Critics' Picks: The Best of SXSW 2017

6:40 AM 3/17/2017

by John DeFore, Michael Rechtshaffen, Sheri Linden , and David Rooney

A dazzling comedy from James Franco, a buzzy new Netflix series, an L.A. noir pairing Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz and docs dealing with race and police violence were among THR critics' faves from the fest.

'The Disaster Artist'
'The Disaster Artist'
New Line Cinema

  1. 10
    10

    The Blood Is at the Doorstep

    Jennifer Johnson/Courtesy of Young Productions and Baby Plane

    Filmed over a three-year period, Erik Ljung's urgent documentary chronicles the fatal police shooting of an African-American man, Dontre Hamilton, in 2014, and the tireless efforts of his family as they seek answers. It's a clear-eyed film that finds hope within terrible circumstances, and strength within heartbreak. Given the continued unfortunate timeliness of the subject, it'll certainly find an audience in a wider platform beyond the fest circuit. — S.L.

  2. 9
    10

    The Work

    Courtesy of Blanketfort Media

    Twice a year, Folsom State Prison, near Sacramento, Calif., invites outsiders to enter its gates as part of a four-day program of intensive group therapy mixing inmates and non-prisoners. Court videographer Jairus McLeary, who directed this film with Gethin Aldous, has been making the trip from Illinois since 2003, and his firsthand experience of the retreats as a participant rather than an observer makes for a remarkable and illuminating piece of reportage. — S.L.

  3. 8
    10

    Stranger Fruit

    Michael Brown

    A powerfully compelling take on the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Jason Pollock's damning, emotionally charged investigative documentary also is notable for dropping a major bombshell: new surveillance footage suggesting that, contrary to prior police claims, Brown had not, in fact, robbed a convenience store just before he was killed. — M.R.

  4. 7
    10

    Muppet Guys Talking

    Courtesy of Gregg Goldston

    Good luck preventing a big, goofy grin from spreading across your face as you watch Frank Oz's warmly affectionate doc showing an extended conversation among five major Muppet actors: Oz, Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Bill Barretta and the late Jerry Nelson. It's an illuminating look at the creative process and a vibrant ode to Jim Henson. — M.R.

  5. 6
    10

    La Barracuda

    Courtesy of SXSW Film Festival

    Allison Tolman (FX's Fargo) and Sophie Reid play half sisters who connect via their late country-musician father in this suspenseful, slow-burn ballad about shared bloodlines and the simmering rage of exclusion. Co-directors Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund build atmosphere, psychological texture, an ingrained sense of place and a needling undercurrent of dread. — D.R.

  6. 5
    10

    Gemini

    Courtesy of SXSW Film Festival

    Playing the assistant to Zoe Kravitz's impulsive Hollywood star, Lola Kirke becomes both suspect and investigator following a violent crime in Aaron Katz's coolly composed and engrossing mystery. While the payoff could have used extra punch, the teasing path that leads there is bewitching, and the actresses — particularly the smart, sleepy-eyed Kirke — are terrific. — D.R.

  7. 4
    10

    I Am Another You

    Little Horse Crossing the River

    Nanfu Wang, director of the Oscar-shortlisted documentary Hooligan Sparrow, explores a young drifter's life on the streets in her eloquent and affecting second film. Joining her subject to record his day-to-day experiences, Wang tries to understand why someone from a solidly middle-class family would have chosen this route. The resulting work is an indelible, deceptively straightforward study that offers further evidence of this young director’s investigative energy and eye for cinematic poetry. — S.L.

  8. 3
    10

    Dear White People

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Retaining all its razor-sharp wit and then some, Justin Simien's 2014 big-screen satire of race relations at a fictional college has transferred impressively to TV (Netflix), based on the first two episodes previewed at SXSW. Most of the memorable characters are back, as is the plot set-up involving a blackface party held at the predominantly white school that has further fanned tensions among African-American students. Simien knows how to coax laughter while holding a mirror up to hypocrisy and other inconvenient truths. — M.R.

  9. 2
    10

    Baby Driver

    A Gone in 60 Seconds for the La La Land crowd, this vibrant, music-fueled crime-flick/romance will delight director Edgar Wright's fans and others. Though it makes the most of its top-shelf talent, including Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey and Lily James, the movie belongs to lead Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) as a gearbox prodigy who never drives a getaway car without cueing up the appropriate tune. — J.D.

  10. 1
    10

    The Disaster Artist

    New Line Cinema

    James Franco scores on both sides of the camera in this wildly funny and surprisingly touching ode to bad moviemaking. The actor-director is hysterical as the brooding, deluded Tommy Wiseau (who wrote, directed, financed and starred in 2003's The Room, which went on to become a cult favorite) and the rest of the ensemble — including Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Josh Hutcherson, Melanie Griffith and Sharon Stone — is aces. It's a winning blend of comedy and pathos that could earn its own cult status when Warner Bros. locks in an as-yet-undetermined release date. — M.R.

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