10 best movies we saw at South by Southwest, ranked (including jury winner ‘The Fallout’)

Film fans are going to have to wait another year to pair Texas barbecue and great movies at South by Southwest Film Festival, though the 2021 edition brought a bunch of cool viewing to people’s homes virtually.

The 2020 edition of Austin’s noteworthy event was canceled last March before the pandemic hit, but this year’s fest (which ended Saturday) came back strong, albeit online. On the film side, there were centerpiece documentaries focusing on Demi Lovato and the late Tom Petty that paired with other aspects of SXSW focused more on music and tech, including virtual-reality events and charitable video gaming.

SXSW has been home to quite a few popular premieres in recent years, including Jordan Peele’s “Us,” “Booksmart,” “Atomic Blonde,” “Ready Player One” and “A Quiet Place.” This year’s slate also provided a diverse selection of movies coming soon for film fans, and some that reflected our current COVID-affected, Zoom-filled era.

SXSW: Demi Lovato reveals she was raped as a teen, is no longer sober in YouTube docuseries

Tom Petty: ‘Somewhere You Feel Free’ doc digs deep into the making of ‘Wildflowers’

Here are the 10 best new films (many of which are still seeking distribution) we saw at the virtual SXSW, ranked:

An injured park ranger (Monique Rockman, center) is taken in by a couple of strange survivalists (Carel Nel and Alex van Dyk) in "Gaia." (Photo: JORRIE VAN DER WALT)

10. ‘Gaia’

In the South African eco-horror fantasy, a park ranger (Monique Rockman) trying to find her surveillance drone in a vast primordial forest comes across a survivalist father (Carel Nel) and son (Alex van Dyk) who adhere to a strange religion seemingly all their own. They’re not the bigger problem, though, as the trio are beset by terrifying creatures transformed by nature. 

Harry Shum Jr. is a video archivist who goes down the strange rabbit hole of a video hacking in "Broadcast Signal Intrusion." (Photo: QUEENSBURY PICTURES)

9. ‘Broadcast Signal Intrusion’

Set in 1999, the noirish mystery stars Harry Shum Jr. (who also executive produces) as a Chicago video archivist working on storing old TV shows on DVD who runs across a strange signal hack featuring an eerie masked figure that’s occurred multiple times over the years. He’s not the only one obsessively interested in the incidents, and things get dangerous for him and his partner (Kelley Mack) the closer they get to the truth.

Olivia Munn stars as a movie executive struggling internally with the way her life's going in "Violet." (Photo: MARK WILLIAMS)

8. ‘Violet’

Justine Bateman (“Family Ties,” anyone?) makes her feature directorial debut with this drama about a talented up-and-coming film executive (Olivia Munn) struggling in her personal and professional life. The problem is she’s been listening to the demeaning, domineering voice (Justin Theroux) inside her head and turns things around when she starts ignoring it.

Jocelin Donahue stars as a woman who travels to a desolate island and becomes trapped in a nightmare in "Offseason." (Photo: SXSW)

7. ‘Offseason’

A woman (Jocelin Donahue) receives a mysterious letter to return to the remote island where her mother was buried. When there, she discovers the grave is desecrated, the island’s very strange inhabitants are closing the whole place down for the season, and family mystery plus a little monstrous horror are afoot as she starts uncovering the truth in Mickey Keating’s freaky thriller.

Rickey Wilson Jr. and Shannon DeVido fall in love in the inclusive musical "Best Summer Ever." (Photo: SXSW)

6. ‘Best Summer Ever’

Absolutely joyful, a little subversive and wholly inclusive, the musical (premiering on demand April 27) features a huge cast of people with and without disabilities and centers on youngsters (Shannon DeVido and Rickey Wilson Jr.) who fall in love at summer dance camp and somehow end up at the same high school. The plot gleefully borrows from “High School Musical” and “Grease,” though still creates something heartwarming and original.

Jasmin Savoy Brown plays a woman enraptured by a euphoric sensation when she experiences horrific brutality in the thriller "Sound of Violence." (Photo: YOU KNOW FILMS/NO OFFICE FILMS)

5. ‘Sound of Violence’

The sadistic torture horror of “Saw” receives a clever remix in this squirm-inducing thriller featuring Jasmin Savoy Brown (“The Leftovers”). She plays a music teacher who, as a deaf child, recovered her hearing after seeing her parents murdered. The sounds of the traumatic event created a euphoric sensory experience for her, one that she tries to re-create as an adult through various bloody and murderous experiments.

Deborah Ayorinde (from left), Melody Hurd, Shahidi Wright Joseph and Ashley Thomas star as a 1950s Black family that moves to California in the Amazon horror series "Them." (Photo: AMAZON PRIME)

4. ‘Them’

Not a feature per se, but the combined first two episodes of Amazon Prime’s new terror anthology “Them” (which premieres April 9) is social horror for anyone who loves “Lovecraft Country” and “Get Out.” As part of the Great Migration, a Black family moves to Compton, California, in 1953 to escape the Jim Crow South. While they face a whole bunch of nasty racism in their lily-white suburban neighborhood, what’s inside their house is a whole lot scarier.

Whitney Call (left) and Mallory Everton hit the road to rescue their grandma after a COVID outbreak in her nursing home in the pandemic comedy "Recovery." (Photo: BRENNA EMPEY)

3. ‘Recovery’

Writers/stars Whitney Call and Mallory Everton (who also directs) are hilarious in a comedy that captures pandemic life like no other. And there’s a definite “Booksmart” vibe to the story of two locked-down sisters (Call and Everton) who get a call about a COVID outbreak at their grandma’s nursing home and then mask up, grab hand sanitizer and hop in the car to break her out in a grand road-trip misadventure. 

Adam (Mark Duplass) gets to know his Spanish teacher Cariño (Natalie Morales) over video chat in "Language Lessons." (Photo: JEREMY MACKIE)

2. ‘Language Lessons’

Natalie Morales’ feature directorial debut is a beautiful comedy/drama — told over video chat — about the power of human connection, even from afar. Adam (Mark Duplass) is surprised to learn that his husband gifted him 100 weekly immersive online Spanish lessons with new teacher Cariño (Morales). When tragedy strikes after their awkward first meeting, Adam and Cariño form a caring bond that each of them sorely needs.

Jenna Ortega (left) and Maddie Ziegler are teenagers navigating the aftermath of a school shooting in "The Fallout." (Photo: KRISTEN CORRELL)

1. ‘The Fallout’

Winner of the SXSW grand jury prize, writer/director Megan Park’s film follows the aftermath of a school shooting in touching, thought-provoking and unexpectedly funny fashion. Feeling numb after the traumatic event, Vada (a fantastic Jenna Ortega) tries to move on in her own way, which includes befriending a popular, well-to-do classmate (Maddie Ziegler) with whom she hid in the bathroom while the killer stalked their peers.

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