Another Fantastic Fest has come and gone and I have to say, pulled off with a perfection rarely seen at any other festival. The ticketing and line system got everyone to the films they most wanted to see and provided openings for single ticket buyers (several people got in for Standby for some of the hottest tickets of the fest – Anomalisa, High Rise, The Witch). Sound and picture were perfect for every screening and the ancillary events filled brains with memories that can happen at no other festival. There is a reason Fantastic Fest is the best festival in Austin, it’s organized, it’s for people who actually want to see films, and it knows what it is. If I had to find something to be critical about, I will say the difference between a Q&A where the programmer had questions prepared versus the ones where they just immediately opened it up to the audience is immeasurable. This is one of my personal pet peeves at festivals – they do it SXSW, they do it at Sundance – the movie ends and whoever has the microphone says something like ‘that was great, any questions for the filmmaker?’ I want to shout out DO YOUR JOB. Get the conversation going. I will quickly add that when people did have questions ready, the experience was great. Tim League did a great Q&A with Anomilisa (of course), Luke Mullen did several good ones.
And the films? They were consistently interesting. Between the press screenings and the screening room, and the few titles I had seen at earlier festivals (mostly Fantasia and Greenwich International Film Festival), I think I saw about 90% of the program, not including retrospectives (which don’t really interest me unless you have the creator there). What follows is my Fantastic Fest experience in fives. Five films I loved, five films that failed, and five that frustrated, either because they started so well and then blew it, or because they were missing one or two critical elements. I’m not including anything on this list that I’ve already written about, or saw at another festival.
5 ZOOM – A fascinating and quirky comedy about the power of the creator that follows three stories, all connected in a beautiful loop. If there was any film at Fantastic Fest that I would have programmed at Austin Film Festival, it’s this one. Each of the three stories has a completely different look and tone (one is rotoscope animation, Waking Life style) but they all center around body image, and society’s view of the perfect form. Alison Pill plays Emma who works at a Love Doll Factory and becomes obsessed with the size (or lack thereof) of her breasts. She toils away on a graphic novel about an action film director (Gael Garcia Bernal) whose penis inexplicably shrinks as he tries to make a sensitive movie. His film, about a Brazilian model who wants to be a novelist (played by Mariana Ximenes), is something the studios want nothing to do with. It’s a delicate dance through the interlocking stories that pays off like little else in the festival.
4 LOVE & PEACE – I actually saw this one in the screening room because I had not been too impressed by Sion Sono’s previous work (I know, sorry, personal preference) so it wasn’t at the top of my list. I can only imagine the power this would have had over me in the theater when I was so exhausted from days of films to make me overly emotional. A beautiful story about relentless love and devotion and the hazards on the path to stardom, Love & Peace tells the story of a would-be folk singer who forges a bond with his pet turtle. When his co-workers mock him, he flushes the turtle down the toilet. I am literally breaking into tears as I am typing this, remembering it. The turtle goes on a strange journey and finds himself in the sewers being tended to by an old man who watches over all the discarded toys and pets that have been abandoned by their owners. The old man gives the turtle a special wish potion and the turtle selflessly wishes for his owner’s success in love and pop stardom, which plays out to amusing consequences above ground. It’s a special film with a singular viewpoint. The tenderest of Fantastic Fest.
3 GREEN ROOM – Not surprisingly, this ultra-violent and slick thriller about a punk band under siege in a neo-nazi bar, Jeremy Saulnier’s follow up to Blue Ruin, is spectacular. Add to it Patrick Stewart’s supporting turn as the bar owner and you’ve got one of the most surprising and artful films that will see release in 2016. It’s a bit like discovering Straw Dogs for the first time, or Clockwork Orange. These are characters with deep back story that only peak above the surface briefly. And don’t get too attached to anyone… this is a bloodbath. This is a film I had high expectations for and was not at all disappointed.
2 THE WAVE – This Norwegian disaster film was so intense that my heart literally hurt for an hour after the screening. You might argue that there is nothing particularly original about this film (about a rockslide-caused tsunami ) but there are few films that accomplish their goals with such. The characters are well established, the tension is endless, and people die. A lot of them. This is not a Hollywood film where a building collapses and we move on. There are corpses floating in the water. There is a sense of inescapable doom that seems particularly Scandinavian. And there are some pretty epic visual effects. My favorite thing about this film is that it could have been made in the US, sure, but it wasn’t, and I don’t think we would have done it as well.
