This year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival was almost overshadowed by an open letter from outraged artists concerned by a contract clause granting organisers the right to contact immigration authorities about international artists.
Although there is promise of a change in 2018, the ongoing headlines stating various international acts had been deported or not allowed through immigration has marred the popular Austin festival. And that’s a shame, because with world premieres from the likes of Terrence Malick and Edgar Wright, 2017 was a strong year for SXSW.
Here are 10 films from the festival to watch out for this year:
SONG TO SONG
The latest film from local man Terence Malick opened SXSW. Filmed in Austin, Song to Song brings together an impressively star-studded cast: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, and Cate Blanchett. Although the plot is a card close being kept close to the elusive director’s chest, we know it centres around the Austin music scene and mixes together real events — almost as if Malick were filming a documentary with fictional characters. A selection of music’s biggest stars including Iggy Pop and Florence Welch, while The Red Hot Chili Peppers make cameo appearances as themselves, blending reality and fiction together.
The film centres on a love triangle between musicians Mara, Gosling, and Fassbender’s producer, as they drift through the many Texan outdoor festivals. Expect heavy use of voiceover, plenty of crowd montage scenes. and rich people staring longingly into expensive pools as the hedonistic rock scene meets Malick’s gentle philosophic ideologies. The film hasn’t found universal love, however, as some critics have called it a “humiliating wreck of a movie”, although others have cited it as a modern masterpiece
Edgar Wright returns after parting ways with Marvel’s Ant-Man, with his first film since The World’s End (2013). Inspired by a music video Wright made for Mint Royale in 200, the director describes this movie as “the ultimate rock ’n roll car chase”. Ansel Elgort (Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars) is a music-obsessed getaway driver called Baby, forced to work by Kevin Spacey despite wanting a quiet life with new love Lily James (Cinderella). Compared to films like Point Break and Heat, the film syncs the action to the music the driver is listening to, all choreographed by Ryan Heffington (famous for working with Sia and directing that scene in The OA). The film promises to be grittier than the shiny trailer suggests, with a cast that includes Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, and Jamie Foxx. The basic heist plot is elevated by world-building and character backstories alongside one of the best soundtracks since Guardians of the Galaxy.
The film is set to be released on 16 August in the UK.
THE DISASTER ARTIST
James Franco showed a sold out SXSW audience a work-in-progress cut of The Disaster Artist, based on Greg Sestero’s first-person account of making notorious movie The Room, and his relationship with its eccentric director Tommy Wiseau. Since its 2003 release, The Room has been cited as king of ‘best worst movies’, transforming from a flop that made $1800 in its opening weekend to a modern-day Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film half explores the dream mentality Wiseau lived by and half explores the longevity of bad art, all while laughing at the director, who believed himself to be a Tennesse Williams-like figure. It stars Dave Franco as Greg, alongside his brother James playing Wiseau, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, and Alison Brie.
The film received one of the rowdiest responses at this years SXSW, with a standing applause and rave reviews. Critics have even been throwing the words Academy Awards around Franco, who co-wrote and directed.
SMALL TOWN CRIME
John Hawkes gets to stretch his comedic muscles in this blackly comic thriller, playing a disgraced police officer kicked off the force. Octavia Spencer, Anthony Anderson, and Michael Vartan co-star in The Nelm brother-helmed homage to pulp cinema. The underrated Hawkes’ plays a cop who falls into alcohol, teenage prostitution rings, and the world of assassins, as the film descends into a modern-day Western. Described as if Shane Black had directed No Country For Old Men, expect intense violence, sitcom-worthy humour, and an ensemble of oddball characters. There’s even a hint of Small Town Crime being the beginning of a franchise or even a TV adaption.
