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Eight feature films to watch at SXSW

Staff Writer
Austin 360

More than 100 movies will be playing at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival, running Friday through March 19.

Major titles include "Source Code," starring Jake Gyllenhaal; "Super," with Rainn Wilson; the Oscar-winning "In a Better World" from Denmark; and "Win Win" with Paul Giamatti.

We've picked eight of our favorites, based on early screenings, to help guide you through the festival. All of these are narrative features. Documentaries will be the topic of Friday's Movies section. Film times are subject to change. Check sxsw.com/film for up-to-the-minute information.

"In a Better World"

This taut, suspenseful and moving film from director Susanne Bier won the Academy Award for best foreign- language film. And rightly so. It artfully explores the pain of adolescence and the conflicting motivations of revenge and forgiveness.

Young Christian and his father, Claus, have moved from London to Denmark after the death of Christian's mother, a loss the child struggles to process as he holes himself up in his cramped room. At his new school, Christian befriends bullied classmate Elias, who is enduring his own difficulties at home as his parents work their way through a separation.

A youthful and dangerous bout of rebellion tests the limits of the two boys' friendship and their relationship with their parents as unspoken fears and resentments eventually boil over at home.

If this Academy Award winning film was produced by an American studio, it would likely play as a straight horror film, with the troubled Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen in an incredible debut performance) depicted as the embodiment of evil, but Bier delivers a beautiful and nuanced film with characters that earn our sympathies without asking for them.

— Matthew Odam

"Super"

The pairing of Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson in a comic superhero movie might forebode twee and inanity overload for some. But things might not be as they seem, especially since "Super" is directed by James Gunn, who got his start with low-budget Troma Entertainment.

The moping Frank D'Arbo (Wilson) tells us he has had only "two perfect moments which offset a life of pain, humiliation and rejection." Those moments: marrying his wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), and meekly alerting cops to a fleeing robber. When Sarah, who has succumbed to a life of drugs, leaves him for a club owner, Frank's first brush with perfection is shattered.

Inspired by a ridiculous Christian TV superhero, Frank transforms into The Crimson Bolt, a hapless hero who patrols the town whacking bad guys with a massive wrench.

Filled with a hopeful naïveté and aided by his new sidekick, Boltie (a comic store nerd played by Page), Frank goes on a killing spree in an attempt to save his wife from the clutches of evil.

The movie shifts wildly from silly to sadistic and back, exploring religious themes of salvation and grace while lampooning the conventions of movies about both heroes and sadsacks alike. It's not what you think it's going to be, until it is. But only for a moment.

(10 p.m. Saturday, Paramount; 9 p.m. Monday, Arbor)

— M.O.

"Win Win"

A slightly schlubby jogger sputters along a wooded trail as a couple of fleet-footed runners pass him. He stops, winded and defeated.

Such is life for Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti). Try as he might, the middle-age lawyer can't seem to stay ahead of life. A tree in the front yard is threatening to topple and collapse the roof of his family's house; the boiler in his office is on the fritz; and his roster of small-time clients isn't getting the bills paid on time. Adding insult to injury, the high school wrestling team he coaches in his spare time can't pin an autumn leaf to the ground.

When faced with the opportunity to take advantage of an aging client's dilemma, the straight-shooting Mike makes an unethical and out-of-character move that will earn him $1,500 a month. Although it seems a victimless crime, Mike realizes his plan is not foolproof when his client's grandson, Kyle (an excellent turn by Alex Shaffer), appears.

At first the bleached-blonde teen offers more solutions than problems — it turns out his fantastic wrestling skills are a windfall for Mike. But the specter of catastrophe looms. Kudos go to Bobby Cannavale and Amy Ryan as Mike's best friend and wife, respectively.

(7:15 p.m. Monday, Paramount)

— M.O.

"Ceremony"

Sam (Michael Angarano) fancies himself quite the bon vivant: He's a writer; he likes a good cocktail; he snaps at waitresses; he winks at people a lot.

The would-be raconteur and his friend Marshall (Reece Thompson) take off for a restorative weekend on Long Island. While taking in some much-needed pool time — Marshall has shut himself off from the world for a year — the two young men stumble upon a wedding down the beach.

But, as Marshall comes to realize, this is much less happenstance than a designed ruse by Sam. The 23-year-old still holds a candle for the bride-to-be (the always stunning Uma Thurman). Over the wedding weekend, Sam attempts to win back the heart he never owned while undermining her dashing British fiancé, Whit (Lee Pace, in the movie's finest performance). As a debauched weekend gives way to personal insight, Sam slowly and bravely comes to realize that he is not yet the man he imagines himself to be.

Writer-director Max Winkler (son of Henry Winkler) shows promise in his feature debut that aspires to be the type of film that made everyone fall in love with Wes Anderson.

