Every year around this time, the Austin film scene wakes up with stomachs full of pizza and beer as well as minds weary from the injection of cinematic insanity that is Fantastic Fest. This year’s festival was no less of a blast, finishing with the one-two punch of a secret screening of Andy and Lana Wachowski’s epic “Cloud Atlas” and a closing night party based around the remake of “Red Dawn,” which was the hot ticket of the festival’s last day.
The best film that played Fantastic Fest is already in wide release, and anyone hoping to get a taste of the fantastic should definitely check out “Looper.” However, nipping at its heels was “Cloud Atlas,” a six-narrative rumination on the good that people can do for each other. It’s a relentlessly optimistic, beautiful film, featuring half a dozen performances each from the likes of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant, all of them doing stupendous work. The film is edited with an admirable precision, each moment designed to evoke an effortless emotional response, and it’s a dazzling, uplifting effort, one I can’t wait to see again when it releases on Oct. 26.
A similarly themed but much less accessible film was Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors,” a baffling but hypnotizing look at what it takes to work in cinema (or something like that, at least). Taking place as Oscar (Denis Lavant) shuttles between appointments, each of which involve him slipping in and out of lives at pivotal moments, “Holy Motors” could be interpreted any number of ways. Thankfully, even if you have no idea what’s going on, there’s enough vivid imagery, brilliant acting and plain propulsive energy to keep you engaged, and there may not be any moment as revitalizing at this year’s festival as a mid-film musical number.
Tim League’s Drafthouse Films was sure to be a huge presence at the festival, and screened several upcoming releases for the Fantastic Fest crowd. “Wrong,” the new film from Quentin Dupieux, is just as surreal and bizarre as his debut, “Rubber.” A witty, eloquent script and eclectic cast make it easy to sit back and let the strangeness wash over you. Ron Morales’ thrilling “Graceland” also gained acclaim at the festival for its twisty plot and uncompromising brutality. “The ABCs of Death,” a 26-part horror anthology, was about as uneven and hilarious as you’d expect, with segments from festival alumni Adam Wingard, Ben Wheatley and Jason Eisener standing out amongst the carnival of tastelessness and brutality.
Horror is the genre Fantastic Fest is known for, but the lack of blood and guts on this year’s slate meant the few horror efforts that made it in were top-notch. Britain’s James Moran penned two standout thrillers this year. “Tower Block,” a creative take on the slasher film, places a group of sharply written characters in a rundown apartment tower and gives a bloodthirsty sniper across the street all he needs to dispatch them one by one. Meanwhile, “Cockneys vs Zombies” is a blood-soaked, fast-paced and ultimately heart-warming story of a pair of brothers robbing a bank so they can save their grandfather’s condemned nursing home, only to find their efforts thwarted by hordes of the undead. Every year, Fantastic Fest has at least one great zombie movie, and the nonstop barrage of gore and laughs makes “Cockneys” an easy pick.
On the more serious side of the horror spectrum, Adrián García Bogliano’s “Here Comes the Devil” found serious acclaim, sweeping the festival’s horror awards and getting an early distribution pickup from genre haven Magnet Releasing. The film is a squirmer, assuming a delicate pace to tell its story of a pair of children gone missing for an evening and returned to their parents a few shades south of normal. Bogliano holds each of the film’s shocks until just the right moment, and it’s a thrilling, intense work that I look forward to seeing again.
Finally, writer/director Jason Lapeyre essentially won the festival with his double-fisted debut of “Cold Blooded” and “I Declare War.” “Cold Blooded” stood out for its strong script and fearless approach to maiming its protagonists, but from its first screening, it was clear that “I Declare War” was something truly special. The film takes place over the course of a long, hot afternoon as two armies of adolescents play a game of war that takes on added relevance when filtered through their imaginations. It’s a charming, observant look at the dynamics of being a teenager and at the act of war, and “I Declare War” should hopefully be hitting theaters soon.
And that’s it for Fantastic Fest. It’s been a fun year, and there’s no event I enjoy covering more. But what makes the festival truly stand out isn’t the films — it’s the people. Fantastic Fest brings cinema lovers from all over the country to Austin, and lets them do what they love most — watch movies, all day. Much of the shuttling between locations and waiting in line between movies is jettisoned. Instead, people who love movies get to enjoy them, but also get to talk about what they’ve seen with those who share the same passion for film, and that’s what’s truly fantastic.