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Juror’s Notebook: Fantastic Fest Acclaim Will Put “Bullhead” Director Michael R. Roskam on the Map

Juror's Notebook: Fantastic Fest Acclaim Will Put "Bullhead" Director Michael R. Roskam on the Map

Participating in a film festival jury is never easy, since it requires a negotiation between personal taste and group consensus. However, the process offers a unique challenge at Fantastic Fest, where I’ve had the privilege of serving on juries for the past two years.

The niche-oriented festival celebrates a rambunctious enthusiasm for often marginalized cinema, particularly entries in the horror and science fiction genres from around the world. Whereas an award from Cannes or Sundance helps propel films to a general arthouse audience and beyond, a Fantastic Fest honor sends the message that a particular work holds appeal for the same kind of crowd that populates the festival.

Last year, as a member of the Fantastic Features jury, I helped choose the best offerings from a section of movies that didn’t use genre in an obvious fashion. On the Next Wave jury this time out, I faced a new proposition. Started in 2007 and sponsored by AMD and Dell, the Next Wave section honors new talent in genre filmmaking and represents one of the more crucial ingredients in the seven-year-old festival’s growing legacy.

During its first year, the Next Wave gave its top prize to “Timecrimes” director Nacho Vigalondo. The young Spanish director’s sophomore effort, “Extraterrestrial,” screened at Fantastic Fest this year, where it played to a packed crowd and the highest ticket demand of the festival. “As a human being, I was born in Spain,” Vigalondo said before the screening. “But as a filmmaker, I was born here.”

By honoring Vigalondo, Fantastic Fest started to grow its family. Along with my fellow jurors, Fandango editor-in-chief Chuck Walton and producer Ant Timspon, I believe we added to that crowd by honoring “Bullhead,” the tense crime saga recently selected as Belgium’s official submission to the Academy Awards.

The directorial debut of Michael R. Roskam (whom we awarded best director), it stars Matthias Schoenaerts (our choice for best actor) as a solemn tough guy named Jacky still reeling from a traumatic experience in his youth that left him devoid of testicles. Hopelessly addicted to hormone injections and pumping iron at every available moment, the ferocious character suggests a quieter Travis Bickle whose psychological pain constantly threatens to erupt. Meanwhile, Jacky’s personal drama takes place against the backdrop of a much larger one, a sprawling plot involving the corrupt interest of various underworld characters in the cattle industry. Jacky quietly manipulates events to pave the way to take revenge against the man responsible for his handicap years ago.

Watching “Bullhead,” it’s easy to imagine that Roskam (who attended the festival) could inherit the heated world of double-crossers and violent avengers that put Martin Scorsese on the map. (He’s already announced plans to follow up “Bullhead” with another crime drama called “The Faithful.”) With each needle that penetrates Jacky’s skin, the movie teeters on the edge of a wild exploitation movie where the souped-up hero engages on a warpath aided by superhuman abilities. That it never goes that route, favoring understatement and patient character development over excess, is a testament to Roskam’s respect for the world he’s created. Demonstrating an awareness that even crazy people live, breathe and think, “Bullhead” moves with an intelligence that never wanders off-track, identifying Roskam as a talent to watch.

In Belgium, “Bullhead” recently turned a few heads because it beat out the popular favorite, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne Cannes competition entry “The Kid With a Bike,” for the country’s Oscar submission. It’s rather shocking that the pair have yet to land a nomination, despite holding onto their status as art-house favorites for well over a decade. However, while the Dardenne brothers have concocted an impressive bittersweet look at a lonely child isolated from his family and growing increasingly desperate, they can live without the added love an Oscar nomination might bring. Roskam needs the attention.

Just as Vigalondo’s breakthrough arrived when he received an Oscar nomination for his short film before making “Timecrimes,” the Oscar submission for “Bullhead” will help put Roskam on a global stage and sustain his career. Those who have recently seen the movie (which has yet to land a U.S. distributor) can agree. That still-limited group includes the Dardennes, who reportedly attended a recent screening and cornered the star after the film to share their reaction: They loved it, and so did the crowd at Fantastic Fest.

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