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A critical guide to this year's AFF

Staff Writer
Austin 360
From left, John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, Louisa Krause and Christopher Abbott star in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene.'

When the Austin Film Festival and Conference kicks off Friday, movie lovers will be able to see dozens of world and regional premieres, as well as lots of shorts and many new movies with Austin ties.

Picking a movie, however, can be difficult if you also are trying to attend the dozens of screenwriting and filmmaking panels.

No set of recommendations will be perfect, but we've taken a shot by listing some of the top movies and panels. Recommendations are from movies editor Charles Ealy and staff writers Matthew Odam and Joe Gross.

'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

Only a handful of movies have played the Sundance, Cannes, New York and Toronto International film festivals. This movie with the unfortunate name (word of mouth is difficult when a name gets stuck on your tongue) joins an elite group and with good reason. Twenty-nine year-old Sean Durkin's feature debut, based on his 2010 short, is an atmospheric nightmare tale of a young woman whose escape from society has led her into the death grip of a secular cult helmed by an artist-prophet-father figure (John Hawkes) along the lines of Charles Manson. Younger sister to the famous Olsen twins, Elizabeth Olsen plays the titular character with a nuanced mixture of fear, anger and despair. The gorgeous actress' performance should bring her massive attention and put her at the top of a list of rising stars.

(9:45 p.m. today, Paramount)

- Matthew Odam

'The Artist'

With "The Artist," French director Michel Hazanavicius has created something that will make American audiences marvel: an homage to 1920s Hollywood. Although the director and his stars are French, "The Artist" was shot in California and has a thoroughly American look and feel.

And how did this director do it? Well, he shot it in black and white, and he made it silent. Yep, you read that right.

As with the great silent movies, the score plays a major part. And Ludovic Bource makes the most of it by blending original tunes with those of the greats.

Jean Dujardin, who won best actor in Cannes, stars as a famous silent actor whose life turns upside down with the advent of the talkies. Berenice Bejo, the wife of the director, plays the ingenue who leads the way to the motion picture revolution. (The director, it should be noted, shot the scenes in real-life Hollywood spots, including Mary Pickford's home.)

Director of photography Guillaume Schiffman creates gorgeous black-and-white scenes. And Hazanavicius shows a remarkable ability to weave in humor and pathos amid a budding romance. John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller stand out in the supporting cast.

(7 p.m. Tuesday, Paramount)

- Charles Ealy

'Restive'

Confusing, haunting, disturbing. ‘Restive' is all of those things, as well as beautiful. The debut feature from former University of Texas football player Jeremiah Jones drags readers by the neck into a shadowy world of domestic violence, where motives are unclear but the danger is palpable. Set in a ramshackle house in the woods of Central Texas, a young mother (excellent Scottish actress Marianna Palka) protects her son with her life, as her crazed and abusive husband (a deranged Christopher Denham) tortures her physically and psychologically. When the father's two friends arrive, the intensity heightens in life-threatening and thrilling fashion.

A disjointed narrative is guided by incredible performances from its small cast that includes Michael Mosley of "Pan Am." To say it is the best film ever made by a former UT football player would be accurate, but that statement alone does not do justice to this inventive and horrifying piece of filmmaking.

(9:30 p.m. today, Rollins Theatre at the Long Center; 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Austin Convention Center)

- M.O.

'Sal'

James Franco is one of this year's festival biggest guests, and he'll be presenting his latest movie, "Sal," which he wrote and directed.

The movie chronicles the last hours in the life of Sal Mineo, who starred as Plato with James Dean and Natalie Wood in "Rebel Without a Cause."

"Sal" focuses on Feb. 12, 1976, as Mineo is planning his comeback by directing his first feature film after years of a declining career. He also was getting positive reviews for his stage role in "P.S. Your Cat Is Dead," which had played in San Francisco and was moving to Los Angeles. But after leaving rehearsal on Feb. 12 in L.A., Mineo was fatally stabbed in an alley behind his West Hollywood apartment.

