Hello fellow earthlings! The dust has settled on another Fantastic Fest and I survived to tell the tale. It was an unforgettable week full of marvelous movies and fun events. The last time I checked in I had seen 18 movies in the first 4 days of the fest and I was still going strong. By the time I was cutting a rug at the closing night party I had watched 19 more for a total of 37 feature-length films during the 8 day festival. The schedule was loaded and there was a lot to pack in, but I managed to see a majority of the things I wanted without completely frying my brain. I will admit, however, that a couple of the screenings were impacted by my body’s inability to stay fully awake and focused (sorry Night Drive and Guns Akimbo). That can happen when you’re out late, up early, and living Fantastic Fest life to the fullest!
It was another stellar slate of films. Out of the 30+ movies I saw there was only one that I truly disliked (In the Tall Grass) and a few others that just weren’t my thing (Koko-di, Koko-da, The Antenna, and The Wave). I really enjoyed at least 25 of the films and overall it was one of the best lineups in the 6 years I’ve attended Fantastic Fest. Directors Takashi Miike, Taika Waititi, Richard Stanley, Bong Joon Ho, and Rian Johnson headlined a long list of guests that were there to talk about their films. Many of the guests were funny and insightful and their presence enhanced the festival.
My most anticipated film prior to Fantastic Fest was Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite and it ended up being my favorite film of the fest. I knew nothing about it going in and when I saw the trailer after seeing the movie I was relieved I hadn’t seen it before. Do your best to avoid any advertising or reviews for this South Korean behemoth of a film and go see it for yourself when it’s released in the coming weeks. The movie works on multiple levels, it’s endlessly entertaining, and it’s very well-made. Parasite is renowned director Bong Joon Ho’s finest film to date and he was on hand for an insightful post-screening Q&A and a surprise ceremony that included Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League’s announcement that Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar would change its name and forevermore be known as “Bong Joon Ho Cinema.”
It was cool, after the Parasite screening, attendees were escorted through the side doors of the theater to the outside of the Drafthouse where there was a table full of cups with vodka in them. I looked up and Doug Benson handed me one as Tim League revealed a plaque on the wall and made a toast. Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin’ Out from Do the Right Thing or Gus from Breaking Bad, depending on your generation) was there hanging out. He was in Bong Joon Ho’s previous film, Okja. Everybody was in good spirits and it was one of those memorable Fantastic Fest moments. I had seen the movie the previous morning at a press screening and loved it, but I’m glad I watched it again with a full audience because it kills with a crowd. Each year there’s a film or two that I like so much I want to see it again and this year I had to check out Parasite, First Love, and Synchronic twice each. I’m glad I did, they all played great on a second viewing.
My second favorite film of the festival is another one that’s more fun with a crowd, Dolemite Is My Name. The crowd-pleaser starring Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson and a few surprises, was a secret screening with Da’Vine Joy Randolph in attendance and it was not announced prior to the festival. It was one of two films I was hoping would show up as a surprise and when it did it was quite exciting for this longtime Eddie Murphy/Dolemite fan. The fact that the movie’s so funny, entertaining, and substantial made it all the more glorious. (The other film I was hoping for was Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman which obviously wasn’t going to play since it was set to premiere at the New York Film Festival on September 27th, one day after Fantastic Fest.) Dolemite Is My Name will be available for everybody to watch from the comfort of their homes on October 25th when it hits Netflix, but it will get a limited release in theaters before that. I recommend seeing it in a theater with friends if you have the opportunity. The movie is a joyful experience best shared with others. Put your weight on it.
My third favorite film of the festival was a total surprise, The Vast of Night. Giant applause for director Andrew Patterson. His film is an old school Sci-fi yarn that features a familiar story elevated by exceptional camerawork, tight storytelling, impressive effects, and likable characters played by Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick. Jake plays a radio DJ and Sierra plays a switchboard operator who encounters an unusual sound on the airwaves. They investigate it and unravel the mystery, leading to the movie’s satisfying conclusion. I haven’t had the chance to see this one again, but I’m looking forward to another viewing at my earliest opportunity. It cast its spell on me right away and didn’t let go.
My fourth favorite film from FF 2019 is Takashi Miike’s always thrilling and supremely entertaining First Love. It’s a neon feast that features a young boxer living life after a devastating diagnosis, a young girl addicted to drugs who turns tricks to feed her habit and pay off her father’s debt, a one-armed man with a shotgun, a smooth lady assassin, a mad widow hellbent on getting revenge, Yakuza, decapitations, an exciting animated excursion, and one of the best scores of the year (by Koji Endo). Takashi Miike was hilarious in the Q&A and it was an honor to have him at Fantastic Fest. He made the most out of his time here too, shooting shotguns and eating Franklin BBQ.
