SXSW 2010: Still Crazy After All These Years

"Men Lie. Women Lie. Numbers Don't." So says one of the ebullient interviewees in Jeff Deutchmann's interactive documentary 11/4/08, which follows the activities before, during, and after the historic presidential election of Barack Obama. The sentiment easily applies to this year's South by Southwest Film Festival, and Austin in general, which has changed dramatically since my first trip as a starry-eyed distribution intern in 2005. About ten skyscrapers have been built in the downtown area since 2005, completely altering the skyline, and Austin has been reported as the third fastest growing large city in the nation. In 2009 it was also rated the third best place to live by Money magazine. The festival seems to have followed suit when it comes to growth; ticket sales are up 25% from last year, and the change is palpable.

The insane-o entry lines in particular have many old industry hands and local film kids waxing nostalgic about a time when turning away a badge-bearing filmgoer at SXSW was utterly unheard of. A friend and longtime Austinite commented that the line for the opening night film, Kick-Ass, was easily twice as long as that of the 2009 opening night film I Love You Man, and one of the programming staff confirmed, saying she actually had to take over door duties from the festival volunteers because the desperate comic book nerds like myself who were really were starting to get Black Friday-style aggressive.

I think the crazy mosh pit of a line, coupled with the general hype and a really killer trailer involving a mustachioed gay cop Nicolas Cage shooting a little girl in the chest (if you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor), colored my impression of the film at first. I kept thinking to myself "yeah, this is good I guess, but is it 5 blocks deep, I would elbow someone in the face to get in good?" All biases aside, there was something perfunctory about the filmmaking and the clunky, self-consciously hip writing that I didn't seem to find as funny as everybody else. Aaron Johnson, the handsome, broad-shouldered young actor playing Dave Lizewsky and his alter-ego Kick-Ass, was not entirely believable as a hapless every-nerd.

That was the first half. The second half is a totally fucking awesome series of action sequences that become smarter, funnier, and more fantastically ridiculous as the film goes on. Matthew Vaughn's film was very faithful to Mark Millar's comic but also brought the action of the story to life to a degree that allows it to stand alone. Some of the fight choreography and cinematography is jaw-droppingly impressive, as is the film's ability to mimic a comic book's depiction of violence: both disturbingly real and entertainingly stylized. Nicolas Cage's performance alone, which involves an Adam-West-meets-Christian-Bale fantasy Batman accent, is enough to handily redeem the lackluster opening.

Lines were almost as long and hostile for Cyrus, the newest installment from SXSW favorites the Duplass brothers, who have plugged some bigger name celebrities (John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill) into their incisive writing and naturalistic, DIY style, to only varying degrees of success. Frankly, lines have been shockingly long everywhere, but despite the festival's growing pains and increased visibility I'm not ready to relegate it to the faux-indie status that Sundance has lately earned itself. Alongside the still thoughtfully programmed headline premieres like Kick-Ass and MacGruber, there is still a preponderance of truly independent gems, weirdo midnight movies, and first time filmmakers who can't believe what a good time it is to be here. The festival still makes room for films like 11/4/08, whose communal spirit and optimistic politics made it a great fit for a SXSW audience.

Numbers may not lie but they don't tell the whole truth either.