SXSW kicks off on Friday, with thousands arriving in Austin, Texas, to attend the film festival component. While there won’t be as many distribution deals as at Sundance or Toronto, SXSW can offer a strong launching pad for upcoming releases — last year, both “Neighbors” and “Chef” attracted lots of attention in Texas to before they went on to becomes box office hits. And, of course, the festival is also as a showcase for smaller films seeking buyers, such as the Katie Holmes drama “Mania Days.” Here are the 13 buzziest titles playing at SXSW this year.
The hottest ticket at SXSW will be for Judd Apatow’s new comedy starring Amy Schumer as a thirtysomething journalist who, after a series of one-night stands, sparks a connection with a subject she’s profiling (Bill Hader). Over the years, Apatow has helped launch the careers of some of Hollywood’s biggest talents (from Steve Carell to Lena Dunham to James Franco), and this could be a star-making platform for the hilarious Schumer. The Universal Pictures release, which opens this summer, will show as a work in progress on Sunday night. – Ramin Setoodeh
2. “Ex Machina”
Best known as the writer of such classy sci-fi/genre pieces as “28 Days Later … ,” “Sunshine” and “Never Let Me Go,” Alex Garland makes his long-awaited directing debut with this futuristic Frankenstein saga starring Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander. The result has already drawn across-the-board raves on the occasion of its U.K. theatrical release, including from Variety critic Guy Lodge, who hailed Garland’s film as “a sleek, spare chamber piece … exquisitely designed and electrically performed.” – Justin Chang
3. “A Poem Is a Naked Person (24 Beats Per Second)”
While SXSW’s music-related documentaries are always a highlight, this is something special — a hitherto unreleased 1974 feature by the late director Les Blank about ’60s stellar session musician-turned-Me Decade headliner Leon Russell. The latter’s chops as a pianist and songwriter made him a favorite collaborator amongst luminaries in rock, pop, country and blues alike, including Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Joe Cocker. — Dennis Harvey
4. “Hello, My Name Is Doris”
In this dramedy from director Michael Showalter (the co-writer of “Wet Hot American Summer”), Sally Field plays a woman who finds herself in a romance with a significantly younger Brooklyn hipster (“New Girl’s” Max Greenfield). Those who have already seen this indie say that it’s a charming crowdpleaser that allows Field to finally carry a movie again (channeling a character similar to her matriarch from ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters”). – R.S.
5. “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine”
It’s safe to say that Alex Gibney’s latest documentary won’t be as much of a controversy magnet as his recent Sundance bombshell, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” But between that expose and the recent “The Armstrong Lie,” there’s no denying that the hyper-prolific filmmaker is on a hot streak of late. This portrait of the Apple entrepreneur’s life and legacy, produced by CNN Films, should offer a characteristically thoughtful take on a subject who has clearly lost none of his fascination, if the forthcoming Danny Boyle-directed, Aaron Sorkin-scripted biopic is any indication. –J.C.
After “Bridesmaids,” the reteaming of director Paul Feig with his muse Melissa McCarthy is reason enough to look forward to this Fox comedy, which was shot in Budapest. McCarthy plays an “Alias”-like secret agent, and although she probably won’t be as suave as Sydney Bristow, she told Variety last summer that she does get to wear a lot of wigs. – R.S.
7. “The Final Girls”
The premise for this horror comedy — about a high school senior played by Taissa Farmiga (from “American Horror Story”) who gets trapped in a 1980s slasher film — sounds like it was inspired by “Scream.” The festival’s programmers have given the movie a plum Friday night premiere spot, and Farmiga might be a breakout star of SXSW, since she also appears in another festival drama (“Six Years”). – R.S.
8. “The Invitation”
Early word of mouth is strong for this latest thriller by director Karyn Kusama (“Girlfight,” “Jennifer’s Body”) about a couple (Logan Marshall-Green and Tammy Blanchard) who break up after the death of their son, only to reunite three years later a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills. But not everything is as it once seemed. –R.S.
9. “Brand: A Second Coming”
SXSW opens on Friday night with this documentary about Russell Brand, but he has cancelled his festival appearance and now says he’s uncomfortable with the film. Nonetheless, this project follows the trend of celebrity docs (see Justin Bieber’s “Never Say Never”) that are often flattering to their subjects, and the uncensored Brand certainly has led a colorful enough existence to merit his own film (even if he’s not been able to connect at the box office). But the real question is: Will it be better than his ex-wife’s doc “Katy Perry: Part of Me”? –R.S.
10. “The Grief of Others”
Few debut films in recent years received more praise and yet were seen by fewer people than Patrick Wang’s “In the Family,” a low-key, self-distributed drama about a gay man seeking custody of the son he raised with his partner, after the latter’s untimely death. Coping with loss would appear to be central to the director’s follow-up, the story of a family reeling from the death of a baby just a few days after his birth. At 102 minutes, the film is much shorter than its nearly three-hour predecessor, but with any luck will retain Wang’s exquisite delicacy and attentiveness to detail. –J.C.
11. “Peace Officer”
The documentary from Austin-based filmmaking duo Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber taps an issue that has risen to public prominence in the past couple years: whether the mission “to serve and protect” is still primary among certain U.S. police departments that have taken increasingly aggressive stands against unarmed citizens, and against any criticism of their methods. Its protagonist is a former rural Utah sheriff investigating the SWAT team he founded 30 years earlier — a unit whose recent actions reflect a reckless militarization of law enforcement nationwide. –D.H.
12. “GTFO: Get the F% Out”
Another documentary on a hot-button topic: pervasive sexism in the videogaming world. Shannon Sun-Higginson’s survey stretches from the misogyny experienced by those relatively few females employed at major game designing and manufacturing companies to the harassment routinely doled out by male gamers toward women online. –D.H.
13. “Mania Days”
After “Dawson’s Creek,” Katie Holmes thrived in smaller dramas like “Pieces of April” and “Wonder Boys.” She returns to her indie roots (in one her best performance in years) with this love story about a bipolar poet in a mental institution who falls for a patient with the same condition. The underrated Luke Kirby (HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me,” “Take This Waltz”) plays her boyfriend. –R.S.