By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist March 6, 2012 at 3:03PM
While Sundance still gets the headlines, the last few years have seen the film strand of South By Southwest, the Austin, Texas cultural conference, become just as vital to the movie world as Robert Redford's baby. The past few festivals alone witnessed some of the best movies of their respective years debut, from low-budget indies like "The Puffy Chair," "Beeswax," "Tiny Furniture" and "Cold Weather" to more mainstream fare like "I Love You Man," "Adventureland" and "Bridesmaids," to international genre hits like "Kill List," "Attack The Block" and "Monsters."
It's certainly one of the highlights of our cinematic calendar, and there's no reason to think that the 2012 installment, which kicks off on Friday with the world premiere of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's eagerly anticipated horror-comedy "The Cabin In The Woods," will disappoint. From looking through the program, we could be here all day talking about the films that are piquing our interest, so instead, we've picked out fifteen highlights we're particularly optimistic about. Have a gander below, and come back tomorrow, where we'll look at the films playing Austin that we've already caught up with.
"The Aggression Scale"
Synopsis: A group of hitmen are tasked with finding the men who stole a crime boss' cash stash and exacting brutal revenge.
What You Need To Know: SXSW's midnight selection has always been a little dirtier and grimier than most festival fare, and "The Aggression Scale" seems to be at the front of the pack this year. Steven C. Miller's debut, the micro-budgeted zombie flick "Automaton Transfusion," saw him come to the attention of the Weinstein Company, and this time around he's got more resources on his hands, with a cast including grindhouse favorites like Ray Wise and Derek Mears. The trailer is highly promising, we've heard very good buzz and Anchor Bay Films picked up the rights a month before SXSW. Could we be looking at this year's "Kill List"?
When? Sat 10th and Tuesday 13th at the Alamo Lamar, Sun 11th at the Violet Crown, and Wednesday 14th at the Alamo Ritz.
"Big Easy Express"
Synopsis: A documentary following last year's tour by indie-folk/alt-country bands Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show, where they travelled the country on a vintage train.
What You Need To Know: Given that the music side of SXSW will have kicked off a few days beforehand, it's appropriate that the film festival will close with a music documentary, and unlike most in that genre, this is one that focuses on relatively new talent. And while we imagine the film will depend somewhat on your tolerance for Mumford & co, it seems like an interesting story nonetheless, the three Depression-era throwback bands getting all Woody Guthrie with their very own train. And director Emmett Malloy did a decent job with White Stripes doc "Under Great White Northern Lights," so we'll certainly give this the benefit of the doubt for now.
When? Sat 17th at the Paramount.
Synopsis: An average family have their life turned upside down when a stranger dies in their house, and they are accused of murder.
What You Need To Know: The micro-budgeted debut of disgustingly young filmmakers Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe, this became something of a minor sensation when it debuted at the Raindance Film Festival in London last year. In part that was because it marked the return to acting of disgraced British comic Chris Langham ("The Thick Of It"), but it was also from the rave reviews for what is, by all accounts, a dark, fiercely original comedy that marks the arrival of some important new talents. Indeed, the directorial duo were rewarded with a BAFTA nomination, and are now working on a far-bigger-budgeted movie version of "Candide." And now the U.S. gets to see what all the fuss is about.
When? Sun 11th, Wed 14th and Sat 17th at the Alamo Lamar, Mon 12th at the Alamo Ritz.
"The Cabin In the Woods"
Synopsis: A group of young friends head to the titular cabin for a weekend of debauchery, but soon find themselves stalked by mysterious creatures.
What You Need To Know: Two years and one aborted 3D conversion later – the film was another victim of the MGM financial difficulties – Joss Whedon's horror pic (he co-wrote and produced the film, with "Cloverfield" scribe Drew Goddard directing) is finally arriving, opening the festival with its world premiere on Friday night. And a look at the premise might not make one particularly excited for the project; at first glimpse, it could be virtually any horror movie from the last few decades. But the buzz on this is outstanding for the genre; more than anything since the original "Scream," the film promises to send up and subvert horror conventions, thanks to an ingenious conceit we've been busting to tell people about for a while. Whether it can break out past the geek crowd remains to be seen, but it won't find a warmer reception than it gets here.
When? Fri 9th at the Paramount, before finally going on release on April 13
“Casa de mi Padre”
Synopsis: Two brothers try to save their father’s ranch from a villainous drug lord. En Espanol!
What You Need To Know: Say what you like about Will Ferrell; the man doesn't rest on his laurels. For his latest effort with frequent collaborator Adam McKay (who produces here, relinquishing directorial duties to Funny or Die vet Matt Piedmont), he's gone full-on foreign language for this telenovela homage. Even bolder, whereas his other films often lean on an impressive fraternity of ringers ready to hit a one-liner out of the park, Ferrell’s mostly going at it alone, with the “Y Tu Mama Tambien” duo of Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna -- without a single class of Groundlings training between them -- as the most recognizable faces in the cast. The trailers have been promising so far, but can the joke be sustained over a full 90 minutes? We'll be finding out very shortly.
