Now in its 19th year, Montreal’s Fantasia Festival is not only one of the world’s longest cinematic marathons – it runs for three solid weeks on the urban campus of Concordia University – it’s one of the most welcoming and inclusive to its filmmakers. Though it has long ranked as North America’s premiere genre film festival, its roster of international horror, sci-fi, action movies and visionary cinema has rich, surprising depths and detours that defy easy categorization. Fantasia makes a reliable barometer of everything from Asian pop and auteur developments to the latest low-budget zombie hayride, as well as a kind of rallying point for emerging Quebecois talents – the hometown team behind the post-apocalyptic, ’80s-loving comedy revel “Turbo Kid” got a conquering hero’s welcome. But its curatorial reach can be stealthily acute. It’ll flip ya.
Here’s a look at five of the must-see titles that played the festival.
This year, Fantasia spotlighted new films from Nigeria (“Ojuju”) and Uganda (“Who Killed Captain Alex?: Uganda’s First Action Movie”), pointing towards vital new fields of endeavor from places where genre filmmaking might seem to be a new frontier in more ways than one. Ethiopia was represented by one of the festival’s standouts, the truly fantastical “Crumbs.” Spanish writer-director Miguel Llanso’s film premiered in Rotterdam, but hasn’t seen too much exposure yet in North America. The Spanish-Ethiopian-Finnish co-production is immersed in the wild, desolate and beautiful landscape of northern Ethiopia – and the ghost town Dallol, where the temperature was 112 degrees Monday – which makes a perfect setting for a post-apocalyptic love story. Its running time is barely more than an hour, a sustainable length for a sparse narrative that weaves together African mysticism, science-fiction and a kind of retro-futurist reinvention of American popular culture as a fount of magical artifacts. (Michael Jackson vinyl, toy zap guns and a Superman costume all make key appearances – in an uncanny way, it’s totally relatable to “Turbo Kid” in its glorification of pop debris).
The plot involves a quest by Birdy (Daniel Tadesse), a truly otherworldly actor tiny in stature but endearing in effect, to return to his home in the stars via a spaceship floating above the Earth, but first he has to get past a surly man in a Santa Claus outfit. Meanwhile, his true love Candy (Selam Tesfaye) pines for him in the abandoned bowling alley they’ve colonized. Traditional songs quietly haunt the soundtrack as the camera soaks in landscape, evoking – as many viewers have noted – the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky, although the inspired stitching of production design bric-a-brac to wasteland fabulism also suggests parallels to “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Comparisons aside, “Crumbs” is a rare and beautiful thing.
France was a genre stronghold in the oughts with the visceral art-house horror of films like “High Tension,” “Inside” and “Martyrs,” each new entry more extreme than the last. This drama about an intensely thought-ridden serial killer is something very different. Eric Cherriere, a crime novelist turned filmmaker, writes and directs with notable restraint, focusing exactly on the aspect nearly all movies about such a subject leave a phenomenological mystery: The inner life of the psychopath. Jean-Jacques Lelte gives the killer, Pierre, an earnest, everyman demeanor and a yawning sadness. He works only crummy manual labor gigs and cares for a mute, invalid father in a gloomy house in Toulouse, comforted mostly by vivid memories of his long-departed mother and a dutiful attention paid to his collection of diaries, the contents of which…well…Pierre has this peculiar habit. The film avoids much in the way of explicit violence, letting the spoken, elided excerpts from the diaries serve as creepy epitaphs to Pierre’s victims.
The story’s existential mood is hermetic until unexpected events lead Pierre into a budding romance with Laure (Magali Moreau) and a perhaps deliberate lapse in judgment puts the police on his tail. Suddenly, Pierre has something to live for besides meticulously stalking and killing his victims (typically at happy turning points in their lives, when they have the most to lose). Cherriere’s slow-building and attentively detailed scenario, heightened by dusky cinematography and a soundtrack of almost too-melancholy accordion and strings, at last underscores the title in a plot-point that is profoundly cruel, yet resolves in a dramatic and lyrical flourish.
