Speculating on the future of virtual film festivals may be a pointless endeavor, given that they’re supposed to be temporary measures adapting to an extraordinary set of circumstances. But the thing about that is, it’s difficult to even think about the future right now—at least, here in the U.S., where the only certainty is that things are going to remain uncertain for quite a while. Fantasia is the first film festival that The A.V. Club has covered entirely virtually this year, but it won’t be the last. And as for next year? What’s a “next year”?
The Fantasia Film Festival pulled off a miracle this year, managing to create a hybrid VOD/virtual cinema platform that both looked good and ran smoothly on the technical end. With only a few months’ notice, there must have been some late nights involved in its creation. On the other hand, programming a festival as long and as wide-ranging as Fantasia is practically a year-round effort—the festival’s co-director, Mitch Davis, says one of the reasons the festival pivoted to virtual instead of canceling was because the team had been working on the fest since November, and it seemed a shame to waste the effort. That being said, Fantasia was quick on its feet as well, picking up titles like The Dark And The Wicked after the Tribeca Film Festival was canceled and Lapsis from the scuttled SXSW. (More on those in a bit.)
Still, in that same interview, Davis says, “I personally get really sad when I think about somebody’s world premiere happening in absentia for the filmmaker—it seems like such an anticlimactic way to launch a work.” And it’s true that clinking champagne glasses with your crew over Zoom is a less exciting reward for years’ worth of effort than drinking in the applause from an actual audience, particularly when you’re talking about low-budget films whose producers have maxed out their credit cards in pursuit of a dream.
There are silver linings to the situation, however. Virtual film festivals do offer benefits in terms of disability access, and exposure for smaller films that normally get lost in the rush to be the first to post a review of a splashy world premiere. That’s where Fantasia expanding its press corps for its virtual edition came in, accrediting a number of new writers along with veterans like The A.V. Club that have covered the festival for several years. As a result, reviews of Fantasia films have been coming out with the regularity and enthusiasm one might expect from writers covering it in person.
On a personal level, covering a festival virtually has been a test of this writer’s sitzfleisch—one of those untranslatable German words meaning basically the ability to plop your butt in your seat and stay focused on the task at hand. As it turns out, even moving from theater to theater all day long breaks up one’s train of thought enough to process films individually, whereas putting on screener after screener while stationary on the couch softens both the body and mind. As a result, we “only” watched 25 features and one short film for our Fantasia coverage, as opposed to the 32 we had planned. (Fatigue set in around the 10th day.)
Of those 26, 15 are featured in our coverage, spread over three dispatches over the past three weeks. The best of the final leg is below.
When you think about it, it’s kind of wild that there hasn’t been a professionally made documentary about the musician Tiny Tim until now. (An amateur tribute, Tiny Tim: The Last Hurrah, came out in 2005.) That hole in the market is filled by Tiny Tim—King For A Day (Grade: B-), which ends up being surprising mostly in how conventional a rock ’n’ roll story it really is. The film is made up of your typical blend of archival footage and talking-heads interviews, seasoned with black-and-white animation dramatizing excerpts from Tiny Tim’s own diaries. These are read by “Weird” Al Yankovic, who, as is stated up top, has followed in Tiny Tim’s eccentric footsteps throughout his own career.
These elements undoubtedly add visual interest to the documentary, but end up being somewhat counterproductive in that they give you a glimpse inside Tiny Tim’s mind that isn’t backed by the rest of the material. Tiny Tim died in 1996, leaving viewers to get a sense of his personality secondhand; even those closest to him say simply that he was a sweet, childlike person—which may have been true but doesn’t address the religious torment that comes through clearly in his writings. Similarly, the question of whether audiences were laughing at or laughing with him hovers uncomfortably over the film, whose single-minded mission is to celebrate this unique figure in American pop culture. As far as odes to outsider artists go, however, it is informative, and made with love.
Tiny Tim—King For A Day screened on August 23 as part of the Fantasia Film Festival.
As far as Fantasia’s 2020 slate of pure horror movies goes, the standout title was The Dark And The Wicked (Grade: B+), a film that takes the “emotional terrorism”—as our own A.A. Dowd put it—of Ari Aster’s Hereditary and says, “Oh yeah? Check this out.” The film starts out dark and ends up diabolical, putting its leads Marin Ireland and Michael Abbot Jr. through a nihilistic gauntlet of terror, grief, and gnawing guilt that doesn’t let up until the gut-punch of an ending.
