Fantastic Fest, which concludes its tenth edition this week in Austin, operates separately from the chaos of the fall film festival circuit. In the most basic sense, it’s a celebration of genre film — meaning everything from explicit horror movies to outrageous sex comedies — but the focus of the lineup is less relevant than the way it advocates for particular sensibilities.
Set at the newly refurbished Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, the festival takes place in a dense social climate where patrons spend most of their time in between movies hanging out in the lobby or at the Highball lounge next door, constantly processing the lineup and sharing their enthusiasm — or drinking, playing the numerous indie games set up in the Fantastic Arcade, singing karaoke, whatever. The activity is constant, and even includes a variety of festival-mandated social outings ranging from trips to the shooting range to the oldest BBQ joint in Texas. The geeky tendencies of the crowd form something of a red herring: the bigger picture is that Fantastic Fest celebrates film culture with a unifying spirit, which is an astounding accomplishment in today’s fragmented times. Here are several reasons why this year’s edition kept lived up to expectations.
1. It’s a place for genuine discoveries.
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Many festivals contain previously unknown quantities that gain momentum once audiences spread the word. Fantastic Fest, however, actively encourages its viewers to seek out movies that have little-to-no hype surrounding them. Since the program is designed to appeal to sensibilities above all, it’s the concept and potential entertainment value of various movies that draw people in more than any known quantities. The largely international program encourages a process of digging through the lineup at random, trusting the brand, and making discoveries from around the world.
Within a 72-hour period, I came across two surprisingly well-made comedies: First came the amusingly-titled “Bro’s Before Ho’s,” a Dutch comedy about arrested development spiked with politically incorrect humor more extreme than anything found in the Judd Apatow oeuvre. Directors Steffen Haars and Flip van der Kuil (whose previous efforts “New Kids Turbo” and “New Kids Nitro” were Fantastic Fest favorites) follow the story of brothers Max (Tim Haars) and Jules (Daniel Arends), who vow at a young age never to let women pull them apart. Flash forward to their bored, hard-partying twenties, when the arrival of the sweet-natured Anna (Sylvia Hoecks) challenges their bond after they both fall for her. Despite the familiar premise, the movie gets a naughty kick from its lazy protagonist’s vulgar exchanges, as well as a subplot involving Anna’s mentally challenged brother and his friends.
But even as “Bro’s Before Ho’s” derives its humor from certain crass ingredients, there’s an underlying sweetness to the scenario that holds it together. The movie crosses certain lines with glee — explicit genitalia humor and a climactic pageant involving its mentally challenged characters stand out — to the point where it’s unlikely any major U.S. distributor would take a chance on it, but that only enhances the liberating qualities of its raunchiness.
The same appeal can be found with the outrageous Uruguayan stoner comedy “High Five,” which might be best described in these parts as a slick blend of “Pineapple Express” and “Requiem for a Dream.” Director Manuel Facal’s expertly-made romp involves a quintet of young people — three college-age losers and a pair of teens — discovering a package in the park filled with multiple drugs and divvying them up.
During the ensuing hectic day, one thing after another goes hilariously wrong: Good-natured Elias (Joaquin Tome), lost in the fog of an LSD trip, frantically tries to get back to his girlfriend, while his portly buddy Andres (Santiago Quintans) evades the gun-wielding gangsters who owned the dope. The young lady among them takes ketamine and promptly falls into a drug-induced coma, which the terrified men cover up by putting sunglasses on the unconscious woman and hauling her around town, an effective nod at “Weekend at Bernie’s” — though the rest of the movie is closer in form to “Cheech & Chong,” with better production values. Elias’ acid-induced visions, including one terrifying journey to the grocery store, stand out as particularly effective at conveying the character’s horrified state while making it possible to laugh at its absurdity.
At the other end of the spectrum was “Alleluia,” a gripping riff on real-life serial killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck from Belgian director Fabrice du Weltz. While the movie premiered at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight in May, it has remained under the radar for most of the year and deserves more attention. Du Weltz (“Vinyan”) constructs a frightening world that exists within his protagonists’ demented minds from start to finish. Though it doesn’t sympathize with its characters’ lunacy, “Alleluia” brilliantly explores different variations of crazy, and wonders whether even within those confines someone can go too far. The climax puts the couple’s differing versions of immorality to the test with mesmerizing results. A psychological horror movie with a visceral edge, “Alleluia” (which Music Box will release later this year) is an ideal festival underdog that kicked up its profile at Fantastic Fest.
2. Fantastic Fest offers a different kind of validation.
Several years ago, “Antichrist” went from being the scandale au festival at Cannes to the breakout hit at Fantastic Fest, which spawned the popularity of the now-famous “Chaos reigns!” catchphrase. This year, another Cannes title that may not have seemed like the prototypical Fantastic Fest selection made its way into the lineup: The Cannes-acclaimed “Force Majeure” — Sweden’s Oscar submission — which involves the experiences of a family on a ski trip in the wake of a near-death experience that tests their bonds. Far from a typical genre entry, the movie nevertheless played quite well, proving that Fantastic Fest audiences will watch and appreciate good movies irrespective of whether they fit the particular slant of the lineup.
