austin film festival
After a week of screenings, panels and parties, this year’s Austin Film Festival has wrapped up, leaving us reflecting on our favorite films and fondly remembering our favorite moments (like a chance David Boreanaz encounter on 6th Street, and of course, making new friends in the lines winding around packed theaters). Here’s a recap of our AFF coverage, with some of the reviews, interviews and quick hits that highlight the best of the fest.
While AFF features plenty of premieres from US filmmakers, they also boast a roster of international films that, this year, featured two incredible South African documentaries. Manenberg follows a group of children to explore the long-term effects of political unrest, while Township to the Stage (a recent jury prize winner at the Friar’s Club Comedy Film Festival) explores the burgeoning stand up scene in South Africa.
One of our favorite films of the festival, Pariah is writer/director Dee Rees’ debut feature-length film, perfectly cast with star Adepero Oduye. Following a Brooklyn teenager’s coming-of-age in an environment that doesn’t exactly embrace her sexual and social choices, the film is deeply moving and beautifully shot.
Set in LA but shot and produced in Austin, A Swingin’ Trio follows couples struggling to balance success and love. The production is a local effort with big reach, and we anticipate to hear lots of buzz about this film in the future.
AFF is known for highlighting otherwise unknown offerings, and this year was no different, boasting a strong roster of both highly-anticipated premieres and lesser-known entries. Four we loved? One Night Stand, Some Guy Who Kills People, The Stand Up and Okay, Enough Goodbye.
While he didn’t have a new film in the fest this year (we wish!), Whit Stillman was in town for a special screening of his social satire, Metropolitan. We talked to Whit about the personal nature of his work and the threads that tie his films together.
Ex-Party Down and Veronica Mars showrunner Rob Thomas is a proud Austinite, and also working on a new show (starring Rob Corddry and Heather Graham) about a California couple recently relocated to Texas.
Last year’s highly-acclaimed but short-lived show, Lone Star, introduced us to Kyle Killen, whose forthcoming series follows “a police detective (Jason Isaacs) who wakes up after a car accident to find himself apparently living in two parallel realities: one with his now-deceased wife and the other with their dead son.”
A veteran writer and producer who penned some of the most classic King of the Hill episodes, Jim Dauterive’s latest animated series, Bob’s Burgers, is already amassing a cult audience after just one season. We talk to him about writing for TV and his Texan inspirations.
Responsible for wildly popular (and wildly different) films like Con Air and High Fidelity, Scott Rosenberg was in town to offer experiential advice to aspiring writers; he shared a few top tips with us.
Written, cast, shot and edited in Austin, and featuring plenty of shout-outs to some of our favorite places (Jo’s! Hippie Hollow! Waterloo Park!), Austin High is a hilarious ode to some of the things that define our city—like weed, existential angst and pedicab rivalries.
Behind the Scenes
With Depp in town to promote The Rum Diary’s AFF screening, every Austinite had their fingers crossed for a chance encounter. Luck came to late night partiers at The Continental Club on Saturday (technically, early Sunday), when Depp got onstage for a short—and very sweet—set. Check out the video below (and follow the YouTube links for more fan-captured clips from Depp’s set).
Selections from our daily coverage of screenings, panels and events
Elizabeth Olsen dominates every frame of Martha Marcy May Marlene, in a role that vacillates from the soft, demure naivete of the uninitiated to the impulsively vindictive, and also demands deft emotional nuance and raw physicality. As showstoppers go, it's a sure to earn her an Oscar nomination in February. John Hawkes is the other clear standout performer, ratcheting up his dispassionately brutal persona from Winter's Bone into a frighteningly calm and domineering cult leader. Director Sean Durkin, with only two short films to his prior credit, makes a stunningly assured feature debut—the just-after-sunset gloom of the cinematography works with a tonal, subtly shifting score to make MMMMseem almost like a film Terrence Malick would make if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed. It's intensity is the only thing that keeps you from wanting to see it again right away. The line between reality and paranoia is as hazy as the film's visual style, but the grip of Olsen's journey is enough to make the questions surround her character's experience haunting, as opposed to frustrating. [D.C.]