When? Tues March 13th at Alamo Lamar, before going on limited release that Friday, March 16th.
Synopsis: During a family reunion, two competitive brothers set up a 25-event private Olympics.
What You Need To Know: While most eyes are on Mark & Jay Duplass' movie-star laden "Jeff Who Lives At Home," which opens next weekend, the "Baghead" and "The Puffy Chair" duo have a second film, albeit one that shot nearly four years ago. Production on "Do-Deca Pentathelon" took place back in 2008, but when "Cyrus" got going, post-production was delayed, and the film's been sitting in a drawer ever since, although it was reportedly acquired by an unknown studio back in 2010. The film, led by Mark Kelly ("Mad Men") and Duplass regular Steve Zissis, finally unspools at SXSW, with a premise that seems perfectly suited to the pair. Given their past track record, we're dying to see this, but the long delay has to give us a little pause. Is this a throwaway curio, or a secret gem?
When? Sun 11th at the Alamo Ritz, Mon 12th and Fri 16th at the Stateside, Tuesday 13th at the Alamo Slaughter.
"Frankie Go Boom"
Synopsis: Two feuding brothers, Frank and Bruce, try to mend their relationship, but when Bruce records his brother's one-night stand with a girl, that's put to the test.
What You Need To Know: If you're aware of this one at all, it's from that eye-popping teaser poster of Ron Perlman in drag. But "Frankie Go Boom" has plenty more to offer, from a neat, offbeat premise to an excellent cast, led by Charlie Hunnam ("Sons of Anarchy," "Pacific Rim"), Chris O'Dowd ("Bridesmaids") and Lizzy Caplan ("Party Down"). The big question mark here is writer-director Jordan Roberts (not to be confused with "Successful Alcoholics" director Jordan Vogt-Roberts), whose major credit to date was on the little-seen (but decent enough) family drama "Around The Bend," with Michael Caine, Josh Lucas and Christopher Walken. This sounds like it's a very different piece of work, though with a cast of comic experts, we're certainly keen to check this out.
When? Sat 10th at the Stateside, Sun 11th at the Violet Crown, Mon 12th at Alamo Lamar and Thurs 15th at the Alamo Ritz.
"God Bless America"
Synopsis: A terminally ill man teams up with a psychotic teenager to go on a violent spree attacking every annoyance in contemporary life, from reality TV stars to the Westboro Baptist Church.
What You Need To Know: Watching the trailer for "God Bless America," the latest film from comic Bobcat Goldthwait ("Sleeping Dogs Lie," "World's Greatest Dad") feels a little bit like someone optioned your darkest daydreams. Clearly as fed up with what he sees around him as the rest of us, the writer-director has fashioned a typically dark, satirical comedy that hits some cultural sacred cows right between the eyes. Starring Bill's brother Joel Murray (Freddie Rumsen on "Mad Men") and newcomer Tara Lynne Barr, the film got strong reviews from TIFF, so it's something we'll be checking out for sure. Our only concern is whether it's aiming for low-hanging fruit, but then again, the targets seem to be so satisfying that we might not mind that much.
When? Fri 9th at the Alamo Lamar, Sat 10th at the Alamo Slaughter, Fri 16th and Sat 17th at the Alamo Ritz.
Synopsis: An experienced mercenary is sent into the Australian wilderness in order to track down the believed-extinct Tasmanian Tiger for a biotech company, befriending a family whose father went missing.
What You Need To Know: Hot on the heels of Liam Neeson vs. wolves, we get Willem Dafoe vs. a Tasmanian Tiger. It's an all-too rare lead role for the veteran actor, which could be reason enough to see it, but the film, from Australian TV vet Daniel Nettheim and based on a novel by Julia Leigh ("Sleeping Beauty"), also features supporting turns from reliable names like Sam Neill, Frances O'Connor and Sullivan Stapleton ("Animal Kingdom"), and features what looks to be some stunning photography of the Southern Hemisphere landscape. Australian cinema has been on something of a roll in the last few years, and there's a lot of promise here, but it could also be labored and overly-allegorical: reviews from Toronto, where the film premiered, were split. Still, Dafoe's more than enough to get us to check it out.
When? Sunday 11th at the Paramount, Monday 12th at the Alamo Village, and Friday 16th at the Alamo Lamar, but you can check it out for yourself on iTunes and VoD now, before Magnolia release it on April 6th.
“In Our Nature”
Synopsis: A young couple go for a weekend getaway, only to be interrupted by the man's estranged father, and his much younger girlfriend.
What You Need To Know: Although he's made appearances in big-budget fare like "Iron Man 2" and "The Adjustment Bureau," "Mad Men" star John Slattery is yet to find a big-screen part with as much meat as Roger Sterling. Could this be that showcase? The debut from music video and theater veteran Brian Savelson, whose animated short "Counting Water" won much acclaim, this sees Slattery joined by a promising cast, made up of Jena Malone, the underrated Gabrielle Union and Zach Gilford, who's yet to get the same boost as "Friday Night Lights" co-star Taylor Kitsch, despite being one of the best actors on the show. The premise seems a little indie-by-numbers, but it'll all be about the execution, and Savelson certainly has a good enough cast to make this interesting. Check out a clip and trailer for the film right here.
