The SXSW film festival kicks off on Friday with a strong lineup that once again proves the Austin gathering as a formidable player for big and small movies. As if assembled from the ingredients of Sundance meets Comic-Con, the event will have thousands of fan boys and dozens of filmmakers rubbing shoulders. It wasn’t always this way. SXSW used to focus more on micro-budgeted indie features and documentaries, but in recent years studios have also started to flock to Texas, which has given SXSW more star power and clout. Here are 16 of the buzziest titles from this year’s festival.
1. “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday”
Judd Apatow has been SXSW’s most loyal recidivist — arriving here with 2007’s “Knocked Up,” 2011’s “Bridesmaids,” the first public screening of HBO’s “Girls” in 2012 and last year’s “Trainwreck.” He aims to keeps his winning streak alive with this Netflix original feature, which he produced, that returns Paul Reubens’ beloved character to the big screen (after 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”). This time, Pee-wee is on a road trip to New York, in a story that’s been in development for years. “Big Holiday,” marks the first time Netflix has brought a movie to SXSW, so the stakes are high. –Ramin Setoodeh
2. “Midnight Special”
Premiered to mixed but largely favorable reactions at the recent Berlinale, Jeff Nichols’ slow-burning supernatural thriller should continue to divide and conquer with its highly Spielberg-influenced tale of a father and son on the run. Whatever audiences make of the film’s slippery narrative ambiguities of this Warner Bros. release (slated for March 18), the performances by Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver are all stellar. –Justin Chang
Popular on Variety
After ending their much-loved Comedy Central sketch show, “Key and Peele,” on a high note last fall, co-stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele will look to transfer that goodwill to their first starring vehicle, “Keanu.” With a supporting cast that includes Method Man, Jason Mitchell, Will Forte and a certain not-so-surprising surprise voice actor, the absurdist-looking comedy sees Key and Peele drawn into the L.A. criminal underworld to rescue their purloined kitten. SXSW’s longstanding rep as a bastion for raucous comedy should make it an ideal launchpad. The movie opens theatrically on April 29 from New Line. –Andrew Barker
Documentarian Keith Maitland’s ambitious entwining of archival footage, talking-heads interviews and rotoscope animation may make some long-time Austin natives more than a little queasy as it depicts the mother of all mass-shootings: Charles Whitman’s 1966 random killing of 16 people with a high-powered rifle from his perch atop the University of Texas Tower. The horrific event partly inspired Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets” (1968) and was dramatized in a 1975 TV movie starring Kurt Russell as the demented Whitman. –Joe Leydon
His genre festival breakout “Absentia” (2011) and the theatrical sleeper “Oculus” (2013) made Mike Flanagan one of the most promising young horror specialists. His latest, a “secret project” slipped in between more mainstream assignments, stars Kate Siegel as a deaf recluse fighting to survive a hostile visitor to her rural home one harrowing night. Netflix has already snapped up streaming rights to the micro-budget feature. –Dennis Harvey
6. “Everybody Wants Some”
In this opening night film, director Richard Linklater follows up on “Boyhood” by returning to the ’80s with this comedy about a team of college baseball players (played by a heartthrob-led cast of Tyler Hoechlin, Blake Jenner and Ryan Guzman). The trailer for this Paramount Picture releases gives off a “Dazed and Confused” vibe, so it could be another hit for Linklater. –R.S.
7. “Sausage Party”
Producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg last came to Austin with a work-in-progress screening of 2014’s “Neighbors,” which went on to gross $270 million worldwide. A late addition to the SXSW lineup, this similarly unfinished cut of the pair’s first animated feature — which they also cowrote — promises an R-rated Pixar sendup with voice roles for such familiar faces as Jonah Hill, James Franco, Danny McBride and Paul Rudd. It opens in August from Sony Pictures Entertainment. –A.B.
8. “The Alchemist Cookbook”
Nobody does outcast/sociopath portraiture quite like director Joel Potrykus, whose memorably twisted “Buzzard” was a highlight of SXSW 2014. He’s back in the Visions section with this tale of a young man living alone in the woods with only Kaspar the (friendly?) cat for company, until he accidentally awakens a mysterious spirit. The film already has U.S. distribution through Oscilloscope Laboratories. –J.C.
9. “In a Valley of Violence”
Why would scary-skewing indie filmmaker Ti West (“The Innkeepers,” “The House of the Devil”) want to cowboy up and do a western? Well, why not? Ethan Hawke (who’ll also ride tall and shoot straight later this year in Antoine Fuqua’s “Magnificent Seven” remake) plays a mysterious drifter who runs afoul of the locals — including John Travolta, fresh from his controversial turn in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” as a grizzled marshal — in a once prosperous mining town. – J.L.
10. “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America”
With U.S. race relations once again a heated subject this election year, Matt Ornstein’s documentary should provoke curiosity, at the very least. Its subject is a veteran African-American musician whose “hobby” for some decades has been befriending — and enlightening — prominent members of the KKK and other hate organizations. –D.H.
11. “Don’t Think Twice”
This comedy — written, starring and directed by Mike Birbiglia, and produced by Ira Glass — about a troupe of New York improv actors has strong word-of-mouth coming into SXSW as a crowd-pleaser. It could be one of the breakout discoveries of the festival. –R.S.
12. “The Other Half”
Chance encounters between wounded souls are nothing new in festival cinema, but the actors sell this one alone: Tatiana Maslany, much acclaimed for her multi-faceted work on “Orphan Black,” stars opposite Tom Cullen, whom SXSW audiences may remember for his breakthrough role in 2011’s “Weekend.” –J.C.
13. “Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru”
Documentarian Joe Berlinger has a keen eye for capturing the backstage humanity of popular entertainers (“Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”), as well as a well-honed skepticism toward convenient explanations (the “Paradise Lost” trilogy). Both qualities would seem to make him an ideal filmmaker to explore the massively successful and often controversial motivational speaker Tony Robbins, who allowed the director’s cameras behind-the-scenes of his annual Date With Destiny seminar. –A.B.
14. “The Bandit”
Jesse Moss’ up-close-and-personal documentary about the making of the genre-defining action-comedy “Smokey and the Bandit” (the No. 2 top grosser of 1977, after “Star Wars”) features candid interviews with two close friends, actor Burt Reynolds and the late director Hal Needham, who joined forces to produce an improbably popular and enduring influential pop-culture phenomenon. –J.L.
15. “Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathons”
Each year the Upright Citizens Brigade host a three-day festival of improv shows involving hundreds of up-and-coming comedic talent. It’s a bow to the enduring legacy of Close, the late performer and teacher who coached talents from “SNL’s” legendary first generation to Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey and Adam McKay. This documentary premiere is likely to attract some big names to a festival already unusually friendly toward mainstream comedy. –D.H.
16. “Long Nights Short Mornings”
Shiloh Fernandez stars as a foggy 20-something guy, who stumbles through a series of unfortunate relationships with women. This gritty drama set in New York, written and directed by Chadd Harbold, could finally be a breakout moment for Fernandez, who was once considered for the role as Edward Cullen in “Twilight.” –R.S.