Twenty Must-See Films at SXSW 2012

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Is it possible that there are really 20 must-see films in a film festival that lasts less than a week? It’s very possible if that festival is SXSW, one of Paste’s favorite weeks of the year. As you might expect, given the festival’s and our special interest in music, there are quite a few music documentaries on the list. But there’s something here for everyone.

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1. BERNIE
The Category: Special Events
The SXSW Synopsis: “In the small town of Carthage, Texas, assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede was one of the most beloved and appreciated residents, so it came as no surprise when he befriended the town’s richest and meanest widow, Marjorie Nugent. Soon, Marjorie became fully dependent on Bernie and his generosity as he struggled to meet her increasing demands. When the townspeople went months without seeing Marjorie, the people of Carthage were shocked when it was reported that she had been dead for some time, and Bernie Tiede was being charged with the murder.”
The Key Players: Co-writer/Director Richard Linklater; Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
The Draw: We’re all in on anything Richard Linklater chooses to do at this point in his career (full disclosure: I’m directing a documentary on him), but how much more delicious is it that he cast old Linklater favorites Matthew McConaughey and Jack Black in this one?

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2. BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME
The Category: Special Events
The SXSW Synopsis:BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME is a feature-length documentary about legendary Memphis band Big Star. While mainstream success eluded them, Big Star’s three albums have become critically lauded touchstones of the rock music canon. A seminal band in the history of alternative music, Big Star has been cited as an influence by artists including REM, The Replacements, Belle & Sebastian, Elliot Smith and Flaming Lips, to name just a few. With never-before-seen footage and photos of the band, in-depth interviews and a rousing musical tribute by the bands they inspired, BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME is a story of artistic and musical salvation.”
The Key Players: Director Drew DeNicola
The Draw: Casual music fans today might not even know Big Star’s name, as ludicrous as that may seem. But they’re almost universally lauded by critics and other musicians as geniuses, and the list of bands they influenced is far too long to even begin to enumerate. Any film that brings Big Star more to this generation’s attention is okay in our book.

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3. BLUE LIKE JAZZ
The Category: Narrative Spotlight
The SXSW Synopsis: “A Texas college student flees the hypocrisy of his religious upbringing for life in the Pacific Northwest at ‘the most godless campus in America.’ Based on the New York Times bestseller by Donald Miller.”
The Key Players: Co-Writer and Director Steve Taylor; Co-Writer Donald Miller; Marshall Allman, Tania Raymonde
The Draw: Based on one of our favorite books of the last decade, this is another film that Paste has ties to (I’m listed as an associate producer). We saw a rough cut a few months ago, and even that was great. The finished product should be even more powerful.

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4. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
The Category: Headliners
The SXSW Synopsis: “Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods. Bad things happen. If you think you know this story, think again. From fan favorites Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard comes THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, a mind blowing horror film that turns the genre inside out.”
The Key Players: Co-Producer and Director Drew Goddard; Producer Joss Whedon; Chris Hemsworth, Richard Jenkins
The Draw: As editor-in-chief Josh Jackson put it a few weeks ago, “Remember that Joss Whedon project that wasn’t awesome? Yeah, we don’t either.”

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5. CHARLES BRADLEY: THE SOUL OF AMERICA
The Category: 24 Beats Per Second
The SXSW Synopsis:Charles Bradley: Soul of America captures the extraordinary late in life rise of 62 year old aspiring soul singer Charles Bradley, whose debut album, “No Time For Dreaming,” took him from a hard life of poverty, homelessness and tragedy and rocketed him onto Rolling Stone magazine’s top 50 albums of 2011. This documentary follows Charles from his 62nd birthday through the electrifying and transformative months leading up to his unprecedented debut, world tour and ultimate triumph over an impossible dream 48 years in the making.”
The Key Players: Director Poull Brien
The Draw: Bradley has to have one of the more unlikely stories of any music documentary subject this year. In a world where many attempt to create throwback soul, he’s the real deal. And we want to find out where he’s been for over 60 years until now.

