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A guide to the top movies at AFF

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Bill Murray stars as Franklin D. Roosevelt in 'Hyde Park on the Hudson.'

Screenwriters, filmmakers, movie lovers and industry movers-and-shakers will descend on Austin over the next week as the 19th annual Austin Film Festival and Conference kicks off Thursday.

“Not Fade Away,” the directorial feature debut from “The Sopranos” creator David Chase, will serve as the opening night film on Thursday at the Paramount Theatre after an afternoon of panels geared toward screenwriters.

Chase returns to New Jersey for his first feature but with much less blood than in his beloved HBO series. The film features a cast of relative unknowns (John Magaro, Jack Huston and Will Brill), along with Tony Soprano himself (James Gandolfini) and takes a nostalgic look at the power and cultural influence of the burgeoning rock scene of the 1960s.

The festival wraps up Oct. 25 with a screening of Billy Bob Thornton’s “Jayne Mansfield’s Car.” The movie, set in 1969 Alabama, traces a dramatic culture clash between two families and stars Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, John Hurt, Robert Patrick and Thornton.

Austin Film Festival programmer Stephen Jannise says the two films are both “perfect fits” for the writer-oriented festival.

“David Chase really changed the game for television with ‘The Sopranos,’ to the point where his transition to feature filmmaking is really kind of a non-story. Television is now on an equal playing field with film in terms of quality, and Chase is one of the people responsible for that,” Jannise said. “And Billy Bob Thornton is exactly the kind of movie star we always hope to have here at AFF, someone who clearly recognizes the importance of strong writing in film. He pretty much launched himself with his own words in ‘Sling Blade,’ and his choices as an actor in the ensuing years confirm his affinity for good writing.”

In between the latest from Chase and Thornton, AFF will screen 194 films – including 74 features, 13 world premiere and four U.S. premieres – and welcome stars such as James Franco, America Ferrera, Julia Stiles and Edward Burns.

Below we take a look at 10 marquee features that are receiving buzz heading into the festival. Most of these films screen at the Paramount Theatre, giving an opportunity for the general public to purchase day-of-screening tickets at the box office, depending on attendance numbers. Screening information is subject to change. Check AustinFilmFestival.com for up-to-the-minute information.

“The Sessions”

Former Austinite John Hawkes stars as a poet who spends most of his time in an iron lung and then decides he needs a big change in his life. He wants to have sex. So with the consent of his parish priest (William H. Macy), he hires a professional sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). What follows is a touching look at a man struggling to grow emotionally, and how his struggles affect those around him. Don’t be surprised to see Hawkes receive an Oscar nomination for his role. (9:45 p.m. Thursday. Paramount)

“Hyde Park on Hudson”

Bill Murray delivers an uncanny performance as Franklin D. Roosevelt and steals the show in a joyful romp that details a summer when the president and his cousin, Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), formed a close bond as Roosevelt befriended the visiting king and queen of England. The screenplay was penned by Richard Nelson, based on his 2009 BBC radio play. (12:30 p.m. Saturday. Alamo Ritz)

“Silver Linings Playbook”

The mercurial and talented David O. Russell (“Three Kings,” “The Fighter”) directs Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in an offbeat romantic comedy about a man trying to piece his life back together after getting out of a mental institution. After the film made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Variety said the film “boasts a level of charm, heart and formal sophistication increasingly rare among adult-driven studio comedies.” (7 p.m. Saturday. Paramount)

“It’s a Disaster”

University of Texas alumnus and Austin Film Festival veteran Todd Berger, who brought “The Scenesters” to the festival in 2009, returns with this black comedy about eight friends who lock themselves in a house and await an apocalypse. Facing an uncertain future, the four couples work their way through the vagaries of their relationships as a toxic disaster lingers outside their door. “The script excels at character-driven laughs, cerebral yet goofy, without resorting to sitcom stereotypes or genitalia-focused stupidity,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote after the film’s premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Writer-director Berger will be in attendance with stars Julia Stiles and America Ferrera. (9:45 p.m. Saturday. Paramount)

“Flight”

A week after it made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, “Flight” soars into Austin. Denzel Washington stars as commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker, who is hailed as a hero after making a miraculous emergency landing. But as the investigation into the crash-landing unfurls, Whitaker faces intense soul searching in the face of harmful accusations. John Goodman, Don Cheadle and Melissa Leo co-star in the first live-action feature from director Robert Zemeckis since his 2000 hit “Castaway.” (7 p.m. Monday. Paramount)

“The Sapphires”

Inspired by a true story, this musical film traces the lives of a group of three aboriginal sisters (and a cousin) in Australia who chase their musical dream in Vietnam, led by a musical mentor played by the charming Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids.”) Set during the politically-charged late 1960s, the movie offers more than just a toe-tapping good time. (4:30 p.m. Sunday. Paramount)

“To Kill a Memory”

Director Dustin Rikert will be on hand to present his Western. “The Western is just about the hardest genre to shoot on a budget. If you do it wrong, everything looks cheap, fake, and worst of all, unintentionally funny,” Jannise says. “These guys got it right. It’s a classically made Western with a gritty lead performance from Kix Brooks, and I bought into every frame of it.” Brooks, one-half of the music group Brooks and Dunn, will attend. (7 p.m. Tuesday. Paramount)

“Quartet”

Life does not end when you enter a retirement home. Just ask the musicians at Beecham House, a place that may house seniors but buzzes with the cheeky drama of a high school. The great Maggie Smith stars as a retired diva sonsgtress who joins the fray at Beecham and falls into a crew that includes her ex-husband, Reginald (Tom Courtenay). But the acting names pale in comparison to the name of the man behind the camera — Dustin Hoffman, who knows something about being active in his later years, making his directorial debut at the tender age of 75. (9:30 p.m. Tuesday. Paramount)

“Deadfall”

Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitsky follows up his 2008 “The Counterfeiters,” which won the Oscar for best foreign-language film, with this riveting tale of a brother and sister (Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde) on the run from the law. After diverging in the snowy wilds of Michigan on their way to the Canadian border, the siblings reunite in a tense and violent confrontation. Iconic Texas natives Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson co-star. (7 p.m. Wednesday. Alamo Village)

“The Fitzgerald Family Christmas”

Edward Burns returns to AFF to present this family dramedy in which he stars alongside Brian d’Arcy James and Connie Britton from “Friday Night Lights.” The film finds Burns on familiar ground, drawing back the curtain to reveal the foibles of a quasi-functional Irish-American family. “When they’re en famille, the repartee is deadly, with every memory repackaged into an insult — and without any filter to protect anyone’s feelings, not even those of the family patriarch, a prodigal father with cancer who has a few months left to live,” David D’Arcy of IndieWire wrote after the film’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival. (9:30 p.m. Wednesday. Paramount)

19th annual Austin Film Festival and Conference