Everything We Saw At Fantastic Fest 2016

When the smoke cleared, I ended up seeing 27 movies over eight days at Fantastic Fest 2016. The Austin-based genre film festival always has a strong line-up of odd, unusual, and unique movies from around the world, but this year was truly exceptional – I saw very few movies I wouldn't recommend in some capacity. I even saw a handful of movies that are in serious contention for my end-of-the-year top 10.

For the sake of completeness, I have compiled all of my Fantastic Fest coverage into one place, with links to my reviews and smaller capsule reviews for everything that didn't get their own post. If you're looking for a something terrifying or unique or action-packed or tear-jerking or just plain unusual, there is something here for you.

the age of shadows review

The Age of Shadows

"And this brings us back to Kim's war of style versus substance, because this film is at its best when the filmmaker goes back to his old tricks for particular stretches. While the meat of the story can be difficult to parse, the action set pieces are not. As he has proven multiple times before, Kim is one of South Korea's finest action directors, which puts him on the short list of the finest action directors in the world. When the chatter stops and the guns come out, The Age of Shadows sings. Each shootout is fueled by desperation and terror, never allowing us to forget that each member of the resistance is outnumbered and outgunned. The above-mentioned train sequence is a miniature masterpiece lurking within a large film. Taking up most of the second act, it's easy to imagine it extended to a brisk 90 minutes and actually being its own intense, claustrophobic little movie. It just so happens to be jammed in the middle of an overlong 140-minute experience." 7/10 [Full Review]

2016 fall movie preview american honey

American Honey

"Andrea Arnold pulls no punches and her cast doesn't invite you like them. But American Honey isn't about liking its characters or hating them – it's about empathizing with them. It's about slowing down to speak with the people you would drive by without thinking twice. It's about asking you to drive a mile in a stranger's shoes and try to sell some magazines nobody wants. It's a movie as vast and frustrating and beautiful and tragic as America itself." 9.5/10 [Full Review]

Amy Adams in Arrival

Arrival

With Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve has delivered one of the great science fiction movies of all time. A cousin to movies like Interstellar and Contact (but superior to both), this tale of mankind's first contact with alien visitors and one linguist's attempt to learn their language is icy, hard science fiction masking an emotional, heartbreaking center that, once revealed, leaves you completely gutted. Amy Adams turns in one of her best performances. Eric Heisserer's screenplay frames every fantastic element with recognizable humanity. Bradford Young shoots the hell out of it. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson turns in career-best work. Villeneuve has made a movie that is as smart as it is emotional as it is exciting as it is hopeful as it is tragic. I openly wept through the final half hour. This may be the best movie of 2016. 10/10 [Angie Han's Review]

asura-city-of-madness

Asura: City of Madness

Look, sometimes all you need is a 136 minutes of angry Koreans stabbing and shooting the shit out of each other and Asura: City of Madness delivers on that front. Jung Woo-sung plays Detective Han, a corrupt cop who is having a really, really bad year. His wife is dying. The insane and corrupt mayor who pays him on the side is getting a little more insane and corrupt than usual. An ambitious prosecutor puts him under his thumb and forces his to work as a mole. For its first half, Ki Sung-su delivers a consistently hilarious and compelling dark comedy full of despicable characters being truly awful to one another. And in the second half, he dials things up to 11, breaks out the weaponry, and delivers the most violent (and stabbiest) Korean thriller since The Yellow Sea. That climactic bloodbath is the final ingredient in this complex and satisfying mixture of noir and farce and it's the kind of insanity that sends you out of the theater buzzing. 8/10

the autopsy of jane doe review

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

"Beyond the undeniably effective scares, this is a movie about the point where the scientific process and detective work collide and how those methods of thinking become valuable weapons in a war they were never intended to wage. The bulk of the film is the autopsy itself, depicted in detail so gruesome that it will unsettle many stomachs, but for Cox and Hirsch, the inside of a dead body is another day at the office and Øvredal treats it as such. Watching this father and son take notes and collect samples and chat their way through a biological mystery is as thrilling as the scenes of pure terror that follow. And because these characters have been presented as so smart and because they're smart enough to know when to fold 'em and walk away, it's up to the rest of the movie to provide worthy roadblocks." 8.5/10 [Full Review]

