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Austin Film Festival boasted both star power and quality films

Charles Ealy

The Austin Film Festival has a well-earned reputation for giving local audiences an early look at Oscar contenders. But this year, festival organizers did something more: They ramped up the star quotient.

Over the past week, box-office titan Johnny Depp helped introduce his new movie, "The Rum Diary," received an acting award and presented another one to his friend, Caroline Thompson, the screenwriter for Depp's "Edward Scissorhands."

Then he headed to the Continental Club, where he joined some local musical all-stars in a jam session.

James Franco, the director of "Sal," spent a lot of his time in Austin as a moviegoer, then introduced his film about the last day in the life of actor Sal Mineo to an audience at the Paramount.

Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino showed up Thursday night to walk the red carpet for her latest, "Union Square."

John Lasseter, one of the biggest power players in Hollywood, participated in panel discussions about his animation experiences at Pixar and received the festival's Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award.

David Boreanaz, the star of television's "Bones," presented an award to series creator Hart Hanson.

And various Texas luminaries showed up for special screenings. They included "Beavis and Butt-Head" creator Mike Judge and former Austin residents Jay and Mark Duplass, who introduced their new movie, "Jeff, Who Lives at Home."

The concurrent screenwriting conference had its share of celebrities, too.

Thomas Jane, the star of HBO's wry comedy "Hung," participated in a script reading of "The Nice Guys," a new screenplay by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi.

Lawrence Kasdan, a four-time Oscar nominee and the director of such movies as "Body Heat" and "The Big Chill," talked about his career, as did Whit Stillman, the director and writer of such period comedies as "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona."

Organizers also teamed up with the Texas Book Festival to discuss the writing process, with panels that included Tom Perrotta ("The Leftovers") and Chuck Palahniuk ("Fight Club").

Such events get the attention of national media and help bolster the profile of the Austin Film Festival, which is in its 18th year. But the quality of a festival always boils down to content.

This year, the festival did not disappoint.

One of the high points was Tuesday night's screening of "The Artist," from French writer and director Michel Hazanavicius. The film, which will be released later this year and is a black-and-white silent homage to early Hollywood, is a shoo-in for Oscar nominations. And it was one of the biggest hits at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

But the festival's new programmers, Stephen Belyeu and Stephen Jannise, ventured into darker territory as well, presenting the controversial "Shame," directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

The explicit movie, which focuses on the harrowing life of a sex addict, received an NC-17 rating this week from the Motion Picture Association of America. But it has received critical acclaim since premiering at the Venice Film Festival and appears poised to received Oscar nominations.

Other standout movies included "The Descendants," a family drama starring George Clooney and directed by Alexander Payne; "Martha Marcy May Marlene," a dark thriller with former Austin resident John Hawkes; and "Coriolanus," an adaptation of the Shakespeare play that stars Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler.

As it does every year, the festival also featured Texas-made movies.

Highlights included the Southern Gothic tale "Restive," directed by Crawford native Jeremiah Jones; "Beneath the Darkness," a Smithville-shot horror film starring Dennis Quaid; "Austin High," a stoner comedy from director Alan Deutsch; and "Sironia," a drama from writer/director Brandon Dickerson.

Next year's festival is scheduled to begin Oct. 18.

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931