October in Austin might mean the Texas-Oklahoma game to some people, or the welcome end of triple-digit temperature hell to others, but for movie lovers it brings us a week of Austin Film Festival, which celebrated its 15th year last week. I can remember when the festival was limited to one hotel and a couple of movie theaters, and the films were just something to do at night after the screenwriters' conference. This year, the conference spread out over several venues and the film festival itself, which lasts a full week, screened films in nine different locations around town.
The Paramount Theatre, which seats about 1,200 people, was packed for the opening-night film, W., with actor James Cromwell in attendance. This was a specially apt venue for the Oliver Stone film because if you walk outside the Paramount and look down the street, there's the State Capitol. The Governor's Mansion -- well, what's left of it right now -- is in walking distance of the theater. If we could only have blocked off Congress Ave. (hah), we could have posed Cromwell with the Capitol prominent in the background. Cromwell not only stuck around after the film for a Q&A, but stayed for the screenwriters' conference the next day to lead a conversation-style session about acting.
Austin Film Festival often provides a great opportunity for festgoers to see movies that may turn out to be Oscar contenders, or that have built up a great buzz after Toronto or Telluride, but which get a general release in Austin long after New York and Los Angeles. For example, this year's marquee lineup included Mike Leigh's Happy Go-Lucky, Paul Schrader's Adam Resurrected, and Kelly Reinhart's Wendy and Lucy. It's hard to have to choose between seeing these bigger films early, or watching the lower-budget films that don't yet have distribution and may not appear in an Austin theater again.
This year, I caved in and saw a few of the more mainstream movies at the Paramount. On Friday night, Danny Boyle appeared to introduce and discuss two of his films: his first movie, Shallow Grave, and his latest film, Slumdog Millionaire. The Slumdog Millionaire audience went wild over the film. I liked it very much, although the ending seemed a little too easy to me. And I agree with Eric Snider that this movie should have received a PG-13 rating; an R is simply ridiculous. Boyle, pictured below at the Q&A after Slumdog Millionaire, was the recipient of AFF's 2008 Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking award.
Austin Film Festival also devotes a part of its programming to films that are shot locally or by local filmmakers. One of my favorites this year was I'll Come Running, from local filmmaker Spencer Parsons, set both in Austin and in Denmark. The film stars Melonie Diaz as an Austin waitress who has what she thinks will be a quick affair with a tourist from Denmark, but nothing's that simple or clean-cut. Locals seemed to get a kick out of one scene involving Texas Longhorn fans. The movie may get lumped into the "mumblecore" genre, but has more depth and tragedy than most of the films labeled in that way. Another locally made film I liked was Six Man, Texas, a documentary that seems to be about a high-school football league for schools that aren't large enough to produce larger teams, but is really about the way rural areas are changing and shrinking. Full disclosure: I'm friends with some of the crew on this film, but I promise you I would have liked it anyway, and I'm not fond of football.
The screenwriters' conference ran through Sunday, with panels covering various aspects of writing, filmmaking, and promotion of your script or finished film. In addition, successful screenwriters and filmmakers held smaller, more intimate discussions. Everyone piled around on the carpet of one of the Driskill Hotel conference rooms to hear David Wain talk about Role Models and other film and TV projects; Shane Black, Greg Daniels (who received AFF's Outstanding Television Writer award this year), and Lawrence Kasdan held similar sessions during the conference.
To balance the W. screening with a little fact, I saw the documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story on Sunday night. Watching these two films so close together was strange -- the Willie Horton commercial appeared in both, and Ann Richards' speech referenced in W. was shown in Boogie Man (the "silver foot" line, which the audience applauded, and which made me miss the late Governor). Boogie Man digressed too much when focusing on the Bush-Dukakis campaign -- interesting but irrelevant -- and I wished the documentary had contained more personal biography of Atwater. I felt like I never learned much about who he was, only about what he did.
The following Tuesday night, writer-director Charlie Kaufman was in Austin for the festival's Synecdoche, New York screening at the Paramount. Everyone looked slightly puzzled and stunned at the end, but applause was hearty nonetheless. And most people stuck around for the Q&A, when usually you see a lot of people slipping away to try to catch another film that evening at a different theater. Kaufman didn't want to talk about what the film was "about," saying that he wanted to make a movie where people would find their own meanings. But he did talk about the process of writing and then making the film, his first effort at directing a feature film. He was amused that the moderator, AFF film programmer John Merriman, seemed to know more about the details of Kaufman's career than he did himself.
Some of the films I regret missing were Phantom Punch, the biopic of boxer Sonny Liston directed by Robert Townsend; the documentary Paper or Plastic?, about the National Grocery Bagging Competition; The American Widow Project, a documentary made by Austin filmmakers; and the feature How to Be, which I feared (correctly) would be swarmed with young Twilight fans because Robert Pattinson, who stars in both films, was at the screening. I didn't get photos, but Flickr user Kim682 has a whole set of Pattinson goodness from the event.
The winners of AFF's film competition were announced at the end of the festival. Lost & Found, a Japanese film set in a small-town train station, took home the Narrative Feature award, with a Special Jury Award going to Left (aka Links), a dark comedy from the Netherlands. Les Ninjas du Japon, a film about Japanese cyclists competing in an African competition, won the Documentary Feature category.
If you want to hear more about the films I didn't get to catch at AFF this year, here are a few links:
- Movie Morlocks has a recap including 100 Feet and Nightmare Detective 2.
- Austin blogger Visible Woman has commentary on six days of the film festival -- start here with Day 1.
- Agnes Varnum of doc it out reviewed This Dust of Words at AFF.
- The Austin Chronicle film blog, Picture in Picture, covered some of the panels and events.
- Austinist was all over AFF this year, with reviews, panel recaps, and lots of other news.
- Austin Movie Blog, the Austin American-Statesman's blog, highlighted AFF with reviews and the best quotes from panels and Q&A sessions.