Review: Austin Film Festival 2011

After months of trading ten-dollar bills to sit in a theater for two hours, while disappointing films like Transformers III, The Hangover 2, and Rise of the Apes flashed in front of me, I was quickly losing faith in the film industry the way the Autobots lost faith in their fearless leader Optimus Prime when a Decepticon cuts off Optimus’ arm in battle.

Enter: the Austin Film Festival.

For those feeling like they’ve been wandering through a barren desert of movies that deliver a message shallower than a gutter puddle, the Austin Film Festival provided an oasis for weary blockbuster-filmgoers to take shelter and feast.

For a behind-the-scenes look at the Austin Film Festival, tune into KLRU’s series, On Story. Showcasing exclusive footage from past festival panels, as well as interviews with the screenwriters and filmmakers behind the films, On Story gives viewers a chance to experience the Austin Film Festival in a unique way. Every episode of On Story pairs interviews and panel discussions with a short film from a Texas filmmaker who was featured at the Austin Film Festival.

As a first-time festivalgoer, I had no idea what to expect, so I decided my only objective would be to see and do as much as possible on Saturday and Sunday. Below is a tasting of some of the films I saw, including ones that made me think “what on earth?”, films I appreciated, but did not necessarily love, and films that made me want to be a better person:

An Ordinary Family
I happened upon this movie by mistake. No doubt the best mistake I made all weekend. Filmed in Austin, An Ordinary Family is centered around the turbulent relationship of two brothers as they are forced to be together for a weeklong family reunion. The eldest brother, Thomas, a priest with a wife and two children, hosts the reunion at his Austin home. When his brother, Seth, surprises Thomas by arriving with his homosexual partner, Thomas takes no heed in voicing his disapproval. I thought this movie was going to follow the well-worn plot path of condemning homosexuals, but that was not the case at all. This movie really struck me because of how realistic it was. The truth is, no one knows how to handle this situation in the “right” way. Sometimes, humans make mistakes and say nasty things to hurt each other. Sometimes, siblings throw tantrums and bicker like five year olds. But it’s okay, because as this film shows, the ties that bind families together cannot be severed by petty disputes.

I loved this short film! Ever heard of cataplexy? Me neither til a few days ago. It’s a rare condition where a person’s body suddenly paralyzes and goes limp after experiencing a particular emotion. The fellow in this movie has a form of cataplexy where anytime he feels pure love, his body goes limp. The way he deals with it, is by having no-strings-attached sex with call girls. On one night, he opens the door to find an old high school friend as his girl for the evening. The tangible awkwardness made me squirm in my chair. Never fear, the awkwardness is soon assuaged by their empathetic gestures toward each other and they end up reminiscing, playing games, and chatting long into the night…until something goes out with a bang.

Chock full of dramatic irony, this film is short in duration, but really convicting. If you have a smartphone, specifically the coveted iPhone, you may leave this movie thinking it was written about you. A couple is sitting on the couch together one afternoon and through a single, mundane interaction, they make you realize all the little ways that iPhones are actually bamboozling us.

Below Zero
I noticed a theme at this year’s festival with people making films about filmmakers. It makes sense, though, because people write about what they know and what do filmmakers know best? Exactly. Based on a true story about the screenwriter, this film coalesces reality with hallucination in such a seamless manner that distinguishing between the two is virtually impossible. This was what initially drew me to the movie, but by the time the third false ending came and went, I was over it.

The basic premise of the movie is a screenwriter who is locked in a meat cooler for five days in an attempt to cure his horrid case of writers block. While sitting in a room with a dead pig hanging from the ceiling, he writes a script about a screenwriter who is locked in a meat cooler by a serial killer. It was a good concept, but the ending (when the real one FINALLY happened), was rather predictable.

Written and directed by the multi-talented James Franco, this movie was a ride-alongside depiction of the last day of late actor Sal Mineo’s life. I really enjoyed watching the movie because of the way it was filmed. The way Franco used camera angles and close-up shots, gave the audience an intimate account of Mineo. From the very first scene, I felt like I was a part of the movie. The film opens with Mineo at the gym, gasping in anguish as he struggles to push dumbbells over his head, while beads of sweat stream down his forehead, and as I watched, my body tensed up at the sight of his distress. If you do go see the movie, let me warn you: knowing the movie ends with Mineo’s murder, you sit there the entire time with that anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach. Kind of like a clammy-handed kid waiting to be scorned by her parents.

Like Crazy
This movie’s ending made me feel hollow and sad. It did, however, give a refreshingly realistic picture of love and romantic relationships and it filled me with questions. When falling in love, no one ever thinks about what happens when the person who promises to walk through life with you everyday until death do you part…just stops being “the one”? What happens when the relationship you have given so much of yourself to just ends one day? No zombie horror movie has ever made me feel like someone ripped my guts out the way this movie did. There is no feeling worse than the empty feeling in your heart where love used to live.

Overall, Austin Film Festival 2011 delivered. It exceeded all my expectations and although some films put me in a really uncomfortable trance, it was really eye-opening and the films that were good were tremendously enjoyable.

About the Review: Brionne Griffin is a third-year Multimedia Journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a Communications Assistant at KLRU and a copy editor for The Daily Texan. Over the summer, she worked on several multimedia projects for Fortune 500 companies while interning for internet marketing firm Apogee Results, and next semester, she will be studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France.