Fantastic Fest: 15 Years Of Madness

The BMD crew celebrates the greatest week of the year.

Fantastic Fest turns fifteen this year. That's not just a ton of movies, that's a ton of singular filmgoing experiences that will stay in our minds forever. There really is nothing like this festival, and as we all pack our gear for yet another week of insanity, the BMD team is looking back at some of our favorite Fantastic Fest movies, the ones that truly define why we love this fest so much.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning - Evan Saathoff

So many films represent Fantastic Fest for me. Even if I limit myself to the first year I attended, there’s Holy Motors, The Final Member, Outrage Beyond, The Warped Forest. I love this festival so much.

But going with my gut, it has to be Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. I’ve definitely been on the longest journey with this particular film, having gone from disliking it to feeling it might be one of the decade’s best actions films (and I am well aware of that particular competition’s ferocity).

A film like this, you are almost certainly going to watch at home, probably on your computer or phone. I would have if not for Fantastic Fest. Instead, I saw it projected beautifully and with full sound. Not only that, I was in one of the few audiences to ever see the film in 3D. We give 3D a lot of shit. It’s earned a lot of that shit. But the rarity of the occasion paired with the novel way John Hyams utilized the technique adds up to something very special that will always have my gratitude.

A Boy and His Samurai - Brian Collins

2011 was my very first Fantastic Fest, and it was special for a lot of reasons, but over time there is one memory that gets more and more special: seeing A Boy and His Samurai on the big screen. This wonderful time travel comedy from Yoshihiro Nakamura (of Fish Story fame) is the kind of movie I probably never would have seen if not for being at a festival that was showing it, and I often thank the movie gods I chose it over whatever else was showing at the time. Especially when you consider the fact that even now, eight years later, the film still hasn't been released in the US through any traditional means, which baffles me to no end. I can only assume it's some kind of financial/rights issue, not a "no one wanted it" one, especially since the film won the audience award and can clearly can win over a crowd (though, full disclosure: they served us flan during the screening, which certainly didn't hurt). I smile a lot when I'm at Fantastic Fest, because I'm just happy to be there, but never more than the two hours I was watching A Boy and His Samurai - hopefully someday it'll find its way to Netflix or Prime or a 4,000 screen release here so everyone else can bask in its charms.

Cam - Leigh Monson

Last year was my first Fantastic Fest, and aside from my colleagues’ insistence that it was the best time of the year and my growing excitement at placing names and faces to writers I primarily knew as text on a screen, I really didn’t know what to expect from the festival. I really just wanted good times and good movies, but that was all dependent upon a welcoming and affirming atmosphere. I wouldn’t say I was scared about being a stranger in a strange land, but, yeah, maybe I was a little nervous. Lo and behold, though, the second film I saw at the fest last year was Cam, and not only was that one of the best films I saw last year, period, but it showed me that the fest was right where I belonged.

Cam is the weird-ass story of a camgirl whose online persona takes on a life of its own, creeping into the boundaries of the protagonist’s offline existence. It’s dark, funny, philosophically engaging, terrifying, and feminist as all get out. It’s that rare gem of a film that prominently features sex work but isn’t condescending, judgmental, or, to be blunt, boringly melodramatic as so-called high-brow entertainments are. As I watched this film, I knew that Fantastic Fest was my kind of people. If this was a film that was going to appeal to the Fest’s attendees, then I was right at home with all these metaphor-driven, sex-positive, neon-lit weirdos. Cam was the first film to let me know I belonged at Fantastic Fest, and thinking I might have a new cinematic obsession to champion this year only makes me more excited.

