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Fantastic Fest 2017 Recap

Hello movie fiends and film freaks! Fantastic Fest 2017 recently took place in Austin, TX and once again, the 8 day film festival was stuffed to the gills with a smorgasbord of international cinematic offerings to devour. Like previous years I went all out, forgoing rest to pack in as many screenings and events as possible. Cheers to my wife, Claudia, for being every bit as game as I am. We managed to fit in 37 feature-length films and a bunch of shorts, and we had fun tearing up the dance floor in our pajamas at The Highball and wilding out to the sounds of Itchi-O at the closing night party.

===The Drama===

The staff and the volunteers did a marvelous job making a smooth experience out of a festival that was, unfortunately, mired in controversy before it even started. While I’d rather not bring it up, I don’t think it would be right to cover this year’s festival and not address the drama. As you probably already know, Alamo Drafthouse founder/CEO Tim League messed up. His compassion for his friend, film critic Devin Faraci, clouded his judgement and he acted in a manner that brought shame and turmoil to his company. When he announced that he’s been giving writing work to the former Birth.Movies.Death. Editor-in-Chief (who stepped down a year ago when allegations of sexual assault from years past emerged), there was outrage, and rightfully so. People stepped down (Todd Brown, Director of International Programming – a huge loss), films pulled out (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and pissed off film fans spoke up. While Tim had good intentions, his actions were inexcusable, and in the process of trying to help one individual he upset a lot of people from the community he’s worked so hard to build over the years.

As a longtime fan of Tim League and the Alamo Drafthouse, I was certainly disappointed by the news. Tim’s actions showed a lack of compassion for the victims and put a lot of people in an awkward position (including me writing this article). He made life more difficult for the employees of the Alamo Drafthouse, B.M.D., Mondo, and Fantastic Fest, who had nothing to do with it. The drama cast a shadow on the films and the filmmakers who worked so hard on them. It was a major bummer all around. Tim did not attend Fantastic Fest because he’s been traveling to different Alamo Drafthouse locations and conversing with the staff. He realizes he messed up and he’s listening to what people have to say and trying to make things right. We (the folks at Nerdlocker) look forward to the positive changes that arise out of this ugly endeavor and wish the best to the Alamo Drafthouse family.

===The Show Must Go On===

A lot of benevolent, hardworking, film-savvy people bust their humps to make Fantastic Fest the best 8 days of the year for us film geeks. Despite my disappointment with the pre-fest revelations, I was still excited to attend the festival and see what the film programming team and event organizers had in store for us.

I know of a few people who boycotted the fest, but most members of the AD/FF community reacted to the drama by speaking up and showing support for ALL members of the ‘family’ with buttons and ribbons that read ‘We are ALL Fantastic.’ The camaraderie at the festival is always apparent and this year was no different.

To kick off the fest, instead of the usual wild rumpus led by the ambassador of fun (Tim), FF attendees were greeted with a heartfelt speech by Fantastic Fest Director/resident badass, Kristen Bell. Her words felt sincere and unrehearsed. It was perfect for the occasion, though I’ll admit, I hope next year’s festival kicks off on better terms and in a more celebratory fashion (but still has K.Bell).

FF Director Kristen Bell. Photo by Jack Plunkett

===The Films===

Once the fest got going and the films started showing, it (mostly) felt like your typical Fantastic Fest. Time slots packed with multiple enticing viewing options led to tough decisions and for the fourth time in the four years I’ve attended, the programming was eclectic and astonishingly strong. Including the festival and the online screening room, we watched over 40 movies and I really liked at least 25 of them (and only disliked a few). I want to put 15 of them on my top 10 list. I feel like all 15 belong, there just aren’t enough spots to go around. I’ll rank the top 25 (at least) and provide more film coverage in the next part of my recap.

Among the screenings was a fantastic documentary about Alfred Hitchcock’s revolutionary shower scene in Psycho (78/52), a solid Russian space movie (Salyut-7), Takashi Miike’s epic 100th film (Blade of the Immortal), a brilliant battle rap movie (Bodied), S. Craig Zahler’s brutal followup to Bone Tomahawk starring a badass Vince Vaughn (Brawl In Cell Block 99), the latest strange trip from singular oddity Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), a Danish comedy featuring the guys from the Klown movies (Dan Dream), a fun secret screening (more on that later), Episode 2 of Don Herzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, a zombie Christmas musical (Anna and the Apocalypse), and an imaginative feature-length Japanese stop motion animation film that was almost entirely created by one individual, Takahide Hori (Junk Head).

Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Between the feature-length films and the shorts, a whopping 38 countries were represented at FF 2017: Algeria, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, India, Iran, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Kuwait, Latvia, Lebanon, Mexico, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Qatar, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States. That’s quite a list! Cheers to diversity.

===The Guests===

Several of the filmmakers were on hand to present their films and engage in post-screening Q&As. Here’s a few of my favorites:

Director Jon Schnitzer and scare actress Shar Mayer. Photo by Rick Kern

Jon Schnitzer, director of Haunters: The Art of the Scare. Nobody was more passionate about their film or more excited to be at Fantastic Fest. His documentary on the haunted house scene and the art of the scare was an enjoyable screening and his presence made it special.

Don Hertzfeldt and Will Goss. Photo by www.hlkfotos.com

Don Hertzfeldt, director of World of Tomorrow and World of Tomorrow Episode 2. Soft-spoken, down-to-earth, witty, informative; Hertzfeldt is a joy to listen to and his stories about the process of making the World of Tomorrow films are always funny and insightful.

