The Best of the 2014 Austin Film Festival

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This year’s Austin Film Festival again showed why aspiring screenwriters are drawn to the event. Where else can you discuss screenwriting with the likes of Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Terry George (In the Name of the Father), Bill Broyles (Apollo 13), Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) and Bruce McKenna (Band of Brothers) just to name a few of the conference’s panelists, and all the while spend time in a town that has become a dreammaker’s dream destination. While there were several good films that premiered, here are a dozen deserving mention.

1. The Humbling

It’s a treat to see Al Pacino perform anywhere, anytime. But when he’s “in the zone” or “on his game” or any place amongst the highest levels of sport metaphors, his performance becomes a piece of art. That is what Pacino brings in this Buck Henry adaptation of the Philip Roth novel. Upon leaving a psychiatric hospital, famed actor Simon Axler (Pacino) finds himself alone, in recovery, in his mansion where he sees his shrink through Skype. But when he begins a relationship with a young, “flirtatious lesbian” (Greta Gerwig), his life becomes unexpectedly complicated. It’s been said that a good actor reacts. Director Barry Levinson lets Pacino do exactly that with some masterful comedic timing. Never mind that the script eventually wanders into some of the weak moments of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Just keep your eyes on Pacino and enjoy.

2. Once Upon A Crime: The Borrelli-Davis Conspiracy

The case of Mike Borrelli and Mike Davis may be exceptional, but still, every year there are stories about the wrongly accused being incarcerated, sometimes for decades. The story of New York police detectives Borrelli and Davis being imprisoned for executing someone for an infamous mob boss goes down as one of the strangest. Not only were the two men innocent, but the lawmen responsible knew it all along and did everything possible to convict them. Director Sheldon Wilson beautifully stacks the layers of lies in one of the best documentaries I’ve seen this year. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, he puts another incredible-but-true (and heartbreaking) tale on top of the stack.

3. Miss Julie

In a slow-burn, dialogue-heavy adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 stage play, writer/director Liv Ullmann does more to portray the imminent changes between social classes (in this case, in Northern Ireland) than Downton Abbey does over several seasons. Admittedly, I was prepared to be bored after the film’s first five minutes. But by the end, I was somewhat impressed and by the week’s end I found myself thinking that I had seen something quite remarkable. My impressions at first came from the obvious: Jessica Chastain, a star who may be our next Meryl Streep. (Yes, I know Meryl is still with us but in addition to a breadth of talent that constantly amazes, Chastain still has the youth to portray the naïve heart.) As the daughter of a wealthy landowner, Miss Julie (Chastain) is restless, aroused and alone in her father’s estate except for the housekeeper (Samantha Morton) and valet (Colin Farrell). Julie’s testing of her authority steps beyond the boundaries of decency, placing all three of them outside of their comfort zones.

4. 21 Years: Richard Linklater

“There’s nothing about Rick that’s ugly,” says Matthew McConaughey when commenting on the director that gave him his first breakout role in 1993’s Dazed and Confused in which he plays the timeless ladies’ man David Wooderson. It’s an opinion echoed throughout 21 Years by a dozen or so talented actors and filmmakers who are almost generous to a fault with their praise of the man whose career may be summed up in Oscar season with his sure-to-be-nominated film Boyhood. Kudos to directors Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood for spending more time on all that Linklater has accomplished rather than digging for scandal-ridden stories just to spice up things up. The interviews, film clips and supporting animation are tightly woven and extremely entertaining for Linklater fans and for those unfamiliar with the talkative dude in the cab in Slacker. The worst thing said about this director of films like Before Midnight and Waking Life comes from Keanu Reeves who jokingly questions Linklater’s decision to direct the remake of The Bad News Bears. Yeah, it’s a love fest. But like Sir Paul sings in “Silly Love Songs”, what’s wrong with that? (Full Disclosure: Co-director Michael Dunaway is also an editor and contributor to Paste.)

5. Skin Deep

Again I find myself writing about Australia’s recent output of quality films. Skin Deep may be my new favorite, however, with outstanding performances from two young and new (to me) actresses. Caitlin (Monica Zanetti), a hardened, rebellious lesbian whose girlfriend has just left her, and Leah (Zara Zoe), a cute and properly raised “good girl,” meet by accident on the streets of Newtown, appearing to be opposites in most every way. But as they soon discover, both are suffering near-death experiences—Caitlin having just left the hospital after attempting suicide and Leah experiencing the final stages of terminal melanoma. As day turns to night, they show, and share, the worst of themselves and still bond as friends. Zanetti, who also wrote the film, brings a real freshness to her character and demonstrates enormous potential.

