Well, Fantastic Fest 2015 is over and done, and it’s time to take a look at the best this year’s Fest had to offer. Which was quite a bit — I feel like I saw a lot more good-to-great stuff than even middling/decent stuff, and only a handful of films I really didn’t like. Let’s kick this off with a traditional Top 10 list of my favorite new films of the Fest.
1. GREEN ROOM (USA, dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
Struggling punk band The Ain’t Rights drive 90 miles out of their way for a show promised by a young kid with a podcast, but the gig is canceled. With no other choice, they take the kid’s offer of another paying gig at an isolated club frequented by skinheads. The band arrives and plays their set, but when they’re loading out bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) stumbles upon a crime scene that club manager Gabe (Macon Blair) is trying to cover up. The situation rapidly escalates until the band is trapped in the club’s green room fighting for their lives against a violent neo-Nazi group trying to force them out and eliminate all evidence of the crime. Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film, BLUE RUIN, upended revenge film conventions and garnered huge critical acclaim that set expectations impossibly high for GREEN ROOM. Almost unbelievably, GREEN ROOM absolutely meets and very possibly exceeds those expectations. The cast is excellent, and the amazingly detailed production design brings the world of low-rent punk clubs to absolutely convincing life. There’s a lot of violence, but like BLUE RUIN, GREEN ROOM treats its characters and their chances of survival realistically. Saulnier also takes time to draw all the characters well, giving an unexpected twinge of sympathy for even some of the skinheads. Everyone’s stuck in an impossible situation, and compelled to act according to their own personal loyalties and ethics. On top of all this, GREEN ROOM is fast-paced and fun, with plenty of gruesome black comedy. This is one of the best films of the year, period.
2. LIZA, THE FOX-FAIRY (Hungary, dir. Károly Ujj Mészáros)
Lonely Liza is the caretaker for the widow of the former Japanese ambassador to Hungary. Six years ago, the ghost of Japanese pop star Tomy Tani started to visit Liza and they would sing and dance together. But when Liza reaches her thirtieth birthday without finding true love, Tomy sets into motion a devious plan to keep her all for himself by eliminating all potential competition from Liza’s life. LIZA THE FOX-FAIRY is a massively entertaining fantasy comedy, packed with beautiful images and a wall-to-wall soundtrack of faux-’60s Japanese pop tunes that are utterly convincing as products of that era. The film is hilarious and sweet without getting too dark, even though Tomy’s plan revolves around causing a whole lot of people to die. It’s tough to imagine anyone stone-hearted enough to resist the charms of both Liza and the film that bears her name. This one was a huge surprise, and seemingly came out of nowhere to end up as one of the best films at the fest.
3. LOVE & PEACE (Japan, dir. Sion Sono)
Ryo, a former musician now working an unsatisfying office job, impulsively buys a tiny turtle one day and names it Pikadon (a Japanese term for the atomic bomb). This momentarily inspires him to dream big dreams of rock ‘n roll success again. When his coworkers find out about the turtle and ridicule him, Ryo flushes Pikadon down into the Tokyo sewers and is immediately wracked with guilt. Pikadon meets a magical bum who takes in unwanted toys and pets. He accidentally gives Pikadon a wish-granting candy, and Pika’s wishes cause Ryo to be struck with musical inspiration that lead him to stumble into a music career. Meanwhile Pikadon grows larger and larger in accordance with Ryo’s ambitions. LOVE & PEACE
is, once again, a massive curveball from Sion Sono even after the wildly entertaining TOKYO TRIBE
. This is the sweetest film he’s ever made, a sometimes touching and genuinely heartwarming and hilarious story of rags to rock ‘n roll riches that just happens to include talking animals and toys and an adorable ever-growing turtle. It’s almost impossible to imagine the same guy who made NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE
is responsible for this! As always, it will be very exciting to see where Sono goes next.
4. EVOLUTION (France, dir. Lucile Hadžihalilovi? )
While out swimming in the ocean one day, Nicholas finds the corpse of a young boy about his age. He returns to tell his caretaker, who dismisses his concerns. When they return the next day to find the body, her search turns up only the distinctive red starfish Nicholas saw on the dead boy’s body. As the details of Nicholas’s life on the island accumulate, it becomes increasingly clear that he, his friends, and their caretakers are living in this isolated remote island for a specific purpose. EVOLUTION is the long-awaited second film from writer/director Lucile Hadžihalilovi?, whose debut was 2004’s excellent INNOCENCE. Like that film, EVOLUTION proceeds at a careful pace, gradually allowing details of its strange world to accumulate to allow the viewer to build an image of what is happening and why. This time, though, the viewer has much less concrete information to go on due to the minimal dialogue throughout. Whereas INNOCENCE worked with a strange dream logic, EVOLUTION presents fragments of what appears to be a much larger story through gorgeous and occasionally nightmarish imagery and very little dialogue. It’s a quiet, hypnotic film that invites the viewer to pay careful attention and thoroughly consider what they have seen. Here’s hoping it’s not another decade before Hadžihalilovi? directs another film!
5. THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT (Belgium, dir. Jaco Van Dormael)
God, as it happens, is real and lives in Brussels in an apartment building from which he created the world. He’s also a total asshole, inflicting nearly as much misery on his wife and young daughter Ea as he does on humanity on a daily basis. Ea finally decides to escape like her older brother JC. But first she uses her dad’s computer to tell everyone on Earth when they’re going to die, which ruins his entire system. Ea recruits a scribe—a dyslexic homeless man—and sets out to find six apostles and write a new book of the bible about their lives. THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT is one of the best, most original films I’ve seen this year. It’s poignant, hilarious, and completely unpredictable. The cast is excellent — especially young Pili Groyne as Ea — and the film has a look and tone reminiscent of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s collaborations but enough of its own identity that it never feels derivative. Instead, it feels more like a confident peer to those films.
6. HIGH-RISE (UK, dir. Ben Wheatley)
In 1970s UK, successful doctor Laing moves into an ultra-modern apartment building where there is a strict class stratification: poor on the bottom, rich on the top. As the building experiences intermittent power failures on the lower floors, a class conflict inevitably arises and the building descends into anarchy. As an absurdist satire of capitalism, the class concerns that have been a part of all of Wheatley’s previous films are front and center this time around. However, more than any of his previous work — even the straightforwardly comic SIGHTSEERS — HIGH-RISE has a streak of jet-black humor running through it that helps ground its more surreal moments. And there are plenty of those moments, brilliantly designed and staged to underline the bizarre contrast between the 1970s fashions and retro-future look of the building and the increasingly brutal behavior of the occupants and mimicking the visual style of 1970s films. Wheatley continues his streak as one of the most interesting filmmakers working in UK genre cinema.
7. THE WITCH (USA, dir. Robert Eggers)
Banished from his village for reasons never fully explained (although related to his strict Christianity), William and his family build a home and farm out in the wilderness of 1600s America. One day his infant son Sam is taken by something in the woods while under the care of Thomasin, the oldest of William and his wife Katherine’s five children. Katherine is devastated by grief, and while William believes a wolf took the boy, young siblings Jonas and Mercy insist that the family’s goat Black Phillip told them a witch took Sam. Weird occurrences begin to afflict the family as fingers are pointed and suspicions intensify. THE WITCH won best director at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and with obvious reason: it’s an intricately detailed study of life on the early American frontier, and the intense research done by writer/director Robert Eggers really pays off. Eggers plays the story (subtitled “A New-England Folk Tale”) totally seriously, and his chilling portrayal of the fears of 1600s American settlers makes this one of the most original and unnerving horror films in recent memory.
8. FEBRUARY (USA, dir. Osgood Perkins)
Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) are stranded at their all-girls school when their parents fail to show up to take them home for a February break. Rose is asked to watch over the younger Kat, but has her own agenda that doesn’t include babysitting a weird freshman girl. Meanwhile, a woman named Joan (Emma Roberts) arrives at a bus depot near the school where she meets an older couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly) who are visiting the area and offer Joan a ride to a nearby town. FEBRUARY is an extremely slow-burning horror story that steadily builds an atmosphere of oppressive dread and takes some very unexpected turns even up until its final minutes. It’s very difficult to talk much about it without giving away too much, but suffice to say that FEBRUARY becomes something that I can’t remember ever having seen before in its final minutes. All the performances are great, and the sound design and scoring are excellent in contributing to the film’s strange mixture of creeping terror and an underlying sadness. A seriously creepy and unexpectedly touching take on some familiar genre territory, FEBRUARY is one of the best horror films of the year.
