The Best Films We Saw at Fantastic Fest 2016

From werewolves on patrol to alien encounters to handmaidens, we saw some fantastic movies in Austin last week.

Fantastic Fest 2016 is over.

We saw movies, we saw friends, and we saw Satan’s handiwork in both an evil marching band and a devilishly clever escape room. Itchy-O and the Satanic Panic room were both highlights this year, but for our best of the fest list we’re focusing on the films.

I saw nearly thirty movies, and while Neil didn’t quite catch that many he may still have set a record for himself. We watched great films, garbage films, and everything in between, and our top ten of the fest are listed below.

Fantastic Fest 2016 is over. Bring on Fantastic Fest 2017!

Another WolfCop

Heading into Another WolfCop, I was worried that having never seen the original WolfCop I’d be completely lost. As it turns out, there isn’t much mystery in writer/director Lowell Dean’s low-budget hyper-Canadian horror comedy: it’s about a cop who is a werewolf. When WolfCop’s town is besieged by a billionaire with a nefarious plan disguised as making his municipality great again, the lycanthrope arm of the law springs into action with bloody gusto. There’s a lot of goofy myth-building and even more ridiculous gore effects. It’s all in good fun, as Another WolfCop briskly gets from high-speed shootouts to running over lizard people with a Zamboni. It even takes a few moments to let Kevin Smith show up and be funny. While it might not be a paragon of slick effects or even scares, it’s a film clearly made with a pure love of cinema and country, making it fun for everyone involved. – Neil

Arrival

I typically make a habit of skipping films at the fest that I know are already destined for an imminent wide release, but I decided to make an exception for Denis Villeneuve’s (Sicario, Maelstrom) latest. It was the fest’s opening night film, I’ve loved the majority of his films, and early comparisons to Contact had me salivating. And guess what? It’s now sitting in my top five films of 2016 (so far). It’s a smart, suspenseful tale that delivers themes of hope and emotional devastation with equal beauty. It satisfies a science fiction itch while managing to be one of the year’s most affecting films, and I already can’t wait to see it again. – Rob

Down Under

For those who discovered the terrorism comedy Four Lions in Austin during SXSW of 2010, it’s been a long time since a movie has exposed the hilarious intersection of idiocy and prejudice in quite the same way. It’s a tough gambit, as humor around racism and terrorism has become increasingly difficult to pull off in the wake of its growing presence in our real world. But perhaps a movie like Down Under, which follows two groups of fictional morons in the midst of a non-fictional race riot that occurred in Australia, is exactly the movie we need right now. It sheds glaring light on the ways in which humans can be radicalized on any side, ultimately convinced that doing harm to someone else is the right answer. Director Abe Forsythe has made a film that is unafraid of some deeply problematic subjects and undeterred by sensitivities. It’s not for the faint at heart, but at least it’s honest in its exposure of the inherent ridiculousness of things like white nationalism, regardless of nation. – Neil

The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook (Lady Vengeance, Thirst) is a meticulous filmmaker who tells stories as much through imagery as dialogue, and there are few films this year as relentlessly gorgeous as his new period thriller. Part kinky love story, part dismissal of the male gaze, and all mesmerizing, the film tells a twisted tale of romance, cruelty, and deception that holds your attention in an alternately icy and sensual grip. The film also manages to be a commentary on oppression – Japan over Korea, men over women, the wealthy over the poor – but let’s not pretend that’s why any of us will be watching and re-watching it for years to come. – Rob

Headshot

Physicality and brutality. These are two hallmarks of the current wave of Indonesian action movies, headlined by Gareth Evans’ The Raid series. In the same vain, The Mo Brothers have teamed with Raid star Iko Uwais to deliver their take on The Bourne Identity. That is if Jason Bourne were sliced to hell and covered in blood two-thirds of the way through the film. Uwais’ double duty as star and action choreographer are both impressive, as the film delivers a bit of mature melodrama to go along with its punishing action. It’s a must-see for anyone who is sitting idly waiting for another Raid sequel. – Neil

My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea

Everyone comes to Fantastic Fest for a different reason, but if you’ve come to see something unique, this film from comic artist and newly learned animator Dash Shaw is about as unique as you’ll see. While it boasts a splendid cast roster – including the likes of Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, John Cameron Mitchell, and Maya RudolphMy Entire High School’s charm is in the imperfections of its visual style. Shaw’s animation is raw, but always earnest. Like the scribblings of an introverted high schooler, the film comes to life by straying outside the lines and filling the screen with colorful emotion. It gets a bit experimental at times, but that’s part of its charm. – Neil

Raw

Coming of age films are a common sight on movie screens, but few come with such audacious ideas and visuals as Julia Ducournau’s feature debut. The tale of a teenage vegetarian whose arrival at (the world’s most unrealistic) veterinary school sees her challenged socially and ethically to the point of tragedy, the film explores the conflicting power of desire and restraint in some fresh and bloody ways. – Rob

Safe Neighborhood

There were a couple “better” films at this year’s fest, but Chris Peckover’s (Undocumented) sophomore feature was the most surprising and purely entertaining. It takes a familiar sub-genre (home invasion thriller) and plays beautifully with conventions and expectations. The small cast is terrifically charismatic, the writing is sharp, and the smile-inducing thrills continue through to the end. This is a fun movie, and I’m excited for more of you to see it. – Rob

Toni Erdmann

A nearly three hour German film about a father and his adult daughter trying to reconnect? Yeah, I didn’t exactly expect to love it, but that’s the great thing about seeing movies without expectation. The film is hilarious, touching, and cringe-worthy, and despite the long running time its simple story never feels stretched out or belabored. I would happily spend another few hours with this duo as they move through life struggling to stay true to themselves despite the world’s best efforts to stop them. The film will have you laughing, crying, and quite possibly cheering aloud, and that’s something worth celebrating. – Rob

The Truth Beneath

Among the best of Fantastic Fest’s 2016 slate were the numerous Korean thrillers that played. Kyoung-mi Lee’s The Truth Beneath tells the story of a politician’s wife who takes matters into her own hands when her daughter disappears. It’s a complex thriller about political maneuvering that dives headfirst into a rabbit hole of darkness, emerging with a poignant and artfully twisted outcome. There’s a fearlessness to the way Lee weaves her narrative web and takes on tragic material with unflinching resolve. The film also benefits from a powerful performance from Ye-Jin Son as the desperate mother. If dark Korean thrillers are your thing (and they should be at this point), The Truth Beneath should be on your 2016 watchlist. – Neil

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