Between March 10-19, Austin, Texas, was overrun with fans of tacos and movies, in that order, for the 24th annual South by Southwest Film Festival. More than 125 features were screened, including the latest fro Edgar Wright, Charlize Theron, Terrence Malick, James Franco, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds, and Brie Larson. It’s impossible to see everything (and you shouldn’t; there were some duds), but thankfully you don’t have to — here are five SXSW films, as well as some honorable mentions, that are worth keeping an eye out for.
Honorable mentions: Lake Bodom doesn’t reinvent the horror genre, but it’s rooted in reality, and the scares are well staged… do you wish Flubber was more like Alien? Then you’ll love Life… Prevenge is sharp and violent, and an actual nightmare for pregnant women… Colossal, which probably would have made the top-five, but we already discussed it at length here (Anne Hathaway is really good; Jason Sudeikis is even better)… Noel Wells’ tragicomic Mr. Roosevelt is a more loving ode to Austin than the disastrous Song to Song.
Is it too soon to call Edgar Wright one of the greatest living filmmakers? He’s made three straight-up classics — Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — and even his weakest movie, The World’s End, is still very good. Wright’s latest, Baby Driver, falls somewhere between “classic” and “very good.” It’s certainly his most impressive feature, technically speaking. Remember the scene from Shaun of the Dead where Shaun and his pals kill a bunch of zombies to the tune of the Queen classic, “Don’t Stop Me Now”?
That’s all of Baby Driver.
It’s an incredible achievement in matching music to motion — Baby (played by a mellow, sunglasses-wearing Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver who listens to an endless stockpile of iPods while speeding away from the cops to drown out his tinnitus. He’s a good person who has to work with bad men and women, including Buddy (Jon Hamm at his sleaziest) and Bats (Jamie Foxx at his Jamie Foxx-iest), to pay off a long-standing debt to a crime boss, Doc (a scene-stealing Kevin Spacey). Baby’s also in love with a waitress (Lily James), and he semi-secretly records people, and there’s this whole thing with his mother…
That’s where Baby Driver slightly falls apart. It tries to be too much of everything. Wright’s been working on the idea for this movie since 1994, and it’s like he threw all his different phases over the past 23 years into the script — it’s a thriller, it’s a jukebox musical, it’s an indie-romantic comedy, it’s a high-speed caper. This should be exhausting, and there are a series of momentum-killing flashbacks, but to his immense credit, Wright mostly pulls it off, thanks to his remarkable ability to combine the grit of Grand Theft Auto with the ludicrous fun of Gone in 60 Seconds. Baby Driver is as singular a vision as the Star Wars prequels, but in a good way. (Wright’s car chases put George Lucas’ pod-race to shame.) It has to be seen to be believed.
Or more accurately, seen and heard.
The Big Sick
These days, the best romantic comedies are found on TV. And what do You’re the Worst, Catastrophe, Love, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Master of None have in common, besides not starring Katherine Heigl? They all feel real. The romance doesn’t come from mad dashes to the airport, and the jokes are based on emotional honesty. They also, for the most part, reject the idea of “happily ever after…” Just look at what happened on Jane the Virgin earlier this season.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the fairy-tale ending.
Once upon a time, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) fell in love with Emily (Zoe Kazan). It was a forbidden romance, though, because his Pakistani family didn’t approve of his being with a white girl. Kumail and Emily break up when he refuses to tell his parents about her, but after she’s placed in a medically induced coma, he stays by her side in the hospital with her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). When she wakes up, Kumail and Emily eventually get back together, get married, and write a movie together: The Big Sick.
Now, it may sound like I ruined the ending, but the “spoiler” is there in the credits: “Written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.” The Big Sick (which was produced by Judd Apatow, and thus, runs about 10 minutes too long, which is literally my only complaint about the film) isn’t about the happily ever after, though — it’s about the journey that gets Kumail and Emily there, from the meet-cute at the bar to the time Kumail makes a 9/11 joke to Emily’s parents while their daughter’s in a coma. Gordon admitted in a post-screening Q&A that The Big Sick is a hard movie to market, because when you explain the plot — “a Pakistani stand-up comedian waits by his ex-girlfriend’s bedside while she’s in a coma” — it sounds really depressing. And at times, it is. But it’s also uproariously funny, and more natural that any big-screen romantic comedy in years.