9. TOO LATE (USA, dir. Dennis Hauck)
Private dick Sampson (John Hawkes) gets a call one morning from a young stripper he met a few years earlier named Dorothy (Crystal Reed). She’s in trouble and could use Sampson’s help. He comes running and quickly finds himself in the middle of a very messy situation, which the film presents out of chronological order. TOO LATE has one hell of a hook: shot on 35mm, it’s made from four single 20-minute takes–the length of a reel. The final reel has a few little edits but is also mostly presented as a single long take. Fantastic Fest viewers got the special treat of seeing the film projected from a 35mm print, making it one of only a tiny handful of new films at the fest screened on actual film. It obviously owes a lot to Tarantino with its referential dialogue and plays on noir tropes, but after a shaky start TOO LATE turns into an exceptional thriller. John Hawkes is perfect in the lead, and there are plenty of great character touches to accompany the impressive technical feats on display. This is very much a love letter to the films writer/director Dennis Hauck was influenced by as well as to celluloid itself.
10. REMAKE, REMIX, RIP-OFF: ABOUT COPY CULTURE & TURKISH POP CINEMA
(Germany/Turkey, dir. Cem Kaya)
If you’ve ever heard of “The Turkish EXORCIST” or “Turkish STAR WARS,” you probably have a vague idea of what sort of movies the Turkish film industry makes. This is a great documentary tracing the roots of Turkish cinema from its beginnings to the circumstances that made such notorious rip-offs of American blockbusters possible (spoiler: it has a lot to do with a lack of copyright laws in Turkey). There is an amazing amount of information here and it’s structured expertly, cutting between interviews with filmmakers and stars of Turkish cinema from the 60s to the 80s and dozens upon dozens of films that nearly all look completely insane. If there’s a major complaint to be made, it’s that REMAKE REMIX RIP-OFF is exhausting in its depth – possibly too much of a good thing, in other words. Regardless, this is a must-see documentary that gives viewers a crash course in a world of cinema they may never have previously known existed.
And now a few other noteworthy titles:
BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973, Japan, dir. Eiichi Yamamoto)
Released in Japan in 1973, BELLADONNA OF SADNESS has never been officially released in the States before and this astonishing 4K restoration is the best possible way it could have made its debut. Much of the film is presented as long horizontal or vertical tableaus across which the camera pans, and this new restoration allows the viewer to see every pencil line, brush stroke, and burst of color. The Fantastic Fest program called this a “seminal psychedelic masterpiece,” and that’s not an overstatement.
BEST REP SCREENING:
FAREWELL UNCLE TOM (Italy, dir. Gualterio Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi)
Nicolas Winding Refn hosted three rep screenings at the Fest, but this one definitely stood out as the one to hit if you were interested in seeing how an audience would react to raw, uncut 1970s exploitation insanity at its most horrific. This is not a movie that hits the big screen all that often, for obvious reasons, and watching it with a mostly unsuspecting crowd was a highlight of the fest.
MOST IMPORTANT/UNCOMFORTABLE DOCUMENTARY:
DANIEL’S WORLD (Czech Republic, dir. Veronika Lisková)
In 2014, Luke Malone published a harrowing piece on Medium entitled “You’re 16. You’re a Pedophile. You Don’t Want to Hurt Anyone. What Do You Do Now?
” In it, Malone talks to a young man who has joined an online support group of pedophiles. Needless to say, it’s a tough read, but it raises serious questions about a subject that people really don’t want to confront. Similarly, DANIEL’S WORLD
is a documentary about a man who is a pedophile but, like the people in Malone’s piece, has accepted that he will never have any kind of real relationship with someone to whom he is attracted. Daniel has friends he met online with the same sexual orientation, and they offer each other support and camaraderie. Daniel is intelligent but deeply lonely, and director Veronika Lisková presents a picture of his life that is both painfully sad and inarguably disturbing. Like Malone’s piece, DANIEL’S WORLD
provides a look at a facet of humanity that is too often hidden away. The most remarkable achievement in this documentary may be that it may not be possible to identify with Daniel’s sexuality, it’s equally impossible not to identify with his constant struggle against his own nature and his intense loneliness. This is an uncomfortable but compassionate look at a world that will be mercifully alien to most viewers, and of a man who has to fight more than most of us to feel human.
