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Fantastic Fest Had a Rough Year, But the Best Movies Featured Powerful Women

Despite some ugly scandals in the headlines, this year's Austin genre festival provided a satisfying showcase for women both in front of and behind the camera.

“Gerald’s Game”

This year, Fantastic Fest turned 13, a number that felt apt if you’ve been following the news. Most conversations started like this:

“How are you?”

“How are you?”

Exhale. Hug. Repeat.

Eventually, people got around to talking about the films. Even those were emotional.

Tortured Souls

In past years, bringing context into the Alamo Drafthouse theater meant deciding not to chomp chips and queso during a hushed thriller. This time, audiences welled up watching Carla Guigino confront a lifetime of abuse as the emotionally and physically handcuffed wife in Stephen King’s “Gerald’s Game,” a Lifetime movie-looking low budget adaptation whose blockbuster impact at the Fest might not translate to people at home when it premieres on Netflix. (Guigino, however, is terrific in a dual-of-sorts role as the manacled victim and her empowered subconscious.)

Coralie Fargeat’s “Revenge,” a serviceable rape-revenge flick set in a desert outback accessible only by helicopter, was a surprise darling, even though the characters are flatter than the sandy terrain. Heroine Jennifer’s (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) victimization and payback are so graphic that the lights came on when a man in the audience had a seizure. The lights came on and when “Revenge” resumed, the gore consummated in Looney Tunes chase on a floor slicked with blood. While people didn’t love “Maus,” Yayo Herrero’s Serbian nightmare about Muslim survivor Selma (Alma Terzic) returning to the landmine-riddled forest that swallowed her family 20 years ago, the film rattled in brains all week, especially Herrero’s skewering of her German boyfriend (August Wittgenstein), a naively over-confident mansplainer unscarred by trauma.

tiger girl

“Tiger Girl”

Wild women were everywhere, from the grimy glee of Jakob Lass’s “Tiger Girl” starring Ella Rumpf of “Raw,” to Brazilian directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s “Good Manners,” in which a passive, but steel-spined nanny (Isabél Zuaa) protects her party girl boss’ (Marjorie Estiano) werewolf baby. The needy clones of Don Hertzfeldt’s “World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts” had a girl in my aisle in emotional convulsions, sobbing through her laughter like a tragedy/comedy mask spun on its axis.

After I wrote that the zombie high school musical “Anna and the Apocalypse” nearly brought me to tears, several other people confessed the same, and also broke down during Deborah Haywood’s delicate and aching “Pin Cushion,” a portrait of a misfit single mother (Joanna Scanlan) terrified that her daughter (Lily Newmark) will be broken by the same mean girl, selfish guy bullying that’s shadowed her own life. Imagine the suffocating anxiety of “Carrie” star Piper Laurie in a woman wearing twee knits. No wonder that the day after “Pin Cushion” premiered, filmmaker Adam Egypt Mortimer won the headline boxing match at the Fantastic Debates championing “Carrie” as Stephen King’s best film. Though opponent Josh Ethier, defending “Christine,” had 4 inches and 75 pounds on Mortimer, he didn’t stand a chance.

Greetings From the Middle East

Among these powerful female-driven — and often, female-directed — films, and the conversations and hugs enveloping them, Fantastic Fest’s actual theme felt lost in the shuffle. Inspired by a trip to Maskoon Fantastic Films Festival, a genre fest in Lebanon, Creative Director Evrim Ersoy put together a fascinating program of flicks from the Arab world, starting with the 1981 Egyptian cult classic “Anyab,” aka “Fangs,” a “Rocky Horror” homage that converts sexual politics to actual politics. Instead of resurrecting a bikini-briefed hunk, lothario Dracula (Ahmed Adawiyya) stars in a montage of all the little, cruel ways capitalism destroys a young couple’s happiness. “Vampires are real,” he grins.

“Anyab”

Elsewhere in modern Egypt, the international premiere of Marwan Hamed’s “The Originals” was one of the strangest, and best comedies of the fest — a techno-satire about an everyman (Maged El Kadweny, an actor with the face of a depressed hedgehog), recruited by a shady corporation to spy on the world. Sonia Kronlund’s documentary “The Prince of Nothingwood” celebrated Afghani director Salim Shaheen, an insanely prolific no-budget director with over a hundred movies under his belt. In a region known to the West mainly for war and religious oppression, Shaheen insists on telling his own stories. The struggle isn’t just getting his films made — it’s getting global audiences to know he even exists. (Exploitation fiends also applauded his spiritual cousin Larry Cohen, the strange brain behind “Black Caesar” and “It’s Alive,” in the inadvertent companion doc “King Cohen.”)

Hopefully, the upcoming filmmakers of the Yalla! Arab Genre Shorts program will have it easier, especially Lebanese director Fadi Baki of “Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow,” a sci-fi drama which follows a fictitious eight-foot robot given to the government after World War II, and whose decades of fame, shame, and abandonment chart the history of the country itself.

Fireworks, Rap Battles, and More

From there, attention skipped to Mexico with the flashy documentary “Brimstone & Glory,” which tracks the week-long firework festival in the small town of Tultepec — director Viktor Jakovleski shot the explosions on high-speed lenses so pyromaniacs are gonna want to see it on the big screen. And Issa Lopez’s “Tigers Are Not Afraid” turns the lives of Mexican street kids into a slum-set fairy tale that would have Guillermo Del Toro seething that he didn’t think of it first.

“The Endless”

As for the next generation of American auteurs, Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s “The Endless” was an inventive time-warping thriller set in the desert hills of a Southern Californian cult, and Marc Meyers’ “My Friend Dahmer,” based on the graphic novel memoir of John Backderf, one of the serial killer’s high school frenemies, drilled into the anarchic humor that made a group of weirdos turn a strange boy into the school mascot. That queasiness in my stomach wasn’t my fourth bowl of queso — it was Meyers and Backderf’s unsparing acknowledgment that his true story contains shades of both Carrie and Pepe the Frog.

Yet the film that packed the biggest wallop was Joseph Kahn’s “Bodied,” a black comedy about a white boy poetry nerd (Calum Worthy) who upends the Oakland rap battle scene, and his own life. The plot sounds like mall multiplex treacle about a geek turned cool. Good god, no. Kahn blows up the Twitterverse with this shockingly provocative flick about the boundaries of free speech that stuck a knife into racism, sexism, and progressivism. It was an intellectual massacre every bit as cruel as any horror film in the fest.

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