The Good, The Bad, And The Weird Of The 2017 SXSW Film Festival

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.


The Movie With the Unique Wavelength: Gemini

I'll be honest and admit that Aaron Katz's Gemini lost me in its home stretch, where an underwhelming conclusion takes the air off of the film's sails. But let's not lead too heavily with the negativity, because the first 75 minutes or so of Gemini are evocative and weird and effortlessly entertaining. Here's a low-key mystery that takes full advantage of modern Los Angeles for both stunning locations and odd characters. The central mystery itself, which the assistant to a movie star finds herself attempting to solve following a shocking crime, is compelling and quirky and never seems that serious. You're just along for the ride, man. It you find yourself in tune with what Katz is doing, if you're capable of surfing its very particular wavelength, you're in a for a very good time.

muppet guys talking

The Entertaining Movie That is Really a DVD Special Feature: Muppet Guys Talking

Frank Oz's Muppet Guys Talking is literally 65 minutes of five muppet performers sitting in a circle, swapping stories, sharing anecdotes, and reminiscing about the late Jim Henson. For fans of those lovable felt creatures (and aren't we all?), it's a treat. Every subject is entertaining and filled with tales to share, and the set-up allows them to bounce off each other. It's infectious – everyone really does look like they're having a great time. However, this is barely a movie. It's an excellent DVD special feature, maybe a really good PBS special. It's not the kind of thing that demands a theater and an audience. However, it does what it sets out to do, and it does it very, very well.


The Most Relevant Movie: Spettacolo

Every year, the villagers in a small village in Tuscany gather together to put on a play that depicts their modern anxieties and fears about the world as a whole. Once popular and recognized, the theater is dying. For some, the theater has gotten too real. For others, life has gotten too busy. For those who remain, their latest production can't help but feel apocalyptic: the Italian government is in trouble, the economy is in free-fall, and the only thing these people can do beyond sit by and wait for their world to come crashing down is to react with art. Spettacolo is a slow-moving documentary, but it packs a punch – for the ordinary men and women without any power, art becomes the only way to process the world at large...and to fight back.

Free Fire

The Craziest Extracurricular Activity: Free Fire

Ben Wheatley's Free Fire is a truly nutty action movie about a bunch of incompetent criminals who engage in a real-time gun battle in a single warehouse over the course of 90 increasingly bloody minutes. It's a hoot. It's a blast. It's a thrilling and hilarious piece of black-hearted filmmaking from one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. And to promote the movie, A24 had Wheatley and stars Sharlto Copley, and Armie Hammer visits Austin's Stunt Ranch, where they engaged visiting press in games of paintball in-between interviews.

As far as movie promotions go, you don't get sillier or more appropriate than that. [Our TIFF Review]

the disaster artist review

The Best Lead Performance: The Disaster Artist

Every hack comedian has their own Tommy Wiseau impression, so it was easy to imagine James Franco giving into his most basic impulses and treating the eccentric filmmaker responsible for The Room as nothing more than a cartoon character. Instead, Franco (who also directed the film) imbues him with a pathetic and broken soul. In his hands, Wiseau isn't just the goofball who made an atrocious movie, but a struggling artist with something to say who simply cannot comprehend his own lack of talent. It is, against all the odds, the best performance of Franco's career and, also against all the odds, a key reason why The Disaster Artist is the best movie he's directed. [Our Review]

The Big Sick Review

The Best Supporting Performance(s): The Big Sick

Every performance in The Big Sick is natural and funny and often heartbreaking, but none are as surprising as those given by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. As the parents of a very ill young woman, they argue and bicker and, often in surprising moments, reveal exactly why these two seemingly mismatched people love each other. It's not surprising to see Hunter give a great performance, but to see Romano match her beat-for-beat and play one-half of a believable and often disgruntled partnership is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year so far.

