Tripping the Fest Fantastic

A look at the best films of the 2014 festival

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While Fantastic Fest may be seen as a genre event, any festival would be hard-pressed to match this year’s FF films. It may be the best crop in their ten-year history. As usual, the eight-day happening is filled with events that range from the traditional—“Fantastic Debates” that involve both verbal and physical combat—to the “Karaoke Apocalypse” (self explanatory). Not to be a party pooper (although I did make it to “SHOTGUNS!” where I had a blast blasting defenseless clay pigeons out of the sky), but my focus is on the films. Here were my favorites:

ABCs of Death 2

While the first ABCs of Death cleverly lays out an alphabet of carnage, many of the deadly vignettes seem to serve only as filler for the handful of truly killer shorts. In the sequel, however, there is more polish and creativity with its thrills and kills. And the slick, animated transitions are the perfect pauses to set up the next alphabetical entry. My favorites: A for Amateur, D for Deloused, J for Jesus, K for Knell, O for Ochlocracy, S for Split, V for Vacation and Z for Zygote.

The Babadook

While the rest of the world thinks he’s crazy, young Sam insists that his homemade weapons and booby traps are there to protect his mother—that is, until the Babadook gives him reasons to fear her instead. As scares go, this Australian haunt has the requisite amount provided by a true-to-form, under-the-bed, inside-the-closet, down-in-the-basement bogeyman. But the subplot of a mother struggling to make ends meet while raising her behaviorally challenged son in the aftermath of his father’s death is what gives the film its foundation.

Felt

As a testament to actress Amy Everson’s ability, for a moment I thought I had misread the summary on Felt and was watching a documentary. Her performance as a traumatized young artist (also named Amy) is that real. Director Jason Banker adeptly pulls us into Amy’s frequent escapes from the real world by creepily dressing like a life-size version of a rape victim’s therapy puppets. Over time, she allows herself to love again when she enters into a relationship with Kenny (Kentucker Audley), a move that leads to more trauma and pushes toward a powerful, dark ending.

Force Majeure

While the there is nothing particularly terrifying going on, Force Majeure fits with Fantastic Fest’s penchant for showing films that force us to ponder those “what would you do?” questions in crisis situations. In this case, when a father abandons his family during a close call with an avalanche on the second day of their ski vacation, he is forced to suffer the consequences of his action; and his wife begins to question their relationship. At first, he tries to convince her that it didn’t happen that way, until she remembers that his phone was recording the entire occurrence. His phony breakdown over what he has done only makes things worse. Kristofer Hivju, who plays the red-bearded Tormund in TV’s Game of Thrones, is wonderful as the friend that tries to help justify dad’s behavior only to be upbraided by his girlfriend. Swedish director Ruben Östlund has a gift for bringing out uncomfortable emotions that leave you squirming in your seat.

Goodnight Mommy

When a director of suspense lays out several outcomes en route to a shocking finale, the proof of how well he does his job is in the plausibility of each of those outcomes. In this, Severin Fiala beautifully succeeds. When mommy comes home after major cosmetic surgery, she makes it clear to her nine-year-old twin sons that she needs plenty of rest and isolation. This leaves the boys to their own devices, except when dearest mommy is disturbed by their behavior, which seems to be quite often. Feeling that she has drastically changed from the loving, attentive mother they remember, the two boys begin to wonder if someone else is under all those bandages. A tight, tense script and sharp performances in this Austrian feature leave us wondering as well, up to a point.

Haemoo

If there’s any justice, Haemoo will receive an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. It’s that good. But it’s also dark, may be too dark for the academy. When a struggling and desperate fishing boat captain agrees to smuggle some Chinese-Koreans on his trawler, a horrible disaster occurs. In the midst of the danger, however, director Shim Sung-Bo brings romance into tragedy. There are some seriously grand performances from the cast, and the cinematography is reminiscent of The Perfect Storm. With the help of producer/writer/director Joon-ho Bong (The Host) Sung-Bo has created a suspenseful gem that deserves to be seen.

Housebound

Out of New Zealand comes a fresh take on the old “haunted house” tale. After Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) is arrested for a hilariously botched ATM machine robbery, the court sentences her to the home she grew up in, with the mother (Rima Te Wiata) she can’t stand. In the face of mom’s perpetual cheeriness, O’Reilly’s performance as the ne’er do well daughter is irritatingly wonderful. When she becomes convinced of the house’s hauntings, she takes herself and others on a trail filled with misdirection and surprises. In his first feature, writer/director Gerard Johnstone has gathered a cast and story to rival the successful comedies of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright.

In Order of Disappearance

Between his appearances as the nutty Professor Selvig in several Thor films and his roles in the provocative films of Lars von Trier (Melancholia, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I and Vol II) Stellan Skarsgård has occasionally teamed up with director Hans Petter Moland. Their latest easily matches 2010’s wonderful A Somewhat Gentle Man. As the local snowplow operator, Nils (Skarsgård) is named citizen of the year in his Norwegian mountain community. It appears that life for him and his wife is good until they learn of their adult son’s suicide. Discovering that the son was actually murdered by a drug cartel, Nils works his way up the ladder of authority with the intent to kill everyone involved. Skarsgård is steely eyed wonderful as a determined but inexperienced assassin; and Moland beautifully positions the film’s violence against the stark white stillness of the mountains. While the ensemble performances of the cartel members are especially memorable, Pål Sverre Hagen comes close to stealing the entire film as the villainous Greven.

John Wick

Veteran stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have put their experiences into directing their first feature film, and it is a blast. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a retired hit man dealing with the loss of his wife who dies of an illness. But some boneheaded gangsters give him a beating and steal his car, among other dastardly deeds, John comes out of retirement for a little revenge. While the basic premise is nothing new, it’s what Stahelski and Leitch do with the story that makes it so much fun. John shoots people. A lot. And most every killshot in the movie is a gem. While there’s a film noir look and feel, the action is much more overt. There are a good number of laughs along the way—maybe not as many as in a Shane Black flick, but they do keep things light. Michael Nyqvist is terrific as the head honcho of the gangsters.

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