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. If you missed out on our previous celebrations, you can catch up with day one HERE and day two HERE.
Bad Black (Adrian Torres): This year's Fantastic Fest is happening at a magical time, even if there's a large chance that the majority of people attending do not realize it. You see, back in 2016, a wonderful thing happened, when a film from Uganda, from a small group of talented and resourceful upstarts who churn out multiple films a year for under $200 each, played to an unsuspecting crowd. That film was Bad Black, and to say it tore the roof off is putting it mildly, and to witness this in a packed theater is to be forever changed.
Few films get packed with as much verve, energy, commentary, and love than Bad Black. And while that may sound a tad hyperbolic, it's the most honest explanation. Watching the actors and crew from "Wakaliwood," a play on the name of the Kampala slum of Wakaliga, you can feel them pouring every fiber of their being into the production. With wild, over-the-top CGI, action, and bits of drama interspersed, it's hard not to have a great time viewing Bad Black, not to mention the MST3K-style color commentary by VJ Emmie. There's a vibrancy that can’t be denied when watching the film, one that doesn't require you to so much turn off your brain, as it does for you to be swept up in the ride that's happening. Since this is a celebration of Fantastic Fest, though, it should also be noted that the audience years prior got to "star" in a scene for a future Wakaliwood production.
So, why was this hinted at the start as being magical? Well, just a few days ago, the movie's creator, Nabwana I.G.G. and VJ Emmie went on a journey. Securing visas, which they were unable to do in 2016, they travelled to TIFF, where I.G.G.'s latest film, Crazy World, served as the Midnight Madness closing film. It was his first time ever being inside a movie theater, proving that if you keep going with your passions, people will eventually take notice, maybe even all over the world. That might be a bit naive, but hell, it's still a warm and fuzzy idea to embrace.
The Night Comes For Us (Heather Wixson): When you’re working a film festival, very rarely do you get the chance to watch a movie twice (seeing most of a fest’s lineup once can be a miraculous feat in itself), but that’s precisely what happened with me last year when I came across The Night Comes For Us. I initially watched the movie via a screener so that I could prep for interviews, and because my proverbial block had been knocked off by Timo Tjahjanto and company, there was no way in hell I was going to miss seeing this on the big screen with a packed audience. And man, that experience did not disappoint.
Currently available on Netflix, The Night Comes For Us is an action-packed masterpiece that takes breakneck, bone-crunching choreography to the next level, delivering some of the most jaw-dropping sequences we’ve seen in modern cinema that rivals anything in the John Wick series, firmly cementing Tjahjanto as the future of action cinema with his efforts here. What’s even better is that while Night’s running time is nearly consumed by an endless assault of action, Tjahjanto and Iko Uwais (who not only stars in the film, but also coordinated all of the brilliant action sequences to boot) deliver a constant switch-up of fight choreography, finding new ways to thrill viewers over its two-hour runtime.
And in that screening, it felt like every punch, stab, and kick being thrown our way landed squarely in the middle of the auditorium, and I just wish more folks would have had the opportunity to experience The Night Comes For Us on the big screen as well (I’m glad Netflix gave it a home, but it getting at least a brief theatrical stint would have ruled).
Level 16 (Emily von Seele): 2018 saw a push on the Fantastic Fest slate to showcase more female-driven stories, and Level 16, Danishka Esterhazy’s dystopian tale of female friendship, was one such feature, and was also one of my favorite films of the fest. Level 16 is set in a boarding school where young girls are brought up to be perfect daughters for the wealthy families who will one day adopt them. Every day is regimented—from sleeping to eating to lessons detailing how to be a demure, polite girl. Punishment is strictly enforced when any of the students steps a toe out of line. It's hard to forge bonds in a place as strict as this, but somehow, through the structure and discipline, Vivien (Katie Douglas) and Sophia (Celia Martin) do. Initially friends as children, the girls reconnect as teenagers and provide each other with the kind of support they have never before known.
Naturally, the girls begin to understand that things at the boarding school are not quite what they seem and that the staff there do not necessarily have the students' best interests in mind. The film does an excellent job of balancing the science fiction and dystopian story arc with the ever-growing friendship between the two lead characters. In addition to a well-paced and intriguing story, Esterhazy manages to also weave in strong feminist statements and illustrate just how society and the establishment work to manipulate women. In Level 16, propriety is used to keep the students in line. Good girls don't get angry. Good girls don't raise their voices. Good girls don't disobey. Only good girls will graduate and find a home, and their ignorance is key to their complacency. As Vivien and Sophia learn, the key to their freedom relies on their willingness to trust one another and to stand against everything that they have been taught.
In a post-screening Q&A, Esterhazy said that it took her a decade to get this movie made, because financiers didn't believe that a tale of dystopian science fiction, led by a pair of teenage girls, was a marketable property. Though it is beyond frustrating that the powers that be still hold that viewpoint, it was nonetheless exciting to see this film come to fruition and to be included at the fest. If you haven't yet seen it, Level 16 is well worth your time.