Ireland and Abbot play Louise and Michael, estranged siblings who have recently returned to the family homestead, a bleak and mostly barren sheep farm in rural Texas. Their father is on the verge of death from a long illness, and their mother is suffering from a mental disorder that leads to a shocking turn early in the film. In the aftermath of that event, Louise becomes obsessed with the idea that the family is cursed, an idea that seems increasingly likely with every new hallucination, visitation, and harbinger of doom that descends on the farm. Writer-director Bryan Bertino is best known for 2008's The Strangers, and The Dark And The Wicked has a similarly strong grasp on the fundamentals of the genre. It’s merciless in its efficiency.
The Dark And The Wicked screened on August 28 as part of the Fantasia Film Festival.
Although it’s an adjective that gets used far too often by critics (ourselves admittedly included) in pandemic-era reviews, “timely” is the best word to describe the soft sci-fi of Lapsis (Grade: B). The resonant element here isn’t a sense of claustrophobia, however—in fact, most of the movie takes place outdoors. Instead, Lapsis takes aim at the gig economy, which in the near future of the film has replaced most other forms of work.
Playwright and filmmaker Dean Imperial stars as Ray, a middle-aged delivery driver desperate for cash. Insurance won’t cover the treatment (again, timely) for the mystery ailment that’s afflicting Ray’s brother, so Ray takes a job stringing cables for CLBR, a tech firm whose quantum computers need human beings to hike through the woods and physically connect the imposing, 2001-esque cubes that power the technology. Pitted against his fellow workers as well as robots who never get tired or stop for meal breaks, Ray finds his every-man-for-himself mindset put to the test. Writer-director Noah Hutton is more focused on the human element of the story than the technology at its center. It’s a sharp, progressively-minded satire with sci-fi elements that would make an interesting double feature with Boots Riley’s more outrageous but similarly pissed-off Sorry To Bother You.
Lapsis played on demand in Canada as part of the Fantasia Film Festival.
Last year’s Fantasia combined food porn and cops-and-robbers action in the Korean box-office sensation Extreme Job, and that film finds a loose counterpart in Sheep Without A Shepherd (Grade: B), a huge hit upon its release in China last winter. A remake of the 2015 Indian film Drishyam, Sheep Without A Shepherd is more cynical than Extreme Job, not least because the police are the villains of the story. It’s similarly crowd-pleasing, however, and has an appealing everyman protagonist in Li Weijie (Xiao Yang), a movie-mad Chinese immigrant living in Thailand with his family.
Li’s cinephilia is a quirky but essential element of Sheep Without A Shepherd’s twisting thriller plot. At the beginning of the film, Li comes home one night to find his wife burying a body in the backyard following a tragic accident—and suddenly, all that time he spends sitting in his shop watching crime dramas becomes newly relevant. Li disposes of the evidence and trains his family to withstand interrogation with tips picked up from the movies, which turns out to be more effective than you might think. Famously intuitive police chief La Wen (Joan Chen) has a gut feeling, though, leaving the story to escalate from there. When Sheep Without A Shepherd goes big, it goes really big, both in terms of melodrama and directorial flair. Chen is delightfully wicked as the morally compromised chief of a corrupt and abusive police department, however, and the plot is engrossing enough to forgive the movie’s excesses.
Sheep Without A Shepherd played on demand in Canada as part of the Fantasia Film Festival.
On the other hand, commercial prospects for Time Of Moulting (Grade: B) are limited, and the film is unlikely to see much of a release in North America outside of festivals . But although its audience is specific, those already immersed in the arthouse end of genre cinema will have their patience rewarded. The debut feature from German director Sabrina Mertens, Time Of Moulting resembles last year’s The Last To See Them in that it shows everything that happens around a horrifying crime, while eschewing depiction of the crime itself. The intimations of what might happen once the camera looks away are more chilling and disturbing than what we do see.
Time Of Moulting is presented in a series of tableaux divided into two halves. The first half shows the domestic life of a German family whose existence is isolated but whose bond appears relatively normal, at least at first. Early hints become pathologies in the second half, as the daughter of the family, Stephanie (Miriam Schiweck), grows up to inherit her mother’s mental instability, as well as an unsettling obsession with flesh and meat. Mertens said in a Fantasia Q&A that she was surprised when Time Of Moulting was invited to a genre festival, and it is a slow burn that never ignites into horror in any conventional sense. But considering how open-ended Mertens leaves the film at its conclusion, she may have been underestimating the morbid imagination of her audience.
Time Of Moulting screened on August 23 and August 27 as part of the Fantasia Film Festival.