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Choose your own Austin Film Festival adventure: A guide to the schedule

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Rapper Freddie Gibbs stars in Austin Film Festival's spotlight film, "Down With the King."

You could stay in and watch something on Netflix. Again. Or, and just hear us out, you could support a local cultural institution as it makes a grand return to in-person cinema.  

Austin Film Festival will bring the newest and most exciting movies to town from Oct. 21-28, screening at venues including the Paramount and Stateside theaters. Founded in 1994, the fest is often the first local stop for films that go on to make waves in wide release  — past selections include “Call Me By Your Name,” “Marriage Story,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” “La La Land,” “Carol” and more. This year, splashy titles include “The French Dispatch,” from University of Texas alum Wes Anderson, and “Spencer,” the Princess Diana biopic from filmmaker Pablo Larraín. 

But if you’re just really used to queueing up a flick based on your mood, we hear you. Pandemic and all that. There’s something nice about curation.  

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Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri star in the film "The French Dispatch."

That’s why we asked Casey Baron, Austin Film Festival’s director of programming and industry relations, for his recommendations about what to see based any number of moods. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

American-Statesman: OK, my first one — if someone's looking for something weird. And obviously not to encourage them to show up on an illegal substance, but let's say they just like to get a little freaky with their viewing. What should they check out? 

Casey Baron: I'm a big genre fan particularly, myself. Sci-fi or and really any of the subgenres capture my attention. This year part of our opening night programming is going to be “Karmalink,” co-written and directed by Jake Wachtel. Jake is going to be joining us as well for a post-screening Q&A. ... It's this really interesting sort of sci-fi narrative about a young boy, all filmed in Cambodia, and his realization that the memories that he has, that he's exploring, aren't his, and they come from a completely different place. ... 

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Also “Memoria,” of course, from Neon. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film is very exciting through and through. Tilda Swinton does an incredible job in this film. Another film, interestingly enough, about obsession in a certain way. But for Tilda, it's this obsession of a sound that just captures her one evening, and right at the top of the film. And well, then we just hit go. It’s the sort of ... adventure that, on one hand, is a film about discovery and finding yourself. But again, it's also almost like an investigative journey, as well, for this character, who's just trying to figure out, “What is this? Why am I so obsessed with it?” But also, "How is it impacting my life where I can't sleep, where I can't think about anything else, where I'm meeting strangers in the world, and I'm not sure if they are just random figments of my imagination or actually there?” ...  

What about someone not wanting to escape into an alternate reality, and they want to understand some issues that are going on in the world today a little bit better? 

My mind goes directly to our opening night feature, "The Same Storm,” written and directed by Peter Hedges. It was shot completely remotely. But the film also has such a fascinating way of discussing through its characters the need for human connection, and the need to find our people and to find our community, even in a situation like our ongoing pandemic that we're all dealing with that has shifted so much of our day-to-day in our lives. … 

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Another film that certainly comes to mind would be “Larry Flynt for President.” … That film covers (Hustler publisher) Larry Flynt's overall journey, and dealing with so many different topics, whether it be First Amendment rights, whether it be the need for free press (that) isn't necessarily tied down to any sort of government agencies, or what have you, that may be impeding the impact of free thought. ...

Let's say someone is tired of the real world. They want something that's going to make them laugh, or escapist fare that is a little more whimsical or lighthearted.  

"Petite Maman" is such an awesome film from Neon, Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which we screened at the fest in 2019. This film is really whimsical and wonderful. It follows these two young girls who meet each other as our protagonist goes to her grandma's home and begins cleaning up and clearing out the space after her unfortunate passing at the start of the film. You really get to see this very young friendship blossom into something very beautiful, but also see this protagonist get to find out more about herself and family lineage in really inventive ways. … 

"Petite Maman" is the latest film from French director Céline Sciamma.

"Cicada” would be another one, oddly enough. ... What I find so interesting about it is, it really dives deep into old Korean cultural myths, but also social structures. … The film has this musical juxtaposition that also goes against the family drama that's very much structurally set up from go for the audience. That's an interesting film on a number of levels, because it has that natural family drama that everyone would expect but subverts it.  

You mentioned “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” One of the things I really do love about Austin Film Festival every year is seeing movies that are going to pop up again later in awards season. What are some things that you think people should check out that you think are going to be awards contenders, or that they might hear a lot more about later? 