small crimes review

The Craziest Cast: Small Crimes

E.L. Katz's nasty little noir Small Crimes may star Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as a sociopathic, corrupt cop who finds himself embroiled in all kinds of mayhem after being released from prison, but he's surrounded by the deepest acting bench of any movie at SXSW this year. As his endlessly patient father, the great Robert Forster does what he does best and fills the screen with wisdom. As his rightfully emotional mother, Jacki Weaver brings all of the necessary fire and rage. As his former partner-in-crime, Gary Cole brings a delicious deadpan to one horrifying situation after another. As the woman he seduces, Molly Parker brings a quiet, subtle sadness to a character who could have been a simple dolt. As a dim bulb with a thirst for vengeance and a bruising crime boss, Macon Blair and Pat Healy play deliciously against type. And just when you think the film is out of actors to drop on screen, Larry Fessenden pops up to play a coke-snorting strip club owner. [Our Review]


The High-Concept to Savor: Prevenge

Alice Lowe writes, directs, and stars in this horror movie with one hell of a great premise. What if a newly widowed woman begins hearing the voice of the child in her womb...and what if that voice was telling her to take revenge against those responsible for her husband's death? Prevenge is as nutty as it sounds, but it's also strangely emotional – this is a movie about grieving, about the fears of raising a child alone, and this is a movie about a crazy lady murdering her way through a slew of recognizable English actors. It's rough around the edges, but man, it sure is something else.

win it all review

The Most Pleasant Movie: Win It All

Win It All isn't a particularly ambitious movie, but that's part of its charm. Jake Johnson, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Joe Swanberg, is the latest in a long line of indie film man-children who learns how to grow up after meeting The Woman Of His Dreams, but he massages this cliche to make it palatable. It helps that Swanberg is less interested in exploring the exploits of a gambling addict stuck in a cycle of poor decisions and more interested in exploring how this guy improves his life and becomes a better, more responsible, more secure person. And this is all done with warmth and humor, following characters who generally like each other and getting along. This is the kind of movie that may actually lower your blood pressure. [Our Review]colossal

The Best Movie I Had Already Seen: Colossal

I saw Colossal at Fantastic Fest last year, so there was no need for me to catch it again at SXSW. At the same time, it was hard not to want to watch it again because Nacho Vigalondo's high-concept kaiju comedy is one of the best movies hitting theaters in 2017. If you've seen the trailers, you know the gist: Anne Hathaway plays a troubled woman who discovers a mysterious connection between her and the giant monster currently terrorizing South Korea. That's just the tip of the iceberg, though, because the film eventually reveals itself to the proudly feminist genre mash-up 2017 demands. This is the kind of movie that will anger all of the right people. [Our TIFF Review]

Baby Driver Reviews

The Runner-Up Movie of the Fest: Baby Driver

Edgar Wright makes movies for movie fans, delicious pastiches that take familiar concepts and lovingly twist them into unfamiliar shapes. Baby Driver is a heist movie and a car chase movie, but it is also a musical. Sort of. Thanks to a lead character whose headphones never leave his ears, almost the entire film is choreographed to his personal and eclectic soundtrack. Every gun battle and every high-speed pursuit become a pseudo-dance number. Sequences both mundane and exciting become subtle and unsubtle music videos. It's Michael Mann by way of Busby Berkeley. See it in the loudest theater within driving distance and then find time to see it again, because this will be one of your new favorite movies. [Our Review]

The Best Movie of the Fest: The Big Sick

Michael Showalter's The Big Sick is either a comedy powerful enough to reduce you to tears or a weepy drama funny enough to knock you out of your seat. Either way, it's one of the most purely entertaining, emotional, romantic, and crowd-pleasing film experiences I've had in quite some time. Kumail Nanjiani plays a version of himself in a movie adaptation of how he met his future wife (played by Zoe Kazan, with the real Emily V. Gordon a co-writer on the screenplay) and he confirms all suspicions: yes, he is a national treasure. The Big Sick has a habit of punching you in the gut, but it always lifts you back to your feet with its enormous laughs and its stirring emotional honesty. This is the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug and an emotional street fight. [Our Sundance Review]