The Best and Worst Films at SXSW 2018

  • Publish Date: March 17, 2018
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Another South by Southwest is in the books

The 2018 SXSW Film Festival wrapped up today after presenting the world premieres of over two dozen films (and several upcoming TV series). Below, find some of the reactions from professional critics to the festival's most noteworthy films.

Major award winners

Best Narrative Feature
Thunder Road
Comedy/Drama | USA | Directed by Jim Cummings

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Jim Cummings took the top award at the festival for this expansion of his award-winning 2016 short film. Serving as writer, director, and lead actor, Cummings is a “born filmmaker who plants seedlings of raw drama that sprout in unexpected and moving ways,” according to Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. Charting the struggles of a police officer as he attempts to raise his daughter in the wake of a divorce and his mother’s death, the film is “wholly original taking on issues of the day from parental rights to mental illness and later, the opioid crisis,” writes John Fink of The Film Stage.

Audience Award Winner
First Match
Drama | USA | Directed by Olivia Newman

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A foster child (a widely praised Elvire Emanuelle) from the projects in Brooklyn seeks to reunite with her estranged, ex-con father by joining an all-boys wrestling team in this coming-of-age (though not necessarily feel-good) drama by first-time filmmaker Olivia Newman, expanding her own 2010 short film. In his "B" review, Indiewire's David Ehrlich calls the result "raw and beautifully well-realized," while Ioncinema's Matt Delman finds First Match "gripping." The film streams on Netflix beginning on March 30.

Best Documentary
People's Republic of Desire
Documentary | China | Directed by Hao Wu

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Hao Wu’s journey into the culture and economics behind the booming live-streaming industry in China won the jury's award for best documentary at the festival, and the film also impressed reviewers. THR’s Justin Lowe calls it a “revealing examination of contemporary Chinese internet culture,” and Joe Leydon of Variety finds it “provocative and unsettling.” Indiewire’s David Ehrlich believes “Wu’s fascinating, deeply alarming film ushers us into a bold new world where our pleasure is simulated, but our pain is real.”

Best First Feature
The New Romantic
Drama/Rom-com | Canada | Directed by Carly Stone

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The SXSW jury's award for best debut feature went to writer-director Carly Stone for this story of a college journalist (Jessica Barden) who, in pursuit of a story she hopes will win a $50,000 journalism grant named after Hunter S. Thompson, becomes a sugar baby to an economics professor. But critics didn't like the film as much as the jury did. Variety’s Amy Nicholson wishes the film “could commit to its own cynicism,” and David Ehrlich of Indiewire finds it “funny, but only sheepishly or in passing ...and the emotional turns are rushed for a movie that seems to leave so much on the table.”

Other highlights (film and TV)

6 Balloons
Drama | USA | Directed by Marja Lewis Ryan

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Taking place over one night in Los Angeles, writer-director Marja-Lewis Ryan’s film stars Dave Franco as a heroin addict and Broad City's Abbi Jacobson as his sister, who tries to take care of him and his two-year-old daughter. Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com believes it’s “one of the most unexpected, moving surprises of the year so far,” with strong performances by actors known for their comedic chops. The Playlist’s Jordan Ruimy agrees that the leads are “striking,” but claims the film doesn’t always work “because of its slightness.” Find it streaming on Netflix beginning April 6.

1985
Drama | USA | Directed by Yen Tan

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In what Indiewire’s Jude Dry calls a “haunting elegy for a generation of gay men,” Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) returns from New York to his hometown in Texas for Christmas during the first wave of the AIDS crisis. While he’s there, he struggles to connect with his religious parents (Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis) and a childhood friend (Jamie Chung). In his review for TheWrap, Dan Callahan praises the film: “This is a realistic, discreet, yet exploratory film that earns its tears honestly and scrupulously.”

Barry
TV series | USA | Directed by Bill Hader

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Debuting March 25 on HBO, this dark comedy from Bill Hader and Silicon Valley's Alec Berg stars the former as a depressed hitman who embarks on a career change after discovering the joys of performing while encountering his first acting class. Stephen Root, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg, and Glenn Fleshler also star.