My fifth favorite film of Fantastic Fest 2019 is Serge Ou’s extraordinary documentary Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks. I’ve been a fan of kung fu flicks for years and this is the best documentary I’ve seen on the genre. The doc is relentless, edited at a breakneck pace that mirrors the cinematic legends it honors. Like a devastating combo of moves, one after the other, the viewer is hit by clip after clip from classic kung fu films and other archival material edited with gusto and intercut with commentary from knowledgable (and often funny) talking heads like Michael Jai White and Fab Five Freddie. The documentary moves at a quick pace and it covers a lot of ground in its 1 hour and 48 minute runtime, but it doesn’t feel rushed and it doesn’t overstay its welcome as it covers everything from Come Drink With Me (1966) to The Raid: Redemption (2011) and includes essential topics like the films of Shaw Brothers Studio, Cheng Pei-pei, Lau Kar-leung, Bruce Lee (and his countless imitators), Golden Harvest, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Woo-ping, among others. The doc is now available to rent or purchase online and if you’re a kung fu fan I can’t recommend it enough.
My sixth favorite movie of FF 2019 is the new film by Fantastic Fest regulars Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, directors of Resolution, Spring, and The Endless. Synchronic is their best film yet. This is another case where I recommend avoiding trailers, reviews, etc., and going in as blind as possible. All I’ll say is that it has a very interesting premise that includes mysterious over the counter drugs and time travel and the movie is not at all goofy or silly. It’s a serious flick that’s seriously good and it features a great turn from Anthony Mackie and a big score from Jimmy LaVelle. Synchronic marks a jump in craft from the directing tandem, who seem to improve with each outing. There were a few films at FF 2019 that involved time travel and this one was easily my favorite.
My seventh favorite film of FF 2019 was a part of the Mexican sidebar, a segment of the festival dedicated to the cinema of Mexico. The Black Pit of Dr. M (1960) is a super atmospheric gothic horror masterpiece with a fine story full of clever elements like a locket with a secret compartment containing a hidden key, and a knife with an inscription on it stating that any person who uses it for evil will go to hell. The gorgeous black and white imagery is enhanced by an enthralling score. Fantastic Fest offers a variety of programming and I always try to fit in some classics and oddities along with all of the new movies. Selecting The Black Pit of Dr. M was a great move.
My eighth favorite film of the festival is an aquatic thriller from Ireland, Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever. It doesn’t have any Xenomorphs, but in many ways it plays like ‘Alien on the water.’ It features a kick-ass female protagonist, Siobhán, a student of marine biology played by Hermione Corfield, and its own kind of monster that infiltrates in unique ways. Nothing crazy new here, just a modern day take on a classic Saturday matinee flick that I found highly enjoyable.
My ninth favorite movie of FF 2019 is definitely one of the oddest and most original. It’s probably one of the most divisive too, but I absolutely loved watching Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin in the midnight slot. The movie is a trip. Jean Dujardin is barely recognizable as a man who sports a 100% deerskin jacket and is infatuated with his own “killer style.” No, I’m not kidding. The movie evolves in bizarre ways that are better left to be discovered on your own. Not for everybody, but count me as a fan.
My tenth favorite film of FF 2019 is one of the most charming. The True Adventures of Wolfboy by director Martin Krejčí has a lot of heart and it lives up to its title as a “true adventure.” The story is divided up into different chapters, each introduced by a lavish hand-illustrated title card and there are fun performances by John Turturro as the equally greasy/elegant carnival master Mr. Silk, Eve Hewson as the pink haired, patch-rocking renegade Rose, and Sophie Giannamore (credited as Sophia Grace Gianna) as Aristiana, the mermaid to Jaeden Martell’s Wolfboy (credited here as Jaeden Lieberher).
That’s my Top 10! The programming this year was so strong that pretty much any film from my Top 20 feels like it should be a Top 10 film. It’s difficult and silly to try to rank these oh so very different movies against each other, and Fantastic Fest is not a competition, but it is fun to make lists and when I sat down and forced myself to come up with a ranking of all the films I saw at FF 2019, this is what I came up with. Disagree? Great! Make your own list. This one’s mine. Enjoy! 🙂
- Dolemite is My Name
- The Vast of Night
- First Love
- Iron Fists & Kung Fu Kicks
- The Black Pit of Dr. M
- Sea Fever
- The True Adventures of Wolfboy
- Memory: The Origins of Alien
- Jojo Rabbit
- The Lighthouse
- Color Out of Space
- Dogs Don’t Wear Pants
- I Lost My Body
- Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters
- Son of the White Mare
- The Mortuary Collection
- The Peanut Butter Solution
- In the Shadow of the Moon
- The Whistlers
- The Happiness of the Katakuris
- Night Drive*
- Guns Akimbo*
- The Wave
- The Antenna
- Koko-di Koko-da
- In the Tall Grass
* = Compromised by sleepiness. Requires another viewing.
Cheers to another monster Fantastic Fest! Huge thanks to the filmmakers, the Fantastic Fest programming team, the projectionists, the staff, the volunteers, Fons PR, and all the members of the community who help make Fantastic Fest the special event it is year after year. See you in 2020!
Check out these pics from the fest:
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