A recap of Fantastic Fest 2017

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For the previous 12 years, Fantastic Fest has been a time of unbridled passion about film for cinephiles and movie nerds alike. Genre aficionados and those looking to find something new on the big screen gathered for one week to escape from the real world and retreat into a bubble that consists of drinking, camaraderie, soaking in new visions and voices from around the world, and then geeking out about seeing these films with each other. The darkened movie theaters in an Alamo Drafthouse act as a buffer from the woes of the real world and a chance to reconnect with fellow nerds, sing a bunch of karaoke and generally just have a good time. But this 13th installment of Fantastic Fest was different; while it offered a lot of the same positives the festival has been known for, it was no longer the respite from actual problems as so many have come to know it. In a sense, Fantastic Fest 2017 was itself a bit problematic throughout its run.

In the weeks and days leading up to the film festival, there was a quickly developing story of the blinders worn by festival head (and Drafthouse CEO) Tim League, his inability to see how his actions undermined all of his talk of progressive virtues, and how this created a controversy surrounding women’s rights and safety issues. During the festival, a story dropped about how longtime Fantastic Fest collaborator Harry Knowles (head of Ain’t It Cool News, a sponsor of the festival) had a history of sexual harassing and assaulting women for many years.

These stories have been covered by other sites better and given them the depth and context needed to understand the seriousness of this two-pronged debacle. But because of them, there was fallout: movies pulled out of being screened at the festival, a programmer very publicly quit his position in protest, League himself would not be in attendance (foregoing the festival to go on a tour of Drafthouse establishments to speak with staff about their concerns), and many previous attendees ended up not going in protest of the actions undertaken by these men. A pall was thrown over the entire festival, that awkward thing that was always in the back of people’s minds even when it wasn’t voiced. An inescapable sense of being complicit by being there permeated my mood, although everyone has their own reasons for attending that don’t automatically take away their feminist or progressive cards.

There were numerous discussions that I partook in, and many more had by other groups, about the issues at hand and what Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest needed to do to move forward and earn back trust. Mostly, I tried my best just to listen to the women at the festival—not putting them in the unfair position of spokespeople for their gender, but to hear what it’s like to be a woman in a fairly male-dominated subculture and industry. It wasn’t a dirge, and there were still plenty of good films to enjoy (more on those below), but it definitely approached feeling oddly similar to a funeral for a high school friend – a reunion that acts as a pleasant to catch-up with others but has an unfortunate incident at its core.

I believe in the folks at Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest. I believe in Kristen Bell (the festival’s Executive Director) and Meredith Borders (editor of Drafthouse website Birth.Movies.Death, and the festival’s head of social media), as they gave impassioned speeches about what is happening and seemed truly invested in listening to the concerns of others. I think there is a future for Fantastic Fest, and it can return to its former splendor, but there needs to be changes from the top down and acknowledgement of the steps needed to prevent these actions from ever recurring. Though I have only been going for three years, I love Fantastic Fest – it truly is a celebration of all that is pure and nerdy about film – and I want it to remain that pure escapist bit of fun for people of all races, orientations, genders and walks of life. But now, while still reeling from the excellent movies that I saw, comes the hard part of putting in work to make sure it can keep its soul amidst all of its sins.

Of all the films and shorts I saw at Fantastic Fest (and I missed more than I’d like just because there were so many good ones), here are my favorite films of the week:

1) “Bodied,” directed by Joseph Kahn

“Bodied” is a propulsive film brimming with intelligence and comedy that constantly engages the audiences to make them laugh and think (and maybe even make them a bit uncomfortable). Kahn’s film follows an academic (Calum Worthy) as he studies and soon finds himself immersed in the California battle rap scene. One part “8 Mile,” one part “Higher Education” and one part “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” it is a kinetic ride that gleefully explores the sensitivities and insensitivities that come about when discussing gender, race and a whole host of other topics. It never offers clear-cut answers but instead is able to showcase the complicated issue of artistic free speech in the modern world, although never at the expense of a good laugh or the immense sense of fun that Kahn injects into his movie.

2) “My Friend Dahmer,” directed by Marc Meyers

A powerful and haunting portrait, this adaptation of the excellent graphic novel dares to show sympathy to the devil in the formative years of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Meyers is able to portray the monster of a man as a lost child who grew up in the perfect breeding grounds for a disassociated sociopath – complete with confused sexuality, lack of close ties and a disastrous family life. Though Ross Lynch’s performance is compelling and layered as the teenage Dahmer, director Meyers never excuses the behavior of this criminal-in-the-making; instead, he swings back and forth between exposing Dahmer’s heinous actions and contemplating his tortured soul.

3) “Super Dark Times,” directed by Kevin Phillips

This 1990s-set coming-of-age story excels by creating a very grounded world and realistic portrait of growing up in the suburbs before the new century. Precise character work and natural dialogue make the adolescents at the heart of the story feel like real people. So when things begin to go awry due to a gruesome accident, and actions soon escalate, it never feels as wild as it should but instead a reasonable progression of where the story would go based on this world we’ve come to know so well. Outstanding performances by the leads (Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan), beautiful cinematography, and a perfect balancing and maintaining of tone by director Phillips all make this a great film that explores that crucial time in every person’s life as he begins to define who they are and what they will become.