Festival-goers saw the first two episodes (directed by Hader himself, making his directorial debut), and critics have also been given the entire season. Based on their observations, it looks like HBO has another winner on its hands, though it maybe takes the better part of the season to get there. In THR, Tim Goodman applauds "one of the weirdest and most compelling experiments in American comedy in years." Slashfilm's Jacob Hall deems the first hour "fresh" and "fun," while Jacob Knight at Birth. Movies. Death. declares that "Barry could be HBO's next addiction-worthy series." Variety's Mo Ryan, meanwhile, finds it perhaps a bit too "low-key" and "slight," but eventually comes around to appreciate what she deems "a wry and sometimes successful attempt to blend elements of 'Breaking Bad' and 'BoJack Horseman.'"

Blockers
Comedy | USA | Directed by Kay Cannon

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Pitch Perfect writer Kay Cannon’s directorial debut stars Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, and John Cena as parents who discover their daughters’ plan to lose their virginity on prom night. The parents spend the night trying to stop the girls (Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Indira Viswanathan, and Gideon Adlan), and it results in a “riotous sex comedy in which the oldsters get as much attention as the kids,” according to THR’s John DeFore. John Fink of The Film Stage claims Blockers is a “high-energy sex comedy largely divorced from the male gaze, turning the genre on its head with more insight than usual.” The comedy opens in theaters on April 6th.

Boundaries
Comedy | USA | Directed by Shana Feste

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The latest from writer-director Shana Feste (Country Strong, Endless Love) stars Vera Farmiga as a single mother who takes a road trip from Seattle to Los Angeles with her marijuana-dealing father (Christopher Plummer) and troubled son (Lewis MacDougall). Indiewire’s Eric Kohn believes a “set of sharp performances and insightful character details elevate the material above low expectations,” and Owen Gleiberman of Variety claims it’s the “best version of this sort of film you could imagine (it’s standard, but very tastefully done).” Look for it in theaters beginning June 22nd.

Condor
TV series | USA/Canada/Italy | Directed by Lawrence Trilling, Andrew McCarthy,

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Launching this summer on DirecTV's Audience Network, Condor is a Washington D.C.-set conspiracy thriller based both on Sydney Pollack's classic 1975 film Three Days of the Condor and the book that inspired it, Six Days of the Condor. Max Irons, Mira Sorvino, William Hurt, Brendan Fraser, and Bob Balaban star. The first two (of 10) episodes screened at SXSW, where Indiewire's Ben Travers wasn't wowed, but nevertheless found Condor to be an "engaging spy story suitably updated for modern times and slyly incorporating elements of the original film."

Don't Leave Home
Thriller | Ireland/USA | Directed by Michael Tully

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The latest from writer-director Michael Tully is in a completely different genre than 2014’s coming-of-age story Ping Pong Summer. A thriller about an American artist (Anna Margaret Hollyman) whose work inspired by an urban legend leads her to Ireland, the film earned praise for its closing moments, with THR’s David Rooney describing them as “just cryptic enough to infuse the ending with a genuine chill.”

Family
Comedy | USA | Directed by Laura Steinel

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In this debut feature from writer-director Laura Steinel, Taylor Schilling stars as Kate, a kid-hating workaholic asked to babysit her niece for a week. When the latter runs away to become a Juggalo, Kate’s week goes from bad to worse. Indiewire’s Eric Kohn claims the film “never gets beyond the hints of possibilities found throughout its premise,” but John DeFore of THR finds it “enjoyable despite its familiarity.”

Pet Names
Comedy/Drama | USA | Directed by Carol Brandt

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Carol Brandt’s latest feature received some of the best reviews of the festival. Written by lead actress Meredith Johnston, the film follows Leigh, a grad school dropout taking care of her ailing mom, as she goes on a camping trip with her ex-boyfriend and his pug. THR’s Sheri Linden believes the film “creates summer memories that resonate,” adding, “Even at their most emotionally direct, Johnston's writing and Brandt's direction are understated and tinged with subversive humor.” The Film Stage claims it’s a “minor triumph of self-discovery even if it falls prey to a few of the usual tropes.”

A Quiet Place
Horror/Thriller | USA | Directed by John Krasinski

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John Krasinski directs and stars with his wife, Emily Blunt, in this thriller about a family who survives by being silent because any noise will awake a mysterious and deadly creature. Also starring Wonderstruck’s Millicent Simmonds, the film earned excellent reviews at its SXSW premiere. THR’s John DeFore calls it a “thrilling, genuinely scary high-concept hit,” and Jordan Ruimy of The Playlist believes it’s a “thrilling, near-silent film that brilliantly toys with the audience’s nerves while deftly avoiding familiar cliches.” ScreenCrush’s Britt Hayes claims it’s a “knuckle-biting masterclass in escalating tension that establishes John Krasinski as a serious filmmaker capable of crafting one hell of an emotional thrill ride.” Catch it in theaters on April 6th.

