2015’s Fantasia International Film Festival wrapped up last week, and it once again delivered an enormous number of films spread across three weeks to more than 100,000 fans of genre cinema from all over the world. 137 films played the fest ‐ and as of this writing I’ve seen nearly half of them. (Here’s my ongoing complete Letterboxd listing of what I’ve seen.)
Some of the fest’s best also earned that distinction earlier this year at Sundance, SXSW and even last year’s Fantastic Fest ‐ including The Invitation, Turbo Kid, The Editor, Cub, He Never Died, We Are Still Here, Cooties and Deathgasm ‐ so rather than heap even more praise on them I’m going to focus below on the fantastic titles that were new to me from Fantasia.
Before I get to the best films I saw at the fest I wanted to share a few highlights beyond individual movies.
The main draw at the fest is obviously the films, but Fantasia offers some special events too that are often worth attending. Tales From Beyond the Pale are “radio plays for the digital age” and the brain-child of Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter) and Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead). Short horror stories are performed live onstage complete with special guests voicing various roles and foley artists providing sound effects before your eyes. The Fantasia Edition was the first time the show was performed outside of the United States and included the voice talents of Jeremy Gardner (The Battery) and the legendary Tony Todd. Sitting just a few feet away from Mr. Candyman himself, listening to him breathe life into two short tales with his deep, ominous and instantly recognizable voice was an incredibly memorable experience. I’ve passed on attending the show at other fests due to scheduling, but I made it this year and my immediate takeaway is that I won’t be passing on it in the future.
I first saw Nana Seino in Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe which played Fantasia last year, and while I’m not the biggest fan of that film she was something of a revelation in it. There’s real heart and energy to her performance giving her an emotional intensity, and those acting chops are paired with chops of an entirely different kind ‐ she can kick ass in the martial arts department too. She returned to the festival’s screens this year in a whopping three new films ‐ The Ninja War of Torakage, Nowhere Girl and Attack on Titan. The first uses her only sparingly and I haven’t seen the last, but Mamoru Oshii’s Nowhere Girl takes full advantage of both her emoting and fighting skills. It’s a slow build getting there, but the ending unleashes an extended action sequence where she kicks, shoots and slices her way through numerous opponents. It’s no exaggeration to say it reminded me some of Man From Nowhere’s epic knife fight. She’s my new favorite action star and definitely a talent to watch.
It’s probably bad form to celebrate one thing by immediately looking forward to the next, but the experience I had with the movies and the fun I had interacting with other movie lovers has me excited to return in 2016. It helps that the press folks working feverishly behind the scenes repeatedly went out of their way to assist whenever asked ‐ they make it an incredibly smooth experience for everyone in attendance. So start planning now because the 20th anniversary edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival will take place in Montreal from July 14 to August 2, 2016. You should probably be there too. The first round’s on me.
And now, the ten best films I saw at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival:
#10 ‐ Cruel [France]
Pierre Tardieu works menial jobs and lives at home with a father suffering from severe Alzheimer’s. He’s broke, he’s lonely and he only knows one outlet for his cycle of depression. He abducts, toys with and ultimately kills carefully selected victims. Eric Cherrière’s film is more of a serial killer drama than a thriller ‐ think a slightly more refined Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer ‐ that follows a killer through the brutally mundane events of his day, and it works well to show the man’s humanity along the way. It’s hanging on by the thinnest of threads, but it’s there. It’s a slow burning tale to be sure, but strong acting and a sense of purpose make it compelling throughout. [Review]
#9 ‐ Goodnight Mommy [Austria]
Twin brothers Elias and Lukas have a reason to be scared. Their mother has just returned from the hospital with her face covered in bandages, but they don’t believe she is who she claims to be. The mind games begin as the boys mess with her to attain the truth and she fights back with authority and cruelty. All three leads do strong work here immeasurably aiding the script’s tightrope act between the opposing parties. We alternately fear and feel for the boys and their mom as the physical and emotional tug of war plays on, and the performances go a long way towards making our loyalty so indecisive. [Review]
#8 ‐ Office [South Korea]
An office worker returns home from another long day on the job, greets his wife, mother and young son, and then proceeds to bludgeon them to death with a hammer. He’s still on the loose when police visit the office to interview the man’s coworkers, but they’re greeted by a wall of silence. The killer is seen on security cameras returning to work after the murders and then never leaving, and it’s only when those same coworkers begin dying that the truth begins to reveal itself. This is a sharp and suspenseful thriller that pairs economic drama and workplace violence into something of a nail-biter. Strong performances maintain the mystery and intensity in a twisty tale about how we see each other and ourselves.
