Another South by Southwest (SXSW) is in the books, and the programming department, led by Janet Pierson, has a lot to celebrate. In her tenth year as Director of SXSW Film, Pierson’s lineup featured teen sex comedies, cerebral horror-thrillers, and a nostalgia-soaked popcorn movie from one of the most acclaimed directors of our time. Diversity was featured both in front of and behind the camera — 8 out of the 10 of the films in the festival’s narrative competition were directed by women. Pierson has said that this was not by design but rather a happy accident of simply selecting the best films submitted, and her choices wowed the critics.
Of the films shown at the festival that have enough reviews to garner a Tomatometer score, only two are currently rotten. Movies that had previously debuted at other festivals, like Sorry To Bother You, Blindspotting, and Isle of Dogs, maintained their critical hot streaks and were met in Austin with boisterous and enthusiastic audience receptions. Of the 74 world premiere feature-length films from SXSW, these are 8 of the best we saw.
Unfortunately, the marketing of Blockers painfully belies its brilliance. What appears on its face to be a clichéd and sexist premise is instead a hilarious romp that subverts the teen sex genre and riffs on young female empowerment. John Cena, Leslie Mann, and Ike Barinholtz bring heart as three parents futilely trying to prevent their daughters from completing a virginity sex pact on prom night. As to be expected for a film with five credited writers, the comedy in Blockers can at times gets in its own way, but you can’t knock a film for being too funny. Keep an eye out for newcomer Geraldine Viswanathan as Cena’s daughter — she is sure to break out from this role.
We’re acutely aware of the contradiction in saying that this near-silent film kicked off the festival with a bang – but that is precisely what happened. For his third directorial outing, John Krasinski was gifted a brilliant script of pure genre delight. The original script from Scott Beck and Bryan Woods came with the pitch “A family in woods can’t make noise, and you have to figure out why.” Krasinski was sold on the strength of that one-liner and, after the opening night premiere, so was everyone in attendance. Starring Krasinski’s wife, Emily Blunt, alongside child actors Millicent Simmonds & Noah Jupe, A Quiet Place is a stunner. Currently sitting at 100% on the Tomatometer, it’s also one of the best-reviewed films of the festival.
Jason Blum and the team at Blumhouse Productions are on a roll. Fresh off the awards accolades of Get Out, Blum and Co return to SXSW with two films — Upgrade and Unfriended: Dark Web. Directed by Stephen Susco, Dark Web details the terrifying repercussions of opening the wrong abandoned laptop. Featuring current Blumhouse “It girl’ Betty Gabriel, this is one is sure to inspire nightmares. Just like early Paranormal Activity sequels did for that series in the early 2000s, Dark Web cements Unfriended as a viable horror franchise.
You are gonna need tissues for this one. Anthony Wonke came to SXSW with The Director and Jedi, which coincides with the at-home release of The Last Jedi and is quite possibly the best “making of” documentary we have ever seen. Featuring Carrie Fisher, Rian Johnson, Mark Hamill, and the entire Last Jedi cast and crew, Wonke’s film dissects the behind-the-scenes tale of how the film came together. Over its 90-minute runtime, the film details accounts of the drama and tragedy that coincided with the film’s making and release, and features incredible anecdotes that speak to the relationships between cast and filmmakers. The Director and the Jedi is a poignant tribute to Hamill and Fisher, and an entertaining documentary for film fans everywhere.
Ladies of the revolution indeed. !Las Sandinistas! is Jenny Murray’s first feature-length documentary and a fascinating tale chronicling the rise and fall of the revolutionary group that overthrew the Nicaraguan government. Shifting from the viewpoint of the various lead subjects, !Las Sandinistas! elevates its subject matter beyond mere footnote in the Iran Contra debacle, giving us powerful peek into the female half of the revolution.
Netflix brought five films to SXSW, and the strongest by far was First Match. Elvire Emanuelle, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Colman Domingo star in writer-director Olivia Newman’s coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in the foster system. (Emanuelle) uses wrestling to fight her way out and potentially reunite with her estranged father. Drifting from gritty sports drama to teenage love affair, First Match is achingly authentic. As with most redemption stories, the ending is somewhat telegraphed, but on the strength of Emanuelle’s performance you are never less than completely enthralled.
In our SXSW preview we singled out Fast Color as one of the buzziest films of the festival, and husband and wife co-writers Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz did not disappoint. Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives her best performance of the year as Ruth, a woman struggling with her superhuman powers. Under Hart’s direction, we get a glimpse of where else the superhero movie can go: Logan is a western, Black Panther is a tale of palace intrigue, and Fast Color is a parable of motherhood and finding yourself. The film may prompt some to yearn for other superhero origin stories, but we’re simply yearning for more stories from Hart and Horowitz.
The first documentary feature to receive financial assistance from GLAAD, Transmilitary won an audience award at SXSW where critics showered it with praise. Currently at 100% on the Tomatometer, we predict a strong award season push for co-directors Gabriel Silverman and Fiona Dawson’s heartfelt doc, which centers on four American transgender troops as they navigate the uncertainty of military regulations and trans identity.