4) “Anna and the Apocalypse,” directed by John McPhail

While there are other zombie musicals (“The Happiness of the Katakuris,” “Dead and Breakfast,” among others), I don’t believe any are set during Christmas or feature as memorable a soundtrack as this one. A small town is overrun by zombies and a few survivors belt out tunes as they navigate their concerns over the future as they attempt to escape the horror intact. “Anna and the Apocalypse” is what happens if “High School Musical” crossbred with “Shaun of the Dead,” with a little pinch of Shane Black holiday mischief. It’s fitting for a zombie movie to be an infectious film, and this one is so instantly charming and fun that it will likely have audiences craving to get the music into their ears as soon as the credits begin.

5) “Thoroughbred,” directed by Cory Finley

First-time feature director Finley shows an impressive amount of talent in his debut, which centers on the relationship between two upper-class teenage girls as they plot a dark task. Through long takes, a controlled tone, masterful editing and excellent performances by the two leads (Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke), Finley tells his darkly comic yet oddly emotional story. A mashup of Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” and “Heathers,” this movie navigates the rocky waters between black comedy and engaging character portrait to strike its own path and deliver a film full of surprises, insights and great wit.

6) “Anyab” (aka “Fangs”), directed by Mohammed Shebl

There’s always a handful of repertory screenings at Fantastic Fest, showing old-school films that genre nerds love or may have missed in their travels. This 1981 Egyptian film is a weird adaptation of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” that ditches the exploration of “deviant” sexual natures in favor of a portrait of vampires and commentary on Egyptian society. The film is a delightful comedy (sometimes unintentionally so), with fun musical numbers and plenty of great moments. The shame is that it may never make its way to the US in any other release, although that’s part of what makes these screenings so precious; it’s like catching a glimpse of something maddeningly unique before it fades away for good.

7) “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” directed by Angela Robinson

In Robinson’s hands, what could have been a salacious tale of sexual intrigue or a cheesy dramatic story of a complicated love affair among three people is instead a powerfully affecting human story of passion, societal taboos and the exploration of what love can mean. Professor Marston (Luke Evans) – co-inventor of the polygraph and creator of the Wonder Woman character – is a happily married man teaching at an all-girls college when he and his wife (Rebecca Hall) both fall in love with a student (Bella Heathcote). The movie shows a real tenderness in exploring the ways these three people truly love each other and had to live a complex life due to social mores surrounding polyamory, all while carrying through themes of submission and dominance in a very heartfelt, romantic setting. It’s a moving film whose truths about love are universal, and Robinson should be commended for her deft touch at exploring it so delicately and precisely.

8) “Blade of the Immortal,” directed by Takashi Miike

Despite only starting to direct films in 1991, this is Miike’s 100th movie, which speaks to his rapid and rabid pace of churning out films. With that huge output, there is certainly a wavering of quality with some of his entries, but “Blade of the Immortal” finds the filmmaker at the peak of his powers. Adapted from the popular manga of the same name, the movie is about an immortal swordsman who is enlisted by a young woman to avenge the death of her parents. This film is clearly a culmination of all of Miike’s interests and hallmarks, with the inclusion of weird monster effects, fun gore, superbly choreographed and shot action, and a lot of heart and comedy amidst the swordplay. Despite being two hours and 20 minutes long, it never feels its length and is instead a thoroughly raucous film from beginning to end. It may not be as batshit as some of Miike’s previous work, but it’s a perfect distillation of where the director has come in his long journey of filmmaking and where he will continue to go.

9) “Hagazussa,” directed by Lukas Feigelfeld

The perfect backdrop video for a death metal concert, Feigelfeld’s movie is a rumination on witchcraft, temptation and the perils of social exclusion. The film is gorgeously shot with powerful natural vistas set beside hypnotic occult imagery that will linger in the minds of viewers for a long time. Following a woman’s life in seclusion who is attacked by villagers, priests and even supposed friends for her alleged witchery, it’s a powerful rebuke of those that would scoff at outsiders while also truly showing the price that is paid when dealing with the devil. It goes to taboo and dark places that many films wouldn’t dare, but it never feels exploitative or cheaply daring. Instead, Feigelfeld’s feature film debut is another stellar introduction to a filmmaker who has a clear vision and isn’t afraid to court the shadows in his work.

10) “Haunters: The Art of the Scare,” directed by Jon Schnitzer

This documentary investigates the world of “haunters,” those that put on haunted houses or work in the industry in some capacity, whether it’s just the hobbyist that turns his front lawn into a grotesque sight for Halloween, or the more extreme side that subjects unfortunate people to being tortured in the name of a good scare. Schnitzer’s documentary ends up being hijacked by the latter group as it investigates how the haunted house scene may be evolving into a more performative space than traditionally done, but that’s mostly because the extreme haunts are a weird moral quagmire of questions that also happen to have some very charismatic (and compelling) characters at the helm. It’s a great complement to “An American Scream,” as both films together show different sides of how this industry, hobby and passion drives people to various lengths to elicit the best experience for their attendees.

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