Having just wrapped up my eighth year attending Fantastic Fest, I can confidently say that it's always one of my favorite weeks of the year. It's a time where I get to reunite with old friends, meet new people and watch movies that I might never otherwise have gotten the chance to see with audiences filled with some of the biggest genre fans from around the globe.
If you attend a movie (or shorts program) in every single programmed slot, you can line up 37 viewing options over eight days. I tend to stick a little closer to 20 titles, but there are always surprises and memorable screenings that are just not going to be replicated anywhere else. The movies below represent my five favorite experiences this year.
Walking into this movie, the only thing I knew was that it was the official Danish submission for the best foreign language film category at next year's Academy Awards. I was not expecting an edge-of-your-seat thriller that is confined strictly to the inside of an emergency call center (think 911, although they call it 112).
A fatal mistake has caused police officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) to be taken off patrol and thrown into the role of dispatcher. It's clearly not something that he's happy about, and he spends a lot of time hearing from people with minor issues like bike accidents and attempted muggings. Everything changes when he takes a call from a woman who reports that she has been kidnapped by her ex-husband and is being taken against her will in his van. The call disconnects before Asger can gather much information about her location, leaving him concerned but ultimately helpless.
Shortly after, he speaks with this woman's 6-year-old daughter Mathilde on the phone and learns that her dad dragged her mother out of the home screaming and left behind the young girl as well as a baby. A promise to get her mother home safely sends Asger into overdrive, breaking all of the rules and potentially causing more mistakes along the way in order to save a life.
We experience everything in real time, the same as Asger does. As a blurry situation comes into focus with repeated phone calls, things go from bad to worse relatively quickly.
One man talking on the telephone may not sound like the most exciting way to spend 90 minutes, but director Gustav Möller has crafted an outrageously tense and effective movie that hinges entirely on a bravura performance by Cedergren. Before this, he was best known for a handful of movies and mostly as a television actor in Europe. "The Guilty" should deservedly boost his international profile.
(In limited release from Magnolia Pictures beginning Oct. 19)
"KNIFE + HEART"
For his second feature film, French director Yann Gonzalez takes an audacious deep dive into late '70s Paris by combining his love of Giallo horror with the world of gay pornography.
Vanessa Paradis is simply stunning as Anne, a heartbroken lesbian who has just seen a decadelong relationship come to an end. She oversees a small collective of performers and crew who make adult films — she directs them all downstairs in a small studio space while her former partner Lois (Kate Moran) works upstairs as her editor. Despite their split, they're still working together every day.
The stars of Anne's films are soon targeted by a maniacal masked killer who starts taking them out one by one. For a film with some troubling and graphically violent imagery, it remains almost shockingly beautiful. Often bathed in deep blue and red hues, Gonzalez and cinematographer Simon Beaufils shot on 35mm Kodak stock to achieve incredibly striking visuals. Conversely, the mostly tongue-in-cheek porn footage was done on 16mm for a more properly vintage look. The perfectly atmospheric electronic-based score is composed and performed by the French band M83, led by Gonzalez's brother Anthony.
While the sexuality is not as inherently graphic as the violence, it does not shy away from either. The cast is rounded out with appropriately beautiful young men to match its subject matter. Nicolas Maury (who, like Moran, also starred in Gonzalez's 2013 feature "You And The Night") is terrific as Archibald, one of Anne's most flamboyant stars and one of the few people she actually confides in.
Nominated for the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, this is an unapologetically queer genre film that revels in its darkness but also is a testament to outsider art and the power of love.
A clear distinction between France and America: When released there earlier this year, the film had the equivalent of a PG-13 rating in theaters.
(Altered Innocence will release this domestically in 2019)
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Karyn Kusama has had a fascinating directorial career. She came out of the gate winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2000 for her debut film "Girlfight" and was subsequently thrust into the studio system for a couple of films that didn't exactly burn up the box office. She came back big with 2015's critically acclaimed "The Invitation" and has now returned with a gritty police drama written by collaborators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi.
