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Austin Film Festival co-founder spotlights must-see movies in this year’s lineup

Austin Film Fest co-founder spotlights must see movies on 2021 lineup

A still from The French Dispatch shows two figures facing away from each other on a French street at night.
This year, the Austin Film Festival will preview Wes Anderson's latest, The French Dispatch, one day ahead of its general release. Photo courtesy of Austin Film Festival

When the Austin Film Festival got started in 1994, Austin was still small enough that there were doubts: How could it support another festival? The All Genders, Lifestyles, and Identities Film Festival (aGLIFF) and South By Southwest were wide-reaching, but the Austin Film Festival focused on writers. Its niche identity quickly positioned it as a unique opportunity, and it kicked off with unexpected momentum.

“Because writers were not usually people that were invited to festivals, they really got excited to come here,” explains lauded AFF executive director Barbara Morgan. “We got all these Academy Award-winning writers right off the bat because nobody had invited them before. We kind of got to be known as the summer camp for film and television writers.”

The decision to dive into television — a decidedly less respected medium than it is today — further differentiated the festival and added to the loyalty that fueled its success. Since then, it has expanded again, first to podcasts and then to video games. Its script competition drew more than 14,000 entries last year, connecting entrants to producers and others who may have needs for script writers.

“We’re really showing films to try to help give [writers] another foot towards what they want,” says Morgan. “What we want them to do is come here and meet somebody who’s going to give them that next opportunity.”

With no VIP options, AFF has neutralized the experience. The general-admission format funnels creatives together with each other and with audiences, working on more of those organic connections that come up so rarely, but just enough to make it all worthwhile.

The potential to watch more movies and smart programming is reason enough to take part in the festival. Moviegoers getting the most out of their passes will be sure to stick around for exclusive Q&A sessions, ensuring all the greatness of the film that just played truly sinks in.

Morgan will participate in at least two panels during the festival. She’ll interview Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur about his favorite episodes of the mega-popular sitcom, of which Morgan and her daughter have seen every episode. Next, she’ll talk to Scott Frank, co-creator of The Queen’s Gambit, about one of his favorite scripts: The Big Lebowski.

From Thursday, October 21 to Thursday, October 28, movies will be shown both online and in person. The festival is spread across nine screens at six Austin theaters. Badges and film passes are for sale at

CultureMap asked Morgan which movies she can’t wait for audiences to see at this year’s festival. Here are the highlights:

The Same Storm
From the screenwriter of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and About a Boy comes a boldly straightforward film about living in a pandemic — through screens. The Same Storm quilts together 24 self-filmed vignettes as if through yet another now-familiar Zoom meeting. Despite the video-chat fatigue many are still battling, and the fast-moving circumstances that make news even from last week long outdated, the unique writing approach keeps the film relevant past the current events it references.

Barbara Morgan: It’s exactly the kind of content that, normally, I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t watch one more thing like that.’ And Peter [Hedges] did something so unique with it because he’s such a great storyteller. He is somebody who can touch you with almost saying nothing, which is kind of ironic for a writer. This film is very unexpected. It really comes at you from the side.

The French Dispatch
Wes Anderson’s latest offering follows the inner workings of an American magazine run by expats in a fictional French town. The publication covers, according to a trailer, “world politics; the arts, high and low; and diverse stories of human interest.” Anderson was inspired by the New Yorker — as evidenced by a cartoony poster mimicking the iconic magazine’s cover art, and reported by the periodical itself — and Searchlight calls the film “a love letter to journalists.” Bill Murray plays a surly editor based on a real-life New Yorker alum.

BM: More Texans! Wes Anderson’s from Texas. I haven’t seen that film. Our senior programmer goes to Toronto and other festivals [to catch film premieres]. We’re doing it Thursday night and it starts [publicly] on Friday, so it’s got a limited run. We’ve opened with his movies before. He’s such a unique storyteller as well. He’s definitely got a voice. There’s no denying that.

Holy Frit
This documentary chronicles the misadventures of a creative team attempting a commission for an impossibly large stained-glass window. Its subjects, including Los Angeles artist Tim Carey, dryly declare hopelessness, confusion, and an awareness that they are in far over their heads. They enlist the help of master stained-glass worker Narcissus Quagliata and race to come up with something that doesn’t splinter. Despite a hectic premise, the dialog takes on a playful, if self-deprecating, tone and seems to promise to make the best of an absurd situation.

BM: That’s this really amazing documentary for any creative to go watch. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in film or music or art. It is just an incredible process [through] the trials and tribulations of creating a great piece of art: how you know it’s great, why you keep doing it, how you fail and fail and then finally get it.

Ranch Water
University of Texas graduate Sophie Miller writes, produces, and directs an all-women film about sisters returning to family property in Texas before it’s sold. Some of the siblings bring friends and romantic interests, and the family weekend spirals into a regression to childhood and adolescent drama. Inspired by a visit to Texas and filmed over 15 days in Smithville, this coming-of-age film honors the Lone Star State at every turn and explores how identity can tie into a place that is deeply loved.

BM: They have this incredible connection to this piece of ground, which I think is so Texan. Sometimes where you’re from is such a connector. You can’t take that out of people. No matter what happens between them, that connection is there. They captured that in a way that is very of this place, especially at a time when this town is changing so much. That movie particularly hit me in a place that I’ve been for almost 45 years.