Much of the buzz at this year’s SXSW Film Festival originated with the starry, studio-driven Headliners category, where Jordan Peele’s “Us” and work-in-progress action-comedy “Stuber” played to enthusiastic audiences. Night after night for nearly the entire nine-day festival, SXSW unveiled such high-profile titles to enthusiastic audiences at Paramount Theater — a major coup for an event that’s proven to Hollywood marketing strategists that it can serve as an ideal launchpad for horror (“A Quiet Place”), action (“Atomic Blonde”), and comedies (“Sausage Party”).
SXSW had a record nine Headliners this year, plus a handful of high-impact political docs, including “Running With Beto” and “Knock Down the House” (the latter one of a dozen films selected to play Austin so soon after Sundance). But such movies make up less than 10% of a festival that’s still first and foremost about discovering and sharing outside-the-box new independent films: SXSW boasts more than 100 other world premieres in a wide range of categories, ranging from music docs (a natural fit for the multi-pronged festival) to a guided tour along the Rio Grande illustrating just how impractical — and harmful to humans and the environment — a border wall would be (“The River and the Wall”).
When you get down to it, the best work is often hiding in those other categories. That means, to find the treasures, you had to go truffle hunting through the entire program, and the best films weren’t necessarily the ones setting social media on fire all week. Unlike some other festivals, SXSW is allowed to remain rather eccentric in its choices, favoring outsider and under-told stories.
Here are the 11 best movies of the SXSW Film Festival, as selected by the three Variety critics in attendance:
Stories by and about women dominated SXSW’s narrative competition, but the winner (according to the jury, at least) was this tiny French drama about a mother who’s surprised to learn that her husband has emptied their bank account on high-end escorts. More surprising still, she decides that the only way to save her apartment from immediate foreclosure is to embrace the same line of work. But this is no “Belle de Jour”: Australian-born director Josephine Mackerras’ Paris-set debut doesn’t go where you’d expect, focusing on how sex work becomes an act of empowerment and self-awakening for this particular woman. — Peter Debruge
The highlight of the festival’s Headliners category, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut couldn’t be farther from the kind of serious drama so many actors undertake for their first film behind the camera. Instead, Wilde commits to making audiences laugh. Her hilarious, high-energy buddy movie revisits a familiar teenage comedy premise — two college-bound seniors (Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein) who dedicated their high school careers to studying try to cram everything they missed into the night before graduation — from a refreshingly new female perspective. Plenty rowdy, while always keeping their friendship at the forefront, “Booksmart” is “Superbad”-level good. — PD
“Boyz in the Wood”
It’s hard to imagine a quartet more ill-suited to a survival contest in the Scottish Highlands than the four lads featured in music-video director Ninian Doff’s audience-award-winning Midnight movie: Three are juvenile delinquents from the inner city, while the other is a mama’s boy who desperately needs some real friends. Together, they’re thrust into what seems like an elaborate bonding exercise, but is actually a wonderfully twisted update on “The Most Dangerous Game,” in which upper-class marksmen (including producer Eddie Izzard) make sport trying to hunt these oblivious adolescents. What sounds like a thriller is in fact an off-the-hook black comedy with serious cult potential. — PD
“Ernie & Joe”
Like most cops summoned by 911 calls, Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro employ well-honed instincts and observational skills to make split-second decisions in life-or-death situations. As members of the San Antonio Police Department’s innovative Mental Health Unit, however, they rely on empathy and persuasion, not firepower, while subduing unstable (and sometimes drug-addled) individuals before they harm themselves or others. Director Jenifer McShane offers an impressively intimate look at her subjects on and off the job in a documentary that is at its riveting best during an extended dash-cam view of Stevens and Smarro as they try to talk a suicidal woman out of leaping to her death from an overpass. — Joe Leydon
“The Hottest August”
Although, technically speaking, the film premiered a week before SXSW at the Missouri-based True/False Documentary Festival, Brett Story’s stunning followup to her unconventional look at mass incarceration “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” distinguished itself amid a lineup strong on female-directed work (including the well-curated Global category, where films like “Days of the Whale” and Kiwi omnibus film “Vai” emphasized women’s voices from seldom-heard corners of the world). Meanwhile, in this all-too-telling time capsule, Story approaches the subject of climate change obliquely, asking a wide range of New Yorkers how they feel about the future and assembling their responses into a mesmerizing, meditative work of art. — PD
“Mickey and the Bear”
Another standout SXSW competition title, writer-director Annabelle Attanasio’s assured feature debut is a modest but skillfully observed drama about a small-town Montana teen (Camila Morrone) who has to weigh her future against the burden of caring for her widowed father (James Badge Dale), an Iraq veteran with PTSD. The coming-of-age gist is familiar. But in Dale’s alternately exasperating, pathetic, frightening, and charming shell of a wounded warrior, it has a tragicomic figure to remember. — Dennis Harvey
Every so often, SXSW scores a real coup, landing a world-premiere indie (think “Short Term 12” or “Tiny Furniture”) that’s stronger than any of the films that debuted in competition two months earlier at Sundance. A courageous act of sharing from an essential new voice, Kelly O’Sullivan’s “Saint Frances” is exactly the kind of movie that patriarchal Hollywood has been conspiring to suppress all these years: one that takes a range of experiences — from menstruation to abortion to lesbian marriage — and confronts them head-on, not as scandalous, but as aspects of life that demand examination. — PD
“Clueless” meets “It’s Alive” in this high-energy horror comedy, which Stephen Cedars and Benji Kleiman spun off from their web series. Mary Nepi plays an average suburban teen whose decision to surrender her virginity to a pushy jock boyfriend brings more-than-normally-chastising consequences: Birth within 24 hours to an alien monster that threatens all humanity. Despite a fair amount of gore, it’s principally a very funny high school satire that feels closer to John Hughes than John Carpenter terrain. — DH
“Sword of Trust”
A shaggy-dog joke of inspired low-key silliness, Lynn Shelton’s latest is an improv-based comedy fueled by highly skilled performers. Podcaster-comic Marc Maron plays a curmudgeonly Alabama pawn shop proprietor who along with his dim-bulb assistant (Jon Bass) entertains buying a Civil War weapon that a lesbian couple (Michaela Watkins, Jillian Bell) inherited from a late relative. When it turns out the object is highly prized by white supremacists and historical revisionists, the four are swept down a rabbit hole of negotiation with “patriotic” crazies. It’s a lightweight sociopolitical satire, but a heavyweight demonstration of ace comedic riffing. — DH
Paul Solet’s remarkably absorbing and suspenseful documentary plays like the flip side of some 1970s rural revenge movie — think Jonathan Kaplan’s “White Line Fever,” or Jonathan Demme’s “Fighting Mad” — in which a besieged protagonist turns the tools of his trade into weaponry while battling oppressors. But Marvin Heemeyer, the vindictive welder at the heart of this true-life drama, gradually comes into focus as a delusional sociopath, not a plucky underdog, as he uses a steel-and-concrete-armored bulldozer to cause damage and settle scores in a Colorado mountain town during a 2004 rampage. — JL
“Yes, God, Yes”
Writer-director Karen Maine seems more bemused than resentful in her engaging semi-autobiographical comedy about a Catholic high school girl who’s buffeted between guilt and curiosity during her sexual coming of age. Natalia Dyer (“Stranger Things,” “I Believe in Unicorns”) makes an enormously appealing protagonist as Alice, a 16-year-old virgin whose experiences with self-discovery and self-gratification begin with an inadvertent encounter in an AOL chat room, and continue at a religious retreat where not everyone truly practices what they preach. — JL