Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

All 32 of our film reviews blurbed and ranked for your pleasure

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South by Southwest is all about surprises — some good, some bad. What started out admittedly rocky — ahem, having a personal existential crisis for being (so far) the only critic let down by Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some — quickly turned around with a number of intriguing and exciting titles, from Mike Flanagan’s terrifying Hush to Irene Taylor Brodsky’s haunting documentary, Beware the Slenderman.

From there, the film festival became a roller coaster of ups and downs, all of which you’ll see in this exhaustive recap of our 32 full-length film reviews. Oddly enough, there wasn’t anything we particular loathed; in fact, we were fairly enthused with even our lowest ranked fare. That’s a relief in and of itself and also speaks to the overall quality.

sxsw film paramount kaplan Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to BestIt should be noted that we’ve chosen to leave out several titles that we’ve already covered at past festivals, specifically Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition, Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America, Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler, Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, and Mickey Keating’s Carnage Park.

Once again, we missed some much-heralded films — specifically, the acclaimed jury award winners: Adam Pinney’s The Arbalest and Matt Ornstein’s Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America — and couldn’t make it into a workprint screening of Key and Peele’s forthcoming action comedy, Keanu.

Nevertheless, this year’s South by Southwest was an absolute thrill ride, one where JJ Abrams could pop up and introduce a new print of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, or where Doug Benson might kick out an obnoxious texter during a movie screening. Both of these happened and we witnessed all of it.

Here’s your chance to relive some of it.

–Michael Roffman
Editor-in-Chief

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Don’t Breathe

don't-breathe

Grade: C-

Like the Detroit setting, the film’s rapacious content is just another narrative tool for Fede Alvarez. He employs it to shock and disgust, but it is used with a sense of irresponsibility when considering the real-world implications. The film is disappointing because of its great possibilities. Alvarezs Evil Dead left many wondering what this visually talented director would do next. Inconsistent and offensive, Don’t Breathe is not the follow-up many will have wanted. The man has talent, and still looks to have a hopeful future. But next time, please don’t send us to Detroit. [Read Marten Carlson’s full review.]

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Claire In Motion

Claire in Motion

Grade: C-

Any sense of mystery or suspense quickly dissipates as the film returns again and again to repetitive and terse exchanges between Claire and Allison, whose revelations aren’t as surprising as they’re probably intended to be. Any hints as to Paul’s whereabouts are either ephemeral or conjectural, and, while true-to-life, this results in a plot that seems to stall every time it starts lurching forward. This frustrating lack of closure is an important aspect of Claire in Motion‘s raison d’être, but it doesn’t bear much cinematic fruit. The movie is, unfortunately, just quite dull. [Read Randall Colburn’s full review.]

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The Waiting

the waiting e1458429913129 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: C-

Screenwriters Mark Bianculli and Jeff Richard are too obsessed with driving their freshman thesis home, to the point that they fracture their own storytelling by overstuffing the narrative. It’s kind of ironic; for a film that’s all about perspective, you’d think they’d at least get that facet right, but no, they hop from the past, the present, and into the mind of a dead man with ease. By the end, you start feeling like Grainey yourself, enough that you kind of want to stand up and scream, “Get off my lawn, you goddamn film!” [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
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Pet

 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: C

Once Holly’s in her kennel, Pet becomes bogged down by flashbacks, ghosts/imaginary friends, and other ham-fisted devices that dump the surprises in the viewer’s lap instead of unveiling them through pathos and ambiguous performances. While Monaghan and Solo add their own tics to the archetypes of stalker and nice girl early on in the film, they each feel like completely different people once the movie switches gears. This suggests that all that came before was a facade for Seth and Holly rather than just another facet to their characters. That’s not the intent, of course — Slater very much wants both members of the twisted couple to be complicated — but the acting says otherwise. [Read Dan Caffrey’s full review.]
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Gary Numan: Android in La La Land

garynuman Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: C

Directors Steve Read and Rob Alexander get a little too greedy with their subject, and as a result, their documentary starts to sag under its own ambitions. It’s perfectly understandable. Gary Numan is notoriously reclusive, and as fans, it’s only natural for the filmmakers to want to explore too many aspects of his life, rather than a handful of interesting elements. [Read Dan Caffrey’s full review.]
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My Father, Die

