Fantastic Fest 2023: Best of the Fest!

Being based in Austin, a large contingent of the Cinapse crew were able to attend 2023’s edition of Fantastic Fest. We’ve gathered everyone together here to go through their top 5 favorite films they saw with a short summary of why they liked them.

Ed Travis

One-Percenter – Pair up action star Tan Sakaguchi in top form (and in person at the fest doing live Jeet Kun Do) with action director Kensuke Sonomura in a JCVD-style action film with as many laughs as fistfights and paying so much homage to martial arts cinema, and I just have to count this as one of my top films of the festival. Link to full review.

Kill – India’s answer to The Raid, action fans are going to be talking about Kill all year long and I think it’ll cement a place for itself in action cinema history once the whole world is able to see it. Stripped down and gnarly, Kill has no time for song and dance numbers. Link to full review.

Project Silence – Classic disaster movie meets South Korean sensibilities, and throw in a pack of government-trained killer dogs to boot. That elevator pitch for Project Silence doesn’t do it nearly enough justice, however, as South Korea shows the world how disaster epics are supposed to be done.

Caligula: The Ultimate Cut – I’ll probably never watch this movie ever again, but it was a singular sight to behold. Thematically I got a lot out of a lush and lavish production that depicts the depravity and downfall of ultimate wealth and power. And I always love a good redemption arc of a real movie being unearthed from the chaos of a previously doomed production. Incredible stuff.

Last Stop In Yuma County – An old-fashioned potboiler from a first-time writer-director, Last Stop In Yuma County is a refreshing reminder of what cracking writing and crisp direction can bring. There’s nothing here that couldn’t have been done 50 years ago, but it’s done so well that that fact is more refreshing than it is frustrating.

David Delgado

1. River: The team behind Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes simply don’t miss. The characters are incredibly wonderful and the hijinks they get up to are delightful yet again.

2. Dream Scenario: Dream Scenario is an A24 film from writer-director Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself) and producer Ari Aster. “A24 and Aster” sells a lot of what the film is about, blending comedy and drama with (mild) horror elements. There’s an anxious undercurrent permeating the whole affair. Kaufman will probably be the biggest comparison, but his Adaptation is different enough both in tone (Dream Scenario is sweeter) and Cage’s performance. Link to full review.

3. Kill: “The Raid but India” undersells what this movie does. It’s a contained, hard-hitting, choreography-focused action movie (this time in a train), but instead of nameless faceless goons each guy that gets wrecked has a character arc and personality, all driven by an insane score. A new action classic.

4. Strange Darling: If you’re into Fantastic Fest-style movies, don’t learn anything about this before seeing (and stick with it until at least halfway in).

5.The Last Stop in Yuma County: Fun, tight, and surprising. It’s a pulpy yarn filled with wonderful character actors and makes the most of the single-location setting.

Julian Singleton

1. UFO SwedenI went into this UFO-hunting adventure film interested in what a European take on an Amblin flick might play like. I was quickly won over by how Crazy Pictures’ fiery tale of found families celebrated the spirit of exploration across generations. Putting many stateside blockbusters to shame with its dazzling visuals and sheer heart, this homegrown Swedish sci-fi epic has ingenuity and imagination in spades. Link to full review.

2. The Last Stop in Yuma CountyAs hilarious as it is nail-bitingly tense, Yuma County is an absolute banger of a debut from Francis Galluppi. Meticulously detailed in the most rewarding ways and featuring a murderer’s row of some of my favorite character actors, Yuma County feels like a seedy thrift-store paperback you discover on a whim but finish in a matter of hours, leaving you both exhilarated and hungry for more.

3. RiverMy most anticipated of this year’s festival, Kikaku Theater’s follow-up to Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes was a welcome balm amidst the more chaotic entries of Fantastic Fest. Working within similarly daunting limitations of time and space, Junta Yamaguchi’s film is a tender portrait of how universal our fears of the future can be–but how we can face those anxieties with a silly grin on our face with the right friends by our side. Equally impressive is how Yamaguchi and company not only push their formal skills in their looping series of two-minute takes, but how they write in continuity errors and other unpredictabilities to gut-busting comedic effect.

4. Jackdaw: Oliver Jackson-Cohen becomes a long-lost Walter Hill hero in a slick, effortlessly cool debut from Jamie Childs. Set in a starkly lit, grungy nightmare of a Northern England night, Jack fights to save his younger brother from both jacked-up goons and the ghosts of his past. It’s a lean, laser-focused thriller that trades in BMWs for BMXs, with its own cocky attitude that still manages to sneak in an emotional sucker-punch at the peak of its swagger.

