For the majority of its 24 years, South by Southwest has been most commonly associated with its music festival – a midweek sprawl of bands and artists playing in just about every bar and street corner in Austin– while the movies and interactive portions play second fiddle. Look back at some of the festival’s recent headlining films (Everybody Wants Some!!, Neighbors, Spy) gracing the Texas capital’s Paramount Theater and that association makes sense. Those showcase inclusions were appetizers and crowd pleasers but didn’t generate the kind of buzz that makes people wish they could have been present for their premieres.
That felt different this year. Headline movies were bigger, buzzier and, in keeping with the city’s theme, more musical. Terrence Malick kicked off the festival with Song to Song, his love letter to the Austin indie music scene; Edgar Wright followed that up with Baby Driver, his much-anticipated fifth feature about a getaway driver; David Leitch offered us Charlize Theron as superspy Atomic Blonde; and Ben Wheatley put together an exciting shootout with Free Fire. There was plenty to discuss and admire in between of course, too. Here are 12 observations from SXSW.
1. The buzz surrounding Baby Driver mostly lives up to the hype.
The fervor of anticipation in the Paramount Theater last Saturday night eventually burst into cheers and applause throughout Edgar Wright’s jukebox action comedy. Who could blame them? It’s been four years since his last movie, and this one, in which Wright also has solo writing credits, continues to prove he’s one of the most innovative and exciting filmmakers today. The story hinges on a getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) assisting various bank heists under the direction of a shady boss (Kevin Spacey). Each robbery — pulled off by Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Eliza Gonzalez – is set, however, to music that Baby has curated through the various iPods he collects.
That helps with his tinnitus (his earbuds and sunglasses are wardrobe staples) and pumps the gas on a plot with a soundtrack that pinballs between genres and time periods. Baby (the soul and moral compass of this crime crew) enlists the calming Commodores’ “Easy” while walking through the street and revs up to “Bellbottoms,” by John Spencer Blues Explosion, which opens the movie and shows us Baby’s ability to tread tires in just about every one of Atlanta’s highways and alleys. Wright struggles to find the best way to end his wheelman symphony, but any disappointment comes primarily because you don’t want to see this crisply cut shoot-em-up screech its brakes.
2. Song To Song is a beautiful film out of arm’s reach
Several walkouts during Terrence Malick’s fifth film in the last six years seemed to conclude that Song to Song was a meandering, navel-gazing expose in lulling an audience to sleep. Indeed, since Tree of Life, Malick’s odysseys, in his new prolific renaissance, have been elusive and challenging to grasp. Every profound narration and visual pleasure can be seen as vacuous self-indulgence, competing perspectives that often feel valid at the same time.
Malick seems to be operating under the conceit of one of his protagonists in the film, Faye (Rooney Mara), who early on, in breathy voiceover, says, “Any experience is better than no experience.” She is a musician in Austin, Texas, who becomes entangled, both professionally and romantically, in the web of a music producer named Cook (Michael Fassbender). There is also BV (Ryan Gosling), another musician that begins a courtship with Faye, and Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a waitress that falls under Cook’s spell and marries him. Among the ebbs and flows of these relationships emerges Cate Blanchett, Bérénice Marlohe, Holly Hunter, Patti Smith and Val Kilmer, if only for a couple of wacked out minutes.
The story is easier to parse than last year’s Knight of Cups, but it remains a fragmented, swirling journey of memories and sensual delights. Malick, teaming up again with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, has little regard for conventions, which makes Song to Song, much like his recent outputs, invigorating and frustrating. The former is felt in his spiritual aesthetic – a caterpillar crawling on a shoulder, ripples emanating from a small pool of water — with actors that can relay the beats of a scene with a glance or a touch. The latter remains in the repetitive nature of these moments, with actors that struggle to relay the grace and depth needed to give their pacing and hovering a sense of purpose. Most of these scenes take place in beautiful places – glass homes and high-rises – that these beautiful people inhabit. But beauty needs ugliness to provide context. The drama that occurs in these sexual triangles relies on characters that are messy human beings, except they don’t feel like humans at all.
3. Jake Johnson should be in every Joe Swanberg movie.
The duo’s third collaboration comes with a simple setup. Eddie Garrett (Johnson), a poker player mostly down on his luck, is asked to keep a bag of money stashed away until his friend gets out of prison, for which he’ll collect $10,000. This turns out not to be so easy for someone with a damaging gambling problem. Eddie loses a healthy portion of the merchandise playing Texas hold ‘em and has little recourse to win it back when his underground poker club refuses to let him inside. He enlists the help of his mentor (Keegan Michael Key) and later his brother (a very funny Joe Lo Truglio), who eventually gives him a job at his landscaping company to ear back the money.
