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How Fantastic Fest Provides a New Meaning to Some of the Year’s Best Discoveries

How Fantastic Fest Provides a New Meaning to Some of the Year's Best Discoveries

READ MORE: Fantastic Fest Reveals Second Wave of Programming, Including ‘Green Room,’ ‘The Martian,’ and ‘The Witch’

Some movies are so dense with gorgeous mysteries that they don’t need solutions. French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s “Evolution” provides an ideal example: Ten-year-old Nicolas (Max Brebant) spends his days in an isolated seaside hospital, along with several other children, all of whom are subjected to an alarming medical process. His mother, and the other women who tend to the boys, obscure the reasons behind the confined setting. When Nicolas spies on them after dark, he gets no closer to answers. But the puzzle pieces gradually congeal into a strangely consistent world of transgressive sexuality, body horror and laboratory birth. Nicolas doesn’t piece it all together, but as he develops his individuality, he takes action against the ominous events around him. It’s the year’s wildest coming of age story.

Buried in the Vanguard section of the massive Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, “Evolution” defies simple categorization and isn’t the easiest sell. There’s a strong chance, however, that audiences at this year’s Fantastic Fest — which begins its eleventh edition in Austin today — will appreciate the movie’s commitment to freakish visuals and menacing atmosphere above all else.

While Fantastic Fest has introduced genre sensations such as “The Human Centipede” over the years, its greatest asset is the context it brings to movies they might not otherwise receive. One of the more surprising entries in this year’s lineup is “Son of Saul,” Hungarian director Lazlo Nemes’ Cannes-acclaimed portrait of a concentration camp prisoner desperately attempting to bury his dead son. But while “Son of Saul” was branded as a Holocaust drama even before its first screening, the Fantastic Fest scene contextualizes its more immediate qualities as a bracing, visceral and wholly subjective thriller. Shot in the Academy ratio almost exclusively in close-ups, the movie rests in its troubled protagonist’s perspective for the duration of its hectic real-time proceedings.

Like “Evolution,” Nemes’ movie amplifies the fears of coming to grips with a menacing place just beyond the grasp of human comprehension. That theme crops ups again in “Tikkun,” the nightmarish tale of an Israeli yeshiva student who survives a near-death experience and drifts away from his pious surroundings. The debut from director Avishai Sivan, “Tikkun” unfolds with crisp black-and-white photography as it tracks the young man’s first taste of sexual freedoms while contemplating the nature of his rebellion.

Sparse dialogue and visionary dream sequences (beware the talking reptilian deity that emerges from the toilet!) endow “Tikkun” with a frightening expressionistic quality. But it’s not without numerous contemplative moments, including a beautifully poetic scene in which the young man compares his shifting mindset to staring directly at the sun. A subversive riff on ideological restrictions, “Tikkun” is bound to start conversations among religious scholars and genre aficionados alike.

It’s the latter crowd that will encounter “Tikkun” and many other peculiar options at Fantastic Fest, but the program also goes great lengths to show that the entire idea of “genre” is an illusion. None of the aforementioned titles fall into the same category. The festival’s opening night selection, “The Lobster” — another acclaimed Cannes entry — invents a new one.

“Dogtooth” director Yorgos Lanthimos’ portrait of a comic dystopia finds Colin Farrell at the center of a beguiling world where being single has been ruled illegal — and those who fail to comply are transformed into animals. As with his earlier works, Lanthimos builds a world that looks similar to our own, but injects it with a bizarre rulebook that gives his topic a scathing edge. It’s a comedy about the failings of monogamy, but it also strikes a uniquely melancholic tone rooted in its leading man’s solitude.

Once he escapes the boundaries of the hotel where he’s been forced to find a mate, Farrell’s character finds himself joining a rebel faction in the woods, where he winds up falling for one of his peers (Rachel Weisz). Oddly romantic in its second half, “The Lobster” manages to construct an engaging universe of possibilities even as the tone fluctuates throughout. Such fluidity mirrors the implicit argument of Fantastic Fest’s programming: You never know what you’re going to get, but it’s always bound to surprise you.

“The Lobster” is one of two Fantastic Fest selections, along with “Evolution,” released by new distributor Alchemy. The company, which also nabbed Gaspar Noé’s pornographic 3D drama “Love” out of Cannes, has been pushing for opportunities to release more outré cinema to audiences, advocating for the assumption that they exist in sizable numbers. It’s not a lonely mission, either: A24 continues to operate under the assumption that an appetite for edgy filmmaking remains more pervasive than ever.

That distributor will screen “The Witch,” a major discovery at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which envisions the experiences of a New England family in 1630 haunted by hidden beings in the surrounding woods. Director Robert Eggers’ startling attention to period detail brings the setting to life, but its the Kubrickian sense of eerie forces lurking just outside the characters’ understanding that makes “The Witch” so memorable.

To that end, “The Witch” explores the ability for moving images to utilize the power of suggestion. While genre filmmaking has often been considered an arena for excess — and certainly a number of outrageous crowdpleasers in this year’s Fantastic Fest program flex that muscle — its subtler possibilities don’t receive as much appreciation. But the Fantastic Fest program is a reminder that the whole concept of genre provides merely a starting point for expressing ideas and providing new experiences.

Taiwanese director Hou Hisao-Hsien’s “The Assassin,” for example, plays off the classic “wuxia” genre of martial arts films, but transcends their limitations through its pictorial depiction of the Tang Dynasty. For much of the movie, a nimble trained killer sets her sights on a tyrannical ruler, with the complete dimensions of their relationship clear only later on. But those details matter less than the hypnotic quality of each scene. Light on plot but heavy on visual immersion, “The Assassin” provides a mesmerizing window into its spiritual characters’ deep contemplation, even when they’re trying to kill each other.

There’s a haunting beauty to many of this year’s Fantastic Fest films, though none typifies that focus better than “Anomalisa.” The great discovery of the fall festival circuit, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion portrait of a middle-aged man coming to grips with his identity is rich with sophisticated implications. Every voice surrounding the somber protagonist, a successful motivational speaker, sounds the same (more specifically, they sound like Tom Noonan), a key device to exploring the homogenization of the character’s life.

But “Anomalisa” casts many aspects of that life in a series of cascading uncertainties. Is he purely self-destructive or victimized by an indifferent world? “Anomalisa” taps into the fear of not knowing the full picture of one’s problems. The narrative is scarily personal in ways that defy precise interpretation, but they’re still familiar. If the Fantastic Fest lineup offers any lessons, it’s that even the craziest fears come from a real place. 

READ MORE: Fantastic Fest Announces First Wave of Programming Picks: ‘Bone Tomahawk’ World Premiere to Close Festival

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