The opening announcement from a festival staffer before Freak Dance seemed downright portentous: “After 15 minutes, the doors will be closed and no one will be allowed to enter or exit the theater to preserve the experience for the rest of the audience.” What were we in for, exactly? The answer to that question is less ominous than you might think: mostly, it’s a musical parody of the 21st century Teen Dance Movie genre, because sure, we need one of those. The movie runs a bit long, but it also reaches some impressive high points in its 98 minutes. Freak Dance comes from the Upright Citizen’s Brigade improv theater (and includes UCB alum Amy Poehler in a small role), and it aims to be a bit more incisive than the Scary Movie / Stan Helsing, "here's a scene from a hit movie, but with comedians re-enacting it" brand of Hollywood spoof. Yeah, they pick some of the low-hanging fruit from movies like the Step Up and the recent Footloose remake – there’s the “dancing as fighting the man” gag, and the “uptown girl with downtown guy” romance trope is poked fun at – but Freak Dance also takes shots at the way those movies condescend to their characters from “the streets,” the absurd anti-drug messages they cram into the scripts and the presentation of characters of color as hyper-sexualized. In short, for a movie with songs like “Rich White Bitch Work That Butt” in it, Freak Dance manages to balance being weird, gross, and uncomfortable with being really funny and successful satire. It could probably stand to lose 15 minutes from its run time – there were more than a few phone-checkers in the crowd as the third act started – but with genuinely impressive dancing, funny songs, and enough weird-ass jokes to carry the thing, Freak Dance works. It’s awfully weird, but it works. [D.S.]
AFF was lucky to have not one but two films from founding members of the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade in competition this year: Matt Besser's mind-blowingly hilarious Freak Dance, which premiered on Friday, and Matt Walsh's stoner comedy High Road, a short but sweet feature about a bumbling weed dealer and his "get your shit together, dude" moment. Starring James Pumphrey and SNL's Abby Elliott, the film features Lizzy Caplan and Zach Woods in strong supporting roles, plus cameos from comics including Kyle Gass and Andy Daly. We meet couple Fitz (Pumphrey) and Monica (Elliott) as the musician-slash-dealer's bands is breaking up, sending him into a months-long spiral of weed-fueled mania. After mistakenly suspecting that a pair of undercover cops are out to bust him, Fitz flees LA with a moody sidekick, a class-ditching teen on the run from his overbearing father (Rob Riggle) and his overenthusiastic cop-wannabe uncle (Joe lo Truglio). As the pair attempt to deal with their own issues—and learn a little about each other in the process—they're pursued by a growing group of friends and family whose hijinks strike a lighthearted balance to the film's larger themes of fatherhood and responsibility. [S.P.]
If you describe Like Crazy to someone who hasn’t seen it, you’ll probably struggle to explain it in terms that don’t make it sound like a typical romantic comedy – and one with low stakes, at that. The plot isn’t exactly high-concept: an American boy and an English girl fall in love while attending college in California, and when visa issues force her to go back to London, they struggle to maintain their relationship across the Atlantic Ocean. But the film eschews just about every rom-com trope. In its script, in its editing and in its performances, the film blazes a much more compelling path. Like Crazy takes the basic “mumblecore” template of improvised dialogue, naturalistic performances, and avoiding plot points – but it uses those things to tell a powerful story. Call it Mumblecore 2.0 (or better yet, don’t). Director Drake Doremus takes some risky chances that could easily alienate an audience – the characters’ dilemma is the result of their own dumb choices early on, which doesn’t usually inspire sympathy – but his faith in his characters and his refusal to go for cheap melodrama pays them off. It’s a movie about love that doesn’t bother with the typical meet-cutes and plot beats, and the result is a film where the relationships actually feel lived-in. Like Crazy may well be the best film of the festival. [D.S.]
