Cheap Thrills

The other high-profile screening on Saturday was "Cheap Thrills," a terrifically subversive feature debut from writer-director Evan Katz. While the film met with almost universal adulation, the film's introduction was an even bigger event: Stars Pat Healy, Dave Koechner and Ethan Embry enlisted members of the audience to perform a series of dares that included eating a popsicle covered with crickets, dipping a man’s genitals in a bowl of sriracha, and in one case, someone receiving a tattoo of the film’s title on his buttocks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, members of the audience leapt at the chance to participate -- but the real punchline came after the film, when a blackout-drunk Koechner and his slightly less-inebriated co-stars performed what may go down in history as the festival’s drunkest Q&A ever.

But Saturday night's main event, as always, was the Fantastic Debates, an annual face-off between various attendees and members of the industry over issues that moderator and host Owen Edgerton repeatedly reminded the audience were of vital importance – not just to festival-goers, but society as a whole. Sure thing: The format essentially boils down to a silly but often extraordinarily well-argued session of verbal sparring, followed by a few minutes of boxing between the opponents, and this year's debates offered better physical fights than rhetorical ones.

Debates raged over whether "28 Days Later" was a zombie movie (Dread Central critic Brad McHargue won the oral arguments, but Screen Crush contributor Jacob Hall roundly defeated him in their physical confrontation), if attractive people are ruining geekdom ("Looper" costar Noah Segen and 2012 Nerd Rap champion Andrew Todd proved evenly matched), and about Sylvester Stallone's canonization as the "only" true action star (Slashfilm's Russ Fischer successfully answered Drafthouse employee Greg MacLennan's case for the star, but MacLennan's last-minute physical preparation ultimately prevailed). However, the title fight was a beautiful spectacle, as Drafthouse founder Tim League argued against Keanu Reeves in a bout to determine whether tae kwon do or tai chi is the superior form of martial arts.

Reeves approached the verbal exchange from a decidedly zen perspective – basically granting all of League's hyperbolic but factually accurate claims – but the actor (as planned) bowed out of the physical bout and had "Man of Tai Chi" star Chen take his place. League's braggadocio has become a legendary catalyst for some great confrontations over the years, but the actual fights have often ended up being underwhelming, because he typically fights someone who could probably knock his head off if they tried – such as, with the case of Chen, a bona fide martial arts master. But League's determination to goad his opponent into fighting actually worked this time; after he landed a few solid blows, Chen stepped his game up and it became a true fight – though ultimately League did win.

The Congress skip crop

Sunday, by comparison, was less intense, although its gauntlet of films equaled those of its predecessors. After a quiet morning – it felt slightly as if the entire festival was at least a little hung over – things perked up with "The Congress," Ari Folman’s follow-up to "Waltz With Bahir," which quite frankly is the kind of film that needs to be programmed more often, thanks to its poetic combination of high-concept science fiction and emotional nakedness. After that stunned audiences in the afternoon, Simon and Zeke Hawkins' “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” not only offered a homecoming for a cadre of Texas filmmakers who currently collaborate in Los Angeles, but offered a fresh, engaging and artistic take on the familiar rhythms of a small-town crime story.

That film was immediately followed by "All The Boys Love Mandy Lane," which shares a producer in Brian Udovich with "We Gotta Get Out," and ranks as one of the films that people have been most eager to see since its completion in 2006, but only secured distribution this year. For those audiences that needed lighter fare after a weekend of powerful, provocative, disturbing films, there were two salves: the Nerd Rap battle, an annual competition in which attendees write and perform their own geek-infused verses, and “Kid's Police," a goofy but absolutely adorable Japanese film about a group of police officers who get transformed into children.

Either way, attendees – or at least this one – had hit a wall; even the programmers and moderators were acknowledging that sleepless nights were an inevitable byproduct of trying to see and do so much in such a short period of time. But as the festival continues this week, those whose constitutions (much less livers) have been thoroughly tested will have an opportunity to get a few extra minutes of rest and gear up for more movies. Despite its displacement, and the various logistical obstacles that organizers have faced, Fantastic Fest kicked off as impressively as it has in past years with a solid and interesting slate of films and events that perfectly complement the appetites and interests of its attendees.