5. Cobweb: A grimly hilarious depiction of film set chaos, Korean auteur Kim Jee-Woon revels in everything that could possibly go wrong on a series of unsanctioned reshoots for a director’s follow-up to his dubious feature debut. Kim’s latest pays homage to the best and worst of the Korean film scene in the 70s, from taboo-pushing classics like The Housemaid to the ironclad grip the country’s film censors exuded on directors seeking to change how films could be made. What makes Cobweb so memorable, however, is how Kim and lead Song Kang-Ho dramatize the impossibility of realizing the perfect vision we all have in our heads–and the bonkers lengths we’ll go to to try to make it a reality.

Jon Partridge

5. Jackdaw: The breakneck rush of a motocross movie colliding with a calamitous crime thriller. Moody, propulsive, and style abounds, without sacrificing any of the grit you’d expect from its northern (UK) setting.

4. The Origin: The Origin certainly shares some DNA with films like The DescentThe Ritual, and Pitch Black, it carves out its own unique space through its immersion in antiquity, specifically Scotland, 45,000 years ago. A propulsive, paranoia-infused, paleolithic survival film, that reminds us to fear the darkness, within and without. Link to full review.

3. Strange Darling: Lush visuals, a smartly used structure, and an enthralling plot make for a fine serial killer thriller. The leads excel in their dalliances, in both light and dark moments, fueling an incredible sexual energy, and the (admirably) controlled chaos that unfolds. Also, bonus points for the most insane breakfast creation I’ve ever seen depicted on film.

2. Last Stop in Yuma County: There’s a sense of polish about every aspect of The Last Stop in Yuma County, and real consideration about every creative choice. The film certainly feels like an homage in many ways. A tribute to neo-noir with a dash of Western thrown in for good measure, bringing to mind the works of both Peckinpah and the Coen Brothers. But Galluppi’s own craft and vision is clear. Leveraging an enthralling Mexican standoff as a means to drive home how greed is anything but good, as well as plant a marker attesting to his own talents. A superb debut feature and straight up, one of the most entertaining films of this year’s fest. Link to full review.

1. River: River is more than just a measure of craft, it is affirming fare that reminds us how we may need to make peace with our present, but we can still take charge of our future. It enthralls and beguiles in equal measure, and it might be low-budget but it’s undeniably high-concept. A small movie with big ideas, and an exceptionally huge amount of heart. River is a film that you’d happily let run on forever. Link to full review.

Dan Tabor

5. Project Silence: Nothing was more fun than watching this madness unfurl on screen. A disaster film that features a pack of killer pit bulls who have a very good reason for killing 100+ folks who are also fighting for their lives on a bridge that is about to collapse. This South Korean stunner is the definition of a popcorn flick with its Train to Busan-esque tale of a father and his daughter who are just trying to make it through this experience alive.

4. Animalia: Animalia is a film that completely disarmed me.  It begins with the story of a young pregnant Moroccan woman from a more modest background who is struggling to get along with her mega-wealthy in-laws, when she is stranded at home when a supernatural event rocks the planet. There is not only the exploration of the haves and the have-nots, but also that existential tangent of a possible spiritual/interplanetary event occuring. The plot is further complicated when the young woman attempts to travel to find her husband in a country where it’s against the beliefs of most for a woman to be independent let alone traveling alone. This film was simply sublime with its look at humanity, faith, and existence and how its star Oumaima Barid took us through this story.

3. Conann: Bertrand Mandico’s retelling of Conan the Barbarian with a female protagonist is so much more brooding and ambitious than After Blue, toying with time, narrative, and character here in ways that multiply the interpretations of this tale the more you gaze into Conann’s infinite abyss. The visceral and captivating story is one of love, regret, art, and the price paid for all three. It’s not a particularly easy pill to swallow, or pleasant to look at, but that’s kind of the point here, nothing is pleasant, and nothing is as easy as it seems. Link to full review.

2. Killing Romance: While I was expecting to like Killing Romance, I wasn’t expecting to love Lee Won-suk’s candy-colored K-drama musical as much as I did. Killing Romance is charming, hilarious, and sometimes even surprisingly heartfelt as it tells the story of a once famous idol who is now stuck in a loveless and abusive marriage with a land developer. The cast here is amazing with Lee Sun-kyun, Lee Hanee, and Gong Myoung delivering surprisingly nuanced takes in this comedy that manages to go to some unexpectedly absurd and touching places. Link to full review.

1. Caligula: The Ultimate Cut: Seeing this “lost” version of the controversial film on the big screen with Malcolm McDowell in attendance for a Q&A was easily a bucket list screening for me. Not only did I believe I would never see this new version, culled from completely alternate takes, restoring McDowell’s original performance. But to then see how it touched the actor afterward who was completely vindicated after 40 years in front of a sold-out audience was truly a sight to behold. Link to full review.

Thanks for reading!
– The Cinapse team

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