EVERYTHING'S BIGGER IN TEXAS

Solange, Gosling, and Charlize: The Very Best of SXSW 2017

Each March, tens of thousands flock to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest—a smorgasbord of film screenings, music showcases, and tech conferences. Here’s the best that this year’s edition had to offer.

Solange and Jidenna Bring the Heat

These days, with its strong film lineup and bustling orgy of high-fiving techbros, it’s easy to forget that SXSW was originally a music festival—one that began in 1987 with 700 attendees and has grown into the largest celebration of music in the world, with thousands of up-and-coming acts playing their hearts out in hopes of getting discovered alongside bigger artists doing corporate showcases for big bucks. This year, Mazda and YouTube were the big corporate stars, throwing multi-day showcases that boasted the likes of Solange, who, with her expertly calibrated backup dancers and voguing, has matured into a bona fide R&B goddess; Detroit rapper Danny Brown and his spirited, happy-go-lucky breakneck flow; Lil Yachty, whose youthful exuberance is infectious; and the raw New York rockers Vagabon, led by electrifying frontwoman Laetitia Tamko. There is a rich history of talent being “discovered’ at SXSW, from The White Stripes (2001) and The Strokes (2001) to Katy Perry (2008) and Skrillex (2010). In recent years, it’s been rappers like J. Cole and Chance the Rapper who’ve broken big in Austin. This year, Jidenna, whose song “Classic Man” featured prominently in Best Picture winner Moonlight, staked his claim as “next big thing” with a series of sultry, energetic performances combining catchy rhymes with soulful crooning. And like that, a star is born. —Marlow Stern

Atomic Blonde

You already knew Charlize Theron could go full-metal fast and Furiosa in action movies like Mad Max: Fury Road. What she ascends to in Atomic Blonde, though, is a genre fan’s lushest dream. As ace MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, Theron viciously hand-to-hand combats an army of Russian agents through a twisty and turny plot set in 1989 Berlin. There’s a (seemingly) single-take fight scene that will go down as an all-timer—equal parts stylish, gruesome, and exhilarating, a divine feat of power and endurance. Before directing, helmer David Leitch spent 20-plus years as a stuntman and stunt coordinator; here, that experience shows. Sure, the plot in between fight scenes can lull, or even veer fuzzy on coherence. But add in sumptuous cinematography and a super-fun ’80s pop soundtrack and Atomic Blonde easily rises above. It’s a blast. —Melissa Leon

Song to Song

Terrence Malick’s latest meandering meditation on romantic angst was labeled everything from a festivalgoer’s Snapchat on the big screen to a beautiful love letter to Austin—to give just a hint at how divisive Song to Song was. Still, there’s no denying the event and excitement of having Malick’s latest work, which starred Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, and Natalie Portman as a tangled web of lovers brooding against the backdrop of the Austin music scene, debut in the city itself. Austin looks beautiful here, as does the film’s lovingly shot stars. But following opening night, the movie and its response was besides the point as Malick himself, a famed recluse who rarely makes public appearances and even more rarely sits down for interviews, participated in a Q&A session with Fassbender, moderated by friend Richard Linklater. —Kevin Fallon

La Barbecue

What’s better than lunch at La Barbecue on a sunny Austin day? Lunch with legendary New York Magazine critic Adam Platt at La Barbecue on a sunny Austin day. Thanks to “urban winery” The Infinite Monkey Theorem, which makes a surprisingly delicious and refreshing rosé in a can, a group that included Platt, who famously revealed his face to the world on that magazine’s cover a few years ago, got to enjoy a luscious platter that included one ginormous beef rib, pork ribs, sausages and the best brisket in Austin (forget Franklin’s)—along with pickles, potato salad and beans, because you need to have some vegetables. In Platt’s word’s, the BBQ feast was “RFG” or “really fucking good.” The food coma that followed made it nearly impossible to continue on with the rest of that day’s SXSW activities. But nevertheless, we persisted. —Matt Wilstein

The Disaster Artist

Ever since Bridesmaids bowed there in 2011, SXSW has become the go-to place for studio comedy fare. 21 Jump Street, Neighbors, Trainwreck, and Spy have all premiered at the fest—along with less impressive fare like Get Hard and Keanu. The most anticipated comedy flick of this year’s edition was The Disaster Artist, a film written, produced, directed by, and starring James Franco about the making of the “best-worst movie ever”: Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. It is, perhaps, the most James Franco-iest movie ever made: a meta-exploration of obsession, Hollywood pipe dreams, and the modern-day bromance, and a movie-within-a-movie boasting Franco directing his Wiseau directing himself act terribly. Franco, a truly gifted comedic actor, is brilliant here, nailing Wiseau’s oddball demeanor and oddly charming naïveté. Franco’s directorial resume is a bit of a mixed bag, but hey, practice makes perfect. —Marlow Stern