The Hollywood Reporter called Val Laurence's performance as Mineo "magnetic" after its world premiere at this year's Venice Film Festival.

(Noon Sunday, Paramount)

- C.E.

'Beavis and Butt-Head'

Mike Judge's animated culture critics are coming back to MTV, and this time they're focusing their subversive barbs on television reality series "Jersey Shore," Ultimate Fighting and the Internet. The new episodes begin airing Oct. 27.

Judge will host a special screening and participate in a question-and-answer session.

(7 p.m. Sunday, Paramount)

- C.E.

'Coriolanus'

Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut 'Coriolanus' had its world premiere in February in Berlin, and it has been touring the festival circuit ever since

A contemporary adaptation of the Shakespeare play, ‘Coriolanus' has an all-star cast, including Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox and the suddenly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain ("Tree of Life.")

And Oscar buzz started building after its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. Now it's headed to Austin. It's a must-see at this year's festival.

(9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Paramount)

- C.E.

'The Dynamiter'

Young Robbie Hendrick spends his days in rural Mississippi playing in swamps and fields with his kid half-brother Fez. But Robbie's protective, good-natured act belies a temper and aggressive posture toward the world. Hurt by the absence of his mother, whom he foolishly hopes will return to her abandoned family, 14-year-old Robbie has taken to petty crime and fights at school. He seems to be headed down the same road as his deadbeat older brother, a former local football hero who has returned home to disrupt the tenuous stability that Robbie has created as the head of a household that also includes an ailing and almost mute grandmother. With the hopes of finding the best life for himself and his little brother, Robbie realizes he may have to blow everything up and rebuild from the ashes. Matthew Gordon's feature debut is a sad and poignant tale about sacrifice, love and poverty in a corner of America often hidden from sight.

(9:30 p.m. Friday, Austin Convention Center; 3 p.m. Tuesday, Arbor)

- M.O.

'When Dreams Take Flight'

Man has been obsessed with flying like a bird for about as long as man has been around (think of poor Icarus). Now that we have things like airplanes, most folks have let go the dream of flapping their way off the ground, but not everyone. This Canadian documentary takes a look at University of Toronto engineer Todd Reichert, who, with a team, is determined to build the first human-propelled ornithopter.

A strong Don Quixote strain runs through this project, which takes hundreds of man-hours and requires careful construction of every delicate component (including Reichert, who gets himself down to 157 pounds to fly the thing). Brief re-enactments of pioneers like Otto Lilienthal and Alexander Lippisch are supplemented with footage of modern-day ornithopter obsessives such as Yves Rousseau, whose attempts left him a paraplegic. The whole enterprise seems a little absurd, not to mention profoundly inefficient. Then you see the attempt and all of it makes sense.

(7:30 p.m. today, and 3 p.m. Sunday, at the Alamo Ritz)

- Joe Gross

'Thank You For Judging'

Actor Michael Urie (the flamboyant personal assistant Marc St. James on "Ugly Betty") presents (and partially directs) this engaging but unpolished look at the world of high school forensics in the mega-affluent Dallas suburb of Plano, from where Urie hails and where he was a forensics champ.

Forensics is not crime scene analysis, but public speaking, "the business of the forum." It is essentially competitive talking, acting and telling stories: Think of it as a sport for drama nerds, except everyone is wearing a suit and tie. It's also strongly implied (then eventually more than implied) that these clubs are safe places for gay teen boys, whether they're out or not, a place where they can be just as cutthroat competitive as any athlete.

The parents have mixed reactions to this odd extracurricular activity. Plano's police chief admires his son's hobby — Dad would rather do anything than speak in public. The father of Alex Elam, a young, African American woman, clearly wants her daughter to go into something a little less frivolous, until, naturally, he actually sees her compete. Even then, his aspirations are high: "Maybe she could be Ronald Reagan ... an acting career, then politics."

(5:45 p.m. Saturday, Rollins Theatre; 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, Arbor)

- J.G.