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6. COMPLIANCE
The Category: Festival Favorites
The SXSW Synopsis: “When a prank caller convinces a fast food restaurant manager to interrogate an innocent young employee, no one is left unscathed. Inspired by true events.”
The Key Players: Director Craig Zobel; Dreama Walker
The Draw: Despite being longtime fans of Zobel’s work and even profiling him before Sundance, we actually missed his film at that fest. It would have been interesting to see the premiere, complete with an audience shouting match during the Q&A. Nice to have second chances.

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7. THE DO-DECA PENTATHLON
The Category: Festival Favorites
The SXSW Synopsis: “From Jay and Mark Duplass comes the story of two grown brothers who secretly compete in a homemade Olympics during a family reunion. When their fierce and disruptive competition is uncovered, the brothers must choose between their passion for beating the hell out of each other and the greater good of the family.”
The Key Players: Co-producers, Co-writers, and Co-directors Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass
The Draw: Other than the obvious Duplass draw, this one’s personal for me—two friends and I actually did construct our own decathlon (complete with pool, ping ping, and eight other events not worthy of Bruce Jenner) during our senior of year of college. I want to see how the Duplass version stacks up.

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8. DOLLHOUSE
The Category: Emerging Visions
The SXSW Synopsis:Dollhouse explores a night in the life of a group of street teens from Dublin’s inner city who break into a house in an upper class suburb. The break-in quickly moves into a night of frenzy, driven by a series of revelations that will leave lasting marks on each of them, and resulting in an emotional conclusion that they will carry with them.”
The Key Players: Writer and Director Kirsten Sheridan
The Draw: Kirsten Sheridan is the daughter of Jim Sheridan. More than that, she’s the Oscar-nominated co-writer (along with her father and sister) of In America, one of the most magical and moving films of recent years. This Irish coming-of-age film is her first script since then.

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9. FAT KID RULES THE WORLD
The Category: Narrative Spotlight
The SXSW Synopsis: “Troy Billings is 17, overweight, and suicidal. Just as he’s about to jump in front of a bus, he’s saved by Marcus, a charming high school dropout/street musician. The two begin an uneasy friendship when Marcus enlists the musically challenged Troy to become the drummer in a new punk rock band. As Troy’s relationship with Marcus grows, Troy’s father becomes increasingly concerned about his son’s new friendship.”
The Key Players: Director Matthew Lillard
The Draw: The premise is intriguing, and there’s the music connection. We’ve been big fans of previous work by cinematographer Noah Rosenthal and editor Michelle Witten. But most of all we want to see what a film directed by Shaggy looks like (and no, he will never live it down).

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10. GIRLS
The Category: Headliners
The SXSW Synopsis: “Created by and starring Lena Dunham, the new HBO series GIRLS takes a comic look at the assorted humiliations and rare triumphs of a group of girls in their early 20s.”
The Key Players: Director,Writer, and Actor Lena Dunham 
The Draw: It seems like all of Indiewood has been waiting to see what Dunham will produce as a follow-up to Tiny Furniture. Can she catch lightning in a bottle again? Co-writing Ry Russo-Young’s fascinating Nobody Walks was an encouraging sign, but now we get to see for sure.

Is it possible that there are really 20 must-see films in a film festival that lasts less than a week? It’s very possible if that festival is SXSW, one of Paste’s favorite weeks of the year. As you might expect, given the festival’s and our special interest in music, there are quite a few music documentaries on the list. But there’s something here for everyone.