Swanberg resists a lot of easy clichés that filter through movies like this (Eddie actually commits to his new job) and Johnson gives Garrett an earnestness that isn’t usually earned by characters falling into debt. That’s largely due to the built-in chemistry of this Chicago-set comedy that features Mexican actress Aislinn Derbez, who starts dating Eddie as he rehabilitates himself. The film works because it relies on Johnson, a natural performer, to make us sympathize with someone who keeps making mistakes. Even as you audibly groan with his decisions, you still forgive his flaws.
4. Smart comedies are still being made.
Counting Win it All among them, the narrative indie selections at this year’s festival weren’t all serious. That includes Mr. Roosevelt, the debut feature from SNL alum and Master of None star Noel Welles, whose debut screening at the Paramount Theater was unfortunately interrupted twice thanks to a burnt light bulb and sound issue – the risks of shooting in 35-millimeter film. The rewards of doing so are captured in the texture of the film, which follows Emily, a wannabe L.A. actress who flies home to Austin to grieve a deceased family member. There she stays with her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend (an impeccable Britt Lower), managing to wade through the nostalgia of their old house. Welles has a unique physical comedy – exhibited in an opening audition scene and later in a restaurant bathroom – and uses sharp editing to find more humor in her character’s strange scenarios.
Another winner is Fits and Starts, from director Laura Terruso (Hello My Name Is Doris), starring Wyatt Cenac and Greta Lee as married writers David and Jenna. Jenna has accomplished more literary success, promoting her second book, while David struggles to find a publisher for his long gestating semi-autobiography. A trip to a Connecticut literary salon provides some humorous hijinks and shakes up the mounting tension between them. Other favorites include Person to Person, which follows four parallel narratives through New York City with deeply rich, intimate characters, a bike chase that must be seen and a wonderfully disturbed performance from Michael Cera, who says things like, “Fear is the rape of the mind.” He also lends his talents to Lemon, a movie that is as perplexing, awkward and funny as Cera’s frizzled, unkempt hair.
5. Charlize Theron is becoming a real badass.
Like most film festivals, there is a lot of waiting in line at SXSW. In fact, there is a lot of waiting in line to wait in other lines. But all of that waiting paid off Sunday night to see Charlize Theron as a British MI6 superspy. With Mad Max and the upcoming Fate of the Furious, Theron has begun embracing her action star persona, which she takes to extremes in Atomic Blonde. Directed by David Leitch, who co-directed John Wick, the movie feels similar in its tone and blood-soaked aesthetic. Splashed with a 1980s soundtrack and graphics, Leitch has made a neon-lit, kick-ass noir that leans on its history – it takes place in 1989 Berlin – just as much as its fighting. As the titular character, Theron travels to Germany to intercept a dossier with global implications and navigates her dubious field agent’s (James MacAvoy) shady dealings. Of the many gasps and applause that erupted, it is a one-take sequence in the film’s second act that garnered the most buzz – several minutes of Theron using any items handy as weaponry to take out a series of zombified henchmen, rivaling a similar fluid shot in Children of Men. Theron takes several blows to the head and blood stains her golden locks. She spends several scenes submerged in an ice bath, gulping vodka, and after two hours, you might have the inspiration to try that yourself.
6. Gareth Edwards learned to combat his fear of failure.
The out-of-nowhere director responsible for helming Godzilla and then, fulfilling a childhood dream, directing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, shared his own story in a keynote address last Monday. Fashioning his young self to be the next Steven Spielberg, Edwards received early rejection letters from film schools and decided to try computer animation to make money, eventually earning small salaries for title sequences and commercial visual effects. Even after saving up money to fulfill his dreams of being a filmmaker, he postponed those goals fearing rejection. It was on a vacation to Tunisia, visiting the locations of Star Wars as a fan when things clicked. His inspiration there helped him realize that his fear of failure wouldn’t outmatch the regrets of never trying. He began directing small BBC shows and his first feature Monsters, put him in high demand with top studios. Happiness, he made sure to say, does not run linear with career success, something he’s found along his journey. One fun tidbit he shared: the name for the Star Wars planet Scarif came from a Starbucks barista, who clearly misheard him say “Gareth” while writing on his cup.
7. Free Fire reminds you how loud gunshots can be.
To label Ben Wheatley’s latest film a black comedy would be to discredit the amount of blood, dirt and colorful attire his cast of bullet-shooting-and-receiving 1970s arms dealers has properly acquired over the course of his ear-numbing shoot-em-up. That last deafening descriptor isn’t a slight against Free Fire, about a gun trade-off that goes wrong and turns a warehouse into a firing range for the next 90 minutes, but a reality. The sound, once Cillian Murphy fires the first round of AR-70 ammunition, is startling, overpowering the movie by using the echo of the warehouse to provide a staccato soundtrack that never leaves you comfortable. Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer provide belly laughs and Brie Larson gets her hands dirty in predicament that leaves the entire cast crawling on their last limbs. There is also a scene featuring a John Denver song that will change the way you hear it for good.