1 LIZA, THE FOX-FAIRY – No other film at Fantastic Fest captured the idea of ‘Fantastic’ as much as this feature début from Hungarian director Károly Ujj Mészáros. In 1960’s Budapest, Liza is a live-in nurse for the widow of a Japanese Ambassador. When the widow dies, Liza’s only friend is the ghost of Japanese early rock and roller Tomy Tani, who becomes jealous when Liza starts dating, killing off anyone that gets too close. Liza becomes convinced she is cursed, and may be a fox-fairy, something she has read about in Japanese folklore. This is the sort of film that has so many original ideas crammed into it, you have to forgive it for being a little all over the place. There are musical sequences, designs exploding with color, and comedy pay offs ninety minutes in the making. Never has a body count this high been this charming, and Mónika Balsai fills her character of Liza with a naïve earnestness that makes her easy to root for. She is an Amelie with an edge, a Cinderella in stilettos.
Honorable mention: The Witch, Victoria, Assassination Classroom, The Invitation – all films I saw at earlier festivals.
Even More Honorable mention: Lazer Team, Anomilisa, Follow, Darling, films I covered in depth earlier.
Almost Perfect: Camino, The Brand New Testament, Demon, The Similars
5 THE PASSING – Do not read this if you don’t want the ending ruined. The film has a bit of style to it, and a creepy old man who has a very odd relationship with a young woman who finds herself and her husband marooned on his property after a car wreck. The triangle is all well-developed but the ending of this film is one of those annoying whiplash” rewatch the whole movie” attempts – but without any of the plants or payoff to make the film have any meaning. They are both dead. Or almost dead. Its like a bit of purgatory and she has to decide is she wants to live or stay here. But there are no guideposts along the way. Its not like Fight Club or Sixth Sense where repeat viewing adds to the experience, it’s just an annoying “pull the table-cloth out from under the plates” moment that breaks all the glasses. It’s stupid. And it makes the last 90 minutes a waste of my time.
4 TALE OF TALES – Who is this film for? Packed with recognizable actors, this fairy tale world has none of the message or commentary that one would expect of a re-examining of the make-believe adults, something The Princess Bride or Into the Woods does so well (the original stage play, not the steaming pile of Disney dog-turd released as a film). There is in fact nothing to be learned from these stories. And this is clearly not for kids with nudity and orgies and murder. So I am trying to figure out why and how this movie got made. There are essentially three kings in the same kingdom. It’s sloppy – why not find a way to link these stories more artfully? The film feels like a film adaptation of English translation of French storybook that was assembled out of order by someone who only ready Flemish. I don’t know. Plus it was soo long and slow.
3 EVOLUTION – there were certainly people who loved this film, but for me I need SOME explanation to what is going on. In this strange world where there are only women and young boys, some weird sort of coming of age ritual occurs where the boys are placed in a tank and … never mind, I have no idea. No attempt is ever made to explain what is going on. Furthermore, the lead character, a boy who doesn’t want to take his medicine, is basically completely inactive. As a protagonist, he just lets things happen to him. When he finally makes his escape… the film ends. It really felt like a midpoint to the film – now what do you do with the information? The pacing is so glacial, especially considering how little is revealed, Evolution feels more like a bloated short than a feature.
2 YAKUZA APOCALYPSE – you can say it’s a cultural thing, but this film doesn’t make any sense. Just because someone is Takashi Miike doesn’t mean he can’t make a bad film. There are assassins, there are vampires, there are killings that seem completely unwarranted by the demands of the plot. Look, I’m fine with craziness (read my above comments on Liza and Love & Peace) but the world has to be consistent with itself. You cannot have one character with completely realistic turtle face prosthetics and another in a plush frog suit that looks like something from a children’s television show. It’s not the same world. And you must have some semblance of structure so the craziness has a framework to hang the plot on. This does not.
1 THE MISSING GIRL – This film isn’t even that terrible, its just hinged on an entirely misguided principal that in this day and age someone would NOT HAVE A CELL PHONE. One message on a cell phone undoes the entire story. And no, this is not set in a prior time. Plus the way all these side stories build up information that goes nowhere, its like there were whole plot lines that were cut without excising other scenes. And there is no mystery or tension in the film at all because we see the girl right away. We know she’s not missing. So who cares. There might be a film in here some place but this was not very effective in finding it.
Dishonorable Mentions: The Bunker (weird for the sake of weird), Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between A Criminal & A Whore (impossible to follow), Sensoria (feels like a high schooler’s first screenplay), Speed (inexplicable flashbacks and a bunch of identical characters), Stand by for Tape Back-up (possibly the most self-fellating film ever made), Ludo (just because it’s the first horror film made from a certain area doesn’t mean its good), The Mind’s Eye (fighting someone by staring at them strongly is never going to be exciting on screen, plus you cannot set out to make a cult film, that just sort of happens), The Assassin (two different times the characters give clunky expositional paragraphs and we still don’t really understand what is happening) and The Devil’s Candy.