Nicole Kidman gives the best performance of her career as Detective Erin Bell, a woman whose experiences going deep undercover in the LAPD have left her completely broken and emotionally scarred. Kidman is note-perfect, able to express a lifetime of bad decisions with one glance. We're given a flashback structure that floats between her present day and several years earlier where she infiltrated a gang with her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) and things went very badly. The timeline shifts frequently throughout, slowly providing context for her gruff attitude and frequent drunkenness.
In the here and now she is dealing with the distinct possibility that the former leader of the gang she had helped to take down has resurfaced and is out to get her. To make matters even more complicated, she has a surly 16-year-old daughter named Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) who is dating a much older man, and an ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) who isn't sure how to handle any of these problems.
Bradley Whitford chews the scenery with an amazing bit part as a crooked lawyer who gets on Bell's bad side, and "Orphan Black" star Tatiana Maslany is outstanding but sadly underutilized as the bridge between Bell's former and current life.
When the screening ended, I suggested to anyone who would listen that Hollywood should just go ahead and give all the awards to Kidman now to save time later.
(Annapurna Pictures is expected to release "Destroyer" in theaters Dec. 25)
This superb French thriller does not waste any time. We begin in a small classroom for gifted students. Their despondent teacher walks to the back of the room while they're taking a test and attempts suicide. The kids are shaken, and the placement of Pierre, a substitute teacher (Laurent Lafitte, "Elle"), into the class shortly after does little to calm their nerves.
As it turns out, at least a core group of six of these kids is very cynical about the future of our planet. It's one thing to be booksmart (which they obviously are), but it's another thing to become obsessed with the state of the world and become a nihilist as a result.
Pierre is concerned about his new students and tries to stand up for them in situations where they're bullied by the general school population. But as he learns more about them, he starts to be worried in other ways — could these kids have caused their former teacher to leap out a window? And what are they hiding on the weekends when they head off to a local quarry and are seemingly inseparable?
I certainly didn't see the answers to these questions coming, and the story gets more insane as it continues. There are some obvious boundaries that are crossed along the way, but my major complaint revolves around the decision to use some rather disturbing footage in montages that are trying to illustrate what is wrong with our world. This starts rather mild with things like ducks in an oil spill, but ends up including clips from 9/11 and some other images that are certainly powerful in context but feel a little contrived edited together here. Also, the teenage actors are pretty decent, but the characters are perhaps a little too sullen and rude to feel overwhelming sympathy for them.
Ultimately, "School's Out" goes for broke in the last act, and I found it to be one of the biggest and best surprises of the week. Director Sébastien Marnier ("Faultless") has delivered an eccentric tale that is very much of our time.
(Celluloid Dreams is expected to give this film a limited release stateside in 2019)
Richard Shepard's latest film is a truly bonkers thriller that was fully completed less than two weeks before premiering at the festival.
Allison Williams ("Girls") is Charlotte, a former child prodigy whose talents on the cello were fostered at a prestigious music school in Boston run by Anton (Steven Weber) and his wife Paloma (Alaina Huffman). Charlotte's career came to an abrupt end after her mother became ill and she left school to care for her.
Logan Browning ("Dear White People") is Lizzie. She has ascended the ranks and become a world-renowned cellist in the years that followed. Her career is everything that Charlotte could have ever hoped for but lost.
Split into four distinct sections, the movie revels in giving us one side of the story and then quickly rewinding to fill in the gaps and show us things we were not initially aware of. This is a structure that played out remarkably well with Fantastic Fest audiences, and I have to admit that I screamed out loud at one scene in a manner that no film has ever made me do (apologies to those in my immediate vicinity).
This is a story where revealing too much would ruin the fun. Suffice it to say, Shepard has dealt a winning hand by telling a story that is rooted in revenge but delivers an even deeper meaning. It's a twisted cat and mouse game, although at times I wasn't sure which was which. By the time we land in the twisted final moments, all bets are off. To say that anything goes is an understatement and, along the way, "The Perfection" offers plenty to offend delicate sensibilities.
I was surprised to see Williams and Browning in a film like this, but they must have had an absolute blast making it. If you're up for an outrageous and blood-soaked ride, this one's for you.
(Miramax will release "The Perfection" in theaters in 2019)