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Straight talk about SXSW’s best bets

Any film buff looking for proof of Robert Altman’s Oscar-night claim that his career is far from over can drive to Austin tomorrow night, when the auteur’s A Prairie Home Companion will make a star-studded opener for the nine-day 2006 South By Southwest film festival. The Garrison Keillor adaptation — starring Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Keillor himself, and the Lily Tomlin/Meryl Streep pairing that was so charming Sunday evening — will have its first North American screening at the Paramount theater.

Altman isn’t the only marquee director on the schedule. Wim Wenders will present his collaboration with Sam Shepard, Don’t Come Knocking; celebrated Belgians Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne deliver L’Enfant; Lovely and Amazing director Nicole Holofcener reunites with Catherine Keener for Friends With Money; provocative writer-director Mary Harron (American Psycho) meets a more-than-provocative subject in The Notorious Bettie Page; and arthouse name Patrice Chereau offers Isabelle Huppert as Gabrielle. Even mainstream filmmaker Paul Weitz (American Pie, About A Boy) will be here with his new one, the anticipated (if badly titled) American Dreamz.

Also on hand will be directors better known for work in front of the camera. Richard Grant, who brilliantly lampooned pretentious filmmakers in The Player, makes his writing and directing debut with Wah-Wah, while News Radio star Andy Dick directs former co-star Maura Tierney and comedians Ben Stiller and Bob Odenkirk in Danny Roane: First Time Director.

Two films were made by directors working (at least for now) in the shadow of others. Thank You For Smoking, a satire about the tobacco industry boasting one of the funniest trailers in ages, was made by Jason Reitman, son of Stripes’ Ivan. V for Vendetta, the comic-book adaptation whose hero is a terrorist bent on destroying the Houses of Parliament, was directed by first-timer James McTeigue but was largely influenced by its screenwriters, the Wachowski Brothers, who have been limelight-shy since the Matrix sequels.

Cast-wise, highlights range from indie stalwarts Parker Posey (The Oh in Ohio) and Illeana Douglas (Bondage, Fired!) to up-and-comers Gael Garcia Bernal (The King) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Kinky Boots). And can Oscar nominee David Strathairn (Heavens Fall, The Notorious Bettie Page) now officially be called a big star, just like Jennifer Aniston (Friends With Money) and Helena Bonham Carter (Conversations with Other Women)?

As usual at SXSW, music documentaries are everywhere. Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young concert film Heart of Gold may already be slated for wide-ish release, but others are less certain to hit a theater near you before shuttling to the small screen: The Beastie Boys handed out cameras to fans for Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That; Texas favorites Dale Watson (Crazy Again) and Los Lonely Boys (Cottonfields and Crossroads) get films of their own; Herbie Hancock stars in Possibilities, which one suspects was funded entirely by Starbucks; and a buzzworthy comeback is captured in LoudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies. Pick Up the Mic centers on gay and lesbian rappers; Suffering & Smiling follows the legacy of Nigerian superstars Fela and Femi Kuti; Air Guitar Nation is self-explanatory; and advance word is good for Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. Palace Brothers mastermind Will Oldham tries acting on again, years after John Sayles’ Matewan, in the fiction feature Old Joy.

At least 10 features revolve around Texas, including the “Spotlight Premiere” The Cassidy Kids, directed by Jacob Vaughan and produced by the University of Texas filmmaking branch Burnt Orange Productions. That number doesn’t count the many homegrown short subjects, 10 of which (grouped together in a single program) were made by high school students.

This year’s documentaries, always a festival high point, range from the expected political subjects — like Shadow Company, about mercenary armies, Al Franken in God Spoke, and the study of debt Maxed Out — to quirky titles such as Summercamp! and Jam, which chronicles the disappointments of middle-age roller derby stars clinging to vanished fame. Kirby Dick’s This Film is Not Yet Rated is a standout, if a controversial one, in its aggressive dissection of the MPAA’s notoriously problematic ratings system.

And that’s only the schedule for film audiences. Festival attendees who actually make movies — most of whom have already gone over the festival schedule with a highlighter or two — will be drawn to panels and lectures that fill the daytime hours. That lineup, and plenty of intriguing films that wouldn’t fit here, can be found at

By John DeFore


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