Fantastic Fest, celebrating its 13th year, once again lived up to its title, securing its reputation as one of the best-curated and surprising film festivals around.
By the fest’s own standards, 2017 was a noticeably restrained year. This is in part due to the controversy surrounding founder Tim League and his cadre of predatory men, all of whom were absent. Many festival goers, in quiet protest, wore stickers reading “we are ALL fantastic” attached to their badges, and Tim League’s missing brand of hysterical cinephilia was approximated but never matched.
The film selection also felt more restrained this year. To be clear, this year’s programming was perhaps the best in the event’s history, but felt lacking in the more outrageous offerings of yesteryear. Perhaps Fantastic Fest is growing up. That doesn’t appear to be a problem, because nearly everything on offer was spectacular, and the new voices being heard here portend good things for the future of the craft. I saw roughly 20 films, and it was a real chore to choose five favorites, but here they are:
Rightful winner of the “Next Wave” Best Picture Award this year, Hagazussa will surely be divisive among general audiences, but was beloved here at Fantastic Fest. It is a transfixing and deeply subversive investigation of the Witch mythology, but it is also a methodically slow, largely plotless tone poem with no obvious precedent and no real market. Lukas Feigelfeld filmed this insightful work as his graduation thesis, so watch out for that guy.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Yorgos Lanthimos can only make Yorgos Lanthimos movies, but if you can get into his worlds, they are beautiful and revealing. Sacred Deer begins as a off-kilter portrait of a successful nuclear family, and steadily grows more and more stressful until it mercifully ends. Everyone delivers their performances with stilted, emotionless affect, but Lanthimos’ command of tension and sense of humor are unbeatable. Barry Keoghan comes into his own with a frightening performance. Any other filmmaker would trip over this concept, but Lanthimos and his actors sell it beautifully.
Joachim Trier’s new film is an off-to-college coming-of-age horror effort in the vein of last year’s Raw, but with softer edges and a more surreal conceit. Thelma is a young Christian who goes off to college and confronts repressed queerness and dormant superpowers. Eili Harboe delivers a nuanced performance as the titular young woman caught between her personal awakening and her religious and familial commitments. Trier refuses to deliver a simple mythology or easy answers, but even his most fantastic ideas are couched in relatable human terms.
Coralie Fargeat’s first feature film is this rape-revenge thriller, and she proves to be an absolute champion of form. While Revenge is relentlessly tense and enthusiastically violent, Fargeat also has an intelligent grip on the themes and implication of her work. This is not a didactic film, but it is smart. Fargeat condemns the male gaze, while indulging the more bloodthirsty thrill seekers, as Jenn (played by Matilda Lutz) performs a masterful transformation from fun-loving attention seeker to resourceful warrior. Revenge is the most satisfying revenge film in years.
Big-shot music video director Joseph Kahn made this subversive and heartbreaking film about battle rap in East Oakland. It’s also very funny, and whether or not its really your thing (its not mine), there is some undeniably beautiful wordplay in here. Calum Worthy plays Adam, a white and nerdy master’s thesis candidate investigating the use of the N-word in battle rap, but it turns out that he can rap himself, and his burgeoning career begins to wreak havoc on his life. Along the way Kahn lampoons volatile dialogue around race from every angle, and offers no way out of the labyrinthine discourse. He brings refreshing frankness and uncomfortable humor to an incredibly complex and important topic, but it is mostly a funny battle rap movie, so it does have has its limitations.