Top 10 Festival Films of 2023 You Haven’t Seen Yet

From the Toxic Avenger to school shootings, the best of the fests

This year's festival selections are next year's award winners and blockbusters. So let's look at some of the movies that have played Austin's wide array of film fests (plus maybe an out-of-town ringer) that might just become your new favorite flick.

1) The Toxic Avenger

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

Peter Dinklage in The Toxic Avenger

Toxie lives! New York ultra-indie pioneers Troma Entertainment seemed to take a wild swing when they teamed up with megashingle Legendary Pictures for a big(ger) budget reboot of their superhero franchise about a mutated cleaner who wipes away crime with a mop. Fortunately, they hired superfan and Austin filmmaker Macon Blair (best known for more serious fare like Hold the Dark and I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore) to write and direct, and Peter Dinklage (yes, Game of Thrones' Tyrion Lannister himself) as Toxie. End result? You get exactly the kind of psycho-psychedelic freak-out gross-out this lunacy demands. (Read our review here.)

Odds you'll get to see it: You will, but it's not clear when. Legendary and Troma have been elusive on a date so far.

2) Lost Soulz

Screened at: Sound Unseen Film + Music Festival

L.A. to Austin transplant Katherine Propper has revised and revived the classic story of a young and wide-eyed musician getting swept away by a more experienced band and learning tough lessons on the road and reshaped it as a very modern tale growing up right now. The Texas road trip from East Austin to El Paso is hypnotic and grounded with Sauve Sidle's amazing central turn as the talented but misguided Sol. (Read our review here.)

Odds you'll get to see it: Bet on it. Propper's debut was acquired by Kino Lorber in October, with plans for a theatrical rollout in 2024.

3) The Graduates

Screened at: Tribeca

There are many films (Elephant, The Dirties, Super Dark Times) set in the leadup to a school shooting, and many (some of them more exploitative than others) about these all-too-familiar acts of carnage. But Hannah Peterson's extraordinary feature debut looks at the aftermath: not the immediate cleanup and investigation but a year later, as members of a senior class at a high school contend with the nightmarish violence that ripped their worlds apart in their sophomore year. Tenderly navigating the academic year to graduation, Peterson eschews hyperbole with a beautiful understatement: after all, what's to say that hasn't been said before? Watch it for a breakout performance from Mina Sundwall as the center of a group of friends who must decide how much they let that one day define their whole lives, and prepare to be stunned by John Cho as the basketball coach sewing a team back together while struggling not to be swallowed by his own grief.

Odds you'll get to see it: No word yet, which would be a tragedy for a movie that is so timely.

4) All of Us Strangers

Screened at: Austin Film Festival

Taichi Yamada's 1987 novel Strangers is, at its core, about how the ghosts of our loved ones can drain us – an idea that was amplified in Nobuhiko Obayashi's award-winning film adaptation, The Disincarnates. But for his English translation, writer/director Andrew Haigh refracts the horror aspects into a different kind of horror story, one in which emotionally restrained TV writer Adam (an exceptional Andrew Scott) tries to connect with both his alluring neighbor, Harry (Paul Mescal), and his estranged parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy). But something is subtly awry: that Harry seems to have become so much a part of his life so quickly, and that his parents don't seem to have changed a jot in the 30 years since he last saw them. Haigh doesn't explain any of this but instead steadily reveals it all. The thin line between the living and the dead is poignantly portrayed in a dreamlike London, captured as a muted rainbow by cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay. The post-modern terror of the book becomes a quiet rumination on isolation and love.

Odds you'll get to see it: Maybe sooner than you think: Searchlight is releasing it Dec. 22 as its big Christmas release.

5) The Bikeriders

Screened at: Austin Film Festival

Photojournalist Danny Lyon was looking to make a change from his nerve-racking work chronicling the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 when he decided to take photos of bike clubs in the Midwest. Four years behind the handlebars later, he produced seminal photobook The Bikeriders, a long road trip into the lives of Chicago's Outlaws Motorcycle Club. It was also inherently about a loss of faith in the MC, and its shift from a club to a gang to a full-fledged criminal endeavor (as Hunter S. Thompson had warned him would happen). Now, Loving and Mud director Jeff Nichols has adapted that underlying story for the somewhat fictionalized The Bikeriders, where the emotional veracity remains, in the triangle between Jodie Comer as Kathy, Austin Butler as her husband and favored bad boy, Benny, and Tom Hardy as club president Johnny, the biggest romantic of all.