Aaron Katz, best known for more low key efforts like Land Ho!, writes and directs this neo noir movie. Hiding behind a filter of ‘palm trees at night’ aesthetic, it stars Lola Kirke (Mozart in the Jungle) as someone accused of murder who has to prove her innocence. Kirke is a personal assistant to Zoe Kravitz’ impulsive A-list celeb, which allows Katz to explore female relationships and the line between professional and personal relationships. Set against L.A’s faux brightness, this moody mixture of genres explores identity, celebrity, and the female gaze. Expect high drama from a cast of pretty celebrities playing pretty celebrities, real estate porn, and sardonic twists. This indie film was picked up by Neon after its SXSW premiere.
This graphic novel adaptation from John Wick’s David Leith (his first solo credit without Chad Stahelski) is an injection of big scene shoot outs, sexy assassins, and crazy set-pieces. Based on Antony Johnson’s The Coldest City, Charlize Theron plays a top MI6 spy in 1989 Berlin (on the eve of the Wall falling), who’s assigned the mission of destroying an espionage ring that murdered an undercover cop. Theron’s Lorraine is as sexy as she is lethal, using various household objects in a collection of scrappy fight sequences to iconic pop hits. On her travels around Berlin, in-between stabbing men with stilettos, she teams up with a station Chief (James McAvoy) and a CIA agent (John Goodman). Described as a bisexual James Bond, Theron might just have a new action franchise on her hands.
Atomic Blonde will hit UK cinemas 11 August.
HOT SUMMER NIGHTS
First-time director Elijah Bynum brings his blacklisted script about small town urban legends to the screen. An anti coming-of-age thriller set in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, during the summer 1991, we meet shy teenager Daniel (Homeland’s Timothee Chalamet) who’s sent upstate for the season. Thre he befriends rebel with a cause and local heartthrob Hunter (The 5th Wave’s Alex Roe), who sells weed to tourists and takes Daniel under his wing. Co-starring Maia Mitchell and Maika Monroe as summer flings, the characters soon learn about small town oral history and the urban legends we all heard growing up in close communities.
Cited as the spiritual sequel to Adventureland (2008), Hot Summer Nights is an ode to growing up in small town Massachusetts, the writer having been inspired by a story involving two local drug dealers when he was growing up in the area.
Noel Wells’ directorial debut received a homecoming welcome, as the Saturday Night Live alum graduated from college in Austin and shot her directorial debut Mr Roosevelt in the city. Writer-director Wells also plays the lead role of a struggling comedian who returns to her hometown after a loved one falls ill. This warmly received film faces the reality of returning home to the people you leave behind after pursuing a career. The world has changed since her departure, with her musician ex suddenly studying to be realtor with a perfect gluten-obsessed girlfriend, and a Pinterest-inspired house. Not even projector issues during its debut could dampen the warmth this comedy-drama received.
MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND
Debuting writer-director Ana Asensio plays an undocumented Spanish immigrant who stumbles into the sinister underbelly of New York City nightlife in this year’s SXSW’s Grand Jury Award winner. The film focuses on a day in the life of Asensio’s Luciana and her Russian friend Olga, as their desperation leads them into the chilling underbelly so many immigrants are forced to work in. This no-budget indie beat out big hitters to take the Grand Prize thanks to its harrowing portrayal of an immigrant experience. It’s a film whose timing within America’s current political climate has sadly only made it more relevant. Asensio, a seasoned Spanish TV actress who spent a decade living in New York, brings a raw, sympathetic, and very real take on the immigrant survival story.
THE STRANGE ONES
Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff co-direct this mystery thriller, starring Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson as brothers surrounded by mysterious events as they make their way across a remote American landscape. On the surface the boys look like they’re just on a camping vacation, but there’s something more sinister and complex about their trip, with flashbacks of a fiery murder scene cut into the narrative. The film, based on the director’s 2011 short that made festival rounds to positive reviews, is crafted as an open-ended story that makes the character’s actions open to interpretation. James Freedson-Jackson (who’s only noticeable previous role was as a young Kilgrave on Jessica Jones) was also awarded the Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Performance for his work here.