The South by Southwest Film Festival has a long history of spotlighting native and adopted Texan filmmakers. Yet one particularly noteworthy filmmaker with Texas roots has been long outstanding, and the festival’s 24th iteration will finally see an appearance from one of arthouse cinema’s biggest names, as Terrence Malick brings his Austin-set “Song to Song” to the festival’s March 10 opening night. Thematic appropriateness aside, it represents something of a coup for the once-scrappy fest to feature the auteur, whose last films bowed at Toronto, Berlin, and Cannes.
Yet Malick’s is hardly the only boldfaced name to be found in the lineup, and here are other features — among the 125 scheduled films, 84 of them world premieres — to watch.
Stars at Night
“Song to Song” boasts a particularly starry cast, with Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Cate Blanchett, and Michael Fassbender all on deck. But it will have plenty of company in drawing a crowd of onlookers outside the Paramount Theater. “Atomic Blonde,” David Leitch’s MI6-themed comic adaptation, comes bearing the likes of Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, and John Goodman. “Baby Driver,” Edgar Wright’s first feature since ending his beloved Cornetto trilogy with “The World’s End,” will world-premiere in Austin with a cast boasting Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx. Fest closer “Life” could draw the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds. Meanwhile, Judd Apatow will be on hand to bow his first theatrical nonfiction feature, the rock doc “May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers,” which he directed alongside Michael Bonfiglio.
Befitting its reputation for rough-and-tumble Lone Star cinematic debauchery, SXSW has hosted a clutch of big-name comedies before they were even fully finished, with “Neighbors,” “Bridesmaids,” “Trainwreck,” and “Sausage Party” all having made rough-cut debuts. This year’s work-in-progress might even benefit from being screened in a state of partial completion: James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist,” which chronicles the creation of Tommy Wiseau’s much-derided and much-beloved cult-film “The Room.”
For all the Hollywood attention it’s begun to draw, SXSW has always kept a foot in its home state, and this year sees a number of offerings that would be hard to imagine premiering outside Texas. “The Secret Life of Lance Letscher,” for example, trains a documentary spotlight on the Austin-based collage artist, and is directed by longtime Richard Linklater editor Sandra Adair. Another pair of Austin filmmakers, Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund, stay in Texas for their narrative feature competition entry “La Barracuda,” as does Noël Wells’ Austin-set “Mr. Roosevelt.” Tommy O’Haver’s “The Most Hated Woman in America” directs Melissa Leo as the Austin-based atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. And while Matthew Salleh’s “Barbecue” may be an Australian documentary, it ought to find a welcome reception in this most meat-centric of all U.S. regions.
SXSW’s narrative feature competition can sometimes be a mixed bag, but the assortment of little-known filmmakers is often where the most pleasant surprises are to be found. (“Short Term 12” being one of this section’s best-known alumni.) And notably, this year’s 10-film competition slate features seven films directed by women. Natalia Leite’s “MFA,” Ana Arsenio’s “Most Beautiful Island,” Jason Headley’s “A Bad Idea Gone Wrong,” and Laura Terruso’s “Fits and Starts” all boast original premises and promising, under-the-radar talent.
Taking place in a longtime liberal haven right in the middle of one of the country’s reddest states, SXSW has rarely shied away from political hot-buttons, and this year is no exception. Such documentaries as Erik Ljung’s “Blood Is at the Doorstep” and Jason Pollock’s “Stranger Fruit” both deal with police killings; “Meth Storm: Arkansas USA” tackles the country’s rural drug epidemic; and Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’ “The Work” offers a view inside Folsom State Prison. Meanwhile, “Though Crimes” director Erin Lee Carr tackles the bizarre murder case of Dee Dee Blanchard in “Mommy Dead and Dearest.”
Perhaps the most oft-copied innovation to come out of SXSW Film is the policy of debuting TV content in the festival proper, which has seen the likes of “Girls,” “Silicon Valley,” and “Penny Dreadful” all make their first public screenings at the fest. This year’s prime-ticket TV bow is the world premiere of Starz’s “American Gods,” based on the cult bestseller by Neil Gaiman, and toplining Ian McShane, Ricky Whittle, and Emily Browning. Also set to unspool: “Dear White People,” Justin Simien’s Netflix adaptation of his own 2014 film, and AMC’s Pierce Brosnan-starrer, “The Son.”
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