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The 15 Best Movies at SXSW 2013

March 21, 2013  |  6:14pm

With all the music and parties going on in Austin, Texas, it can be difficult to prioritize movie-watching at SXSW. But our film writers saw several dozen anyway, finding the choicest gems to recommend to you. Here are our 15 favorite films of SXSW 2013.

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15. Coldwater
Director: Vincent Grashaw
Stars: P. J. Boudousqué, James C. Burns, Nicholas Bateman
Fans of Bellflower, which was produced by Coldwater director Vincent Grashaw, would be well advised to check their expectations at the door. Coldwater isn’t the loud, in-your-face acid trip that film was. But it simmers with a similar intensity as it tells the horrfiying story (a composite of true anecdotes) of a young man taken against his will to a paramilitary juvenile detention camp. It’s an engaging script, directed with confidence and panache by Grashaw, and the last half hour should have you right on the edge of your seat the entire time. Grashaw draws out fascinating, textured performances from his cast, notably James C. Burns as the retired marine in charge and Nicholas Bateman as a conflicted trustee. But the real revelation is the lead actor, newcomer P. J. Boudousqué, whose frustration simmers just beneath the surface, and whose eyes betray a mind always racing. Grashaw’s obviously got a bright future, and if this role is any indication, so does Boudousqué.—Michael Dunaway

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14. Bayou Maharaja
Director: Lily Keber
The tragic tale and unique piano virtuosity of New Orleans’ native son James Booker are both wonderfully played out in director Lily Keber’s debut film. Aside from some diverse solo albums, Booker recorded and performed with the likes of Dr. John, who learned B3 organ from Booker, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Jerry Garcia and Harry Connick, Jr., who, as a disciple of Booker’s, tells some heartfelt stories of the pianist’s influence on him as a boy. Booker’s style is as effortless and fluid as breathing. But like many of America’s deserving but downfallen musicians, Booker is often his worst enemy as he struggles with addiction. Remarkably, however, his abilities never fade as he remains true to his own style of playing even when it hinders his success. —Tim Basham

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13. The East
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Stars: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgaard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Julia Ormond
Director Zal Batmanglij and Actress Brit Marling join forces again as co-writers in their fast-moving followup to 2012’s Sound of My Voice. The East is the story of a private-firm intelligence agent (Marling) looking to infiltrate a shadowy group of anticorporate terrorsists. Marling is wonderful as always, Alexander Skarsgaard is appropriately mysterious as the leader of the group, and Ellen Page turns in her best performance in years. The film was produced by Ridley Scott, and the Hollywood pedigree shows; Batmanglij seems to be making his bid for the brass ring here, and he should get it. —Michael Dunaway

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12. Linsanity
Director: Evan Leong
It would have been easy for a filmmaker to capitalize on the popularity of what sports headlines were calling “Linsanity” during NBA player Jeremy Lin’s unlikely rise to greatness as he electrified the New York Knicks’ then-floundering 2012 season. But director Evan Jackson Leong began to document Lin while he was still attending Harvard and playing non-scholarship basketball for an ivy league school not known as a place for NBA draft choices. In fact, as the film dramatically shows, Lin was not drafted—by anyone. As a result, Leong’s film plays as a beautifully authentic and inspirational sports documentary about an everyman who, in addition to battling it out on the court, has to battle implied and overt racism as an Asian-American player. The footage of his journey across the country, in high school, in college, in his parents’ home country of Taiwan, combined with his strength of faith and the dramatics of NBA games against stars like Kobe Bryant (who before the game says he has no idea who Lin is) makes for a captivating film for sports fans and non-sports fans alike. —Tim Basham

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11. MILIUS
Directors: Joey Figueroa, Zak Knutson
Tough guy director, producer, and writer John Milius rose with the likes of Spielberg and Lucas as part of a new era in Hollywood. The charm of Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson’s documentary belongs exclusively to the insane anecdotes of the man’s legend. Animated sequences couldn’t possibly do justice to some of his antics, as when he would show up to meetings fresh off a motorcycle with a loaded gun. The movie ends by disputing one of his wild stories, but that’s why the man behind “Conan the Barbarian” and the original “Red Dawn” left such a notorious mark in film history.—Monica Castillo

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10. The Crash Reel
Director: Lucy Walker
Even for those of us who have no interest in snowboarding or winter sports, The Crash Reel provides a remarkable story about family. What could have easily been a by-the-numbers recovery story about a niche sport is constantly compelling in the hands of one of our most talented young documentarians—Oscar-nominee Lucy Walker. It’s striking how different each of Walker’s movies are in both subject matter and feel, yet she’s remarkably consistent. She finds the right story and the right tone every single time. You can see for yourself this July on HBO. —Michael Dunaway

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9. Good Ol’ Freda
Director: Ryan White
Ryan White’s nostalgic trip tells the story of the most famous secretary of the 60s. Once a fan of an unknown band named The Beatles, she was invited to work for their manager, Brian Epstein. Additional talking heads help compile a collection of first-hand Beatle stories for the history books. This humblebrag of a story could make any fan envious, but Freda Kelly’s coy enough to not kiss and tell all the secrets. The movie is short, primarily focusing on her days with the boys, her only time in the limelight until now. “Good Ol’ Freda” is a must see for any Beatle fan, but it will appeal to anyone who counts themselves a “fan” of something.—Monica Castillo

