South by Southwest is known for launching smart studio films and buzzy independent movies. It all happens against a backdrop of tacos, beer, and keynote speeches from influential artists and world leaders. In 2019, SXSW might have had one of its best years ever. As the film festival’s director Janet Pierson said practically before every screening, the quality of the movies that screened in Austin was just so strong.
Here, Variety picks the 12 biggest winners from SXSW, from Jordan Peele’s latest film to Charlize Theron in “Long Shot.”
Perhaps the biggest winner of South by Southwest was actress-turned-first-time-director Olivia Wilde, who received raves for her high school coming-of-age comedy “Booksmart.” And there was plenty of critical love for her entire ensemble, especially her two leading ladies, Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein. They play two straight-laced teen best friends who decide to need to cram in some reckless partying before they graduate from high school. Expect the movie to continue to pick up fans when it arrives in theaters on May 24 from Annapurna Pictures.
Of all the movies that premiered at SXSW, Jordan Peele’s “Us” will likely be the biggest box-office hit. And it deserves to be. Peele’s follow-up to “Get Out” is a layered and terrifying horror movie about a family on vacation that has to fight off blood-thirsty clones of themselves, carefully built by a filmmaker who proves he’s here to stay as the voice of his generation. There are many surprises woven throughout “Us,” but the best comes by way of Nyong’o who delivers a tour-de-force performance (actually two, as both her matriarch character and the twin that wants to kill her). Think Sigourney Weaver in “Alien” meets Toni Collette in “Hereditary,” squared.
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After winning an Oscar for “Monster,” Theron has rarely been able to crack a smile onscreen. She earned glowing reviews for “Young Adult” and “Tully,” both directed by Jason Reitman, yet those were indie dramedies. Now, Theron finally has a big Sandra Bullock-like studio vehicle to call her own. In “Long Shot,” Theron plays a former secretary of state running for president who falls for her moral speechwriter (Seth Rogen). Can Charlize keep up with Seth’s zingers? She does, and she makes him better. To top it all off: Theron closed out her premiere by dancing onstage to “I’ll Make Love To You” performed by Boyz II Men, who make a cameo in the film and performed at SXSW. More rom-coms for Charlize, please.
Seth Rogen is the Meryl Streep of SXSW. It seems that almost every year, Rogen is back in Austin to showcase his latest project — from his star-making role in “Knocked Up” to “Sausage Party” to “The Disaster Artist.” This year, Rogen produced two of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the festival. In addition to “Long Shot,” his company Point Grey Pictures also backed “Good Boys,” a raunchy R-rated comedy about three grade school BFFs (played winningly by Jacob Tremblay, Brady Noon and Keith L. Williams) who are about to enter puberty.
Griffin has not yet received a single paycheck from Hollywood since a controversial 2017 photograph where she posed with a bloody mask of Donald Trump that looked like a decapitated head. That will change with “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story.” Her self-financed concert film follows Griffin as she recounts the hell she was put through by the Trump administration for her badly received joke, including two federal investigations and being put on the No Fly List. The Austin crowd showered “Hell of a Story” with laughter and cheers throughout the premiere. And Griffin was a welcome addition to Austin, posing for selfies with fans, appearing at Q&As and doing a talk with the New York Times’ Kara Swisher.
Much like “Knock Down the House,” the AOC documentary at Sundance, HBO’s “Running With Beto” takes you behind-the-scenes of the life of a political supernova. But even though O’Rourke came up short in his 2018 bid to unseat Texas Senator Ted Cruz, “Running With Beto” makes the argument that he could still be a force in the 2020 presidential election. The film, directed by David Modigliani, is based on 700 hours (!) of footage. As a result of all that access, the movie isn’t just a feel-good doc, especially when it comes to the scenes depicting what life means for O’Rourke’s three kids (who miss seeing their dad) and how the candidate regularly snaps at an aide about a lack of preparation on the road.
Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson
“The Highwaymen” was made for Austin — and it was also made in Austin. Costner stars as Frank Hamer, the former Texas Ranger who apprehended and killed Bonnie Clyde with the help of another Ranger, Maney Gualt (Harrelson). Unlike Arthur Penn’s 1967 film “Bonnie & Clyde,” the new Netflix production looks at the case from the lawmen’s side. Costner and Harrelson are a perfect pair. Harrelson’s boozy personality is a good foil to Costner’s gruff stoicism. In most other films, the audience somehow ends up rooting for Bonnie and Clyde despite their horrific murderous crimes. “The Highwaymen” reminds us that Hamer and Gualt are the names that should have been celebrated instead.
Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson travelled to SXSW to say goodbye to their bawdy Comedy Central series with a screening of the last three episodes. It was a teary packed house at the Zach as Glazer and Jacobson explained their reasons for ending the show after five seasons. In short, they are growing up and moving on, much like their television alter-egos. Better to go out on top than wearing out their welcome. Yaaas, queens!
There were plenty of politicians at SXSW this year, from Elizabeth Warren to Amy Klobuchar. But the one met by the most rock star-like crowds of fans was the freshmen Congresswoman from the Bronx. Ocasio-Cortez was welcomed by long lines and eager listeners for her keynote address. And she didn’t disappoint. She discussed resistance from within her own party and empowering young people to shrug off their cynicism and fight for the future. At every other event after her keynote, when footage of her was played ahead of movies and panels, audiences cheered like she was there in the room.
It’s tough for any comedian to cross over into more serious arenas of acting, but perhaps especially for Kroll — whose gross, goofball characters are beloved across generations from Comedy Central’s “Kroll Show” to Netflix’s animated “Big Mouth.” But with the SXSW indie “Olympic Dreams,” Kroll took a big chance on vulnerability as a New Jersey dentist who volunteers to serve at the PyeongChang Olympic Games. There he meets cross-country skier Penelope (Alexi Pappas), nursing the wounds of a poor performance. In just a few days, they reveal volumes about the respective ruts in which they are stuck — and help ease each other’s pain, to great effect.
There are many stories about promising young artistic talent taken too soon by drug abuse and mental illness. There are few projects like “Everybody’s Everything,” a documentary that conveys a depth of character and quantifies how much potential was lost in rapper Lil Peep. Peep was a SoundCloud star who was about to break into fashion, Hollywood and the pop charts before he died of a fatal drug overdose in 2017. Executive produced by Terrence Malick, the film features interviews with peers, family and some of his accused enablers. They paint a picture of a deeply sensitive and easily manipulated kid whose music was a retreat from very real demons.
The Goop train is unstoppable. Despite well-documented and relentless haters (some of them with medical degrees and science on their side), Paltrow’s lifestyle brand remains committed to exploring alternative wellness with a flashy elegance borrowed directly from its movie star CEO. Paltrow sat for a keynote about the continued growth of her company, currently valued at $250 million, as it expands into more high-end beauty and wellness products as well as publishing and fashion. “Don’t waste your time on anything that doesn’t move the needle,” Paltrow said was the best piece of advice she received from a mentor, Disney CEO Bob Iger. Goop, of course, opened its first-ever Austin pop-up shop in time for her trip to Texas.