The Disaster Artist
The Disaster Artist could make $5 million or $100 million at the box office, and I wouldn’t be surprised either way. It’s a low-budget film about one of the most famous cult movies of all-time… with a blockbuster-worthy cast. Based on the book of the same name, The Disaster Artist is about the making of The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s “worst movie ever made” masterpiece (or whatever) that gained a Rocky Horror Picture Show-level fandom. One of the film’s biggest boosters, Seth Rogen, bought the rights to Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s making-of book, and booked the Francos, James and Dave, to play Wiseau and Sestero, respectively. The rest of the cast is rounded out with Rogen, Josh Hutcherson, Ari Graynor, Jacki Weaver, everyone from the How Did This Get Made? podcast, Alison Brie, and Bryan Cranston as himself.
Before I go any further, I feel obligated to admit something: I don’t “get” The Room. I mean, I do, but I don’t. Its “so bad, it’s good” quality is lost on me, even though I love the Manos: Hands of Fate episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. But I really liked The Disaster Artist, which is more of a feel-good biopic than you might expect. For instance, Wiseau’s stubborn refusal to reveal how old he is or where his money comes from is played as a joke. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s script doesn’t try to solve the riddle of Tommy Wiseau — it sees him at a distance, through the eyes of Sestero. That leaves The Disaster Artist a little hollow, but ultimately more crowd pleasing. (There’s a reason the spiritually similar Ed Wood was a box office dud.)
None of this would work, however, without James Franco, who New York magazine once dubbed the “world’s most ironic earnest guy.” But here, he’s all earnest. His appreciation for The Room is obvious, and in a career-best performance, he turns Wiseau into a sympathetic, misunderstood loner, instead of some nutcase who doesn’t know how to throw a football. (OK, he’s also that.) Franco embodies Wiseau as much as Jim Carrey did Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon — the Oscar buzz isn’t (totally) undeserved.
The Disaster Artist is one of the few films at SXSW this year that received a standing ovation — that’s the $100 million. But it played to a theater full of The Room fans, who lost their sh*t at every in-joke involving spoons, with Franco, Rogen, Wiseau, and Sestero in attendance — that’s the $5 million. I doubt Franco cares, either way. He got the real Tommy Wiseau to sit through his very good movie about a very bad movie. Anyway, how is your sex life?
Free Fire never tries to be anything more than it is: a damn good time. After a gun deal gone wrong, one group of criminals tries to shoot another group of criminals in a warehouse. That’s it. The premise should run out of steam after 45 minutes, but co-writers Ben Wheatley (who also directed) and Amy Jump always find another way to keep the action going. It helps when the game-for-anything cast, including Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, and Armie Hammer, is decked out in exaggerated 1970s gear, and throw quips at each other like an episode of Archer directed by Quentin Tarantino.
If “Archer meets Tarantino” doesn’t catch your fancy, then Free Fire isn’t for you. But if it does, you’re going to have a blast. Free Fire might not be the best movie I saw at SXSW, but it was the most fun. And the the best dressed.
Person to Person
I was always going to see Baby Driver and Atomic Blonde, if not during SXSW then when they’re officially released in theaters. I’m not sure I can say the same about Person to Person, a rare festival find that I had no expectations for but ended up truly enjoying. Told through slice-of-life vignettes, Dustin Guy Defa’s small film (which was filmed in 16mm) follows unextraordinary New Yorkers living unextraordinary (and initially disconnected) lives. Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson are reporters looking for a scoop, Tavi Gevinson is sick of watching her best friend make out with her boyfriend, Bene Coopersmith tracks down a Charlie Parker record, Philip Baker Hall fixes clocks, and so on.
There’s a murder mystery at the center of the film, but Person to Person is more interested in Clay Davis from The Wire bragging about sleeping with the same woman as Frank Sinatra than the “whodunit.” Defa makes the massive New York City feel small and defined, and between the retro score (including a killer Redbone song) and true-to-life dialogue, it’s a pleasure to take in.