Cannes is the prestigious film festival. Hollywood goes there to rub elbows with Europeans and to prove how arty it is. Sundance is the trendy film festival. Hollywood goes there to see and be seen. Toronto is the industry film festival. Hollywood goes there to sell product and to promote its upcoming slate of movies. Which leaves Austin's annual South by Southwest Film Festival and Conference with one distinction. SXSW is the cool film fest.
Held March 12-20 in downtown Austin, the recently concluded 2004 SXSW Film Festival was the place for an interesting, eclectic collection of film lovers and makers to hang out. Unlike the other festivals, there aren't a lot of deals made at SXSW. Films aren't bought. Distributors aren't schmoozed. Regular Joes aren't kicked to the curb in favor of Hollywood suits. That makes the pressure level considerably lower—meaning audiences are eager to see everything, and guests are relaxed enough to actually talk to people who are not from "Entertainment Tonight."
The week kicked off, of course, with a party. At the Texas Film Hall of Fame induction ceremony, old-school Hollywood rebels like Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and Ali McGraw shared the spotlight with (relative) newcomers like Forest Whitaker and Ethan Hawke. Duvall, who attended the 2003 SXSW Film Fest to premiere his directing effort Assassination Tango, found himself back in town this year to receive the Honorary Texan award. At one point during the casual red carpet ceremony, former Gov. Ann Richards quipped that, "This is the only awards show where we guarantee that The Lord of the Rings will not win anything." True enough.
The next morning, the Festival and Conference went into high gear, starting off a five-venue slate of films and a wealth of panel discussions, workshops and one-on-one conversations. Gary Ross (director of Seabiscuit), Jim Jarmusch (Night on Earth, Down by Law), John Landis (The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London) and Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense, Silence of the Lambs) were just a few of the big name attractions who offered up extensive Q&A sessions. Demme, for example, was able to talk in detail about his upcoming project, a remake of the Cold War classic The Manchurian Candidate. He humbly assured the audience it would be better than his last remake, The Truth About Charlie (an update of the Cary Grant film Charade). He also spoke at length about the recent death of actor/monologuist Spaulding Gray (whom he directed in Swimming to Cambodia). Demme was at SXSW to show off his much praised (and eerily timely) documentary The Egronomist, about a political activist/radio host in the troubled country of Haiti.
This year proved to be an exceptionally good one for documentaries. Landis, long known for his work in comedies, was in Austin to promote his new documentary as well. Produced by the Independent Film Channel (and airing sometime in June), Slasher tells the story of legendary used car salesman Michael Bennet. Bennet travels the country hosting high-energy, high-pressure "slasher" sales. Landis nailed a perfect subject in this motor-mouthed, beer-swilling character, and the film (Landis' first all-digital outing) is packed with riotous humor.
Also high on the documentary slate was Morgan Spurlock's much buzzed-about Super Size Me. Spurlock offered himself up as a guinea pig, eating McDonald's three meals a day for a month straight. The film is a fascinating glimpse into today's fast-food culture as well as a hilarious look at Spurlock's shockingly rapid descent into obesity and ill health. Expect this one to be the talk of this year's film fest circuit.
On the narrative film tip, cool kid actor Adam Goldberg (Dazed and Confused, Saving Private Ryan, The Hebrew Hammer) jetted in with girlfriend Christina Ricci to unveil his second directing effort, I Love Your Work. Giovanni Ribisi (The Mod Squad, Lost in Translation) stars as a self-absorbed actor who is being stalked by an obsessed fan (Mallrats' Jason Lee). Married to another self-absorbed actor (Run, Lola, Run's Franka Potente), our boy finds himself daydreaming of his perfect mate (Ricci, of course) and sliding into a full-on suicidal head trip. The film is packed with star cameos and Goldberg's trademark angry verve, but may be too much of an insider joke to resonate with regular audiences.
This year's surprise audience fave ended up being Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story, starring “The Daily Show”'s Rob Corddry as a former paintball champ banned from the sport for an unfortunate "wiping" incident. Very funny and surprisingly good-hearted, this character-driven comedy follows Bobby's quest to return to the sport he loves. The film doesn't have a distributor yet, but perhaps the positive reception will get it in front of a few more audiences.
Napoleon Dynamite, the hot film at this year's Sundance Film Festival, emerged from SXSW with some high praise as well. Crowds braved the soaking Austin rain to pack screenings of this curious offering, an offbeat comedy about a painfully awkward teen going to school in small-town nowhere. The film is little more than a series of vignettes, but the cumulative effect is painfully funny. The closest film I can find to it is Mike Judge's Office Space. Expect some fanatical devotion to this cult gem when it finally sees the light of day from distributor Fox Searchlight.
If you're interested in scoping out some of the other films that made the cut at this year's SXSW Film Festival, log on to www.sxsw.com.