2017 sxsw film festival in review

The 2017 SXSW Film Festival is over, and it was an exceptional year for an always exceptional film festival. It’s rare to attend a movie fest and leave every single screening with something to talk about, but even the movies that I didn’t love have stuck with me in some way or another. This year’s line-up was a lot of things, but boring was certainly not one of them.

So let’s recap everything we saw. Let’s run down the best films and the best performances, the movies that almost worked and the movies that barely missed the mark, the bad movies you should see for yourself and the bad movies you really have to see.

The Very Important Bad Movie: Stranger Fruit

Jason Pollock’s Stranger Fruit has the noblest ambitions imaginable. It wants to look back before Black Lives Matter, before the protests in Ferguson, and focus squarely on where it all began: the murder of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. The film sets out to prove that Brown was innocent and that Wilson acted in cold blood and that powerful forces aligned to slander the young victim…and it accomplishes that. The evidence on display is startling and seemingly impossible to refute. You should immediately do a Google search and find out more because the movie itself isn’t very good. There is no cinematic craft on display here, just an angry, righteous, and wholly necessary message assembled with the craft of an unusually choppy YouTube video. A snarky, sarcastic, and off-putting narration clashes with every image on the screen. Stranger Fruit is a movie in desperate need of a new editor, someone to help Pollock shape his devastating information into an actual film. This is one of the most important things screened in front of audiences in 2017. It just needs to be rebuilt, and re-edited, from the ground up.

the work

The Big Movie We Didn’t See: The Work

Although it made my list of most anticipated movies of the fest, the stars did not align and I was unable to see Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’ documentary, The Work. And believe me, every single fest-goer I encountered informed me what a huge mistake I had made. Filmed entirely within Folsom Prison during a “therapy retreat with level-four convicts,” this non-fiction film shook audiences to their core, generated passionate conversations, and took him the top documentary jury award. This is one to keep an eye on.

atomic blonde trailer

The Action Scene That’ll Kick Your Ass: Atomic Blonde

While Atomic Blonde is clearly a film from David Leitch, one of the directors on the original John Wick, his main character here couldn’t be a more different kind of action hero. Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton may be a slick, deadly, and accomplished spy, but she is flesh and blood and can only take so much…and that also applies to her opponents. The best action scene in Atomic Blonde may be one of the best action scenes I have ever seen, a 10-minute brawl through an apartment complex (shot to look like one long take) where Broughton takes on a crew of assassins. They keep coming, and she keeps fighting and eventually, she’s out of breath and dizzy and retreating to catch her breath. Her enemies follow suit, also growing weary from her constant assaults. Eventually, the scene becomes a battle of attrition – everyone is in so much pain that they can barely stand and they’re so tired that even stepping forward to take a swing requires serious effort. It’s the rare action scene to make fighting to the death actually look, well, difficult. [Our Review]

Song to Song Review

The Bad Movie You Should See For Yourself: Song to Song

I found the experience of watching Terrence Malick’s Song to Song to be nothing short of unbearable and it made me yearn for the days when the director of Badlands and The Thin Red Line would pair his philosophical ramblings and stunning visual eye with something resembling a plot. And yet, audiences were split on this one, with many viewers finding a lot to treasure and savor. I had great conversations about Song to Song, about what it means and its emotional complexities and what it has to say about Austin, Texas (where it was shot). None of this has convinced me to every suffer through the movie again, but I also refuse to discourage anyone from seeing it. [Our Review]

this is your death

The Future Midnight Classic: This is Your Death

It feels downright unfair to pick on This is Your Death, a film made with such honest and noble intentions by people Acting with a capital-A. Director and star Giancarlo Esposito want to make Network for the 21st century, telling the story of a reality TV show where people commit suicide on live television and viewers donate money to their loved ones. The deaths grow more grisly, the numbers go up, and the movie’s characters never allow any scene to go by without making sure the audience knows that This Is Very Bad And What Has The World Come To. It’s a bizarre combination: here is a movie about exploitation that is also exploitative itself, lingering on soap opera theatrics, excessive violence, and outrageous plot twists that invite snickers. And yet, there’s a brutal earnestness here that makes it impossible to hate. As some of the most truly memorable weird cinema, it’s easy to imagine This is Your Death finding an audience of midnight moviegoers in the years ahead.

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