South by Southwest (SXSW) is an annual festival held in Austin, Texas, during mid-March. It’s a celebration of music, film, and technology. The film aspect, in particular, allows for many panels devoted to exploring the filmmaking process to some degree, along with notable speakers. There’s also the chance for enthusiastic audiences to see the premieres of lots of films, both big studio efforts, and smaller indies.
This year offered up much-buzzed about premieres including Ready Player One and A Quiet Place. Having not gone to SXSW, I figured what better way to begrudgingly celebrate that level of excitement had by seeing heavily anticipated films for the first time than by listing out some great films that held their global premiere at the festival (so no movies that had already premiered elsewhere here, such as The Hurt Locker and Ex Machina). Here’s an alphabetical list of great movies, big and small, that were first seen in full by an audience at SXSW.
21 Jump Street
At first glance, the prospect of adapting 21 Jump Street for the big screen was an odd one. Why this TV show? Why Channing Tatum? Then trailers hit and buzz started to build. The film had its premiere at SXSW, but it was a box office hit as well. Thanks to the solid teaming of Tatum and co-writer Jonah Hill, the direction by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and the self-deprecating take on a ridiculous premise, 21 Jump Street was a hit for critics and audiences. Enough momentum led to a sequel and the even more ridiculous prospect of mashing up this series with the Men In Black universe (although plans for this seem to have faded).
Attack the Block
One of the best alien invasion movies in recent years was not a big-budgeted blockbuster, but actually a much smaller film from writer/director Joe Cornish. Attack the Block is a London-based film about a group of teenage hoodlums, led by breakout star John Boyega, who are forced to fight off alien invaders that happened to crash-land near their block. With influences ranging from Spielberg to Dante to Carpenter, this stripped down sci-fi horror comedy is plenty of fun, ultra-stylish, and features some fantastic creature design, and a killer score by Basement Jaxx and Oscar-winner Steven Price.
The sleeper hit of the summer in 2017, where the head start brought by a SXSW premiere led to Sony pushing the film up in its schedule. What could have been another unfortunate underperformer for director Edgar Wright, turned out to be a slam-bang action hit loved by critics and audiences, culminating in multiple Oscar nominations. The story of a young getaway driver who uses music to drown out his problems as well as provide the soundtrack for his escapes was everyone many wanted in an action flick that felt different than a lot of what else was out there. Wright’s signature direction had been building up to a film like this and adding on a cast that included Ansel Elgort, John Hamm, and Jamie Foxx, but Kevin Spacey gave it an extra level of notoriety. This was a car chase musical not to miss.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Here’s a film that many likely still need to catch up with. Somehow Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon was not able to catch on, following its 2006 SXSW premiere. The film is a clever homage to the slasher film genre, featuring notable horror actors such as Robert Englund and Kane Hodder. The film utilizes the mockumentary style to focus on an aspiring serial killer that has a lot of praise for the killers who came before him. Well-reviewed, but underseen, Behind the Mask has a cult audience, but certainly deserves a lot more love.
Best Worst Movie
This excellent 2009 documentary explores the oddity that is the horror film Troll 2. That’s the infamous sequel to Troll, which has no real connection to the first film and goes off in its own strange directions thanks to an odd director with a wild vision of what he wanted to accomplish. This documentary explores the making of the film and its eventual cult audience by interviewing many of the people involved in the making of Troll 2, revisiting filming locations, and having a good sense of humor about the whole thing.
With Blade already establishing the badass human-vampire hybrid portrayed with utter coolness by Wesley Snipes, it was director Guillermo del Toro’s job to deliver a solid sequel. He achieved this and more by taking a standard David S. Goyer script and making a very del Toro kind of movie. Snipes is back, and this time he’s dealing with Lovecraftian-inspired monsters, a vampire team led by Ron Perlman, and other cool ideas that emphasized style, makeup effects and more. That’s not even accounting for the hip-hop/electronic soundtrack and continued fun provided by Kris Kristofferson. Coming out a couple of months before Spider-Man hit big, Blade II was a killer sequel to see.
It may have been an early cut that premiered at SXSW, but the Oscar-nominated Bridesmaids was already in a position to score big with audiences. Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo wrote a great script that featured outrageous comedy as well as a hefty amount of drama. The result was a film that was relatable enough, but hysterical in a way that kept audiences singing its praises. Melissa McCarthy would go to have a considerable career thanks to the boost this film gave her. And this is only the first mention of a few Judd Apatow-produced comedies that got their start in Austin.
The Cabin in the Woods
The much-delayed horror comedy Cabin in the Woods was given its first full-on screening at SXSW in March of 2012. That was over two years after it was initially supposed to premiere, which is especially notable, since Thor’s Chris Hemsworth had, at that point, been established as an Avenger. Regardless, this project written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard in three days served as a commentary on the state of horror films. Taking on a standard premise and then making some big turns by way of having a whole other layer fitted on top of the simple cabin in the woods premise. The results are a thrilling and often hilarious deconstruction that plays well to giving audiences what they want along with what they didn’t know they wanted.