8. The environment remains a prescient focus.
Two documentaries share the same virtues when it comes to sounding the alarm for global climate change. Bill Nye: Science Guy and Chasing Coral offer different lenses onto the catastrophe slowly impacting our earth. Bill Nye attacks this with a more personal profile of the man who taught kids that “Science Rules!” on television, and who in recent years has attempted to reinvent himself as a crusader for the environment and space exploration. It is a deeply personal, if not sometimes scattered, look at climate change deniers, Nye’s mission to engage in dialogue with them, and the pros and cons of doing so. Chasing Coral has a much more focused intent. The documentary explores the mass bleaching events taking place in coral reefs all over the globe and the team of marine scientists aiming to capture the sad deterioration of these remarkable life forms on camera. Rising ocean temperatures, due to the continued use of fossil fuels, are the primary reason for these decaying sea creatures, scientists say. “Can we live in the ashes?” the film asks. The answer is an unequivocal “no.”
9. Mike Brown’s death still looms large in wake of a recent documentary.
Stranger Fruit, a look at the impact of Michael Brown’s death from the perspective of his family, caused quite a stir during the festival’s opening weekend. Brown, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., by officer Darren Wilson and provoked mass protest, became a topic of debate again after new footage was released of him inside a convenience store the night before he died. The footage is more about the perception of Brown’s character than it is about the case itself, which is laid out once again by talking to all of the witnesses of that fateful afternoon. The film is more activism than documentary, and director Jason Pollock takes on Michael Moore form as he narrates and sometimes inserts himself into the picture. Regardless of its ability to change minds, the documentary suggests the start of more like it, hoping to capture the frustrating and soul-wrenching fallout of an incident that should have never occurred.
10. Biopics remain a challenge to make.
The Most Hated Woman In America is about one of the most polarizing woman in the 20th century that is as conventional as they come. Directed by Tommy O’Haver, the film’s titular hero (or villain) is Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who founded the American Atheist organization and gained a following upon winning a Supreme Court decision that banned prayer from school. She is played with a sharp tenacity by Melissa Leo, who lends some gravitas to a movie that feels too scattered to make a strong point. It falls into the biopic trap of jumping between timelines – using her kidnapping and eventual murder (along with her youngest son and granddaughter) as a crutch to explore her past — raising her two boys in the midst of controversy, jumping to fame on talk shows and, ultimately, trusting the wrong people. Vincent Kartheiser plays her oldest son, who breaks away from her domineering mothering later in life, and Adam Scott plays a journalist looking into her disappearance. But the film’s tonal shifts and tepid exploration of O’Hair’s ideology says little other than this woman has a pretty crazy story.
11. Michael Winterbottom still enjoys the road, even without Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.
While he’s taken us around beautiful countryside and cities and indulged our taste buds with his tag team road comedies The Trip and The Trip To Italy, director Michael Winterbottom returns with another road film, this time in semi-documentary and mostly serious form. He follows the rock band Wolf Alice during a month-long tour throughout Ireland, Scotland and England, while chronicling a small romance between the band’s publicist and one its crewmembers. The band, comprised of three men and a woman vocal, plays sold out venues of varying sizes, beginning in Belfast and ending in London. The camera plays fly on the wall, watching performances from the crowd and the band’s interactions on the late night bus rides from city to city. You gain incremental appreciation for their daily grind. You watch crew members unload trucks, singers conduct sound checks, theater workers cleaning the empty beer bottles scattered from the mosh pit once the show ends, rinse and repeat. It is a thorough investigation of life on the road – the stories shared, the fleeting romances, the lack of sleep – and you just might fall for the music, too.
12. George Lazenby is as charming as ever in Becoming Bond.
One of the most endearing and enjoyable movies of the festival, Becoming Bond is like listening to your grandfather recount the details of his life, some that seem made up and highly unlikely, which never cease to make you laugh. That is the guiding ethos behind this documentary, which takes that storytelling setup and gives full control over to George Lazenby, the only actor to ever play James Bond just once. Letting him tell his life story starting from birth, director Josh Greenbaum enlists the help of Josh Lawson to reenact Lazenby’s adventures on screen. Similar to Drunk History, Lawson, who plays Lazenby during his adult years, provides plenty of mimed comedy in this unlikely story of a car salesmen turned male model turned star of the biggest British movie franchise ever. Lazenby’s memory is the only source of information, but Becoming Bond wouldn’t quite have the charm or effect it does with additional voices. For once, the man who turned down millions of dollars and six more movies playing the superspy, gets to explain his story, and we’re all better for it.