The Best and Worst Narrative Films of SXSW 2017

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AUSTIN, TX: And with that, your humble correspondent steps onto his flight back to New York, another trip to the SXSW Film Festival brought to its premature conclusion. This year, by the numbers: eight tacos, four barbeque dinners, three milkshakes at the Alamo Drafthouse, four panels, and 23 movies – nine of them documentaries, which we rounded up yesterday. That leaves 14 narrative films, so let’s talk about them.

CHALLENGES

Two fine films that couldn’t be more different on the surface – but both present challenges to both their audiences, and the people responsible for getting them in front of an audience.

The Disaster Artist

Here’s a weird thing that happened: a sold-out SXSW audience saw a “work in progress” cut (though one that, as usual, seemed completed) of The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s film adaptation of Greg Sestero’s first-person account of the making of Tommy Wiseau’s legendarily bad movie The Room. And it’s a very funny film about a very weird and untalented dude, and we all had a great many laughs at the expense of this guy and his terrible film. But we were also watching it with Mr. Wiseau in the room, so we’re sort of laughing at him while he’s sitting there, which is odd — especially when his onscreen avatar chastises the people who laugh at him in his acting class (“You all laugh, ha ha ha ha. That’s what villain do”), or when the audience at The Room’s premiere end up convulsing with laughter at him, just like we were. It’s the kind of fun-house mirror equation to which Franco’s always been drawn, but he’s rarely pulled it off with this much finesse; he implicates us in really fascinating ways, while exploring the difficulties of “follow your dreams” narratives (often inspired by the very movie industry that the people depicted cannot penetrate), and the staying power of imperfect work. It went over like gangbusters here, with the rowdy SX crowd responding rapturously to the movie-making inside-baseball stuff and the Room-related references, though I can’t help but wonder about its best hope for an audience; I can’t imagine seeing it without seeing The Room, and its assertions aside, not that many have seen The Room. But the people who have are going to love this.

M.F.A.

It’s rare, even in a film festival environment, to come across a work that’s legitimately provocative and even a little dangerous. But that’s what you get from this story of a graduate art student who turns her rape into a mission — a film written and directed by women, which presents its sexual violence unflinchingly, and then considers the aftershocks of the act with the same weight. The elements of revenge (there’s something of an art-house I Spit on Your Grave thing happening, albeit without the leering exploitation) are, in all honesty, quite satisfying, but director Natalia Leite and writer Leah McKendrick balance it out by considering where revenge ends and blood lust begins. The film sort of crumbles in the third act, but there’s still much here to recommend and contemplate.

GENRE TREATS

Between SXSW in the spring and Fantastic Fest in the fall, genre films are always welcome in Austin. These offered up the trappings of the monster movie and pulp action flick, which some extra dimensions to boot.

Colossal

Things aren’t going so well for Gloria (Anne Hathaway): she’s been unemployed for a year, her days and nights are a blur of drinking and blackouts, she’s just been dumped and kicked out by her boyfriend (Dan Stevens), and she goes back to her home town feeling that specific kind of failure that going back to your home town conveys. And then, across the globe, a monster appears. More than that I won’t say; I’ll merely note that writer/director Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) works up a great, novel idea for a movie, but also gives it a smart script that works out all the variations and complications, and goes in genuinely unexpected directions. Not all of his risks work (though at least he’s taking them), but when they do, it’s doubly satisfying.

Small Town Crime

John Hawkes gets a welcome opportunity to flex his underrated and understated comic chops in this darkly comic pulp thriller as a drunken, disgraced cop who stumbles into a crime and sees an opportunity to prove himself. It’s a real mystery — and a good one — but directors Eshorn and Ian Nelms provide levity via little asides of genre satire and little pauses in which their cast of gifted character actors (including Octavia Spencer, Anthony Anderson, Clifton Collins Jr., and Michael Vartan) can shine. The film’s a little too light to sustain the serious turn it subtly takes in the last half hour, but no matter; this is totally solid, mid-level pulp, and a rare modern movie that actually deserves the franchise treatment at which it slyly hints.

MIXED BAGS

A big-budget studio action/comedy and a small scale indie rom-com have much to recommend, but can’t quite deliver on their promises.

