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Secrets of the South by Southwest film fest: A don't-miss guide to Austin's ever-expanding movie party

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Joe film SXSW
Joe Courtesy of SXSW
Chef Film SXSW
Chef Courtesy of SXSW
Night In Old Mexico film
A Night in Old Mexico Courtesy of SXSW
Dick Miller
That Guy Dick Miller Courtesy of SXSW
Joe film SXSW
Chef Film SXSW
Night In Old Mexico film
Dick Miller
AuthorPhoto_Joe Leydon_head shot_column mug_USE THIS

There was a time when the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival could unassumingly unspool mostly on two or three screens of Austin’s old Dobie Theatre.

A time when decision-makers at Hollywood majors and even some of the edgier indie outfits thought the SXSW fest was some quaintly provincial enterprise — when they thought of SXSW at all. A time when the spotty quality of some homegrown product in the lineup suggested a movie needed only a Texas pedigree and sprocket holes to pass muster with festival programmers. That time was a long time ago.

Take 21: The SXSW Film Festival, which kicked off its 2014 edition Friday at venues all over Austin, now ranks among the most important events of its kind in North America, routinely attracting tens of thousands of filmmakers, film industry insiders and plain old-fashioned movie fans. The impressively eclectic lineup is sufficiently vast, encompassing everything from star-studded major studio releases to fresher-than-tomorrow indie cinema offerings. And the overall mood is so invitingly exhilarating — and, yes, festive — that curious first-time visitors more often than not become loyal annual attendees.

Indeed, it’s not only the paying customers who keep coming back for more. Lena Dunham, who premiered her career-launching Tiny Furniture at SXSW in 2010, returns again this year (after previewing her Girls sitcom at SXSW 2012) as one of the august personages delivering a keynote address. And director Gareth Edwards, whose breakthrough Monsters also premiered at SXSW 2010, is taking time off from putting final touches on his eagerly awaited Godzilla reboot to introduce a special March 11 festival screening of the original flick about the Original Gangster Lizard.

There are scads of big-ticket items on tap this year, including the opening night comedies Chef (written and directed by, and starring, Jon Favreau) and Bad Words (directed by and starring Jason Bateman). And Austin living legend Richard Linklater will be represented by two films, his own Boyhood and Gabe Klinger’s Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater.

Among the dozens of other titles available for viewing, here are 10 that seem especially promising:

A Night in Old Mexico
Robert Duvall and screenwriter Bill Wittliff (who memorably teamed on Lonesome Dove) have spent the better part of 25 years trying to get this small-budget labor of love off the ground and on the screen. It’s a colorful tale about a cantankerous Texas rancher who’s forced to give up his land and home.

Rather than quietly retire in a seedy trailer park, Red Bovie (Duvall) defiantly hops into his Cadillac, picks up his estranged grandson (Jeremy Irvine of War Horse), and sets out for one last adventure filled with guns, booze and women.

Joe
Could this be the comeback movie Nicolas Cage fans have long awaited? Maybe. Directed by David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche, Pineapple Express), based on a novel by Larry Brown, and filmed in and around Austin, it’s a gritty Southern drama about a moody ex-con (Cage) who becomes an unlikely father figure for a 15-year-old co-worker (Tye Sheridan of Mud). Unfortunately, the boy’s real father — an abusive alcoholic — doesn’t like this at all, and proceeds to express his displeasure nonverbally.

Only Lovers Left Alive
For those of you who have always felt there was something, well, strange about Tilda Swinton — and you know who you are, so don’t try to be coy about it — indie cinema icon Jim Jarmusch has come up with a movie to confirm your darkest suspicions. In this stylish take on genre conventions, Tilda is a centuries-old vampire who’s deeply devoted to her lover, a brooding bloodsucker (Tom Hiddleston) who has found fame and fortune as a David Bowie-like rock star.

Unfortunately, the undead couple is trailed by his adoring fans, and annoyed by her wild-child younger sister (Mia Wasikowska).   

Jimi: All Is By My Side
Writer-director John Ridley, who picked up an Oscar a few nights ago for his 12 Years a Slave screenplay, offers a portrait of the artist on the verge of short-lived superstardom with his tightly focused biopic about the late, great Jimi Hendrix. Specifically, the film covers the 1966-67 period when Hendrix (played by Andre Benjamin) rose from unknown backup guitarist to show-stopping Monterrey Pop Festival performer.

That Guy Dick Miller
Documentarian Elijah Denner last appeared at SXSW with American Grindhouse (2010), his sprawling yet amusing tribute to the various disreputable sub-genres that define exploitation cinema. Now he’s back with an affectionate biographical portrait of cult-fave character Dick Miller, “that guy” you’ve doubtless seen in countless movies.

Given that his resume includes everything from Little Shop of Horrors to New York, New York, from Piranha to Gremlins, it’s probably safe to assume that Miller has some interesting stories to share.

Doc of the Dead
Another SXSW veteran, filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe (The People vs. George Lucas), returns to the fest with a feature he describes as “the definitive zombie culture documentary.” No, seriously: It’s a movie about zombie movies, and includes interviews with such notables as Simon Pegg, Bruce Campbell, Sid Haig, Tom Savini, Stuart Gordon and (of course!) George A. Romero.

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter
Some people take movies too seriously. And literally. That’s the provocative premise for this latest feature from Austin-based filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner, which was warmly received when it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel and Pacific Rim) is a dutiful secretary who’s stuck in the day-to-day drudgery of her job until she becomes obsessed with Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo. So obsessed, in fact, that she flies from overcrowded Tokyo to the chilly climes of Minnesota, intent on finding the bag of money left buried in the snow at the end of her favorite flick.  

Hellion
Austin-based filmmaker Kat Candler also fared well at Sundance 2014 with her debut feature, an intense drama, filmed on location in Port Arthur, about a troubled adolescent who responds to the death of his mother and the neglect of his father (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad) with angry outbursts and antisocial behavior. Thirteen-year-old Jacob (newcomer Josh Wiggins) appears headed down the expressway to self-destruction until he’s faced with the prospect of permanent separation from his impressionable younger brother.

The Great Invisible
Just because a story is no longer widely covered by the mass media doesn’t mean it had a happy ending. Four years after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 workers and caused the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, documentarian Margaret Brown travels to small towns and large cities on the Gulf Coast to examine how people, places and industries continue to be affected by the disaster.  

Evolution of a Criminal
At the age of 16, honor student Darius Clark Monroe fell in with bad companions, and joined them in robbing a bank. His criminal career was unsuccessful, and short. After Monroe served his sentence, however, he successfully reinvented himself.

He graduated with honors from the University of Houston, and later enrolled in the graduate film program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Evolution of a Criminal, Monroe’s first feature documentary, tells the story of his fall and rise. In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that Monroe is a former student of mine.

But I will go way out on a limb and suggest he likely learned a lot more from another teacher, Spike Lee, with whom he studied while at NYU, and who served as an executive producer on this film.  

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