Relaxer
Comedy/Drama/Fantasy | USA | Directed by Joel Potrykus

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The latest from Joel Potrykus (Buzzard, The Alchemist Cookbook) takes place in a single living room where Abbie (Joshua Burge) attempts the latest challenge from his older brother—stay on the couch until he gets past level 256 on Pac-Man, breaking Billy Mitchell’s record. Giving the film an A, Indiewire’s Eric Kohn writes, “It’s a grotesque downward spiral, both hilarious and mesmerizing, but above all elevated by its insights into the depraved final gasp of the analog age.”

Support the Girls
Drama | USA | Directed by Andrew Bujalski

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The latest from writer-director Andrew Bujalski (Results, Computer Chess) captures a day in the life of Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall), the manager at Double Whammies, a “sports bar with curves,” where she protects her girls (Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle) and handles the unpleasant owner (James LeGros). It looks like another success for Bujalski. Eric Kohn of Indiewire gives the film an A–, calling the film “remarkable...thoughtful and touching”

Unfriended: Dark Web
Horror | USA | Directed by Stephen Susco

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It wouldn't be a 2018 film festival if it didn't have at least one film that takes place mostly on a computer screen. This sequel to 2015‘s Unfriended follows the innocent Matais (Colin Woodell) as he gets his hands on a stolen laptop and falls into the murky waters of the dark web. Written and directed by Stephen Susco, the film “manages to turn the same gimmick into another jittery ride,” according to  Indiewire’s Eric Kohn. Kaitlyn Tiffany of The Verge admits that the film “has some fantastic twists... but it’s about as bleak-without-explanation as you can get.”

Unlovable
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Suzi Yoonessi

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Directed by Suzi Yoonessi from a personal script by star Charlene deGuzman (written with Mark Duplass and Sarah Adina Smith), this “unexpectedly charming sex addiction dramedy” is “a fluffy spin on the recovery genre, but it’s a fresh one,” writes Indiewire’s Kate Erbland. The story follows deGuzman’s Joy as she forms a friendship with the reclusive brother (John Hawkes) of her sponsor (Melissa Leo), and, according to Joe Leydon of Variety, “deGuzman’s performance is so arresting and engaging, you keep your eyes glued to her — if only so you don’t miss the next development that will be hilarious or heartbreaking or both.”

Vida
TV series | USA | Directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios, So Yong Kim

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Loosely based on a Richard Villegas Jr. short story, this half-hour Starz drama follows two very different Mexican-American sisters (Mishel Prada, Melissa Barrera, heading an all-Latinx cast) in Los Angeles' Eastside after they learn a shocking truth about their mother. You won't be able to watch it until May 6th, but SXSW audiences got a look at the opening episodes, and they went over well with reviewers, who also noted that the show is unlike anything else on the network (or any network, for that matter).

Wild Nights With Emily
Comedy/Drama | USA | Directed by Madeleine Olnek

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Molly Shannon plays poet Emily Dickinson in this comedy that debunks the popular vision of Dickinson as a reclusive spinster. Written and directed by Madeleine Olnek (The Foxy Merkins, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same), the film “feels a bit like an extended Drunk History production,” according to THR’s John DeFore, but Jude Dry of Indiewire writes that Susan Ziegler as Dickinson’s friend and lover, Susan Gilbert, is “the perfect match for Shannon, and their chemistry elevates the comedic premise into an undeniably compelling romance.”

Disappointments

Fast Color
Drama/Sci-fi | USA | Directed by Julia Hart

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Like her first feature, Miss Stevens, Julia Hart’s latest was co-written with her husband, producer Jordan Horowitz. Otherwise, it’s quite different. Set in a drought-ridden world and focusing on a family of black women with special abilities, the film follows Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), her mother (Lorraine Toussaint), and her daughter. According to Indiewire’s Eric Kohn, this superhero movie “has a solemn, hypnotic quality, hovering between the profound ramifications of its intimate story and the hints of an otherworldly drama.” But Variety's Amy Nicholson warns that Color never quite solidifies into an effective film.

