With better weather than Sundance and friendlier guidelines than Cannes, the South by Southwest Film Festival is the rare circuit powerhouse that is also an unadulterated good time. In between BBQ binges and great music, SXSW attendees can see 140 features (including 66 world premieres, many of which belong to the DIY school of cinema for which the fest is known) along with dozens of panels, parties and showcases. With so much to absorb in such a short period of time, parsing the schedule presents an absurd challenge.
[Editor's Note: For the 2011 SXSW Competition lineups, Headliners, Emerging Visions and more, click here.]
Here's a starting point: Eleven things we can't wait to see at SXSW. You may read more about them soon in these parts.
SXSW has become fertile ground for discovering new filmmaking talent. In just the last five years, directors such as Lena Dunham ("Creative Nonfiction"), Gareth Edwards ("Monsters"), Aaron Katz ("Dance Party, USA") and Joe Swanberg ("Kissing on the Mouth") premiered their feature-length debuts in Austin, positioning SXSW as a venue for emerging voices with more potential for surprising breakouts than Sundance. Any one of the many newcomers at SXSW this year could potentially fulfill that expectation, but a few buzz titles from the narrative categories are already ahead of the pack.
These include "Charlie Casanova," the debut of Irish filmmaker Terry McMahon, the story of "a prejudiced, over-educated sociopath" who uses cards to determine his fate. Although already touted by some insiders as the best of the fest, it's not alone. Kyle Smith's "Turkey Bowl," from the Emerging Visions category, offers a surprisingly funny and naturalistic real-time portrait of a few young college friends getting together for a game of touch-football riddled with subtext. "96 Minutes," which tracks the experience of four kids faced with a carjacking, carries strong buzz for first-time director Aimée Lagos. The gritty comedy "Lbf," an adaptation of Cry Bloxsome's novel "Living Between Fucks," heralds the arrival of Australian filmmaker Alex Munt.
For the festival's opening night slot, SXSW programmers have recently chosen mid-size studio movies primarily aimed at the young male demographic (last year, that placement went to "Kick Ass"; before that, it was "I Love You, Man"). While the latest choice doesn't break that trend, it still stands out from the pack with a unique vision and rare intellectual thrills. "Source Code," the sophomore feature of "Moon" director Duncan Jones, follows that atmospheric science fiction tale with another. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier forced to continually relive the last eight minutes of a train ride fated to end in an explosion. As he scrambles to find the culprit, "Source Code" becomes a multi-dimensional romance in addition to a suspenseful ride. Having seen it early I'm beholden to an embargo, but I will say that "Moon" fans will not be disappointed. Jones, working on a slightly larger scale, has not sold out.
The hype says this might be the best fight documentary ever made. Those are high stakes, but filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein ("Gunner Palace," "How to Fold a Flag") have the sort of track record to justify it. Focusing on the Mixed Martial Arts industry and the aspiring champions dreaming of the screaming crowds in Las Vegas, "Fightville" looks fierce, bloody and breathlessly engaging.
Wild and Crazy Genre Movies
While not a genre-specific festival, SXSW knows how to please that constituency. In addition to its midnight section, the programmers invite Fantastic Fest co-founder Tim League to program the SXFantastic section, where last year's breakout hit "Monsters" sold to Magnolia for the biggest sum in the history of the festival. This year, SXFantastic hosts "Kill List," the second feature from British director Ben Wheatley ("Down Terrace"), which has been gathering buzz as a supremely dark and memorable journey. In the regular midnight section, Xavier Gens's New York-set apocalypse chiller "The Divide" looks like a seriously crazy take on the typical zombie-style takeover. Joe Cornish's "Attack the Block," executive produced by Edgar Wright and co-starring Nick Frost, presents a comical alien invasion story. And Ti West, a SXSW mainstay since his first movie, "The Roost," premiered in 2005, returns with "The Innkeepers," about a haunted hotel.
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Nerdy New Media Discussions
At SXSW, multimedia and film began as a single conference track in 1994 and were split into two into 1995. Today they're behemoths in their own rights, but their contents have begun to merge again. This year, panels such as "Transmedia Storytelling" and "Decision Trees" (which deals with interactive storytelling on YouTube) display that overlap, as does the new Tech Summit (which features a transmedia workshop curated by indieWIRE editor in chief Dana Harris) and the documentary "PressPausePlay," which centers on the conversations surrounding digital culture.
Hard Rock Music Docs
The attitude and rhythm of SXSW was determined by its massive music festival long before the film portion even existed. Many of the screenings echo this reputation with nonfiction portraits of musicians letting loose. At least half a dozen titles fill this niche in the current program. These include "Bob the Monster," which focuses on the struggles of Thelonious Monster and The Bicycle Thief frontman Bob Forrest; "Last Days Here," which similarly scrutinizes heavy metal rocker Bobby Liebling of Pentagram; "Hits So Hard," about ex-Hole drummer Patty Schemel; and "Kevin," Jay Duplass's peek at the reclusive Austin-based musician Kevin Gant. For those seeking more context about the SXSW proceedings, look for "Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW."
Rodman Flender's documentary "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" tracks the beleaguered talk show host during his unexpected moment of professional transition, traveling the country with his live performance in the wake of stepping down from "The Tonight Show" after a public rift with NBC. Even more worthy of anticipation than the actual movie, which sources say shows O'Brien at his most vulnerable, is the promise that Conan himself will journey to Austin for the film's premiere.
Now in its sixth year, SXSW's massive videogame conference continues to provide a rare meeting grounds for both the giants of the industry and indie designers. As low-budget games gain traction for creative designers and gaming solidifies its reputation as an art form, ScreenBurn (particularly the massive arcade area in the convention center) maintains a steady venue for the progress of this young cousin to cinema. The upcoming gathering includes a competition among game designers for the Independent Propeller Awards, which bring $150,000 in cash prizes.
Austin's radical, politically charged community tends to embrace movies with that same outlook, such as "War Don Don" and "The Oath." The current program has a number of timely documentaries, including "Incendiary," the story of a man accused -- wrongly, perhaps -- of arson, which has garnered early comparisons to "The Thin Blue Line." Elsewhere, doc competitor "Better This World," the story of two twentysomething activists jailed for attempting to bomb the 2008 Republican National Convention, has been building buzz. And "The City Dark," a gorgeous, tragic essay on the effect light pollution has on viewing the night sky, will make even the most dedicated city-dweller wince.
Mel Gibson won't make an appearance for this irreverent comedy about a man who seeks catharsis through his beaver puppet, but director Jodie Foster will. Although Gibson's recent personal troubles have already begun to overshadow the movie's reputation, some insiders who have seen it early report that Foster's gentle direction and the emotional subtlety of the script may still allow "The Beaver" to be seen in a positive light, regardless of the reputation trailing its lead.
Daily indieWIRE Q&As
Finally, a moment of shamless pluggery: For the first time, indieWIRE will host daily SXSW filmmaker Q&As that will include Miranda July, Jay Duplass and Mike Mills. Stay tuned to the site for more details and recaps of these conversations, which will take place at the Next Stage on the second floor of the Convention Center each day from 2pm - 3pm.