A Decade in Austin Films
The city’s cinema, from indie visions to Oscar winners and international blockbusters
Austin is a film city, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Every year, dozens of local filmmakers produce features and short films that have turned what was once seen as a music city into one of the most important creative hubs for cinematic storytelling. Our writers have looked back at the last decade in ATX moviemaking to find the landmarks and the future paths. These are the projects that made Austin a home to Hollywood and those that kept its unique spirit of rebellion. They are by filmmakers who have shaped the scene and those that will guide the way forward, who have put a little bit of the city on the screen, or gone out and placed a very Austin lens on the wider world. – Richard Whittaker
Boyhood(2014, D: Richard Linklater)
The Impossible Dream
Call it the absurdity of ambition: In 2001, Richard Linklater called some friends and decided to make a film, in installments over 12 years, depicting the growth of a young man (Ellar Coltrane) from the first pangs of meaningful independence to first days of college. Of course, it helped that his friends included Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, and that as an Oscar-nominated filmmaker with his own production company he had the resources to get it done and the stability to know he'd still be making films a decade later. But there's something so handmade, homemade, and intimate about Boyhood that it quietly whispers "Austin filmmaking" in every frame. The idea that a director of Linklater's caliber and renown could have pulled this off in any other major filmmaking town is ridiculous. But here he had the space – both creative and literal – to craft a portrait that told every indie filmmaker not to limit their dreams. – Richard Whittaker
"World of Tomorrow"(2015, D: Don Hertzfeldt)
Drawn to the Scene
It used to be that folks moved to Austin to join the music scene. Later, people began moving here to become a part of the film biz. Success breeds success. But for every Linklater, Rodriguez, and Malick who call Austin home, there are dozens of filmmakers who are less well-known, and thousands more who toil away anonymously. And then there's one of the world's most heralded animators, who moved to Austin about 10 years ago, and lives and works mostly under the local radar. Don Hertzfeldt is a two-time Oscar nominee whose animated films include "Billy's Balloon," "Rejected," and "It's Such a Beautiful Day." His aesthetic pairs simple stick-figure drawings with deep philosophical conjectures. His influential work, which is largely self-distributed, ranges from guileless charm to bitter forecasts. His 16-minute "World of Tomorrow" reached a new high in 2015 with its story about a 4-year-old girl (Hertzfeldt's niece) who is visited by a third-generation clone of herself. It belongs on any top 10 list of the decade's best films. – Marjorie Baumgarten
Tower(2016, D: Keith Maitland)
An Austin Tragedy, an Austin Healing
At the time it was an unheard-of anomaly. On August 1, 1966, 25-year-old former Marine sharpshooter Charles Whitman climbed the 28 floors to the observation deck of the University of Texas tower and, armed with an M1 carbine, a 12-gauge shotgun, and assorted other weapons, began killing students, faculty, and bystanders below in what would be the longest and most horrific 96 minutes in the history of UT-Austin. Fifty years later, director Keith Maitland's stunning reconstruction of that day's events humanizes the tower shootings via a remarkable, unique technique that combines archival footage and audio with rotoscoped animation over actors speaking the actual words of the people who were there. Maitland's film never mentions Whitman by name, instead choosing to focus on the incomprehensible events experienced by those on the ground below. Tower is a masterpiece, lensed through the intimacy of Whitman's targets, and as such it remains one of the finest documentary films ever made. – Marc Savlov
Call Her Ganda(2018, D: PJ Raval)
The World Is Watching
Though a defining piece of Austin filmmaking, Call Her Ganda has little to nothing to do with Austin. Instead, 2018's award-winning documentary by award-winning local director PJ Raval offers a complicated and intersectional story about transphobia, imperialism, poverty, and the centuries-old tension between America and the Philippines. Before its Texas premiere, Raval described the documentary on the murder of a young Filipina trans woman – and its aftermath – as his most ambitious film to date. Having spent nearly four years invested in, investigating, and following the story of Jennifer Laude, the care Raval took in making the hauntingly beautiful film is evident to all who watch. But Call Her Ganda isn't remarkable because it's an easy-on-the-eyes tearjerker. The complex film proved Austin can birth stories of international interest and hold its own as both a political and artistic player. It also put Raval, as a filmmaker, on the map for his deft hand at weaving together such fraught storylines both past and present. – Sarah Marloff
Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke(2016, D: Brenda Greene Mitchell and Sam Wainwright Douglas)
The Song Remains the Same
Nostalgia holds powerful sway in Austin, a city forever having "peaked" five years before whenever you arrived. The pull to capture the magic of a constantly fast-changing city became a clarion call over the past decade as filmmakers set their cameras on the live music institutions that have contributed to the city's distinct culture.
Brenda Greene Mitchell and Sam Wainwright Douglas' documentary Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke, which premiered at SXSW 2016, stands as the foundation of these films looking at a changing Austin through a tightly focused exploration of its hallowed landmarks. The legendary honky-tonk itself offers the starkest of contrasts, nestled between towering new condos on South Lamar as a holdout from another era.
