Headliners dominate South by Southwest

What began as a small Austin-based festival has become the go-to launching pad for studio movie efforts that offer a first look at the season ahead.

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South by Southwest was never supposed to be the power player it is today in the world of film festival programming after its start as an independent event in Austin, Texas. Throughout the 2000s, the festival screened films from auteurs like Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) and Guillermo Del Toro (“The Shape of Water”), but it wasn’t until the premiere of Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up” in 2007 that distributors realized they could test out their studio comedies and get ahead of the press by coming to Texas. Since then, contemporary comedies like “Bridesmaids,” “21 Jump Street,” “Neighbors” and “Trainwreck” have launched successfully with critics and at the box office. Here are the films from this year’s festival that hope to follow in their footsteps.

“Us” (Universal)

I’ve yet to experience a movie more genuinely thrilling and fun than Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” His racial horror movie was the rare type of entertainment that attracted masses for an escape from reality that was also stimulating. Pulling that off was a huge accomplishment for which he earned an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Two years later, he returns to the festival that started it all with another psychosocial thriller that sees Winston Duke and Lupita Nyong’o as a couple whose beach vacation goes wrong when doppelgangers threaten their serenity. If “Us” can match “Get Out” on levels of both entertainment and provocation, Peele could be something like a modern-day Alfred Hitchcock.

“The Beach Bum” (Neon)

Harmony Korine made his debut in the ‘90s as the writer of the eye-opening “Kids.” He remained in a certain realm of independent filmmaking until he turned a handful of Disney princesses into gangsters in the underrated “Spring Breakers.” Like him or not, his next feature is arguably a piece of mainstream entertainment. Described as “arthouse Cheech and Chong” by IndieWire, the Miami-set movie follows Matthew McConaughey as the stoner poet named Moondog. With appearances by Snoop Dogg, Zac Efron and a dearly-missed Martin Lawrence, this might just be the movie everybody, or at least somebody, needs in 2019.

“Long Shot” (Lionsgate)

Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron star in this romantic comedy of political proportions. Rogen is a flailing journalist who pursues Theron’s Charlotte Field, his former babysitter who just so happens to be the secretary of state. This is Rogen’s third collaboration with director Jonathan Levine following “50/50” and “The Night Before.” Hopefully, the talent involved, including O’Shea Jackson Jr. and June Diane Raphael, will translate to profits for the movie that has the weekend of May 3 all to itself following the latest “Avengers” installment.

“Stuber” (20th Century Fox)

Submitted as a work in progress, “Stuber” is a movie directed by Michael Dowse in the vein of buddy action-comedies like “48 Hrs.” It stars Kumail Nanjiani as an amiable Uber driver who reluctantly accepts a hard-boiled detective’s (Dave Bautista) plea to pursue a terrorist suspect. Stu must remain calm and keep out of danger’s way while trying to maintain his high customer service rating. Rounding out the cast of this intriguing comedy is Jimmy Tatro, Betty Gilpin and Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino.

“Booksmart” (United Artists)

Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein co-star in this modest comedy about friendship directed by Olivia Wilde. As high school seniors who realize they’ve spent all their time studying, the girls decide to cram the last four years into one night. For her feature directorial debut, Wilde has snagged a pair of reliable leads in newcomer Feldstein (“Lady Bird”) and the underseen Dever (“Short Term 12”). The cast also includes Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte.

“Pet Sematary” (Paramount)

The festival’s other big horror premiere is this Stephen King adaptation directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. Starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz and John Lithgow, it tells of a couple who discover a hidden burial ground in the wooded area beyond their home in rural Maine. When a tragedy occurs, the Creed family is haunted by forces connected to the cemetery. It remains to be seen if the movie can match the success of “It,” but a Stephen King writing credit is never a bad thing.

Edited by Joe Cross | jcross@themaneater.com

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