The Good, The Bad, And The Weird Of Fantastic Fest 2016

You never know what you're going to get at Fantastic Fest, the Austin-based genre film festival that takes great delight in immersing attendees in the strangest, wildest, and most unique movies from around the globe. Over the course of eight days, I saw 27 movies. I saw some of the best films I've seen all year. I saw oddities I will never forget. I saw some things I wish I could forget. As is always the case, I missed a few big titles, like Paul Verhoeven's Elle, the divisive The Greasy Strangler, and the crowd-pleasing Bad Black.

But now, it's time to put a bow on this year's fest. Sure, the festival itself has juries on hand to recognize films in the line-up, but there's only one awards ceremony that really matters here – the one that I create out of thin air to throw imaginary accolades at my favorite movies from the line-up.

So, without further ado, let's dive in the best, weirdest, funniest, oddest, scariest, etc. movies to emerge from Fantastic Fest 2016.

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Best Male Performance: Brian Cox in The Autopsy of Jane Doe

In The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the great Brian Cox does what Gregory Peck did for The Omen and what Vincent Prince and Peter Cushing did for countless horror movies over the course of their careers – he helps class up the joint. As a grieving widower and third generation mortician tasked with investigating a mysterious dead body, Cox is dryly funny and wryly intelligent, radiating sophistication and casual professionalism. When the situation goes to hell (and it really goes to hell), Cox finds himself tasked with shouldering some truly out-there material, but he ensures that we believe every single word of it. It's rare to find a horror protagonist as sharp and as on point as this character and Cox truly brings him to life.

american honey review

Best Female Performance: Sasha Lane in American Honey

In newcomer Sasha Lane, Andrea Arnold has discovered a tremendous talent. Raw and unpolished and genuine, Lane feels less like an actress descending into a tricky role and more like a documentary subject who has wandered into a narrative about her own life. American Honey is the kind of movie that's only as successful as its lead, who is the chief subject of every single scene and almost every single shot, and Lane is as compelling and unconventional a screen presence as we've seen in years. This is a performance that's as tragic as it is hopeful, as funny as it is despairing, as abstract as it is relatable.

2016 fall movie preview the handmaiden

Stand-Out Supporting Performance: Ha Jung-woo in The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden is ultimately a tale of female empowerment in the face of a brutal (and surprisingly brittle) patriarchy, but that story wouldn't work if the heroines didn't have a villain worth overcoming. And they have one in Ha Jung-woo's Fujiwara, a criminal who plans to marry a wealthy heiress and have her committed to an asylum so he can make off with her money. Ha's performance is a microcosm of the film itself: dark and weird and unsettling, but also surprisingly hilarious, bringing exasperated levity into a thriller that could have been a morbid affair.

the void review

The "Monster of Week" Prize: The Void

One part John Carpenter's The Thing and one part Lovecraftian monstrosity, the creatures that roam the dark hospital hallways of The Void are the kind of practical effects that remind you why genre fans so often grumble about CGI monsters. These gooey, intentionally undefinable creations bring a genuine physicality to the film and remind you that movie monsters are always at their most effective when they are actually present in the room with the actors, dripping and spitting and pushing the power of latex and low-budget puppetry to the limit.

Headshot

The Bonebreaker Award For Best Action Scene: Headshot

Anyone who has seen The Raid and its sequel knows that Iko Uwais is really good at the whole action hero thing and Headshot only continues the trend. When it's not choking on mediocre melodrama, Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto's new action movie is finding hundreds of ways to obliterate the human body. The film peaks with a brawl in a trashed police station, where Uwais must use every item at his disposal and every wit within his mind to survive. It's an action scene so good that the rest of the movie can't quite recover from it.

raw review

Most Likely to Make You Lose Your Lunch: Raw

Raw is one of the best coming-of-age movies I've ever seen, a perfectly executed tale of isolation and loneliness and struggling to find yourself when you've finally left the nest behind. And it is also a cannibal movie, filled with enough gnarly flesh-eating to turn the stomach. But what makes Raw's violence is effective is how surgically it is used. This is no bloodbath – the gore is used just sparingly enough for each drop of blood to land on your psyche like a hammer.

