I’ve attended every Fantastic Fest. It’s my all-time favorite film festival in the world and the one week of the year that I tell my clients and my loving family that I am essentially, “off the planet.” I’ll move mountains to keep this particular week free in my schedule. I’ve loved Fantastic Fest since the first film I saw there and my passion for this festival grows every year.
In full disclosure I remind you that Birth.Movies.Death and Fantastic Fest both fall under the Alamo Drafthouse umbrella but I’ve been loving this festival long before I ever wrote a published word for anybody. So here’s what I learned at Fantastic Fest 2015.
1. Turkish Rip-Off Cinema Is a Bizarre Kind of Amazing
One of the stand-out films of Fantastic Fest 2015 was a documentary about the Turkish film industry throughout the 1960s-70s which was entirely based on blatant rip-offs of popular films (mostly from the United States). Remake, Remix, Rip-Off: About Copy Culture & Turkish Pop Cinema (2015) sheds an informative floodlight on “Yeşilçam” (Turkish Hollywood) and their pursuit to churn out an insane amount of content for theatrical release and television. It makes American Grindhouse seem slothful and methodical in comparison.
There were no copyright laws in Turkey at the time so they continually mashed-up popular properties with impunity. They brazenly copy-and-pasted scenes, scores, actors, lines, comedic gags, and stunts ad nauseam…they had to, there were only three writers responsible for churning out more than 300 films a year. It was commonplace to see a hero with the mask of The Phantom, the Superman “S” emblazoned on his chest and the Batman logo on his belt. The music used to score these films often played like a greatest hits collection of American popular film music.
Nestled beneath their shameless disregard for intellectual property, therein lies something rather beautiful and surprisingly creative. At first you’re repulsed and then it starts to become a rousing joke until you finally start to realize, “this is pretty amazing.” It just goes to show you that if you do something lame thousands of times, it becomes genius.
2. Extreme Loudness Does Not Improve Your Film
I saw thirty-two films at Fantastic Fest this year and my bottom two were there almost strictly because of the loud obnoxious noises that emanated from the movie. The films themselves were okay, not strong, but watchable; however, as I’m watching the movie, unnaturally cacophonous sounds would scream at me like I’m with an annoying uncle who keeps SCREAMING IN MY EAR the entire TIME I’m trying TO WATCH THIS MOVIE!
I’ve opined on several occasions that sound is the single most important element in film. You can often get away with sub-par acting, writing, locations, even score, but you can not make a successful film with sub-par sound. This is a commonly-shared opinion amongst a lot of filmmakers. While I appreciate the attention in detail these films devoted toward sound design, it’s the annoying loudness of the entire mix that is woefully distracting. A loud bang here and there peppered throughout a film can certainly make you jump, but it’s a cheap gag. If you do it dozens of times, it looses all effectiveness and becomes downright annoying.
I don’t want cinema to enter a state where creators use loudness to obscure a film’s shortcomings or harness it as an experiential gag by itself. Unfortunately, this already occurs in the music world. Live bands too often turn up their volume so loud you can’t discern a mistake from perfection. All semblance of harmony and melody is blown away by the sheer force of extremely high volumes and every lyric sounds like an completely unintelligible alien language. Proponents of this practice opine that it’s the raw energy that is so alluring. Fine, just don’t say it’s the music.
Cinema may be headed in this direction and that would be a travesty.
3. Norway Is Establishing Itself As The Next Big Powerhouse of International Cinema
One of my favorite movies of the fest was a Norwegian disaster flick entitled The Wave (or Bølgen, 2015). At first glance it appears to be just another run-of-mill disaster movie like we’ve seen countless times; however, its far from ordinary and vastly succeeded my expectations. One of the keys to its success is the exorbitant amount of time spent investing the audience in the emotional framework of its main characters. There’s no Hollywood-ized action star or pandering stereotypes anywhere in the film. It features an ordinary family devoid of any outwardly sign of exception. While the titular disaster event actually takes up very little onscreen time, director Roar Uthaug methodically focuses more on the lengthy set-up and eventual aftermath of the disaster and not necessarily the act of carnage itself.
