Let’s be honest: Austin Film Festival has never been the most prestigious Texas film festival. It’s a mini-SXSW that gives film lovers an affordable way to check out indie productions and the films that will garner much Oscar buzz in coming months (at a much more affordable price, mind you.)
Austin Film Festival was off my radar for most of the year, so it’s a surprise to find that I saw more films I enjoyed here than at SXSW or Fantastic Fest. In fact, there was only two films I disliked (Sal) and only mildly so.
Read on for the best of the fest.
Susan Sarandon, Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Yes, I’m fully away that I left out Sarandon’s presence in my review and, God, do I regret it. Although the film could do without her office romance subplot, she is adorable yet majestically sad as the bored, lonely office mom of soul-searching, stay-at-home stoner Jeff. Her subtle mannerisms for comedic effect remain believable enough to fit within a Duplass film. Watching her office romance develop over the course of the film is mostly enjoyable because of her performance.
Runner-up: Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
Angst-ridden teens are often as unbearable on the big screen as they are in life, but since Woodley is gorgeous and Alexander Payne is a masterful director, you’ll miss seeing her when she’s gone. Mostly because of the bathing suit but … you know. She’s really good, OK!?!
George Clooney, The Descendants
You never think that movie star that your mom and all of her friends swoon over will someday become a grey-haired actor playing a loser. A very endearing loser. The Descendants is one of Clooney’s best performances. It makes me wonder what About Schmidt would be like if it starred a 20 years younger Jack Nicholson.
Runner-up: Jason Segel, Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Segel may be sticking to the same familiar role, but he’s as lovable and hilarious as he has ever been. This might push him over to the status of being a “will see any movie he is in”-star, which would probably mean something if he didn’t have such good taste in selecting roles.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Dir. David Gelb)
Despite loathing documentaries in my teens, I’ve come to appreciate them above other genres in recent years. I think this is a natural development for anyone who has seen as many films as I have. You eventually get to a point where you see films for their cliches. We go to the movies because we want to see interesting stories told through a unique point of view, so when a documentary achieves this so well, it can be a movie-going experience unlike any other. For its 105-minute runtime, director David Gelb creates a visually-stunning, dreamlike presentation of a tireless sushi chef who won’t stop for anything less than perfection. I left the theater feeling changed and intensely reflective, something that doesn’t happen often enough simply because films this good don’t happen often enough.
Runner-up: The Descendants (Dir. Alexander Payne)
As much as I love everything Payne has done since Election, I don’t think of him as a top-tier director. Well, now I do. Along with the quirky characters that you go from hating to loving and introspection into rich white men in crisis that you expect of Payne, The Descendants presents a newfound gift for visual storytelling. Every frame of this film feel so calculated yet full of feeling.
Butter: “The onslaught of jokes and weird, one-dimensional characters makes the story hard to believe and the characters hard to sympathize with. It’s an absurd family comedy at the start, but it wants to be something more by its end.” 
Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters: “I’m not even a Tetris fan and I have no hesitance in saying Ecstasy of Order is one of the best videogame films of all time.” 
Jeff, Who Lives at Home: “Despite flirting with more scenic set-pieces and bigger-name stars, Jeff, Who Lives at Home still comes from a unique place that only the Duplass brothers could have imagined and it’s their best film yet.” 
Jiro Dreams of Sushi: “Despite taking on such a small subject, Gelb keeps the film visually and intellectually exciting. His filmmaking reflects the polished, clean style of Jiro’s cooking. Every frame of the film is gorgeous. Slow zooms, atmospheric lighting, and crisp visuals turn the kitchen scenes into glorious food porn and the exterior scenes into travel guide eye-candy.” 
Like Crazy: “Like Crazy is a fashion ad come to life. It’s undeniably pretty but also empty and vain. It all comes down to one question: Do you want to stare at something beautiful for 90 minutes?” 
Sal: “With extremely restraining conditions, Franco and Lauren manage to give us a glimpse into what kind of man [Sal] was in real life. It’s not always interesting, but it manages a difficult task of making a celebrity biopic feel real. Painfully real.”