I saw so much at Fantastic Fest, it’s hard to process it. I have a bunch of interviews to write, so I’ll be rolling those out over the next month but in general, the first Fantastic Fest at the new /old location of the rebuilt South Lamar Alamo was a rousing success. The new ticketing system was a stroke of genius, I nearly always got my first or second choice for every session. The picture and sound were perfect in every theatre and of course, there is always food if you want it. I think once the rest of the complex opens around the theatre and a few more dining options within walking distance the Fest will be even more pleasant as you can only eat Drafthouse food for so long (and we’re talking about 8 days). If I had to find something to be critical about, the lobby is very small and even the area outside the front of the theatre does not leave much space for the massive influx of people that the fest brings with it. The Highball was even worse and was extremely noisy 00 I felt sorry for the game developers doing presentations in there as it did not seem most people were paying much attention. But who cares about the logistics, I’m here to talk about the films. I will say there are a ton of events that are part of Fantastic Fest that are not films – ‘debates,’ video games, the Fantastic Feud, etc. – but I ignored all that and went to a ton of films.
There are a few films that played Fantastic Fest that I don’t really think it is worth it for me to talk about. Housebound, Open Windows and The Guest all played SXSW. I loved all of them (I will have a piece on Open Windows in a day or two) but for me, they weren’t really part of the fantastic fest experience, they were catch-up for other fest missed screenings. The same goes for the Director’s Extended cut of NYMPHOMANIAC, which at five and a half hours and having debuted almost a year ago, was more bragging rights than anything. I will say I really enjoyed it, and I probably never would have gotten through the whole thing in one sitting without this opportunity.
Finally, I’d love to get a special shout out to BLIND, a film I saw at Sundance, that I went to again at Fantastic Fest because it was so darn good. Following a woman who has lost her sight, the film is a structural and narrative masterpiece as every scene the audience is left to wonder 1) is this actually happening, 2) if she is just imagining it is happen because she cannot see, or 3) if it is a scene in the book she is writing in which she has written herself as a character. This film, with its focus on story and the power of the writer, would have been a perfect selection for Austin Film Festival – and I have to say the audience there would have probably gotten a lot more out of it than the crowd at Fantastic Fest. I overheard several conversations in which people wondered at its inclusion.
But that’s one of the best things about Fantastic Fest – what is ‘fantastic’ is not very strictly defined and films range across many genres. What I found truly illuminating at Fantastic Fest, which I never would have expected, is the sheer quantity and quality of foreign films. In fact, I will venture to say that Fantastic Fest has the best international programming of any festival in Texas. Yes, a lot of it is horror-based, but there were a ton of noirs, thrillers, and even dramas. I almost think its time for the festival to rebrand itself, because it is so much bigger than the ‘fantastic’ moniker. Of course, they sell-out every year, so there is no need to make a change, but maybe its just about perspective. A lot of the best films I saw at Fantastic Fest were hardly genre films at all, they were films that could have played any festival in the world, and Fantastic Fest got them first (most of them at least). It’s really great to see arthouse fare arriving in Austin under any means possible.
So with that preview, I broke down all the ‘new’ films I saw into three categories The Good, The Bad, and The Problematic. I forced myself to divide them evenly into these groups so the edges fray on either side. I’ll try to not give away plot spoilers here, and I may be going into depth about some of these projects shortly on AMFM Magazine, so look for more coverage in the next couple weeks. Today, the best of Fantastic Fest, which you will see, is not always the most fantastical.
11. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
A beautiful film from Studio Ghibli, it is everything one could expect. A tale pulled from Japanese folklore about a bamboo cutter who finds a nymph in the woods and raises her as human daughter, eventually locking her away in a palace and trying to find a suitable husband for her. She tries to find happiness in our world but in the end, just does not seem to fit. The film is full of lush animation and a sweeping tale that draws you in and kicks you in the shins at the end. I would say at 2:17 its about 25 minutes too long, and the pacing was certainly out of sync with a majority of its audience here at Fantastic Fest, but the film did win the Audience Award, so there. It will be released in North America on October 17, 2014. Bears Rating: 7/10 Fantastical Scale 5/10
10. Duke of Burgundy
A fantastic character piece from Peter Stickland (Berberian Sound Studio), the film concerns itself with the very strange relationship between Cynthia and her young lover Evelyn, who pushes her to further and further extremes in their role-playing, even writing out scenarios and dialogue for her. When Evelyn’s demands to be dominated become more of trial than a pleasure, Cynthia begins to reexamine her desire to be in the relationship. The film features fantastic performances and some very steamy action. It also, when it finishes, feels like it is really about something much deeper than most of the films I saw at Fantastic Fest. There is a heartbreaking scene near the end after the tables have been turned somewhat that echos back to the opening that was a true triumph. I will say there is about a ten minute arty-auteur self-love sequence about two-thirds of the way through the film that almost lost me (and really was, despite being really well shot, entirely unnecessary) but hold on, because the film really does pay off in the end. The film does not have a US general release yet but is scheduled to play the Hamptons International Film Festival and Philadelphia International Film Festival in October. Bears Rating 8/10 Fantastical Scale 2/10
I’m a sucker for time-looping films where you have to constantly get your bearings and try to figure out what is real and what is artifice, so this New Zealand thriller about a drug that shifts your perception into an alternate reality (the drug is called Realiti) was perfect for me. It’s super low budget but the they make up for it with interesting sets and great actors. The film concerns a journalist who finds himself inexplicably connected to a woman who has maybe stolen her wallet and nearly overdosed at a hotel, only he meets her a again few days later and she is totally normal and married to his firm’s lawyer. Which reality is reality and which is ‘realiti.’ This is the kind of film you really need to see twice to pull everything out of it but in first viewing I was at the edge of my seat. And maybe under repeat viewing it wouldn’t hold up – even the producer at the screening sort of admitted it’s kind of intentionally messy. No US distribution plans yet. Bears Rating 8/10 Fantastical Scale 7/10
8. Force Majeure
A Swedish film that premiered at Cannes about a family that goes on a skiing trip and witness an avalanche. The way the mother and father react in the moment of crisis (she protects the children, he grabs his phone and runs) breaks their tenuous hold on happiness. An amazing set of performances, this film is like being uncomfortably trapped with your best friends who are on the verge of a divorce (in fact, there is a scene in the film that is virtually that). It is a fascinating character portrait that takes its time and allows the scenery to play to maximum effect. I will say I felt the film went on about ten minutes too long, feeling the need to tied up each character’s storyline nicely rather than leave us in uncomfortable unknowing, which is the core strength of the film. The Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film, the film plays Mill Valley Film Festival and Chicago International Film Festival this month before getting a more general release on October 24th. Bears Rating 8/10 Fantastical Scale 1/10
7. The Incident
A true triumph for Fantastic Fest, this film played at the market last year, and won the finishing funds it needed to make its premiere here now. The film follows two loops that two groups of people get themselves trapped into. They don’t know how and they don’t know how to get out. In the first, two brothers and a pursing cop end up in a staircase that seems to be nine levels, but just keeps repeating. There is a phenomenal shot in which we follow the cop as he runs past the brothers although the way down 9 floors of steps only to come across the brothers again – it is a true triumph of low budget filmmaking. The production design must also be praised as they turn this spotless stairwell into a den of trash after being trapped in it for 30 years. In the other ‘loop,’ a family on a road trip finds itself on an endless road without exits and only one gas station that they cannot escape. Again trapped for 30 years, the family frays and disintegrates until the step father finally remember something that might ‘break the cycle.’ The way the two time loops are connected is especially interesting, although I will say I had wished for a little more explanation in the fascinating premise. It may have been the director’s intent to leave a lot of the mechanics of the story a mystery, but it was somewhat unsatisfying in the end. The film made its world premiere at Fantastic Fest and is just starting its festival circuit but is searching for US distribution. Bears Rating 9/10 Fantastical Scale 8/10
6. Wastelander Panda: Exile