Baby Driver

In his introduction to the festival’s big Saturday-night premiere of this frenetic action/comedy, director Edgar Wright explained this was a movie that’s “been in my head for 22 years” (making it, he added with a laugh, literally older than its leading man). And that explains both what makes Baby Driver great, and a bit of a back-step for the filmmaker. It’s very much a young man’s movie, its kinetic pace and snazzy style also projecting a sense of self-conscious play-acting; it’s got a 20-year-old’s sense of what a cool movie is, feeling in many ways more like a show-off first film than his actual first film, Shaun of the Dead. And there’s nothing wrong with making a fun, hyper-kinetic, young-man’s movie, except that the maturity and pathos of his last picture The World’s End were such a good look for Wright. But it’s hard to complain when you’re having this much fun. Baby Driver is sheer flash, but the relentless, turnt-up energy of this thing is difficult to resist.

The Relationtrip

This indie rom-com from the writer/director team of C.A. Gabriel and Renée Felice Smith has a fundamentally sound narrative, and does well in the opening sections that explore that narrative: a boy and a girl meet cute at an awkward “salon,” decide to go on a weekend trip together, and end up running through all the phases of a relationship in miniature: tentativeness, honeymoon, nag-drag, therapy, and breakup. It’s a funny idea, and the leads are engaging — you want them to end up together, which isn’t always the case with movie romances. But then they start cutesy-farting up the premise with touches of surrealism and absurdity that are way off-point and, much worse, not funny. There’s much to recommend — the performers, particularly Smith, are strong across the board, and the filmmakers are consistently finding visually striking ways to tell a dialogue-driven story, which is harder than it sounds – but it’s ultimately two movies fighting for screen time, and the wrong one wins.

PLEASANT DIVERSIONS

Because not everything has to win a Jury Prize.

Fits and Starts

Writer/director Laura Terruso’s comedy of manners is very much in the spirit of the SXSW hit Hello My Name is Doris (which she co-wrote) a couple of years back: an offhandedly funny character comedy with genuine sweetness at its center. And it’s a depressingly rare reminder of the leading-man gifts of Wyatt Cenac, who is pitch perfect as a self-sabotaging novelist whose wife’s runaway success has put him even further into his own head. He conveys the intelligence and neuroticism of a young Woody Allen here, without leaning on any of the obvious tics, and he gets a good, lived-in vibe going with his onscreen wife, the wonderful Greta Lee. Terruso’s got a real eye and ear for the details of artistic pretentiousness and New York living, and if the complications that spur the action are a bit of a stretch, Cenac’s increasingly frazzled disposition keeps us engaged.

Paris Can Wait

The narrative directorial debut of Eleanor Coppola, wife of Francis Ford, concerns an amateur photographer (hmmmm), the wife of a Hollywood power player (hmmmm) with a bit of reputation as a ladies’ man (HMMMM). They’re supposed to travel to Paris after the Cannes Film Festival for some alone time, but he’s called away to work, and she finds herself sharing a car with one of his occasional business partners, the attentive and cultured Jacques. As her impromptu traveling companion, Arnaud Viard effervescently conveys how this guy is both charming and infuriating; he knows where to see the coolest sights and eat the best meals, but she just wants to get to goddamn Paris. It’s a very pleasant, inoffensive picture — the dialogue is a little stilted and the stakes seem awfully low. But Diane Lane is as charming as ever in the leading role, and as French food porn, it’s hard to beat.

WORST OF FEST

Song to Song

If you don’t know what you’re getting from a new Terrence Malick movie by now, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. His latest offers more of what made To the Wonder and Knight of Cups seem like a filmmaker dipping into self-parody: striking images within nothing scenes, tenuously bound together by fauex-etic voice-overs of first year grad student pseudo-philosophical mumbling. (My choice for the best/worst of them is “I don’t like to see the birds in the sky because I miss you. Because you saw them with me. Come save me from my bad heart,” but YMMV). Any hope that the SXSW-friendly Austin music scene setting might distract the filmmaker from his crutches was in vain — there’s barely any music in it, so it could be set anywhere, about anything, as long as it allows for his usual scenes of forced frolicking and aimless improv exercises. It’s visually striking, unsurprisingly, and every once in a while, he’ll put a sequence together that’s downright stunning. Maybe that’s enough for you. But it’s not for me, and it shouldn’t be enough for him.

