Texas isn’t the center of the film world, but we punch above our weight for a state that offers little financial support for the industry, especially compared to neighbors like Louisiana and New Mexico. In 2017, Texas filmmakers and actors turned up in unexpected places, and the state itself was used as a setting for fascinating stories. With production once more expanding in Texas (AMC’s The Son and Fear The Walking Dead both shot in Austin, which tends to have a ripple effect for other film and television productions looking for crew), we took the opportunity to recall the state’s ties to ten of the more interesting films of 2017.
The R-rated X-Men adventure was a road movie that put the nail in the coffin of Hugh Jackman’s eighteen-year career of playing the titular superhero. When the film opens, though, the aging, burnt-out Wolverine is living out his days in El Paso, working as a limo driver in a vision of Chucotown that’s survived the vaguely post-apocalyptic mutant landscape that’s ravaged much of the world. Logan is as much a western as a superhero movie, so setting it in West Texas before it hits the road makes sense—and El Paso as the ideal hiding ground for a mutant hero trying to lay low and exist on both sides of the border was an inspired move from director James Mangold.
Bill Paxton was one of the great Texas character actors. He made his mark in movies from Aliens and Weird Science to the Spy Kids franchise, and in critically acclaimed TV performances in Big Love and Hatfields & McCoys. The Fort Worth native died at the age of 61 earlier this year, shortly before his final performance—in an adaptation of Dave Eggers’s techno-thriller novel The Circle—was released. The film itself isn’t much to talk about; it has charming enough performances by Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt as Steve Jobs/Steve Wozniak-like figures, respectively, with a bizarrely miscast John Boyega as the mysterious third founder of their global megacorp (maybe he helped start it when he was a baby?), and gives Emma Watson a lot to do as the heroine battling the shadowy forces of, er, social media. But Paxton, who plays Watson’s multiple sclerosis-afflicted father, brings out the humanity and vulnerability in the film’s goofy premise, offering a sharp contrast by simply doing what he did well throughout his career—be earnest, weird, and affecting in stories that often didn’t make a lot of sense if you imagined them taking place in the real world. His career may have deserved a better coda than The Circle, but he’s definitely the best thing that happened to the movie.
2017 saw the launch of Neon, a new distribution company launched by a group including Alamo Drafthouse co-founder Tim League. The company went on an early acquisition spree, picking up festival hits like Ingrid Goes West, The Bad Batch, and the Golden Globe-nominated I, Tonya throughout the year. And the distributor’s first release, Colossal, established Neon as a player worth watching. The film was directed by Fantastic Fest vet Nacho Vigalonda, with Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis turning in nuanced, deep performances (it may be Sudeikis’s finest work) in a movie that’s about the monsters, big and small, that appear in our lives.
The year’s third-highest grossing film proved a few things: one, that the audience for superhero movies doesn’t evaporate just because the title character is a lady; two, that Chris Pine is the President of the Chrises; and three, that Ann Wolfe was always a superhero—we just didn’t know it yet.
The Austin-based boxing legend made her film debut in Wonder Woman as Artemis, one of the Amazons who trains Diana on Themyscira before the film’s adventure truly begins. It’s an inspired casting move: Wolfe’s part is small, but filling the world of Themyscira with women who look like they could beat the hell out of any man who threatens the sanctity of their island was important for the film, and the four-time heavyweight champion is definitely an ideal figure to have in your corner. There’s reason to hope, since Artemis is a fairly major character in the Wonder Woman mythos, that we’ll get to see more of Wolfe’s superheroic adventures in the future.
A Ghost Story
David Lowery’s meditation on mortality, the passage of time, and the way that our memories linger is one of the more quietly lovely films of 2017. The North Texas native staked out his hometown with Oscar-bait stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara for weeks as he quietly shot a movie that veered from contemplative tone-poem about loss to Spanish-language poltergeist horror, all seen through the vacant eyeholes of a ghost draped in a bedsheet. Lowery has made bigger films—last year’s Pete’s Dragon was CGI-based family fun—and he may go on to make better ones. But it’s unlikely that he’ll make anything that manages to be both as intimate and ambitious as the film he made when he haunted Irving with A Ghost Story.
The Dark Tower
There’s not a ton to recommend about the box office bomb that was this adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. The film was a mostly-incomprehensible mess that seemed deeply unsure of how to balance the imaginative elements of King’s opus. Ultimately, it got in and out of the immersive world of the book as quickly as possible, turning through the first installment of what was conceived as a Lord of the Rings-style epic that spanned both television and film in just over an hour and a half.
One thing it did have going for it, though, was Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black, the film’s antagonist. McConaughey’s performance was divisive—Richard Roeper called him “terrible” in the Chicago Sun-Times, while Village Voice critic April Wolfe described him as “a nightmare—in a good way”—but it was a different side to the actor, seven years into the McConnaissance. We’ve seen him play complex heroes and complex anti-heroes, voice cartoon heroes and dance menacingly, but until this point, he’d spent virtually his entire 25-year career without truly stepping into a villain’s role. The fact that this villain was so on-the-nose and hammy that he was literally just called “the Man in Black,” in a film that didn’t understand how to make that cool, is a bummer—but it’s nice to see there’s still some room for the dude to explore.
Song To Song
Also in Bad Movies of 2017: Terrence Malick’s love letter to a romanticized idea of rock stardom at a great distance, which offered a vision of Austin that bore almost no resemblance to the city’s actual music scene. It did, however, put a lot of pretty people in a lovingly shot version of the city, and created an alternate reality where the state’s capital is filled with the exact sort of self-involved caricatures that are mocked by people from other parts of Texas. That’s something of a service, even from a movie that fails to otherwise tell a story or realize much of a vision.
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t expect that Central Texas native Taylor Sheridan would be one of Hollywood’s most interesting screenwriters. As an actor, Sheridan appeared in a handful of episodes of Austin showrunner Rob Thomas’s Veronica Mars before taking a recurring role for several seasons on Sons of Anarchy. But when he stepped away from acting to focus on writing, he found fascinating stories in unexpected places—cartel battles in El Paso in Sicario, financially ruined West Texas in Hell Or High Water—and for his directorial debut, he left Texas to tell a story on a Wyoming Native American reservation. Wind River won Sheridan an award for Best Director at Cannes, an 87% Rotten Tomatoes score, and a box office success, which all point to the former actor and current screenwriter as one of Texas’s most promising directors.
Last Flag Flying
Richard Linklater’s output is impressive. In the 28 years since Slacker, he’s directed 18 feature films, including some that came with grand ambitions. After a run of experimentation in the early part of this decade—when he released Bernie, Before Midnight, and Boyhood—he returned to his roots with last year’s Everybody Wants Some!! and his November release, Last Flag Flying, which put a lot of dudes together for the sort of male-bonding rituals that he built his early career on. It may not be his finest work (Bryan Cranston’s scenery chewing wears thin), but it’s vintage Linklater.
The SXSW favorite documentary about blind magician Richard Turner—one of the world’s greatest performers of card tricks—showed one of the things that Texas film can do especially well. Director Luke Korem found a fascinating figure in his own backyard (well, a few miles down I-35) whose story might have gone untold in his retirement, and showed the world something incredible. That’s an opportunity that Texas filmmakers seize on frequently, away from the pressures of Hollywood, whether they’re making narrative features or documentaries— and even as we embrace an expansive definition of “Texas film” (yes, we’re claiming Wonder Woman), the ability of filmmakers like Linklater and Lowery to veer between blockbusters and personal films, or of Malick and Korem to capture specificity in very different kinds of movies, is one of the assets that excites us about Texas filmmaking heading into 2018.