SXSW 2011 in Review

     March 17, 2011

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This year’s SXSW Film Festival in Austin marked the 25th anniversary of the Festival, and– by most accounts– it featured one of the strongest lineups this annual get-together has ever seen.  Duncan Jones’ Source Code, James Wan’s Insidious, James Gunn’s Super, and Joe Cornish’s amazingly good Attack The Block all premiered at this year’s Festival, but that wasn’t the only reason to attend:  In between screenings, you’d be likely to wander across all sorts of geek-friendly shenanigans, celebrities, and bizarre sights (like the ever-present-at-a-large-gathering “Guy Who Refuses To Keep His Shirt On” attraction) throughout the week.  Keep on reading for my “week in review” from this year’s SXSW Film Festival after the jump:

This year’s SXSW Film Festival was the first SXSW I’ve attended.  I’d been down a few years prior to perform (standup comedy) at a dive bar located in somewhere nowhere near the rest of the downtown area’s festivities, but other than that, I’d never been in town for SXSW.  I moved down to Austin back in May, though, and since then I’ve been able to experience all the cool stuff that I’d been reading about online– just as you’re doing now– over the years.  I was thrilled to be attending, especially with this year’s lineup, and even more thrilled to have scored a press pass for the event.  After picking up my badge last Thursday, I took a long, hard look at the schedule I’d drawn up for myself.

The thing no one tells you about film festivals is this:  You’re never going to get to see everything that you want to see.  It’s not that I wasn’t able to get into anything, or that any of the screenings filled up too fast.  Rather, it’s simply impossible to maintain a pace over the course of however-many-days you’re at wherever-you’re-at.  Before this year’s SXSW, I had about fifteen films on my schedule.  By the time I finished making the trip to and from downtown over the course of the week, I’d seen nine films.  The other six were victims of either exhaustion/irritability (“Screw it, I’ll catch it on DVD; I’ll be damned if I’m gonna stand in another line”) or screenings running a little longer than I expected, preventing me from being somewhere I was supposed to be at some pre-ordained time.  All in all, though, I saw everything I really wanted to see, and along the way, I came across some truly weird happenings.

On the first evening of the Festival, after the Source Code premiere, I bumped into Jake Gyllenhaal (literally) near the bathroom at the Paramount Theater.  Moments later, Gyllenhaal was throwing the dude who’d just taken a photo of him at the urinal up against the wall and forcing him to delete the image.  The following day, I found myself walking up Congress (one of downtown Austin’s main strips) and noticing that an inordinate number of people were eating ice cream:  popsicles, ice cream sandwiches, those rainbow-colored things that look alarmingly like dildos, and so on.  Just about the time I was registering the fact that this many people eating ice cream at the same time was an odd sight, I turned a corner and discovered Pee-Wee Herman (yeah, the real Pee-Wee Herman) handing out ice cream from a Pee-Wee-emblazoned truck outside the State Theater.  I expected to see many things at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, but I confess that Pee-Wee Herman distributing ice cream was not one of them.

sxsw2011The biggest stories at this year’s SXSW were undoubtedly the “secret screening” that Ain’t It Cool News was throwing in celebration of its 15th anniversary and the release of Joe Cornish’s Attack The Block (if you’re interested in reading about that, you can check out my review here).  All week long, speculation was running rampant as to what film Harry Knowles might have landed for the festival.  Everywhere I went, people were claiming to have talked to someone who’d talked to someone else who knew– for sure– what Knowles would be screening.  The story was always the same (“A friend of mine who works with a guy who volunteers for SXSW…”), but the film in question was always different:  I heard that it’d be Super 8, Transformers 3, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Thor, Captain America, Casablanca,  the new Muppet Movie, and The Thing were all “definitely” set to play at AICN’s screening, and the speculation continued until Harry finally took the stage and revealed that the film was…1981’s Dragonslayer.  Yes, that Dragonslayer.  While I’m not the biggest fan of that film, I was thrilled when Knowles brought Guillermo Del Toro out on stage to introduce the film.  Del Toro and Knowles explained their reasoning for screening the film (basically: it’s as geek-friendly a movie as you can get), and then they screened Dragonslayer for an appreciative– if not a little disappointed– audience.

detention-movie-poster-01Besides happening upon random shenanigans in the streets, I also had the chance to meet some of my fellow internet-based, film-obsessed writers, which– for someone like me, who’s relatively new to the world of online writing– was just as good as meeting some of the Hollywood-types that I was at SXSW to interview.  Drew McWeeny of HitFix.com, in particular, was particularly friendly, and the chat I had with him while standing in line for Joseph Kahn’s Detention (a mindblowingly obnoxious film) made sitting through Detention totally worth it.  One gets the impression that “the new guy on the block” is never the most popular person in any room, especially the room set aside for “online writers”, but McWeeny– and a few others– made me feel welcome and made the Festival all the more enjoyable.  So, y’know, thanks, guys.

What surprised me the most about this year’s SXSW was just how genre-friendly the Festival was.  Virtually everything I saw– from Bellflower to Attack The Block to Source Code to Super– could be considered a genre film, and I walked away from SXSW feeling like I’d visited another version of Fantastic Fest (another Austin-based film festival that’s built entirely around genre flicks that you should absolutely attend).  Of course SXSW’s always been friendly to these sorts of films– it’s not generally based around emo-dramas and indie-weepers– but I suppose I just never considered how genre-friendly this Festival really is.   The good news– if you were unable to attend and are just reading along at home– is that most of the films that I saw at this year’s SXSW have distribution, so you’ll all get a chance to see them sooner rather than later.  Of the films I saw, I’d keep a close eye out in particular for Bellflower, Attack The Block, Super, and Insidious.

If you’re a film geek and you’ve never attended a big Festival like SXSW, Fantastic Fest, or Sundance, I can’t begin to express how important it is to give yourself that gift at least once.  Even if you’re attending on the cheapest badge possible without all the access that the press gets, you’re still going to see a slew of great movies before anyone else gets a chance to see them, and you’re still going to have the occasional opportunity to run across some of your favorite actors and directors.  I know that, for many years, I was reluctant to throw down the coin necessary to get a badge and travel to something like SXSW, but I can honestly say it’s worth every penny if you’re interested in doing so yourself.

So, thanks for the good time, SXSW:  we’ll do it again next year.

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