 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: C+

It’s too bad that My Father, Die indulges in so much bad behavior. Sean Brosnan (son of Pierce, by the way) is clearly a talented director, but there’s a mania to the film that detracts from its power, especially once intertitles appear during the closing credits that draw unwarranted and unnecessary comparisons to Irish playwright J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, another story of attempted patricide. Brosnan would benefit from a streamlined approach, one that emphasizes his talent for subtle character work and breakneck chases over greasy depravity. More often than not, a good story is all you need. [Read Randall Colburn’s full review.]
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Spaceship

 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: C+

Early in the going, it would be easy to mistake Spaceship for a Gregg Araki movie. Scantily clad teens abound, as do the psychedelic colors, slow motion, and supernatural touchstones that dominated Araki cult flicks like Nowhere and Doom Generation. But Alex Taylor’s odd, dreamy film slowly comes into its own, due in large part to the director and writer’s tonal consistency and an evocative world that’s cunningly deceptive in the way it toes the tightrope strung between reality and fantasy. [Read Randall Colburn’s full review.]
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War on Everyone

 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: C+

John Michael McDonagh seems to have more to say in War on Everyone, but it’s lost among the narrative and stylistic inconsistencies. Characters mention ISIS, women’s rights, and police brutality — all hot-button issues and pieces of social criticism — but they just don’t add up here. Bob offers nuggets of wisdom as he pontificates, but our laughter deflects real understanding. The influence of the buddy comedies of Shane Black is obvious, but the film never reaches the heights of a film like Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang. War on Everyone is always funny, but it could have been so much more. [Read Marten Carlson’s full review.]
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Everybody Wants Some

 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: C+

Rather than expand the scope and involve a rogues gallery of corollary characters — such as Zoey Deutch’s Beverly, who becomes a beacon of light 60% of the way through the film — we’re stuck with a group of guys who drink, duel, and dance. A lot of it’s funny — for instance, any scenes involving Glen Powell’s admittedly charming Finnegan or Tyler Hoechlin’s testy McReynolds — but hanging out with these guys eventually becomes a chore. That lack of perspective will undoubtedly affect how Everybody Wants Some ages through the years. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
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Teenage Cocktail

Teenage Cocktail

Grade: B-

During the brief talkback after the screening, the moderator pointed out to John Carchietta how, despite his ickiness, Frank is a somewhat sympathetic character. Carchietta didn’t seem to agree with the sentiment, stating that, at the end of the day, Frank remains a creep and deserves anything bad that could possibly happen to him in the movie. I’m not at all saying that pedophiles are decent people and shouldn’t be punished, but it’s interesting to see the director drawn to the vengeful moments of the film, when he actually ends up nailing the more subtle, painful aspects of teenhood. That’s a harder thing to pull off than a grindhouse flick, which makes Teenage Cocktail an impressive, if slightly uneven, debut. [Read Dan Caffrey’s full review.]
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The Smart Studios Story

 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: B-

Featuring a veritable who’s who of Alternative Rock 101 — so, Billy Corgan, Dave Grohl,Shirley Manson, Donita Sparks, Jimmy Chamberlin, Doug Erikson, Tom Hazelmyer, and many, many more (in addition to Vig and Marker, obviously) — Wendy Schneider attempts to trace the roots of that movement back to not only Smart Studios but the Midwest in general. At an all-too-lean 90 minutes, she doesn’t give herself much time to do the job to the fullest, but it’s still an enjoyable and enlightening watch. Chock full of never-before-seen archival footage, squiggly animations, chummy anecdotes, and enthusiastic interviews, the scrappy rock doc that could is a “little piece of heaven” for nostalgic fans everywhere. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
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The Art of Organized Noize

organizednoize Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: B-

If one can get past the bloated runtime and unnecessary stroking of egos, The Art of Organized Noize is a story that demands to be heard by anyone with an interest in hip-hop. Even today, when the art form is arguably more progressive than ever in its creativity, no one operates quite like Wade, Brown, and Murray, who are more of a free-thinking band than the typical rap producers. When you have Outkast, Future, and even an egomaniac like Diddy praising your workmanship and innovation, that’s saying something. [Read Dan Caffrey’s full review.]
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American Fable