Austin High got a bit of a drubbing in our recap of its first AFF screening on Saturday, but in the eyes of a different viewer, it’s a different film – the production values in the picture seemed pretty impressive to me, with animated sequences, a follow-the-bouncing-ball karaoke singalong, recurring graphic titles to introduce new characters and even a cameo by Dog The Bounty Hunter (director Alan Deutsch is the producer and director on his reality show). They even went so far as to use different fonts for different characters’ subtitles as appropriate – not the sort of attention to detail that gets taken into account very often. The performances, particularly that of co-writer/producer/star Michael S. Wilson, are mostly strong, as well. The film does struggle a bit in finding an identity: as a movie ostensibly about an Austin high school for and by the town’s ample stoner population, and the encroaching gentrification and development fears that are all too real in the city, it spends a lot of time waffling. The scenes between Wilson, who plays Lady Bird High School’s stoner principal, and his overachieving 8th grader (Taylor Stammen) are sincere and effective, the two carrying obvious chemistry. The scenes with Melinda Cohen’s evil Vice Principal Lambert, a new recruit out to destroy the party atmosphere at the school, are outright farce (“millions die from taking the pot!”, she exclaims to a student at one point). If the movie’s an absurdist farce, it doesn’t go far enough, and if it’s meant to have a heart, well, it’s hard to connect with a film that’ll toss its characterization in favor of an easy throwaway gag. With all that said, the jokes – at their best, anyway – are more than easy throwaways, and the film succeeds most when it’s using its more grounded elements to be really funny. Austin High aims to be something along the lines of Dazed and Confused meets Billy Madison; instead, it’s more like The Stoned Age meets Hot Shots Part Deux. But for a first-time director and a cast made up almost entirely of local talent, that’s still a very promising debut. [D.S.]
The Artist received a twenty minute standing ovation at Cannes, so this black and white, silent(!) film has quite a bit of hype to live up to. Tonight's screening at the Paramount exceeded all expectations and, judging by the crowd's laughter, gasps and tumultuous applause, is set to garner all sorts of acclaim upon wider release in November. Watching The Artist at the Paramount proved especially delightful. Near the beginning, silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) attends a premiere of his latest movie and the camera gives a full on view of the audience, seated in a theater almost identical to the the Paramount. The audience laughed in appreciation as we viewed a time capsule of ourselves in 1920s evening wear in black and white, underscored with orchestral music. After that playful opener, The Artist delivers numerous delights as the film toys with our expectations of sound and silence. Wait for the moments when Valentin is listening for the audience's applause or when sound suddenly become a menacing enemy or better yet, when the subtitle “Bang!” is used to momentarily confuse the audience. It's a lovely reminder of how much we take sound for granted, especially in our entertainment and of why silent movies were so popular. The actors buy into the conceit gracefully and walk the line between mugging and realism to great effect. Dujardin is charming and roguish as Valentin, and he's so genuinely taken with himself and his adorable dog that it's impossible to root against him. Bérénice Bejo plays Peppy Miller, the girl next door climbing the starlet ranks, pitch perfectly as she wrestles with her love for Valentin and her desire to be a success. John Goodman and James Cromwell also deliver performances so fit for silent movies that it almost makes you wish this would start a new trend. The popularity ofThe Artist at festivals probably doesn't signal the end of talkies, but its ability to rise above its conceit and offer a thoroughly enjoyable and artistic experience will place it first in line come Oscar season. [K.C.]
Alexander Payne's highly anticipated The Descendants begins with far too much misleading voiceover. Star George Clooney, playing a man trying to deal with his two daughters after his wife is rendered comatose in a boating accident, plays the role so muted at first, and narrates his motivations instead, seeming to set up the film as no more than a glossy tv-movie. But it turns out to be almost a stylistic misdirect- as soon as a key piece of information about his wife's past is revealed, The Descendants shifts abruptly into a masterful unwinding of tension, resentment, and regrets that left nearly the entire audience sniffling by the end. It helps that after this same moment, the voiceover never returns. Clooney has finally found his Oscar homerun role, something that lets his slowly unravel the veneer of charm he brings to every role (incidentally he plays a millionaire that lives in Hawaii), something that Up In The Air hinted at but barely had time for. Clooney finds that time in the loose patience Alexander Payne's patient direction: graduating from the poignant but less weighty Sideways, Payne has honed his unique skill to mine laughter from misery simply by letting scenes of raw discomfort linger for several beats longer than most directors would dream of. With a strong supporting cast, beautifully shot Hawaiin setting, and a devastating but serene climax, The Descendants is unquestionably one of the year's best films, regardless of the awards it takes home. [D.C.]