Specifically "C'mon C'mon" from A24, Mike Mills’ new film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman — that has award season written all over it. Mike does such a fabulous job with the script. Joaquin Phoenix plays this uncle in Woody Norman's life, and really comes in to try to help him along as Joaquin’s sister (who is) Woody’s mom is dealing with difficulties tied to her relationship. Joaquin and Woody go on this cross-country trek to capture some interviews that Joaquin does for work. It presents Joaquin in an interesting light, I think, from an actor's perspective, especially considering his most recent big picture work being “Joker,” for a lot of people. This is like I've never seen him... so lighthearted, and having such great chemistry with Woody, who’s clearly on a star trajectory himself.  

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“The Worst Person in the World,” Joachim Trier’s new film that we're partnering with Neon to showcase at the Paramount this year, is also certainly at the top of a lot of folks’ mind as far as the international best picture award conversation goes. What a standout romantic comedy. I feel like even calling it a romantic comedy is doing it a disservice, because it's a genre meld in a number of different ways. It goes to surreal places. It goes to heavyhearted places. ...

And, of course, "Spencer,” the closing night film (starring) Kristen Stewart. I frankly think she's at the forefront of the best actress conversation in any regard. ... That's such a magnanimous film. Pablo Larraín also does a fantastic job from a directing perspective — talking about color, talking about cinematic vision and visual language. 

Kristen Stewart is Princess Diana in "Spencer," which will close out Austin Film Festival.

People who want to support local filmmakers that have films showing at the festival and really want to get a taste of what the Austin or Texas film scenes are doing right now — what should they see? 

We're excited to have Chad Bailey Werner returning this year with “The One You’re With.” ... We partnered with Chad last year for the screening of “The Get Together" at the Paramount Theater, the world premiere of that. So we're very thrilled to be able to support him in this venture this year, very much an Austin project, shot (and) written here. Similar to "The Same Storm,” we obviously got a lot of films this year that tried to wrangle with COVID as a topic or theme. ...

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“The One You're With” specifically (is) exploring this idea of a one night stand (where) you also have something much more when the world just shuts down around you, for days and months on end. I feel like they had a lot of fun with that from a filmmaking perspective. … 

Alongside that, "Jockey.” Greg Kwedar and Clint Bentley are alumni, as well, of the festival and program, so we're thrilled to support them and Sony Pictures Classics. This new film covers Clifton Collins Jr.’s character, who's this aged jockey just trying to find his way. He is on his last legs, looking for one last hurrah. But here comes supporting cast member Moises Arias, essentially saying, “Hey, I'm your son and I'm about to just throw a wrench into things a little bit.” ... 

Is there anything else that you really think people should check out? 

“Down with the King” is our spotlight film this year. It's our inaugural spotlight slot, actually. We're really excited to be welcoming Diego Ongaro for the screening this year, (the) writer and director. Star (and real-life hip-hop artist) Freddie Gibbs plays this rapper who's no longer enthralled with the trappings and allure of that rap lifestyle and decides to take on a new venture: supporting his family in this Midwest farming life. But of course, that call, or that sort of itch, is always there. It becomes a narrative of struggling paths or desires for Freddie. ... 

"The Souvenir: Part II" stars Honor Swinton Byrne in a sequel to the critically acclaimed 2019 first installment.

Beyond that, I'd say for us, it's just good to be back in person. I can't say that enough. It's funny, I recently went to see “Shang-Chi.” We have a co-writer Dave Callaham coming for our writers conference this year. And that film was such a wonderful experience from a cinematic point of view, being in the house, getting to see incredible action and wonderous visuals onscreen. There's nothing like the filmgoing experience, the cinematic experience, and I'm just looking forward to reintroducing our audience to that this year. ...

I think the last couple years have, if nothing else, shown me personally, and I feel like I can speak for everyone in the festival, as well, that what we do matters. There's absolutely the need for cinema and that sort of communal experience.  

If you go

To attend Austin Film Festival, guests must provide either proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test result within 48 hours of picking up their badges or tickets. A photo ID matching the name on the health document must be shown.

The festival also will have a virtual component this year. To explore the full Austin Film Festival schedule and purchase badges and individual tickets to screenings, go to austinfilmfestival.com.