americanfable Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: B-

Have you heard the one about the farm girl who took on Reagan? It’s called American Fable, writer and director Anne Hamilton’s fantastical thriller that sprinkles some dark magic on the Midwest’s terrifying farming crisis of the 1980s. At the time, veteran farmers across America suffered the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, ranging from droughts to soaring interest rates, derailing property values to unfathomable foreclosures. Many lost their land, or were forced off it, and this is the fragile setting that Hamilton captures with a degree of magnificent surrealism and touch of Americana so rustic, you would swear it was ripped straight out of your pappy’s photo album. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
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Operation Avalanche

operation avalanche

Grade: B-

Even in its weaker moments, however, Operation Avalanche does feel like something we haven’t seen before. Because the filmmakers essentially play themselves and did some elaborate legal tap-dancing to film at NASA (actual members of the space program are interviewed in the film), the lines between truth and fiction become intriguingly blurred. That’s a cliche saying in itself, but an apt one when considering the subject matter. Operation Avalanche isn’t just about the thrill of making movies — it’s about the thrill of making history. [Read Dan Caffrey’s full review.]
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My Blind Brother

my blind brother

Grade: B-

Everyone appears miserable in My Blind Brother, but it’s not a miserable film. It’s a sunny, warm escape where the stakes are mild and the humor’s not too heavy, but just right. The romance doesn’t have enough glue — tell me why a drunken one-night stand is the love of your life, Bill? — but the heartfelt bond between the two brothers should choke up even the most disparate siblings by the film’s end. Nick Kroll could do much worse than popping up in harmless dramedies each year, and if they’re as spunky and enjoyable as My Blind Brother, we’ll have to consider it an annual tradition. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
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Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon

thank you del

Grade: B-

Any student of improvisational comedy should know the name Del Close. For the uninitiated, Del Close might just be the funniest person you’ve never heard of, despite the fact that his subversive genius helped spawn the careers of Tina Fey, Bill MurrayHarold Ramis, Chris Farley, John Belushi, and scores of renowned comedians who continue to champion Close’s groundbreaking work. Whether his name rings familiar or not, Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon is an engrossing and surprisingly moving documentary that commands respect for the man who elevated improv into a dynamic new form – The Harold – thereby enhancing comedy worldwide. [Read Dan Pfleegor’s full review.]
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Don’t Think Twice

 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: B-

“Without improv I’m kind of a loser.” How’s that for a thesis statement? Don’t Think Twice is the latest directorial effort from comedian Mike Birbiglia, and, if that blunt proclamation didn’t already make it clear, the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher. The pursuit of entertainment is all-encompassing–finances, family, and relationships are inevitably affected and, more often than not, sacrificed in the hunt for relevance. Birbiglia explored stand-up comedy’s toll on romantic relationships in his 2012 indie Sleepwalk With Me, and here he broadens his gaze with a focus on friendship and improvisation. [Read Randall Colburn’s full review.]
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Miss Stevens

 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: B

Miss Stevens, the debut feature from writer/director Julia Hart, is perhaps most notable for what it’s not, and that’s another ennui-soaked tale of a high school teacher’s taboo affair with a student. Sure, ennui is everywhere in this handsome, well-acted feature, but what’s weirdly revolutionary about Miss Stevens is how it doesn’t assume a teacher’s depression stems from a longing for the freedoms of youth. As played by Lily Rabe, the film’s namesake character is struggling with something much more complicated, namely the psychological toll that comes with caring for your students as people rather than, well, students. That she’s still figuring out how to be an adult isn’t helping her any, either. [Read Randall Colburn’s full review.]
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Cameraperson