Samantha Inoue-Harte and Takahide Hori. Photo by Jack Plunkett

Takahide Hori, the brain (writer/director/animator/voice actor) behind the Japanese stop motion animation film, Junk Head, was in attendance and his love of cinema was apparent. Shout out to Samantha Inoue-Harte for her emotive translation.

Director Steve McCallum. Photo by Rick Kern

Steve McCallum, director of the Australian biker film 1% (recently acquired by A24). Steve embraced the spirit of Fantastic Fest. He was hyped up for some karaoke at The Highball after introducing his film and his comments on talking/texting during the movie drew applause from the crowd: “I may be small, but I will rip your fucking throat out!” Get this man another beer.

Writer/Director Angela Robinson. Photo by Rick Kern

Angela Robinson, writer/director of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. Angela had a warm presence and I enjoyed listening to her thoughtful comments on how the story came together and how the movie got made.

===The Events===

Over the years, I’ve gradually attended less events in order to see more movies. There’s a few that can’t be missed, however, such as the opening night and closing night parties. They’re always a blast and they make great bookends to the festival. The events are a nice respite from the screenings, especially for those with less aggressive viewing ambitions.

Photos by Jack Plunkett

Pajama Party– FF 2017 kicked off with a Pajama Party complete with pizza, cookies, a massive pillow fight, and Mo from Mondo on the ones and twos. I’m all for any excuse to wear pj’s in public and hit friends/strangers with pillows. Claudia and I lost track of time on the dance floor and missed our midnight movie (Ichi the Killer). It was the only screening we missed all fest.

Owen Egerton. Photo by Jack Plunkett

The Fantastic Debates– I didn’t make it to the debates this year because they were pitted against some must-see movies, but I highly recommend them, especially for first time FF attendees. Contestants debate a topic (often film related) first verbally, then physically, inside a boxing ring — and most of the time they don’t hold back when it’s punchin’ time. Owen Egerton usually hosts the event and does so with gusto.

Big chair chillin’ with Shoniqua Shandai at the Closing Night Party. Photo by Friendly Stranger

Nerd Rap– You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it, you better never let it go! This years event benefited from having Bodied actress Shoniqua Shandai as one of the judges. Her feedback to the rappers was honest, well-detailed, and always spot on. Most Nerd Rap judges aren’t true connoisseurs of hip-hop and having someone on the panel who knows her stuff really elevated the event.

Leonard and Jesse Maltin talk movies with Vince Vaughn. Photo by Jack Plunkett

Maltin on Movies– Leonard Maltin and his daughter, Jesse have become Fantastic Fest staples over the last few years by recording episodes of their podcast on stage at The Highball and interviewing people such as Tim Burton and Bruce Campbell. This year the Maltins recorded three podcasts, one with Brawl in Cell Block 99 star Vince Vaughn, one with comedian Gilbert Gottfried, subject of the new doc, Gilbert, and one with Fantastic Fest regular Elijah Wood. I was able to catch the one with Vince Vaughn and I was thrilled they spent some time talking about Made, one of my favorite Vince Vaughn films. Uncle Lenny Mr. Maltin is also a fan.

The Secret Screening– It isn’t an official event, but the anticipation and speculation leading up to it makes it feel like one. This year audiences were treated to an early screening of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, a comedy of absurdity based on the real-life events surrounding the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Afterwards, we were led to The Highball where a Russian-themed party was underway with music, dancing, food, and vodka.

Photos by Jack Plunkett (the good ones) and Adam Sanders (the other ones)

Closing Night Party– The big bash on the final night took place at Austin Studios and featured an immersive performance by Itchy-O, the 32-member percussive unit responsible for unleashing mayhem at The Highball at the two previous FFs. This was the first time they had all of their members in tow and the first time they performed under a device that shoots bolts of electricity from the sky. There was also complimentary food, drinks, arcade games, tattoos, a photo booth, liquid nitrogen ice cream, and a carnival-style swing ride.

There were several other events that took place while I was watching movies, such as the Fantastic Feud, The Star Wars Drink Competition, the taping of Doug Benson’s Doug Loves Movies podcast, the Chaos Reigns Karaoke Party, Eat and Explode (a disgusting eating competition), and an event that offered attendees an early chance to play Mondo’s new board game based on John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, The Thing.

Chaos Reigns: Karaoke Apocalypse Party. Photo by Jack Plunkett

===In Conclusion===

Overall, it was another fantastic Fantastic Fest full of great movies, excellent company, and fun vibes (with a dash of anger and wtf). It was a bit chill without Tim there conducting the circus. Some of the staff members who are normally full of energy were more subdued (understandably) and noticeably absent from parties/events. The streak of killer programming continued and there are many many films to look forward to. I’ve barely scratched the surface on the movie front and look forward to championing my favorites. More coverage soon!

Cheers to all the volunteers, waitstaff, filmmakers, projectionists, programmers, AD/FF staff, Fantastic Fiends, friends, and fans who came together and made it another super enjoyable year at movie camp.

See you next year!

Photo by Claudia G



Follow me on twitter: @saltywinters

Check out the Critics Circle on Radio Brave, the Houston Film Critics Society’s weekly program.



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Salty Winters once said, "Everything I learned I learned from the movies." He was quoting Audrey Hepburn.