SXSW 2017 Preview

Blaze of glory
‘Free Fire’ and ‘Alien’ top list of must-see SXSW films

By Preston Barta
Film Critic

Friday marks the beginning of Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival, where movie lovers line up to watch films ahead of their releases and see the world’s greatest talents in the flesh.

So with this year’s diverse lineup of nearly 150 features and over 90 world premieres, where does one begin?

Here are eight promising features that are worth making the trip to the capital to see.

Free Fire – I am a fan of minimalist storytelling (e.g. Mad Max: Fury Road and upcoming Raw). Some films are too busy throwing nonsense at audiences that they forget that sometimes a movie doesn’t need a complex plot to dazzle viewers. A24, the studio behind such films as Moonlight and Ex Machina, is back to prove once again just how awesome they are selecting material that’s one of a kind. The story for Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is simple: two groups of criminals meet in a warehouse to negotiate a weapons purchase… and all goes south in a Reservoir Dogs-fashion. Starring Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer and District 9’s Sharlto Copley as the lawless peeps.

Alien – Every year SXSW likes to put on retro screenings and fly in talent to either celebrate a special anniversary, or spike interest for an upcoming sequel or reboot. This year, director Ridley Scott, Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterson and Danny McBride will be in attendance to debut a sneak peek of Alien: Covenant (opening May 19), along with a screening of the 1979 original film, Alien. In 2015, George Miller gave us about 15 minutes of Mad Max: Fury Road to quench our thirst after a screening of 1981’s The Road Warrior. Anything could happen, so don’t miss it.

Atomic Blonde – Continuing her hot action-movie streak, Charlize Theron plays an undercover MI6 agent who’s assigned to follow a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents. While this doesn’t sound like the most original premise for a shoot-em-up spy-thriller, stuntman-turned-filmmaker David Leitch’s involvement (he co-directed John Wick and is helming the Deadpool sequel) says we’re in for something truly special.

Song to Song – Fresh off of singing winning tunes in La La Land, Ryan Gosling joins Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman and Fassbender for Song to Song, Terrence Malick’s latest loose narrative (about Austin’s music scene) feauting stunning photography. This film has been in production for years now. I can remember attending Austin City Limits a few years back, where crowds saw big-name stars shooting scenes around Zilker Park. After all that filming and waiting, Song to Song is set to open SXSW in a massive way come Friday night.

The Disaster Artist – James Franco is a weird dude. He may be a scholar with 50 different degrees (not accurate) and a fancy for finger paintings, but he can sure direct and act in some memorable material. Whether those films are good or not is questionable, but either way, Franco can shock you. Now, he’s stepping away from Cormac McCarthy adaptations to craft a feature film about the making of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 disasterpiece The Room – a title that is largely considered to be one of the worst movies of all time. (They hold screenings at the Denton Movie Tavern and in Dallas all the time.) So a movie about Wiseau’s process, starring Franco and directed by Franco, has me ecstatic.

Baby Driver – Edgar Wright is a genius when it comes to deconstructing genres. Just look at his films Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. With Baby Driver, Wright returns after a four-year hiatus (if you don’t count the whole Ant-Man fiasco) for a heist film about a getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) who suffers from tinnitus. Wright has a knack for taking what sounds familiar and moving it left of center for a refreshing experience. It also helps that Baby Driver stars Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Kevin Spacey.

Fits and Starts – Headlining films draw big crowds when it comes to festival programming. However, what’s also great about film festivals are the little gems waiting to be found. In the past, it’s usually the indie dramas that star talents who are typically known for their comedy television work (see Obvious Child and Celeste & Jesse Forever). Comedy actors tend to transition quite well into drama, and Fits and Starts seems to fit the bill. Starring Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show) and Greta Lee (Inside Amy Schumer), the film centers on a couple who both write for a living and the complexities involved with the competitive art scene. Anyone who’s married to someone in the same line of work knows it can be an obstacle to get through.

78/52 – Lastly, festivals don’t come without their engaging documentaries. This year’s SXSW has some good ones lined up, including Frank Oz’s Muppet Guys Talking – Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched and a feature-length doc about the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, titled 78/52. However, the one that has me eager is Becoming Bond. After such a heavy-topic year of documentaries in 2016, something lighter sounds nice. So I will take one about how George Lazenby, a car mechanic with no acting experience, landed the role of a lifetime.

Others to consider: The Big Sick, Dear White People (episodic), Gemini, The Hero, I’m Dying Up Here (episodic), Hot Summer Nights, May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers, Patti Cake$, Person to Person and Small Crimes.

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