I saw 39 SXSW titles in 2018, and reviewed 28 of them. That's a lot of movies.
So, it makes sense that my Top 10 list ended up as varied as it is. There are a few docs, a studio horror movie, a hardcore work of exploitation shot in a Thai prison, and even two Sundance darlings about dads and their daughters coming of age together. SXSW 2018 carried one hell of a line-up, so whittling this list down to 10 picks was certainly tough to do. Yet each one of these titles are totally worth your time, and should be sought out immediately once they hit a theater (or streaming service) near you.
10. Sadie (d. & w. Megan Griffiths)
Tracing the beginnings of a young sociopath (obsessed with her soldier father who's deployed overseas), Sadie is a very strong little drama, showcasing a writer/director (Megan Griffiths) totally in control of the story she wants to tell. Even more impressive are the performances - especially from relative newcomer Sophia Mitri Schloss as the titular mini-menace - as these actors (including a great Melanie Lynskey, John Gallagher Jr., and Tony Hale) inhabit dark, uncomfortable situations with startling ease. Sadie's a movie that sits in your stomach long after you've left the theater, as an uneasy calmness washes over you, courtesy of its unfeeling main character. Read our full review here.
Sadie is currently awaiting distribution.
9. Hearts Beat Loud (d. Brett Haley & w. Marc Basch & Brett Haley)
A quintessential SXSW title, the latest from writer/director Brett Haley (The Hero) traces a failed musician turned record shop owner (Nick Offerman) as he latches onto inspiration during the last days of life as he knows it. Starting a band with his insanely talented daughter (Kiersey Clemons), the melancholy papa does his best to try and discover any sort of driving purpose, as the girl he loves the most is set to head off to study medicine in just a few short weeks. Insanely pleasant (with a super catchy soundtrack), Hearts Beat Loud is an existential hangout picture (a subgenre in which there were a few great entries at this year's Fest) that would do Richard Linklater proud, internalizing all the conflict, while giving us a schlubby front man we want to root for. Read our full review here.
Hearts Beat Loud hits theaters on June 8th, 2018 from Gunpowder & Sky.
8. A Prayer Before Dawn (d. Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, w. Jonathan Hirschbein & Nick Saltrese)
Shot on location and using real prisoners as both leads and extras (Only God Forgives' Vithaya Pansringarm the only recognizable Thai professional present), French director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (Johnny Mad Dog) has constructed a work of hardcore exploitation in A Prayer Before Dawn. For two hours, we're locked in with this true story (adapted from Billy Moore's memoir of the same name), terrified as Sauvaire and cinematographer David Ungaro leer at every grimy detail, surveying the stories each inch of the convicts’ (mostly tattooed) flesh tells. The director knows we're here as tourists along with Moore (played an incredible Joe Cole), a boxer who was busted by local police for drugs and assault, following their raid of his shithole flat in the slums. Now, it appears the Thai government has assigned him his final resting place, as death waits to strike like a cobra at any second; his laughing, maniacal peers in this prison all desiring to take a piece of his white flesh as a souvenir. This is the Thai-set answer to Midnight Express, only without the comfort of John Hurt and other English actors to remind us "it's only a movie." Read our full review here.
A Prayer Before Dawn is currently awaiting a distribution date from A24.
7. Alt-Right: The Age Of Rage (d. Adam Bhala Lough)
Following Alt-Right and Antifa leaders Richard Spencer and Daryle Lamont Jenkins, Alt-Right: The Age of Rage is an immersive profile of both men, as they head toward a collision in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12th, 2017, at Spencer's "Unite the Right" rally. We know the horrible conclusion to this dual protest, as poor Heather Heyer - an anti-fascist supporter - was run down by Alt-Right extremist James A. Fields Jr.'s car, killing her and injuring thirty-five others. Lough and his crew compiled hours of behind the scenes footage with Jenkins and Spencer, getting us possibly a little too close to the leaders on both sides for our own comfort. It's an ingenious structure - though certainly will be labeled "exploitive" by many - as we're on edge during the entire final sequence at the Charlottesville protest, knowing that Heather’s tragic death is literally right around the corner. However, The Age of Rage isn't so much asking the question of how we got here, but instead purely capturing one of the most tumultuous political periods in American history, with an unflinching (somewhat) subjective eye that isn't afraid to get intimate with individuals who possess the most extreme sets of values. Read our full review here.
Alt-Right: The Age of Rage is currently awaiting distribution.
6. Never Goin' Back (d. & w. Augustine Frizzell)
With Never Goin’ Back, Augustine Frizzell isn't just making a stoner character study, but capturing a specific cultural moment. In essence, her frame becomes a series of moving Polaroids, documenting uninhibited Texas youth during the Millennial era, each trap rap song that drops on the playlist an invitation to dance in the car or roll up a blunt. We're getting a snapshot of what the reckless and poor contingent of this generation live like, diverting themselves with drugs, alcohol and back alley odysseys. Because there's a time and place for a future, but it's not here. Though we never hear anyone utter the titular phrase, we almost get a sense that we're watching the memories of a former wild child as they look back on the year when they just stopped giving a shit what society thought about them. All that mattered in the end was getting to Galveston, so that they could throw on bikinis and eat donuts while the sun sets. Are those simple, trashy pleasures really too much to ask? Read our full review here.
