Small indie films and their progenitors are the bright lights for 2005's film fest
The strong points of this year's SXSW film fest line-up are refreshingly diverse. Much-needed and well-executed entries into the music documentary field sit alongside vicious crime epics and Looney Tunes-style live-action comedies, with all the expected tender dramas and muckraking documentaries jostling about in between.
Happily, the films shouldn't be overshadowed by big celebrity arrivals. It's nice that the Wilson brothers have made a film, for instance, but having Luke, Owen, and Andrew on a red carpet outside the Paramount is unlikely to divert attention from whichever quirky narrative is having its breakthrough moment blocks away at the Alamo Drafthouse. It's telling that the biggest celeb presence in the panel schedule is Christine Vachon, who will talk about her role as a producer/promoter of small films from Swoon to Far From Heaven - Vachon's name wouldn't mean a thing to the viewers of Entertainment Tonight, but she's a giant in the indie film world. The other big artist panel offers a one-on-one interview with Happiness director Todd Solondz, a controversial figure whose speaking voice must be heard to be believed. (His latest, Palindromes, is on the fest schedule.)
On the silver screen, music docs are an undeniable highlight; by coincidence or design, they're weighted toward Texas legends. Townes Van Zandt is the subject of Be Here to Love Me, a bittersweet and beautifully made tribute by Margaret Brown. Two cult figures with histories of mental illness, Daniel Johnston and Roky Erickson, get their own films (as does Brian Wilson, whose private demons didn't limit him to cult stardom). And just north of Texas' borders, The Fearless Freaks tells of the highly improbable success of Oklahoma's Flaming Lips.
The documentaries aren't limited to music titles, of course. Topics as large as Enron and as minute as actor Stephen Tobolowsky's birthday party are tackled; The Aristocrats stars dozens of comedians telling the same joke, while Tell Them Who You Are shows the son of legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler wrestling with his dad's thorny personality.
On the narrative front, there are just enough movies with well-known casts to convince casual observers that this is a real festival: there's Childstar (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dave Foley), Hooligans (Elijah Wood), and Palindromes (Ellen Barkin, Jason Leigh again); the aforementioned Wilsons in The Wendell Baker Story; Peter Falk and Paul Reiser in the sappy-looking The Thing About My Folks; and the elusive Daniel Day-Lewis in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, directed by his wife Rebecca Miller. Let's not forget Unleashed, where Jet Li is enslaved by Bob Hoskins and emancipated by Morgan Freeman.
Those of us who attend festivals to see high-profile foreign films that may not make it into our local theaters are in luck. Old Boy is a ferocious revenge film from South Korea that has been talked about for two years now but seen by precious few Americans. Kung-Fu Hustle, the latest from huge martial-arts/comedy star Stephen Chow, makes wacky use of computer-generated effects and is broad enough in its comedy that you could probably enjoy it without even watching the subtitles; as the film progresses it even gets into some really bizarre parodies of scenes from well known American films. Layer Cake marks the directing debut of Guy Ritchie's producer Matthew Vaughan. Happily, it doesn't copy Ritchie's trademark hyperactive style; borrowing as much from low-key Brit crime films of the '70s, it should be a real crowd-pleaser.
Somewhere hiding in the cracks of the SXSW roster - the full schedule can be found at sxsw.com - is bound to be some title with no stars that, in two weeks, will be on every hardcore film buff's lips. What will be 2005's Napoleon Dynamite or Memento (two past SXSW success stories)? The best way to find out is to spend a few nights this week and next hanging out in Austin. •
By John DeFore