6. The Imitation Game

In rankings of historical importance, the attempt to break Germany’s Enigma code during World War II was near the top if you believe those who were there—men like Winston Churchill. In the film, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) almost single-handedly (Hollywood-style) breaks that code, enabling the Allies to decipher German messages about troop movements. If the story had only focused on that accomplishment, it would have remained entertaining. But what improves the film is the sad tale of Turing’s life as a closet homosexual in a country where the lifestyle was illegal at the time, in spite of the fact that he made some of the most groundbreaking discoveries in the area of computers. Even when he is closely similar to his title role in BBC’s Sherlock, Cumberbatch gives a laudable performance, especially when Turing is tortured by his secrets. His persecution, and eventual prosecution, is properly played out as a shameful moment in Britain’s history.

7. Phantom Halo

Co-writer and director Antonia Bogdanovich’s first feature film is remarkably assured, and even daring. It’s also one hell of a fun ride. The two main characters are the hustling sons of an alcoholic Shakespearian who’s fallen on hard times in more ways than one, but the film’s world is big enough—rich enough—to also contain other memorable characters like a nerd-makes-good counterfeiter, a throwback-noir bombshell, a dashing and menacing black British gangster, and a host of others. The film is in love with its many eclectic influences, in love with its excellent soundtrack, perhaps most of all in love with its Shakespeare-in-the-gutter language. My guess is that you will be, too. —Michael Dunaway

8. Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me

This year, I haven’t seen a more honest and courageous story than that of singer Glen Campbell’s farewell tour after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. But the film is as much a love story as it is a farewell. In its first act, we see Campbell successfully navigating the challenges of performing night after night. With help from his wife and children, especially daughter Ashley, Campbell wows the crowd, playing a mean guitar and singing strong. But he needs a teleprompter for the lyrics of even his biggest hits like “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” and “Gentle On My Mind.” Blake Shelton, Steve Martin, Keith Urban, Bruce Springsteen and Bill Clinton are just a few of the stars paying tribute in the film. It hits its stride, however, with behind-the-scene moments with his wife Kim as they deal with Campbell’s illness in their private lives. The old TV footage helps to illustrate just how big of a star Campbell was in the 1960s and 1970s. By the end of the tour, his condition worsens. The most emotionally charged moment comes when Ashley speaks before Congress about his father’s failing health in support of continuing medical research.

9. Showrunners

Now that the men and women behind our favorite TV shows are no longer just a name in the credits, we’ve all wondered what it’s actually like to be the J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon or Ronald D. Moore, working to get your show on the air and then to get an episode out week after week after week. Director Des Doyle spent four years talking to the aforementioned showrunners and more than a dozen others to give us a peek into the world of TV-making magic—and mayhem. A job that was best described in the film as “painting a picture, writing a novel and doing your taxes at the same time” comes across as both a dream and an all-consuming task. It’s a fascinating documentary full of wisdom and humor from the men and women that have helped bring about a renaissance on the small screen, thanks to an apparently deep river of blood, sweat and tears. —Josh Jackson

10. Wild

While sometimes feeling like a National Park infomercial, Wild holds enough interest to follow along with Cheryl Strayed’s (played by Reese Witherspoon) real life, 2,000-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Of course, if the story were only about the hike everyone would have written a national bestseller like Strayed. But it’s her backstory of an abusive father, a terminally ill mother, and multiple downfalls through drug abuse and promiscuity that gives us hope that she can succeed. It’s a film tailor made for Witherspoon with her cute, overly optimistic attitude and ill-prepared outfitting at the beginning of a trail that has deterred many who have attempted it.

11. 61 Bullets

When U.S. senator Huey Long was assassinated in 1935, he was one of the most polarizing politicians in America. But next to the killing’s strange circumstances and questionable techniques of investigation, it makes the death of President John F. Kennedy and of his accused killer Lee Harvey Oswald look like the simplest of homicides. Directors David Modigliani and Louisiana Kreutz create a compelling argument to, at the very least, rewrite the official history of what happened the night Dr. Carl Weiss, while heading home from a house call, was shot 61 times by bodyguards at point-blank range after he supposedly shot Senator Long. “The winners write history,” says one of the interviewed subjects in the film.

12. Hardy

For professional boxer Heather “The Heat” Hardy, life’s blows are tougher outside of the ring as shown in Natasha Verma’s debut film. From a childhood assault to weathering Hurricane Sandy, Hardy—a single mother—struggles to make it in what really is “a man’s world.” The filmmaker shows an eye for the heart as we witness Hardy’s emotional ups and downs while her trainer/boyfriend pushes her in the pursuit of greatness. With every step comes another goal, as when Hardy strives for the attention of boxing promoter Lou Di Bella. Hardy is an impressive first effort for the 20-year-old Verma.

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