuine psychological insight with entertaining alertness.
7. "Night Owls"
I was lucky enough to watch "Night Owls" as it moved through production, as its writer-director Charles Hood is a close friend of mine. But nothing could prepare me for what it was like seeing the film on the big screen, on the first night of the festival, with a packed audience. I was taken aback and deeply moved. "Night Owls" is the tale of a one-night stand that goes disastrously wrong (to say anything more would be to give away the movie's many canny twists and turns). While it would probably be wrong of me to "review" the movie any more, it goes without saying that it's anchored by a pair of star-making performances (from Adam Pally and Rosa Salazar) and that you should expect big things from Hood and his close-knit team of creative collaborators.
8. "7 Days in Hell"
Almost everyone slept on "7 Days in Hell": it premiered during a weird time slot on the first night of the festival and only ran an hour-long, but it was one of the biggest highlights of the entire week for me -- a gut-busting, all killer, no filler comedic delight. Told in the straightforward style of an HBO sports documentary, it recounts the fateful tennis match between a pair of weirdos (Kit Harrington and Andy Samberg) as they played a single match for seven days. That's all you need to know. Either you're in or you're out. And you should most definitely be in. Sporting a supporting cast that includes Lena Dunham, Will Forte, Fred Armisen, and Michael Sheen, this low-budget triumph was filmed in 4 days. And there isn't a single laugh left on the floor. At the conclusion of the screening, my side ached from laughing so hard. This is extremely raunchy, wonderfully weird stuff; a treasure.
9. "Best of Enemies"
Already a smash at Sundance, this documentary, chronicling the sparring of William Buckley and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Democratic and Republican is wily and smart, the tale of how the actual debate that the two engaged in has, decades later, become the backbone of most political coverage (in an insanely watered-down, dumb-ass form). Few documentaries at SXSW were this alive. This could been a potentially dry account, but it's really not. It's a scream. And should wind up as one of the breakout documentary sensations of 2015.
When "Raiders of the Lost Ark" first premiered, a group of 11-year-olds got together and decided to recreate it shot for shot. It consumed their entire childhood and remained uncompleted... until now. Thirty years after the fact, the childhood friends band together to recreate one crucial scene -- one involving Indy fighting a Nazi bully near a flying wing while Marion is trapped inside. This documentary charts the original recreation and how it went from underground oddity to beloved cult artifact, as well as the filming of the new scene (costing thousands of dollars and entirely crowd-funded). The filmmaking is occasionally flabby, but it's still shockingly inspirational. If you've ever dreamed (and dreamed big), this is a documentary that will probably affect you greatly. I know that's what happened to me.
11. "Tab Hunter Confidential"
Tab Hunter, for those who remember, was a teen heartthrob, best-selling singer and all-American darling, who, all the while, was concealing his homosexuality from his employers and the media alike. What makes "Tab Hunter Confidential" such a thrilling documentary is hearing Hunter speak, in his own words, about the pain he endured, his various relationships (including a tempestuous romantic entanglement with Anthony Perkins) and how his secret was concealed by the powerful studio system. (When he left his lucrative Warner Bros. contract, his protective shield from the press also went away.) Maybe most tellingly, it seems like it was his Eisenhower-era handsomeness that made him irrelevant, not his hidden identity. With wonderful interviews and incredible archival footage, "Tab Hunter Confidential" sings.
12. "The Road Warrior"
Last year, Warner Bros brought the original "Godzilla" to SXSW and augmented the screening with new footage of the then-quite-secret "Godzilla" reboot. This year, the studio did the same thing, except this time screening "The Road Warrior" (in 35 mm, no less, making it the only screening of the entire festival projected on film) alongside scenes from this summer's "Mad Max: Fury Road." The "Road Warrior" screening was phenomenal -- the print was beautiful and director George Miller was on hand for a lively introduction and post-screening Q&A. But the main draw was the movie itself, which holds up incredibly well and is as undeniably influential today as it was when it was first released. Oh, and the new footage was breathtaking. "Mad Max: Fury Road" might be the summer movie to beat.