Odds you'll get to see it: After being acquired and dropped by New Regency, it's now found a new home at Focus Features, with a theatrical release date scheduled for June 21, 2024.

6) The Origin

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

The past was a nightmare: the cold, the hunger, disease, and an environment that doesn't care if you thrive or die. By placing his survival-horror in the Stone Age, writer/director Andrew Cumming places the shriveled tribe led by Adem (Chuku Modu) in immediate peril as they hobble on what will be the last leg of their journey to find a new home in what is clearly the most inhospitable climes of Northern Europe. Add in a mysterious and deadly creature that haunts the moors and caves, and their fate seems set. But Cumming hasn't just craft an excellent horror film: He's also undertaken an incredible act of reconstructive archeology, from the clothes to the culture and even the language. The past has rarely felt so terrifyingly alive.

Odds you'll get to see it: Great, although look for a different name. Bleecker Street will be giving it a limited theatrical release, starting Feb. 9, 2024, under the new title of Out of Darkness.

7) Caligula: The Ultimate Cut

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

What's left to be said about a movie that is both controversial and catastrophic? The story of Caligula is infamous: bankrolled by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, who basically kicked director Tinto Brass off his own production so he could insert a lot more hardcore porn and hacked the whole film into such an incoherent mess that original scriptwriter Gore Vidal basically swore bloody revenge. Yet for all the titillating scandal, there was always a feeling that there was actually a film in there somewhere, even if various half-hearted re-edits have done little to reveal it. Enter art historian Thomas Negovan, who was given access to the original footage and Vidal's script, and has used them to reconstruct a technicolor spectacle that recreates the Rome of "Little Boots" in its most garish and debauched. Malcom McDowell's performance as the depraved emperor is given the full stage, and it's never been clearer why he was so disappointed in all the earlier cuts. Truly, behold the monster.

Odds you'll get to see it: No exact word, but Negovan and the producers are working on a rollout for 2024 that will befit this reconstruction.

8) Monolith

Screened at: South by Southwest

There's a gulf between films that were produced in the pandemic and felt like they were bigger projects cut off at the knees and films that were given extra resonance by being produced while the world was in lockdown. Count Australian minimalist cosmic horror Monolith in the latter category, with Evil Dead Rise's Lily Sullivan as a discredited journalist, now reduced to living in isolation at her parents' house while she works for a conspiracy theory podcast. As an eerie mystery starts to unfurl around her, slowly allowing the infinite horror of the universe to seep in through recorded interviews and Zoom calls, Monolith transcends its scale to become awe inspiringly vast. (Read our review here.)

Odds you'll get to see it: If you're in Australia, you may have been lucky enough to catch one of its limited theatrical dates in October: However, Monolith was acquired by Well Go USA in April, so expect a North American release to be announced.

9) Let the Canary Sing

Screened at: Sound Unseen Film + Music Festival

Most music bio-docs leap past the formative years of a musician to get to the years of fame. It's kinda like a set list that jumps too fast to the hits and then props up the back half of the show with filler tracks. When Alison Ellwood starts telling the story of Cyndi Lauper, she's in no rush to cue up breakout album She's So Unusual. Instead, she goes deep into the childhood and formative years of the Brooklyn chanteuse, into all that bittersweet experience that made her who she was even before she found that style, that goofy-tender sensibility, that voice that could take any track from the Great American Songbook and make it her own, and added a lot of pages to that mighty volume, too. (Read our review here.)

Odds you'll get to see it: The doc is wrapping up its festival run now, so expect a release from producer Sony Music Entertainment next year.

10) River

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

There's little more delightful than a theatrical troupe. Artists choosing to work together in a beautiful, collaborative manner born of friendship seems destined to lead to tiny wonders, and so just the idea of the team behind the delightful Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes – director Junta Yamaguchi, writer Makoto Ueda, and the Europe Kikaku Group – reuniting for another ensemble sci fi comedy induces giddiness. And, yes, this is just as wonderfully whimsical as their last project, as the quirky and charming guests and staff of a rural Japanese ryokan contend with a temporal reset button. The idea of being trapped in the same two minutes, looping over and over again, sounds insufferable for both characters and audiences, but Yamaguchi finds the delightful heart of this conceit, as the characters are all given the opportunity – courtesy of do-overs – to make one moment perfect. (Read our review here.)

Odds you'll get to see it: Third Window Releasing, who also released Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, will be putting out a region-free Blu-ray on Feb. 12, 2024.

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