bugs

Bugs

To his credit, director Andreas Johnsen never transforms Bugs into a freakshow. Yes, this is a documentary about two men traveling the world eating bugs, but those two men are researchers for the Nordic Food Lab and they're on this gross-out mission in the name of science. Are insects and their creepy-crawly brethren the future of food as the human population booms? It's a good question and the film does reach a fascinating conclusion...just in the driest, most made-for-TV way possible. Bugs is a fine educational document, but it's not especially exciting cinema. In fact, the film is at its best when it's journeying down side alleys next to its main subject, like when our two guides explore how to make bugs palatable to western tastes. You'd watch this if it was on the Discovery Channel. 5.5/10

colossal

Colossal

You should know as little as possible about Colossal before you watch it. But know this: director Nacho Vigalondo has finally made a movie as good as his debut (the exceptional Timecrimes). The film begins as a high concept comedy about a giant monster rampaging through Korea and the American woman with an odd connection it, but it slowly reveals its hand in the most satisfying, surprising, and deeply relevant way possible. This is very much a genre movie for 2016, with Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis selling this high-wire act of a movie with terrific performances. 8.5/10 [Angie Han's Review]

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The Crew

The Crew doesn't waste your time and with a running time of only 81 minutes, it doesn't even have time to waste. This no-frills French crime drama is a whole lot of a Heat and a tiny pinch of Fast and Furious, following a skilled group of criminals whose successful heist sets them down a road to ruination. Tough men posture, gun battles are filmed with visceral immediacy, and no one walks away completely unscathed. This is real meat-and-potatoes stuff, but the sparse story, intense performances, and all-too-realistic action make it memorable enough. 7/10

a dark song review

A Dark Song

"A Dark Song is a strong debut for Liam Gavin and it's a breath of fresh air for occult movies in general. The film ultimately feels like a hybrid between Steven Soderbergh (a fascination with a specific process and the kind of professionals who can pull said process off) and James Wan (scary things in a creepy house make you wet your pants). It's an utterly unique film that uses its slow pace to lay the dread on thick and and build its characters so it can turn around and tear everything down in the homestretch. And the ending, which will surely prove divisive, is an audacious choice for a genre so often built on nihilism. A Dark Song may be a hard-edged and occasionally difficult movie, but it has soul." 7.5/10 [Full Review]

down under review

Down Under

"Down Under doesn't wear handle its subject matter with care. It doesn't wear gloves and goggles. It takes the subject of race relations, dips it in gasoline, and molds it into shape near an open flame. It wants you to get angry. It wants to enrage you. And it wants you to laugh. Because recognizing the absurdity of this situation, realizing that there is nothing more absurd than angry men going to war over the color of their skin, feels vital. Comedy is our great weapon: aim it at hatred and watch every excuse dissolve before your very eyes. In a year dominated by Donald Trump, Down Under feels devastating and relevant. It wants us to laugh so we do not become the joke on screen." 8/10 [Full Review]

The Eyes of My Mother Review

The Eyes of My Mother

"Although Pesce's lean screenplay, unsettling compositions, and willingness to push against every boundary of human decency is impressive, it is Magalhaes who carries this film on her shoulders. In Francisca, we have one of the more memorable horror characters in recent memory, a genuine psychopath whose every decision is indefensible on every possible moral and ethical level, but whose depression and desperation for human connection is instantly relatable. Forcing an audience to recognize human emotions in a monster is tough and tricky, but Magalhaes is brave enough to fall backwards and Pesce is skilled enough to catch her." 8/10 [Full Review]

fashionista

Fashionista

At the risk of being too cruel, Fashionista is the most punishing film I've ever endured in seven years of attending Fantastic Fest. This is perhaps by design, as director Simon Rumley (who made 2010's shocking and deeply effective thriller Red, White and Blue) is no dummy. But this thematically confused film, which lurches from one half-baked idea to another while characters loudly explain the subtext of every scene they're in, is an ugly technical nightmare. Even if you look past the garish cinematography, chaotic editing, ugly color timing, and amateurishly mixed sound, the film beneath that laundry list of production flaws doesn't offer anything worth examining. However, a closing title card dedicating the film to Nicholas Roeg may be the funniest thing I've seen projected on a movie screen in 2016. 1/10

goke-body-snatcher-from-hell

Goke: Body Snatcher From Hell

How do you sum up Goke: Body Snatcher From Hell, a 1968 Japanese genre mash-up that played Fantastic Fest as part of a special repertory screening? Like Plan 9 From Outer Space, it's a pessimistic science fiction parable about mankind's flaws setting up the Earth for an alien invasion. It's also like Ed Wood's schlock masterpiece because it is a terrible (albeit fascinating) honestly made, and completely earnest movie that uses alien vampires, UFOs and weird make-up to make a political statement. In this case, this wacky and weird story of an extraterrestrial blob that transforms a hitman into an unstoppable, flesh-eating monster with a vagina on his forehead so he can prey on the survivors of a plane crash is really an excuse to explain why the Vietnam war was a mistake. This movie feels like it was written by mental patients playing the telephone game. It's a must-see for fans of the odd and the unusual.

