Fantastic FestMovies

The Best of Fantastic Fest 2013

Fantastic Fest 2013 has come and gone — a week filled with beer, barbecue, and blogger egos the size of the state they’re gathered in (seriously, there are some folks who would talk in the third person if they went completely unchecked). The fest acts as a homecoming of sorts for die hard film geeks, but while the raging karaoke parties are certainly a ton of fun, the festival would be nothing if it weren’t for the stellar lineup of films shown each year; a diverse selection of some of the weirdest, wildest movies from the world over.

I saw twenty-five features, a paltry sum when compared to others (I talked to numerous fans who viewed upwards of forty films). And out of those, I picked my ten favorites, along with the best repertory screening and best short I saw at Fantastic Fest 2013.

Best Repertory Screening:

The Devils [England] (d. & w. Ken Russell)

If you went to Fantastic Fest, were able to attend the Ben Wheatley hosted 35mm screening of Ken Russell’s The Devils, and DIDN’T place it on your “Best Of” list, I’m pretty sure we can’t be friends anymore. But then again, I could see the argument for not including it, because comparing horror movies made on $90,000 budgets to one of the greatest pieces of British filmmaking of ALL TIME might be a bit unfair. The Devils is a masterpiece, without question, and the simple fact that we were able to see ANY coherent version of the film on 35mm is kind of a miracle, considering how passionately censors hated it. Yes, the cut screened didn’t include the infamous “Rape of Christ” sequence, but we did get to see Russell’s ornate ode to religious intolerance in all of its technicolor glory. This was more of an “experience” than just a simple “screening”, that anybody truly interested in film history can understand the importance of.

Best Short:

Witch [USA] (d. & w. Tyler Mager & Americo Siller)

Mager & Siller’s Witch is a carefully edited exercise in mood and tension. While the film never 100% congeals into a coherent narrative, the directing duo’s stellar usage of framing and sound design are more than enough to unsettle even the most hardened horror hound in the audience. And the ending is a cacophony of squishy insanity, complete with an icky, offscreen beast whose growl paints an ominous mental image that the filmmakers knew would be more frightening than anything their meager budget would’ve allowed. Give these kids money, because if they can keep this kind of tension going for ninety minutes, it’d be a straight up, surrealist horror classic.

Ten Best Features:

Coherence [USA] (d. & w. James Ward Byrkit)

This mostly improvised head-scratcher was receiving multiple comparisons to Shane Carruth’s Primer, and for good reason. While Byrkit’s picture is undoubtedly a “puzzle film”, it also works as a deft piece of indie sci-fi. Intimate, strange and featuring an incredible ensemble of character actors, Coherence was the surprise hit of the festival, taking home the Dell “Next Wave” Award for Best Screenplay (which is kind of hilarious, but whatever…). Definitely worth seeking out if it’s playing a fest (ahem, Philly) or when it inevitably makes a multi-platform debut.  

Read our full review here.

A Field In England [England] (d. Ben Wheatley, w. Ben Wheatley & Amy Jump)

Bizarre and more than a little batshit crazy, Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England is probably the most authentic replication of a psychedelic drug experience since Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void. While the movie can be maddeningly obtuse, those who stuck with its unique brand of black and white crazy were sure to take away a complex diatribe on the natures of cowardice and cruelty. While the phrase “not for everyone” is usually utilized as a means to excuse poor personal taste, it is genuinely applicable here. Wheatley is operating on an extremely confrontational level, and some folks just won’t be interested in stomaching his style of “in-your-face” experimental cinema.

Read our full review here.

