Having just concluded its ninth year in Austin, TX, Fantastic Fest maintained its tradition of showcasing an international selection of action, horror, sci-fi, fantasy and otherwise unclassifiable films. Here are ten of our favorites to keep on your radar.
1. BLUE RUIN
I was first floored by this mature, masterful tale of revenge gone wrong at its Cannes premiere, and a second viewing confirmed that Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to the endearingly scrappy “Murder Party” is a major step up for the young director. It’s a tense thriller laced with a wicked sense of humor, anchored by Macon Blair’s remarkably vulnerable performance in the lead role. Radius-TWC will release “Ruin” next year; you can read David Ehrlich’s own rave review from last month’s Toronto International Film Festival.
2. BIG BAD WOLVES
Israeli filmmakers Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado made a name for themselves with their 2010 debut, “Rabies” -- technically the first-ever horror film out of that country -- and now they’ve fulfilled that film’s promise with this challenging tale of three men who take it upon themselves to interrogate a suspected pedophile and serial killer. Before you can even say “Prisoners,” this is a leaner, trickier morality play couched in a sly cultural context and partial to the same grim sense of humor as “Rabies.” Magnet will release “Wolves” next year; our full review will be up soon.
3. WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL?
Fantastic Fest usually offers up the latest dose of magic realism from Japanese director Yoshihiro Nakamura (“Fish Story,” “Golden Slumber”), but in lieu of that, fellow FF alum Sion Sono (“Cold Fish,” “Love Exposure”) took up the slack with his bloody, giddy ode to filmmaking, in which two rival yakuza clans cooperate with a bunch of amateur film buffs in order to make a movie about their long-awaited showdown. Imagine “Be Kind Rewind” by way of “Kill Bill” and you’re nearly there. Drafthouse Films will release “Play” next year; here is David’s aptly gushy review out of TIFF.
Another slice of movie-minded nuttiness from the Land of the Rising Sun, the latest oddball comedy from Hitoshi Matsumoto (“Big Man Japan”) sees a mild-mannered mattress salesman voluntarily ambushed by a dominatrix club over the course of a year. What starts out as a slow-burn kinky-ninja movie of sorts soon evolves into something much nuttier, even going so far as to incorporate a meta-textual element to help rationalize the mayhem as it unfolds. Drafthouse Films has also picked up “R100” for release next year.
5. GRAND PIANO
The premise couldn’t be simpler: “Phone Booth” in a concert hall. Word was that this project was born of star Elijah Wood and director Eugenio Mira meeting at a previous Fantastic Fest, but even if that weren’t the case, this arch thriller starring Wood, John Cusack and Alex Winter would be worthy of the festival’s lineup by virtue of its nearly real-time execution and high-energy sensibilities. Believe me, it’s loopy enough to make De Palma proud. Magnet will release “Grand Piano” next year; expect our review soon.
6. ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW
This much-discussed curio concerns a middle-aged father (Roy Abramsohn) as he steadily loses his mind over the last day of his family vacation. Secretly shot between several Disney parks, Randy Moore’s black-and-white whatsit transcends its guerilla gimmickry to satirize the overwhelming corporate homogeneity of the attractions, and better yet, the film has undergone a nigh indiscernible 14-minute trim since premiering at Sundance. “Tomorrow” will see a limited theatrical and nationwide VOD release on October 11th; you can read Jordan Hoffman’s rave here.
7. NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN
Katrin Gebbe’s grueling religious drama made its North American premiere at FF and stirred up the same kind of impassioned post-screening chatter that makes tough films worth watching. As a young born-again Christian (Julius Feldmeier) makes nice with an agnostic family, his naive generosity becomes increasingly exploited by the white-trash patriarch (Sascha Gersak), whose persecution the boy takes as a test from God. Drafthouse Films will also release “Nothing” next year; here is Jordan’s review from Cannes.
8. DETECTIVE DOWNS
To read the logline is to instinctively assume that FF may have booked this Norwegian comedy about a would-be private eye with Down syndrome for the sake of shock value (God knows that the concept of bad taste is often but a figment for this one week a year). Imagine my surprise, and relief, that “Detective Downs” is a rather sweet and amusing noir riff whose casting of an actor with said condition is as empowering in practice as it is in principle. The film does not yet have U.S. distribution.
I won’t pretend that James Ward Byrkit’s first feature doesn’t get off to a shaggy start, as four couples meet up for an unassuming dinner party, but once the actual plot kicks in, this straight-faced take on “It’s a Disaster” enters the low-budget, high-concept territory of mind-benders like “Primer” as these long-time friends and former lovers are given cause to turn on one another. This admirably heady indie does not yet have U.S. distribution.
In the tradition of “Pusher,” this Danish crime drama focuses on Casper (Gustav Dyekjær Giese), a Copenhagen cat burglar who gradually finds himself involved in drug dealing, pimping and full-blown gang warfare after making some new friends. The cautionary plot is hardly anything new, but director Michael Noer’s realistic approach effectively tightens the noose, culminating in a climax that is tense and haunting enough to rival FF’s proper horror selections. The film does not yet have U.S. distribution.