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11. THE IMPOSTER
The Category: Festival Favorites
The SXSW Synopsis: “In 1994 a 13-year-old boy disappeared from his home in San Antonio,Texas. Three and a half years later he is found alive thousands of miles away in Spain with a shocking story of kidnap and torture. His family are overjoyed to bring him home. But all is not what it seems. He bears many of the same marks but why does he have a strange accent? Why does he look so different? And why doesn’t the family notice these glaring inconsistencies? It’s only when an investigator starts asking questions that this astonishing true story takes an even stranger turn…”
The Key Players: Director Bart Layton
The Draw: We’ve already seen this film and loved it. Director Bart Layton mixes elements of documentary and narrative filmmaking seamlessly in ways I’ve never seen done before. And every character he uncovers in the drama is more of a treasure trove than the last. It’s one of the most compelling films you’ll see all year, in any genre.

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12. LOW & CLEAR
The Category: Emerging Visions
The SXSW Synopsis: “A story of friendship and life in the disappearing wilderness of the West, LOW & CLEAR follows two formerly close friends who re-unite for one last fly fishing trip to British Columbia. Over the course of their time together they come to understand how much they’ve each changed and how these changes now threaten their friendship.”
The Key Players: Directors Kahlil Hudson and Tyler Hughen
The Draw: We’ve also seen this film and loved it. Having two fascinating, outspoken, and often at-odds subjects helps. But most of all, the directors seem determined not to settle for a tone poem, but to tell a real story here. And it’s mesmerizing. The best documentary of the year so far.

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13. MARLEY
The Category: Headliners
The SXSW Synopsis: “The definitive life story of Bob Marley – musician, revolutionary, legend – from his early days to his rise to international superstardom. Made with the support of the Marley family, the film features rare footage, incredible performances and revelatory interviews with the people that knew him best.”
The Key Players:Director Kevin Macdonald
The Draw: The Academy Award-winning director tackles one of the most iconic and mystical music figures of all time? We’re in.

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14. SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN
The Category: 24 Beats Per Second
The SXSW Synopsis:Searching for Sugar Man tells the true story of the greatest ‘70s US rock icon who never was, how he was rediscovered in a far off land and finally became the legend he always deserved to be. It is a story of hope, inspiration and the power of music.”
The Key Players: Director Malik Bendjelloul
The Draw: Another film we saw and loved. “The Story of the Forgotten Genius” is such a well-worn formula for music docs that it was parodied more than three decades ago in This is Spinal Tap. As Malik Bendjelloul begins to tell the story of Rodriguez, the Dylanesque folk rocker who released two apparently brilliant albums in the early ‘70s, then disappeared, it appears he’s on a familiar road. But he’s got a major ace up his sleeve.’

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15. THE SOURCE
The Category: Documentary Feature Competition
The SXSW Synopsis: “It’s 1971 and communes and new religions are on the rise. The Source Family are an “Aquarian tribe,” a secretive but outlandish group of 140 beautiful young people who stroll Los Angeles in colorful robes, devotees of “Father Yod,” a controversial restaurateur-turned-spiritual leader with fourteen wives and his own psychedelic rock band. The Family lives in a mansion and operates a popular restaurant on the Sunset Strip, serving vegetarian cuisine to musicians and movie stars, pioneering a national trend. But their radical lifestyle instigates the authorities. Their demise is dramatic and painful, but Yod’s spirit lives on.”
The Key Players: Directors Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos
The Draw: If that description doesn’t grab you, we don’t know what will. We just hope the soundtrack is by Paste favorites The Polyphonic Spree.

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16. SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS
The Category: 24 Beats Per Second
The SXSW Synopsis: “On April 2nd 2011, LCD Soundsystem played its final show at Madison Square Garden. Shut Up And Play The Hits documents this once in a life time performance and paints an intimate portrait of James Murphy as he navigates the lead-up to the show, the day after, and the personal and professional ramifications of his decision to consign the band to history.”
The Key Players: Directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern
The Draw: Another we can already recommend after seeing it. Lovelace and Southern used a staggering number of cameras and crosscut liberally to provide an experience that’s arguably even better than seeing the band live (okay, maybe not quite that good but…). And the scenes outside the concert footage are equally compelling.

