In Austin, you can set your watch by the fall film festivals. We don't just have SXSW in the spring. Starting around Labor Day, it feels like we have a film festival practically every week, from Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF) to the Austin Polish Film Festival, Austin Asian American Film Festival and of course Fantastic Fest. One of the oldest and biggest of these local autumn fests is Austin Film Festival (AFF), which spans eight days and seven screening venues, and includes a screenwriters' conference. In 2009, AFF celebrated its 16th year.

AFF focuses on screenwriters even in its film programming selections, as was evident with the opening-night film. Serious Moonlight is best known as the last script written by the late actress/filmmaker Adrienne Shelly. I admit I wasn't fond of the movie, but director Cheryl Hines was a trip -- mock-vampy on the red carpet (as shown above), and full of excitement about her film. Her screening was up against heavy competition: Matthew Weiner brought an episode of Mad Men to the festival and didn't reveal which one until just before it screened. (It turned out to be this season's "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" episode.) Weiner also was featured in panels during the conference portion of AFF.

Because AFF is so late in the year, the fest gets the opportunity to show a lot of Oscar bait. Marquee screenings this year included Precious, Youth in Revolt, The Young Victoria, An Education and The Road. I reviewed Poliwood, which wasn't one of my favorites during this year's fest. But I really liked the closing-night Up in the Air screening, where Jason Reitman held one of the best and funniest Q&A sessions I've attended in recent memory. No moderator -- Reitman took the stage with cinematographer Eric Steelberg and told some great stories while answering questions from the audience.

But Austin Film Festival also shows a lot of indie films, many with local connections. These "smaller" films often sold out downtown theaters where they were being shown -- at a screening of The Scenesters I attended, some audience members were actually standing in the back of the theater. I sat in the front row of the small Alamo Ritz theater for one movie and was simply grateful I got in at all. Actress Beth Grant (The Office, Donnie Darko), who produced the comedy Herpes Boy, felt so sorry that half the people in line wouldn't fit in the theater that she worked the line of people waiting to try to get in, telling everyone she wished she could set up an extra screening immediately, and gave up her seat to give room for one more audience member. I also overheard her telling one guy in line that she doubted his commitment to Sparkle Motion.

Apollo 13

Retrospectives are often common at film festivals. But I have never seen a retrospective film as anticipated as the Apollo 13 screening at AFF this year. It wasn't just because Ron Howard was there -- he was this year's recipient of AFF's Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking award. Special guests at the screening included actor Clint Howard, writers Bill Broyles and Al Reinert ... and several of the real-life astronauts who were portrayed in the movie, including Jim Lovell (shown above with Ron Howard). Clint Howard had fun posing for photos with Sy Liebergot, whom he played in the film. As if that wasn't enough, AFF also showed some footage they'd edited from the actual Apollo 13 launch, which was shorter than the movie and possibly more exciting. I hope they'll make this footage available for more people to watch and enjoy.
I could go on all day about the films I liked at AFF this year, including the ultra-low-budget but snappily written comedy Simmons on Vinyl; the Japanese film Happy Ending, about a female horror-film fan who feels like she's been dropped into a movie in her least favorite genre, romantic comedy; Bob Byington's Harmony and Me, shot in Austin and finally screening here after a very successful festival-circuit tour; The Scenesters, Todd Berger's amusing mishmash of mumblecore and noir; and the aforementioned Herpes Boy, which reminded me of Napoleon Dynamite, but actually funny and not annoying.

And I haven't mentioned the parties, and the variety of panels, and well-known screenwriters and filmmakers hanging around the Driskill Bar and happily talking with any number of aspiring writers and directors. Austin Film Festival has so much going on in any given time slot that it's almost painful to make decisions -- next year I'll just have to clone myself.