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Critics pick the best from the Austin Film Fest

Staff Writer
Austin 360

When the Austin Film Festival and Conference kicks off today, movie lovers will face a difficult — but pleasurable — task: Which movies to pick from the more than 190 that will be showing.

The festival will be showing several high-profile movies that have played at previous festivals, such as Toronto. But it will also be hosting world premieres, regional premieres, dozens of shorts and many new movies with Austin ties.

Picking a movie is even more difficult when you're trying to schedule which of the more than 80 screenwriting and filmmaking panels to attend.

No set of recommendations will be perfect, but we've taken a shot by listing our top 10 movies, our top five special events and our top five panels. Recommendations are from movies editor Charles Ealy and staff writers Matthew Odam and Joe Gross, who are identified by their initials.

TOP 10 MOVIES

1. ‘Black Swan.' This thriller from director Darren Aronofsky looks at a young ballet star, Nina (Natalie Portman), who's replacing a veteran dancer (Winona Ryder) in the New York City Ballet's production of ‘Swan Lake.' The role will require the seemingly innocent Nina to express the grace of the White Swan as well as the sensual guile of the Black Swan. But a new dancer (Mila Kunis) seems to have Black Swan tendencies and poses a challenge to Nina's success. So Nina begins to get in touch with her dark side. As most people know, Aronofsky has a special touch with dark subject matter, as he showed in ‘Requiem for a Dream.' And that's what makes ‘Black Swan' intriguing. It opened the Venice Film Festival and also played in Telluride and Toronto. Early reviews indicate that it's controversial, over-the-top and surreal. In other words, it's an Aronofsky movie. If you're an adventuresome moviegoer, this one's a must. Screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin. Also stars Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey. Screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Paramount. — C.E.

2. ‘New Low.' This low-budget comedy from director Adam Bowers focuses on Wendell, a skinny, thin-lipped, balding 20-something slacker who works at a video store in Gainesville, Fla., and bounces from girlfriend to girlfriend. He wishes that he were ‘attractive enough to be in a relationship based entirely on looks,' but he finds that he's always attracted to people who either bully him or try to change him. When a new, do-gooding girlfriend who's committed to saving the environment asks him whether he ever volunteers, he replies: ‘Well, I smile at strangers sometimes. Mostly women. ... It's a leer, really.' Bowers wrote the zinger-filled script. He also stars as Wendell. Screens at 12:15 p.m. Saturday at the Alamo Ritz and at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Alamo Lake Creek. — C.E.

3. ‘Blue Valentine.' This heartbreaking tale of a marriage on the rocks goes back and forth in time. The parts in the past focus on the growth of the relationship, while the parts in the present show all the cracks. Ryan Gosling's performance as a loving but confused father stands out, but Michelle Williams more than holds her own. She's definitely a risk-taker. Derek Cianfrance, who directs, will attend the Austin screening. Screens at 9:30 p.m. Friday at the Paramount. — C.E.

4. ‘127 Hours.' James Franco stars in this true story about mountain climber Aron Ralston, who spends five days trapped in a Utah canyon after a boulder crashes on his arm. While trapped, the climber reflects on his life and drifts in and out of fantasies. The movie premiered to standing ovations at the Telluride Film Festival, and it's likely to get the same reaction in Austin. Academy Award-winner Danny Boyle directs, following his 2008 hit ‘Slumdog Millionaire,' which also wowed AFF audiences. Boyle won AFF's Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award that year. Screens 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Paramount. — C.E.

5. ‘Dig.' Young Mike is snatched from his new life in Austin and returns to his grandparents' house and his rural roots after the mysterious death of his father. As he slowly tries to piece together the events that led to his father's death, a resentful and confused Mike begins to uncover a set of closely held family secrets that resonate with a past he thought he had buried years earlier. Writer-director Stephen Belyeu's ‘Dig' is a slow burn that, with the help of the spectacular cinematography of Lucas Millard, effectively combines the languid pace of South Texas with haunting whispers of the supernatural in this unique family tale of love, loss, forgiveness and regret. Screens at 9:30 p.m. Friday at the Austin Convention Center and 7 p.m. Monday at the Rollins Studio Theatre. — M.O.

6. ‘Goodbye, Cruel World (Adiós Mundo Cruel).' University of Texas graduate Jack Zagha Kababie makes his feature film debut with this comedy about a mild-manned Mexican accountant who is laid off. On the same day of his firing, his wife springs for a new Chevrolet as a surprise. Caught in a money squeeze, the accountant (played by Carlos Alberto Orozco) begins to seek any means of support by wandering the streets, eventually falling in with a gang of low-level thieves. Like the main character, the comedy in ‘Goodbye, Cruel World' is subtle, inspiring reflection rather than guffaws. In Spanish with English subtitles. Screens 3:30 p.m. Friday at the Ritz, 7 p.m. Sunday at the Arbor. — C.E.