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17. TRASH DANCE
The Category: Documentary Spotlight
The SXSW Synopsis: “Sometimes inspiration is found in unexpected places. Choreographer Allison Orr finds beauty and grace in garbage trucks—and in the men and women who pick up our trash. She joins city sanitation workers on their daily routes to listen, learn, and ultimately to try to convince them to collaborate in a unique dance performance. Hard working, often carrying a second job, their lives are already full with work, family and dreams of their own. But some step forward, and after months of rehearsal, two dozen trash collectors and their trucks perform an extraordinary spectacle. On an abandoned airport runway, thousands of people show up to see how in the world a garbage truck can “dance.””
The Key Players: Director Andrew Garrison
The Draw: Are you kidding me? Choreographed garbage trucks? Who wouldn’t be curious?

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18. UNDER AFRICAN SKIES
The Category: 24 Beats Per Second
The SXSW Synopsis:Under African Skies travels with Paul Simon back to South Africa on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his historic Graceland album. Paul reunites with the original band to give a reunion concert and to explore the story of the turbulent birth of the album. Featuring interviews with the key anti-apartheid activists of the time and such musical legends as Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Paul McCartney, David Byrne and Steve Van Zandt, the film is both an anatomy of a profound artistic achievement and a meditation on the role of the artist in society.”
The Key Players: Director Joe Berlinger
The Draw: Another reason to be thankful for second chances, as we missed this one at Sundance as well. It seems everyone under 50 associates Graceland with their childhood, even if they were born after it was released. Berlinger produced one of the great music docs of all time (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster), so we’re looking forward to seeing what he does with Simon.

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19. V/H/S
The Category: Midnighters
The SXSW Synopsis:V/H/S is a POV, found footage horror film from the perspective of America’s top genre filmmakers. In V/H/S, a group of misfits are hired by an unknown third party to burglarize a desolate house in the countryside and acquire a rare tape. Upon searching the house, the guys are confronted with a dead body, a hub of old televisions and an endless supply of cryptic footage, each video stranger and more inexplicable than the last…”
The Key Players: Directors Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence
The Draw: We’ve seen this one too. As you might expect, some of the chapters are weaker than others, but the strong ones—notably Joe Swanberg’s “The Strange Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” (a ghost story told through, of all things, a series of Skype video calls) and David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” (a boys’-night-out-gone-oh-so-very-wrong tale)—make the wild ride more than worthwhile.’

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20. ¡VIVAN LAS ANTIPODAS!
The Category: SXGlobal
The SXSW Synopsis: “What would be the shortest route between Entre Ríos in Argentina and the Chinese metropolis Shanghai? Simply a straight line through the center of the earth, since the two places are antipodes: they are located diametrically opposite to each other on the earth’s surface. During his visits to four such antipodal pairs, the award-winning documentary filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky captured images that turn our view of the world upside down. These antipodes seem mythically connected, somehow united by their oppositeness. Kossakovsky’s movie is a feast for the senses, a fascinating kaleidoscope of our planet. ¡VIVAN LAS ANTIPODAS! – Long Live The Antipodes!”
The Key Players: Director Victor Kossakovsky
The Draw: One of the smartest critics I know is Michael Tully, and one of the smartest festival programmers I know is David Wilson of True/False. Tully raved about this film, and Wilson gave Kossakovsky the only award of the entire festival. Looks like I’ve got a must-see on my list.

BONUS ENTRY:
STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW VARIETY SHOW

It’s a bonus entry because it’s not exactly a film per se, although the audience will see an exclusive preview showing of the pilot episode of the new Stuff You Should Know television series airing on The Science Channel this spring. But just as exciting are the acts lined up to take part in the live show, including Lucy Wainwright Roche, The Henry Clay People, and Crooks. Non-musical guests include John Hodgman and Eugene Mirman, and of course, Chuck and Josh themselves form the wildly popular SYSK podcast.

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