Dive in and enjoy being invited to play in the sandbox of the coolest kids in town. That’s how I feel every year at Fantastic Fest, which has easily become my favorite fest to attend in town (and the world actually, edging out Sundance for ease of navigating the venue – you can’t beat one location). Each year I feel Fantastic Fest ups its game, bringing the best in genre film to Austin, TX to mystify and excite rabid fans. What works so well is their broad definition of ‘genre,’ allowing them to be without a doubt, the best ‘international’ film festival in Austin.
I really enjoy doing my Fest in Fives articles (Five Favorites, Five Frustrations, and Five Fails) and I have to say, this year, it was very difficult to find 5 films in the more negative headlines, and impossible to narrow down my favorites… To put this article in context, I didn’t see every film at Fantastic Fest (that would be impossible) but I saw over 50 features and each of the shorts programs. I generally avoid retrospectives because I prefer to see new material. I loved the Bollywood motif for the festival this year, but I must admit I wsn’t interested in seeing any of those films. This was similar to how I felt last year about the Turkish theme, although that one was based around a great doc about Turkish cinema. This year’s theme felt a little forced and standing around in the crowd for 8 days I never once heard anyone discussing any of those films. But the poster design and the opening night party (and food) was really great, so that’s sort of a mixed take away. As far as events, I tend to just stick to movies, and I know some of the ‘best stuff’ at Fantastic Fest are the debates and feuds etc., but I just don’t know how I would review that.
So with that in mind… here is my Fantastic Fest in Fives.
- SPLIT (dir. M. Night Shyamalan) My wife call me a notorious M. Night apologist (I will defend Lady in the Water ‘til my grave), but his new film about three high school girls abducted by a man with 27 personalities inside of him is his best since SIGNS. It’s simple and contained, and working with Blumhouse Productions is probably the perfect about of artistic freedom and monetary restraint to get a truly gifted story-teller back to focusing on what he does best. James McAvoy is simply mesmerizing as 27 shades of the same villain, each distinct and fascinating.
- ELLE (dir. Paul Verhoeven) Calling this film a revenge thriller really does a disservice the complicated portrayal that Isabelle Huppert brings to this French entry for the Best Foreign Language Film doe next year’s Oscars. A CEO of a software company, Michele does her best to put her life together after being brutally raped in her own home by a masked assailant. Smart and sexy, the film doesn’t shy away from Michele’s own fascination with her assault, even when it draws her into a relationship that is potentially life-threatening. This was a film I went into with no preconceptions, and walked out knowing I had seen one of my favorites of the year.
- DOWN UNDER (dir. Abe Forsythe) America hardly has a monopoly on race warfare, as this brilliant but very black comedy from Australia proves. Set during the 2005 race riots in which the whites tried to keep the new immigrant Lebanese off the beach in suburban Sydney, the film follows two carloads of would be troublemakers, on both sides. Out for blood but both a bit on the dim side, these two cars are fated to come together and when they do, the film still manages to be surprising. Its funny and its heartbreaking, about something important and genre because… it’s violent? I guess? See that’s what I mean. The programmers at Fantastic Fest really know their audience and no one who saw this film didn’t rave about it afterwards.
- COLOSSAL (dir. Nacho Vigalondo) Only Nacho can take a film that for anybody else would be about a giant lizard stomping through Seoul and instead focus on the out-of-work recovering alcoholic Gloria (Anne Hathaway) who has to return home for the first time in years. Actually, the entire point of the film is in fact the connection between those two characters, as Gloria begins to understand for the first time ever the consequences of her actions (which are mirrored and amplified in the giant lizard across the world by virtue of supernatural connection in the park across the street from her house). When Jason Sudeikis’s character begins to fight with Gloria, a giant robot shows up in Seoul to fight with the lizard. It’s a film that is entirely in service of a metaphor, but under Nacho’s sensitive, funny and heart-warming direction, COLOSSAL lives up- to its name.
