Nerve at SXSW Film 2011: Errol Morris, Paul Giamatti, and Amy Ryan

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I wrapped up my first weekend at SXSW with a Sunday night screening of The Key Man, starring Jack Davenport as a hapless insurance salesman, the ever delightful Judy Greer, and The Matrix's villainous Hugo Weaving as a villainous 1970s con man. Yet, for all the mutton chops, generic wah-wah soundtrack funk, and old-fashioned flip-cut editing in writer/director Peter Himmelstein's polyester period piece, the end result is mainly reminiscent of (and just as forgettable as) an old Charlie's Angels episode — and not even one of the Farrah ones.

Things picked up on Monday with Better This World, a thought-provoking documentary by the filmmaking team of Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de le Vega about ethics, activism, and justice in the post-9/11 (and post-Tucson shooting) era. Disgusted with the Iraq War, two idealistic young dudes from W's hometown of Midland, Texas head off to protest the 2008 Republican Convention in St. Paul and wind up incarcerated as domestic terrorists. What really happened, and whether the arrests were justified, form the crux of the story. And while the filmmakers attempt to remain impartial, a clear villain emerges by the final credits, along with a rule-of-thumb for morally ambiguous times: if your cause involves firebombing, you're probably on the wrong side.

Tabloid, the next documentary I saw, was quite a bit lighter — and deliberately so, according to the soft-spoken gnome of a producer who introduced the project on behalf of acclaimed filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line). Eager for a change of pace after somber projects like The Fog of War (his Oscar-winning portrait of Vietnam War architect Robert S. McNamara), Morris' latest is centered on the larger-than-life Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming turned tabloid (and, depending who you believe, bondage) queen. "Before there was Paris, Lindsay or Britney, there was Joyce," the gnome informed the packed house at the screening. Yet unlike the celebutards of today, McKinney herself is a fascinating interview subject, and her story — of true love and/or delusional obsession, attempted cult de-programming and/or kidnapping, and Mormon magic underwear — is actually worth telling (if not always believing).

But you can always spot the really big ticket screenings at SXSW when security breaks out the night-vision goggles at the theater to nab attendees trying to record the movie with their iPhones. This was the case with Sundance fave Win Win, the new film by Thomas McCarthy, who directed the respected indies The Station Agent and The Visitor and also played a weasly reporter on The Wire. As with his previous films, McCarthy again brings together a likable cast of misfits. This time around, Paul Giamatti schlubs it up as a cash-strapped small-town lawyer and part-time high-school wrestling coach who becomes a father figure to a troubled young athlete, played by charming, deadpan newcomer (and actual 2010 New Jersey state wrestling champ) Alex Shaffer.

In the Q&A after the well-received screening, McCarthy said he wrote his script with Giamatti and co-stars Amy Ryan and Bobby Cannavale in mind, which helps to explain the talented cast's easy chemistry throughout. But easy can be a double-edged sword, as well; in the end, Win Win felt like a funny but pat "indie" comedy as formulaic as any big studio rom-com.

Speaking of Hollywood players in Texas, stay tuned for Nerve's ongoing SXSW coverage, as we'll be checking out Jodie Foster's long-delayed The Beaver, starring Mel Gibson as a mentally unstable man. (Your quip here.)