Five Stand Out Films at SXSW

As the film portion of Austin’s sprawling South By Southwest festival winds down, check out five films that people will be talking about:

“Spring Breakers” — Former Disney stars Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, along with Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine, break bad as bored, hedonistic college students. When they learn that they don’t have enough money to go on vacation, they simply rob a coffee shop — and Presto! It’s spring break time. After partying harder than Andrew W.K., they fall in with a sleazy rapper/would-be drug kingpin Alien, played with relish by James Franco, who pulls the girls deeper and deeper into the crime underworld. Sure, director Harmony Korine’s tendency to let the camera linger on his stars’ lithe, bikinied body feels more than a little creepy, but he has a genius for creating pungently bizarre images. Case in point: Franco’s beachside serenade to Britney Spears’s “Everytime” as the girls, clad only in bikinis and pink ski masks, dance while clutching AK-47s. It plays like some insane mash-up of a K-Fed video and “Red Detachment of Women.” I still haven’t figured out if “Spring Breakers” is exploitative garbage or brilliant. Perhaps it’s brilliant exploitative garbage. It is definitely, however, lurid, ridiculous, and frequently hilarious.

“Upstream Color” — If David Cronenberg and Terrence Malick ever got together and made a movie, it might look something like “Upstream Color.” Shane Carruth, who wrote, directed, edited, sound edited, starred in, and mostly likely catered this film, creates a world that is maddeningly opaque yet completely compelling. This is not a flick that is easily summarized, but it centers on Kris (Amy Seimetz), a woman who after suffering a devastating, if baffling, crime finds herself seeking safety and comfort in the equally damaged Jeff (Carruth). But that description leaves out the worms — which petty thugs use to create some kind of mind-controlling drug. And there’s the menacing bloom of blue organisms. And then there’s that pig farmer — who in this world may or may not be God. If you found “Inception” a little too weird, give it a miss. But folks who like enigmatic, thought-provoking, and original movies, this flick is for you.

“Mud” — Jeff Nichols’s last movie, “Take Shelter,” blew just about everyone away with its deft mixture of drama, dread, and psychological acuity. For his follow-up, Nichols goes bigger with a coming-of-age story set along the riverways of southern Arkansas. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are teenage buddies who stumble upon Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive huckster desperate to get back with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Hoping to make sense of his parents’ failing marriage, Ellis pushes heaven and earth to unite the two, in spite of a fearsome band of vengeful Texans, only to learn that adult romance is often confusing, flawed, and irrational. McConaughey is terrific as a semiferal fool for love, and the young Sheridan more than holds his own against a talented, seasoned cast. Watch for this movie during awards season.

“Drinking Buddies” — Joe Swanberg, one of the doyens of the mumblecore movement, gets a budget and some name actors. Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are two frequently drunk hipsters working at a Chicago craft brewery whose comradely japes and jokes are edged with more than a little sexual tension. Yet after a double date off in a remote cabin, the two start sliding from being just workmates toward being workmates with benefits. Swanberg has his actors improvise everything, and as a result he gets some subtle, rarely captured emotional shadings. This flick might be painted on a small canvas, but it’s still a treat.

“Don Jon” — Think “Saturday Night Fever” meets “Shame” meets “500 Days of Summer.” Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a porn-addicted, ultramacho Jersey meathead whose highest goal in life is to score with a perfect 10. Yet when he meets that girl (Scarlett Johansson) — he discovers that’s he’s not happy. While he’s still obsessed with porn’s unrealistic fantasies, his lady is equally obsessed with the unrealistic fantasies of romantic comedies. Though “Don Jon,” which Gordon-Levitt also wrote and directed, might be categorized as a rom-com, it’s really a sly critique of that tired genre and the rigid gender roles that they demand. It’s also surprisingly sweet and entertaining.

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