- ARRIVAL (dir. Denis Villenueve) Any attempt to talk about this film will either reveal major plot twists or sound hokey. Which I don’t want to do because this is a film is a rare triumph. It uses SciFi and our first contact with an alien race to say something so profound about the human condition, something as basic as communication being the foundation to society. I have a love-hate relationship with Villenueve’s work (loved Sicario, hated Enemy) but must say I am now 100% on board with the new Blade Runner.
Other Favorites: The Autopsy of Jane Doe, The Handmaiden, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, Nirvana the Band the Show, Sweet, Sweet, Lonely Girl, The Young Offenders
- SHIN GODZILLA (dir. Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi) As far as Godzilla films go, this one is really fantastic. Although it suffers from the same fate as most in the genre – with the human characters really having very little interaction with the namesake character and in general basically powerless – the film excels in its crucifixion of bureaucracy and its argument for more home rule by Japan over its military (a leftover from WWII). What it is infinitely frustrating about the film is the nedless number of characters and locations, each introduced with a super-title. In a film where I am already reading subtitles for all the dialogue, I don’t also need to know everyone’s job or where exactly they are sitting. My eyes were exhausted at the end of the film.
- A DARK SONG (dir. Liam Gavin) This film, which takes us through the minute details ad nauseam of a rite to call a demon, eschews plot for a drawn out examination of two characters and their relationship, the occultist and his employer. Although there is nothing wrong with this in theory, the film ended up treading water for about thirty minutes in the middle (is the demon here or not). Then, when we finally reached act three, the underworld that was brought into our plane felt more like a low budget haunted house than anything actually frightening. I am pretty sure there was one sequence where I was supposed to be scared by a guy in a grey sweat suit and ski mask. This film could have been a great twenty minute short.
- SALT AND FIRE (dir. Werner Herzog) This environmental thriller is beautifully shot and full of provocative ideas but rife with issues. Most of the characters are cartoony, with villains later revealed to be not so bad, still acting like villains, and in retrospect not making much sense as characters. However, the biggest issue will ruin the film (which I don’t mind because this is the first on the list I’d like to steer you clear from). Veronica Ferres plays a UN Geological Surveyist. She is hijacked by Michael Shannon who drives her out to the middle of a salt flat and abandons her for days with two blind children. She comes to understand the issues of the land with new found respect. Fine. But when Shannon returns days later to pick her back up, she forgives him, hugs him and even snaps humorous pictures with him. Didn’t buy it for a second and undercuts the entire film with its ridiculousness.
- PLAYGROUND (dir. Bartosz M. Kowalski) Not really a bad film as far as idea, shooting and performance goes, but this dark drama about the day in the life of three polish middle schoolers suffers not understanding just how much story there was here. This could have been an amazing 20 minute short, but like A DARK SONG, I was bored by the minutiae the film chose to display. I think we watch all three kids walk to school, with no dialogue. This could have been done with three 5 second shots. The end of the film is very difficult to watch, but by the time the film finally made it there, I had long since check out due to boredom. There is also a bit of bait a switch going on here where one of the main characters (and the only one who actually ‘wanted’ anything) doesn’t even factor into the end of the film, so her storyline feels in retrospect just one more way to stretch this story out.
- THE RED TURTLE (dir. Michael Dudok de Wit) I love Studio Ghibli films but this film really blew it by making a story-telling decision (no dialogue) and then clinging to it past the point of logic. A castaway ends up on a deserted island – we know he can talk because he says ‘Hey’ like ten times as he searches his surroundings. After building several rafts, each of which are destroyed by a giant turtle, he beats the turtle to death. The turtle then becomes a beautiful woman and they fall in love – of course the woman is non-verbal (not that bad because then you never have to answer how she can fall in love with someone who basically killed her). At this point, I gave up on the movie because I could never forgive him for what he did, and could not forgive the woman for forgiving him or even acknowledging what happened. But then it got worse. They have a child. Now the child has half his DNA so probably could be taught English… but he never teaches them, so they too do not communicate verbally… except near the end of the film when the boy also should out ‘Hey!’ So did they learn a language and we just never saw that? I don’t know but it really felt like the film was more clinging to the idea of being non-verbal than telling an effective and logical story.
