Yes, Fantastic Fest 2013 is now in the history books. (Well, after tonight, at least, with the closing night selection The Zero Theorem, from director Terry Gilliam. But like the rest of you, I’ll have to wait to watch it at a later date.) From last Thursday to Monday, I watched 26 films at Fantastic Fest. In between, I slept, ate, drank, spoke on the phone to my wife, wrote up daily reports and reviews, and even managed to meet a few Twitter friends in person. (I won’t begin to name them all, but among those who I met in person were The Dissolve’s Matt Singer; Dread Central’s Brad McHargue; Film School Rejects’ Rob Hunter and Neil Miller; Movies.com contributors Jeff Bayer, Jacob Hall, and John Gholson; and Film.com’s Eric D. Snider. All of them are gentlemen and scholars. All of them!)
The festival–the first I’ve seriously covered–was unquestionably exhausting, but it was a hell of a lot of fun. From the Drafthouse food to the pre-movie interstitials comprised of hilariously random video clips to the movies themselves, Fantastic Fest 2013 was a pure winner. On the last note, though I’m only going to highlight a fraction of the films I saw, I only disliked two of those 26 movies. I’m not going to say the other 24 are all contenders for a best-of-the-year list, but to at least enjoy nearly every film I watched seems like a pretty solid percentage. So, without further ado, here’s my top five films of Fantastic Fest, with a tiny honorable mention afterwards. Pull up a chair, a Drafthouse burger (preferably with bleu cheese), and enjoy.
1. Blue Ruin
The current rumor is that Radius-TWC will be releasing Blue Ruin in theaters and on VOD in April of 2014. What does this mean for you, the reader? It means you’re going to hear me, and a lot of other film writers, preaching from the virtual mountaintops about how badly you need to see this movie. And you do need to see Blue Ruin as soon as it’s legally available. I mentioned in my Day Four Report that this film put in mind of a modern-day Flannery O’Connor story; while it skimps on heavily religious aspects, the fatalism that defines O’Connors bibliography is omnipresent in this thriller about a drifter who comes out of hiding when the man who murdered his parents is being set free after 20 years in prison. Macon Blair, as the vagrant with no plan aside from basic revenge, is not a physically imposing sort, nor should he be. His character, Dwight, is mostly silent, not for being taciturn but for being lost. He comments early on to his sister, while sharing breakfast for about 10 minutes, that he hasn’t spoken to anyone for such a long period of time in a while. Dwight is a loner who’s smart enough to get what he wants, but scrambles to deal with the consequences.
And writer/director/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier excellently unfolds those consequences with patience and calm. Because of the deliberately limited amount of dialogue, Blue Ruin rarely wades into the perilous waters of exposition. When a helpful police officer alerts Dwight to his parents’ killer being released from prison, the dialogue is spare and direct. A newspaper headline gives us more information in a 3- or 4-second shot than does any character interaction. Blue Ruin isn’t, unlike a few of the films I saw at Fantastic Fest, maddeningly vague. It just presumes that the audience will figure out what’s going on by offering visual, not verbal, clues. And visually, Blue Ruin is arresting and stunning. There were all kinds of crime dramas playing at this year’s Fantastic Fest, many of which were at least decent. But Blue Ruin stands out from the pack because it’s never not logical, never pandering, never condescending. Films like this put mainstream thrillers to shame. With any luck, Blue Ruin will perform solidly when it’s released on a wider platform next spring. I can guarantee this much: I won’t let you forget about Blue Ruin. It demands your attention.
2. Confession of Murder
Like I said, crime thrillers were almost a dime a dozen at this year’s Fantastic Fest. Twenty percent of the movies I saw at the festival were crime dramas, and that doesn’t count Narco Cultura, a grim documentary about real-life criminals. What made Confession of Murder stand out to me was its strangely playful ability to shift from one tone to another; one minute, it’s a bleak crime drama, and the next, it’s a dark satire of mainstream media. And somewhere in between, it’s an unbearably tense and ballsy action film. One action sequence, in which three cars are all pursuing, for various reasons, a criminal whose tell-all book has turned him into a nationwide celebrity, is one of the most breathless car chases in recent years. The stunts may not be as crazy as anything in the Fast & Furious series, but they’re equally daring.
The story itself, which revolves around the cop trying to catch said criminal to gain a fuller truth of the serial murders he committed, and the aggrieved victims’ family members who want revenge for those murders, is a labyrinth of double- and triple-crosses. I can see how some people might roll their eyes heavily during the third act, but I was totally in the film’s thrall. I have no idea if Confession of Murder has any hopeful U.S. distribution, but if you’ve got any interest in a Korean take on the long-ranging effect crime can have on disparate individuals, or you just want to see some nutty action sequences, this is the film for you.
3. Ninja: Shadow of a Tear
But anyone out there who wants solid action needs to see Ninja: Shadow of a Tear as soon as they can. This sequel to the 2009 action film Ninja follows lead actor Scott Adkins, as the American fighter Casey, as he seeks revenge on the Asian drug cartel that murders his wife at the end of the first act. Basically, this is all an excuse to let director Isaac Florentine shoot some sweaty, rough-and-tumble martial arts sequences. Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut Man of Tai Chi, also playing at Fantastic Fest, did a solid enough job of delivering on such sequences, but that movie has a bit of wirework and a few too many cuts in each fight scene. Ninja: Shadow of a Tear may rely a bit more than I’d like on handheld sequences as opposed to scenes held with a slightly wider shot, but no matter. The story is brainless, but the action puts modern genre fare to shame. Why can’t people like Isaac Florentine take over Hollywood? And how the hell is Scott Adkins not a star yet?
4. Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
For sheer insanity, you could not look further at Fantastic Fest 2013 than Sion Sono’s new film, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (I’m still waiting for an answer, sadly.) I’d be lying if I said this movie was able to sustain a satisfyingly bugnuts attitude for its two-plus hours, which is why it’s not higher on my list. And frankly, there’s part of me that wonders if this movie would play as well outside of a festival atmosphere: the crowd here, myself included, was eating this up, especially in the third act. I’ve had this happen before, where a comedy plays a lot funnier with a crowd than it does at home, or where action beats work a lot better when people are cheering them on. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? may only have crowd-centric rewatchability, but who cares? This is bloody fun. (You’re welcome, for me not indulging in the English-slang pun.)
A young group of guerilla filmmakers named the Fuck Bombers are given the chance to make a masterpiece of a movie when a yakuza leader hires them to make a movie starring his daughter, all to please the yakuza leader’s wife, who’s finally exiting prison after a 10-year stretch. You can probably surmise from that sentence that Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is an extraordinarily convoluted affair. Sono is less interested in story or character–something that I found a bit frustrating in the first half, outrageous setpieces aside–than in crafting Tarantino-esque visuals. I’m not totally sure I’d compare the entire film to Kill Bill, but that last act is as much a love letter to Tarantino’s two-part revenge picture as much as to cinema itself. Drafthouse Films will be distributing this, presumably in early 2014, and I imagine it’ll get quite the deserved fanbase soon after. Keep this one on your radar.
5. The Unknown Known
You probably don’t need to worry about keeping this one on your radar, as it’s already got distribution. (Plus, one of its production arms is the History Channel’s film side, so it may well wind up on TV soon.) Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known is a companion piece to his 2003 documentary The Fog of War, in which the embattled Robert McNamara was profiled, discussing his part in the Vietnam War. This time, it’s Donald Rumsfeld on display, and shocker! He’s not as willing to admit culpability for the U.S. war in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. If you want Morris to hold Rumsfeld’s feet to the fire, don’t worry: you’ll get satisfcation. If you want Rumsfeld to admit that he’s to blame for…well, pretty much anything, though, you will walk away disappointed.
Morris, at least audibly, is more present in The Unknown Known; it’s as if Rumsfeld is more spirited when he has a partner with whom to verbally spar. By himself, he holds plenty of attention, but Rumsfeld seems to thrive with someone to bicker with. I mentioned that his smile, often shown at the end of an otherwise disturbing or enervating monologue, was the most terrifying thing I saw at Fantastic Fest, and I hold with that. Rumsfeld, to some people, may have been (or still be) a heroic figure, but to me, he’s a perfect example of everything wrong with the U.S. political scene of the first decade of the 21st century. And he remains unwaveringly sure of himself at the end of The Unknown Known. We walk away only sure of the known unknowns: we know we don’t know whatever Rumsfeld’s really thinking. Only he does.
I wanted to write a few words here about a couple movies that didn’t impress me on the whole enough to be in the top five, but are still worth talking about. The first, a movie that I didn’t love but wholly admired, is Ari Folman’s The Congress. This hybrid of live-action and animation filmmaking is easily the most visually busy and crazy film I saw at Fantastic Fest. Where Folman almost deliberately wallows in the mundane in the first third, which is all live-action, the film just about explodes in color when Robin Wright (playing herself) enters a world of animation. I’m not convinced yet that the storytelling is as smooth and coherent after that shift, but I want to see The Congress again. If only for Wright’s performance, the film is worth revisiting. Hell, I may change my mind.
Also worth noting is the movie that just missed my top five: Cheap Thrills, starring Pat Healy, David Koechner, Ethan Embry, and Sara Paxton. As I said in my review, this is a nasty, nasty film, about a series of escalating dares a couple of lower-class guys in Los Angeles take part in for money. It’s a movie that still kind of makes me feel uncomfortable, but that’s pretty much the point. All four leads are suitably committed and intense, though Embry, once the clean-cut good guy in teen movies, exhibits the most radical shift in perspective. This one’s opening in early 2014 on a wide platform, so anyone who loves a good, if deliberately tough, thriller would do well to check it out.
Last, but not least, is Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, which is both a celebration of the whimsical and a funereal dirge about the death of such quirk. If you weren’t on Gondry’s wavelength for The Science of Sleep, this may be a rough sit, because the first third is so excessively fanciful, it’s enough to put you in diabetic shock. But the patient may be rewarded with the increasingly bleak second half. It’s not my favorite Gondry film–Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, eternally–but Mood Indigo is a visual wonder with a surprising emotional core.
Still curious about the other movies I saw, and where I’d rank them? Here’s my Letterboxd list of what I saw at Fantastic Fest. Enjoy. And prepare your own list of films to see in 2014.
— Josh Spiegel