Ranking Fantastic Fest 2016, Part 3
Fantastic Fest 2016 is over, and I have my life back. . . at least for a couple of weeks. Before I can start thinking about the next festival I’ll be covering for Flickchart, and before I can start to make up that sleep debt I mentioned in Parts 1 and 2 of my Fantastic Fest coverage, I’ve got unfinished business to address. Here, at last, is the final set of films I saw at this year’s Fantastic Fest. Scroll to the bottom to find out where they fit into my overall list for the event.
4. Shin Godzilla
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme wrote and directed a Godzilla movie? Remove any semblance of intelligent discourse and it would probably look a lot like Shin Godzilla (listed on Flickchart and elsewhere as Godzilla Resurgence). This movie sees the famous lizard crawl into town as an adolescent, morph into a more recognizable form, and laser through buildings with a finely-tuned version of his classic breath blast, but most of the story plays out in the halls of government where suit-wearing aides to the Prime Minister walk and talk their way down nondescript corridors of power. Text on the screen indicates who each new person is — minister of this, assistant minister of that, ad infinitum — as though it were a war movie based on a Cornelius Ryan book, but it’s difficult to tell whether the emphasis on bureaucracy is supposed to be funny (sometimes it is) or whether it’s meant to create a sense of realism (it doesn’t; a Japanese woman playing an American presidential hopeful is laughably, endearingly miscast.) As with the original Godzilla film 29 movies and six decades ago, the message of this movie is highly political, but the ideas put forth by Shin Godzilla are more controversial and more uncomfortable than anything the series has tackled before. The original film warned against the dangers of nuclear weapons, but Shin Godzilla cares less about what weapons are used and more about who’s using them; it tells us in categorical terms that it’s time for Japan to revise its postwar constitution, come out from the American security umbrella, and take responsibility for its own military defense. That speaks to a controversial and longstanding debate in Japan, but in my view the movie is on the wrong side of the issue and has chosen the wrong franchise in which to articulate its hawkish position. Shin Godzilla is too talky to satisfy kaiju fans and too campy to satisfy political thriller fans, but as Godzilla movies go it’s got a clear, if philosophically and structurally misguided, sense of purpose.
I keep thinking I’ve seen it all, and then things like Zoology keep happening. To the best of my memory, until I watched Zoology I had never seen a movie in which a middle-aged Russian woman grows a tail and falls in love with her X-ray technician. The woman, Natasha, also works at a zoo and cares for her superstitious mother, who is on the lookout for tailed woman rumored to be terrorizing the neighborhood. There’s undoubtedly some metaphorical meaning to this, uh, tale, but whether Natasha’s new appendage stands for differentness in general, physical differences in particular, or something more specific, like age, is an open question. In any case, the tail is almost exclusively a cause of concern and disappointment to poor Natasha, making this one of the saddest movies at Fantastic Fest in addition to one of the festival slate’s most original premises.
2. The Young Offenders
Not unlike Down Under, a comedy based on a real-life instance of mass racial violence, The Young Offenders borrows a high-profile crime from the headlines and imagines a coming-of-age comedy playing out in its wake. Our heroes are a couple of young goofballs in Cork, Ireland (the accents are so strong that subtitles might be helpful) who decide to steal bicycles and search for some of the 70 bales of cocaine that washed up on a beach in 2008. Along the way they deepen their bond, learn to live a more rural lifestyle, and try to evade capture by their very own Javert, a cop obsessed with punishing them for the bike thefts. The colorful supporting cast includes a foul-mouthed fishmonger mom, a drug dealer armed with a nail gun, and an addled chicken rancher. The Young Offenders is too slight to compare with the ambitious Down Under beyond the general premise, but it’s a pretty fun and sweet adolescent romp, a “remember that crazy summer…” story with an Irish working-class palette.
1. Salt and Fire
“If you move one step further, everything falls into place, everything makes sense.” So says the antagonist of Werner Herzog‘s latest bizarre trip into the uncharted interior of South America. I don’t know whether the sentiment is true of Salt and Fire; the movie did start to make sense to me after about an hour of Herzog’s stilted environmental philosophy, but by then I was two gin and tonics deep (that’s the explorer’s drink, you know) so I might have been seeing more than is really there. The concepts and symbols Herzog throws at us are heavy-handed but appealing: a world-ending volcano rising above an endless, alien salt flat; royal Incan children carrying a Godzilla figurine; an iPad in a desert wasteland. The juxtapositions and messages seem almost too obvious for someone of Hergoz’s long experience, and he’s also phoned in the film’s framing narrative, a perfunctory if occasionally amusing pseudo-thriller. Yet if there is less to Herzog’s campy, arthouse environmentalism than might be wished even by a pleasantly-inebriated Herzog admirer, Salt and Fire does contain a scene that so efficiently encapsulates the auteur’s five-decade career as to make the film a must-see. It comes about a third of the way in when the antagonist describes, and Herzog shows, an optical illusion painted on a hallway wall in a monastery. From a distance, the fresco depicts a saint sitting under a tree. As one moves down the hallway, however, the portrait stretches and becomes an eerie, daunting, oppressive landscape. Herzog has built his reputation on movies that combine adventures in trackless wildernesses with intimate, often spiritual psychological portraits, and Salt and Fire is a straightforward if not at all superlative application of that impulse.
The Best Movie I Missed
I neglected to see The Red Turtle, a nearly-silent anime that a couple of friends have already told me I have to see. Luckily it’s slated for a winter release here in the States, so I’ll be sure to catch it when it officially opens.
Final Ranking of Fantastic Fest 2016
I saw a total of 14 movies, less than half of the titles that played at Fantastic Fest 2016, but with a new day job to deal with and Austin Film Fest 2016 fast approaching, I decided to stop while I was still ahead. I enjoyed most of these, won’t stop talking about a few, and a couple of them have set new bars for bizarre. My final ranked list is as follows:
2. Down Under
9. Jungle Trap
12. Shin Godzilla
So that was Fantastic, at least according to me! Now rank these on your own Flickchart and let us know your preferred order. And come back in a couple of weeks for our preview of Austin Film Festival 2016!