- THE VOID (dir. Jeremy Gillespie) This film actually started great, with some really terrifying white-robed mobs standing vigil outside a hospital threatening to kill anyone who left. In fact, the first thirty mnutes were great, but the entire film falls apart shortly there after. The villain is a mad surgeon who is performing surgery to bring his daughter back to life, but it is never quite explained qho attaching tentacle to people are going to do that, or if he is doing surgery to make them that way or if they are coming form another plane, or why everyone else seems to be behind him as a leader, what do they get out of it? There are a duo of characters who somehow get into the hospital safely through the white robbed mob, but we never understand what their connection is to the doctor or why they care or why they are so angry with everyone else there. Its just a non-sensical film that disintegrates out of a few great opening images.
- DOG EAT DOG (dir. Paul Schrader) Paul Schrader should not be allowed to direct films. The Taxi Driver/Raging Bull screewriter has no ability to reign in his actors and make them give nuanced performances (Nicolas Cage and Willem Defoe spend the whole film chewing scenery). None of these characters are compelling and the story is one we’ve seen a hundred times (something a great director might be able to rescue). Add to that the stupefying sequence in which Cage is handcuffed to a car and dragged and somehow lives, escapes and can still walk. Fuck this film. Its just bad people shouting at each other. And not even interesting shouting.
- WE ARE THE FLESH (dir. Emiliano Rocha Minter) This is one of those weird for the sake of weird films that doesn’t do much for me. The characters were not very interesting and what really pissed me off was the sort of lie to the audience the film creates. The whole thing feels post-apocalyptic, with people taking shelter in an abandoned building and food at a minimum. But at the end of the film (big spoiler) they walk out and everything is fine. They were just poor and looking for a place to crash. It’s a lie to the audience because we are only able to see what we are shown, but aren’t expecting to see a lie. I spent the whole movie trying to figure out why is a world were gasoline has to be made from scratch and traded for eggs, someone have 10,000 rolls of packing tape. In the end, it was because the director was hiding the world. Lame.
- THE UNTAMED (Dir. Amat Escalante) Another weird for its own sake, this film also suffered from leaving major scenes out and then showing characters in new places mentally and never explaining the change. Apparently there is an alien squid like thing that sexually pleasures people in a shed until it hurts them, and yet people keep coming back.. much like a clunky metaphor for an abusive marriage. But there is nothing particularly compelling the film offers on that subject, and instead we watch character after character make stupid decisions with no ‘plot’ insight. No one has any goals in this film, so you are just watching a slice of life, a bizarre unrealistic life.
- SHORTS WITH LEGS (various directors) I generally like shorts programs (and like a lot of what else I saw at the fest) but this program, a mish-mash of arty plotless meandering and (self-described) WTF-ery really showcased some of the worst filmmaking at a major festival I have ever seen. Leaving out THE PROCEDURE (which has played 100 fests since winning a Jury Award at Sundance and has my name on it in a not very important credit) and BARK (dir. Amanda Kramer), a fantastic dialogue about the psychological games people play with other, the rest of the program was more of that weird-for-weird’s-sake mentality with added ‘bonus’ of being poorly executed. Almost every single one of them was twice as long as they needed to be to make their point, or lack of point. Special commendation of awfulness has to go to SISTER’S FIRE whose unwatchable 25 minutes made most of the audience desperate for a knife to slit their wrist. I think five minutes of it was end credits – and somehow this guy is an alumni! I guess the rationale for this shorts block was to pick the most random stuff the fest received, but there had to be better films than this. Again, not my stuff, but I didn’t hear anyone after this say anything positive about any of the films except the two I mentioned, and PACO, which was cute but about five minutes longer than it needed to be.