The South by Southwest Film Festival, kicking off Friday night, gets bigger every year. This year promises more A-list premieres (including the opening night man-date comedy I Love You Man) and more Hollywood celebrities.
Of course, that makes the task of cutting through the hype and rooting out the worthy titles more challenging. That's where we come in.
Here's a tip sheet, based equally on experience (a number of these movies screened at Sundance), friends' recommendations and wild conjecture.
These selections are far from comprehensive, and I've left off a few obvious choices. (You can see the amiable but forgettable I Love You, Man when it opens commercially next week; Kathryn Bigelow's much-lauded The Hurt Locker will screen at the AFI Festival in Dallas in just a few weeks). But if you take a chance on one of them, you'll likely be reminded why this endearingly scrappy film festival -- where fanboy spectacles screen alongside esoteric documentaries -- is so vital.
1. Drag Me to Hell
A late addition to the program, this horror movie starring Alison Lohman will screen at midnight Sunday. Why should you stay up late? Because it's the return to the down-and-dirty horror genre upon which the wonderful Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Darkman) staked his reputation before going on to direct the CGI behemoth Spider-Man movies. Should be a blast.
2. Winnebago Man
This engrossing documentary follows director Ben Steinbauer as he goes on a cross-country journey to track down Jack Rebney, a cantankerous, foul-mouthed man who become notorious after a video of him throwing a temper tantrum became an online viral sensation. Steinbauer finds his man, but the story deepens and takes a series of increasingly bizarre turns; this might just be the most auspicious feature film debut in the line-up.
I wasn't quite as gaga over this one -- about two heterosexual buddies (Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard) who dare one another to make an amateur gay porn movie -- as a lot of other folks at Sundance. But there's no denying that writer-director Lynn Shelton has created an intriguing conversation piece that taps into any number of modern anxieties, from overly aggressive male bonding to the ubiquity of Internet pornography.
4. Observe and Report
In recent years, South by Southwest has carved out an unexpected niche hosting the world premieres of very mainstream, often very raucous comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) and Knocked Up (2007). Carrying forth this tradition is this effort starring Seth Rogen as a bipolar mall security guard. Shades of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, perhaps -- but the mob scene at the Paramount on Monday night should certainly be worth checking out.
5. The Overbrook Brothers
Another tiny gem that might easily get overlooked in SXSW's vast line-up, director John Bryant's comedy focuses on two bickering adult brothers who suddenly learn they are adopted. It's precisely the kind of modest, offbeat effort, featuring unknown actors and zero special effects, that you hope to encounter at a festival like this one.
Another horror movie, and one of my favorites at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Paul Solet's movie tells the story of a health-obsessed mother-to-be who gives birth to a stillborn child, and then somehow manages to will the child back into existence. The result -- equally inspired by the psychological horror of Roman Polanksi (Repulsion) and the outlandish gruesomeness of Larry Cohen (It's Alive) -- is a knock-out.
7. We Live in Public
The subject sounds starchy -- a documentary about how Internet culture has changed the way we live our lives -- but just about everyone I talked to who saw the film at Sundance sung this praises of this one.
8. The Horseman
I haven't seen this Australian horror movie, but it's one of five titles screening as part of a first-time collaboration between SXSW and Fantastic Fest, the annual fanboy orgy that takes place at the Alamo Draft House. Besides, who could resist a movie about a guy who goes on a bloody rampage to avenge the death of his drug-addicted, porn star daughter?
For better or worse, SXSW is almost singularly responsible for an indie cinema movement called "mumblecore" -- a series of extremely low-budget movies, including Mutual Appreciation, The Puffy Chair and Hannah Takes the Stairs featuring young urban twentysomethings angsting their days away. Beeswax -- about two sisters living in Austin -- is the latest from "mumblecore" director Andrew Bujalski, and it provides a homecoming of sorts: Bujalski first made his reputation at this festival, before becoming a darling on the international festival circuit. The film just premiered to raves in Berlin.
10. Passing Strange
I couldn't get a ticket at Sundance to Spike Lee's behind-the-scenes documentary about the titular Broadway musical, and I'll miss it again at SXSW (it screens Tuesday night, just after I leave town). But Lee is a terrific documentarian (see Four Little Girls or his Hurricane Katrina elegy When the Levees Broke); and it should be a particular treat to see this one on a big screen in a crowded theater.
For the complete schedule, go to www.sxsw.com.