 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: B

Kirsten Johnson is both the creator and subject ofCameraperson, though you won’t catch a glimpse of her until the film’s very final moments, and even then it’s just for a second or two. That’s because, despite Johnson being a prolific cinematographer with credits on striking, politically charged documentaries like Citizenfour, Darfur Now, and The Invisible War, Cameraperson isn’t a traditional examination of issues or personality, but rather a visual collage of words and images she’s captured on camera. Johnson smartly prefaces the film by calling it a “memoir,” and that’s the best way to approach the film’s peripatetic style. “Memory,” after all, is the only consistent recurring theme. [Read Randall Colburn’s full review.]
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Sausage Party

sausage party1 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: N/A

Try to imagine the most disgusting, foul-mouthed, and disturbing Pixar film ever put to celluloid, and you’ll probably land somewhere near Sausage Party. But not too close. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg — in addition to screenwriters Ariel Shaffir and Kyle Hunter and directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon — have taken the awe and wonder of those early off-shoot Mouse House blockbusters and brought it down to “our level,” subverting the innocent medium with lewd dialogue, stereotypes galore, and a brand of sexual depravity that would bother regulars at Pornhub. It’s unlike anything else. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
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Midnight Special

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Grade: B

Jeff Nichols has repeatedly declared Midnight Special as his homage to ’80s science-fiction films, and in many ways it is. Like Starman and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, there’s an innocent being with messiah-like powers (in this case, a young boy named Alton), the various parties wanting to use his abilities for their own purposes (the FBI and an extremist church), and the people trying to get him to safety (his parents and a family friend). But aside from the plot details, Midnight Special also stands apart from the aforementioned genre flicks, if only by virtue of who’s behind the camera. [Read Dan Caffrey’s full review.]
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Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday

 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: B

Thirty-one years after he lost and reclaimed his bike, Paul Reubens returns to his landmark role in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. Directed by Wonder Showzen mastermind John Lee, produced by 21st century comedy godfather Judd Apatow, and written by Love creator Paul Rust, the latest adventure finds our hipster-in-gray taking a vacation by hitting the open road toward the Big Apple. So yes, it’s essentially a remake of Tim Burton’s classic debut, only with a less consequential MacGuffin (he’s going to attend Joe Manganiello’s big birthday bash) and a less stylistic director (Lee has chops, but he’s no Burton). Still, the through-line isn’t vital; it’s the vignettes in between, not to mention watching Reubens shine, and that’s where this film delivers. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
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Rainbow Time

rainbow time Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: B+

Shonzi is Shaun. Shaun loves Fonzie, thus the nickname “Shonzi.” Shonzi is a nuisance. But Shonzi is … unwell. “Slow” is the word his family uses. “Developmentally delayed” is what the filmmakers say. The truth is that Shonzi choked on his own umbilical cord when he was born, and his brain just doesn’t function like other people’s. As played by writer/director Linas Phillips, Shonzi is imaginative, loud, and horny as hell. Combine that with his complete lack of societal grace, and you’re left with one of the most cringing film characters in recent memory. [Read Randall Colburn’s full review.]
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Miss Sharon Jones!

sharonjones Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: B+

But the most compelling sections of Miss Sharon Jones are still her leaps in physical and creative strength. If Jones can move from mortal woman to musical superhero in the space of a few moments, if she can convert the despair within her ravaged body into energy, then so can the rest of us in our times of weakness. There’s always the chance that we can backpedal, of course. There’s always the chance that the cancer will return, that our bodies will ultimately give out on us. But as Barbara Kopple and Jones prove, the struggle itself can be just as inspiring as survival. [Read Dan Caffrey’s full review.]
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Hunter Gatherer

huntergatherer Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: B+

Hunter Gatherer is by no means perfect, but it leaves an impression that will linger for days to come, as images of Ashley and Jeremy continue to haunt the mind. Hunter Gatherer is that rare film that sneaks around the corner and smashes headlong into the viewer. With his controlled, intimate direction, Joshua Locy depicts a world where all its citizens are one day away from a cold bed in an alleyway. And it all begins with Andre Royo’s face, those carved lines. We may not get all the details but, for a short time, we walk in another man’s shoes. We know him. Maybe that’s enough. [Read Marten Carlson’s full review.]
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Beware the Slenderman

Beware the Slenderman

Grade: B+

Irene Taylor Brodsky’s absorbing documentary chronicles the case itself, the legend and online origins of Slenderman, and the court’s decision as to whether or not the girls should be tried as adults or juveniles. Far less sensational than the subject matter might imply, the film eschews simplistic conclusions – “The Internet is not the enemy here,” Brodsky’s said in interviews – for a balanced and graceful examination of youth, mental illness, and mythology as it’s evolved in the Internet age. Brodsky isn’t condemning the idea of Slenderman in the way that Tipper Gore did with hip-hop or Hillary Clinton did with video games; rather, she’s using Slenderman as a symbol of the web’s influence on a damaged or underdeveloped mind and how parents are still struggling with how to regulate it for their children when iPads are becoming an essential part of education. [Read Randall Colburn’s full review.]
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In A Valley of Violence

