SXSW: Variety Critics Pick the 10 Best Films of the 2017 Festival

Client: Lawerence Mattis and Matt Smith - Producers (Mayhem) Date: 03-20-2017

The Disaster Artist

SXSW was jam-packed with great discoveries this year, but the big breakout was a comedy celebrating the making of one of the century’s worst movies. Imagine a film made by robots: All the ingredients are there, but the choices seem wrong, from a repellent central romance to the fumbling way characters play football in their spare time. That’s Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” for ya. Now, in what could arguably be his first real movie as director, James Franco plays Wiseau, all bulked up and wearing a long black wig (all the better for cringingly awkward nude scenes), poking affectionate fun at incompetence run amok. — Peter Debruge

Mr. Roosevelt

Austin-native Noël Wells wrote, directed, and stars in this delightfully low-key comedy, which serves as both an authentic love-letter to the Texas capital, and a fresh take on the slacker twentysomething coming-of-age saga. As an actress – playing a struggling comic who returns to Austin to attend a cat funeral – Wells has a clear gift for physical comedy. But as a director, she tends to underplay her funniest bits in a way that gives the film an engaging, lackadaisical flow. Wells’ resume includes stints on “Saturday Night Live” and “Master of None,” but this debut marks her as a talent to watch behind the camera, too. — Andrew Barker

The Ballad of Lefty Brown

After earning his spurs with “Dead Man’s Burden,” writer-director Jared Moshé offers another impressively crafted and artfully retrograde Western that should please both demanding genre traditionalists and audiences usually indifferent to oaters. Bill Pullman strikes the perfect balance of vulnerability, tenacity, and dadgum cussedness as sixtysomething cowboy Lefty Brown, the longtime sidekick to a Wild West legend (fleetingly but effectively played by Peter Fonda), who must draw upon long-untapped reserves of true grit while riding solo on the vengeance trail after his buddy is killed. — Joe Leydon

Gemini

Writer-director Aaron Katz began his career at SXSW, whose programmers saw the potential in his hour-long 2006 debut “Dance Party, USA.” Today, the director of that tiny small-town indie pays off the faith the festival put in him more than a decade ago with this nonconformist neo-noir, about a Hollywood star (Zoë Kravitz) whose brutal murder leaves her personal assistant (Lola Kirke) scrambling for answers. But contrary to the typically fast-and-furious vibe of L.A.-set crime movies, “Gemini” is a cool, laid-back affair, bathed in blues and set to a hypnotic trance-jazz score that enigmatically accentuate the city’s gift for deceit. — Peter Debruge

Lucky

If John Carroll Lynch’s unassumingly wonderful little film gets the theatrical exposure it richly deserves after its SXSW world premiere, be prepared to see lead player Harry Dean Stanton taking a victory lap through several year-end awards presentations. The iconic character actor — who’ll turn 91 in July — gives his finest performance since “Paris, Texas” in the title role of an aging eccentric facing up to mortality and finality as he interacts with other colorful characters (including idiosyncratic bar patrons played by David Lynch and James Darren) in an off-the-grid desert town. — Joe Leydon

Mayhem

Here’s a dirty little secret about SXSW: Relatively few slam-bang, blood-and-thunder genre movies actually live up to the audience-stoking hyperbole that await midnight screenings. The good news: Joe Lynch’s rousingly gonzo thriller is the real deal, at once consistently on-target and exuberantly over the top as one damn thing after another happens at the high-rise headquarters of a corporate law firm where quarantined employees have been exposed to a mind-twisting, id-unleashing virus. The better news: Steven Yeun (late of “The Walking Dead”) and Samara Weaving both endure and deliver plenty of grievous bodily harm pursuing an absolutely evil CEO hiding way up in the executive suite. — Joe Leydon

Most Beautiful Island

How far would you go to make it in America? That question has powered many an American Dream story, though the stakes always seem higher when it’s asked of immigrants — which is doubly true of this gritty, low-budget thriller, which begins innocently enough with an undocumented Spanish beauty struggling to stay afloat in New York City, and builds to a skin-crawling finale, as a sketchy job opportunity turns out to be far more dangerous than she bargained. Writer-director Ana Asensio also stars, playing a character whose fearlessness catches us off guard. The Larry Fessenden-produced indie deservedly won the SXSW narrative competition. — Peter Debruge

Tragedy Girls

A gem from SXSW’s Midnighters program, Tyler MacIntyre’s giddily postmodern horror-comedy isn’t an exercise in spot-the-genre-reference, instead taking style cues from its own central pair of social media-obsessed high school serial killers, played with delirious commitment by Alexandra Shipp and Brianna Hildebrand. There are certainly visual call-backs to “Carrie” and “Cannibal Holocaust” to be found here, but there are far more to “Clueless”; at its best, “Tragedy Girls” plays like a sweet story of a believable high school friendship between two girls who just happen to be sociopaths. — Andrew Barker

Win It All

Easily Joe Swanberg’s most mainstream film to date, “Win It All” casts a never-better Jake Johnson as a hopeless gambler who lucks upon an easy way to score big money, only to see his addiction – and his sweaty, endearing, fatally misguided sense of optimism – lead him to risk losing big. Funny, warm, and broken-in in all the right ways, “Win It All” marries Swanberg’s loping, observational style with a plot that wouldn’t have been out of place in an old-school Warner Bros. melodrama, and ends up dealing a surprisingly strong hand. — Andrew Barker

Baby Driver

“Shaun of the Dead” director Edgar Wright steals from himself in this music-fueled heist movie, expanding upon a 2003 music video he made for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song,” in which a bank heist is seen from the curb, where a getaway driver waits listening to the car radio while the robbery goes down. Stretch that sort of music worship to feature length, and you’ve got “Baby Driver,” in which Ansel Elgort plays a gifted young speedster who relies on music to cope with life’s challenges — which are rendered all the more colorful by such menacing co-stars as Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx. — Peter Debruge

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