down under review

Movie Most Likely to Reduce You to Tears of Laughter: Down Under

If you're not laughing at some point during Down Under, it's because you're feeling really, really bad about the state of the world. Set in the aftermath of an actual race riot that rocked Sydney, Australia in 2005, this film is a portrait of toxic masculinity run amok, a genuinely angry and political examination of the idiocies of racism. But it's also a silly and gleefully offensive stoner comedy, complete with pitch-perfect slapstick, hilarious depictions of poor behavior, and the kind of idiotic exchanges that require a sharp mind to concoct. There is a brilliant running gag about a poorly conceived mixtape. There's a great joke about how stupid it is to build a wall to keep immigrants out. This is the movie 2016 needs right now.

the autopsy of jane doe review

Most Likely to Make You Scream Like a Child: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

With The Autopsy of Jane Doe, director André Øvredal has made one of the scariest movies of 2016. The film has a lot going for it before it gets frightening, with Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch turning in wonderful performances as a father/son team performing an autopsy and a central mystery that is genuinely intriguing and surprising at all times. When the slow burn starts to pay off, Øvredal proves himself adept at crafting a suffocating and creepy atmosphere as well as excellent jump scares. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is as frightening as it is smart and this is the rare horror movie where that's a huge compliment. 

arrival early buzz

Most Likely to Inject Dust Into Your Eyes: Arrival

Arrival begins a smart and chilly slice of hard science fiction, a film that sees the arrival of aliens on earth as a chance to explore scientific and political ideas. On that level, it's fascinating. Then, when you least expect it, that hard outer shell breaks away and reveals the warm, emotional center it's been hiding in plain sight for so long. I wept through the homestretch of Arrival, making Denis Villeneuve's film the rare movie to engage my mind and my heart in equal measure.

the-lure

Most Likely to Make You Say WTF: The Lure

Although I didn't love it quite as much as other Fantastic Fest attendees did, Agnieszka Smoczynska's bloody Polish mermaid musical is undeniably one of a kind and a movie that everyone with a taste for the odd and unusual should check out post-haste. The songs are catchy and their companion musical numbers are brilliantly staged. The creature effects are top-notch and the scenes of mermaid-on-human violence are something else. As a collection of ideas, many of them inspired and some of them just baffling, The Lure is absolutely fascinating and singular and you won't believe what you're seeing.

Arrival teaser

Best Hero: Dr. Louise Banks in Arrival

Dr. Louise Banks is a linguist...and she's tasked with saving the world. The more traditional science fiction heroes, the ones with the guns and the bombs, hang out in the fringes of Arrival, threatening at all times to derail everything Banks has accomplished in her mission to communicate with the extra-terrestrials who have arrived on our planet. The film puts us in the shoes of a brilliant woman given an impossible task and asks her to accomplish it before everyone else can take the easy way out and push a few buttons and start the intergalactic version of World War III. Amy Adams radiates intelligence and determination as a legitimate genius literally going where no human has gone before, but it is the scenes between alien encounters, when we see her fatigue and stress, that elevate her to something more heroic. Like us, she can break and falter and fall. Then she stands right back up.

colossal

Best Villain: Colossal

Note: SPOILERS for Nacho Vigalondo's Colossal follow in this section.

Until you've seen Colossal, you should know as little about the movie as possible. However, it needs to be said that Jason Sudeikis turns in the best performance of his career so far, sticking a pin in the "nice guy" romantic comedy archetype and creating an unpleasant villain so grounded that everyone can claim to know a person like him. It's a genuinely remarkable performance from an actor who obviously has a lot more to show us.