This tough-guy saga set in Detroit’s Albanian community is a real bruiser. Actor-writer-producer Nickola Shreli (“Low Winter Sun”) plays the world’s crappiest landlord, but not in the usual sense. He’s so incapable of making his loser tenants pay on time that he’s in danger of losing his building. But Shreli’s Elvis Martini (yes, that’s his name) has bigger problems: $10,000 in overdue gambling debt and the future of his young daughter, whom he’s raising as a single father. That’s his fault, as well, because he set his mother-in-law’s house on fire to collect the insurance money, unaware that his wife was sleeping there. That set-up feels a bit contrived, and the sources of Elvis’s dysfunction are never made clear enough to explain his consistently poor decision-making.
However, director Malik Bader doesn’t give the viewer time to dwell on such things, and Shreli’s performance of a desperate man down to his last dime is commanding and sympathetic, finding grace notes in a guy who really deserves all the grief he suffers. The actor, with his shaved head and aggressive gait, offers a a leaner, meaner reminder of what Pauline Kael suggested when she likened Bob Hoskins to “a testicle on two legs.”
When Elvis lays claim to an unexpected stash of $10,000, his problems get exponentially worse, entangling him with an insane crimelord who runs dog fighting operation – which leads to a terrifically lurid third act in which Shreli has to go all Liam Neeson to save everything he holds dear, including his literal ass. The movie is much better, though, at capturing the slice-of-life wackiness and sleaze both of Detroit low-lifery and the crazy things people become willing to do amid a chronic economic squeeze. It’s a social-realist slow burn with a bloodthirsty payday.
The psychological thriller from Australia is, ultimately, one big “huh?” – you’ll wonder what you missed amid a multitude of flashbacks, which may also be dream sequences, which may also be hallucinations, experienced by a troubled man named Parker (Lindsay Farris). He’s been hired to stake out a young woman (Stephanie King), experiencing what appears to be a nasty breakup in the apartment across from a derelict building from which he’s surveilling her. Parker’s only contact with the outside world is a mysterious employer who contacts him by phone and his brother-in-law, who drops by with groceries. These tethers become increasingly tenuous as Parker slips ever deeper into a personal nightmare. Much of it seems to do with the loss of his young son, and some of it has to do with a budding fixation on the woman and her imagined plight, but the building itself starts working its way into Parker’s bloodstream: spectral shudderings, a decomposed rat, a scalding blast of hot water in the shower that leaves a nasty burn, jars of black goop. Much as Catherine Deneuve in “Repulsion,” his madness accelerates in isolation.
The film’s sustained suspense, which pushes toward the squishy body-horror of early Cronenberg, is heightened through immersive use of sound and cinematography, with nods to existential “I spy” classics like “Blow-Up” and “The Conversation.” For sheer ambient dread, it’s aces.
The winner of 10 Goya Awards, this Spanish whodunit plays a lot like an Iberian version of “True Detective.” There’s no way director Alberto Rodriguez (“Unit 7”) thought of it that way, but for an American viewer, it fits the concept smoothly. In the wake of the Franco regime, two Madri homicide investigators venture to the remote Andalusian wetlands to investigate the disappearance of two teenage girls. The details quickly accrue: sex, mutilation, murder, pornographic photographs, tight-lipped locals, perfect suspects who elude arrest. The cops? An older detective with a shadowy past, a thirst for cheap gin and a rough hand when he needs evidence, and a younger man who takes a more enlightened tack. They represent the nation’s post-Franco culture clash.
These characterizations are enough to lend some sociological weight to the story, which also makes haunting use of landscape and climate to evoke a feverish, forsaken tone. Like “True Detective,” the plot mechanics are less satisfying that the dynamic contrast between the lead characters, for whom the assignment becomes a case of great emotional and carnal risk.