'Seamonsters'

Growing up can be a brutally confusing and isolating. Especially when your best friend is a guy like Kieran (Reece Noi). Disrespectful toward women and condescending even to his best mate, Sam (Jack McMullen), Kieran is an unrepentant bully with no use for others.

Sam, however, wants a real connection and misguidedly sets his attention on the cute but dangerous Lori, an emo girl disillusioned with the world. Sam's vulnerability leads him into the path of a cutting betrayal that shakes the young man's faith in friendship and love.

Amid a growing tumult of drug-fueled violence and heartache, Sam learns to protect himself and find comfort in something he can actually trust. The feature debut from filmmaker Julian Kerridge uses the poetry and symbolism of its surroundings to wonderful effect and is elevated by excellent performances from its young cast.

(9 p.m. Saturday, Alamo Ritz; 7 p.m. Oct. 27, Regal Arbor)

- M.O.

'The Stand Up'

The best cure for a crippling depression? Spending days with an adorable bunch of precocious children. At least that is the prescription that stand-up comedian Zoe Hardwick stumbles upon at the insistence of his father. After the tragic death of his girlfriend, Zoe has completely unraveled and lost his desire to relate to the outside world. A brief stint as a substitute kindergarten teacher and the reluctant charm of a buttoned-up fellow teacher, ease the 20-something, who looks like a cross between Michael Moore and Jonah Hill, back onto the road to recovery and a life colored with laughter.

(4:45 p.m. Saturday, Austin Convention Center; 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, Arbor)

- M.O.

'Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters'

Apparently Tetris is the most played video game of all time. Two-thirds of Americans have played it. So it's amazing that there has been so little investment in finding the best player in the world. There was a time — 1990 at the Nintendo World Championships, to be exact — that everyone knew who was the greatest: Thor Aackerlund.

But decades have passed, so Tetris fanatic Robin Mihara has decided to wrangle the best players for the 2010 Classic Tetris World Championships in California. The documentary tells the backstory and shares the gaming secrets of a diverse and likeable group of people for whom "max outs" is the Holy Grail and level 30 is a place reserved for gods.

(7 p.m. Friday, Austin Convention Center; 1 p.m. Sunday Austin Convention Center.)

- M.O.

'Township to the Stage: A Comic Journey'

A bitter old comic once told me that comedians put the "ha ha" where the "ouchie" is. Reconciling the pain of apartheid is certain to be a long struggle for the people of South Africa, but as this film shows, comedians are doing their part to open an honest dialogue about the lingering cultural schism in their homeland. In a country where comedy clubs are nonexistent, artists struggle to find an outlet and audience for their voice. Born to a white Swiss father and a black African mother, comedian Trevor Noah embodies and reflects the complexities and conflicts of racial identity and cultural strife. This documentary follows the charming and handsome comedian as he prepares his (and the country's) first one-man show. Along his journey, Noah battles the derision of some fellow comedians, struggles to hone his craft and sees his life shaken by an unspeakable act of violence that reveals the depth of the wound inflicted on his country.

(7 p.m. Saturday, Austin Convention Center; 7:30 p.m. Monday, Hideout Theatre.)

- M.O.

'Strings'

Produced and directed by UT Radio/TV/Film graduates Mark Dennis and Ben Foster from a script by Dennis, "Strings" has a terrific premise and an epic scope.

Billy (Billy Harvey) is a struggling piano player married to Chavine (Elle LaMont) and looking forward to his daughter's birth. After her untimely death, Billy is at sea, agreeing to participate in a radical therapy with a shady shrink (Jack Lee). Turns out the therapy involves some rather dramatic vigilante work and the creepiest grandpa you will see in some time.

After a few jobs, Billy heads down the rabbit hole of this new life. Dennis and Foster stretch a $65,000 budget further than one thinks possible; strong though this movie is, nobody should be surprised if a studio picks it up for a big-budget remake.

(9:45 Sunday and 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Rollins Theatre)

- J.G.

The Austin Film Festival and Conference