Excuse my overt enthusiasm, but I am having a hard time containing my excitement right now. Fantastic Fest kicks off tomorrow!! It’s the best week of the year for many freaks and geeks who annually flock to Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin, TX to binge on cinema for 8 days. (September 20-27)
I already posted a preview article, but at that point I hadn’t had the chance to fully sink my teeth into the massive film lineup. Now that I’ve sniffed, nibbled, and gnawed it to death, I’m downright ravenous for the festival to begin. Despite the fact that Fantastic Fest always has an amazing lineup, every year the same pre-festival thoughts linger in my mind: Can they do it again? Is it even possible to find enough worthy films to fill the schedule? Are they gonna muck it up?
The answers are yes, yes, and no. There’s plenty of fascinating films on the horizon and they have yet to muck it up (at least from a programming standpoint). Every year the programming team fills the festival with intriguing movies of all kinds, from countries all around the world. Some of the movies will go on to be hits, others will be cult favorites, and some will never be released and rarely screened again. There is always a plethora of underappreciated and undiscovered gems on display.
Fantastic Fest 2018 features no less than 90 feature films and 50+ short films in its arsenal of programming. Attendees have the opportunity to watch up to 5 features a day, and a variety of different films (4-5) play in each time slot. Even if you attend a screening in each time slot all week long, it is impossible to see even half of the movies on the slate.
There is no wrong way to “Fantastic Fest.” An open-minded movie fan can do zero research, show up, and have a ball. One can also spend hours researching, making lists, and using divine alchemy to construct the perfect schedule. In the end, nothing is guaranteed, but I’ve always been glad I took the time to look over the movies, check out where they’re from, see who directed them, and gain a familiarity with the program before the festival. A lot of Fantastic Fest regulars have their own systems for how they devise their schedules and make their picks, and despite how dorky it probably makes me look, I’m gonna break mine down in annoyingly unnecessary detail. (You’ve been warned.)
Growing up, I was fortunate to go on some amazing family vacations that were expertly planned by my super organized mother. I think she enjoyed the planning and the anticipation leading up to the trips almost as much as the vacations themselves. I must’ve inherited that from her, because I’m the exact same way — especially in the lead-up to Fantastic Fest. I love reading through the film program and figuring out which movies I want to see. The more I learn about the movies the more my excitement grows for the festival.
The first thing I do is go through the movies and separate them into three categories:
- Movies I want to see.
- “Maybes” – Other movies I want to see (just not as badly) and movies I’m willing to take a chance on.
- The “hell no, I want no part of this” movies. (Every
genrefestival has them.)
I make these determinations in a number of ways. Some of the films stand out and instantly make the “movies I want to see” list based on their director’s reputation or previous works. Gaspar Noé’s Climax, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, Zhang Yimou’s Shadow, and Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark are all examples of films playing at FF 2018 from directors who’s work I admire. Certain actors and actresses have this kind of pull as well, such as Nicolas Cage. Anytime a Cage film is screened at Fantastic Fest, it’s a must-see, and this year’s Between Worlds is no exception. I don’t need to read a synopsis or watch a trailer to know that I want to see these films and as someone who likes to go into movies blind, I often don’t.
After adding the films that standout because of their directors and casts, I go through the rest of the movies one by one on the Fantastic Fest site and check out their individual write-ups. I don’t read the full synopses, typically just the first couple of paragraphs and the last. Anytime the plot is discussed in detail I skip ahead. I just want to catch the general gist of the movie and a bit of the backstory or what makes it special. If I’m still not sold on the film, I put on the trailer. If at any point during the trailer, I feel like I want to watch the movie, I turn it off (for fear of being spoiled) and add it to the list. (This annoys my wife who’s often caught up in the trailer at the moment I drop the guillotine.)
As I go through the films, I look up their directors on IMDB and see what else they’ve done. I’m often happy to discover that I’m familiar with their previous work, but due to a serious case of scrambled brain (from too many movies) I’ve failed to realize it. This year, Julien Leclercq and Matteo Garrone fell into this category with The Bouncer (starring JCVD) and Dogman, respectively. Leclercq’s French crime film The Crew (Braqueurs) surprised audiences at FF 2016 and Garrone’s Tale of Tales enchanted us the year before. Garrone also directed the 2008 critical darling Gomorrah. Dogman is the story of a gentle, innocent dog groomer whose friendship with a violent neighborhood thug threatens to upend his life. While the story didn’t immediately sell me, the Garrone credit did.
