Arts & Culture

SXSW gives indie fans six must-sees

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina. Credit: Universal Pictures International
Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina. Credit: Universal Pictures International

South by Southwest’s film festival, which just wrapped up in Austin, hits just at the time when the moviegoing season is morphing from the dregs of January and February to the promise of March and April.

The fest comes after Sundance — where many get their initial taste of which indies will be the ones to watch in any given year — but before the Dallas International Film Festival in April. That makes it the first time many in Texas get to see what all the fuss is about.

With all this in mind, here are six of the films that had people buzzing at SXSW this year.

Ex Machina: First-time director Alex Garland — best known as a novelist (The Beach) and screenwriter (28 Days Later) — deserves kudos for making a science-fiction film that’s about ideas, and is not simply a wonder world of CGI and big explosions.

That this spare drama about creating artificial intelligence — with only four actors, including Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) as the new-generation Dr. Frankenstein and Domhnall Gleeson (Frank, Unbroken) as his assistant — is also good just makes it all the better.

There were some at SXSW comparing it to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that’s definitely an overstatement. But it is an intelligent, well-acted “chamber piece” (as Isaac has described it) that, with luck, will be able lure both moviegoers who usually shun sci-fi and those who like it when things go boom. Release date: April 17.

Love & Mercy: Beach Boy Brian Wilson has crafted some of the most rhapsodic music in the history of pop, but his private life was long a discordant mess. Filmmaker Bill Pohland, best known as a producer (12 Years a Slave, Wild, The Tree of Life), tries to make sense of it in this absorbing biopic starring Paul Dano as a younger Wilson and John Cusack as the musician in his later years.

Casting two adult actors to play the same role risks creating cinematic dissonance: What if one is much more believable than the other? But both pull it off, with Dano especially superb as a gifted composer buffeted by forces beyond his control.

For fans of pop music, the movie also spends a lot of time re-creating Wilson’s marathon recording sessions where his perfectionist tendencies reached their crescendo. Release date: June 5.

Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove: The late Doug Sahm is a Texas treasure, a musician who could hop among genres — rock, R&B, country, conjunto — with abandon. But, aside from his two ’60s-era hits as the Sir Douglas Quintet (Mendocino, She’s About a Mover) and his time with the Texas Tornaodos in the ’90s, the San Antonio musician and his importance are not broadly known.

Texas historian and writer Joe Nick Patoski sets out to remedy that with this loving and informative documentary about a man who counted Bob Dylan, Boz Scaggs, Steve Earle and Delbert McClinton as fans. Release date: TBA.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine: Documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) is so prolific that he has two movies coming out almost simultaneously. His Scientology expose, Going Clear, airs on HBO this month, and The Man in the Machine, his biography of the late Apple founder Jobs, will be released soon.

Apple fans searching for a hagiography should probably look elsewhere, because Gibney doesn’t steer clear of the more problematic parts of Job’s back story. It makes for a compelling portrait of one of the most important cultural figures of recent years. Release date: TBA.

They Will Have To Kill Us First: The beautiful Oscar-nominated Mauritanian film Timbuktu told a story of a Malian town living under the brutal rule of jihadists. They Will Have to Kill Us First deals with the same subject matter but, as a documentary, strips away that layer of fiction.

More specifically, it focuses on Mali’s storied musical heritage which, in 2012 in parts of the country, became illegal under sharia law after a group of Islamic hard-liners took control of the north. Musicians fled to neighboring countries or Mali’s south.

The banning of music wreaked havoc on their lives, though some — like the group Songhoy Blues, which has signed an international record deal and played SXSW this year — have bounced back. Gorgeously shot by director Johanna Schwartz and heartbreaking in parts while joyously uplifting in others, They Will Have To Kill Us First is a testament to survival under tyranny — and the beauty of the beat. Release date: TBA.

Trainwreck: With the ill-received This Is 40 in 2012, the bloom seemed to be gone from Judd Apatow’s movie-making rose. Had the man who gave us The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Freaks and Geeks lost his touch?

Well, according to the SXSW crowds who saw a “work in progress” version of his latest movie, he has his mojo back. The word-of-mouth wasn’t just positive but ecstatic.

I didn’t see the screening because of a conflict, but with a cast that includes one of the top comic actors of the moment, Amy Schumer, as well as Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton, LeBron James, Method Man and Matthew Broderick, he certainly has a lot to work with. Release date: July 17.

Cary Darling, 817 390-7571

Twitter: @carydar