Unexpectedly funny and involving, Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids," "The Heat") takes on the spy genre and casts Melissa McCarthy as an unlikely secret agent. The cast (which includes Rose Byrne, Jason Statham and Jude Law) is hilarious, and Feig takes the material incredibly seriously (from the opening, James Bond-ian title sequence through a number of high octane action setpieces), which in turn makes the comedy even funnier. McCarthy, as always, is terrific; this incredibly well for Feig and McCarthy's upcoming "Ghostbusters" reboot. After tackling the spy genre, it's hard to not get excited about his take on the horror comedy. Who ya gonna call?
14. "The Look of Silence"
If you saw 2013's devastating "The Act of Killing," this is director Joshua Oppenheimer's companion film, in which one of the victims of the genocide chronicled in the original film uses Oppenheimer's interviews to discover who murdered their family. The filmmaking is impeccable but it's such a bummer that it's hard to even recommend.
A micro-budget horror movie that is sometimes outrageously scary, it concerns a war vet who encounters something otherworldly at his remote cabin and his brother and ex-girlfriend who investigate what's gone wrong. Thankfully, this is not a found-footage movie, and the filmmakers build tension until its almost unbearable. Expect "Pod" to become a cult favorite in some circles, and big things to come from its creative principles. Even if this one doesn't totally stick the landing, their effort is commendable.
16. "Creative Control"
Part of the high-concept, low-budget wave that seems to be sweeping through American independent cinema, "Creative Control" takes place in a futuristic Brooklyn, where a young advertising wonk is placed in charge of marketing a futuristic piece of hardware (think Google Glass except even creepier). The movie looks beautiful, shot in chilly black-and-white, and there are some occasionally interesting thematic investigations, but it fails to make an emotional connection or engage with the creepy, De Palma-by-way-of-"Primer" concept.
17. "Ava's Possessions"
This has a nifty concept (a woman attends a self-help group following her demonic possession, uncovering the source of the demon and her family's involvement along the way) but the movie is unfocused and the lead actress borderline catatonic. The movie does have some bright spots (notably Adrian Correia's "Streets of Fire"-style, neon-drenched cinematography and the boppy score by Sean Lennon) but is something of a slog otherwise. A shame, too, given how wonderful it could have been.
The third part of filmmaker David Gordon Green's loose "Austin trilogy," "Manglehorn" stars Al Pacino as a key-maker in Texas who loves his cat and wants to romance the beautiful woman who works at his bank (Holly Hunter, woefully underused). And that's about it. The fact that the movie virtually has no plot would have been OK if there were something else interesting going on here. But there's not. It's deathly dull and even Pacino, who was expected to get something of a career bump thanks to his collaboration with Green (as Nic Cage did, slightly, with "Joe"), fails to impress. This is the weakest movie that Green has ever made, and yes I'm including "The Sitter" in that assessment.
This is a horror movie, produced by "Paranormal Activity" mastermind Jason Blum, in which the ghost of a girl who was bullied to death menacingly stalks five friends, all via social media. This is admittedly a cool concept, made all the cooler by how faithfully the movie recreates the desktop interface of one of the kid's (with Facebook, Instagram, Gchat, etc). But dramatically the movie leaves something to be desired, and its aesthetic fidelity can't cover up a weak story, unlikable characters, and questionable motivation. Oh well. Someone will crack the social media horror movie. One day...
20. "7 Chinese Brothers"
Jason Schwartzman is one of the more charming actors on the planet. But "7 Chinese Brothers," which someone told me is based on an old proverb or something (this is never explained or alluded to in the actual movie), really puts that to the test. A plotless muddle of indie movie clichés and supposedly funny "jokes," this was a movie that I contemplated leaving about 15 minutes in. I kept "giving it 5 more minutes" until it was over. I regretted that decision. Schwartzman's real-life dog Arrow, though, is pretty darn cute.
21. "Get Hard"
Racist, homophobic and (worst of all) criminally unfunny, "Get Hard" was hoping for a splashy debut in Austin. Instead, it was met with general indifference, if not outright hostility (the post-screening Q&A got pretty, er, heated), and went on to get handily trumped at the box office by "Home," one of the lesser DreamWorks Animation pictures of the past few years (which is really saying something). How two people as funny as Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart could collaborate on something this noxiously toxic is still something I haven't figured out.