5 HIGH-RISE – I almost loved this film where the class system breaks down into some sort of Lord of the Flies and I guess my problem is more with the original source material, the J. G. Ballard novel it is based on. The film has a brilliant first act that sets all the floors up, and pretty great third act where it has all gone to shit. The problem is there is nothing that gets us from one to the other than a three-minute montage. It’s a bit like watching a three-part miniseries without the middle part. I’m also not sure I buy that they all just stay there, and no one from the outside comes in to help. There are smashed cars in the parking lot, piles of garbage, dead bodies. Nobody from the city complains or gets involved? I just don’t buy it. This might have been one of those times a filmmaker needs to take the source material and mold it into a new form and tell the story the same but better (like Peter Jackson does – there I said it).
4 APRIL AND THE TWISTED WORLD – my first frustration was Fantastic Fest keep referring to the film as April and the Extraordinary World when that was clearly not the name. This movie is very original with a highly detailed steampunk universe and talking cats and lots to love. What’s not to love is the endless amount of exposition that opens the film, with several different levels of pre-story before the film begins. My guess is this is some producer being worried about whether or not the audience would understand this very particular world they were about to enter – but part of the fun of a new world is discovering it, so stop holding our hand. It also drags a bit at the end with a few plot points having very little play into the final outcome of the story.
3 COZ OV MONI 2: FOKN REVENGE – I wanted to love this film, the music is absolutely fantastic, and the lead characters are charming, but there is basically nothing going on. The plot is infinitesimally small and drawn out like as strand of gum stretched across the room. There is never any tension developed because though they claim to be on a revenge hunt, they don’t do much of anything and are never in danger. When they do get to the end, there is not much of pay off. My advice, find the soundtrack album and hope that someone finds a better way to utilize these men’s talents.
2 SCHNEIDER VS. BAX – This is a film that basically works but yet is ultimately frustrating because it could have been so much more. A showdown between hitmen, the film populates the world with fascinating side characters (daughters, hostages, ex-lovers) who build up on either side like potential land mines on the battlefield about to be crossed. Unfortunately, most of them are dispatched with little or no effect on the plot. And the title characters show no growth at all from their experiences, which undercuts the purpose of the story. Finally, we were told by the programmer to laugh, before the film screened, because it was a comedy, but it hardly was. The pacing and situation made very little laughable, only a bit amusing. This is a film that could have been a highlight but never really found its tone.
1 TOO LATE – The most overrated film this year at Fantastic Fest was Dennis Hauck’s debut, a gritty noir with moments of brilliance. It is certainly set up to please, shot in grainy 35mm and as a series of five (almost) single shots, one shot per act. The problem is, of course, it puts style over substance. Because of the constraints of the one-shot motif, there are some pretty awful performances on film, people stumbling over lines, very stagey blocking, and long bits of awkward camera movement. The final shot has a faked moment in it and then a couple traditional edits at the close – which don’t really work. Had they saved the edit for the one sequence of photo booth shots it would have been really strong, but with the few cuts right before, it sort of undercut the power of the almost-moment. Finally, there is a side plot that felt completely underdeveloped, involving two small time drug dealers, that made me think there was a whole reel of the film that was cut. People are falling all over themselves to praise this film, and focusing on the shooting method and style, but they are forgetting that the primary goal of a film is to tell a sound story. Rope does that, using a similar method. Birdman faked the one shot method, but the story was interesting (I found the fake one-shot style very distracting). Victoria (shown at Fantastic Fest) really nails telling an entire story in one shot, even if it’s a little long and maybe could have used some edits (or different style) for the first 30 minutes. Too Late has moments. The use of five acts told out of order really works (far better than anything similar in obviously being referenced Pulp Fiction) and the web of characters is colorful and draws you in. As a whole though, it sacrifices story to style and that makes it one of the most frustrating films at the festival.
Almost as Frustrating: Lovemilla (Quirk overload), Office (clunky reveal and not sure I buy the killer), Remake, Remix, Rip-Off: About Copy Culture & Turkish Pop Cinema (very poorly organized documentary – why not some sort of chronological history), Hard to Get (characters behaving stupidly for no reason), The Keeping Room (missed a lot of opportunity to be about something and not just a siege movie), Man vs. Snake (needed more of a villain, and would have liked a little more of the wider history of competitive gaming), The Treacherous (there is a whole character I kept confusing with another character because he didn’t seem to have enough purpose in the film), and The Glorious Works of G.F. Zwaen (so close… I just wanted a little more intrigue, tension and heisty-frolics – him being an author never really paid off and the ending didn’t have enough of a twist).
Already written about my Frustrations: February
Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide, including the highly anticipated St. Lawrence Film Festival. He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival. His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.