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Celebrated auteurs, Freddy Krueger drag, and exploding eyeballs: The best of Fantastic Fest 2019

Clockwise R to L: Sea Fever; Fantastic Fest; Bliss; St. Maud; Parasite; First Love
Photo: Fantastic Fest

As we observed at this year’s Overlook Film Festival, the once-isolated genre-film world has entered a new phase. Festivals are currently standing at the corner of the mainstream appeal they’ve been chasing for years and the defiant outsider attitude they adopted in its absence, and as the biggest festival of its kind in the U.S., Fantastic Fest is ground zero for this conflict. But does it have to be a conflict? The lens through which all things Fantastic gets refracted has been shifting for a few years now; Toni Erdmann played the festival in 2016, for example. And horror will almost certainly remain a significant presence on the Fantastic Fest lineup, even as the definition of what makes a “genre film” expands to include all manner of offbeat and unexpected narratives.

Still, Fantastic Fest looks very different than it did 15 years ago. In 2019,the festival programmed an “anti-hate satire” on opening night (Jojo Rabbit), a comedic biopic for its secret screening (Dolemite Is My Name), and a twisty murder mystery (Knives Out) to close out the festivities. All of those titles had played other festivals before they arrived in Austin, and securing premieres for genre (and genre-ish) studio movies will only get more competitive as more festivals soften on genre content. But Fantastic Fest continues to offer something unique for a particular type of film lover: A place where that year’s Palme D’Or winner and a Thai action movie where a guy fights an alligator in an empty swimming pool are considered and discussed with equal gravity.

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I missed the latter of those two films (it’s called The Pool, in case anyone is interested). But I did catch Parasite (A) at an early-morning press screening after staying up for a midnight screening of The Endless directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s latest the night before. (More on that later.) The buzz about Parasite seems to build with every screening following its big win at Cannes, and Fantastic Fest audiences were over the moon for it as well. And with good reason: Parasite confirms Bong’s status as a master filmmaker the way The Handmaiden did for Park Chan-wook, displaying both a sharp satirical sensibility and a profound understanding (and love) of cinema as an art form. Deep down, however, he’s still an excitable movie nerd who told me that he flew all the way to Austin because he heard Ari Aster was going to be there, making the ceremonial plaque recently installed in his honor outside of Fantastic Fest’s main venue seem all the more fitting. (Incidentally, Ari Aster was there. He tried the infamous Chicago aquavit-and-dirty-socks liqueur Malört. He hated it, like most everyone does, but was a good sport about it.)

Photo: Fantastic Fest

Also breezing in to Fantastic Fest on a current of critical love for a second secret screening was The Lighthouse (B+), Robert Eggers’ followup to The Witch. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are outstanding, obviously, but what I found most intriguing about this fever dream of a film is its parallels to Eggers’ first feature in terms of its themes of corrupt authority, social isolation, and breaking down gendered archetypes. (There’s got to be a folk song somewhere about a witch and a sailor, right?) The Lighthouse is also a lot funnier than its somber predecessor, and Eggers gave a suitably lively Q&A afterwards, pivoting from his love of Weimar-era German filmmaker G.W. Pabst and the film’s unusual 1:19:1 aspect ratio to fart jokes with ease. He also answered a question about the design of the film with a straight-faced recounting of his research into shark labia, and if you don’t find that kind of thing delightful, then we are very different people.

Once directors are invited to Fantastic Fest, they tend to come back, and that was the case with The Endless directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who brought their latest, Synchronic (B). The filmmaking duo have made their reputation on producing seamless science fiction stories on a shoestring. And while Synchronic probably cost less than the catering on a mega-blockbuster, it does see Benson and Moorhead working with—gasp!—a bigger budget than usual. And every dollar appears on screen, both in the pristine camerawork—which includes stunning helicopter shots over New Orleans at night—and in the casting of Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie as paramedics who keep encountering the deadly side effects of Synchronic, a designer drug that gives users the ability to travel through time. (There’s one catch: You don’t get to choose where or when you travel to.) And this step up in production value produces overwhelmingly positive results; although the ending of Synchronic is a bit more Hollywood than I’m used to in a Benson and Moorhead film, the duo’s signature narrative ingenuity and ability to spin tension seemingly out of thin air have translated fully intact.

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Speaking of time and its effects, consuming a couple dozen genre movies over the course of a week is a good way to get an idea of the subconscious fears and desires driving a particular point in history. A few years ago, Satan himself reigned over the festival. But this year, themes of ecological horror—and, more specifically, contaminated drinking water—dominated as global climate marches hovered in the background of the festivities. A problem with the water pump further strains the relationship between the men stuck in The Lighthouse, and the alien creature that turns Nicolas Cage and family into Lovecraftian monsters in Color Out Of Space takes up residence in the well on their property. But the theme is most prominent in the Irish horror film Sea Fever (B), and not just because the film takes place almost entirely on a boat. Despite some overly literal tributes to the films that inspired it (namely Alien, Jaws, and The Thing), Sea Fever’s vision of humanity’s insignificance in the face of nature is exactly the sort of awe-inspiring message some of us need to hear right now. Along with Rose Glass’ stunning and disturbing Saint Maud (B+), it was a great year for female-led horror debuts from the UK and Ireland—a very specific designation, to be sure. But catering to specific tastes is what these festivals are all about.

