The Night We Came Back to Fantastic Fest

A veteran attendee’s notes on the first day of the rest of Fantastic Fest’s life, plus evidence that ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ really exists.
By  · Published on September 21st, 2018

I had to be corrected. I thought it was two years ago that Fantastic Fest was consumed with controversy. No, it was last year. We all deal with stressful and even lightly traumatic events in different ways. That and my memory is bad sometimes.

Last year, Fantastic Fest ended up on the national news stage for reasons that felt simultaneously undesirable and necessary. Stories exploded about an environment in which sexual harassment wasn’t taken seriously, women felt unsafe, and incidents were swept under the rug. It was enough to cast a pall over the entire festival. And in my mind, it was for good reason. An entire community of film lovers, who usually spend the second-to-last week in September every year together huddled around the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse, was forced to reckon with its culture. It happened in real-time. Between screenings, at parties, in line for the bathroom, it was top of mind for everyone in attendance. And while it certainly appeared to those on the outside (and on Twitter) that everyone was going about their lives and having a good time, real work happened. Real changes were later made. There was progress, even if it didn’t feel that way in the moment. For so many, the moment was just hard.

Returning to Fantastic Fest this year is both a reminder of how much progress has been made and how much work there is left to do. You can see it in the face of Drafthouse founder Tim League. Once the figurehead of Fantastic Fest Fun, League, who built the Drafthouse from nothing alongside his wife Karrie, spent last year working out of sight, forced to reckon with mistakes, to listen, and to change. In passing, a brief nod of hello from Tim League reveals some of the wear and tear. He looks like a man who’s worked very hard in the last year. That wear and tear won’t change what happened before. It’s not a cause for comfort for those who were victims. But the fact that it’s matters. Change isn’t easy, but it can help us be a better person, build better communities, and foster safer and more welcoming spaces for others.

Fantastic Fest won’t, nor should it ever fully recover from what happened last year. That’s as much a part of the festival’s history as the year Paul Thomas Anderson showed up and surprised everyone with There Will Be Blood‘s world premiere.

Seeing Tim and Karrie League return to Fantastic Fest feels notable. It’s hard to say why just yet. For some, it probably feels like welcoming home a family member who’s been through a rough time. For others, it could very well be too soon. Both are valid. Either way, I’m inclined to believe that it’s important for the hard work to continue out in the open. It’s vital for the two most important people in the small, but bright universe of Fantastic Fest to be present, to listen, and be accountable. I was happy to see them both.

Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Elsewhere, I may have stumbled into several movies on opening night. And while neither of the two films I saw (before and after my evening nap, as you might expect) were Halloween, both were interesting.

The first was a film that very proudly proclaims in its opening credits that it’s been in the works for some 25 years. At Cannes this year, there were reports of audience members taking their phones out during the opening credits to snap a photo of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” in all its title card glory. They just wanted the world to know that it’s real.

It is real. And while I won’t pretend to be an expert on the many movies this could have become over the years, this version isn’t half-bad. Terry Gilliam deploys some old tropes about obsessive masculinity, but he does so with the benefit of having two brilliant actors in the middle of his farce. Adam Driver gives us the full range of performance — from manic to withdrawn — switching from one extreme to the with the snap of a finger. He plays a Wes Anderson type who, while shooting a commercial in Spain, visits a small village where he shot a student film a decade prior. The only problem is that his student film had unintended consequences for some of the authentic village folk he cast. Including, but not limited to the old man (played by the impossibly charismatic Jonathan Pryce) who now believes he is the real Don Quixote de La Mancha, a Knight-errant, roaming the countryside in search of chivalrous adventures with his squire Sancho. Part existential crisis, part surreal adventure, Gilliam’s film relies heavily on the charm and magnetism of his two leads. And while it meanders about in a way we’ve come to expect from Gilliam’s later work, it’s a fairly entertaining film.

Following my main event of the evening (the aforementioned nap), I also found my way into the Allison Williams-led thriller The Perfection. A source on the programming team for this year’s fest flagged it not-so-subtly as THE FILM to see at this year’s fest. As is evident in the more fulsome review I’ve already published, this one is the goods. The experience was reminiscent of seeing Goodnight Mommy several years back. Not for any specific story reason, but in the when I got to the end I was very sweaty and the palms of my hands were marked where my fingers had been applying tremendous pressure during the film’s third act. The Perfection is that kind of intense.

The Perfection also felt like an oddly relevant way to end the first day of the rest of my Fantastic Fest life. It confronts some hard trauma in a way that’s both unnerving and deeply satisfying. I’m not saying a violent-as-hell, mildly trashy thriller in which Allison Williams plays the cello is going to fix anything about our society, but it felt good in the moment.

Walking out of the theater, I was struck by the juxtaposition of righteous rage in The Perfection with the absurd nonsense (chronicled below) of the opening night party. At its best, its worst, its weirdest, and its most challenging, the soul of Fantastic Fest remains.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)