When? Sat 10th and Thur 15th at the Stateside, Sun 11th at the Alamo Lamar and Monday 12th at the Violet Crown.
Synopsis: An Algerian immigrant becomes a subsitute teacher to a Montreal middle school class grieving the sudden death of their teacher.
What You Need To Know: One of the five Oscar-nominated Foreign Language Films, "Monsieur Lazhar" has been a crowd-pleaser on the festival circuit since it debuted at Locarno last August, with appearances at Toronto and Sundance, although we've somehow managed to miss it to date. The film wasn't able to beat "A Separation" to the Academy Award, but we're still dying to see what is, by most accounts, a heartfelt, heartwarming piece of work from Quebec director Philippe Falardeau ("Congorama," "C'est past moi, je le jure!"). In particular, the central performance, from Mohammed Fellag, has won major acclaim, for what seems to be a more politically-inclined Canadian take on French hit "The Class."
When? Tues March 13th at the Paramount, but you won't have to long to wait if you're not Austin-bound: Music Box Films will release on April 13th.
Synopsis: A well-meaning Scoutmaster kidnaps his Sudanese nephew to take him to discover the wilderness, but soon puts his entire troop in peril.
What You Need To Know: David Gordon Green, who executive produced "Nature Calls" (formerly titled "Scoutmasters") has veered from delicate, observational indie dramas to gory, batshit crazy comedies. His old pal Todd Rohal ("The Catechism Cataclysm") seems to make both those kinds of films simultaneously, and in doing so has won a cult following, although admittedly a tiny one. His third film looks to widen that niche a little, thanks to the presence of comedy names like Patton Oswalt, Johnny Knoxville, Rob Riggle, Maura Tierney, Darrell Hammond and, in his last screen appearance, the late Patrice O'Neal. Whether the material is more accessible this time around remains to be seen, but we're sure we won't see anything else remotely like it all year.
When? Sat 10th at the Paramount, Sun 11th at the Alamo Slaughter, Fri 16th at the Stateside Theater.
Synopsis: An overweight man, Franklin Franklin, lives in an apartment complex and dreams of Switzerland, but finds his neighbors leaking into his life.
What You Need To Know: On the "randomly assembled cast" meter, only one film in 2012 is able to compete with "Battleship" -- "Small Apartments." The latest film from music video veteran Jonas Akerlund, it features among its ensemble James Caan, Billy Crystal, Johnny Knoxville, Rosie Perez and Dolph Lundgren. Based on Canadian writer Chris Millis' award-winning novel, British comedian Matt Lucas ("Bridesmaids," "Alice in Wonderland") toplines this quirky dark comedy, compared by some to "A Confederacy of Dunces," with Juno Temple, Amanda Plummer, Saffron Burrows, DJ Qualls, Rebel Wilson, Peter Stormare and David Koechner also along for the ride. Akerlund's hyperactive style did no favors to his near-unwatchable "Spun" or "Horsemen," but this seems like enough of an oddity that we're intrigued to see more. Also interesting to note, ex-Roxette frontman Per Gessle is scoring the film.
When? Sat 10th at the Alamao Lamar, Mon 12th and Fri 16th at the Stateside, and Saturday 17th at the Alamo Ritz.
"The Tall Man"
Synopsis: The small town of Cold Rock has been plagued for decades by a spate of mysterious child abductions, attributed by locals the mysterious Tall Man. When her son disappears, a nurse must attempt to get to the bottom of the legend.
Synopsis: While he's had various films in development over the last few years, including a "Hellraiser" remake, French filmmaker Pascal Laugier has been yet to follow up his breakout "Martyrs." Until now, that is, as his English-language debut "The Tall Man" will debut in Austin. If he weren't attached, it's not necessarily something we'd have our eye on, but "Martyrs" was so uncompromising and harrowing that we're hoping that this could be a cut above. The premise is intriguing, and the supporting cast includes character actor favorites like Stephen McHattie and William B. Davis alongside lead Jessica Biel, who might finally get her own breakout hit. Could this turn out to be an "Insidious"-style sleeper hit?
When? Mon 12th and Thurs 15th at the Alamo Lamar, Tuesday the 13th at the Violet Crown.
Synopsis: A documentary following three young boys through a single night in New Orleans.
What You Need To Know: "45365," the debut feature of brothers Bill & Turner Ross, was one of the gems of SXSW 2009, a gorgeous, unusual, beautifully observed record of their hometown, Sidney, Ohio, and the Ross Brothers picked up the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature for it, along with a Spirit Award. They're back again this time around with "Tchoupitoulas," which seems to take a similar form: a musically-driven, visually innovative cityscape, but on a much larger scale, taking on the New Orleans nightlife through the eyes of three young boys. We're excited to see what light the duo shed on one of the U.S's most fascinating cities, and given its recent history, this should display both hedonism and tragedy.
When? Sat 10th at Alamo Ritz, Sun 11th and Mon 12th at Violet Crown, and Thur 15th at Alamo Lamar.