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Posted: 11:00 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012

AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL

AFF wraps up a week of mature films, funny panels

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AFF Awards photo
Thao Nguyen, For American-Statesman
Frank Darabont, Eric Roth, and Chris Carter were honored at the Austin Film Festival for their contributions to television and film.

By Staff

The Austin Film Festival concluded Thursday night with a screening of “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” presented by filmmaker Billy Bob Thornton and a late-night party at a bar on Sixth Street. And the event capped eight days of panels, parties and screenings, with stars like Julia Stiles (“It’s a Disaster” and “Silver Linings Playbook”) and James Franco (“Francophrenia”) gracing the red carpet at the Paramount Theatre.

But AFF is about much more than celebrating Hollywood stars. From shoestring-budget dramedies to Oscar contenders and a host of excellent documentaries, AFF proved why it is a quintessential fall film festival, screening thoughtful, mature and well-crafted films.

“Informant,” the documentary about Austin-area activist turned FBI informant Brandon Darby, won best documentary feature for director Jamie Meltzer of Stanford University, while Noah Buschel’s “Sparrows Dance,” a stirring film about an unlikely romance, took home the prize for best narrative feature.

AFF again exhibited its love for the people behind the scenes, the screenwriters, who serve as the raison d’etre for the festival. Awardees Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”), Frank Darabont (“Shawshank Redemption”) and Chris Carter (“The X-Files”) joined a roster of dozens of speakers and panelists during last weekend’s writers conference.

Below we share some of our highlights from the movies, panels and discussions that helped make for a memorable festival.

Matthew Odam

“Ex-Girlfriends.” The literary-themes of Alexander Poe’s “Ex-Girlfriends,” an exploration of love and desire, made for a perfect fit for AFF. Self-obsessed narrator Graham, played by Poe, gets dumped by his girlfriend at the beginning of the film and spends the rest of the movie trying to reconnect with yet another lost love in hopes of filling some kind of vague hole in his life. His ex-girlfriend Kate (Jennifer Carpenter of “Dexter”) joins Graham for the ill-fated journey that leads to self-discovery and the realization that looking for salvation in other people may hinder us in getting on with our own lives. Poe’s narrative feature debut marks him as an actor, writer and director worth watching.

“GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.” Sometimes film festivals deliver tears in unexpected places. Such was the case Sunday at the screening of “GLOW.” One audience member got choked up during the Q&A session when expressing his admiration for director Brett Whitcomb’s documentary about the short-lived TV sensation. Whitcomb’s film details the history of the cult phenomenon and its major players. The filmmaker never exploits the wrestlers or subjects them to judgment, instead humanizing the women behind the characters. While the show looked like a ridiculous circus, behind the scenes, real women found a bond, a sense of purpose and a time that they all seem to remember with mostly fond memories. Seeing the women reflect on their brief careers and expose their vulnerabilities makes for surprisingly touching filmmaking. It’s enough to make (at least) one man cry.

“Only the Young.” Co-directed by Austinite Elizabeth Mims, this beautifully shot and patient documentary captures the joys, awkwardness and pain of youth. Teenagers Kevin and Garrison spend their time skateboarding in their small Southern California town, seemingly detached from much of the cares of the rest of the world. The film, which employs a still, almost meditative camera, captures the two best friends as they grapple with the entanglements of young love and the exciting and scary possibilities of change. The movie feels like a hybrid narrative, a credit to the editing and framing of the story that is backed by a sumptuous soundtrack rippled with the velvet sounds of classic soul music.

“Bitter Buddha.” Comedian Eddie Pepitone drives down the streets of Los Angeles listening to tapes of modern spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle while simultaneously overflowing with road rage. Such is life for the 53-year-old comedian who’s constantly at war with himself. A hero to alt comics in Los Angeles, Pepitone has toiled in relative obscurity for much of his career. But with the advent of social media and the support of admirers like Patton Oswalt, Pepitone is starting to receive recognition. Filmmaker Steven Feinartz, a veteran of television documentaries, takes an intimate look at Pepitone’s life and career, following the acerbic but lovable New York native as he prepares for a homecoming at the Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan.

“Spinning Plates.” Joseph Levy’s heartfelt movie waltzes into the kitchens of three restaurants from around the country and into the lives of the people whose dedication, passion and skill make them run. Though the restaurants run the gamut from affordable Mexican food to ingenious molecular gastronomy at Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago, Levy reveals that all of the restaurants share similar qualities and an unflappable perseverance.

