The Austin Film Festival wrapped up last night after giving film fans eight wonderful days of screenings and four days of informative panels. Now we’re all left to make the transition back to normal life, in which we don’t spend our Fridays with Johnny Depp or blow off work to see four movies in one day, but at least we have some great films and events to look back on.
My favorite panel of AFF was, of course, “Script-to-Screen: Veronica Mars with Rob Thomas,” which delved into both behind-the-scenes trivia and the writing process behind bringing the best teen detective noir ever to grace the small screen. For my money, television doesn’t get much better than “Veronica Mars,” so hearing showrunner (and off-and-on-again Austinite) Rob Thomas (pictured above) tell how he came up with and developed the show’s central story, characters and perfectly plotted season arcs was a fangirl’s dream. (If you haven’t seen the show yet, it’s no longer available on Netflix Instant, but you can rent all three seasons on DVD. As we said before, Veronica Mars is a pint-sized, pop culture-spewing private investigator who packs a punch – and an oh-so-handy taser. First seasons of television shows only very, very, very rarely come as deftly plotted, suspenseful, funny, unflinchingly honest, swoon-inducing and addicting as the first season of “Veronica Mars.”) During the panel, Thomas played the pilot episode (including clips from both his cut and the network’s cut) while pausing often to share thoughts and stories. One of those stories included the casting process for the main male characters of Duncan Kane and Logan Echolls, and then it turned out that Jason Dohring, the actor who played Logan Echolls (the inciter of the aforementioned swoon), was actually in the room. Sigh.
As for the films, well, it’s easy to take shots at films with hundreds of millions of studio money behind them, but with more personal films, like the kinds that premiere at a festival geared toward writers, it feels wrong and mean-spirited to spend time pointing them out. So, rather than talking about films that were empirically good or bad, I’ll just share the five that I enjoyed watching the most, in chronological order. That being said, one of the bad things about living in the city where the festival is held is that life sometimes gets in the way of screenings you most want to see, which is why i missed both “The Artist” and “Jeff Who Lives at Home.” Before I get to my chronological countdown of new movies, I have to give a special mention to Friday’s screening of 1990’s “Metropolitan,” a comedy of manners I adore and that was such a treat to see on the big screen followed by a Q&A with its brilliant and elusive writer/director, Whit Stillman.
1) When a film is charged with opening an entire festival, it has a lot of expectations, including setting the tone and level for the next week of films. “Butter” more than rose to the challenge. The only things I knew about “Butter” before setting foot into the Paramount on AFF’s opening night were that it starred Jennifer Garner and served as an allegory of the 2008 Democratic presidential primary set in the world of competitive butter carving. The film, which also starred Ty Burrell, Olivia Wilde, Hugh Jackman, Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry, turned out to be all that and much more as one of the most enjoyable salty-and-sweet comedies this side of “Bad Santa.” And I never would have pegged Rob Corddry as the kind of actor that could make me cry, but he brought so much warmth to his role as the foster father of aspiring butter carver (and Obama surrogate) Destiny. Writer Jason A. Micallef was in attendance and participated in a Q&A after the panel, in which he talked about his smart and funny script, which previously had been on the famous Black List of the best unproduced screenplays.
2)The Austin Film Festival certainly draws famous actors and filmmakers to our city, but when Johnny Depp came to town, every person with a badge or a film pass flocked to the Paramount to see “The Rum Diary”on Friday night. The film was introduced by saying that no other actor can play comedy and fear at the same time as well as Depp, and he certainly proved that once again with his performance in “The Rum Diary,” which was adapted by writer/director Bruce Robinson from the novel by the late great Hunter S. Thompson. Set in Cuba in the 1950s and also starring Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Austinite Amber Heard and Giovanni Ribisi, “The Rum Diary” is good fun and the perfect marriage of director, actor and source material, as anyone who has seen either Robinson’s famously gin-soaked “Withnail and I” or Depp’s appropriately gonzo performance as Thompson in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” can probably guess. After the film, Depp and Robinson (along with famed film columnist Elvis Mitchell) provided the most hilariously entertaining Q&A of the entire festival.
3) Heading into AFF, the film I was definitely most excited about was Sundance hit “Like Crazy.” Starring Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones as an American and Brit, respectively, who fall in love only to see their relationship torn apart by distance and visa problems, “Like Crazy” effectively creates that same feeling of love and longing that everyone can identify with. Beautifully shot and acted, the film was largely improvised from an outline from writer/director Drake Doremus, who said at the Q&A following the film that he wanted to write a story in which love was both the protagonist and the antagonist, because it caused Anna and Jacob to make decisions that ultimately hurt themselves and others. I’m not a fan of ambiguous endings, but I know that the heightened emotions of “Like Crazy” will stick with me for a long time.
4) Unfortunately, “Stuck Between Stations” was one of the few screenings I attended that didn’t have a filmmaker in attendance, and I enjoyed the film so much that I would have loved to hear more about its creation. Set all in one night, largely as a conversation between two twenty-somethings that kinda-sorta knew each other back in elementary and high school, “Stuck Between Stations” does an amazing job at creating one of those heady anything-is-possible nights when everything feels a little like a dream and you’re hesitant to do anything that might break the spell. (In that respect, it reminded me a bit of the also-great “In Search of a Midnight Kiss.”) In addition to bit parts with Josh Hartnett and Michael Imperiola, “Stuck Between Stations” stars Zoe Lister Jones and the film’s co-writer Sam Rosen as Becky and Casper, who are both a little bit lost. I was not a fan of Lister Jones’ tragically hip “Breaking Upwards,” but I thought she was great in this performance, although I think the MVP award has to go to Sam Rosen, who gave a three-dimensional, realistic portrayal of a soldier serving in Afghanistan that owed nothing to stereotype. In honor of the oft-unsung hero of “Friday Night Lights,” my husband and I have created the Saracen Award for QB 1’s specific brand of sweet, sad and earnest, and the character Rosen creates in Casper is a deserving recipient.
5) With all that “Veronica Mars” and “FNL” love up there, I’m obviously a huge TV nerd. So is Andrew Disney, the NYU graduate who for his feature debut managed to assemble a cast that includes cast members from cult TV favorites “The Wire,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Heroes” and, yes, “Veronica Mars” and “Friday Night Lights.” You kind of want to punch him for having that kind of luck, but then he manages to win you over with his heavily stylized, self-labeled slacker noir “Searching for Sonny.” While I missed the Saturday premiere with actors Jason Dohring, Nick Kocher and Brian McElhaney present, the Monday night screening included a Q&A with producer Red Sanders and writer/director Andrew Disney, who said he won over his stellar cast by sending them videos detailing the reasons why they should be in his movie. And it worked. Dohring stars as a twentysomething pizza boy who heads back to his hometown (which, although not named, is shot in Fort Worth) when one of his high school classmates (Masi Oka) goes missing. Between Logan Echolls, Colonel Tigh, Lyla Garrity and narrator Lester Freamon, you wouldn’t think anyone else would have room to shine, but Kocher and McElhaney of comedy duo Britanick Comedy (I suggest starting with the Joss Whedon-approved video “Teamwork”) demonstrate that they both have bright careers ahead.