Fantastic Fest – a yearly film festival located in Austin, Texas – is the largest genre film festival the United States has to offer. In the past, it has hosted the world premiers of films like There Will Be Blood, Zombieland, and Apocalypto, so to say it’s a genre film festival unlike any other is an understatement. Last year’s big showings included Bone Tomahawk, The Lobster, and Green Room. It’s easy to see why I was so excited for this year’s gathering of like-minded genre enthusiasts, and oh boy did it surpass all of my expectations.
Looking back at the thirty-four films I saw during eight day festival, I’m surprised there are only one or two less-than-stellar movies in the bunch. This was easily Fantastic Fest’s strongest year in a while. And though seeing so many incredible movies is a dream come true, it makes narrowing that list down to the ten best nearly impossible. But like a parent deciding which child is their favorite, it’s something that is done whether we like it or not.
The following list is in no particular order (except #2 and #1). Each film will include a small description and review. Full reviews for certain titles may come later or can be requested in the comments below.
Paul Verhoeven’s latest is undoubtedly going to be a divisive film. Focusing on the way in which an emotionally disturbed woman deals with being raped, Elle is most definitely not for everybody. But those who do decide to give it a go are in store for a smart, surprisingly funny, rape revenge satire which also happens to be France’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.
Elle will be released on November 11th in the United States.
9: A Dark Song
A Dark Song is a movie that perfectly encapsulates why I love Fantastic Fest. I had no initial plans on seeing this movie, but due to strong word of mouth among festival goers, I decided to give it a shot. What I saw was probably one of the most effectively frightening occult-based horror movies in a while.
All you need to know is this one line plot synopsis from IMDb: A determined young woman and a damaged occultist risk their lives and souls to perform a dangerous ritual that will grant them what they want. No news yet on when A Dark Song will be released, but I’m hoping it’s soon.
8: Safe Neighborhood
It’s rare for a movie to come out of nowhere and completely take me by surprise. But that’s exactly what Chris Peckover does with his latest film Safe Neighborhood. This hilariously twisted take on the home invasion sub-genre involving a twelve year old boy and his crush/babysitter defending themselves against a shotgun-toting intruder will likely be ruined by it’s first trailer, so STAY AWAY from it. Just know Safe Neighborhood is a new Christmas classic that deserves to be on the same shelf as Home Alone and Die Hard.
Safe Neighborhood will be released in December in Australia and who knows when for the rest of the world.
7: Down Under
Down Under is another movie I only watched due to the strong word of mouth it garnered at the fest. I hadn’t previously been too familiar with the race riots that occurred in Australia ten or so years ago, but that did not hinder my enjoyment whatsoever. The film follows two groups of friends: the “native” white Australians and the “foreign” Muslim Australians, as they each set out to fight for what’s “their’s”. But as the tagline suggests, nobody wins in this politically incorrect yet incredibly poignant and smart black comedy.
One of the things I loved the most about Down Under was that it didn’t beat you over the head with it’s message, nor did it try to deceive you into thinking you were watching something you weren’t. It’s equal parts social commentary and irreverent comedy, and it works brilliantly.
Down Under is already released in Australia. No word yet on worldwide distribution.
6: The Handmaiden
Let’s get this out of the way: I love Park Chan-Wook. He is one of the greatest directors of all time, and The Handmaiden is another very good movie in his impressive filmography. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a beautifully shot, nearly flawless, erotically charged drama that also happens to be Wook’s funniest film to date.
Taking place during the Japanese occupation of Korea, Wook’s adaptation of Sarah Water’s 2002 novel revolves around a Korean pickpocket who is hired as the new handmaiden for a Japanese heiress. But all is not as it seems …
Oh also there is a lot of explicit lesbian sex.
The Handmaiden will be released in October in the United States.
This image is all I will show you (not counting the image in the header, obviously). And I highly recommend not watching the trailer that came out a month or two ago. Not for fear of spoilers, but honestly because that is the best way to watch any movie. There is also not much to spoil, as there isn’t a “classic” Shyamalan twist here. What there is is a return to form for Shyamalan. This very much feels like the classics so many of us love. It’s not perfect, and those who are still on the “SHYAMALAN SUX” train will probably not be getting off at this stop. But it’s fun as hell, and James McAvoy gives an incredible performance.
