South by Southwest kicks off this weekend, offering thousands of fans (and journalists) an early glimpse of the latest in studio movies, independent films, and TV shows. In recent years, the gathering in Austin, Texas, has continued to cement its status as the festival du jour for the spring — last year, there was “Baby Driver,” “Atomic Blonde,” and “The Disaster Artist.” And of course, in 2012, Lena Dunham arrived at the fest to preview the first episodes of “Girls.”
As for smaller movies, expect SXSW to continue the conversation about women in Hollywood that transformed awards season. A staggering eight out of 10 of the films in this year’s narrative competition are from female directors. “It is unprecedented,” said Janet Pierson, the head of SXSW Film. “We are excited about it. People ask me if it’s intentional. It wasn’t; we were trying to go for parity. It’s definitely a strong presence in a way we haven’t had before.”
So what will be the big discoveries of this year’s festival? Variety’s critics and reporters offer their best guesses.
How can you tell an inspired commercial comedy from the more rotely impersonal punchline-formula product that tends to dominate the megaplex? One good indicator is to look at the big mainstream comedy that’s programmed almost every year at SXSW. The festival’s track record in that department includes such titles as “Neighbors,” “Spy,” and “Sausage Party,” so the anticipation is running high for “Blockers,” a girls-behaving-badly-on-prom-night comedy that marks the directorial debut of Kay Cannon, the award-winning “30 Rock” alum who wrote the barbed screenplays for “Pitch Perfect” and its sequels. It stars Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz as parents out to protect their daughters (led by Kathryn Newton) from losing their virginity after they learn that the girls have made a pact to do that very thing. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are among the producers; here’s hoping that the wit can match the raunch. – Owen Gleiberman
This starkly ambitious thriller has a pedigree that makes it one of the juiciest-sounding titles at the festival. It stars Ben Foster as a hitman who rescues a young prostitute, played by Elle Fanning, and flees with her to Galveston, Texas, where the two attempt to escape the demons of their past. The film is based on a novel by Nic Pizzolatto, the writer-producer of “True Detective,” but it was adapted and directed by Melanie Laurent, the French actress and filmmaker, who promises to view Pizzolatto’s hard-bitten noir fatalism through an entrancingly different lens. – O.G.
Jim Cumming’s gut-wrenching single-take short about a cop melting down at his mother’s funeral won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The writer, director, and star sobbed, danced, and sang (badly), and now he’s expanded his dramedy into a feature that aims to hit the same notes of agony and humor. Can Cummings mimic “Whiplash’s” arc from Sundance-winning short to career-making hit? He’s definitely a talent to watch. – Amy Nicholson
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is blessed — and cursed — with supernatural powers in this gorgeous-looking drama about a woman on the run. Director Julia Hart, who co-wrote the film with her husband, “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz, has been keeping quiet about the twists and turns in the plot, but there’s no more intriguing actress for a magical mystery tour than the charismatic Mbatha-Raw, who has been summoning new skills in fantasy and sci-fi with “A Wrinkle in Time” and the beloved “Black Mirror” episode “San Junipero.” – A.N.
“Wild Nights With Emily”
This biopic about Emily Dickinson offers Molly Shannon in its title role. Yes, you read that right. The early buzz is that the “SNL” actress is sublime as the 19th-century poet, set during the years of her secret love affair with a woman (Amy Seimetz). Plus, after winning an Independent Spirit Award for the Sundance darling “Other People,” there’s nothing Shannon can’t do. – Ramin Setoodeh
“A Quiet Place”
John Krasinski directs this supernatural thriller about a family (starring himself and his wife, Emily Blunt) that isn’t allowed to make a sound… or else bad things happen. The trailers for this Paramount release look eerie (in an early-period M. Night Shyamalan way), kind of like “What Lies Beneath” meets Charlie Chaplin. Given that the movie has the high-profile opening night slot, it could be a launching pad for box-office domination. – R.S.
Vera Farmiga plays a woman who is forced to take her estranged father (Christopher Plummer) on a road trip, where they navigate through a series of comedic hurdles. This is a tricky genre to pull off — the last time it succeeded was for “Little Miss Sunshine.” But these two actors are never boring, so I’m rooting for them. – R.S.
“Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes”
Decades before LeBron James was told to just shut up and dribble, Muhammad Ali was commanded to stop boxing and fight. In 1968, Ali discussed his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War — an act of defiance that led to his being stripped of his heavyweight title — on an early episode of Dick Cavett’s first ABC talk show. This was the official start of a close relationship that lasted for more than 50 years, highlighted by more than a dozen subsequent on-the-air encounters between the two men. Director Robert S. Bader entwines archival footage and newly filmed interviews in a timely sociopolitical documentary that pivots on the unlikely friendship between the outspoken sports legend and the erudite TV icon. – Joe Leydon
“The Director and the Jedi”
“The Last Jedi” was originally designed as a farewell to only one of the major players in the long-running “Star Wars” franchise. Anthony Wonke’s behind-the-scenes documentary will no doubt deeply affect attendees at its SXSW world premiere screening as it details how the “Last Jedi” cast and crew responded to a tragic twist of fate: Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia, died shortly after completing her scenes for “Episode VIII.” But the film promises to be less a eulogy than an adventure as it focuses on the dream-come-true experiences of director Rian Johnson, an unabashed “Star Wars” geek since childhood who took control — and, yes, took some chances — in the course of continuing the saga that began a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. – J.L.
“This Is Us”
NBC’s multi-generational, multi-decade family drama may have answered the audience’s most burning question (how Jack Pearson dies) this second season, but with the introduction of flashes forward in the lives of key family members, there is still a lot being discussed — and dissected. Select cast and executive producers are bringing the second season finale to SXSW, offering fans in attendance a chance to experience the highly emotional wedding episode a day before it airs. – Danielle Turchiano
Little is known about the second season of HBO’s sci-fi western thriller, but much is anticipated. The first season grabbed the attention of viewers, who theorized and dissected frames to unravel the mystery week-to-week, as well as the Television Academy, who honored the show with 22 Emmy nominations. With the April 22 season premiere just around the corner, co-creators Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, along with cast members James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, and Jeffrey Wright, will tee up the new themes and worlds of the second season. And in addition to a panel on the show itself, HBO and Kilter Films will lead a discussion about how they have seen further success through transmedia. – D.T.
“The Last OG”
Tracy Morgan is returning to television comedy for the first time since his stint on “30 Rock,” not to mention the car accident that put him in a coma for two weeks in 2014. In his new TBS comedy, Morgan plays a man who gets out of prison after 15 years and finds his old neighborhood has been gentrified and his girlfriend is raising the twins he didn’t even know he fathered with a white man. Tiffany Haddish plays his ex in the series, the pilot episode of which was directed by Jorma Taccone. – D.T.