MOST RIDICULOUS, GOOFY FUN:
IN SEARCH OF THE ULTRA-SEX (France, dir. Bruno Lavaine & Nicolas Charlet)
A spaceship on a mission away from Earth receives a distress signal from home: suddenly everyone in the world is compelled to fuck constantly. The ship’s crew discovers that someone has stolen The Ultra-Sex, and if it’s not recovered all of humanity will be obsessed with sex forever. IN SEARCH OF THE ULTRA-SEX is entirely assembled from clips of other films that have been edited and dubbed to create the illusion of a (intermittently) coherent narrative. Many clips are from adult films of the ’70s and ’80s, although there’s a big helping of SAMURAI COP and WAR OF THE ROBOTS in there as well. This is extremely goofy stuff, but in addition to the juvenile humor there are a lot of clips that prove sex movies can be hilarious and deeply weird even without silly voiceovers–maybe the best part of the movie is when the story takes a break and there’s an extended scene of two painfully 80s people posing in different “sexy” positions for the camera. It’s probably no coincidence that this would make a pretty great double feature with REMAKE REMIX RIP-OFF, in which filmmakers discuss some of the techniques of appropriate and recontextualization that were used in the creation of this film.
HIGHEST RISK OF VISUALLY/AURALLY-INDUCED SEIZURE/PANIC ATTACK:
DARLING (USA, dir. Mickey Keating)
Lauren Ashley Carter (who also played one of the leads in THE MIND’S EYE) gives a nerve-shredding performance as Darling, who is in nearly every shot in the film. Keating mostly gives her plenty of room to explore the more unsettling aspects of her character, but he also fractures many scenes with jarring near-subliminal imagery often accompanied by ear-splitting noises. Watching DARLING on a big screen is an assault on the senses with its stroboscopic imagery and startling sound design.
In addition to features, shorts, and all sorts of crazy junk up on the screen before each program, Fantastic Fest offers an array of events both in the theater and off-site. I managed to catch this year’s FANTASTIC FEUD, which was a lot of fun although it seriously seemed like the outcome was fixed! This year, they ditched the US/International teams for Men vs. Women, and I seem to remember the women having a solid lead going into the final round when the men’s score was suddenly adjusted to match theirs. I feel like I should note that I also drank a fair amount during this event, so it’s entirely possible I just missed an entire round during which those points were scored. Unfortunately, GREEN ROOM was postponed in its late-night slot, so I missed almost all of the Karaoke Apocalypse live band karaoke. I was able to catch TOO LATE director Dennis Hauck rocking out for one song, though, so that was totally worth it.
By far the most concentrated fun of the entire week was the amazing Closing Night Party held at Star Hill Ranch. The ranch is a sort of Wild West town set where events (like weddings) are held and the occasional film is shot. This late-night party had the town done up in Bava Technicolor lights and offered Festival badge holders all the booze, brisket, turkey, karaoke, mechanical bull riding, and donkey petting they could handle. In the imposing chapel, THE DEVIL’S RAIN was screening on a big projection screen. There was also a dunk tank, in which Daily Grindhouse’s own Mike Vanderbilt was repeatedly dunked while verbally harassing everyone who took their shot. The climax of the party was Tim League announcing the 2015 Fantastic Fest Audience Award Winners, after which everyone was encouraged to smash an eggshell filled with flour over the head of the person standing next to them. All too soon, we were being herded back onto the school buses back to the Drafthouse and the festival was officially over.
This was my first year going to Fantastic Fest, and it was easily one of the most fun weeks of my entire life. I got to spend several days watching movies morning to night, hanging out with tons of like-minded film fans and meeting new friends. I’ll definitely plan on making it an annual trek from here on out, and would encourage anyone who’s ever thought the Fest sounds like it might be their thing to check it out next year. I can hardly wait to start planning my trip back to Austin for Fantastic Fest 2016.
Unrepentant cinephile. Contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly. Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. Co-director, Chicago Cinema Society. Attempted filmmaker. Proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's GURU, THE MAD MONK and Zalman King's TWO MOON JUNCTION.
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Tags: Anton Yelchin, Austin, Belgium, Ben Wheatley, Bruno Lavaine, Catherine Deneuve, Cem Kaya, Crystal Reed, Czech Republic, Dennis Hauck, Eiichi Yamamoto, Emma Roberts, Fantastic Fest, Film Festivals, France, Franco Prosperi, Germany, Gualterio Jacopetti, Hungary, Jaco Van Dormael, James Remar, japan, Jason Coffman, Jeremy Saulnier, Joe Begos, John Hawkes, Károly Ujj Mészáros, Kiernan Shipka, Lauren Ashley Carter, Lauren Holly, Lucile Hadžihalilovi?, Luke Evans, Macon Blair, Mickey Keating, Nicolas Charlet, Nicolas Winding Refn, Osgood Perkins, Patrick Stewart, Pili Groyne, Robert Eggers, Screenings, Sion Sono, Texas, The UK, Tom Hiddleston, Turkey, Turtles, Veronika Lisková