The 13 Breakout Movies at the SXSW Film Festival

SXSW Film Festival standouts: The Invitation,
Photo by Adam Newport-Berra

The studios had a strong showing at SXSW this year, as evidenced by the high-profile premieres of “Trainwreck” and “Spy,” as well as a secret screening of Paul Walker’s final performance in “Furious 7.” Happily, outside the big-budget realm, the festival also offered up a remarkably solid lineup of work from first-time filmmakers and emerging talents — a field that included everything from the top prizewinners, “Krisha” and “Peace Officer,” to first-rate thrillers like “Hangman” and “The Invitation,” to standout music docs like “Danny Says” and “Made in Japan.”

Here are the 13 gems that impressed our critics and reporters the most (listed in alphabetical order):

1. “6 Years
Hannah Fidell’s drama unravels like a sequel to “Like Crazy,” but instead of Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, the equally charming Taissa Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield play the bickering mates. The film is shot like a documentary about falling out of love, and the verisimilitude of the performances reminded me of another young-people-in-despair drama, 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married.” Netflix landed worldwide distribution, and “6 Years” is the perfect movie to watch on a rainy day if you’re feeling lousy about being single. — Ramin Setoodeh

2. “Creative Control
If a young, bearded Don Draper were to devise an ad campaign for Google Glass, the resulting drama of thwarted desire and soulless ambition might have played something like Benjamin Dickinson’s suave, absorbing speculative fiction. Rightly lauded by the narrative feature jury for its sophisticated black-and-white visual design, this is a movie about not only how technology might change us, but also how it won’t — a theme wryly underscored by the classical music excerpts that accompany almost every immaculate frame. — Justin Chang

3. “Danny Says”
A standout in the festival’s 24 Beats Per Second section, Brendan Toller’s documentary lets historied music-biz gadfly Danny Fields spin anecdotes from his no-doubt vast repertoire, creating indelible snapshots of Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, the Velvet Underground, the Ramones and many more in their prime. — Dennis Harvey

4. “The Final Girls
When a fire breaks out at a screening of a cheesy 1980s cult horror “classic,” a young woman and her friends find themselves somehow transported into the movie’s universe — a “Friday the 13th”-style summer camp slasher in which the protagonist’s late mother played one of the many horny, disposable teens. Mark Fortin and Josh Miller’s clever screenplay makes Todd Strauss-Schulson’s satire/homage a genre fan’s delight. — D.H.

5. “For Grace”
If there were a Michelin guide for documentaries, Chicago filmmakers Kevin Pang and Mark Helenowski likely would earn three stars for their fascinating portrait of master chef Curtis Duffy, an intensely driven perfectionist who devotes his heart and soul to designing, building, staffing and opening his own high-end restaurant. This is a slickly produced and shrewdly insightful piece of work, and the story behind the story of Duffy’s single-minded obsession provides uncommonly compelling emotional heft. — Joe Leydon

6. “Hangman”
Brit horror specialist Adam Mason and his usual writing partner Simon Boyes wring a creepy new spin on found-footage horror with this tale of a Southern California family who return from a vacation to find their house ransacked. What they don’t realize is that the intruder is still there — playing insidious tricks on them and watching their every move via scattered tiny surveillance cameras from his hiding place in the attic. — D.H.

7. “Hello, My Name Is Doris”
Director Michael Showalter (working from a script he co-wrote with Laura Terruso) wisely cast Sally Field as Doris, a quirky sixtysomething obsessed with a much young colleague (Max Greenfield, playing irresistible like he took pointers from Prince Charming). The genius of “Hello, My Name Is Doris” is that it never veers into cliche, even as it delves into territory mainstream Hollywood comedies wouldn’t touch. Field deserves an Oscar nomination for her best screen role since 1991’s “Not Without My Daughter.” — R.S.

8. “The Invitation”
Taking a much more successful stab at the horror genre than she did with 2009’s “Jennifer’s Body,” Karyn Kusama delivered a continually tense and surprisingly moving psychological thriller about a dinner party gone horribly awry. Full of intelligent shivers and smartly acted all around, the result was an early standout in SXSW’s Midnighters section and easily represents the director’s finest work since her celebrated 2000 debut, “Girlfight.” — J.C.

9. “Krisha”
A worthy winner of the grand jury and audience awards for narrative features, this feverish and formally exacting character study is a terrific example of low-budget personal filmmaking. Casting your relatives, shooting at your parents’ house and drawing on your family history may sound like a surefire recipe for monstrous self-indulgence, but Trey Edward Shults’ astutely judged writing-directing debut feels close to home in the best possible sense. — J.C.

10. “Lamb”
Writer-director Ross Partridge’s brave, moving drama about the friendship between a man (played by Partridge) and an 11-year-old girl (the remarkable Oona Laurence) ventures into the sort of risky emotional territory where few movies dare to tread, but its daring is matched by an almost disconcerting delicacy and depth of feeling. — J.C.

11. “Made in Japan”
Tomi Fujiyama, the first female Japanese country music star, yearns for a return engagement at the Grand Ole Opry — more than five decades after the night she appeared on a lineup with Johnny Cash and other luminaries, and received the evening’s only standing ovation. In this deeply heartfelt appreciation, first-time feature documaker Josh Bishop deftly alternates between Fujiyama’s amusing recollections of her remarkable career and her sentimental journey back to Music City, where the spirited septuagenarian discovers just how frustratingly difficult it can be to make lightning strike twice. — J.L.

12. “Peace Officer”
The increasing militarization of U.S. police departments is scrutinized in Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s powerful feature, which won the grand jury and audience awards for documentaries. Their main protagonist is Dub Lawrence, a retired Utah lawman who four decades ago formed the state’s first SWAT unit — the same one that a few years ago killed his son-in-law in a standoff that practically defined the term “excessive force.” — D.H.

13. “Twinsters”
South Korea’s massive adoption exodus during the 1980s has produced and will continue to produce any number of heartrending personal stories. Few, however, are as up-to-the-minute as Samantha Futerman’s documentary (co-directed with Ryan Miyamoto) about her discovery of the identical twin sister she never knew she had — a film that, in its form and structure, acknowledges the very technology that made their reunion possible. — J.C.

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  1. Jason says:

    My favorite short films of sxsw were: Lerato, Teenland, Kiss Kiss Fingerbang, We’ll Find Something and Actresses.

  2. Filmmaker John Lindsay Green says:

    What about the Short film category?

  3. Arthur Radley says:

    Did ANY of you guys bother to see Landfill Harmonic? It won the audience prize for 24 beats Per Second. Blew me away. Definitely the best doc at SXSW. The show I saw got a standing ovation.

  4. Gnrlriles says:

    “Creative Control” reminded me too much of “Her,” which is a detriment to “Control.”

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