(5 p.m. Saturday, Paramount)

— M.O.

"Little Deaths"

An anthology of psycho-sexual short films from the U.K. — think "New York Stories" with a lot more blood and body horror — "Little Deaths" is a nasty piece of work, a post-"Se7en" update of '80s transgressive filmmaking and splatterpunk fiction.

In "House and Home," written and directed by Sean Hogan ("Isle of Dogs," "Summer's Blood"), a cold, wealthy couple lure a young, homeless woman named Sorrow (!) back to their flat for (non-consensual, mind you) sexual and psychological torture. Brutality ensues and rather harsh lessons are learned.

Andrew Parkinson's "Mutant Tool" concerns a Nazi-era experiment and the psychotropic drug made from it's, um, excretions, a drug that recovering addict and sometimes prostitute Jen has started taking, with some unexpected side effects.

The title of Simon Rumley's contribution can't be printed in the paper, which is somehow appropriate. Claire and Pete spice up their dead end lives by going to (unsurprisingly Gothy) rock shows and indulging in quality S&M. When a line is crossed, Pete goes from maso- to sado- with a vengeance. Eating before any of these is just unwise.

(11:59 p.m. Friday, Alamo South; 11:30 p.m. Saturday, Alamo Ritz; 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, Alamo South.)

— Joe Gross

"Surrogate Valentine"

In this low-key, black and white movie, Bay Area musician Goh Nakamura plays Bay Area musician Goh Nakamura, a chill and pleasant fellow who seems to need little other than his acoustic guitar and a car to tour in. (The movie is named after one of Nakamura's songs.)

He is hired to teach guitar to eye-rolling actor Danny Turner (Chadd Stoops, hopefully not as eye-rolling real life), the sort of guy who hears an annoying solo and says, "that sounds like porn." After Turner insists on joining Goh on tour (for research purposes), credible adventures ensue, from pushy groupies to creepy record distributors. Goh's life is further complicated when his grade school crush Rachel (Lynn Chen) reappears in his life. Maybe it's just that the cinematography screams "Clerks," but "Surrogate Valentine" has a warm, early '90s feel. You root for Nakamura throughout.

(1:30 p.m. Saturday, Alamo Ritz; 10 p.m. Monday, Rollins; 1:30 p.m. March 19, Alamo Ritz)

— J.G.

"Five Time Champion"

The performances in "Five Time Champion" lift this little Texas-made drama. Although the movie has some big names, none shines as bright as young Ryan Akin, who plays the lead role of Julius, an aspiring teen-age scientist.

Akin captures the angst and confusion of teens everywhere as he fumbles through his first attempts at sex, as he suffers through jealousies, as he begins to question the wisdom of the choices that adults make. But most of all, he wonders whether his father, who long ago left him and his mother, was really gay, as everyone says.

Berndt Mader, a former Radio-Television-Film student at the University of Texas, wrote and directed the film, which was shot in Smithville. Co-stars include Dana Wheeler Nicholson, Jon Gries and Betty Buckley. Mader's script went through the University of Texas Film Institute's Script and Production Labs.

(11 a.m. Sunday, Paramount; 9 p.m. March 17, Rollins)

— C.E.

"Septien"

Cornelius Rawlings returns to the family farm 18 years after walking away, leaving no word or clue to his whereabouts. His two brothers, Ezra and Amos, remained on the old homestead. Ezra cleans and cooks; Amos paints disturbing images of cartoonishly sexualized demons. The farm went to seed years ago, and the brothers are well on their way.

You immediately know there's an ugly past and hidden psychological distress waiting to be pulled from the weeds in writer/director Michael Tully's "Septien." We await the brothers' redemptive moment, but our patience is tested by the film's weirdness and mannered oddballs. Among the oddballs: an abusive old plumber, a virtually imprisoned young woman, a deceptively simple farmhand and a mysterious, peripatetic stranger.

(4:15 p.m. Monday, Alamo South; 10 p.m. March 18, Rollins; 4 p.m. March 19, Alamo Ritz)

— J.S.

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The South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival

When: Friday through March 19

Venues: Vimeo Theater at the Austin Convention Center (501 E. Fourth St.); Alamo Ritz (320 E. Sixth St.); Alamo South (1120 S. Lamar Blvd.); Rollins Theatre (701 W. Riverside Drive); Paramount Theatre (713 Congress Ave.); State Theatre (719 Congress Ave.). Plus two satellite venues: Arbor (9828 Great Hills Trail) and Westgate (4477 S. Lamar Blvd.)

Film badge: $375 to $550, depending on date of purchase. Includes conference and films

Single screening tickets: $10

Information:sxsw.com/film