That was also the case for “Man From Reno,” Dave Boyle’s classy mystery-thriller that previously won acclaim at the Los Angeles Film Festival over the summer. Featuring the great under-appreciated character actor Pepe Serna (a spry 70-year-old who actually won the festival’s “Nerd Rap” competition over the weekend) and Takashi Miike regular Kazuki Kitamura, the subtle noir tale unfolds across the backdrop of San Francisco, where a crime novelist (Kitamura) and a trenchant sheriff (Serna) attempt to track down the antics of a mystery drifter. The twisty narrative foregrounds its actor’s textured performances and an endearing atmosphere riddled with ambiguity, resulting in a cryptic experience about the nature of obsession pitched somewhere between Raymond Chandler novels and David Fincher’s “Zodiac.” Its subtle, patient quality may have prevented “Man From Reno” from finding U.S. distribution yet, but buyers should consider trusting audiences’ enthusiasm for intelligent storytelling and taking the risk. Fantastic Fest viewers certainly thought it was worth it.
3. The festival makes room for film history.
It’s just a different kind of film history. Previous editions of the festival have included screenings of hilarious B-movie experiences like the outrageous martial arts whatsit “The Miami Connection,” but this year’s screening of the 1975 curiosity “The Astrologer” took the discovery process put to a new level. Presented by the Drafthouse’s American Genre Film Archive, a non-profit that used a successful crowd-funding approach to restore Craig Denney’s barely-seen drama, the movie involves a character who stays busy: from swindling patrons with false fortunes to escaping prison in Africa, stealing diamonds and venturing into movie production, where he makes…”The Astrologer.”
An Ed Wood-like anything-goes director seemingly convinced that every frame of his confounding project was a masterpiece, Denney’s investment in the material is nearly as compelling as the unpredictable mess he made. Oddly set to a Moody Blues soundtrack (probably without permission) and littered with tangents that include a random, wordless journey across the sea and an out-of-nowhere Shakesperean finale, “The Astrologer” makes up for its many technical deficients with its volatile pace. “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn (a board member for the archive) introduced the screening by announcing his intentions to reference scenes from the movie in his next project, which means that even if “The Astrologer” never receives a proper theatrical release, its legacy will live on.
4. Above all, there’s a sense of community.
Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo first became a Fantastic Fest regular when his time travel adventure “Timecrimes” premiered at the festival several years ago, and his later features have all played there as well: the inventive alien invasion romcom “Extraterrestrial” and now “Open Windows,” a thriller set entirely within the confines of a computer screen — starring another Fantastic Fest regular, Elijah Wood. But Vigalondo’s rambunctious antics also enhance the fun-loving vibe of the festival, as he’s become famous for his wild karaoke performances and memorably wacky Q&A’s. This year, Vigalondo was more ubiquitous than ever. The theater saluted him with his own menu item (“Nacho’s Nachos”), made room in the lineup for a series of his short films, and he also directed a segment in the horror anthology “V/H/S Viral.”
Vigalondo’s legacy at Fantastic Fest is only the most elaborate example of filmmakers who come to the festival, year after year, seemingly making movies for the event itself. Another Fantastic Fest regular — producer Ant Timpson — screened the other horror anthology at the festival, “The ABC’s of Death 2.” The sequel to the 2012 effort showcased another 26 shorts made by horror directors from around the world — countries of origin ranged from France to Nigeria — a majority of whom came to the festival for the world’s largest, most unruly Q&A session ever. “ABC’s” is something of a mixed bag by virtue of its scale and variation, but the diversity of segments turn the movie into an experience that transcends any simple category: With extraordinary animation, green screen technology and plenty of social commentary, the latest “ABC’s of Death” once again spoke to the sheer variety of forms that the horror genre can take, which is the overarching thesis of Fantastic Fest above all else.
5. Even the crazier ingredients mean something.
Yes, the Saturday night “Fantastic Feuds” event, in which various figures debate topics before stepping into the boxing ring, is a ridiculous concept anyway you slice it. But this year’s occasion presented an ideal case for why the zany event works so well: Real ideas are tossed around before the punches fly. This year’s opening debate, between editor Josh Ethier (“Almost Human”) and director Joe Lynch (“Everly”), revolved around the question of whether “The Samurai is Infinitely More Badass Than the Cowboy.” Despite the raucous scene, the men actually wound up engaging in a fairly insightful conversation about the two figures in question over the course of film history — but in a roomful of Texans, it came as no surprise that the cowboy won the day. XYZ Films producer Todd Brown then faced off against BitTorrent’s Matt Mason, who was understandably booed by the filmmakers in the audience, in an awkward face-off that empowered the rage of artists against the advance of piracy with an amusingly literal outlet. (Notably, more than one entry in this year’s lineup actually leaked online during the festival.)
As usual, the debates concluded with a battle featuring Fantastic Fest co-founder Tim League, this time going up against “The House of the Devil” director Ti West in a rambling spat about whether found footage movies have reached a breaking point. The debate was somewhat anti-climactic, with League hating on commercially successful found footage movies and West basically saying that if people don’t want more from the genre they should stop buying tickets. It was a simple but effective point that the festival as a whole addressed as well: If you’re frustrated with mainstream standards, go see better movies. By the next morning, festivalgoers were doing just that. No matter how unruly and juvenile it may look from the outside, Fantastic Fest excels at generating excitement over unorthodox cinema better than any larger North American film festival. There’s a method to its madness.