the handmaiden review

The Handmaiden

"Park shoots his twisted, feminist psychological thriller with an active eye. His camera doesn't observe as much as it participates and reacts. It follows and pursues. It gives characters space when they need it and closes in for that close-up when they have nowhere to go. Simply watching a Park film is a joy unto itself. Here is a legit master of his medium who knows how to ensure his movie is as fun to watch as possible." 9/10 [Full Review]

Headshot

Headshot

If you go to Headshot looking for a bunch of tough guys punching each other until bones break and brains splatter, you're going to have a good time. The Raid's Iko Uwais stars as an amnesiac who slowly learns that his previous life connects him to a deadly criminal organization, which, of course, pulls him back into a life of bullets and neck-snaps and so on. Directors Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto (the latter co-directed the brilliant "Safe Haven" short in V/H/S/2) prove themselves adept at staging scene after scene of bloody, bone-shattering violence and while it's never quite as cleanly shot or exciting as The Raid, they certainly get the job done. The action here is constant and unrelenting and unforgiving, with brawls on a bus full of corpses and a devastated police station standing out as the highlights. Unfortunately, these scenes are connected by thin strands of melodrama that recall your average direct-to-video action movie from the '90s or a lousy daytime soap opera. This is the kind of movie that will sing at home, where you can have one finger on the fast-forward button. 6/10 [Angie Han's Review]

the-lure

The Lure

No one's going to dock The Lure any points for lack of originality. As far as I know, this is the world's only Polish mermaid musical, so it's a must-see for the novelty value alone. The logline should let you know if this movie should be on your radar: two mermaids join a human band. One of falls in love with the bass player while the other refuses to tone down her hunger for human flesh. Director Agnieszka Smoczynska does a fine job of blending the disparate elements together – this is a pop musical, a body horror movie, a creature feature, a tale of rock star excess, and a plot-free, lyrical journey powered more by images, ideas, and folklore than traditional storytelling. It's all so very interesting and all so very watchable (the songs are incredible), but it never feels like a cohesive whole. Still, I would never discourage anyone from seeking this movie out, as it is far too weird and far too unique to dismiss. 6.5/10

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A Monster Calls

You won't find many 2016 movies as handsomely made as A Monster Calls. J.A. Bayona is an astonishing technician, a craftsman whose films look and sound as good as anything else you'll ever see in a movie theater. However, his latest film is machine-like in form and function, pushing every emotional button and using every trick in the book to squeeze tears from your eyes. Some will find this film moving (there were sniffles all around me during the screening), but the tearjerking feels forced and mechanical and painfully obvious. It's all surface-level emotion, effective in the moment but cloying in retrospect. 6/10 [Angie Han's Review]

phantasm remastered review

Phantasm Remastered

"And Phantasm has never looked better. Bad Robot's 4K restoration has made this low-budget, homegrown horror movie look like it was shot yesterday. A handful of pennies rubbed together with a little bit of spit and string now looks like a million bucks. For longtime fans, the remastered version will be a dream come true. For newcomers, this is the only way to watch movie. Even more impressive than the fine-tuned look of the film is the soundtrack, which sounds nothing short of incredible when it's blasting in your ears." [Full Review]

raw review

Raw

"Because the dynamic between these characters feels so lovely and because Ducournau builds such a recognizable and stressful college environment that the horror elements work so well. Eventually, the blood does start flowing (although not in the ways you would expect) and the violence is appropriately grotesque, but it serves the larger themes of the movie. Raw may be shocking, but it isn't interested in shock value. Every torn piece of flesh, every grisly bite wound, is a literal representation of the emotional and mental scars we collect as we grow up. In Ducournau's skillful hands, violence becomes a metaphor for awakenings of all kinds, sexual and emotional and mental." 9/10 [Full Review]