Sea Fever was preceded by a Quebecois short called Plain-Song that was a beautiful fit both aesthetically and in terms of content. Fantastic Fest did an excellent job pairing features with shorts in general this year: I was also struck by the sharp tonal and thematic parallels between the dryly absurd short film Ding-Dong and the pitch-black Spanish comedy of irritability Amigo (B-). That particular feature, while amusing enough in the moment, ultimately failed to capture my imagination. There are always movies that you see at a festival once and are never heard from again, whether it be because of a cultural barrier—take Koko-Di, Koko-Da (B-), a Swedish film based on a Scandinavian nursery rhyme—or a narrative one. That’s the case with VHYes (B-), an experimental feature that cuts between faux-VHS home movies and faux ‘80s TV programming that’s “taped over” the family footage. The fake TV clips ape the style of Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, and ultimately overwhelm the family narrative, which is more subtle. Credit goes to director Jack Henry Robbins for trying something different, though, and fans of the Everything Is Terrible! school of found footage may find it intriguing.

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Photo: Fantastic Fest

Next year, Fantastic Fest will be old enough to drive. This year, for its 15th anniversary, it asked attendees to send in pictures of themselves in high school for their badge photos. (You’d be surprised how many people don’t have photos of themselves in high school, or at least pretend like they don’t.) That’s old enough to start getting nostalgic about tradition, and the way things used to be. And it does seem as though some things about the festival—the penchant for costumed stunts which led to a herd of blow-up tyrannosaurs introducing Tammy And The T-Rex, for example—will never change. But there are ways of taking that playful spirit forward into new territory, like the “Drag Horror Affair” hosted by famed performer Peaches Christ that capped off this year’s queer horror sidebar. Sure, Guillermo del Toro finally won his Oscar. But you still won’t see drag queens dressed as Freddy Krueger at Cannes.

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A.A. Dowd already covered Fantastic Fest’s opening and closing night films out of TIFF, and one of its secret screenings out of Cannes. I’ve also already reviewed Dolemite Is My Name, so to avoid too much overlap and keep things interesting, I’m excluding films that played as special events from my top five of the festival.

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1. Parasite (A)

Class warfare is one of Bong Joon-ho’s pet themes—take Snowpiercer, whose core metaphor is so blatant it’s barely a metaphor at all. And the relationship between rich and poor is just as combative, albeit in subtler ways, in Parasite, Bong’s new film about the relationship between a rich family living an impeccably curated life in a modernist glass box and a poor family that gets by on odd jobs and stolen wi-fi. The most succinct way of describing the poor family in the film is to call them “con artists,” but that’s not exactly correct, even if they spend the first hour of the film insinuating themselves into the rich family’s lives under false pretenses. There are no real villains in this film, only the exploited and those who benefit from their exploitation. If anything, Parasite is a condemnation of choosing to ignore the inconvenient suffering of your fellow human beings, presented in a seres of accomplished visual metaphors that’ll make you rethink all sorts of ordinary household objects.

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2. First Love (B+)

The A.V. Club’s film staff doesn’t always agree in our opinions about movies, as the mere existence of an “outlier” slot on our end-of-year ballots can attest. But Mike D’Angelo is entirely correct in his love for First Love, Takashi Miike’s new film which he describes as a complex film with many moving parts that “gradually build[s] steam until it reaches a sustained pitch of cheerful insanity.” I’d add that Miike has created the character of the year in Julie (Becky), the heartbroken girlfriend of a murdered yakuza who behaves with the manic intensity that you’d expect from a Miike character, but whose grief is much deeper, and more human, than the superficial-at-best mourning that usually takes place in these films. That says a lot about First Love, which manages to find a still pond of pathos amid all its interwoven madness.

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3. Saint Maud (B+)

Maybe I just had The Witch on my mind—I attended a podcast taping discussing the film earlier in the fest, and then saw The Lighthouse two days later—but there’s a scene of religious ecstasy late in Saint Maud that struck me as an equally sinister Catholic answer to Black Phillip’s famous “would thou like to live deliciously?” monologue. Religious and sexual passion are intertwined in this sumptuous, intimate horror film about Maud (Morfydd Clark), a newly born-again Christian nurse who may be possessed—or may simply be struggling with her attraction to Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), the aging ballet dancer in her care. Amanda only has a few months left to live, and is determined to eke what pleasures she still can out of life, which both shocks and titillates the uptight Maud. As Maud’s mental state spirals out of control, the film becomes both more surreal and more poetic, culminating in a shocking finale that sent a shiver through the Fantastic Fest audience.

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4. Bliss (B)

This one’s admittedly a bit of a cheat, as I first saw Bliss, and reviewed it, out of the Overlook Film Festival earlier this year. But it did play at Fantastic Fest—on 35mm, no less!—so it gets in on a technicality. This is my favorite of writer-director Joe Begos’ movies to date, partially due to star Dora Madison’s unflinchingly committed performance and partially due to its personal themes. To be clear, a midnight movie B-programmer like Begos’ new film VFW suits me just fine. But adding an introspective narrative thread about substance abuse as a creative crutch somehow makes the film’s sex and violence feel even more transgressive, and saturates its neon color palette until it practically singes your eyeballs. It makes the film grain grainier, too. I don’t know how, it just does. Bliss is out on VOD now, and is recommended to Abel Ferrara and Gaspar Noé fans in particular.

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5. Sea Fever (B)

Irish director Neasa Hardiman’s ecologically conscious aquatic horror movie edged out a handful of other candidates for the fifth slot simply because there’s only one thing I disliked about it—namely, a scene where the crew of an Irish fishing boat tests each other for an alien parasite in their blood that was just a little too reminiscent of The Thing. Otherwise, Hardiman hits every cinematic target with specificity and grace, from the beautiful bioluminescent sea-monster effects and aggressive practical gore to the resounding primal blasts of bass on the score. Doctoral student (and unlucky redhead) Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) also makes for a fascinating lead; although it’s never specified in the script that she’s neurodivergent, her character can be read that way, and her clinical view of the crew coming under attack from an alien goo that makes their eyeballs explode is reflected in the film’s crisp cinematography and editing. So while the film puts its influences way out front, its impressive execution makes it well worth the 89 minutes.

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