Once upon a time, the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival and Conference in Austin, Texas, was the scrappy, little-known brother to the hipper and more prominent SXSW Music Festival. Unlike Sundance and Toronto, the festival provided a perfect neutral ground for filmmakers and film fans to mingle. Screenings weren't crowded with studio executives looking to score the next great indie hit and filmmakers weren't under pressure to chat up only worthy distributors. While some of this still holds true, 2005 will certainly go down in history as the year that SXSW lost its status as a “little” film festival.
In years past, the film festival (taking place March 11-19) was a slow and steady precursor to the chaotic and jam-packed music showcase (March 16-20). This year, the dam broke wide open with hungry film fanatics flooding the streets of downtown Austin. Of the 14 films I attended this year, all 14 were sold out. From the looks of it, only people with expensive all-access film badges were getting into the screenings. Those who did not queue up more than an hour before showtime were probably not getting into one of the festival's six venues. Those who bought multi-film passes or (even worse) individual tickets, must have had a hard time getting in to see anything.
At least one festival volunteer told me that twice as many badges were sold this year than last year. And this was a year with very few “big buzz” films.
The Wendell Baker Story, an Austin-lensed comedy written by, directed by and starring Luke, Owen and Andrew Wilson (Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums), served as the festival's opening night film. Crowds were big, but the feature--about a genial con man (Luke Wilson) who goes to jail, gets out and goes to work at a retirement home run by a sleazy nurse (Owen Wilson)--proved a bit too mild for mainstream consumption.
With no single “must see” film, the festival's lineup seemed like a mixed bag. There were a few winners. Paul Provenza and Penn Gillette's gut-busting documentary about the world's filthiest joke, The Aristocrats, was one of many popular standup documentaries (including Sarah Silverman's Jesus is Magic and The Comedians of Comedy starring Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn). Alex Turner's debut feature Dead Birds, a Civil War-set haunted house story, hit the midnight screenings like a Louis Lamour novel ghostwritten by H.P. Lovecraft. Subtle, atmospheric and filled with grisly set-pieces this one was the stuff of genuine nightmares.
Amateur films abounded, however. Cl.one, a digital effects-heavy, one-man sci-fi show, boasted a few impressive images and a total lack of skill in the acting and scripting departments. The Roost was a no-budget “thriller” about a group of slasher-bait teens who stumble across a barn full of killer bats (about 12 in all) and eventually turn into flesh-eating zombies for some reason. Eyestrain cinematography and a nonexistent script made this one a midnight must-miss.
Indie stalwarts Todd Solondz (Happiness, Storytelling, Welcome to the Dollhouse) and Don McKellar (Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Last Night) were both on hand to unveil their newest. Solondz continued to push discomfort as humor in Palindromes, a mysteriously arty drama/comedy about a 13-year-old girl who gets pregnant, gets an abortion and runs away from home. For reasons known largely to the director, the main character is played by eight different actresses, from a redheaded 13-year-old to a 300-pound black woman to Jennifer Jason Leigh. Most audience members walked away scratching their heads. McKellar's film, Childstar, also featured Leigh as the mother of a teen actor. McKellar himself took on the role of a wannabe filmmaker who gets hired as a limo driver and finds himself acting as surrogate father. The film lobs some pretty nasty hand grenades at the American film industry, but maintains a pretty sharp sense of humor. If only the script were a tad more focussed.
Chilean filmmaker Nicolás López showed off his debut film Promedio Rojo, the story of a fat high schooler whose principal interests include masturbation and comic books. Mixing comedy, tragedy, animation and fantasy, it wound up as a rudely hilarious mixture of American Splendor and American Pie.
In the end, the hot ticket turned out to be Hooligans (which went on to win the festival's Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature and Audience Choice for Best Narrative Feature). The film chronicled the adventures of an American journalism student (Elijah Wood) who gets kicked out of school and takes up with a gang of British soccer hooligans. The genial Mr. Wood, fresh off his run on The Lord of the Rings, showed up at the screenings--which may have accounted for the film's popularity as much as its violent content.