‘Grand Piano'

Where most film festivals are a haze of long hours, indistinguishable screenings, half-eaten meals and endless awards-season predictions, Fantastic Fest is an altogether different kind of gauntlet: the hours are the same, but the meals are decadent and plentiful, the movies almost all guarantee to scar, traumatize or otherwise transform you, and most of your predictions involve the intensity of the hangover you'll have the following morning.

Whether or not one is better is up to the survivors of each, but Fantastic Fest guarantees a level of camaraderie, and of course a slate of films, that you won't see anywhere else in the country. And the 2013 festival offered some of its most impressive and eclectic programming to date.

The first half of the festival always proves the toughest to survive: the volume of high-profile genre material is positively overwhelming, demanding that critics and fans choose between two of their favorite filmmakers or most highly-anticipated films at least once a day, if not several times. In the span of the first three days, attendees saw new films from Robert Rodriguez, Mark Hartley, Sion Sono, Eugenio Mira, Ben Wheatley, Isaac Florentine, Ti West, Jim Mickle, Alex de la Iglesia, Stephen Chow, Clive Barker, Errol Morris, Keanu Reeves, E.L. Katz, and Kim Ki-Duk. And when paired with events like an opening night party featuring exploding cars and mariachi bands, Friday's "Chaos Reigns" karaoke party, and Saturday's explosive Fantastic Debates, there are few if any gaps in attendees' schedules, and even fewer chances to get a good night's sleep.

The uneven grindhouse affection of "Machete Kills," the fest’s opening night film, received predictably mixed enjoyment from attendees -- even the native Austin filmmaker's DIY approach couldn't disguise the sequel's studio foundations. But Sono's "Why Don’t You Play In Hell" offered a sharp and invigorating rejoinder to Rodriguez's film with its oddball combination of violent gangster and scruffy amateur filmmakers. Even if you couldn't score a ticket to brand-name movies like these -- "brand-name" being a relative term for genre cinephiles like this festival’s core audience -- there were just as many incredible breakthroughs, debuts and surprises to occupy the hours between slap-fights, drinking contests and karaoke competitions.

Just a handful of the early standouts include James Byrkit's "Coherence," Matt Johnson’s "The Dirties," and Joe Begos' "Almost Human," not to mention the Sundance darling "Escape From Tomorrow," and Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's eagerly-anticipated follow-up to "Amer," the giallo homage "The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears."

"Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut."
20th Century Fox "Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut."

Audiences also saw an early screening of Clive Barker's "Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut," which felt like a more exciting reconstruction experiment than directorial vindication: Director Russell Cherington lovingly assembled all of the rediscovered footage from the original 1990 shoot into a much more expansive and compelling narrative -- but there were numerous sequences that felt repetitive, overlong, or even just unnecessary, while the overall VHS-level quality of the print indicated that fans would be better-suited to wait until the restored and remastered Blu-ray bows later this year or next.

By Monday, a look of collective exhaustion had overtaken attendees, but the awards ceremony Monday night roused many from their zombielike stupor and gave them new energy to dive into the second half of the festival. What's most interesting about Fantastic Fest's winners, however, is that their victories here feel like unique spectacle – their trophies never guarantee they will be seen by larger audiences.

Conversely, those films that have distribution and win don't always reward the audiences that embrace them: "Jodorowsky’s Dune," for example, took home the Audience Award, as well as Best Picture in the documentary category and yet Sony Classics failed to provide attendees with another chance to see it after its one showing on Saturday night opposite E.L. Katz’ "Cheap Thrills."

In the "Next Wave" category, Johnson's "The Dirties" took home Best Picture honors, while Byrkit's "Coherence" scored Best Screenplay; in “Fantastic Features,” Ari Folman's "The Congress" took home Picture, Screenplay and its star, Robin Wright, won Best Actress for her fearlessly unflattering performance. Among horror features, Derek Lee and Clif Prowse’s "Afflicted" won Best Picture, Screenplay and Director, and the film quickly emerged as one to watch as it advances towards theaters: People were characterizing it as a horror version of "Chronicle," which isn’t far off. And in the comedy category, Sono's film won Best Picture and Director, while Qi Shu won Best Actress for her role in Stephen Chow's sublime "Journey to the West."

The second half of the festival provides a second chance for attendees to check out those films that won awards, drew buzz from their friends and colleagues, or just lost in the Sophie's choice showdown against another film viewers were equally excited to check out. Jeremy Saulnier's "Blue Ruin," for example, didn't take home any awards, but it was among the most feverishly-buzzed about films at the festival, and screenings on Tuesday drew additional praise for it as a standout that deserved more attention. "Grand Piano," Eugenio Mira's sweeping, De Palma-esque cat-and-mouse thriller featuring a concert pianist and the sniper who demands he give the performance of his life, went from an "I hear it was pretty good" buzz to being considered one of the festival's breakout masterpieces.

Next: Metallica, Gilliam and slapping contests.