#7 ‐ Traders [Ireland]
Harry had a great job once upon a time until a downward facing economy took it away, but when another recently let go coworker comes to him with a grotesque offer that could earn him substantial payouts he refuses on both moral and common sense grounds. Vernon’s plan involves a fight to the death ‐ the loser loses their debt and their lives, and the winner walks away with a bag of cash. Desperation leads Harry to reconsider, and soon business is booming. Of course, most new businesses fail sooner rather than later. This is an extremely black comedy that rests its satirical weight on a somewhat absurd premise, but the writing stays smart enough throughout to make viewers accept the setup as is and just roll with the mayhem that follows.
#6 ‐ Assassination Classroom [Japan]
An alien creature comes to Earth after destroying the moon and promises to obliterate our planet in one year’s time unless mankind can stop it first. Mankind fails miserably in that task so in the interest of a slightly fairer fight the alien makes a deal. He’ll teach a class of misfits in the art of assassination and they can try to kill him as often as they choose without him hurting them in return. If they succeed, hooray for humanity, but if they don’t, the Earth will still be destroyed. The premise here is so goddamn bonkers, but it works like gangbusters. Think The Day the Earth Stood Still meets To Sir With Love with some La Femme Nikita assassin training thrown in for kicks, and that still barely approaches just how nutty and truly satisfying this manga adaptation truly is. [Review]
#5 ‐ Deadman Inferno [Japan]
A Yakuza boss long ago forced into retirement and his right-hand man recently released from jail go searching for a family member on a nearby island only to discover that the community’s populace has been infected with something nasty. Like, zombies wanting to eat your flesh nasty. A motley crew of survivors forms in an attempt to escape the island, but even in a world overrun by the undead it’s sometimes the living who pose the biggest threat. All of this sounds serious, and there are honest threads of real emotion running through the life and death struggles here, but the film is just as much a comedy as it is a gangster/horror picture. Even better? It’s actually incredibly funny. Horror comedies are notoriously tough to master, but this one balances both halves beautifully while adding in some fun and fantastic action beats as well. [Review]
#4 ‐ They Look Like People [USA]
Wyatt is suffering from schizophrenia. Well, that or he really has been chosen to defend mankind against a demonic invasion that’s taking over people and turning them into monsters. When he runs into an old friend he hopes at first that the company will sooth the voices in his head, but instead they instruct him to go shopping… for acid, an ax, duct tape and more. This indie thriller teases Wyatt’s madness along with some genuinely unsettling scenes and images, but its real strength comes in the friendship between the characters and the chemistry between the two lead actors. The bond feels real, and it makes what comes next that much more powerful. [Review]
#3 ‐ A Hard Day [South Korea]
A corrupt cop under investigation and attending his mother’s funeral on the same day sees his life get even more uncomfortable when he accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian with his car. He panics and hides the body, but when a mysterious stranger contacts him claiming to have seen the incident and demanding something from him things go from bad to worse and beyond. This Korean thriller moves at a pace that should be impossible to maintain, and yet it does without pause. It wisely keeps the action relatively grounded even as the stakes remain high, and the blackly comic plot turns and performances raise the entertainment even further. [Review]
#2 ‐ Marshland [ Spain]
1980 Spain is a country still reeling from the Franco dictatorship and a mentality of fear and corruption that pervaded even the smallest communities. Two outsider cops arrive in one such town to investigate the disappearance, and soon, murders of two sisters. One officer is a young Leftist, the other one a member of the old guard, and as their ideologies clash the case they’re hoping to solve grows murkier and more gruesome. This Spanish period thriller belongs in the same conversation as the likes of South Korea’s Memories of Murder and Germany’s The Silence. It’s an intense and gorgeously-shot indictment of a time and a people highlighting the true cost of the truth.
#1 ‐ Tag [Japan]
A teenage girl watches as her classmates are cut down by an invisible force, but after running for her life she discovers it may have only been a dream. But then another violent assault occurs, once again killing those around her, and as she once again finds herself running from the violence the world around her begins to shift in even more traumatic ways. Sion Sono’s latest moves effortlessly towards greater, stranger highs as it explores ideas of fate, self-determination, identity, victimization and what it means to be a woman in not just today’s world, but yesterday’s and tomorrow’s too. Don’t let the gruesome deaths, gallons of blood and abundance of upskirt panty shots blind you to the film’s scathing commentary. Or do… it’s incredibly entertaining either way. [Review]
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival