By Mark Saldana

Film Synopses Source: 

After nine days of film fest bliss, I must say that my SXSW Film 2016 may be one of the best ones I have ever experienced.  Not only did I have the honor and pleasure of seeing legendary actors Burt Reynolds and James Caan in person, I also participated in some fun round table interviews with actors Paul Reubens and Joe Manganiello, writer Paul Rust and director John Lee for Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday.  As for the twenty-three films I watched during the festival, not one of them is getting a negative film review from me! I think that says quite a bit about the people who programmed the festival this year.  From March 11 through 19, I watched sixteen narrative features and seven documentary features.

More detailed reviews will be coming soon, but in the meantime, here are my top ten favorite films of SXSW 2016:


  1. Tower: (On August 1st, 1966, a sniper rode the elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower and opened fire, holding the campus hostage for 96 minutes. When the gunshots were finally silenced, the toll included 16 dead, three dozen wounded, and a shaken nation left trying to understand. Combining archival footage with rotoscopic animation in a dynamic, never-before-seen way, TOWER reveals the action-packed untold stories of the witnesses, heroes and survivors of America’s first mass school shooting, when the worst in one man brought out the best in so many others).  This excellent and inventive documentary really touched my heart.  To hear the survivors and heroes tell their versions of the story is both heartbreaking and inspirational
  2. Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America: (Daryl Davis is an accomplished musician who has played all over the world with various legends. He also has an unusual hobby. Daryl likes to meet and befriend members of the KKK, many of whom have never met a black person. When some of these people decide to leave the Klan, Daryl keeps their robes and hoods building his collection piece by piece, story by story, person by person. Follow us on a trip across the landscape of contemporary America as we sit in on interviews between Daryl and KKK and neo-Nazi leaders, academics, and civil rights activists. Watch as he attempts to answer his lifelong question “how can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”)  Director Matt Ornstein has made a truly fascinating and incredible film that comes at such an important time. Ornstein presents a very well-rounded portrait of Daryl Davis and what it is like to be him.  I feel it is imperative that every person who lives in this country view this film and ponder on our own beliefs and perceptions of what race relations should be and what we can do to change things.
  3. Demolition: (Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), a successful investment banker, struggles after losing his wife in a tragic car crash. Despite pressure from his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper), to pull it together, Davis continues to unravel. What starts as a complaint letter to a vending machine company turns into a series of letters revealing startling personal admissions. Davis’ letters catch the attention of customer service rep Karen (Naomi Watts) and, amidst emotional and financial burdens of her own, the two form an unlikely connection. With the help of Karen and her son Chris (Judah Lewis), Davis starts to rebuild, beginning with the demolition of the life he once knew.)  Director Jean-Marc Vallee follows up Wild with another story about a person in mourning.  Entertaining and poignant, with an outstanding performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, Demolition is a film that shows that sometimes it takes unorthodox means to overcome the loss of a loved one.
  4. Transpecos: (On a remote desert highway a makeshift Border Patrol checkpoint is manned by three agents: Flores (Gabriel Luna): with an uncanny ability to track; Davis (Johnny Simmons): joined the Border Patrol with dreams of romancing señoritas and riding on horseback; Hobbs (Clifton Collins Jr): one of the old guards who believes a college degree can’t stop a bullet. It’s like most boring days, but soon the contents of one car will change everything. What follows is a journey to uncover the surreal, frightening secrets hidden behind the facade of this lonely outpost. The end of the path may cost them their lives along a border where the line between right and wrong shifts like the desert itself.) Winner of the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the festival, Transpecos is a tense, nail-biting, character-driven drama.  The film features outstanding performances by Gabriel Luna, Johnny Simmons, and Clifton Collins, Jr.
  5. Pet: (In the vein of HARD CANDY and GONE GIRL, PET is a psychological thriller that deals with the themes of identity, loneliness, selflessness and what it means to truly belong to another. It’s told through the prism of two isolated people, Seth and Holly, seemingly different yet more similar than they even knew. PET is at its heart a dark love story which examines how much one is willing to sacrifice in the name of love.)  This is my favorite Midnighter of the festival, but it is also a movie I had some difficulty watching.  Unrelenting, brutal and disturbing, Pet is the type of film that will have audiences cowering in their seats with their hands over their eyes.
  6. The Waiting: (The experiment started with a simple idea: if you had the equipment and the ambition, could you convince another person that they’re being haunted? THE WAITING follows two teenage boys as they attempt to do just that. Through a series of escalating “haunts”, the boys prod an elderly neighbor further and further in order to get a reaction. As their suspicions grow and the tension mounts, they realize too late that the man they’re manipulating is the last person they should’ve chosen for their project.) In an age of social media, cyber bullying, and YouTube fame, this highly relevant thriller is smartly written, well directed (by Kasra Farahani) and features superb performances by James Caan, Logan Miller, Keir Gilchrist.
  7. Miles Ahead: (Inspired by events in his life, is a wildly entertaining, impressionistic, no-holds barred portrait of one of 20th century music’s creative geniuses, Miles Davis, featuring a career defining performance by Oscar nominee Don Cheadle in the title role. Working from a script he co-wrote with Steven Baigelman, Cheadle makes his bravura directorial debut.) Don Cheadle has already proven himself as a talented actor, but this film shows that he has gifts to write, direct and act.  Not a typical artist biopic, Miles Ahead focuses on a dark time in the jazz artist’s life and flashes back to the problems and demons that got him so low.
  8. 9 Rides: (An Uber driver clocks in to work on New Year’s Eve, the busiest night of the year. The night takes him all across the city as he transports nine different groups of passengers who help him come to terms with life changing news.) Completely shot on Iphones, this example of modern movie-making in a modern setting is a character examination at its heart.  Beyond the novelty of its style, the film’s character development of its protagonist is what will keep audiences engaged.  As the movie’s protagonist, Dorian Missick delivers an excellent performance.
  9. War on Everyone: (Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob Bolano (Michael Peña) are two crooked cops who frame and blackmail criminals. One of the shitbirds they bring the hammer down on is a strip-club manager named Birdwell (Caleb Landry Jones). Birdwell reports back to his eccentric boss, James Mangan (Theo James), a British ex-pat and gentleman–junkie. Terry and Bob pursue a campaign of intimidation against both Birdwell and Mangan, looking for a final, big payoff, and inadvertently discover Mangan’s dark and disturbing secret.) Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary) this often hilarious film turns dirty cops into comedic fodder and it works successfully.
  10. The Bandit: (THE BANDIT is a film about 70s superstar Burt Reynolds, his best friend, roommate and stunt-double Hal Needham, and the making of their unlikely smash-hit SMOKEY & THE BANDIT. The film tells the action-packed story of the making of SMOKEY, while tracing the vivid personal journeys of Reynolds and Needham from obscurity to stardom and highlighting one of the most extraordinary relationships in Hollywood history. Featuring new interviews with Reynolds, rare archive material, including footage from Reynolds’ personal archive, as well as candid interviews with the late Hal Needham, the documentary tells an exhilarating and moving story about loyalty, friendship and creative risk.) This insightful and fascinating documentary sheds some new light on the real Hollywood bandits (Reynolds and Needham) who defied the odds and the naysayers and made the film they wanted on their own terms.

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