Mood Indigo [France] (d. Michel Gondry, w. Michel Gondry & Luc Bossi) 

It’s rare that I go from absolutely hating a film to thinking it an utter masterpiece over the course of a two hour runtime, but Mood Indigo had the honor of delivering that infrequent theatrical experience. Michel Gondry’s brand of whimsy has never been my cup of tea and the first half of the film is a flat out overdose of said saccharine silliness. But as Mood Indigo progresses and the central metaphor is strengthened, the film turns from mawkish to traumatic, telling a tale of loss that, by the end credits, is almost too much to take. Anybody who has found and lost love will be an emotional train-wreck by the finale of Mood Indigo, as Gondry has finally crafted a film that is as emotionally wrenching as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Why this film still doesn’t have US distribution is beyond me, as it is easily one of the absolute best of 2013.

Child of God [USA] (d. James Franco, w. James Franco & Vince Jolivette) 

We weren’t allowed to talk about this, the second Secret Screening, until after Child of God made its bow at the New York Film Fest this past Sunday and it was extremely frustrating. Not because I absolutely have to be “First!” when talking about a movie, mind you, but because James Franco’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s early, unsettling novel is genuinely great. Franco gets a ton of (unwarranted) shit from those far less talented than he and Child of God is going to be the movie I hold up whenever some artier-than-thou jackass starts railing against the education and film-obsessed pretty boy. Featuring an absolutely stunning (not to mention committed) central performance from Scott Haze, Child of God borders on being a straight-up horror film, chronicling the odd sexual and murderous habits of hill dweller Lester Ballard. Steeped in the trademark mordant darkness of McCarthy’s world, the film is an exercise in objective observation, asking us neither to sympathize nor try and understand Ballard. It simply chronicles a man that “is”, and never flinches when depicting his odd existence.

Nothing Bad Can Happen [Germany] (d. & w. Katrin Gebbe)

Due to its extremely disturbing nature, I have trouble calling Nothing Bad Can Happen my “favorite” of the Fest. But I whole-heartedly admit that the movie that never left my mind. Gut-wrenchingly sick, this portrait of brutality feels like the Biblical story of Job filtered through the nihilistic lens of Lars Von Trier. Director Katrin Gebbe sticks the knife in your gut and slowly turns it, as she tells the tale of a lost orphan “Jesus Freak” who becomes the object of one family’s twisted test of faith. Nightmarish while distinctly rooted in reality, Nothing Bad Can Happen is the best kind of horror film, as it doesn’t need monsters or ghosts to test the audience’s mettle, because the darkest side of human nature is much more frightening.

Read the full review here.

Blue Ruin [USA] (d. & w. Jeremy Saulnier)

Pensive and haunting, Jeremy Saulnier’s revenge tale is more a call to pacifism than anything else. Following a seemingly mild-mannered drifter (Macon Blair, delivering a million words with the slightest of facial tics) as he sets out for revenge against the man who murdered his parents, Blue Ruin is an exercise in creeping tension. Punctuated with explosions of violence, Saulnier’s tale asks the audience to consider just how far they would go to avenge the ones they love and if, in the end, their vengeful efforts would be worth it at all. For a movie that moves from Delaware to Virginia, Blue Ruin feels distinctly foreign; a kin to the Korean morality plays coming from the likes of Chan-Wook Park. TWC/Radius owns this one and their release plans cannot be announced soon enough, as the film is the very definition of “unmissable”.

Eega [India] (d. S.S. Rajamouli & J.V.V. Sathyanarayana, w. S.S. Rajamouli)

An Indian Telugu film (not Bollywood goddammit!), in which a man is murdered by a big bad mob boss, only to be resurrected as a revenge seeking housefly. Yup. That’s Eega. But to simply boil the picture down into a kind of oddball revenge tale is doing it a complete disservice. Eega is one of the most fun movies I’ve ever seen on the big screen; a gaudy, eye-popping blast, complete with kick-ass song and dance numbers and even a Rockystyle training montage in which a man prepares to do battle with a fly. There are slow motion gunfights and bad CGI explosions and a car even gets flipped at one point, Michael Bay style. It’s a movie so badass that it makes you want to explore an entire filmmaking industry that you probably ignored until now. Forget whatever you associate with “Bollywood” or “Indian” films and seek this one out, as I guarantee you’ll be completely high off of pure cinema once the credits roll.

