Fantastic Fest 2015 10 of the most rewarding films at this year’s event

Fantastic Fest is unlike any other film festival I’ve attended, mostly due to the crowd in attendance. While the films were great, with only a few clunkers, it’s the mood of the attendees that really differentiates it from other events. Here is a group of people who truly love film. They love discussing it, love new ones, and love infecting others with their appreciation for it. This is the type of group in which you don’t have to explain what Murder Party is; most of them either know or have seen Jeremy Saulnier’s debut.

Based purely on the hype, I was expecting some exxxtreme entries in horror and genre that would leave my mouth agape at their ability to transcend morality and good taste. Instead, what I found were unique films, many that would play to larger audiences if they weren’t foreign or independent. In fact, I was surprised how these offbeat films were so good at being emotionally affecting without losing their edge or quirkiness.

Of the many films I saw, here are the best, most rewarding movies that may end up altering how you perceive yourself and others. Until next year!

Liza The Fox-Fairy (dir. Károly Ujj Mészáros)

Quite possibly the best film of the year, Liza The Fox-Fairy is a Hungarian tale of a nurse who desperately seeks out love, despite being haunted by the ghost of a 1960s Japanese pop star. It is a wholly unique experience that deals with death, love, loneliness, and the myths and lies we tell ourselves. For the first feature-length by director Mészáros, it’s an incredibly assured and complete story that looks gorgeous on-screen and immediately wraps audiences up in its weird world of accidental (and accident-prone) lovers.

Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

While I talked about the softer side of Fantastic Fest, here’s an example of what I expected to see at the film festival: a white-knuckle, tension-filled descent into darkness that continually surprises and constantly reveals new levels of genius. Jeremy Saulnier’s follow up to Blue Ruin finds a punk band stuck in a precarious situation after they agree to play a skinhead bar. Soon, things get out of hand and the band must find a way to escape the bar and its desperate patrons. A visually stunning film that lives in darkness and ugly fluorescent lighting, Saulnier has created an intense and unpredictable work, rendering him a dangerous filmmaker that should be watched. I had high expectations going into this based on his previous two works, and they were completely exceeded by this thrilling film.

The Brand New Testament (dir. Jaco Van Dormael)

How can something so profane be so touching? A near blasphemous work that paints God as a shitty guy who loves to ruin lives from his apartment in Brussels, The Brand New Testament is a bold take not just on religion but also on how we define meaning in our own lives. Of a piece with Amelie, the film finds God’s daughter striking out on her own and writing her own chapter in the world of religion. It’s a touching film that finds joy in unexpected places while delivering some profound moments of genuine introspection between characters. It’s also hilarious and constantly thumbing its nose not at religion, per se, but at those who adhere so closely to dogmatic principles it obscures their ability to experience life.

The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers)

One of the most impressive debuts in the last 20 years, The Witch is a simple story well told. First time writer/director Robert Eggers delivers a look at a family on the edge of society in 17th century New England whose cracks start to show when they are possibly plagued by the sinister forces of a witch. Eggers uses period-appropriate speech in his film, which finds a family used to the puritanical lifestyle besieged by temptation and mistrust when things start to go awry. It has, without doubt, one of the best endings of a film, and with incredible performances by its mostly young cast, The Witch will leave audiences spellbound as they try to comprehend what they just saw.

Man Vs. Snake (dir. Tim Kinzy and Andrew Seklir)

Very similar in tone and topic as The King Of Kong (as well as sharing some people in both docs), Man Vs. Snake is the story of a handful of people who wish to have the high score on Nibbler, a forgotten 80s arcade classic. The fact that most people have forgotten about Nibbler is a testament to those who still pursue this goal, doing it not for any real fame or bragging rights but instead just attempting to do it to see if they can. The catch is that in order to reach the high score on the game, players need to commit at least 40 hours to the undertaking, fighting exhaustion and mental fatigue as they guide the electronic snake through various courses. The film is a crowd-pleaser that mixes eccentric personalities with a fascinating and overlooked part of society. As opposed to the hero/villain dynamic the fueled much of The King Of Kong, Man Vs. Snake is instead just focused on those few who are trying to accomplish something that flies in the face of all reasonable desire. It’s an astoundingly fun time that will have audiences wrapped up in its various storylines as the goal is pursued and aided by a colorful cast of real-life people.

Love And Peace (dir. Sion Sono)

The latest (well, one of the latest as the man makes about five films a year) from director Sion Sono, this oddball film is near impossible to describe but even harder to forget. Sono’s film follows a luckless corporate joke who everyone pretty much craps on repeatedly, until he stumbles his way into becoming a rock superstar. Throw in there an adorable turtle whose loyalty to his owner knows no bounds; a mysterious figure that collects, repairs, and brings to life discarded pets and toys, and a couple of ridiculously catchy songs that will stay with you well past the closing credits; that’s some approximation of what this film is like. And while it’s hard to summarize, it’s not hard to fall in love with this quirky story that constantly takes weird left turns in narrative and tone.

Lovemilla (dir. Teemu Nikki)

Essentially it’s a straightforward romantic comedy about a couple that’s having trouble in their relationship, but it involves mech suits, superheroes, mystery-solving mascots, poop bandits, people who become zombies from drinking too much, a gay man in the straight closet, and so much more. The fact that so much weirdness surrounds the heart of the story doesn’t take away from it, but instead creates a world wherein anything is possible, but the problems (money, infidelity, trust, love) remain the same. Lovemilla is a riotous combination of so many different things, but stays true to its characters no matter how zany everything gets. That grounding pays off as you become invested in the central romance, instead of an afterthought for a bunch of odd occurrences to happen. It’s an impressive maintenance of tone and stakes that worked exceedingly well with the audience I saw it with, whose members enjoyed each new random bit while clinging to those heartstrings director Teemu Nikki is pulling.

The Boy And The Beast (dir. Mamoru Hosoda)

A tremendous follow-up to Wolf Children and Summer Wars, Hosoda’s The Boy And The Beast is a lush anime film that follows an ordinary lost boy as he searches out a new father figure in a new mythical land. While it’s a heartfelt tale of trying to find oneself in a society where one never feels at home, the film also delivers some dazzling visuals of mythical beasts, fantastic fights, and interesting characters. It’s a simple story of two loners who ultimately need each other, and meet halfway on their own terms, but it ends up being a moving tale of teenage isolation and the selflessness of parenting.

The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

Incredibly dry yet quick witted, The Lobster may be the funniest film of the year. In a world where people must couple up or else get turned into an animal (or worse yet, hide out in the woods and get occasionally hunted by couples), one man is determined to find his better half after his wife leaves him, or else get turned into a lobster. The film presents everything as straightforward, even its most bizarre turns, and ends up creating an insane world with its own hierarchies and rules. Yet, despite its dry exterior and tone, it’s never keeping the audience at a distance, instead inviting them into the odd little rituals which populate the world co-writer/director Lanthimos has created.

Evolution (dir. Lucile Hadzihalilovic)

There’s very little story to Evolution, and even less characterization or dialogue. But despite these minimal approaches, it weaves a mysterious tale that will haunt viewers long after they’ve seen it. Wondrously shot with powerful visuals that alternately enchant and disturb, the film follows a boy who knows things are not quite right with his mother and the other people in his village. As he uncovers the truth, or at least as much as anyone can learn in this cryptic film, he begins to stumble upon a nightmarish reality that will horrify him and audiences alike. Evolution has an excellent dream-like quality to it, which accomplishes a lot with shots and acting without relying on dialogue or narrative too much to communicate the otherworldly vibes that permeate every inch of this beautiful film.

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