'Improvement Club,' 'The Retrieval' among narrative comp world premieres

South by Southwest has unveiled its competition linueps as part of announcing 110 features that will screen during the 20th version of the nine-day festival in Austin — including 68 films from first-time filmmakers and 70 world premieres.

Festival producer Janet Pierson told Variety that she’s expecting attendance at fest — which opens March 8 — to eclipse last year’s total of 68,054 as programmers attempt to pull together a schedule featuring titles that are funny, edgy, though-provoking and carry a cultural import.

“Registrations are up across the board because people want to be part of what’s next in the cultural zeitgeist,” she said.

The eight movies in narrative competition, all world premieres, are Todd Sklar’s “Awful Nice,” Carlos Puga’s “Burma,” Dayna Hanson’s “Improvement Club,” Jonathan Singer-Vine’s “Licks,” Chris Eska’s “The Retrieval,” Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12,” Ruben Amar and Lola Bessis’ “Swim Little Fish Swim” and Josh Barrett and Marc Menchaca’s “This Is Where We Live.”

The documentary competition includes Lotfy Nathan’s “12 O’Clock Boys,” Stephen Silha and Eric Slade’s “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton,” Douglas Tirola’s “Hey Bartender,” Elise Salomon’s “Los Wild Ones,” Josh Greenbaum’s “The Short Game,” Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Touba,” AJ Schnack and David Wilson’s “We Always Lie to Strangers” and Ben Nabors’ “William and the Windmill.”

SXSW will launch March 8 with the previously announced “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” as its opening night film and one of its five Headliners gala events along with “Spring Breakers,” the re-booted “Evil Dead” and two new titles, Stephen Finngan’s doc “Hawking,” a look at the life of Stephen Hawking; and Tim McCanlies’ Christmas comedy “When Angels Sing” with Harry Connick Jr., Willie Nelson, LyleLovett and Kris Kristofferson.

The fest lineup has a strong showing for Texas-based filmmakers including McCanlies for “When Angels Sing,” Jeff Nichols’ “Mud,” “Getting back to Abnormal,” Jacob Vaughn’s “Milo,” “Scenic Route,” “Loves Her Gun,” “Good Night,” “Grow UP Tony Phillips,” “Zero Charisma” and “All the Labor.” A half a dozen Sundance titles also made the cut, including Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight,” Hanna Fidell’s “A Teacher,” Andrew Bujalski’s “Computer Chess,” David Lowery’s “Pit Stop,” David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche” and Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.”

Another notable Sundance title, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon’s Addiction,” will screen in the Festival Favorites section.

The films were selected from a record 2,096 feature-length film submissions — 1,482 U.S. and 614 international — and a record 5,682 total submissions, 7% over 2012. The Midnighters feature section and the short film program will be announced Wednesday, followed by the panel lineup and schedule on Feb. 13.

“Though trends emerge after the fact, not consciously while we’re programming, much of this year’s program embraces love and the need/search/desire for connection,” Pierson said. “Many films reflect importantly on our culture and include intimate looks at iconic figures, and we’re lucky to have a plethora of hugely entertaining and audience pleasing films. Even more thrilling is the opportunity to support so many filmmakers we’ve followed for years who’ve made enormous creative leaps in their work.”

Pierson, who’s heading her fifth SXSW, noted that Lena Dunham premiered her first feature, “Creative Nonfiction,” at South by Southwest in 2009 and came back a year later with “Tiny Furniture,” which won the Best Narrative Feature award. The launch episode of Dunham’s HBO series “Girls” showed at last year’s fest.

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