Never Goin' Back is awaiting a distribution date from A24.
5. A Quiet Place (d. John Krasinski, w. Bryan Woods, Scott Beck & John Krasinski)
John Krasinski knows what it feels like to live in fear. At least, that's what the director would want you to believe with his horror film A Quiet Place. An aura of dread hangs over every frame of this post-apocalyptic nightmare, following a family (headed by Krasinski and his real-life better half, Emily Blunt) who exist in complete silence, choosing to communicate only via America Sign Language. Through the lens of cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt), every inch of their Midwest farm is captured with a honey-tinged sadness, painting portraits of deadly American badlands - cornfields and forests hiding preying-mantis-looking mutants, who hunt solely via sound. It's an aura of incessant skittishness, mixed with irrepressible melancholy, as this tribe has suffered a loss to these monsters’ talons that they’re still attempting to recover from. Read our full review here.
A Quiet Place hits theaters April 6, 2018 from Paramount Pictures.
4. Elvis Presley: The Searcher (d. Thom Zimney, w. Alan Light)
The Searcher doesn't seem to care about your own opinions on Elvis. Director Thom Zimney is completely unconcerned with whether you think he's one of the greatest rock-and-roll stars of all time, or perhaps one of the first true culture vultures: eating up black spirituals and then combining them with country and western tunes to create a whole new sonic beast. The movie's made up its mind regarding Elvis’ place in history, anointing him perhaps the greatest American artist to ever grace the stage with his talents. Part of this blatant hero worship has to do with Presley's estate giving the picture its full support (after all, Graceland's never going to have a hit piece’s back). Instead, The Searcher is asking what it meant to be a hero to 50,000,000 Elvis fans. Based on Presley’s own words - plus the examinations of artists like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, who obviously looked to the King as a premiere influence - Zimney is examining what Gospel, Soul, R&B, Country/Western and even Pop Music meant to a Southern white man who grew up dirt poor, practically without a father, and possibly without a future beyond music. For the most part, it's a true triumph; hypnotic and informative in equal measure. Read our full review here.
The Searcher will air on HBO April 14, 2018.
3. Sorry to Bother You (d. & w. Boots Riley)
"Horses" were a big running theme at SXSW 2018 (what with Lean On Pete and The Rider also being showcased), yet none of these movies had horses quite like Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You (though I won't spoil the joke beyond that). Often playing like an Adult Swim version of Putney Swope, Sorry to Bother You is a brazen, insane work of social satire, ready to get as surreal and ridiculous as humanly possible while making a ton of amazing observations regarding our current political and racial climate. Writer/director Boots Riley is about to become your new favorite filmmaker, and Lakeith Stanfield finally has his first truly iconic role. This is bold, amazing, hilarious experimental protest cinema, so in your face and not giving a fuck about any kind of defined "rules", allowing the movie to operate on its own idiosyncratic wavelength. In short, you are not prepared.
Sorry To Bother You will hit theaters July 8, 2018 from Annapurna.
2. Eighth Grade (d. & w. Bo Burnham)
Cribbing more from the cringey French dramas of Catherine Breillat (think: a less perverse Fat Girl) than the warm and fuzzy ‘80s staples of John Hughes, Eighth Grade is the painfully real attempt at comprehending what it means to grow up in a generation overwhelmed with information, which in turn transforms nearly everything about the process into a competition (even more so than it organically is). For Kayla (Elsie Fisher) – an awkward, pimply, baby-fat laced girl who may as well be invisible to most – the race always seems to be three steps ahead of her current pace. Nobody watches the bubbly, stuttering videos she posts to YouTube (which cover the nature of “confidence” from every angle imaginable), and her Instagram is a mish mash of poorly angled selfies, all heavily filtered to try and cover up her poor complexion. Practically a ghost at school, it seems like Elsie will never have any friends, the popular girls staring at her fumbling gestures like she’s some sort of fucking extraterrestrial. These are the brutal truths of modern adolesence, laid out with incredible skill. Read our full review here.
Eighth Grade will hit theaters July 13, 2018 from A24.
1. First Reformed (d. & w. Paul Schrader)
First Reformed is the result of an artist putting restraints on himself. For his last picture - the much maligned Nic Cage crime ditty Dog Eat Dog - Paul Schrader eschewed any playbook he'd ever used, going as far as to employ first time filmmakers behind the scenes to try and free himself of any preconceived notions regarding the creative process. First Reformed inverts that philosophy, as Schrader returns to the texts on "Transcendental Style" he penned as a critic before picking up a camera (which cover the works of Yasujirō Ozu and Robert Bresson, amongst thers). The result is a mature marriage of Schrader's previous meditations on diseases of the soul with a very specifically measured formal approach, as a faith-tested priest (Ethan Hawke) becomes obsessed with the decaying nature of our planet, pushing himself toward potential violence. He's essentially Travis Bickle with a white collar, and Schrader's frame works to crush him, little by little, putting the audience on edge as we wait for an explosion. However, the end of First Reformed may surprise you, as Schrader is obviously confronting the rage and loneliness that have consumed his characters for the majority of his career, resulting in a work that is, in itself, utterly transcendent.
First Reformed hits theaters June 22, 2018 from A24.