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Good films, bright stars and long lines mark SXSW film

As SXSW film expands exponentially, better movies screen, more celebs come out and fans often have to wait and wait

Chris Garcia

At about the same time last Friday, opening night of the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, moviegoers were stuffing the Paramount Theatre and deserting the Alamo Ritz.

The festival's official marquee opener, the action-comedy "Kick-Ass," drew throngs of eager viewers, forming record lines that looped around the block to form a perfect square. The 1,200-capacity Paramount filled with ease, and SXSW staff wound up turning away scores of people for one of the buzziest movies of the nine-day festival, which ends Saturday.

Meanwhile, at the Alamo Ritz on East Sixth Street, people who had waited in line an hour or more for "Trash Humpers," a micro-indie by provocateur Harmony Korine, began walking out of the screening as early as five minutes into it. The exodus didn't cease. Before the grainy, 78-minute movie ended, entire rows sat empty, speaking volumes. "Humpers," a challenging ramble of greasy Southern Gothic, had alienated curiosity-seekers, many of whom had to request their drink and dinner checks early from the Alamo servers so they could bolt.

"Trash Humpers" was one of the stranger movies at SXSW this year — screechy, scatological episodes patched together on worn VHS tape — but it might not have been the most divisive or downright offensive. A horror movie called "A Serbian Film," co-presented by SXSW and Fantastic Fest at midnight Sunday, rattled viewers with graphic forays into incest, pornography and violence. One online critic wrote that the movie is "by a long shot, the most disturbing thing we had ever seen. \u2026 (It) depicts some acts that I think should not be depicted." Other bloggers noted how the movie shocked even Austin's most jaded moviegoers.

From potential blockbusters, such as "Kick-Ass," "MacGruber" and "The Runaways," to the marginalized micros, SXSW film, per tradition, offered a quality array of more than 120 movies. The conference and festival, in its 17th year, surpassed last year's record of 50,000 attendees (exact numbers aren't ready yet), and its massive growth has meant more sold-out shows, more turn-away crowds and more teeth-gnashing by people who spent valuable time waiting only to be sent packing. (Read more about SXSW's growing pains Sunday in Life & Arts.)

The growth also means better films and more filmmaking talent in attendance. People want their movies to screen at the prestigious event, which has become a platform for small movies that need a boost — the excellent, heartfelt features "Cherry" and "Tiny Furniture," for instance — and a viable springboard for Hollywood movies seeking an early gust of buzz.

To that end, buzz for "Kick-Ass," starring Nicolas Cage and the young Chlöe Moretz in a breakout role, was mixed. Most praise went to Moretz's spirited performance as a foul-mouthed assassin. To many of us, the rest of the movie falls flat.

Moretz and co-stars Aaron Johnson and Christopher Mintz-Plasse were at the "Kick-Ass" premiere and appeared on the film's panel the next day during the film conference. As the "Kick-Ass" panel continued in the Austin Convention Center, hundreds of genre fans were lining up for the "Directing the Dead: Genre Directors Spill Their Guts" panel, featuring Ti West, Neil Marshall and others.

For reasons still not publicly explained, the panel's main draw, Quentin Tarantino, left Austin the night before, and it wasn't clear if the queuing fans knew this before they got in line. Director Eli Roth had dropped out a few days earlier, and Robert Rodriguez stepped in as a substitute panelist.

Rodriguez also thrilled fanboys and -girls with a special sneak peek of his action-thriller "Predators" last Friday at the Alamo Ritz. Rodriguez co-wrote and produced the movie and handpicked its director, Nimrod Antal. Rodriguez and Antal presented two gripping trailers and extensive artwork from "Predators." The following morning they held a press conference with the film's star, Adrien Brody.

Austin filmmakers, such as Rodriguez, are granted special space in which to shine at SXSW. Bryan Poyser presented his sharp psychosexual dramedy "Lovers of Hate" on Monday at the Paramount, a place he'd always wanted to screen one of his films. That sentiment was shared by former Austinites Mark and Jay Duplass, who showed their offbeat relationship comedy "Cyrus," with stars John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill in attendance. The Duplasses said that showing a movie at the Paramount on a Saturday night was a fantasy fulfilled.

University of Texas film lecturer Geoff Marslett screened his part-animated, part-live-action science-fiction romance "Mars," which was made in Austin and co-stars Mark Duplass. "The most noteworthy thing about Geoff Marslett's homemade, cult-ready movie is its novel animation style, a computer-heavy rotoscope technique that leaves everyone looking grainy and took about two years to complete," wrote reviewer John DeFore on the Austin Movies Blog at austin360.com.

Turn-away crowds came for the UT Film Institute's crime drama "Dance With the One," directed by Mike Dolan and produced by Alex Smith, as well as Paul Gordon's deadpan comedy "The Happy Poet." Pulitzer Prize-winning Austin writer Lawrence Wright hosted a surprise sneak screening of the documentary based on his one-man play, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda."

Documentaries shined this year, continuing a healthy tradition of nonfiction excellence at the festival. Two documentaries proved so popular — "Saturday Night," James Franco's backstage look at the workings of "Saturday Night Live," and "The People Vs. George Lucas" — that extra screenings were added to accommodate crowds.

Other fine documentaries were "American: The Bill Hicks Story," a hilarious and artful portrait of the late Houston comedian; the rockumentary "Lemmy," a rousing, deeply personal look at veteran Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister; "War Don Don" and Austinite Amy Grappell's short "Quadrangle," both of which won SXSW jury awards.

Hit features included the drama "Winter's Bone," the muted thriller "Cold Weather," the family comedy "Tiny Furniture," which won a deserving jury award, and "Barry Munday," a consistently satisfying comedy starring Patrick Wilson, Judy Greer and Chlöe Sevigny, all of whom attended the festival. Sevigny was also there for the biopic "Mr. Nice" with actor Rhys Ifans.

Other celebrities who came with their films: Tim Blake Nelson and Edward Norton for "Leaves of Grass" last Friday; Carla Gugino for "Elektra Luxx" on Sunday; Val Kilmer, Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillipe and Seth Meyers for the action spoof "MacGruber" on Monday; Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning for "The Runaways" on Thursday.

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649