My passion in life, more than publications and music, more than journalism (a term that always makes me uncomfortable) has always been film. On Friday March 11, the 2005 SXSW Film Festival kicks off. Now as my extensive conflict of interest filings make clear, I'm involved in running SXSW and SXSW Film, but most of the creative decision-making falls to film producer Matt Dentler and his amazing crew, Cathy Ross, Wendy Cummings, and Jarod Neece as well as all the others who work for the event or help out with the judging. So I get to get excited about the Film Festival more as a fan than a SXSW director. I've only had a little input on the selections and haven't seen most of the films.
What follows is a first, arbitrary list of the films I'm excited about after looking over the schedule. These are the ones that stand out to me, but that doesn't suggest they are the cream or the best. In fact, it mostly represents only the most obvious suggestions. This is not a critic weighing in but a friend writing to friends.
I'm probably unduly excited about the music documentaries. In one of those events that seems too planned out to result as it does from a series of coincidences, this year SXSW Film offers documentaries on some of American music's most truly unique and idiosyncratic talents. It would seem as though this is a programming choice, but it really is just coincidence that Townes Van Zandt, Daniel Johnston, Roky Erickson, and Wild Man Fischer are all the subjects of recently completed films.
You're Gonna Miss Me (Directed by Keven McAlester): The story of Texas music legend Roky Erickson, who was singer and songwriter for the 13th Floor Elevators and released many recordings during a long solo career. Mental illness haunted Erickson through real hell, though the last time I heard him (which was sometime back), he still possessed one of the truly thrilling, great rock & roll voices.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig; I am interviewed in this film): Legendary songwriter whose work has been covered by so many other artists. The fascinating story of Johnston's life so far includes brilliant songs, breakdowns, famous fans, and institutionalization. The Late Great Daniel Johnston Discovered Covered is a tribute album that came out last year featuring Bright Eyes, Tom Waits, Vic Chesnutt, Sparklehorse with the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and Beck, among others. Johnston is fine, by the way, and will be playing at the Austin Music Awards on Wednesday, March 16 at the Austin Music Hall.
Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (Directed by Margaret Brown; I executive produced this film): Saying Van Zandt was one of the great Texas or even American songwriters is an understatement. A life plagued by addictions and driven by a near fanatical devotion to his art, that of songwriting and performing, makes this as much an essay on culture and art as a biography. I became involved in the project because most of the recordings of Van Zandt, even the very best, don't really capture the power and depth of his live performances, while the filmed footage of which this film offers a rich selection comes closer.
Derailroaded (Directed by Josh Rubin): Los Angeles street musician Wild Man Fischer became a national cult legend when Frank Zappa recorded him for his Bizarre label. Here's the rest of the story.
The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico (Directed by Michael Mabbott; with Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Bruton, Ronnie Hawkins, Levon Helm): Not only was this an unprecedented year for music documentaries, but here's a mockumentary that smoothly fits into and satirizes the genre. Charting the tough times of fictional country & western singer Guy Terrifico, this work is really making fun of music, music legends, and the mythification of songwriters. Filled with Austinites, legendary music figures, and any number of our Canadian friends, this is loaded with wit and wisdom about the music business.
The Fearless Freaks (Directed by Bradley Beesley): A film about how those boys from Oklahoma, the Flaming Lips, changed rock.
All We Are Saying (Directed by Rosanna Arquette): Serious, in-depth interviews with music legends.
Press On (Directed by Gillian Grisman): About a match made somewhere far up above between Robert Randolph & the Family Band, the church, and steel guitars.
Culture Clash in AmeriCCa (Directed by Emilio Estevez): Acting troupe Culture Clash on tour.
Rock School (directed by Don Argott): Documentary on a real school for those who would rock!
Scratch: All the Way Live (Directed by Doug Pray): A live concert film of the Scratch tour's Los Angeles dates from the filmmakers of Hype!
SXSW Film 2005 offers so much else in addition to this astoundingly rich collection of music films. On first glance, through seeing work versions, or just scanning the list, here are some I've already marked:
The Wendell Baker Story (Narrative, directed by Andrew and Luke Wilson): By the Wilson brothers, shot in Austin, and Harry Dean Stanton is in it: What more do you need to know?
Palindromes (Narrative, directed by Todd Solondz; with Ellen Barkin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richard Masur): The brilliant Solondz's new film featuring an equally brilliant cast.
Reel Paradise (Documentary, directed by Steve James): Hoop Dreams filmmaker captures indie legend John Pierson and his family living on Fiji and running a movie theatre. Culture clashes, entertainment standards, family interactions, and the unbelievably delighted joy of the Fijians watching the Three Stooges makes this work provocative and engaging on so many levels.
Troop 1500 (Documentary, directed by Ellen Spiro): Inspired work about a girl scout troop whose mothers are in prison evokes thought and emotion in so many ways it's hard to describe. This isn't an afterschool TV movie special but a tough, uncompromising yet affectionate look at this troop of young girls dealing with major daily concerns mostly not of their making.
Light From the East (Documentary, directed by Amy Grappell): After the recent, quiet revolution in Ukraine, this movie is almost must-see as it uses a cultural exchange theatre project for the focal point of examining a people who despite political realities are driven by dreams that become realities.
Drop Dead Sexy (Narrative, directed by Michael Philip; with Crispin Glover, Jason Lee, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Melissa Keller, Xander Berkeley): Locally originated, conceived, and produced, this work is aimed toward a national audience. Another serious step for Texas film. Would-be crooks turn to kidnapping when their scams go awry.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Documentary, directed by Alex Gibney): The magnitude of Enron's ambitions and failure makes for one of the most fascinating business stories of our time.
The Dreams of Sparrows (Documentary, directed by Hayder Mousa Daffar): Iraqi filmmakers explore their country after the invasion and the capture of Saddam Hussein.
The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (Narrative, directed by Asia Argento; with Argento, Peter Fonda, Marilyn Manson): All I needed to hear about this was that Dario Argento's daughter, the stunning Asia Argento, directed.
Kung Fu Hustle (Narrative, directed by Stephen Chow; with Stephen Chow, Feng Xiao Gang): Chinese history and martial arts: What more do you need?
The Last Mogul (Documentary, directed by Barry Avrich): Lew Wasserman was a towering Hollywood figure and a deserved film-business legend.
Murderball (Documentary, directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro): Murderball, now called "quad rugby," is a competitive, very physical game played in armored wheelchairs by quadriplegic players.
Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic (Performance, directed by Liam Lynch): Silverman in performance.
Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party (Documentary, directed by Robert Brinkmann): You don't know the name but you know him. Dallas native Tobolowsky is a character actor who has turned in more memorable performances than many stars.
Tell Them Who You Are (Documentary, directed by Mark Wexler): Haskell Wexler is a famous cinematographer, director, and activist. This film by his son explores other dimensions of the film legend.
This doesn't include the competition films or those from our friends in Australia or the Texas Film Hall of Fame or the SXSW Music Festival schedule or the Austin Music Awards.
There is so much more to come!
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