Each September, deep in the heart of Texas (and the fall film festival season) you will find Fantastic Fest, a festival that for the last 16 years has served as a refreshing change of pace for critics and industry representatives alike. More importantly, however, is the remarkable level of enthusiasm it generates among film fans who attend year after year. They will be among the first to tell you that the eight days spent at the Alamo Drafthouse in South Lamar is unlike anything you will experience all year. When I attended for the first time last year, I quickly realized they were absolutely right.
Started by Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League and Ain’t It Cool News creator Harry Knowles, two of the founding fathers of what is perhaps the most vibrant film community not on the east or west coasts, Fantastic Fest has been the essential stop for genre film lovers. Certainly most festivals have blocks for horror, sci-fi, and crime thrillers; but the programmers in Austin reach to the farthest depths to find some incredibly original fare. As a result it is not uncommon to have something like Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room screening next to a documentary about Turkey’s film industry, a Norwegian disaster film, and a Korean dark comedy.
For many of these reasons, Fantastic Fest has yet to become a cornerstone of the public consciousness when it comes to fall movies, but for what it lacks in scale (Toronto) and awards season prestige (Venice and New York) it makes up for in unique programming and a passion for film that is emblematic of its eclectic locale. Furthermore, you probably will not find another festival where the debates are meant to end in fist fights, the karaoke machines are always on, and the beer never stops flowing. Sure, Fantastic Fest offers plenty to scratch your cinephile itch, but it is also one heck of a party.
Even after the apparent retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, the storied animation house Studio Ghibli continues to churn out visually sumptuous and thematically poignant features, the latest being The Red Turtle, which debuted at Cannes earlier this year. Directed by Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, the film begins as a story of one man’s survival on an unforgiving, deserted island, but near its halfway point, the film shifts into something entirely different—a contemplation of family and humanity’s relationship with nature. During the aforementioned first half, I found myself drawing comparisons to last year’s The Revenant, but mostly in support of Ghibli’s view that we can cohabitate with nature rather than outright conquer it. The final half connects closer to Ghibli’s more recent films, including The Wind Rises and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Almost completely devoid of dialogue, The Red Turtle allows you to chew on the heavy ideas it presents, but it will likely take a second viewing to fully digest.
The Red Turtle
A film that left me as soon as I stepped out of the theater, however, was A Dark Song. The debut feature from Irish director Liam Gavin, A Dark Song centers on a grief-stricken woman who hires a strange occultist to perform a six-month long ritual in the hopes of finding some kind of closure. Her plans to achieve this closure changes the further she descends into the ritual process, but her final epiphany, though telegraphed from earlier in the film, falls flat because the film does not effectively lay the emotional groundwork throughout its 99 minute running time, relying instead on heaps of exposition to provide more detail on how the ritual is performed. The ominous score is a highlight and does a great job of setting a perilous tone, but the film as a whole does not seem to know how to fully capitalize on its unique premise.
Estimated amount of queso consumed: 2.5 lbs.
Structurally, Fantastic Fest is split into two halves, and nearly every film selected for the festival has a screening time in each half of the eight-day stretch. This allows the more high-profile films to be less exclusive for fans and volunteers hoping to catch a screening, but it also gives smaller films more opportunities to be discovered. As a result, when I arrive for what is now the second-half of the festival, I have a good sense of which under-the-radar films took attendees by surprise.
On the high-profile side are Andrea Arnold’s American Honey and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, both of which have their champions after debuting at Cannes earlier this year. Arnold’s film, about an impoverished teenager joining a group of youths who travel the country in search of a better life, tries to do a lot in its nearly three-hour running time—part-road movie, part-coming of age story, and part-exploration of a specific class’ view of the American dream. As a result American Honey wears some of these hats better than others. The film is at its best when it fixates on the inherent disillusionment of Americans, both rich and poor. These moments throughout the film work so well because Arnold lets her characters and the environment she’s created speak for themselves. It is when the metaphors become so overt and contrived that American Honey begins to falter, and therefore, no matter how many well-placed pop songs appear in the film, it is not the anthem of a new generation it strives so hard to be. Conversely, Verhoeven’s character portrait of a rape survivor coming to grips in her own personal way succeeds because it has no interest in being conventional. Instead, what we get from the Dutch director’s first French-language film is another essential performance from the fabulous Isabelle Huppert, who propels the film forward when the moral and psychological quandaries become increasingly difficult to process. I am not going to attempt to decipher what the film has to say about a very challenging topic, but I do think the film succeeds in questioning our preconceived notions about how survivors can or should react to this kind of trauma.
Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl
My first surprise of the festival has to be the independent film Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, a throwback ghost story to the late 70s/early 80s era of American cinema. The film centers on Adele, a young girl who is tasked with caring for her reclusive and agoraphobic aunt in her creaky Victorian home. What the two differ in age they share in isolation, so when an exceedingly attractive girl in town befriends Adele, our protagonist is torn between this new friendship and her duties to her aunt, all the while some supernatural elements progressively enter the fore. Director A.D. Calvo and cinematographer Ryan Parker nail the aesthetic of the time period, utilizing numerous camera techniques found in films like My Summer of Love and Beautiful Creatures. I was also reminded of the recent work of Alex Ross Perry, including Listen Up Phillip and Queen of Earth. Without relying on the typical methods of modern horror, Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl still manages to build genuine suspense through a balanced combination of mystery and dread. It is the kind of film that is as beguiling as it is unnerving.
The festival would not be possible without the help of scores of volunteers. Most live in the Austin area, but there are others (including myself) that come from other parts of the country. Of course, most film festivals rely on hours of work from volunteers, but Fantastic Fest is the only festival I have attended where their work is deeply appreciated and recognized in a number of ways. Volunteers are able to see films during their shifts, they receive a meal during each shift, and they are rewarded with a special volunteer party and screening. It is just another aspect of Fantastic Fest that makes this experience so special.
Barring any revelations on the final day, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is poised to be my most memorable film of the festival. This story of two Korean con-artists working to scheme an affluent Japanese woman out of her inheritance works on a multitude of levels. Structurally, the film shifts in point of view and chronology to build a considerable amount of suspense and intrigue. Park’s camera placement and movement manage to flesh out the characters even further and elicit humor throughout many of the film’s bizarre scenes. It is this combination of impeccable craft and downright outlandish sequences that makes The Handmaiden a lasting experience. Fans of the director will not be disappointed even if he has traded his signature grisly violence for a substantial amount of sex-appeal. The triangle of seduction formed between the main characters elevates the the film beyond the heist genre into a more complex look at socioeconomic class, familial ties, and the clash of eastern and western cultures.
I was also thrilled to be invited back to the Xanadu Cinema Pleasure Dome podcast where I discussed The Handmaiden and a few other films with hosts (and my good friends) Melissa and Windy. You can listen to the episode here and my appearances from last year’s Fantastic Fest here.
Number of breakfast tacos devoured at Fantastic Fest: 8
And just like that, it is all over. What was a whirlwind of a festival ended with quite a bang. I started my day with Paul Schrader’s latest crime picture Dog Eat Dog, which features a couple of zany performances from Nicholas Cage and Willem Defoe. The particulars are nothing new: a trio of thugs takes on one last job after getting out of prison with the hopes of setting a straighter course for their lives. As you would expect, more than one thing goes wrong. The comedic banter between Cage, Defoe, and relative unknown Christopher Matthew Cook keeps the film afloat, but just barely. Dog Eat Dog tries to be a meta film about crime films, but the genre’s tropes need to be subverted—not simply acknowledged—in order to deliver a more lasting experience.
The afternoon and evening program blocks made for some difficult decisions among festival-goers. J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, the pilot episode of HBO’s Westworld, the Cannes sensation Toni Erdmann, and Colossal—the latest from festival-favorite Nacho Vigalondo—all screened Thursday afternoon/evening. I caught the German comedy that many believed should have won the Palme d’Or earlier this year, and I was not disappointed. Not only is the film—about an estranged father attempting to reconnect with his career-ambitious daughter—wildly funny, but it is also one of the most intelligent films I have seen this year. Directed by Marin Ade, Toni Erdman clashes with just about all of the typical elements we expect from Hollywood comedies. Instead of forcing unearned laughs, Ade focuses on the rich character study of a father and daughter. As a result, we get a surprisingly sincere film that elicits genuine humor.
The Eyes of My Mother
My final film of Fantastic Fest was one I had been anticipating since word of a sleeper horror hit came from Sundance. The Eyes of My Mother, the directorial debut of Nicolas Pesce, is shockingly disturbing, but more surprising is the level of assuredness and confidence in the filmmaking craft on display. Shot in black and white, the film delivers one hauntingly beautiful image after another, and the sickeningly creepy score brings unease out of the most ordinary appearing scenes. Without revealing too much, one might summarize the film as a cautionary tale about the perils of being a sheltered and/or isolated youth and the ramifications it has on a person’s adult life. Pesce takes common feelings—curiosity, loneliness, and the desire for friendship—and twists them to their most perverse form. The film does not hugely deviate from or build on these concepts, but The Eyes of My Mother still leaves a lasting impact—a fitting end to another strong festival.