The Honor Farm

A gang of teens, two of them escaping from a bad prom night, head to an abandoned work house in his moody but ineffective thriller from writer/director Karen Skloss, which is a pretty standard-issue haunted house movie crossed with a vapid teen romance. They get high on ‘shrooms on the way there, an experience that (as in real life) is fun to do but not much fun to watch; when they hit their destination, the tension is low but the trite nightmare imagery is high. It’s one of those movies where the characters are constantly spouting far-out-man wisdom that surely somebody thought was insightful, but when our heroine is asked, “What has no beginning, no end, and no middle?” I’ll confess to whispering back to the screen, “This movie.”

BEST OF FEST (RUNNERS-UP)

Most Beautiful Island

Writer/director/star Ana Asensio’s Jury Award winner seems, at first, like a simple day-in-the-life story of a Spanish immigrant in NYC, its gritty, ground-level aesthetic (in Super 16, even) conveying the desperation of being straight-up broke in the city- and all the life hacks, inconveniences, and stresses that involves. (Beware of cockroaches.) But then our protagonist’s day takes a turn, as she’s offered a money-making opportunity that sounds too good to be true, and whaddaya know, it is. As a director, Asensio has a sharp eye for details, and the kind of patience required to build true tension; as an actor, she draws us in and brings us along, desperate enough for us to understand what gets her in that room, and terrified enough that we hope she gets out it.

Gemini

Aaron Katz, best known for low-key efforts like Quiet City and Land Ho!, writes and directs this crisp little sun-and-neon-soaked neo-noir, using its deceptively relaxing palm-trees-at-night aesthetic to set up an atmosphere thick with dread, and push it until a murder almost seems inevitable. It’s the reliable story of the natural suspect (Lola Kirke), accused of murder, who has to investigate the crime herself to prove her innocence. The amateur investigation hits all the right notes (disguises, tailing, snooping through a room on a clock, etc.), but it’s no mere genre exercise. Kirke is a good audience surrogate (likable and sympathetic, smart but not brilliant), and Katz uses her to give this murder mystery a helpful human anchor.

BEST OF FEST

Win It All

The latest from co-writer/director Joe Swanberg and co-writer/actor Jake Johnson works its California Split vibe like a part-time job, adopting a loose, shambling, semi-improvisational style to tell the story of an unlucky young(ish) gambler — a guy who, as his Gamblers Anonymous sorta-sponsor (Keegan-Michael Key) puts it, is “addicted to losing.” So he’s not the kind of dude with whom a criminal associate should entrust with a bag full of money for safekeeping; when, after more than one scene of hilariously battling with himself not to see what’s inside, he begins pulling stacks of bills out, there’s a little symphony in the different spins he puts on the half-dozen or so “Oh no”s that follow. Johnson is just the right performer for this role; thanks to his baked-in charisma and likability, you’re with him even when he’s fucking up. And he continues to bring out the best in his director; Swanberg’s filmmaking has never been more confident, from his smooth transitioning of tones (it’s both funny and tense, often at the same time) to his A+ use of on-screen text to the affection he holds for his characters, and the lives they choose to lead.

Atomic Blonde

The first time we see Lorraine Braughton (Charlize Theron) in action, she’s beating the shit out of a dude with the point of her stiletto heel — a smashingly good action beat, and a potent bit of symbolism as well. This graphic novel adaptation from John Wick co-director David Leith is an expectedly entertaining and energetic brew of superspy action and brutally graceful fight scenes/shoot-outs, carried easily by Theron’s considerable gravity, intelligence, and sex appeal. The big set pieces are what had audiences here buzzing — a rope, garden hose, and household miscellanea fight to George Michael’s “Father Figure” seems like an instant classic, until it’s topped a little while later by a nasty, scrappy sequence of our hero protecting her cargo while taking down thugs in an stairway and apartment (it’s kinda like that great long take in Children of Men, except with a lot more people getting thrown into walls). But it’s also a fine-tuned piece of acting, in which Theron finds little half-beats of uncertainty and regret, and nails them. This could very well be a franchise-starter for the actor, and a promising one; it’s basically Charlize as ‘80s bi James Bond, and it is glorious.