The Best and Worst Narrative Films of SXSW 2017

Our capsule reviews of 'The Disaster Artist,' 'Atomic Blonde,' 'Baby Driver,' 'Win It All,' 'Colossal,' and eight more SXSW films.

AUSTIN, TX: And with that, your humble correspondent steps onto his flight back to New York, another trip to the SXSW Film Festival brought to its premature conclusion. This year, by the numbers: eight tacos, four barbeque dinners, three milkshakes at the Alamo Drafthouse, four panels, and 23 movies – nine of them documentaries, which we rounded up yesterday. That leaves 14 narrative films, so let’s talk about them.

CHALLENGES

Two fine films that couldn’t be more different on the surface – but both present challenges to both their audiences, and the people responsible for getting them in front of an audience.

The Disaster Artist

Here’s a weird thing that happened: a sold-out SXSW audience saw a “work in progress” cut (though one that, as usual, seemed completed) of The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s film adaptation of Greg Sestero’s first-person account of the making of Tommy Wiseau’s legendarily bad movie The Room. And it’s a very funny film about a very weird and untalented dude, and we all had a great many laughs at the expense of this guy and his terrible film. But we were also watching it with Mr. Wiseau in the room, so we’re sort of laughing at him while he’s sitting there, which is odd — especially when his onscreen avatar chastises the people who laugh at him in his acting class (“You all laugh, ha ha ha ha. That’s what villain do”), or when the audience at The Room’s premiere end up convulsing with laughter at him, just like we were. It’s the kind of fun-house mirror equation to which Franco’s always been drawn, but he’s rarely pulled it off with this much finesse; he implicates us in really fascinating ways, while exploring the difficulties of “follow your dreams” narratives (often inspired by the very movie industry that the people depicted cannot penetrate), and the staying power of imperfect work. It went over like gangbusters here, with the rowdy SX crowd responding rapturously to the movie-making inside-baseball stuff and the Room-related references, though I can’t help but wonder about its best hope for an audience; I can’t imagine seeing it without seeing The Room, and its assertions aside, not that many have seen The Room. But the people who have are going to love this.

M.F.A.

It’s rare, even in a film festival environment, to come across a work that’s legitimately provocative and even a little dangerous. But that’s what you get from this story of a graduate art student who turns her rape into a mission — a film written and directed by women, which presents its sexual violence unflinchingly, and then considers the aftershocks of the act with the same weight. The elements of revenge (there’s something of an art-house I Spit on Your Grave thing happening, albeit without the leering exploitation) are, in all honesty, quite satisfying, but director Natalia Leite and writer Leah McKendrick balance it out by considering where revenge ends and blood lust begins. The film sort of crumbles in the third act, but there’s still much here to recommend and contemplate.