American Gods

They did it, they really did it! Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s beloved 2001 novel stays true enough to the source material to please diehard fans yet manages to improve on it, too, by using the advantages of the medium. It expands the backstories and personalities of several of the book’s characters, especially its women, to avoid the “sausage party” energy (Fuller’s words, accurate) of the original two-man odyssey. As trickster Mr. Wednesday, Ian McShane steals every scene; as Shadow, The 100’s Ricky Whittle is a tortured sort of pitch-perfect. Stories about faith, division, and the experience of coming to America have only become more urgent in today’s immigrant-vilifying political climate—a fact the show’s diverse cast and crew are passionate about. The show also looks effing gorgeous (Fuller is the man behind Hannibal, after all) and is irreverently funny, too. It’s truly entertainment worthy of the gods. —Melissa Leon

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Baby Driver

“Sexy nonsense” could very well have been the theme of SXSW’s nightly showcases, with Song to Song, Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde, and Free Fire all screening in succession, each one-upping the previous in its unapologetic celebration of style over substance. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, in that vein, might be the best music video you’ve ever seen. Ansel Elgort is Baby, an ace getaway driver for a gang of robbers led by a gregarious-as-ever Kevin Spacey. Baby’s quirk: he’s always listening to music, with different iPods for different moods. When the music starts blasting for one of the film’s seemingly endless number of car chases is when things get really fun; even the shootout gunfire was choreographed to the music’s beat. It’s all better than the storyline, which veers from heist thriller to romance with little coherence. But with action this bonkers and, as a bonus, Jon Hamm in his best performance since Mad Men, you’re happy to just go along for the ride. —Kevin Fallon

The Relationtrip

This low-budget indie tells the story of two lost souls in Los Angeles, who meet at a party (or “salon de musique” as the hipster host calls it) and decide to escape together to the Joshua Tree desert for the weekend. But it’s much more than that. The film belongs Renée Felice Smith (currently toiling away on NCIS: Los Angeles), who wrote and directed with her real-life partner C.A. Gabriel and stars alongside Matt Bush as Beck, a quirky rom-com heroine in the mold of Ellen Page in Juno or Jenny Slate in Obvious Child. As it goes along, The Relationtrip gets increasingly surreal, and, well, trippy, invoking Simon Rich’s FX series Man Seeking Woman, and, in its better moments, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A stand-out sequence comes midway through the film when the burgeoning couple falls asleep in a hammock at sunset only to find the entire thing transformed into a cocoon that they emerge from as newlyweds. —Matt Wilstein

The Documentary Treatment

While Sundance remains the premier destination for cutting-edge documentaries, from Capturing the Friedmans and Grizzly Man to Murderball and Man on Wire, SXSW has, in recent years, offered some stiff competition. Last year gave us TOWER, Keith Maitland’s animated look at America’s first mass school shooting, as well as the haunting Beware the Slenderman. And this year was no different. There was Pornocracy, adult star turned filmmaker Ovidie’s flawed but fascinating exploration of MindGeek’s sketchy streaming porn stranglehold; Becoming Bond, a naughty look at the lascivious life and times of car mechanic turned 007 George Lazenby; and Frank Oz’s intimate look at the people behind Jim Henson’s iconic puppets in Muppet Guys Talking. The film that caused the most noise was undoubtedly Jason Pollock's Stranger Fruit, a detailed, eye-opening and admittedly one-sided investigation into the shooting death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown at the hands of white cop Darren Wilson. Real stories so compelling they’ll sober you right up…for a couple hours, at least. —Marlow Stern

Julio Torres

You cannot take your eyes off Julio Torres when he’s performing stand-up comedy. The Salvadoran Saturday Night Live writer behind such genius pieces as “Wells for Boys” and “Melania Moments” appeared as part of the Above Average showcase at SXSW, alongside SNL colleague Sasheer Zamata, and slayed the audience with his understated, Andy Kaufman-esque approach to the medium. Sample joke: “I went to the doctor and he told me I was very underweight, and I was like, ‘Stop it, you’re underweight.” If his onstage persona is an act, it’s one he keeps up in the real world, as this writer can attest after approaching him at a party later in the night and gushing over how brilliant his set was. —Matt Wilstein