The Astrologer - Russ Fischer

Much of the allure of film festivals, and Fantastic Fest in particular, is the thrill of discovery. There's a difference between seeing a movie before anyone else and feeling like you've seen something genuinely unique. In 2014, The Astrologer was a blissful discovery — a movie so off the radar that there was virtually no mention of it anywhere prior to the first Fantastic Fest screening. The Astrologer, made by and starring the otherwise unknown Craig Denney, whose character builds a media empire out of humble astrology — and who eventually directs and stars in a movie called "The Astrologer" — is not a good movie. It's something better: A singular one. It's an entire movie full of stuff that you won't see anywhere else: A slo-mo dinner breakup scene; a shot of a boat accompanied by an entire Moody Blues song that the filmmakers probably didn't have license to use; a mid-conversation whip-pan into an "African prison camp." As odd and unintentionally funny as The Astrologer is, it is also intensely personal. Denney's grandiose ambitions are printed on every frame of the film. And there's a good chance you won't ever see it. With distribution rights buried in a tangle of red tape — and, frankly, commercial prospects that are not great — The Astrologer is fated to remain permanently underground. Fantastic Fest wasn't just the first opportunity for people to experience the film; it remains the only chance most people have had.  

Love & Peace - Emily Sears

Fantastic Fest is known for exposing audiences to cinematic sights they’ve never seen before, and it’s one of the things I cherish most about the experience.

In 2013, Fantastic Fest introduced me to the bizarre and delightful cinema of Sion Sono. A veteran of the festival, Sono’s Why Don’t You Play In Hell? was my first exposure to the director’s eclectic style, followed by Tokyo Tribe (never ever die!) in 2014. By the time Love & Peace played in 2015, I’d come to expect that I’d be going home with tales of another unforgettably joyous, yet impossible to describe experience from this inventive filmmaker. While each of Sono’s films would make my list of most memorable screenings – and I must add that nothing compares to watching movies with a Fantastic Fest crowd – Love & Peace is the one that made my face ache from smiling so much. This heartwarming holiday/family/kaiju film about a wannabe rock star and his beloved pet turtle (Pikadon!) is the perfect example of the genre bending gems you’ll discover at this strange and exceptional festival.

Anna and the Apocalypse - Amelia Emberwing

I’ve been pretty over the zombie craze for about a decade now. Yet, strangely enough, my favorite films out of Fantastic Fest have both been zombie films. I sat down to check out Anna and the Apocalypse because the premise was just too weird to pass up. To my surprise, it balances its musical tone, comedy, and genuine stakes effortlessly. A zombie Christmas musical might only be one-third my thing at first glance, but I walked out of the movie humming, and have been a fierce champion for it ever since.

To me, that’s one of the many things that makes Fantastic Fest great. There are some cooler, larger film surprises, sure. But getting to see something you never would have glimpsed otherwise is such a gift. Fantastic Fest is where you see films that you love so much you end up protecting the world premiere poster over your MacBook in the pouring rain.

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Doctor Moreau - Scott Wampler

In 2014, Fantastic Fest delivered David Gregory's Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, a gobsmacking, stranger-than-fiction documentary covering the four-alarm meltdown that occurred when renegade director Richard Stanley attempted to make a big-budget Hollywood movie. The doc was a perfect fit for Fantastic Fest, precisely the sort of gonzo thing you'd expect to see at the world's wildest, weirdest film festival, and on the day I caught the film I happened to run into Stanley outside the South Lamar Drafthouse in between screenings. No way was I gonna pass up the opportunity to talk to this guy.

A friend and I approached him as he smoked a cigarette, told him we'd enjoyed the doc, and Stanley explained to us that some very powerful forces weren't happy about that movie having screened here. In fact, he told us, his travel into the country had been beset by problems at every turn, clear evidence (as far as Stanley was concerned) that someone was trying to "take him out". We nodded along, enraptured by this mini-monologue, until a small insect crawled out of his hair and perched on his shoulder. Having noticed the bug, the director asked my buddy to safely transport it to a nearby bush. I'd never seen anything like this bug - it looked utterly alien - and when I got home I used Google to figure out what kind of insect it was. Turned out it was something called "The Assassin Beetle". Of course it was.

One of a kind moments like this happen all the time at Fantastic Fest, and I'll never forget it. Here's hoping that Stanley's latest film, the highly-anticipated Color Out of Space, receives just as warm a welcome at this year's gathering of the geeks (from the audience, I mean, not the insects).