This web series from down under brought everything you could want from a live action sword wielding panda crossing a post apocalyptic desert in search of a child to replace on he has killed. The project is absolutely captivating (they’ve designed a whole world on their webpage), this story covers just a bit of the larger epic, which they hope someday to make as a long form television series (would be perfect for Showcase in Canada, and then rebroadcast on SyFy in the US, in my opinion). The writing is top notch with the voices of the Pandas very specific and the characters fleshed out with a detail seldom seen in these sort of Mad Max worlds. The societies and how they function as very well defined. My only faulting of this ‘film’ was that it wasn’t a film. As a series of websodes cut together, it has an interesting ebb and flow of conflict that probably is resolved by watching it in parts – see for yourself as it was intended, the whole series is online (as well as complimentary material). Bears Rating 9/10 Fantastical Scale 9/10
5. John Wick
Genre-fav Keanu Reeves plays an ex-hitman brought out of retirement by damage done to his dog (it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds, the dog was a gift from his wife after she passed, so the only connection he has left to her). After some truly lovely scenes of dog-guy bonding, the film gets down and dirty with Gun-Fu and serious ass-kicking as Reeves piles up one of the highest body counts to come form one man in a film. This is an edge of your seats action blowout with some phenomenal fight scenes of all varieties and Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones) making an appearance as a sniveling little sh*t of a son who causes the mayhem to ensue. I loved this film. It’s hard to say anything negative about it as it fully accomplished everything it sets out to do. I truly hope this is a new franchise for Keanu – his dry wit really works in this role and he gets to do what he does best, kick ass. The film gets its theatrical release on October 24th – in like 7000 screens hopefully. Bears Rating 10/10 Fantastical Scale 7/10
An absorbing classic sci-fi film (are you getting a sense what my favorite genre is, says the founder of Other Worlds Austin) in the mold (and really the shadow) of Blade Runner and I Robot. Antonio Banderas plays an insurance adjuster who checks on malfunctioning robots, generally household models which are programmed to value life above all else. When a cop (Dylan Dcdermott) discovers a robot making alterations to itself, something supposedly prevented by programming, Banderas and he try to track down the cause. What they find is the birth of a new ‘species,’ one that may be more advanced than our own dying race. At the center of the film is the idea of what life is, and whether it is worth fighting for. Banderas has all but given up on the world himself, and with a baby on the way, he cannot imagine spending any more time in the decaying city around him. This film is one of those rare full-worlds that draws the viewer in and has its own rules and morality, a perspective based on the works of the greats but remade entirely in the eyes of the director. This is one of the most solid scifi films to come out in years, one with big ideas and the depth to discuss them, rather than rely on cg-robots fighting each other. The film gets a limited theatrical release on October 10th with VOD on the same day. Bears Rating 10/10 Fantastical Scale 9/10
HORNS of course has a built in advantage, being based off a incredibly original novel and featuring a tongue-in-cheek performance by Harry Potter himself. The film follows the aftermath of a brutal murder in a small town. Daniel Radcliffe plays Ig, the prime suspect in the murder of his girlfriend, who inexplicably wakes up with Horns coming out of his head. This movie was the most fun of the who festival, it’s smart and funny, and fills its Stand By Me aesthetic with moments of great character development. The Horns give Ig the power to encourage people to follow their deepest desires, and forces them to admit their true feelings – which can be pretty disturbing when your parent all of sudden admit that they think you killed your girlfriend. Ig puts the horns to use to track down the true killer. I have to say, Radcliffe is fantastic in this film, effortlessly funny and charming and really making the most out of being ‘bad.’ The film takes a great book and resets it in a new medium, without really loosing any of the spice of the source material but making a film that is original and its own thing. Horns will have its theatrical release in the US on October 31st and makes a perfect Halloween date movie. Bears Rating: 10/10 Fantastical Scale 9/10
Hameo, or Sea Fog in Korean, is a fantastic maritime drama about a down on his luck captain who takes his fishing crew out on one last missin before having to sell the ship – smuggling in illegal immigrants. Apparentally the film is based on a play that was based on a true story, but don’t look it up because part of what makes this film truly special is not knowing where it is heading the whole time. Half way through the film the tone drops significantly darker, and we are in for a much more dangerous journey than previously charted. This was my biggest surprise of the fest, as I went in knowing very little. The cast is stellar and every single character is well-developed to truly give an ensemble mood. There is a touching love story between a member of the crew and one of the migrants, and there is a powerful performance from the once proud captain who watches the enterprise spiral out of control. Haemoo does not have a US release date, but try to see it on the big screen if you can. Bears Rating 10/10 Fantastical Rating 4/10
The only thing I can compare this to is American Psycho, that’s the last time there was such a mesmerizing anti-hero on screen as Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom, a siren-chasing freelance journalist, who often reaches the scene of crises before the cops and paramedics and sells his footage to news agencies for the highest price. His work ethic and his view on life color his every interaction, including his homeless assistant and the new program director he sells his wares to and virtually blackmails into a personal relationship. Wow, what a film. It was closing night for a reason and the whole thing is electric. This is an Oscar-worthy performance (Rene Russo is also quite good as the News Director) and should be dark horse smash when it reaches theaters (October 31st). Bears Rating 10/10 Fantastical Rating 3/10.