Phooey on the narrative-film judges at Austin’s 13th South by Southwest Film Festival for bestowing awards on suffocatingly conventional movies. Best Narrative Film went to Live Free or Die, a mediocre New Hampshire–shot crime flick made by ex-Seinfeld writers. Best Ensemble went to Americanese, slick LA actors in a manipulative Pan-Asian love story. Both prize winners felt like Sundance rejects, which is not the way to go for the otherwise spirited, buoyantly alternative SxSW.
What might have sent out the anti-Sundance message that SxSW is not for “fake-indie” directors sweating for Hollywood contracts? Why not the $2000 Best Narrative prize for LOL, a film made for $3000 by my young Chicago-based friend Joe Swanberg? LOL is a witty mini-satire of post-collegiates trying to connect romantically and erotically (at least, the women are) in a tangle of up-to-the-minute technology. Swanberg plays an impish version of himself who, even in bed with his girlfriend, looks longingly at his computer to check his e-mail. Seek out LOL when it plays in April at the Independent Film Festival of Boston.
SxSW’s big American premiere was Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, a nice, cozy little picture from the US’s greatest living filmmaker. Here’s the tiny (and thin) story: the St. Paul theater that’s housed the Prairie Home Companion radio program for 30 years is to be shut down by an unfeeling, Texas-based CEO (Tommy Lee Jones). Meanwhile, let the show go on! Garrison Keillor does his Wobegon radio stuff with aplomb, tongue-in-cheek Lawrence Welk/Arthur Godfrey for the boomer set. Hollywood actors — Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly — pipe in as country-singer regulars on the show. It’s Nashville on a much smaller scale, without the savagery and the cynical politics. Altman’s an old guy now, 81, and his new movie is a mellow celebration of traditional music, a fan’s note to Keillor, and a valentine to veteran actors. Everyone has a grand goofy time — except Lindsay Lohan, stiff and icy as Meryl Streep’s daughter.
The other big SxSW movie was an unannounced screening of AScanner Darkly, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi-and-drugs novel and directed by Austin local hero Richard Linklater. The film is still in post-production, so I won’t say much about it. In its present incarnation, however, it’s confusing in its Burroughs-like story line and, for the most part, disappointingly perfunctory in the rotoscoping animation that was utilized so brilliantly in Linklater’s Waking Life.
The SxSW film with the best chance to be a breakout hit is surely Al Franken: God Spoke, an enjoyable hangout with the sharpest commentator in the US. Is the Super Bowl more fun than watching Franken go at it in debate with our own blonde, leggy Leni Riefenstahl of the Far Right, Ann Coulter? Or piss off windbag Bill O’Reilly? Franken is larger than life, like Michael Moore, but he seems to be a genuinely nice fellow. This film, directed by Nick Doob and The War Room’s Chris Hegedus, is subjective, pro-Franken in every way. “Al’s a really decent person,” Hegedus said at Austin, “so fair with us all tagging around as we did for a year and a half. He’s very brave. He’ll confront anyone.” My other favorite documentary: Doug Block’s 51 Birch Street, the filmmaker putting a bold camera on his quietly estranged parents. Made in the same suburban Jewish milieu as Capturing the Friedmans, it’s gentler, kinder, less pathological, but no less effective in shaking the family tree. And Vermonter Jay Craven’s Disappearances is an extraordinary accomplishment, a Depression-era piece made on a sub-shoestring budget. This Peckinpah-like Eastern Western stars grizzled Kris Kristofferson as a ex-moonshiner on a last quest, an optimist forwever. “Just the opposite of me,” Kristofferson said at Austin.