AUSTIN—Last year's South By Southwest Film Festival was The Year People Really Started Complaining About Lines, as a festival branded (frequently by swag-tallying, social media-savvy attendees) as the coolest possible place to be was nearly overwhelmed by the crush of people actually there. The solution the fest's organizers lit upon for 2011: expansion, with 140 feature films (up slightly from last year) spread out over two additional venues. So far, it's working smoothly—or else the films on my opening-weekend schedule have thus far escaped mass attention. Which'd be, in several cases, a shame.
But start with buzz: Opening Night's Source Code is, like Moon, the previous feature by Iman's stepson Duncan Jones, a catchy mind-body problem picture—a cross between Quantum Leap, Deja Vu and Groundhog Day, with soldier Jake Gyllenhaal repeatedly occupying the body of a train passenger in the eight minutes before an onboard bomb detonates. It's broad about life and sentimental about death, but formally gratifying in its structure of takes and retakes, and pleasurably old-fashioned, with commuter-train scenery outside and a classic Hollywood microcosm inside.
Brooklynite Ian Cheney is here with The City Dark, an essay-film about light pollution, with cute animations and time-lapse photography of star-occluding NYC glow and the Milky Way above his childhood home in Maine. His inquiries take him to rooftops, beaches and deserts to trace astronomy through history, public health and nature, with help from amiable eccentrics (like the woman who answers her cellphone with a brisk "Chicago Bird Collision Monitors"). It's a young Brooklynite's Herzog homage, in form more than lightly likeable tone.
Also in the strong documentary competition, Better This World concerns two Austin activists busted on domestic terrorism charges for making Molotov cocktails in Minneapolis during the 2008 RNC (seen here as paranoid and militarized, in news and amateur footage of riot cops in head-to-foot black). Filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane have access to the defendants' meetings with their attorneys and wrenching collect calls home, and to FBI files supporting their thesis: that a fellow-activist turned informant acted as an agent provocateur. Though it wrings suspense out of events covered extensively in the alternative press, it's exemplary advocacy journalism.
Alison Bagnall's The Dish and the Spoon offers the unprecedented pleasure of Greta Gerwig drinking while driving, as a betrayed wife in retreat to an off-season summer house; the rather Dickensian stray she picks up (Olly Alexander) occasions a wistful-melancholy lost-soul bonding routine, enlivened by self-aware performances and fresh gender dynamics.
A less familiar set-up but even more familiar demographic is found in first-timer Kyle P. Smith's Turkey Bowl, which is slightly over an hour of ten people playing touch football. A group of increasingly postcollegiate friends (and a couple of nonwhite ringers) reconvene for their annual game; past history and present tensions are rarely forced, and balanced across well-choreographed gameplay (with variable skillsets). It's a well-executed exercise in self-contained group dynamics, and funny—each character gets to call out a snap count ("Eric Roberts! Eric Roberts! Hike!")