Oh! It’s also gorgeously shot by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis of It Follows fame. So even if you don’t end up liking the movie, you can at least admire how good it looks. But I’m almost positive that if you enjoyed The Sixth Sense or even Unbreakable, you’ll have more than a good time with Split.
Split opens on the 20th on January so DO NOT read anything about it until then. The less you know the better.
When Nacho Vigalondo first burst onto the scene with his time-warping cult classic Time Crimes, I knew he was going to be a director to watch. Since then, he hasn’t really made a movie as fun and interesting as his debut. But then drunkenly stumbling out of those mediocre movies comes Colossal. A wholly original take on the monster movie genre, Colossal is best seen without having any knowledge of what is about to transpire. Even the one sentence synopsis it too much. Just know that it’s both laugh-out-loud funny and surprisingly heartfelt. So basically it was the perfect movie to close out the fest.
No word yet on the official release.
Man it’s getting really difficult to talk about some of these movies without mentioning some kind of spoiler, but off we go to our top three!
Probably the biggest film playing at the festival, Denis Villeneuve’s newest feature film was this year’s opener. And what a way to kick off the fest. Definitely Villeneuve’s most ambitious film to date, Arrival is probably also his most accessible. In fact, for maybe the first thirty minutes, I couldn’t tell this was a Villeneuve picture. But once Arrival gets going, you can see Villeneuve’s stamp all over this baby; from the heady themes presented in a more personal way, to the beautiful cinematography done by first time collaborator Bradford Young. The final product is a finely crafted, goose bump-inducing, smart blockbuster that is definitely warranting the awards buzz it’s getting.
Though it isn’t perfect – it can be a little overly sentimental at times – Arrival will be one I will watch again opening day, which is November 11th.
It was almost impossible to avoid the news coming out of TIFF about Julia Ducrounau’s first feature film Raw. “People were passing out!” or “Paramedics we called in!” or “It was too intense to handle!” were the main phrases making the rounds after its Midnight Madness showing. What some people may not understand is that this is probably considered one of the more “tame” horror features to play at Fantastic Fest, so people expecting some crazy, gross out French new-wave horror film à la Martyrs will likely be disappointed. What they will get, however, is one of my favorite movies of the year.
Raw follows vegetarian Justine who, upon going through a hazing ritual at her veterinary college, begins to develop a taste for human flesh. And hoo boy is going on that journey a great fucking ride. I can’t really explain how I felt during Raw, only that I never wanted it to end. I wanted the experience to last forever, that’s how much I loved this movie.
No word on when Raw will be released, but as soon as it comes out, expect a barrage of tweets from me singing its praises.
Unlike Raw, Bartosz M. Kowalski’s feature film debut is not one I want to watch again and again. It was the only movie at Fantastic Fest that was introduced with a warning, and for good reason. Playground is a fucking gut-punch of a film. Based on a true story – one I will not divulge here for sake of the movie’s effectiveness – Playground follows a day in the lives of three twelve year old kids of varying economical status. The girl, Gabrysia, wants to tell one of the boys she has fallen in love with him. But it does not end well.
Shot with incredible restraint, Playground never feels exploitative. It’s an unwavering, metaphorical look at the political struggles going on in Poland right now and what that means for the generation to come. I don’t want to say more, but just know that this movie will leave you in a depressed state for long after the credits roll. It was the only film at the fest where the audience sat in silence – almost too emotionally broken to move – after the final, shocking frame. It is not an easy movie to watch, but it is an important one.
The official release date is unknown, but Playground will be playing at the London Film Festival this month. Don’t miss it.
Well, that concludes the list! Sorry to end it on such a melancholic note, but Playground really was the movie that stuck with me the most. The list does not include every film I loved at this year’s stellar Fantastic Fest, so to ease my conscience, I will include a list of some of the other amazing films you should keep your eye out for. Many of these could have been in the top ten, so this is less of an “Honorable Mentions” section and more just an additional list of movies I may write reviews about later.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
The Invisible Guest
Buster’s Mal Heart
A Monster Calls
Sadako vs. Kayako
The Red Turtle