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SXSW Thus far

March 16, 2009

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Sitting in the airport to return home after four rewarding and exciting days at South by Southwest Film Festival, I finally have a moment to take in exactly what I have experienced this year. I’m a bit blurry eyed still but have finally found a quiet corner to share a little bit with you all.

Although only my second SXSW, the dynamic change and new energy in the air with Janet Pierson taking the reins is palpable. She is an incredible asset and has put her stamp on the festival. I truly admire her and applaud her efforts to make this year’s festival what it is.

The narrative competition, of which I saw about half the films are strong with lots of new voices. I sadly did not get to see Artois the Goat, Bomber or That Evening Sun. However, of what I saw I have trouble picking a favorite. Ok, the Overbrook Brothers. No, Breaking Upwards. Maybe Made In China or True Adolescents? Too many good choices.

Documentaries are extremely strong this year with some big highlights like New World Order, Best Worst Movie, For the Love of Movies, Mine and more. I sadly missed most of the competition films though but found the narrative choices too compelling this year to miss.

Friday I started with I Love You, Man, a generic but well-meaning buddy comedy starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel. I then watched the bitterly disappointing The Snake and Ong Bak 2 even if it was fun to start off SXSW at the Alamo Drafthouse on Lamar.

Saturday, screenings picked up with a full day at the Ritz. It was nice reuniting with the theater that made me fall in love with this city and I made some good film choices, True Adolescents, Splinterheads, Breaking Upwards and Grace. At one point after my fifth $5 milkshake or so I probably should have gone into diabetic coma but luckily, there were cheese fries to soak up all the sugar I digested that day.

Sunday was a big screening day with Made in China, Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, The Overbrook Brothers, Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, 20-minutes of the new Sacha Baren Cohen film Bruno and Sam Raimi’s work-in-progress of ( and seemingly PG-13 version) Drag Me To Hell. I literally spent the entire day laughing with delightul quirky characters and great witty plots.  The comedy is what makes Drag Me to Hell a gem – but then again it is unclear exactly how much work is left on the effects as some seemed not quite complete. (I will hold off on this for now as I keep thinking before I write my review).

Although reviews will be forthcoming for most of the films mentioned, let me just tell you now that if Bruno can live up to what we have seen so far (three extended scenes), Cohen will likely rile up many Americans with his controversial social commentary/comedy that releases on July 10. For those of you not familiar with Cohen’s Bruno character, you can catch lots of YouTube clips from the Ali G Show (see below) to familiarize yourself before seeing the film, although it really won’t be necessary. He is gay. Likes to speak pseudo-German. He loves fashion. Combine all of that with Cohen’s love of pushing buttons and you have what appears to be a very satirical commentary on American intolerance. In light of the recent Prop 8 fiasco, this could be a very timely film.

I barely hit any panels this year as I was just swamped with trying to cram in as many films to my short time here as possible. However, the film criticism panel moderated by Gerald Peary was an informative conversation with Scott Weinberg, Cinematical, Karina Longworth, Spout, Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle, and Shawn Levy, The Oregonian.

Although much of the talk spiraled into the usual web vs. print, the critics also discussed professionalism, tedious balance between editorial and studio pressures and more. If you don’t yet read any of these folks, do yourself a favor and do it now. They are all brilliant and a varied bunch in their opinions and writing styles. I was sad to not be able to have a conversation with Longworth or Baumgarten, but enjoyed getting to know the incredible Shawn Levy and again seeing the always fascinating Scott Weinberg. (he is likely reading this and wondering if he should take fascinating as a compliment, the short answer is yes).

As many strong films as I saw this year, I have to say the highlight for me this year was Grace, one of the savviest horror films that I have seen in years. Although it was amazing to see a new Raimi horror flick, in the great tradition of Raimi in the genre, I laughed more than I jumped. But with Grace, the physical reaction of uncontrollable shaking that lasted for well over an hour, not to mention the racing thoughts and I played and replayed pivotal scenes in my mind easily moved it to the top of the list.

I was also happy to meet Zombie Girl Emily Hagins who is a sweetheart and run into all the Make-out with Violence gang. Not to mention that I got hold of the soundtrack (thanks guys!) that they are now selling. The music is brilliant and I am considering a move to Nashville to become a professional groupie of Eric and Jordan Lehning.

Maybe I just have a weird thing for the undead.

You can see others react to Grace, and me talking about breastfeeding over at Movie City News (or see below). Kim Voynar was on scene to get reaction from shocked and appalled audience members as they left the theater.

Although it breaks my heart to leave Austin, work doesn’t end as lots of reviews will be posted this week. And with the promise that SXSW has become the must-attend festival after the success this year, I am already planning to attend the full time next year as this is one of the penultimate experiences for film lovers. Until then, I hate every single person who gets to see Observe and Report tonight and I will be stalking you all on Twitter to live vicariously the rest of this week.

To friends I barely saw or didn’t see it all, please keep in touch and I hope to see more of all of you if not any sooner, than next year back in Austin.

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