The Red Turtle

The Red Turtle

You're unlikely to find a film this year that looks more striking than The Red Turtle, a collaboration between director Michael Dudok de Wit and Studio Ghibli. The animation is sparse upon first glance but beautiful in motion, ensuring that every frame of this simple and dialogue-free story (man stranded on deserted island encounters a magical turtle with surprising results) is a wonder to behold. But despite the 80-minute running time, the film is brutally slow. Despite the beautiful animation, the film's fable-esque story simply isn't that interesting. The Red Turtle is open to interpretation, but what's there to interpret is opaque at best and unintentionally troubling at worst. 5/10

Sadako vs Kayako review

Sadako vs Kayako

"The humor is actually the most successful aspect of Sadako vs Kayako, which has too much on its plate to capture the slow, creeping dread that defines the best entires of these characters' solo outings. There are plenty of jump scares and few genuinely creepy moments (both Sadako and Kayako are allowed to rack up an impressive body count), but director Kôji Shiraishi keeps things moving at a brisk pace. After all, he has to service two storylines and only has 98 minutes to do so. The goofy, self-aware comedy works well at a sprint as the horror suffers." 6.5/10 [Full Review]

safe-neighborhood-movie

Safe Neighborhood

The most impressive thing about Safe Neighborhood is how it buries the lede. What first appears to be a standard Christmas horror movie following all of the usual home invasion beats eventually reveals itself to be something far more different...before it immediately reverts to another batch of tired cliches. The results are undeniably upsetting and Safe Neighborhood can get awfully hard to watch, but the film's cleverer-than-thou tone keeps on screaming "Are you having fun yet?" as it ratchets up the nastiness. The result is slick and interesting but never much fun, even as the ironic soundtrack and self-aware jokes scream that you should be having a ball. 4/10

salt-and-fire

Salt and Fire

Werner Herzog's latest narrative film feels like a practical joke. For its first twenty minutes, Salt and Fire's odd tone and off-kilter performances are amusing enough, especially when you realize that every single character is speaking like they're narrating their own Herzog documentary. Then the interminable second act arrives and you realize that this film is really an excuse to film salt flats for an hour. By the time the admirably bonkers and genuinely hilarious final 15 minutes arrives, you've fully stepped through the looking glass. This isn't so much a new Werner Herzog movie as much as it is Werner Herzog making a parody of his own work, hitting all of usual beats with a hammer and only revealing his slow wink at the very end. Talking about Salt and Fire, and quoting it to the others who have endured it with you, is more fun than actually watching it. 5.5/10

shin godzilla review

Shin Godzilla

"Ultimately, Shin Godzilla is less about being anti-American and more about being pro-Japan. As the rest of the world intervenes and attempts to solve their giant monster problem for them, the Japanese characters rise to the occasion and work to save their nation on their own. This isn't a movie about a giant monster wrecking cities, but a movie about a country proving itself in the eyes of a world that doesn't think they can take care of themselves. Just in case this isn't obvious, the movie frequently pauses to state this out loud, ensuring that every single person in the audience knows that this is the intended message. At its worst, Shin Godzillais hopelessly earnest." 7.5/10 [Full Review]

split review

Split

"Shyamalan's defining traits, both positive and not, are on display: his occasionally wooden dialogue, scenes where characters have quiet, measured conversations that avoid talking about what they should be talking about, moments of genuine dread, a surprising amount of (effective!) comedy, and yes, an ending that will get a lot of people talking. It's not quite a twist, and it will be lost on many, many moviegoers, but it's an exciting, ambitious beat that elicited an audibly excited response from the Fantastic Fest crowd." 7.0/10 [Full Review]

the void review

The Void

"Those monsters and the practical effects and the pervasive sense of hopelessness are the real stars of The Void and as it pulls no punches as it marches toward its hellish, non-stop third act. However, it does take a little while to rev its engines and the characters, while ably performed by good actors doing good work, ultimately feel more like a list of victims than anyone you truly care about. But that slow pace and those thin characters ultimately feel like a fine trade-off for what the rest of the film delivers. The Void may not be an instant classic like the movies it was obviously inspired by, but it scratches the same itch as Hellraiser and The Beyond without having to lean on them for support. That's impressive. That's important. The '80s horror throwback has finally grown up and matured." 7.5/10 [Full Review]

Westworld Seasons

Westworld

If the job of a television pilot it to get you excited and on board for episode two...then mission accomplished, Westworld. Michael Crichton's fascinating 1973 movie was a precursor to Jurassic Park and now, HBO's reimagining feels like a brilliant and brutal deeply weird extension of those same ideas. These first 60 minutes leave so many questions unanswered, but this is a world that I'm excited to linger around. I'm ready to settle in and learn 'em. [Jack Giroux's Review]