Fantastic Fest 2016 Our favorite films from the prestigious Austin film festival

Amy Adams in Denis Villeneuve's Arrival

Fantastic Fest 2016 may be seen as a crossroads moment for the film festival. While Tim League and the rest of the Drafthouse crew behind the fest have always courted international films, this year felt more like a departure from genre fare to bring in other, excellent foreign films. Whether it’s The Handmaiden, Elle, or Toni Erdmann, these are prestigious titles from other countries that don’t necessarily fit the action/horror/sci-fi/weirdness genre appeals upon which so much of the festival’s legacy has been built. While there were still plenty of great genre films in the festival (as seen below), there seemed to be a divide between the prestige international offerings and the twisty blood-and-guts films. Furthermore, there now exists an overlap in the Venn diagram of these two tracks, those international genre films populated by the likes of Raw or Dearest Sister.

It’s also important to note that, while there does seem to be a branching out, an almost “legitimizing” of the festival’s usual attitude, the crowd and audience remain the same. With all of the alcohol flowing through the fest, all of the late nights and days of sleep deprivation, there has never been a better group of film lovers assembled in one place. The festival attendees — whether it’s the filmmakers, the fans, or the volunteers — are incredibly open, positive people that love to discuss film, feel that rush of nerding out over movies and bonding over opinions (no matter how disparate). It’s a love of film culture that is rabid and infectious and makes the entire week feel less like a film festival and more like the nerdiest (and best) summer camp around. So while Fantastic Fest may be trying to diversify its offerings more, the attendees will always remain the same energetic, approachable geeks that are easy to bond with and discuss what they’ve just witnessed.

Without further ado, here are some of the best films seen at Fantastic Fest 2016.

The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan-Wook)

Park Chan-Wook’s amazing film, The Handmaiden, is a gorgeous looking tale of betrayal, love, lust, and what happens when the three collide. Set in Korea’s past, the film focuses on a handmaiden that is sent to attend to a lady of the house that stands to inherit a lot of money. There are twists and turns around every corner, along with some of the most erotically charged scenes ever committed to film. Park never veers into smut territory, the eroticism playing out as an extension of character building and narrative reveals. At turns hilarious and heartbreaking, but always engaging and intriguing, The Handmaiden is an amazing film that demands to be seen and applauded.

Age Of Shadows (dir. Kim Jee-Woon)

Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, Age Of Shadows is a political intrigue thriller that milks tension out of some of the best directed set pieces in recent memory. Sometimes told in brutal detail, director Kim shows a country divided in loyalty where it’s impossible to know who to trust and what will happen next. Incredible set design, costuming, and performances make this a feast for the eyes that will envelope audiences who may not be able to catch their breath as the plot races towards its conclusion.

Colossal (dir. Nacho Vigalondo)

There are ideas so great, it’s unbelievable that no one has thought of them first. Colossal is Vigalondo’s most accomplished film to date, with outstanding performances by Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis as people adrift in life who suddenly find a very peculiar connection with giant monsters attacking Korea. Vigalondo uses the monster mayhem to reveal the lie of the “nice guy” that is a manipulative and insecure prick (Sudeikis), while also doing extensive work with Hathaway to show real, earned growth in a character. It’s funny, shocking, engaging but most of all relatable and a powerful piece of cinema that reverberates with real social observations and critiques.

Raw (dir. Julia Ducournau)

Perhaps the victim of too much hype out of Cannes Film Festival, Ducournau’s film is less a gross-out, over-the-top experience that will reduce audiences to fainting and vomiting than it is a character study and coming of age story of a woman grappling with her own identity and demons. Yes, it involves cannibalism, but that just happens to be the form of this particular family secret that infects all the main characters. The performances are stellar, and the film is an incredibly assured debut for a filmmaker who manages to compose exquisite scenes of the grotesque and the mundane in equal artistry. Viewers may be a bit disappointed it isn’t as extreme as promised, but most audiences will walk away utterly impressed by a tale of self doubt and identity loss in the face of change.

Safe Neighborhood (dir. Chris Peckover)

Probably the most fun film at Fantastic Fest, Peckover’s movie is a delightful collection of inverted expectations, complete with twists and turns that audiences will never see coming. A great Christmas horror story of obsession, the film delivers shock after shock while reveling in the seasonal accouterments to hilarious results. It’s hard to describe without giving away the major reveals, but audiences that sign up for this ride will be thrilled at the brilliant way Peckover subverts clichés and foregoes the obvious paths to deliver something original, haunting, but most of all a wicked good time at the theater.

The Lure (dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska)

Finally someone has told “The Little Mermaid” with all of the great music and rivers of blood that it needs. This Polish film occasionally lags in the middle, and uses its musical roots to forego logic in some parts, but the spell cast by the filmmakers is enough to forgive these lapses in excellence. The music is incredibly catchy, the mermaids are equal parts mischievous and tempting, and the look of the film is a signature bit of magical realism steeped in bloody violence that is a rarity to see on screen. The Lure is a very unique spin on a classic tale, but it always feels surprising and refreshing to watch.

Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Denis Villeneuve is constantly shifting up his filmmaking style and stories he tells, from Enemy to Sicario, and all stops in between. Arrival may be his biggest departure from the ultra-serious thrillers to delve into a humanist story of what happens upon first contact with an alien species. Whereas the Villeneuve of old may have steeped the story in grim fatalism, it’s the idealistic hope that infuses the film (including a masterfully handled third act twist) that makes this such an affecting movie. A great tale of communication, humanity, language, and the ties that bind, it’s an unexpected delight that will remind people the worth of the greater good.

Dearest Sister (dir. Mattie Do)

A Laotian horror movie (the second ever) that is as much a ghost story as it is an examination of rigid Laotian class structure, Mattie Do’s film is an incredible character study of unlikeable people that remain engaging throughout the film. Using premonitions and the lottery as the backdrop to the idea of social mobility, Do has created a movie that is a bit of a slow burn before racing to its doomed finish. There’s some incredible imagery and powerful (but subtle) performances that constantly have the audience changing sides throughout the running time. For someone with so few titles in her catalog, Do has proven to be a filmmaker to watch as she explores the ways that society infects our dreams and can bring people together just as easily as it tears them apart.

My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea (dir. Dash Shaw)

Dash Shaw’s animated film is a hilarious and absurd combination of autobiographical teen angst and adventure storytelling that reaches new heights of comedy through its characterizations and dialogue. The acclaimed comic book writer/artist has crafted a world that is slightly left to the one we know, with outsized perils facing down otherwise normal people. Shaw is able to bring out a lot of pathos and comedy simply through interactions between his high school patrons. It feels like Wes Anderson directing The Poseidon Adventure, but even that is limiting in how much fun and insanity the filmmaker is able to inject into his tale. Sure to be a hit among fans of experimental animation, it also has appeal to the indie film set that sees some of themselves as high school kids in an utterly incredible situation.

The Girl With All The Gifts (dir. Colm McCarthy)

Mike Carey (who adapted his book in the screenplay) crafted a unique tale in two subgenres (Young Adult and zombie stories) that have become overrun with clichés and soulless product. McCarthy is able to take that tale and run with it to new heights of emotional resonance. Sennia Nanua is a revelation as the young, titular heroine who is able to convey a sweet innocence one moment and then a rabid savagery the next that is a masterclass in acting performances. She anchors the film fresh with new takes on a post-apocalyptic tale that culminates in an ending that will lead to many discussions about what is right and what is wrong. The film asks hard questions about what is the right course of actions, and never flinches in providing hard answers as well. Beautifully shot and wonderfully scored, The Girl With All The Gifts is a powerful and engaging film that injects new life into the undead scene.

American Honey (dir. Andrea Arnold)

While Arnold’s film can feel a bit long and repetitive, it’s hard to imagine any scenes being cut. That’s a tribute to the excellent work of the filmmaker who creates perfectly natural performances and a nuanced, fully-fleshed out world in which a crew of forgotten teens exist. A lost generation living in the heartland of an overlooked location, Arnold has crafted an ode to the hopefulness and despair that comes with being a teenager facing down the future. Questions of love, appropriate behavior, and loyalty pop up in this tribe of misfit toys who simply are out on the road trying to get by. It’s a brilliant slice of life that will echo for many years to come in how it brazenly tackles the emotional turmoil of navigating being a young adult in a world that has seemingly them left behind. A powerful film that doesn’t offer any easy solutions, but is mesmerizing in its complicated portrayals.

Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven)

This may be the film that launches a thousand thinkpieces across the Internet, especially if it starts garnering award nominations. Verhoeven’s film is an uncomfortable tale of misanthropes full of self-loathing living in a modern society permutated by lies, rape culture, and power struggles between the sexes. I found some of the implications of the script, particularly the rape fantasy aspects, troublesome, but always handled well by the director and especially by star Isabelle Huppert. The film isn’t a dark comedy, as some claim, but does have darkly comic moments and many great lines that undercut the darkness of the situation by being so frank and direct about the troubles of modern life. If nothing else, this film will have people discussing Verhoeven’s intent in making the film, and in aspects of the story, and that is just a testament to his ability to craft such an engaging, singular work of art that is hard to swallow but easy to praise.

Club Policy (short) (dir. Ryan Dickie and Abby Horton)

Easily the funniest short film of the festival, Club Policy is an amusing lark, completely absurd and boldly goofy, while still maintaining a bit of heart for its characters. A pretty great takedown of “bro” culture, snobbish elitism, and romcom story staples, the short film is a great bit of diversion that has moments of the grotesque that always come with a great punchline and hilarious set up for the next over the top sequence.

Imitations (short) (dir. Milos Mitrovic and Fabian Velasco)

Another great film from the Winnipeg collective of Markus Milos Ian Fabian (who previously brought The Champ last year to Fantastic Fest) that proves they are a filmmaking group that deserves attention. It’s a horrific examination of obsession with celebrity, with some hilarious stabs at Justin Bieber and other manufactured pop stars, and the delusional folks that not only love them but aspire to be more like them. It takes a grotesque turn in the end, but that only underlines the comedy and makes it one of the best looks into the absurd side of obsession.

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