Escape From Tomorrow [USA] (d. & w. Randy Moore)

Randy Moore’s covertly shot “Disney Movie” has made waves in the indie world due to its usage of guerilla filmmaking tactics, but to focus solely on the “how” almost wholly obscures the “why”.  Escape From Tomorrow is ballsy, personal, independent filmmaking the likes of which we don’t see too much of anymore. A dark descent into the heart of the “New American Dream”, the film has so much to say about corporatization of everyday imagination and the way we, as people, allow ourselves to become shells in the service of conformity. Doused in surrealism that David Lynch would admire, Moore’s movie is just as ingenuous as it is innovative; a full-blown treatise on suburban masculinity that alternates between being hilarious and terrifying. Sure to garner a cult following almost as soon as it’s released this October, Escape From Tomorrow is the type of film that gives you hope for American Cinema as a whole.

Read the full review here.

Why Don’t You Play In Hell? [Japan] (d. & w. Shion Sono)

A mix of Cinema Paradiso and Kill Bill, Shion Sono’s ode to 35mm filmmaking is a cinematic shot in the arm for movie junkies everywhere. Not necessarily the most profound film that played Fantastic Fest 2013, it certainly was the most kinetic and jaw-dropping. Full of swords, gun battles, yakuza mob bosses and pixie dream girls, Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is every Japanese film fan’s wet dream. Featuring icon Jun Kunimura in the central role of a man who will do anything to keep his wife and daughter happy, Sono’s film is a madcap mix of iconography and insanity. With this, Nothing Bad Can HappenA Field In England, Cheap Thrills AND Hitoshi Matsumoto’s R100, Drafthouse Films have cultivated quite the 2014 lineup. Seeing these movies unleashed on unsuspecting cinephiles everywhere will be quite a treat.

Cheap Thrills [USA] (d. Evan Katz, w. David Chirchirillo & Trent Haaga)

I’ve seen Cheap Thrills three times now, and it crushes me emotionally upon each viewing. Thrills is Trading Places for the exploitation crowd. Only instead of the Duke Bros. betting on if they can invert the social status of two unknowing chumps, it’s a wager between spouses (the absolutely bonkers Dave Koechner, proving there’s WAY more to him than Champ Kind, and the sultry, seductive Sara Paxton, making you completely forget about her Innkeepers cuteness): who can sink the contestants to the lowest level of depravity first? Picking the best performance between Pat Healy and Ethan Embry , the two hapless schmucks suckered into a drug-fueled night of horrid, dehumanizing competitions, is damn near impossible. Healy brings a kind of sad, everyman quality to the role — a Charlie Brown cloud hanging over his head as he simply tries to keep his family afloat. And Embry is a hulking beast, existing in the back alleys of life like a wounded dog. Working as a collections thug, he won’t hesitate to break a man’s arm (while their daughter watches) in order to get a bill paid. Once the two actors share the scene, you can feel a palpable chemistry between them; a genuine portrayal of a pair of old high school friends who enjoyed a few nasty times together before going down two very different paths. And once the two one percenters get their claws into the boys, its impossible to not feel your heart break completely as they turn on each other, wanting the cheese that is dangled in front of their noses.

With Cheap Thrills, Katz has crafted a film that feels the closest to pure ’70s exploitation since that decade ended. There are big ideas about class and status buried beneath layers of shock. It’s sick and depraved and at times, flat out hilarious but Katz never misses a chance to slip in a subversive element. The ending packs a brutal, cynical gut punch leading to a final shot that is both hilarious and utterly heartbreaking.

Read the full review here.

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The Author

Jacob Knight

Jacob Knight

Jacob Knight is a screenwriter, novelist and journalist from Slotter, Mass. He is most times fueled by scotch, horror films and the Criterion Collection. He currently resides in Philadelphia, PA with his wife and cantankerous Westie pup.