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8. Elena
Director: Petra Costa
This Brazilian import from director Petra Costa employs homes movies to unravel the mystery of a girl’s disappearance. Told from the sister’s point-of-view, the voiceover longingly retraces Elena’s past and her decisive journey to America. Had there been an overbearing “20/20” narrator plodding through a crime drama, this movie wouldn’t have this ethereal charm that the seemingly unrehearsed non sequiturs create. Driven almost entirely by the narration, there was never a sense of urgency to solve Elena’s mystery, only to hear her story.—Monica Castillo

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7. The Spectacular Now
Director: James Ponsoldt
Stars: Shailene Woodley
Shailene Woodley gives a performance of such fragility and power in The Spectacular Now that the rest of the movie almost feels dull by comparison. Director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) adapted Tim Tharp’s coming-of-age novel with heartfelt sincerity, and the result has wooed enthusiastic Sundance crowds. Miles Teller stars as Sutter, a high school senior with a great enthusiasm for human connection and partying, but little enthusiasm for classwork or future planning. Think Ferris Bueller with a concealed depression and an alcohol abuse problem. Woodley dominates every frame she’s in with sweet hesitations and a nervous smile. She provides a mesmerizing portrayal of young love.—Jeremy Mathews

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6. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Directors: Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin
Modern day feminism is alive and well, according to directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin. This group of pop-up protestors was nothing but a local news item until they took on Putin’s connection with the Russian Orthodox Church by disrupting an Easter service. The doc introduces the audience to their families, as interviews seem verboten by the government, in order to explain what the fuss is all about. Sharply told, highly engaging and emotional, it’s the fastest way to catch up on the Pussy Riot saga. But this shouldn’t be the last we hear from the girls, since the case is still on-going.—Monica Castillo

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5. Upstream Color
Director: Shane Carruth
Stars: Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Amy Seimetz
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color builds a stunning mosaic of lives overwhelmed by decisions outside their control, of people who don’t understand the impulses that rule their lives. Told with stylistic bravado and minimal dialogue (none in the last 30 minutes), the film continually finds new ways to evoke unexpected feelings. The visuals combine with extraordinary sound design and rhythmic cross-cutting to create a hypnotic portrait of the story’s intertwined lives. An elaborate, intellectual sci-fi concept fuels the film, but a rich sense of humanity gives it power. —Jeremy Mathews

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4. Short Term 12
Director: Destin Cretton
Stars: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr.
Destin Cretton expanded his 2008 short to a feature-length drama that manages to squeeze in deeply troubling topics and a dark sense of humor. Revolving around a group home for troubled teens, a counselor must reconcile her past with a new charge’s similar background. It’s hauntingly moving, but deflates any sentimentality with a quick joke. Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. hold their fragile world on the brink of breaking at almost every conflict. The realistic acting is almost unnerving, especially since a decent portion of the conflict comes from children. Fortunately, viewers are not meant to feel the heavy-handedness and are cleverly spared from any long-term emotional damage with careful dialog.—Monica Castillo

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3. Muscle Shoals
Director: Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier
Stars: Etta James, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Alicia Keys, Bono, Aretha Franklin
By now there’s a formula for the music-scene documentary, but Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier wasn’t content to follow. For starters, the cinematography is blockbuster-worthy, bringing to life not just the iconic studios but the landscape of this quiet Alabama town on the banks of the Tennessee River, which feels like a character in the film. Add to that impressive archival footage and memorable modern-day interviews with musicians who cut records there (Percy Sledge, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin), the studio players who created that Muscle Shoals sound and the musicians they influenced (Bono, Alicia Keys), and you have the best documentary of the year so far. —Josh Jackson

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2. Mud
Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland
Two years ago, Jeff Nichols turned heads at Sundance with his second film Take Shelter. He’s back, this time in the spotlight section, with Mud, a coming-of-age thriller about two young boys who encounter a man on the run in rural Arkansas. Ellis (Tye Sheridan from Tree of Life) lives on the river with his parents, who are on the brink of splitting up, when he and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living alone on an island in the river. It’s a sweet tale that displays plenty of faith in humanity without ever veering into sappiness and always keeping you on the edge of your seat—just the kind of thing you hope to find at a festival. And Nichols once again coaxes amazing performances from his cast. —Josh Jackson

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1. Before Midnight
Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Before Midnight concludes one of cinema’s great trilogies—assuming it stays a trilogy. Director Richard Linklater and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke have built a beautiful study of life and love, each chapter of which stands on its own while adding emotional resonance to the other two. The series’ trademark intense, thoughtful and personal conversations remain. An early scene holds on one perfectly acted two-shot in a car for 13 minutes. The discussions are often as hilarious as they are engaging. Hangups, regrets and doubts have have become a greater part of Jesse and Celine’s lives, and the film reflects that. But it also reminds us what made the couple such a lovable pair that they could hold our interest for 20 years. —Jeremy Mathews

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