Since the actual wave doesn’t demand that much screen time, the filmmakers were able to allocate their resources to make the special effects look great…and it absolutely does! The CGI-aided wave in this film is absolutely astounding! One of the best examples of cinematic devastation I’ve seen in a film.
Fantastic Fest hosts several titles from Norway every year and I’ve learned throughout previous festivals that when I see a Norwegian film on the schedule, I should prioritize it as a “must-see” event. I’ve not been disappointed. Among my Norwegian favorites of festivals past include Headhunters (2011), TrollHunter (2010), Dead Snow (2009), Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead (2014), Ragnarok (2013) and In Order of Disappearance (2014).
4. Trim! Trim! Trim! Trim!
The digital revolution has offered independent filmmakers an exciting array of new tools and techniques that many have utilized to perfection to create memorable cinema. One of the unfortunate side effects however, has been an epidemic of unnecessarily long films. I saw a fair number of films at Fantastic Fest that could have and most certainly should have been trimmed by some degree or another. There’s a lot of gluttony, self-indulgence, and self-aggrandizing in modern cinema. These elements are awesome cinematic ingredients if used in moderation and in conjunction with an eye for skillful pacing.
One of the more enjoyable films I witnessed was Takashi Miike’s Yakuza Apocalypse (2015). As a Miike fan it may be blasphemous to criticize the master of self-indulgence for being too self-indulgent, but that’s exactly what keeps this film from being out-of-this-world amazing. There’s a truly brilliant 100 minute movie buried in it’s 2 hour and 5 minute running time.
I pick on Miike here because in the end, I still loved this movie. This was a common theme at Fantastic Fest this year. A bit of skillful trimming and movies that were great could’ve been masterpieces. It’s part of the skill of any filmmaker to determine how long it takes to tell your story. If it takes 136 minutes, don’t tell it in 137. If it’s a 6-minute story, don’t make it 82 minutes. Editing 101…learn to kill your babies.
5. Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen Might Be The Funniest Men on Earth
I didn’t see Klovn (2010) when it premiered at Fantastic Fest five years ago. I heard the buzz about it afterward and bought it on blu-ray when Drafthouse Films released it a year later. I immediately fell in love with funny frontmen Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen’s acerbic wit and endearingly vulgar comedy style. So much so that when I subscribed to Hulu last year, the first show I started watching was the original Klovn TV series which ran for six seasons from 2005-2009, pre-dating the movie. I loved every episode!
When Fantastic Fest announced they would be premiering Hvam and Christensen’s sequel Klovn Forever (2015), this immediately shot to the number one film I wanted to see at Fantastic Fest. It did not disappoint!
What I loved most was that it was not a hackneyed remake of the first film which a lot of comedy sequels suffer from. Even director Mikkel Nørgaard testified during the Q&A that they deliberately went out of their way to not simply rehash the first film. The result is a movie with a lot more narrative substance and heart than its predecessor. What’s particularly brilliant is that it doesn’t sacrifice comedy in order to achieve this. It may not carry as much emotional weight for those who have only seen the first film; however, if you’ve watched the entire series, and these characters have endeared themselves to you over the course of sixty episodes, you certainly appreciate the development of these characters and the emotional journey they traverse.
Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen are the Danish Yin and Yang of comedy and could very well be the funniest comedy duo working today.
6. Everyone Should Watch Vintage Porn With Nicholas Winding Refn
While I certainly wouldn’t say that X-Rated Supermarket (1972) was the best film I saw at the festival, watching it with Nicolas Winding Refn and Tim League certainly was the single greatest experience of the festival…and I doubt it will ever be equaled in my lifetime.
It began when Nicholas and Tim announced before the screening they had no idea what we were about to watch. None. Nobody had ever seen it, not even the projectionist. There were no reviews online, no write-ups, and no trace the film even existed anywhere on Google other than a paltry listing with a couple credits on IMDB. Tim and company found this rare print and we were going to watch this thing together sight unseen. Oh, Nicolas and Tim also announced afterward they would both be doing a Q&A about this film in which they knew nothing about. This is the scientific formula for gold.