7. ‘Fair Game.' Director Doug Liman's drama about the Valerie Plame case premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and will be opening Nov. 5, but Austin audiences will get an early peek. Naomi Watts stars as the CIA undercover agent who has information about the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and is eventually outed by a press leak. Sean Penn plays her husband, diplomat Joe Wilson, who questions the U.S. rationale for the Iraqi war. Both Watts and Penn turn in stellar performances. Screens 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Paramount. — C.E.

8. ‘Casino Jack.' Kevin Spacey is getting raves for his performance as the slick Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who decides to branch out into serious crime after befriending Tom DeLay and others in Congress. He eventually tries to swindle Indian casino clients, and, as has been well-documented, ends up in the pokey. But Spacey has a lot of fun as the star of this satirical tale from director George Hickenlooper and screenwriter Norman Snider. Co-stars include Barry Pepper and Jon Lovitz. Hickenlooper and Lovitz will attend the Austin screening. Screens 8 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Paramount as the closing-night film. — C.E.

9. 'Rainbows End.' A long, strange and beautiful trip, Austinite Eric Hueber's documentary chronicles the silly-but-serious saga of a group of Texas men who board a broken-down bus and sputter off to California in search of their dreams. ‘Country Willie' Edwards and his band want to record with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy (the only singer banned from outer space); Brian ‘Birdman' Birdwell has ambitions of Hollywood glory and riches for his prize roosters; and the curious Peter Guzzino and ‘Twirler Man' Audrey Dean Leighton seem simply to thirst for a life of unbridled and honest exploration. Their joyful naïveté belies a deep sense of purpose, and their grounded belief in their own vision is an inspirational lesson. The film is an absurdist fever dream that, despite the echoed tones of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,' bursts with pride and love. Screens at 5:15 p.m. Saturday at the Austin Convention Center, 10 p.m. Wednesday at the Texas Spirit Theater. — M.O.

10. ‘Rubble Kings.' AFF goers might remember ‘Rubble Kings' director Shan Nicholson from last year's ‘Downtown Calling,' a look at the mid- and late-'70s New York City art scene. His new one is the flip side of that, chronicling the rise of New York street gangs during the same era of urban blight. Initially modeled in style and vibe on the Hell's Angels, the gangs existed in every borough. Cut to a sumptuous soundtrack of '70s soul, ‘Rubble Kings' briskly navigates the emotional highs and lows. Eventually, the violence dials down, different gangs start talking to each other and the energy transforms into hip-hop culture, which changed the world. ‘Rubble Kings' is only 75 extremely efficient minutes. I could have watched another 75, no problem. Screens 8:15 p.m. Saturday at Rollins Theatre, 10 p.m. Monday at Alamo Lake Creek. — J.G.

TOP 5 EVENTS

1. David Simon presents ‘Treme.' Simon is being honored this year with the Outstanding Television Writer Award, and he's bringing the uncut pilot of the HBO series ‘Treme' to Austin. The series looks at life in New Orleans after Katrina through the eyes of an eclectic group of residents. Simon wrote the series with Eric Overmyer. He'll discuss the creation and development of ‘Treme' after the screening. 6 p.m. Saturday at Alamo Ritz. He'll also attend the awards luncheon at 12:15 p.m. Saturday at the Austin Club, discuss the art of storytelling at 3:45 p.m. Saturday at the Paramount, and discuss screenwriting with Robert Draper at 11:30 a.m. Sunday in the ballroom of the Stephen F. Austin Hotel. — C.E.

2. Kyle Killen presents ‘Lone Star.' This critically praised series on Fox has already been canceled, but creator Killen isn't slinking into the sunset. He wants to talk about the show, which focuses on a con man who lives a double life. Killen will also participate in a Q&A about the Texas-based series with cast members James Wolk, Eloise Mumford and Adrianne Palicki. 1:15 p.m. Sunday, Alamo Ritz. — C.E.

3. David Peoples presents ‘Twelve Monkeys.' Peoples will receive the Distinguished Screenwriter Award this year, so he has a full schedule of events. ‘A Conversation With David Peoples,' moderated by Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, will be at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel ballroom. At 12:15 p.m. Saturday, he'll get his award, presented by New Yorker critic David Denby, at the Austin Club. At 3:45 p.m., he'll appear with other award winners to discuss the art of storytelling, moderated by Texas Monthly's Jake Silverstein, at the Paramount. And at 9 p.m., he'll present ‘Twelve Monkeys,' the 1995 science-fiction tale starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, at the Alamo Ritz. — C.E.

4. Noah Hawley presents ‘My Generation.' ABC has already canceled this new documentary series created by Hawley and focusing on a group of students from Austin's Greenbelt High School. But creator Hawley and the cast will be on hand to discuss the series, which follows their graduation and revisits the classmates 10 years later. 4 p.m. Sunday, Alamo Ritz. — C.E.

5. Edward Burns presents ‘The Brothers McMullen.' This groundbreaking 1995 independent film looks at the romantic relationships of three Irish Catholic brothers, played by Burns, Mike McGlone and Jack Mulcahy. Burns will present the film at 10:15 p.m. today at the Alamo Ritz. Fans of Burns' screenwriting will also want to check out his newest movie, ‘Nice Guy Johnny,' starring Matt Bush, Kerry Bishe and Anna Wood, at 7:15 p.m. today at the Alamo Ritz. At 1 p.m. today, he'll participate in the Business of Screenwriting panel at the Stephen F. Austin. At 2:45 p.m. today, he'll participate in a conversation at the Driskill's Maximilian Room. — C.E.

TOP 5 CONFERENCE EVENTS

1. ‘Writing RX.' Procrastination, writer's block or life gotten in between you and your work? Are you spending weeks thinking about the title of your screenplay instead of actually coming up with strong characters and storylines? This panel featuring screenwriters Phil Hay (‘Clash of the Titans'), Jeff Lowell (‘John Tucker Must Die') and others promises the prescription for the illness of your stalled story or script. 9 a.m. Friday in the Driskill Hotel Ballroom. — M.O.

2. Panels featuring Shane Black. There aren't many people you'll see at this or any other festival who are more engaging and entertaining than the man behind such screenplays as ‘Lethal Weapon' and ‘The Last Action Hero.' The master of the anecdote — both ribald and insightful — Black has attended almost every Austin Film Festival. In addition to hosting the conference wrap party, the 2006 recipient of the Distinguished Screenwriter Award will sit on three panels: ‘Writers/Directors,' 10:45 a.m. Friday at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel Ballroom; ‘The Creative Career: Writers Guild Panel,' 3:15 p.m. Friday at the Driskill Hotel Ballroom; and ‘Heroes and Villains,' 1:15 p.m. Sunday at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel Ballroom. — M.O.

3. Script reading: ‘The Hand Job.' One of the small, unique joys of seeing a movie at a film festival is that you get to be one of the first people to ever see it. It can make you feel like a real insider, but hopefully it doesn't turn you into a pretentious one-upper when the film actually gets released. ‘Oh yeah, I saw that movie like four months ago.' But we digress. What's even rarer is the opportunity to get to laugh at jokes before they even get spoken by actors on camera. Such will be the case at this script reading for writer Maggie Carey's comedy ‘The Hand Job,' where actors Bill Hader (‘Saturday Night Live'), Aubrey Plaza (‘Parks and Recreation') and more will read 80 pages from the film that is still in development. Talk about bragging rights. 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Rollins Theatre. — M.O.

4. ‘The Art of Storytelling' with David Peoples, Robert Rodriguez and David Simon. Call this the awardees panel, as the recipients of the Distinguished Screenwriter, Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking and Outstanding Television Writer awards gather to discuss their craft. Expect a thoughtful back-and-forth among the writers, with the moderator oftentimes simply having to get out of the way. With the minds responsible for ‘Twelve Monkeys,' ‘Sin City' and ‘The Wire' on hand to dispense wisdom and war stories from the front lines of filmmaking, there should be no shortage of compelling material. 11:30 a.m. Sunday at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel Ballroom. — M.O.

5. ‘The Black List.' Don't let the name fool you. This ‘Black List' is not something to avoid or fear. If you're a screenwriter, you would likely give your non-writing hand to land on Franklin Leonard's annual ranking of the 10 best unproduced screenplays in the business. Getting on the list can fast-track a young (or old) writer's career. Screenplays that have made the list in year's past include ‘Juno' and ‘The Social Network.' Leonard will discuss the list — how it's made, who gets — with listees Kyle Killen (‘The Beaver'), Matthew Cook (‘By Way of Helena') and more. 1:45 p.m. Friday at the Driskill Hotel Ballroom. — M.O.

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The Austin Film Festival and Conference

When: Festival and conference start today. Festival continues through Oct. 28. Conference continues through Sunday.

About:The festival will screen more than 190 films. The conference includes more than 80 panels with screenwriters and filmmakers. Workshops focus on screenwriting and filmmaking, including dialogue, story structure and character development.

Tickets: Producer badge: $650 to $720; Conference badge: $375 to $650; Weekend badge for Saturday and Sunday: $250 to $375; Lone Star badge: $110 to $250. Access to screenings, plus panels on Saturday and pitch finale party; Film pass: $50 to $120; Individual tickets: $9; The AFF Awards Luncheon will be Saturday. Tickets at 1-800-310-FEST. $45.

Film venues: Paramount Theatre (713 Congress Ave.); Texas Spirit Theater at the Bullock Museum (1800 N. Congress Ave.); Hideout Theater (617 Congress Ave.); Alamo Ritz (320 E. Sixth St.); Alamo Lake Creek (13729 Research Blvd.); Arbor (9828 Great Hills Trail); Cinemin Swivel Theater, Austin Convention Center (500 E. Cesar Chavez St.); Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center (701 W. Riverside Drive).

More information:www.austinfilm festival.com .

Conference venues: Driskill Hotel (604 Brazos St.); Stephen F. Austin Hotel (701 N. Congress Ave.); The Hideout Theatre (617 Congress Ave.); St. David's Episcopal (301 E. Eighth St.).

Update: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect time for one of the screenings for 'Rainbows End.' The correct time for the screening is 5:15 p.m. Saturday at the Austin Convention Center.