In Praise of Fantastic Fest

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by Matt Singer
September 20, 2012 1:08 PM
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I used to go to a film festival a month. It was an impossibly cool job. Travel the world, interview directors and actors, write articles, watch lots of movies. For a film fan, it doesn't get much better than that.

Some film festivals are important; most, even small regional ones, show terrific movies. But only one festival is really, truly fun: Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. I say that not to knock other festivals, but to praise this one; which is less prestigious than the rest, but just as essential in my eyes. I've been in Austin for Fantastic Fest 2012 for less than 24 hours and the festival hasn't even officially started yet, but I've already seen two movies, eaten approximately forty-three pounds of pork ribs, and played a free round of boozy mini golf.

What more do you need to know?

Founded in 2005 by Tim League of the Alamo Drafthouse, Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News, and several filmmakers, Fantastic Fest is like a regular film festival drunk on beer, high on nitrous oxide, and slathered in barbecue sauce. Now in its eighth year, Fantastic Fest runs like a well-oiled Rube Goldberg machine: a non-stop churn of screenings, food gorgings, and late night parties. The entire thing takes place at a nondescript strip mall in South Austin, which includes one of the Alamo's multiplexes and The Highball, their cocktail-lounge-slash-bowling-alley-slash-karaoke-bar. Some festivals sprawl all over their host cities, with venues separated by miles, sparking all kinds of scheduling and logistical nightmares. Everything at Fantastic Fest is centralized. All of life's essentials -- food, drinks, movies, karaoke-- are right at your fingertips.

Every morning, attendees wake up and log on to the festival's website, where they're randomly placed in a virtual queue and then given access to the day's lineup of movies. You pick one film from each of five time slots -- morning, afternoon, evening, night, and late night -- and then spend the day theater hopping. Fantastic Fest's eclectic roster of the best and weirdest from the world of international genre cinema invites some truly strange but strangely rewarding juxtapositions: you might walk out of a Norwegian art heist caper directly into a Danish sex comedy about two buddies on a prostitution and drug-laden canoe trip -- just to name two actual movies I saw back-to-back (and loved) at last year's festival.

There are higher profile films at Fantastic Fest -- this year's lineup includes Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie," the remake of "Red Dawn," the new version of the comic book anti-hero "Dredd," and a work-in-progress screening of "Paranormal Activity 4" -- and sometimes those films sell out, which can be frustrating for a journalist on assignment or a film fan dying to see big new movies. But the great part about Fantastic Fest is the way getting shut out of something often leads directly to discoveries you wouldn't have found any other way. Last year, scheduling shifts forced me to see a film I'd barely heard of and knew almost nothing about: a French cop thriller called "Sleepless Night." It ended up being my favorite movie of the festival, and remains one of my favorite movies of the year (it was released last spring, theatrically and on VOD, by Tribeca). In fact many of my personal highlights from Fantastic Fest 2011 -- including "Sleepless Night" along with the aforementioned (though not aforenamed) "Headhunters" and "Klown" -- remain on or around my running list of the top ten films of 2012. Because of the way the cream rises to the top here, I have sometimes referred to Fantastic Fest as the place to see your favorite movies of next year.

Now that my main job is running this here blog (and occasionally doing so while invoking folksy Southern patois) I don't travel nearly as much as I used to. Covering film festivals can be mighty expensive for journalists without corporate expense accounts; here at Fantastic Fest, where I'll be reviewing movies for ScreenCrush, I had to pay part of my way, and I'm sharing one tiny hotel room with two colleagues. At some other festivals, that would be too much hassle. At Fantastic Fest, it's worth it. This event is too much fun to miss.

Fantastic Fest 2012 begins tonight and runs through September 27th. Look for reviews and interviews from the festival here on Criticwire.

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