Jinn
Drama | USA | Directed by Nijla Mumin

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Writer-director Nijla Mu’min's coming-of-age story follows Summer (Zoe Renee in a much-praised performance) as she tries different paths to define herself, including embracing Islam when a Muslim classmate catches her interest. The film divided critics despite winning "Special Jury Recognition" for its writing. Keith Uhlich of THR claims the film “consistently lets down its premise and performers with a by-the-numbers-at-best screenplay that triple-underlines all of its forward-thinking themes,” but Variety’s Amy Nicholson calls Jinn a “phenomenal debut.”

Krypton
TV series | Ireland | Directed by Colm McCarthy, Ciaran Donnelly

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TV's latest DC Comics series is a Superman prequel from David S. Goyer (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) and Ian Goldberg (Once Upon a Time) that's set—for the most part, though there is some time travel—decades before the destruction of Superman's titular home planet. So long before, in fact, that the protagonist is the Man of Steel's grandfather, Seg-El, played by British newcomer Cameron Cuffe.

The series debuts this coming Wednesday on Syfy, but SXSW audiences were "treated" to the first two episodes. And, while it may not be Superman IV bad, Krypton didn't exactly impress critics at the festival. THR's Tim Goodman says the show already feels like "a spoof" at least half the time, and calls the "slow-motion" premiere "a lifeless mess." The network has since provided five episodes to critics, though the extra hours don't seem like much of an improvement: everyone seems to agree that it's dull.

The Last O.G.
TV series | USA | Directed by Jorma Taccone

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For his first project since Get Out, Jordan Peele teams with 30 Rock's Tracy Morgan for a TBS comedy series (debuting April 3rd) starring Morgan as an ex-con attempting to readjust to the outside world after spending 15 years in prison. Tiffany Haddish and Cedric the Entertainer also star. All those big names may create high expectations for the series, and they aren't quite met, according to reviewers who saw the opening two episodes at SXSW. Variety's Sonia Saraiya warns that the show "struggles to reconcile its inherent tragedy with slightly crass comedy," resulting in something that is imperfect—though she adds that "when the show is good, it’s so good." THR's Dan Fienberg similarly finds the show "interesting," but advises that it "just isn't especially funny or consistent." But Indiewire's Ben Travers is slightly higher on O.G.'s prospects, noting that it's "very good yet not yet great," with the charm of its two leads already a big draw.

The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter
Comedy | USA | Directed by Jody Hill

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The latest from Jody Hill (Observe and Report, Vice Principals) is a “major disappointment,” according to Britt Hayes of ScreenCrush, who believes the miscasting of Josh Brolin as a semi-famous hunter trying to reconnect with his son, and the “disparity between his performance and [Danny] McBride’s might be the key to understanding Legacy’s failure.” However, Variety’s Joe Leydon claims “the movie remains at least passably amusing because of Josh Brolin’s totally committed and unabashedly heartfelt lead performance as Buck Ferguson.” The film will stream on Netflix beginning July 6.

Prospect
Sci-fi/Western | Canada/USA | Directed by Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl

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Expanding an earlier short film, the debut feature from Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl combines the genres of sci-fi and western to tell the story of a teenage girl (Sophie Thatcher) and her father (Jay Duplass) struggling to strike it rich by harvesting special gems on a remote alien moon. While the “duo show a real aptitude for world building,” Variety’s Peter Debruge thinks “the movie never develops the emotional dimension needed for any of its interpersonal relationships to matter.”

Ready Player One
Action-adventure/Sci-fi | USA | Directed by Steven Spielberg

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Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 science fiction bestseller received a mixed reaction from critics at the film’s surprise premiere at SXSW. Britt Hayes of ScreenCrush writes, “Despite the efforts of our most beloved modern director, Ready Player One is a complete mess,” and Consequence of Sound’s Dan Caffrey believes the problem is that “Cline and co-screenwriter Zak Penn never establish a significant enough sense of reality to explore the moral complexities of virtual reality.”

On the other hand, Tasha Robinson of The Verge claims the “film version of Ready Player One has some major advantages over the book. The exposition is just as bald, but once it’s done, Spielberg can focus on the endless dynamism of a world where anything is possible.” And Indiewire’s Eric Kohn thinks only Steven Spielberg can create an “astonishing sci-fi spectacle and a relentless nostalgia trip at once.” The film opens in theaters nationwide on March 29th.

 

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