Ranking the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival, Part 1
Long lines, late nights, and good movies: the SXSW formula. We wouldn’t have it any other way. And don’t forget the stargazing! (Not literally, it’s been raining.) From “Hey, it’s that guy!” character actors to Oscar-winning stars to blockbuster directors, some serious talent has graced the stage at Austin’s century-old Paramount Theater and the city’s popular Alamo Drafthouses over the last few days. Yes, you could see some of these movies in theaters or online a few months from now, but for proximity to the talent, for firsthand Q&As that make you look at films and filmmaking differently, there’s nothing like a festival. Lines, weather, and all.
Halfway through the Film portion of SXSW 2017, here’s our top five:
1. Baby Driver
Edgar Wright’s carsploitation coming-of-age crime dramedy makes excellent use of Atlanta’s concrete jungles, introduces charismatic young talents Ansel Elgort and Lily James to new audiences, and showcases the funny and intimidating personas of two Oscar winners, Jaime Foxx and Kevin Spacey. The rest of the supporting class is strong as well, but it’s the soundtrack that keeps stealing the show. Wright movies, even the joke-laden Simon Pegg vehicles, sometimes lag in the final act as absurdity escalates beyond proportion and loose ends are slowly tied up; this is true of Baby Driver, but it’s hard to fault Wright, because he has to create enough space for his slate of glorious retro driving songs. The movie shares its title with a Paul Simon track, and a range of earworms from Queen’s “Brighton Rock” to a new mix called “Was He Slow?” drives the story forward, pun unapologetically intended. Sure, a lot of movies have used half-forgotten dance music, Motown, or arena rock hits to borrow a bit of atmosphere, but what’s different about the soundtrack of Baby Driver is that it’s diegetic: it’s part of the world and integral to the title character’s being. The music is not only thematically relevant, it’s literally part of the plot. On his terms, then, Wright has succeeded in making “an action movie… powered by music,” even while it indulges in increasingly improbable fantasies.
2. The Transfiguration
Maybe the most challenging and conceptually original movie of this year’s festival, this Cannes entry is riveting, sad, and rich with complex social commentary. Coming so soon after Moonlight’s Oscars triumph, the comparisons are inevitable: each film stars a young black boy with a non-traditional lifestyle who is an outcast within his community, and in each film the protagonist forms an unlikely relationship that may present a path to peace. The devil is in the details, though, and The Transfiguration’s unique hook is that the boy is a self-made, deeply committed vampire. The audience need not believe he is a vampire in the strictest folkloric sense, but he believes it, so the result is substantially the same. Clips from classic vampire movies like Nosferatu as well as 70s schlock horror obscurities give The Transfiguration a strong sense of context and a mythology to build on and subvert. At the same time, an elaborate but quiet drama unfolds around the topics of poverty, crime and policing, veterans, and abuse. Specific plot points are best avoided, but The Transfiguration does so many things well that it should draw praise from many corners of the arthouse community.
3. Atomic Blonde
Take the plot of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, punctuate it with highly stylized, no-cut action set pieces, and then picture John Wick as played by Charlize Theron in a series of outfits that won’t quit. Now go flip through a gritty graphic novel, play a first-person shooter, and watch a few episodes of The Americans. Done? The imagines running through your mind should give you a pretty decent idea of Atomic Blonde. To be sure, the Cold War action thriller film from David Leitch (co-director, John Wick) is arguably a derivative rearrangement of a lot of established genre elements. Amusing roles for James McAvoy and John Goodman can’t quite sell the plodding, predictable, McGuffin-heavy spy plot. Yet thanks to Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s seamless fight sequences, Theron’s brave stuntwork and socially-resonant performance, and a well-curated soundtrack of 80s Europop, Atomic Blonde remains watchable and usually fun all the way to its twisted finish.
Character actor John Carroll Lynch was tapped to direct this dramatized tribute to the life of another great performer, Harry Dean Stanton, 89 years old at the time of filming. Lynch says that the bulk of the stories and dialogue are drawn from Stanton’s life, though Lucky is certainly a carefully-scripted, purposefully-constructed narrative rather than a documentary or a biopic. The film characterizes Stanton’s “Lucky” as a sympathetic but ornery old cowboy, a man of rigorous routine and unlikely good health (a pack of cigarettes a day is part of the routine). Lucky is a loner but doesn’t shy away from a fight, whether physical or ideological; as an atheist, he rails against people who speak casually of the soul. And yet Lynch – again, that’s John Carroll Lynch, not David Lynch, although David Lynch does have a large role in the movie as a tortoise-loving eccentric – describes the arc of the film as a “spiritual journey.” Watching Stanton interact with other strongly-drawn personalities is a treat, especially given the actor’s advanced age, but certain visual decisions in Lucky feel too conventionally elegiac, certain symbols too obvious. Perhaps that won’t feel like a problem when Stanton is gone, and for now there are enough creative choices throughout to compensate, including a Lynchian (now I’m referring to David) sequence involving another longtime character actor beloved by many: James Darren.
5. Fits and Starts
The comedy in the relationship comedy Fits and Starts is rooted in some of the broad caricatures of “art people” – artists and their patrons – that have been circulating for centuries. Our protagonists, a married couple played by Greta Lee and the naturalistic, downbeat Wyatt Cenac, are writers just beginning their careers, and therefore just beginning to attract the attention of hangers-on, self-interested publishers, and competitive rivals. Lee’s character is adept at “playing the game” with this constellation of facilitators and obstructors, but Cenac’s isn’t confident in his work, and hates schmoozing. Watching the harried, befuddled Cenac navigate a cringe-filled party thrown for Lee prompts regular chuckles if not deep or unexpected laughs, while low-key flashbacks to the lead characters’ lives before the party are familiar but contain truthful observations about the give-and-take of a supportive relationship. A predictable epilogue isn’t fully earned unless you believe that the oblivious art crowd is more generous and discerning than the movie suggests, but Fits and Starts played well with the SXSW audience, many of whom probably see themselves or people they know in the exaggerated quirks of the main and supporting characters. I had to smile when leaving the theater to notice that several attendees had already lapsed back into the kind of schmoozing and networking lampooned by writer/director Laura Terruso.
The Best Movie I Didn’t See
I missed the premier of Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, but I’ve seen a Malick or two, so I have a pretty good idea about what I missed. For now I’m more curious about Danny Boyle‘s Trainspotting 2, which was the secret screening of the festival. Though not the biggest fan of the original, I am curious about how the sequel justifies its existence. One viewer has already told me that it’s better than the first.
Check back here later in the week for more SXSW Film recaps!