Cheap Thrills is a wonderfully dark little comedy about the thrills people get from a series of dares. A random wealthy couple challenges two estranged friends to a series of bets that escalate in both danger and violence. There are some twisted turns, but the ensemble made up of Pat Healy, Sara Paxton, Ethan Embry, and David Koechner sell it. At just over 80 minutes, it’s a quick trip, but certainly worth it, as Cheap Thrills is the sort of pitch black escapist fun that heavily relies on keeping things grounded and relatable to some extent.
Following the misfire that was Cowboys & Aliens, director Jon Favreau went back to basics with a film that felt more in the zone of something like Swingers or Made. Chef is a sweet film, maybe too sweet and easy for some, but it’s a highly enjoyable comedy about a professional chef who also decides to go back to basics. Sure, the messaging is a pretty thin reflection of Favreau’s life, but it makes up for it with an incredibly likable cast, an emotional core that’s strong enough for what’s needed, and delicious depictions of food that will make your mouth water. This is a fun film that you don’t want to walk into on an empty stomach.
The Disaster Artist
While only a work-in-progress cut of the film at the time, the bizarre biopic based on the story of the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room was given its first look in front of audiences at SXSW. The Disaster Artist would go on to win plenty of acclaim for the wacko lead performance by James Franco, as well as the story that found a way to balance a tale of friendship with the ridiculous things that happened leading up to the creation of one of the best-worst movies of all time. It’s that balance that helps the film shine, as it has a lot of fun digging into behind-the-scenes type Hollywood humor, inside jokes for Room fans, and good comedy involving the many comedic performers on hand.
Don’t Think Twice
Mike Birbiglia premiered Don’t Think Twice, his follow-up to the delightful romantic comedy Sleepwalk With Me, to a crowd at SXSW and showed that he really could tell a good story, even if it’s not based on his own life experiences (or is it). The comedy-drama revolves around an improv troupe in New York and what happens when one member becomes famous. The ensemble cast all have their chance to shine, and Birbiglia does well to keep himself as just as much a supporting character as other. However, it is Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs who truly have the chance to shine. Their arcs alone make the film worthwhile, but there are still four other troupe members who are all great as well.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Texas-native Richard Linklater is no stranger to SXSW and what better kind of film for him to premiere at the festival than a very relaxed hangout comedy. Everybody Wants Some!! is the spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, and something of a nice relief after his 12-year epic Boyhood. I’m not sure which of the many members of this talented cast will go on to have fantastic careers like many of the members of the Dazed cast, but I can say there is so much joy to have in this laid-back film that focuses on the final days for a college baseball team living in a house before the start of a new semester.
The Final Girls
Another ode to the slasher film that got its start at SXSW. The Final Girls is like if Pleasantville ran into Friday the 13th and it’s a lot of fun. As it is still relatively new, I can only hope it builds up more of a reputation, as there is quality filmmaking on display and a great cast game to have a lot of fun with the premise. The story focuses on a group of friends who are sucked into the world of a cult favorite slasher film and will have to abide by and bend certain rules to survive. Director Todd Straus-Schulson injects plenty of style into the slasher film world to evoke a sort of glow that allows the film to truly standout.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
I often proclaim Forgetting Sarah Marshall as the best of the Judd Apatow-produced films as far as finding a great balance of sheer comedy and relatable drama. There’s something about the Jason Segal comedy that just works the best for me in ways other films from the Apatow world hasn’t. Regardless, it’s another one of these comedies to have premiered at SXSW, and it has a lot to enjoy about it, beyond using Hawaii as location. In addition to many of the regulars and solid work from both Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis, this is the film that introduced a lot of American audiences to Russell Brand. Brand was fun enough here to get a spin-off a couple of years later, but it was no match for the real sincerity that was found at the core of this original film.
This was a surprise screening for SXSW and the high praise for a film considered compromised by some due to the unfortunate death of Paul Walker was only the beginning for the amount of success it would go on to have. Furious 7 turned the Fast & Furious series into a superhero franchise with a heavy focus on driving. For whatever issues the production faced, the resulting James Wan-directed feature benefited from insane stunts, wild action sequences and car chases, and larger than life performances from a cast that already had Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, along with new additions Kurt Russell and Jason Statham. Regardless of opinion on this silly franchise that somehow improved over time, Furious 7 was a global phenomenon when it came to blockbuster cinema.
Ti West built up a lot of horror cred with his 80s throwback The House of the Devil. Following the unfavorable experience he had working on Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, his real follow-up was The Innkeepers. Another stripped down horror film utilizing mainly one location. Sara Paxton and Pat Healy (who were reunited in the previously mentioned Cheap Thrills) star as the employees at a soon-to-close grand hotel. Both are ghost hunting enthusiasts and are fascinated by the haunted history of the place they work at. West has a way of slowly building tension, and it’s expertly handled here thanks to an allowance for humor to come through in the performances, while a level of dread slowly creeps its way into the film. It’s a wild movie to catch up with.
