It’s not hard to see that Fantastic Fest has come and gone for another year. If many a film fan could find a way to “wear black” on Twitter, they’d do so in mourning of the end of another great year of hardcore geekery. It was a diverse year for the Fantastic Fest programming team, bringing in equal numbers the intense, the gross, the violent, the real and the fun. On the whole, a truly “fantastic” experience for all involved.
As we’ve done each year past, it is time for our Fantastic Fest Death Squad to round-up the festival and give you some parting thoughts. Most importantly, we’d like to leave you with a number of films that should occupy space on your horizon, films you should seek out when they finally get distributed in your region. To do this, each member of our coverage team has provided a recap of their experience and their three “Best of the Fest.” On the next page, you’ll find everyone’s nominations for the 2012 Death Squad Awards, highlighting the best films of each of Fantastic Fest’s competition categories.
This year marked my fourth time attending Fantastic Fest, and I continue to be just as enamored by and addicted to its particular charms as I was way back in 2009. Film festivals offer a rare experience in the quantity of films available for your ocular digestion, and Fantastic Fest in particular opens your eyes to films from every nook and cranny around the world. These are movies that will most likely never see a theatrical release in the US, and many of them won’t even get a domestic DVD release. Combine that with the chance to see and hang out with some of the finest movie lovers I’m lucky enough to know and the fest immediately becomes a highlight of any year. *A quick note, I’m intentionally not including wide release films in my top three list below, but if I did Cloud Atlas would be on there. I’d rather highlight the movies worth the struggle of seeking out and remembering over the course of the next year.*
Best of the Fest:
1. Blackout – It’s not often that Miller and I come out of a festival in complete agreement on the best film there… in fact it’s never happened before. But he’s right on this one. Blackout is a near brilliant thriller that gets absolutely everything right. It’s fast moving, suitably violent and often funny as hell, and there’s not a single bland or uninteresting character to be found. See it before the inevitable Hollywood remake.
2. Lee’s Adventure – What would you do to save the life of the person you love? Would you fight a robotic Bin Laden to the death? Lee would, and that’s actually one of the less crazy extremes he goes to. This Chinese film surprises with a fast and loose story that combines animated sequences, time travel and a love story, but the highlight is 12 minutes of anime that counts as the single most hilarious scene of the fest.
3. Sightseers – Ben Wheatley, the director the darkly weird and wonderful Kill List, returns to the fest with a film that takes a decidedly twisted 180 degree turn into flat out comedy. The story follows a couple in the early days of their relationship who take a road trip exploring nature, national monuments and murder. It’s light-hearted homicide to be sure, but that doesn’t make it any less bloody or entertaining.
Beer expended, my shirt covered in blood, the owner’s identity uncertain, and my throat hoarser than Tara Reid after sucking down a truckload of Marlboros, it was time to asess the whole Fantastic Fest situation. Climbing over the spent bottles, theater boarding passes, and crushed Red Bull cans, a thought struck me. Well, the crag like counter top struck me, but was followed by a thought. Though this year was heavy on the studio fare, those seemingly invasive titles turned out to be largely my favorites. I actually thought the lineup of smaller films, at least those I saw, were of middling to poor quality. That’s not to say there weren’t standouts. History of Future Folk, Bring Me the Head of Machine Gun Woman, and The American Scream were all exceptional. And yet, my favorite movie of the fest remains Looper. Cloud Atlas was also a tremendous victory for the festival, for sci-fi, and for independent film. Hell, even the couplet of remakes I viewed, Red Dawn and Dredd, far surpassed my expectations and proved to be sturdy tentpoles for this year’s fest. Now to slip into a coma until next week. Adios, muchachos.
Best of the Fest:
1. Looper – As I espoused in my review, Rian Johnson is one of the best hopes we have for studio sci-fi. His magician-like ability to weave crowd-pleasing mainstream elements and astonishingly clever stories into one unified filmic vision is inspiring.
2. The History of Future Folk – Definitely the feel-good-movie of Fantastic Fest. Charming, genuine, and featuring both hilarious comedic moments and heartfelt tenderness. The music by the real-life duo Future Folk was stellar.
3. Sinister – I know it’s a bit of a cheat, as it was also one of my favorites of SXSW, but as a horror fan I am obligated to laud well-crafted and legitimately scary titles. Sinister is without a doubt the most frightening movie I’ve seen all year, and I include That’s My Boy in that consideration.
As I watched Future Folk play to a crowd of red-helmeted movie lovers at the closing night part, I felt a mixture of joy and sadness. It was so gratifying to see audiences respond to the band’s film, The History of Future Folk, and yet sad to know that the moment was almost over. Another Fantastic Fest was almost in the books and as tired as I was, I didn’t want it to end. This year was the end of an era in many ways as the Alamo South Lamar is due to be remodeled next year and may or may not be ready for Fantastic Fest 2013 and while I know that’s a little scary for me and lots of other long time fest attendees, I’m hopeful that we can get the band back together next year and get everyone excited again. As a tear rolled down my cheek during Future Folk’s “Over the Moon,” I realized that more than the place or the films or even the beer, the people are what really make Fantastic Fest what it is. I know I’ll be there next year trying to make it seem like the same old Fest despite the new digs, and I hope you’ll join me.
Best of the Fest:
1. Holy Motors – A simply staggering achievement, Holy Motors eschews traditional plot and narrative to weave a complex series of vignettes highlighting a variety of themes while throwing in sly references to some of the best French films ever made. Anchored by an unbelievable performance from Denis Lavant in an incredibly demanding role, the film plays with convention and expectation and creates a spectacle unlike any other.
