There were four movies that I unreservedly enjoyed this festival. They are the best of the ones I saw (of course one person can only see a minority of the films at Fantastic Fest). Spoilers are included, so be warned (though not too many, since these are good I am leaving most twists and endings unstated).
Green Room is a movie about a punk band playing at a skinhead-infested venue who accidentally witnesses the aftermath of a murder and things go bad. It’s written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier who also brought us the recent Blue Ruin. It’s got a great cast, including Anton Yelchin (Chekov from the Star Trek reboot and the main kid from the Fright Night reboot) and Sir Patrick Stewart as the skinhead group’s leader! Along with a bunch of other experienced folks (including Macon Blair, the lead from Blue Ruin).
It was taut and well-paced; the writing was really good and the kills were brutal. It was done in a very realistic manner – you really buy the ensemble as a punk band teetering on the edge of viability (“I wanted to buy them all a sandwich and a glass of milk,” said Chris.) All the characters were solid and well-defined and made good, realistic decisions – not overly stupid in the face of danger but also not cranked up to Maximum Riddick, you felt the danger and appreciated the protagonists’ attempts to get out of their situation. And it was definitely gory, the several women to my right were covering their eyes during several scenes – but it’s not torture porn, and the suddenness of the brutality kept the audience electrified. Little bursts of humor were well received as tension releasers. And there was an extensive punk/metal soundtrack with everything included from Dead Kennedys to Slayer. (They kick off their set in the skinhead club with the former’s punk anthem “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” just to tweak them.)
The first showing was mobbed and the buzz off it was hot; at the second showing they expanded to two screens and it was still full to capacity with folks in standby lines hoping to get in. This is the kind of movie that when I see it at FF I ask “why is this not in normal theaters?” I guess maybe Hollywood will only show us horror movies that are either super-supernatural Sinister/Insidious/etc. or torture porn like Saw 29, and any thriller or action movie has to be PG-13 related to make all the tasty money. Anyway, this is a great movie and I strongly urge you to go see it (assuming you can deal with some bloody deaths).
February is a smart horror film that managed to keep me guessing what the heck was going on, no mean feat nowadays with all my horror movie experience. Starring Emma Roberts (from America Horror Story and various movies) and Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper from Mad Men, et al.) it features two girls at an all-girl’s Catholic school who are left there over a break. Very suspenseful, it moves at a steady pace and reveals events from three perspectives, gradually unfolding the total story. This was done skillfully – I have to say, some of the other films at the festival did this in a more hamhanded way, either wasting your time extensively with scenes you’ve already seen, or just messing with the timeline to confuse you, or other poor handling of their attempt to be “artsy.” They should all watch this movie and then go back and re-edit their own movies with what they’ve learned.
I kept trying to guess what the heck was going on. “She’s a ghost! No that other chick is a ghost! No the parents are! No, they all are! The priest is a molester!” They didn’t use misdirection gimmicks, it was just using enough genre tropes but presenting them somewhat flatly and letting you run with supposition. I really liked the evolution of your understanding of the plot and thought the ending was a pleasant twist.
The acting of both of the girls was great, a lot was conveyed just through silence and micro-movements of facial features. Very different from the old school stage acting, it made me reflect on the subtlety of the newer form of HD close-up acting. And the cold, bleak mood was handled very well. In the end it wasn’t innovative, using tried and true plot and mechanisms, but it was very skillfully executed.
April and the Extraordinary World (aka Avril et le monde truqué) was a cool animated movie that’s family appropriate, something almost unheard of with FF films. It’s based on a graphic novel by Jaqcues Tardi, set in an alternate steampunk France in 1941 where the world wars didn’t happen and oil etc. hasn’t been discovered so the entire earth has been denuded of first coal and then trees for charcoal. The government forces all scientists to work for them, and the movie starts with a raid on a scientist family where mom, dad, and grandpa all beat feet or are disappeared and the girl, April, escapes and then grows up in isolation, trying to reproduce their experiment, an elixir of health and immortality. And then there’s intelligent lizard cyborgs and a plot to save and/or destroy the earth!
The cat was a big hit as a character and the alternate timeline (double Eiffel Towers! A cowboy Statue of Liberty!) was interesting (if perhaps not bearing a lot of close inspection from a scientific realism point of view). The characters were interesting and the conflict between April’s parents was a nice touch. I do feel that a little should have been cut out in the third act – this is an animated film, you don’t have to reuse the sets, characters wandering back and forth to and from the laser-cages in the jungle got a little tiresome. So not perfect, but a fun movie.
The Wave – a Norwegian version of a standard Hollywood big-budget action movie by Roar Uthag, though with more restraint than those usually have, making it more pleasant than 2012/The Freezening/One Or The Other Volcano Movie/etc. It’s about a geologist working to monitor a mountain near a fjord because when it drops the resultant tsunami will wipe a resort city off the map in 10 minutes. He’s a rebel and is the only one who believes it’s happening! And his family is in danger! The usual fare, but I enjoyed the rest of the cast, especially the other geologists, not being dumbasses (including Fridtjov Såheim from Lilyhammer). And though there was a race away from the wave, it wasn’t the unrealistic “running 45 minutes with the disaster right behind you” crap they do in Hollywood. So like a Hollywood disaster movie but better. Not revolutionary but serviceable, and frankly just not actively pissing me off was enough to hit a high point with me by this point in the festival.