In A Valley of Violence

Grade: B+

The most surprising thing about Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence is how funny it is. That’s not something you’d necessarily expect from a revenge Western, especially one written and directed by a man whose last movie was a sober depiction of the Jonestown massacre. But time and again, In a Valley of Violence punctuates its cruelty and pathos with stabs of broad comedy that are so rooted in both character and circumstance that they somehow never diminish the ever-mounting tension. And In a Valley of Violence is certainly tense; not sinceThe House of the Devil has West so effectively delivered on the suspense he’s so adept at crafting. [Read Randall Colburn’s full review.]
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TOWER

tower doc Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: B+

This unique blend of docudrama, action movie, and cartoon immerses the viewer in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a more traditional film. For instance, the stylized animation — reminiscent of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, both directed by Maitland’s Texas brethren Richard Linklater — amplifies the emotional jolt that occurs when violence strikes on an otherwise beautiful day. Minnow Mountain renders the campus landscape in bright tones — the yellow sunlight that pours through the window during an afternoon chess game; the green foliage drifting by while a boy goes on his paper route — only to strip them away whenever someone approaches the tower. As McCoy and the other officers close in on the school, the color disappears, as if sucked out of the animation cells by a vacuum, now portraying the oncoming violence in stark black and white. [Read Dan Caffrey’s full review.]
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Hush

Hush

Grade: A-

Hush is already drawing numerous comparisons to 1967’s Wait Until Dark, and rightfully so. Both films are home-invasion thrillers where a female protagonist uses her handicap to fight back against her attacker. In this case, the blindness of Audrey Hepburn’s Susy gets traded out for the inability to hear or speak. Likewise, the story swaps Wait Until Dark‘s New York City apartment with a remote cabin in the woods of Alabama. But once you get past the similar elevator pitches, Hush stands apart from its predecessor and most horror movies in general, Blumhouse or otherwise, as the hero and the villain face each other down very early on in the runtime. [Read Dan Caffrey’s full review.]
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Born to Be Blue

borntobeblue Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: A-

As Miles Davis once argued, “The thing to judge in any jazz artist is, does the man project and does he have ideas.” That’s a terrifying prospect to consider, the idea that you can’t just go out there and perform, you have to go out there and give yourself, and that self better be fucking worth it. Robert Budreau and Ethan Hawke wrestle with that theme and conquer it with a rousing climax that should get under the skin of anyone who’s ever felt passionate about anything. By then, it’s less about Baker and more about what Baker represented: an artist whose love for the craft superseded any and all facets of life. As such, Born to Be Blue serves as an honest and heartfelt ode to not only Chet Baker, but those who revel in the occasional highs and neverending lows that overwhelm the pursuit of art.
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Newtown

 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: A-

Newtown isn’t about the details of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. There are no comprehensive recollections of the attack itself, and outside of a screenshot of a police report, no one ever refers to the shooter by name, nor should they. As director Kim A. Snyder interviews various parents of the victims, members of law enforcement, medical staff, religious officials, teachers, and other citizens of the bruised community, no one seems to care much at all about the motivation behind the crime, or try to understand a horrible act that could never truly be understood. This isn’t a film about psychology, it’s a film about grief. [Read Dan Caffrey’s full review.]
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Sing Street

sing street photo e1458163983383 Ranking: SXSW 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Grade: A

Few films are ever as enjoyable and endearing as Sing Street. From its five-star ensemble cast to its unforgettable soundtrack, brimming with original works performed by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and vintage hits by The Clash, Hall and Oates, and The Jam, John Carney’s latest musical masterpiece dances around with a jovial charm that’s addictive and innocent enough to revisit again and again and again. After all, one would have to be pretty goddamn cynical to not be smiling, clapping, and singing along by the end. There’s a mutual feeling of love and loss throughout the film that hits hard – damn hard – and while most of us will never experience music like Conor does here ever again, there’s always the future to sing about. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

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