Once I’ve sorted through all the movies, there are usually around 45 of them that I absolutely want to see, and at least 10-15 “maybes” that I wouldn’t mind checking out. FF 2018 has more entries on the “movies I want to see” list than ever before with 48 features. I could’ve easily fit 20 movies on the “maybe” list, but I narrowed it down to the ones I want to see most. You can check out my 2018 list below and lists from former years at the end of the article. I use them as checklists and underline the movies I see in red ink. A double underline means I saw the film twice.
After I make my list, I loosely rank the films, starting with the one I want to see the most. (I do this on my laptop for easy editing.) This year, the film I’m most anticipating screens is in the opening slot on opening night. If you’re familiar with the schedule, you probably think I’m talking about Halloween, but in the battle for my heart and the opening slot on my FF 2018 schedule, Michael Myers was stricken down by a windmill fighting nobleman.
While the US Premiere of Halloween on opening night with a hyped FF crowd and scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis in attendance is the stuff that dreams are made of (seriously, there’s no better way to see that movie), the movie I’m most looking forward to at FF 2018 is about 3 decades overdue and multiple attempts to bring it to the big screen have failed spectacularly (see Lost in La Mancha). After so many years and so much turmoil, it’s hard to believe that Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote even exists, and I’m very excited to open my Fantastic Fest with it.
I’ll admit, at this point, I’m more curious about Quixote than anything and I’m keeping my expectations in check. (The movie could never live up to the legend behind it.) However… I am a big fan of Terry Gilliam’s movies and his 1985 masterpiece Brazil is one of my all-time favorites (top 3 easy). I was thrilled to discover that the man playing the legendary character Don Quixote is none other that Jonathan Pryce, the man who starred as Sam Lowry in Brazil. He’s much older now and I think he can bring the right amount of exuberance to the character. He’s joined by Kylo Ren himself, the talented Adam Driver, who could go on to make hundreds of movies, but will forever be known to me as the “outer… space!” guy from Inside Llewyn Davis.
Other movies near the top of my list are Jonah Hill’s Mid90s and Studio Ponoc’s Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre, Vol. 1.
Mid90s is Jonah Hill’s directorial debut and he will be at Fantastic Fest. As a Jonah Hill fan, I was already sold, but then I inadvertently saw the trailer which features the glorious music of the Wu-Tang Clan (“Tearz”) and a young character with a poster of Mobb Deep on the wall. (Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang are two of my three favorite hip hop groups of all-time. Throw in some Gang Starr and it’s going down!) Aside from the fine musical selections, I look forward to seeing what Mr. Hill has in store for us.
Last year’s FF included Studio Ponoc’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower. The Japanese animation studio includes master animators who previously worked at Studio Ghibli, and in my opinion, their first feature film is on par with those from the legendary animation studio. The movie features beautiful, bold colors, fun characters and an intriguing story with a Harry Potter/Worst Witch-style sorcery school and an edible plant with magical properties. It’s now available on Netflix in the dubbed English version. (I prefer the subtitled version that screened at FF.) Studio Ponoc’s follow-up is a trio of short films that I honestly know little about and can’t wait to see. The image below only fans the flames.
After I loosely rank the films, it’s time to piece together the schedule. My wife and I have had good fortune over the years and most of the time, we’ve gotten into our first choice of films throughout the fest. In instances when we haven’t, we’ve been able to use the ticketing app to swap into them. Some folks think that making a schedule to loosely follow is unnecessary and they prefer to wing it, but I’ve always found it to be helpful.
I’m old school (my dumb phone is an obvious tell) and I like to make a physical, pocket-sized schedule. I take a thick sheet of paper and fold it so there are 4 sections on each side (8 total, one for each day of the festival). I write out the entire schedule with the first half of the fest on one side and the second half on the other. This comes in handy when making selections because most films (not all) screen twice during the fest; once in the first half and once in the second. Once I have the entire schedule written out with all the different options in each time slot, I start with my top ranked film, and taking into account films that only screen once (and other factors), I pick the most ideal times for each film to fully maximize my schedule with the things I want to see most.
That’s my process. Nothing too fancy, but it gets the job done. Despite all the planning in the world, it pays to be adaptable and have a readiness to pivot with the ebbs and flows of the festival. Strong word of mouth can influence one’s desire to see a film in either direction. Listen to the buzz and pay attention to what other people are raving about and walking out of. Chatting with other festival-goers about their FF favorites can lead to off-radar discoveries.
There’s so many more movies I’d like to chat about, but I’m heading to Austin today and I need to pack! Can’t wait to get to town, pick up my badge, see old friends, and watch new movies.
If you see me, say hi! I’ll be the guy dressed up like Don Quixote, riding a horse through the Halloween screening. Giddyup!
Here’s some terrible pics of my movie lists from the last 4 Fantastic Fests. So many memories and good times scrawled across these pages…
FF 2018 pocket schedule. Still in progress.
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