What transpired was one of the most surreal cinematic experiences of my lifetime. X-Rated Supermarket was an early porn film from 1972. It began with a cheesy opening credits song which actually sang the opening credits. Literally! The audience erupted in laughter when we realized what we were hearing… “starring Joy Comer…Lisa Game…” and “directed by Paul Roberts” were the lyrics of the song. Genius! I’m stealing this someday and will have no shame in doing so.
We then enjoyed (suffered) through an hour-long porn film about a woman shopping at a (real) supermarket only to get accosted by a man where they soon have sex with each other, various vegetables, and other miscellaneous produce items. As more people enter the supermarket and more people see what’s going on, the more those people join in the various activities. I’ll never look at celery the same way again.
The scant dialogue (it was porn after all) was priceless and left the audience in stitches. One particular gem included the main couple engaged in a traditional 69 position while the man on bottom utters with completely sincerity, “Am I on the moon because there’s a crater staring at me!” I only saw it once so I might be misquoting slightly, but you get the idea.
So afterward, a seemingly embarrassed Nicholas Refn and a proud Time League began their forty minute Q&A about this ultra-cheesy, sepia-aged, x-rated porno we had just witnessed. The questions were as awesome as Nic and Tim’s answers. There we were with one of the great auteurs of modern cinema, the visionary leader of the best theater chain in America, and a bunch of film-drunk (and probably regular drunk) cinephiles chatting about a vintage skin-flick we all collectively shared for the very first time.
It was priceless.
7. When People Speak, Fantastic Fest Listens
I’ve been to every Fantastic Fest and one of the things I notice from year to year is that the festival administrators really listen to its patrons and is always looking to improve their festival. The festival has experienced its share of problems and I’ve voiced my own complaints; however, the following year, those grievances are usually gone. Ticketing, crowd management, film scheduling and availability, organization, and logistics are so smoothly run and this is all thanks to the powers-that-be listening to its patrons year after year.
I’ve been to plenty of other festivals where a problem one year turns into a bigger problem the next year. Fantastic Fest listens, fixes, and keeps listening some more.
While the festival has certainly become a well-oiled machine it’s certainly not perfect. The outdoor smoking situation still needs to be rectified, the South Lamar venue is generally too small (I loved it when it was at the Lakeline location) and I fear next year’s festival when the constructed apartments across the street (which share a parking garage with the Drafthouse) are occupied. But I’m sure the folks at Fantastic Fest are hard at work tackling these solutions as you read this.
8. We Can’t Let Traditional Forms of Animation Die
Among my three favorite films this year were animated movies. Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion masterpiece Anomalisa (2015) was the one film that kept me thinking about it weeks after seeing it.
I’m a sucker for stop-motion. An 8-year old could craft a stop-motion film utilizing french fries, some cat hair, and a pile of LEGOs and I’m already 80% of the way to loving it. In the hands of talented filmmakers like Johnson and Kaufman, stop-motion animation reaches a transcendent level of cinema that can’t be equaled by any other art form. Filmed conventionally with live actors, Anomalisa would probably just be okay. As soon as you inject it with stop-motion animation, it becomes totally refreshing and magical.
Another favorite was an animated film from France entitled April and the Extraordinary World (2015). Based on the artwork by Jacques Tardi, this Parisian Miyazaki-esque masterpiece wooed my heart and percolated my imagination with absolutely gorgeous artwork!
Finally, I was also seduced by Mamoru Hosoda’s The Boy and the Beast (2015). Heart-warming, otherworldly, inspiring, and wholly entertaining, Hosoda’s magnum opus rivals any of the major Miyazaki classics and sets itself apart as a cherished staple of modern animation.
These films prove how mystifying and magical the world of hand-crafted animation can truly be. While I see equal value and artistry in computer-aided animation, I’m very much craving more stop-motion and traditionally drawn animation in modern cinema. These art forms are dying and we can’t let that happen.
9. Fantastic Fest is Still The Best Festival Ever!
I saw thirty-two movies this year and liked or loved thirty-one of them. I dare any film festival to attain that ratio with their patrons.