2. The History of Future Folk – Fun, funny and heart warming, The History of Future Folk was an all-around great film. The story springs from the lyrics of an existing acoustic music duo who sing about being from the planet Hondo. The movie written around the band’s songs turns that simple premise into an exciting adventure. While probably the most innocent film to ever play the fest, it also one of the most endearing. Pure joy.
3. Cloud Atlas – It is perhaps cheating a bit to include a secret screening, but Cloud Atlas was important for two reasons. The first is that it’s epic, challenging filmmaking on a grand scale, made outside the studio system, that deserves to be championed and supported. The second is that it was made by the Wachowski siblings (alongside Tom Tykwer) who were in attendance at the fest, perhaps a bit trepidatious to be around so many hardcore movie geeks after the reaction of some to Speed Racer and The Matrix sequels. It was so great to see the crowd react well to the film and even better to see fans treat the Wachowski’s with the warmth and respect they deserve. I hope it affirmed their decision to come to Austin and I sincerely hope that Cloud Atlas does well and that they continue to make difficult films for intelligent audiences.
This was my first Fantastic Fest (and won’t be the last). I swung into town on fumes and kept the engine running on beer and minimal sleep for the remaining week. I’ve been to other festivals before, but this one instantly jumped to the front of the favorites line. From the onslaught of screenings, conversations and tacos consumed, it is hard not to absolutely love the experience. By the last day, my body hated me, and as I got on a plane for a twelve hour travel day, a big part of me still wasn’t ready to leave. There was a distant comfort though in knowing that next year it’ll happen all again.
Best of the Fest:
1. Holy Motors – The film played out in such a brilliant wash of confusion and joy that it left me speechless To see it in the theater was a treat, on a smaller screen it wouldn’t resonate the same. I could sum up Holy Motors in a few sentences, but it wouldn’t explain anything. It is its own thing and a pleasure to sit through.
2. Hellfjord – It won’t leave me alone. Its three and a half hour running time flew by, carried on a fantastic premise and undeniable watchability. It’s funny and crude and smart at the same time. I can’t shake it, it pops into my head daily and makes me laugh.
3. I Declare War – It brought me back to my childhood. The intercutting of real-life and imagination coupled with the hardships of being a kid made it a perfect film for me. The acting was fantastic which for a film relying on an all child / teen actors is a hard feat to accomplish.
It’s been 4 days since the festival ended and I’m still in relative recovery mode. Late nights, early mornings, excessive amounts of cheese and just the right amount of beer. I was in a position to be a little more selective with my time slots this year and I’d have to say I was pleasantly surprised considering my lack of research. I chose most films on the fly and in prior years that would have resulted in a mixed bag of disappointment and shock. This year it resulted in predominate satisfaction. Smaller pictures were as memorable as some of the heavy hitters and while there was disagreement with a few of the word-of-mouth festival favorites the overall consensus is that this may have been one of the more consistently enjoyable collection of pictures in the festival’s short history
Best of the Fest:
1. Cloud Atlas – Ambitious in ways independent projects tend to be with the sheen of a heavily funded studio landmark. Cloud Atlas is one of the few one-of-a-kind cinematic experiences that capitalize on the grandness of a theater screen while hitting almost every emotional mark the medium has to offer.
2. Lee’s Adventure – Playful, adventurous, imaginative, hilarious and, most of all, romantic. It’s quick to make you tear up from warmth and laughter.
3. Berberian Sound Studio – One minute after seeing this film I didn’t like it. 20 minutes after seeing it, it was frustrating me. 1 day after seeing it I was still thinking about it. 4 days after seeing it, it’s in my top 3. It’s inarguably well made and constructed. It irritatingly lingers until it grows on you.
As my eyes opened the next morning, the world was heavy. My body made its case loud and clear that a week of drinking, sitting in a movie theater and long hours of writing and arguing about the finer points of found footage thrillers was not appreciated. But through all of the aches and pains of the Fantastic Fest hangover, there’s not a bone or section of intestines in my body that wouldn’t do it again. From some big name films to some wonderful discoveries, Fantastic Fest 2012 was one of better-rounded festivals we’ve seen in recent years. There wasn’t just one theme that emerged, but a number of great ones. The Canadian invasion, the Norwegian weird-a-thon and a group of intriguing documentaries. In its latest frame, Fantastic Fest was all over the place, in the best ways possible.
Best of the Fest:
1. Blackout – Of all the great discoveries of FF ’12, this Dutch crime thriller is one that I’d like to revisit immediately. In fact, I’m already on the hunt for an import Blu-ray. It’s a little bit of early Guy Ritchie, frenetic but not manic. Violent and smart, fully layered and all kinds of fun.
2. Looper – You may have seen this one already, as well, seeing as it hit theaters this past weekend. Why play it at FF then, if it’s opening wide the day after the fest ends? Because it’s an intelligent sci-fi movie that was made for this kind of crowd. Rooted with independent spirit and full of great ideas, Rian Johnson’s thriller is nothing short of brilliant.
3. The History of Future Folk – Dredd almost made my list, but that just doesn’t feel right. Shouldn’t I seek to highlight an enjoyable movie that will be worth the effort it will take for my friends and readers to see it? Yes, I should. Harmonious, good-natured and executed with wonderfully endearing performances, History of Future Folk will make you smile, guaranteed.
Click over to the next page for the 2012 Fantastic Fest Death Squad Awards…