There are not many press screenings out there for which consenting to a $200 last-minute change-of-flight fee seems like a good idea. Hell, last week I failed to make a 20 minute trip on the 7 train in time to make a screening of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. So whilst a new Robert Altman film alone might not have been enough to get me on the phone with AOL Travel,  a new Robert Altman film, rumored to have been ghost-directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, in which Meryl Streep plays Lindsay Lohan's mom? You couldn't pay me $200 to stay away.

And so on Thursday afternoon I'll depart for Austin, one day earlier than originally scheduled, in order to make the Friday morning press screening of Prairie Home Companion. Starring, in typical Altman fashion, an ensemble cast of what seems like thousands, and based on and around Garrison Keillor's radio show of the same name, the production produced a swirl of ink last summer, when two items of interest hit the 'net. First, we learned that P.T. Anderson, who was nominated for an Oscar for the decidedly Altmanesque Magnolia, was hanging around the Companion set. Though some brushed his presence off as owing to the fact that his pregnant girlfriend, Maya Rudolph, was in the film, P.T. confirmed to the New York Times that he was in fact "pinch hitting" for the 80-something honorary Oscar winning director. This was apparently necessary because the wheelchair-bound Altman, as the second item of interest reveals, was busy giving young Miss Lohan some extra special tutelage.

But what of the film itself? After Bob Berney enthusiastically snatched up rights last fall, Picturehouse got Companion slotted at last month's Berlinale, where it premiered to mostly favorable, if not rapturous, reviews. The Hollywoood Reporter called the pairing of Keillor and Altman "a match made in heaven"; but to the Guardian UK's Lizzie Francke, the whole endeavor was "gooey as American pie [and] lacking the tartness of the director's classic ensemble pieces." David Hudson of GreenCine Daily seemed to speak for many when he summed it up as "an amusing 100 minutes, ranking neither with the best nor the worst of Altman's work." I don't really buy the worry that this is going to be Altman's *last* film – health/age issues aside, he seems like a dangerous one to write off – but it could be the last Altman project to drum up this kind of buzz. Even if the Prairie Lo herself doesn't show, I imagine Friday night's public premiere is going to be the 2006 SXSW Film Festival's hottest ticket.

Which isn't to slight the rest of the program in any way – I don't think anyone would argue with the assertion that this looks like it could be the year where the SXSW Film Festival, long seen as  the overlooked little cousin of the famed music conference, really breaks out as a discovery fest. My current attack plan is as follows. Let me know in the comments, if you've got suggestions that I've missed.

Old Joy - The Sundance hit that nobody at Sundance actually managed to see. Dumped by that festival's programmers in the little-hyped Frontiers section, NYU professor Kelly Reichardt's fourth feature went on to win an award at Rotterdam the following week. Sometime Palace Brother Will Oldham stars alongside Daniel London, as two old friends who reconnect on a camping trip and are forced to face the divergent paths each has embarked on. Shot on location in the Cascades, and set to a score by Yo La Tengo, Old Joy is, by all accounts, a mood piece of the highest order.

The Cassidy Kids
- SXSW vets Jacob Vaughan and Bryan Poyser (Dear Pillow) step up their game with this tale of a real-life Scooby gang, all grown up and reunited for the DVD release of their series based on their youthful antics, who begin to suspect that their pre-teen crime solving might have done more harm than good. Vaughn and Poyser, working with a little bit more money and a few more names (Kadeem "Dwayne Wayne" Hardison toplines) than on previous efforts, got a serious helping hand from a partnership with the University of Texas Film Institute, which provided them with a student crew. I can't wait to see if Vaughn (who is directing this one) and Poyser (producing) can install the thematic roughness of Pillow into their new, candy-colored 80s palette.

loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies
– The Pixies were the great, forgotten rock band of the late 80s ... until they made their inevitable comeback, in the form of a series of concerts and tours, that seemingly refused to end. But despite the fact that Black Francis and friends have sort of worn out their welcome back, the reforming of any band that broke up via fax is worth looking into. Let's hope loud will, at the very least, make great fodder for the inevitable fictionalization – may I suggest Catherine Keener for the role of Kim Deal?

LOL
- Joe Swanberg – who made his debut at last year's SXSW, with a great semi-comedy of post-collegiate sexual collision called Kissing on the Mouth – returns with this heavily-improvised tale of technology and miscommunication. Like Kissing, LOL is a somewhat stunning mirror on the ways we say things without using words; technically and narratively, it's a huge step up from Swanberg's debut. With it, he reveals himself to be one of the most emotionally astute young filmmakers working today. Swanberg has been blogging throughout the film's production process; he'll be joining me and many other good people on the Blogging About Film panel on Monday, March 14.

Other big SXSW screenings will include V for Vendetta, American Dreams, The King (starring Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt), and many, many more. Check back here starting Friday for team coverage.