Seemingly sentenced to director’s jail following the underperformance of Jennifer’s Body, director Karyn Kusama found new acclaim for her independently-produced paranoia thriller The Invitation. The film features (not-Tom Hardy) Logan Marshall-Green as one member of a group of friends who all show up to a dinner party. Due to some oddities involving the hosts and missing guests, let alone past issues, the thought arises that all is not what it seems. The joy and tension of the film come from seeing how far the film goes to play with audience expectation. Results are not to be spoiled, but I will note The Invitation features one hell of a final shot.
Another entry involving Judd Apatow, this time one of his directorial efforts, and still possibly his best film. Knocked Up is also the movie that asked audiences to accept Seth Rogen as a lead actor for the first time. SXSW went for it, as the film got its initial screening here and wound up being just as well accepted by critics as the audiences at a rowdy film festival. It’s a solid story about a one-night stand that turned into a full-on relationship thanks to an unintended pregnancy. It’s funnier than it sounds and that’s thanks to the way humor plays for this film and the strong cast of comedic talent involved, particularly Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, who would later star in This is 40.
One of the early films to debut at SXSW, let alone become an acclaimed feature, earning an Oscar nomination for its screenplay in the process, this John Sayles neo-noir western is a good one to remember. Featuring Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson, Elizabeth Pena and Matthew McConaughey, among others, this mystery that came in the wake of what filmmakers like Tarantino and the Coen Brothers were putting out in theaters and easily works as a movie with its own identity. Naturally, it barely made a dent at the box office but is indeed a film worth rediscovering.
After earning plenty of credits as a screenwriter for hit directors including Steven Soderbergh and Steven Spielberg, Scott Frank made his directorial debut with The Lookout, a solid crime thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Levitt plays a young man with mental impairments following a car crash who ends up getting roped into plans for a robbery at the bank he works for. The material is a little familiar, but it’s the way this film clicks together that counts. A solid cast of supporting actors certainly helps, but there’s a realistic level of suspense that continually helps the movie as far as maintaining the audience’s interest as the film comes closer to a finale that challenges what one is supposed to expect as a proper pay off.
MacGruber is a brilliant parody. It’s the sort of film you catch up with and laugh at a lot because of how well it knows how to play up the kind of tropes you see in action movies, even if it’s not quite as clever as Hot Fuzz. However, being based on a Saturday Night Live sketch that was already a spoof on MacGyver, there were no real expectations for this film to work with audiences in theaters. SXSW knew early on that this ranks among the best SNL films (and that’s a short list), but McGruber’s status as a cult favorite only makes sense, as it was hard to sell the sort of subversive brilliance that came in this Will Forte vehicle.
Before Godzilla and Rogue One, director Gareth Edwards had this low-budget sci-fi flick. Monsters was a very homegrown production, as it had a minimal crew, two principal actors (Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able), and Edwards himself handling things such as cinematography and visual effects. The results were quite strong, as this blend of monster movie thrills and immigration subtext made for a solid and inventive indie.
Neighbors is another film that seems like one of those perfect studio films to release at SXSW. That said, it’s far better than the simple “them vs. us” premise. While the film does work as a comedy about Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne trying to outdo Zac Efron and the frat boys that move in next door, it’s also a witty comedy about growing up and accepting responsibilities. The film is frequently hilarious but also has a lot of heart. That spoke well to the audiences that went for it, turning the film into a big enough hit to get an even more thematically interesting sequel.
Short Term 12
This independent drama from director Destin Daniel Cretton received plenty of acclaim as one of 2013’s best films, and it all started at its SXSW premiere. Star Brie Larson would go on to even bigger things, such as an Oscar win, but following some supporting roles in other films and television shows, Short Term 12 was the real breakout hit for her. Telling the story of a supervisor at a group home for troubled teens, this is a film that works as an engaging drama that doesn’t shy away from the realistic truths younger people face when betrayed by the adults that are supposed to care for them the most. Strong performances escalate this film to another level, as it does plenty to earn its accolades.
An incredibly unique entry for this list, as this documentary, presents a tragedy in one of the more interesting ways. Combining archival footage with rotoscopic animation, this doc goes over the 1966 shootings at the University of Texas at Austin. It sounds like a gimmick, but as the film plays, one can understand how this concept works so much better than dramatic restaging of the events in a more conventional manner. Hearing the stories of the survivors and witnesses leaves an impact and thanks to the work by director Keith Maitland in pulling this all together, one can understand how interesting it is to study such a painful day in history.
Fittingly, the final film on this list happens to be the best. Undefeated was the winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and it was well-earned. The doc tells the story of a high school football team, the Manassas Tigers of Memphis, who would work hard to achieve a winning season, following years of losses. What pushes this film to a higher level is the way we see the various stories of some of the team members/students, along with the work by their coach to help pull it all off. Perhaps not the Hoop Dreams of football documentaries, Undefeated is still a terrific and very watchable film full of drama, suspense and uplift, as the amount of time spent with this team allows for so much hope that this team can pull off the wins they need.