Hey everyone! The 15th annual Fantastic Fest kicks off this week, and this year, it’ll be myself, Heather Wixson, as well as Emily von Seele and Adrian Torres, who will be bringing you all kinds of coverage out of Austin for the duration of the festival. To celebrate Fantastic Fest’s momentous birthday this year, we have picked a few of our favorite films that have debuted over the years, and will be celebrating them as we lead up to the kickoff of Fantastic Fest on Thursday.
Anna and the Apocalypse (Heather Wixson): When you talk about crowd-pleasing movies that are best enjoyed in a packed theater filled with genre enthusiasts, Anna and the Apocalypse is without a doubt the type of film that makes Fantastic Fest as much fun as it is. I know I’ve discussed my love of Anna ad nauseam over the last few years (you can read my review HERE or listen to my discussion with John McPhail HERE), but I can’t ever really resist the chance to shine a light on a movie that truly deserves all the love (and then some). A Christmas/zombie/musical mash-up with a scrappy can-do attitude that flawlessly mixes an earnest enthusiasm with real, emotionally driven stakes for its entire ensemble, Anna also features an infectiously fun soundtrack, impressive performances from top to bottom, and characters that you actually care about, and want to root for to boot.
With so much ugliness in the world today, I’m glad that movies like Anna and the Apocalypse exist, just so we’re reminded that even when it feels like everything is falling down around you, we can still escape through the magic of cinema, and even after attending Fantastic Fest for the last several years, Anna still remains one of my very favorite screening experiences I’ve ever had at any festival. If you’ve somehow missed out on seeing Anna and the Apocalypse, the film will finally be hitting Blu-ray and DVD this October here in the States. And I know that I am so freaking excited that this year I can finally add AatA into my repertoire of holiday classics to enjoy again and again (and again).
Grand Piano (Emily von Seele): Making its premiere at Fantastic Fest 2013, Grand Piano is a film that I have fallen deeply in love with and watch a couple of times every year. Because there are few things better in life than a piano-playing Elijah Wood and John Cusack sporting a sniper rifle somewhere in the theatre.
Written by Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and directed by Eugenio Mira (composer, Timecrimes), the film stars Wood as the great Tom Selznick, a concert pianist who has been in semi-retirement after an infamous performance during which he choked up from stage fright. He is back to give a performance in memory of his mentor, and as the clock runs down to showtime, he is regretting the decision more and more. He becomes increasingly nervous with every passing second and the shadow of his failure hangs heavy around him.
Matters are worsened when he takes the stage. Shortly after the concert begins, he starts receiving messages in his sheet music from a mysterious man somewhere in the theater (Cusack), stating he has a rifle trained on Tom, and that if he plays just one note wrong, he will be shot onstage and killed.
Grand Piano is a great, real-time, Hitchcockian thriller. There's not a lot of fat on it and it uses every second of screen time to build tension and create an atmosphere that is one of urgency and mystery. The sniper’s motivations are kept secret for much of the film, adding to an atmosphere of panicked confusion. Tom is tasked with playing the most perfect concert of his life while trying to figure out exactly what the mysterious man wants and where he is.
It's fitting that this film made its debut at Fantastic Fest, considering what a big part of the community Elijah Wood has become over the years. Not only is he a longtime attendee of the fest itself, but his production company, SpectreVision, has been producing some of the most interesting and well-received indie horror films out there—films like Mandy, Cooties, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, among others. Though Grand Piano remains one of my favorites of his recent works, he has a couple of new ones set to play Fantastic Fest over the next week, so we may soon discover a new gem or two.
Timecrimes (Adrian Torres): If there's one thing that makes Fantastic Fest a rather special time, outside of its wonderful selection of films and events, it's the colorful characters who regularly return to Austin year after year. Chief among them is the fest's patron saint of frivolity and good cheer, Nacho Vigalondo. Not only has he brought each of his films to the hallowed halls of South Lamar, but he's been quite the presence in front of the screen, too, whether it be providing an entertaining Q&A or dressing up as Fay Wray (with King Kong's mitt around his waist). The fest's love affair with the director started back in 2007 with Timecrimes.
The twisty horror/time travel mash-up is one of the tightest little capers you are likely to come across. As far small gems go, this is the top. Utilizing a meager budget, limited locations, and a game cast, there's nary a wasted moment, which at 92 minutes is saying something. With each successive year that passes, Timecrimes' popularity seems to grow and grow. The only downside is that if you try to explain what makes the feature so brilliant, you quickly wade into spoiler territory. All that can be said is that Hector (Karra Elejalde) starts out a very ordinary man who falls into a situation that will forever change him. The script and story are so tight, you'll find yourself gnashing at the bit to rewatch directly after finishing it. The programmers must have felt the same way, because in 2011, to celebrate a short film collection Vigalondo was premiering, a special repertory screening of Timecrimes was held. If you haven't seen it yet, run out and seek it out immediately.