This year's Nothing Stays the Same: The Story of the Saxon Pub by Jeff Sandmann continued the trend, following the songwriter haven through its anticipated relocation and sudden saving. These chronicles offer more than just nostalgia, however, instead reminding us of our roots as the city grows and focusing on the people that create these scenes as much as the buildings. – Doug Freeman
Alita: Battle Angel(2019, D: Robert Rodriguez)
Austin has been home to Hollywood productions before, like Miss Congeniality and True Grit. Robert Rodriguez has proved time and again that he could make his style of indie blockbusters, like Machete and Sin City. But when James Cameron finally decided to hand over one of his most beloved and delayed projects – the adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's groundbreaking manga Battle Angel Alita – to another director, the decision to shoot it in Austin was a landmark. Rodriguez had already proved that his East Austin Troublemaker Studios could be a one-stop-shop for visiting productions with 2010's Predators, but this was a massive endeavor that called on studio space and professionals all around town. Yet Austin handled it without blinking, and $400 million in global box office later, it was proof that Austin truly is open for business. – R.W.
The Tree of Life(2011, D: Terrence Malick)
From Mount Bonnell to a Movie Olympus
Austinite (via Ottawa, Ill.) Terrence Malick's fifth feature film, The Tree of Life, is a prayer whispered to the cosmos. The impressionistic childhood memories of an eldest son (Sean Penn) caught up in a Freudian tug-of-war between a nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain) and disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt) largely shape its wandering narrative, which is vivid with emotional details of growing up in a middle-class family in 1950s Central Texas. But in true iconoclastic fashion, Malick fearlessly takes the film to an epic place, literally evoking the spiraling gases of Creation and the primordial ooze of life on this speck of dust christened Earth to bewilder and awe before reuniting the departed on a metaphorical beach of forgiveness. When the film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in recognition of its audacious transcendence, Malick firmly entered the pantheon of the world's most respected filmmakers, marking Austin as an improbable source of arthouse cinema. – Steve Davis
Support the Girls(2018, D: Andrew Bujalski)
Goodbye, Garden State. Support the Girls has become the cinematic scream for our generation. In the film's final moments, our three main characters – unemployed after separately rebelling against the shitty owner of sports bar Double Whammies – trade slugs of alcohol on a rooftop, ready to seek out another one of the countless "shitty jobs" they see in the world. Finally, the three women stand on the roof and scream. And scream. And scream.
It's a bittersweet metaphor: an act of individualism lost in the inhuman hum of I-10 traffic. Austin director Andrew Bujalski's Support the Girls may be billed as a comedy. Still, there's nothing uplifting about its depiction of the uneven playing field occupied by working-class women. Theirs is a recognizable world of institutionalized bigotry, meager paychecks, and, above all, survival. In a decade dominated by the anxieties of the American middle class, Support the Girls shows the stories so often forgotten. – Matthew Monagle
Pahokee(2019, D: Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas)
Tales From the Swamp and the Heart
One of many scenes that has stayed with me from Pahokee (Patrick Bresnan's and Ivete Lucas' 2019 documentary about a handful of high schoolers in a small Florida Everglades town – pop. 6,000 – navigating their senior year) is when teenager Jocabed has just gotten word that she has been accepted to college. She goes to share the news with her parents at the taco shop they own. Popping in the door, bursting to tell them, she pauses to help behind the counter, taking orders. It is that juxtaposition that Bresnan and Lucas sustain through the film: of dreams vs. reality, of college fairs vs. farm work, of joyous spectacle vs. the heartbreaking realities of life. It is an incredibly moving feat of humanistic observational cinema.
Bresnan and Lucas have been in Austin for over a decade, the Austin Film Society being the first to recognize their genius and award them multiple grants. They've collaborated with PJ Raval, Yen Tan, the folks at Big Medium, and many others in the Austin film community, helping to foster a vibrant scene. They are currently filming their next feature at a Florida nudist resort. I cannot wait. – Josh Kupecki
Yellow Rose(2019, D: Diane Paragas)
Boot-scooting Legacies and Film Futures
Diane Paragas, a UT graduate, nurtured Yellow Rose over 15 years, from a proof-of-concept short to her feature debut. It's a coming-of-age tale about honky-tonk-loving Filipina teenager, Rose Garcia (Eva Noblezada), fighting to live and work undocumented after her widowed mother is taken into custody by ICE outside of Austin. Wowing audiences at the Austin Film Festival* and acquired by Sony Pictures for a 2020 release, Yellow Rose is so striking in its originality, so attuned to this city's musical legacy, and so timely in its portrayal of immigration that it seemed the perfect film to cap off this decade in Austin cinema – a signal of a (hopefully) new dawn in filmmaking that centers on communities we seldom see onscreen. – Beth Sullivan
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Yellow Rose screened at SXSW; in fact, its local premiere was at Austin Film Festival.