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Best Anti-Hero: Ha Do-kyung in Asura: The City of Madness

We've seen the "corrupt cop with an edge" in countless movies, but the anti-hero played by Jung Woo-sung in Asura: The City of Madness finds that archetype pushed against a brick wall. Repeatedly. Until blood is drawn. Sandwiched between a scheming prosecutor who has him dead-to-rights and a psychopathic mayor who has been paying him to assist in his dirty work, Detective Han Do-kyung finds his list of friends evaporating before his very eyes while every single person in his life turns against him. He is bludgeoned and threatened, tortured and coerced, disrespected and thrown to the wolves. Oh, and his wife is dying in the hospital and medical bills are stacking up. Jung's performance, darkly funny from frame one, only grows more intense and rabid as the film sprints toward its bloody climax.

salt-and-fire

Most WTF Character: Just About Everyone in Salt and Fire

When I starting picking categories for this article, I knew that the winner of this award would come from Werner Herzog's batshit-weird new drama. However, after much thought I have realized that I don't know which character to bestow this honor upon. Is it Michael Shannon's remorseful, philosophical CEO, who concocts a legitimately nonsensical plan to abandon a UN researcher in the middle of some salt flats with two blind children? Is it Shannon's rifle-toting, wheelchair-bound right-hand man, played by world-renowned theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss in a non-performance so blindingly odd that it has to be seen to be believed? Or maybe it's just Gael García Bernal's perverted scientist, who gets diarrhea before abruptly vanishing from the narrative altogether. Fuck it. They all win.

salt-and-fire

Most Quotable Movie: Salt and Fire

Despite running only 98 minutes, Salt and Fire is an interminable watch that is deathly boring when it isn't baffling. It is for Werner Herzog completists only, often feeling like self-parody from one of the international cinema's greatest minds. However, I'd be lying if I said I didn't spend the next day quoting this movie with everyone else who endured it. It became a badge of honor. This is a movie where every single character speaks in Herzog's own voice, saying odd phrases that only work if spoken with a German accent over B-roll of trees and volcanoes. And yet, everyone is talking like this in casual conversation. It's absurd...and I can't stop thinking about it.

a dark song review

Most Pleasant Surprise: A Dark Song

Modern horror movies have done a fine job of rendering the occult boring. When every teenager with a candle and a Ouija board can talk to demons, it becomes a little dull. So leave it to first-time feature director Liam Gavin to inject new life into this subject matter. In A Dark Song, black magic is incredibly difficult, requiring the services of a highly paid professional. And because the process is so difficult and time-consuming, because this film is so front-loaded with slow dread, the actual results of the magic in the film feels so much more powerful and so much more horrifying. This feels like the arrival of a very unique talent to a genre that always needs new blood.

the handmaiden review

Special Jury Prize For Female Empowerment: The Handmaiden

Either by accident or design, the Fantastic Fest 2016 lineup was filled with movies centered around fascinating female characters. Some were straightforward and heroic. A few were complex and flawed. Others were just plain psychotic. However, one movie can't help but loom over the rest of them for this special category. Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden is a complex beast and its two female leads are nothing short fascinating, taking each other down a variety of odd and disquieting routes. However, at the end of the day, this is still a movie about two women who fall in love in 1930s Korea and take a hammer, Oldboy-style, to the oppressive men who dominate their lives. This is a twisted and erotic thriller filled with kinky sex scenes and moments of pure psychological horror, and it's loudly and proudly feminist all the way to the final shot.

the age of shadows trailer

Special Jury Prize For a Movie That Requires Homework: The Age of Shadows

The latest film from director Kim Jee-woon is an exciting spy thriller full of bloody action, complex espionage, and gorgeous visuals. However, it is also based in an actual history, using the Japanese occupation of Korea during the 1930s as a backdrop. Because Kim has made a movie for Korean audiences first, he rightfully doesn't pause or slow down to explain to international audiences the nuances of this particular situation. The result is a very good movie that may very well be excellent if you're able to watch it in context. I fully plan to watch this one again...but only after I've done some extra reading.

Amy Adams in Arrival

Best of the Fest

Winner: Arrival

There is a strong chance that this is the best movie of 2016.

Runner-Up: American Honey

There is an equally strong chance that this is the second best movie of 2016.

The Eyes of My Mother Review

Jacob's Top 10 Films of Fantastic Fest 2016

10. A Dark Song

9. Asura: City of Madness

8. Down Under

7. The Eyes of My Mother

6. The Autopsy of Jane Doe

5. Colossal

4. The Handmaiden

3. Raw

2. American Honey

1. Arrival