Charles Ealy

“The Sessions.” John Hawkes wasn’t able to come back to Austin for the screening of “The Sessions,” but his absence didn’t detract from the movie’s impact. Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, the late writer who contracted polio as a child and lived in an iron lung for most of his life. The hook for the movie, however, isn’t about his struggles to adapt to his paralysis. Rather, it’s an uplifting tale about a man who decides he wants to lose his virginity. For a guy who spends the entire moving lying on his back, Hawkes gives a powerful performance that explores the nature of intimacy, and Helen Hunt shines as his sex surrogate in one of the most difficult female roles of the year. Expect multiple Oscar nominations. The movie opens in Austin on Nov. 9.

“Silver Linings Playbook.” This ranks as one of the fall’s most delightful films, and the Austin Film Festival audience roared its approval after its local debut. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star as emotionally troubled Philadelphians who appear headed toward romance, despite big odds. Cooper stretches his acting chops by playing a bipolar man who has just left a mental facility and is trying to get back with his wife, even though he discovered her having sex with another man. But Lawrence gets the showiest role as a wiseacre widow, rivaling Marisa Tomei’s Oscar-winning turn in “My Cousin Vinny.” The movie is scheduled to open in Austin on Nov. 21.

“Congratulations.” This small, independent movie probably will not make a big splash. But Brian Dietzen and Abby Miller, who star as young lovers, bounded into Austin to talk about their low-budget marvel, along with directors Juan Cardarelli and Eric M. Levy. The action takes place as Jim (Dietzen) and Bridget (Miller) head out for a visit to Jim’s mother. Along the way, Jim proposes to Bridget, but Bridget doesn’t accept. Having come from a troubled home, she’s wary of marriage and just wants their relationship to stay the same. Jim, however, has told his mom (Debra Jo Rupp), that the marriage is a “go,” much to Bridget’s surprise. What follows is an interesting examination of love, family and the difficulties we all face. Dietzen, who plays Jimmy Palmer on the TV series “NCIS,” says he expects “Congratulations” to be available on video on demand in the coming months.

Dale Roe

Funny panels. One of the best things about the panels is the unexpected, revealing and just plain humorous quotes you get. For instance: “Lost” creator Damon Lindelof interviewed “X-Files” creator Chris Carter. When Carter replied to one of Lindelof’s questions by admitting that, yes, he had read “X-Files” fan fiction, Lindelof asked, “Would you read mine?” On a panel about comedy writing, “Twins” scribe Herschel Weingrod was bemoaning that modern-day comedic characters must have noble motivations for their actions. “I don’t think they would make a movie like ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ today, because Eddie Murphy would have to have a back story where he would be trying to save his sister,” Weingrod said. “And Murphy would also play the sister,” fellow panelist Craig Mazin (“The Hangover Part II”) quipped.

Why shows fail. Local screenwriters Noah Hawley and Kyle Killen appeared with two former “Jericho” writers to discuss why shows fail and what they learned from their own failed dramas, “My Generation” (Hawley) and “Lone Star” (Killen). While all have moved onto other projects, the panelists contended that the success of a television show can have very little to do with how good it is. Time slots, an antiquated ratings system, lack of promotion and even the number of programs a network has waiting in the wings can be huge factors, they said. Besides, the fact that you got a show on the air, even if it was canceled almost immediately, gives you industry credibility. “The reward for failure is that you advance a level,” Hawley said. Killen added that cancellation, though sad, could be a huge relief, “like having a sumo wrestler get off of you after a year.”

The Chase panel. David Chase can pin much of his success on his mother. As a child growing up in New Jersey, the “Sopranos” creator realized that she was, as he described, “very difficult,” but he was able to view her antics with a level of detachment that allowed him to find them outrageous and amusing. Chase’s wife once suggested that he should write a character based on her. That character eventually became Tony Soprano’s mother Livia (Nancy Marchand). The mother character in Chase’s feature film debut “Not Fade Away,” which opened this year’s festival, was based on his mother, too. Chase told me that the character’s racist night terrors were based on actual incidents from his childhood. “I ate free for a long time telling stories about my mother,” Chase said during a panel appearance.

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