The 2018 Fantasia Film Festival has wrapped its three-week run in Montreal, and after extensive coverage and much deliberation, we have finally put together a list of our favourite films that screened this year. Our staff managed to see 65 films in total, which might seem like a lot — except that the festival screened of over 125 features during those twenty-two days. Needless to say, we were careful to choose what we believed were the films that showed the most promise, and apart from the last-minute addition of Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos, we pretty much saw everything we really wanted to see. Without further ado, here are our favourite films:
Editor’s Note: This list is in alphabetical order.
It’s a rare thing to see a true psychological or existential horror movie these days, especially one that resists the urge to introduce an element of physical danger, but Cam more or less sticks to its guns, weaving a horror movie that plays almost entirely in the psychological sandbox. The terror here is existential in nature, as the film uses the internet angle to present a horrifying danger that very rarely makes the cross over into the threat of bodily harm. No, the situation our star finds herself in is far deeper and more sinister than a monster or psycho with a knife.
Following an adult webcam performer who becomes replaced online by a perfect doppelganger, Cam balances the classic “evil twin” scenario, updated for the online age, with a searing commentary on incidences of online violence and trauma. Helpless to watch as her channel is hijacked by a double who both surpasses the original in popularity and breaks all of her personal rules, protagonist Lola finds her predicament all but ignored by those in authority. It’s an extremely timely film, to put it mildly, given the recent focus on online harassment and violence.
Director Daniel Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei have crafted a smart, urgent, and terrifying horror film, one that deftly uses the medium to comment on real-world issues, as so many great horror films do. Add in a star-making performance by Madeline Brewer, and you’ve got a future horror classic on your hands. (Thomas O’Connor)
Luz feels like a throwback to arthouse cinema of the 1970s and early sci-fi thrillers of the 1980’s but only because the movie itself takes place in the early 80’s and features an eerie electronic score courtesy of Simon Waskow (not to mention it was also shot in widescreen 16mm stock, a format barely used in present day). Come to think of it, as I write this I can’t help but think of early David Cronenberg, and not just because Luz offers moments of sexual body horror but because of the way the characters interact with each other (their body language, chemistry, and delivery of dialogue, for example). There’s something truly hypnotic about the way the film unravels – it’s a horror film of unusual substance and vision, and despite all this name dropping, Luz looks, sounds and feels like a movie made decades ago, as opposed to a movie made by a filmmaker imitating the films he watched growing up. (Ricky D)
Adulthood often means having to make the choice between survival and happiness, and we’ve largely been conditioned to accept that as plain old reality rather than the byproduct of an imperfect system. All too often it’s drilled into our heads that personal comfort and financial security are things that one can’t have at the same time. Want to get rich, or at least financially stable enough to not worry where your next meal comes from? Well, you’re gonna need to give up on your dreams. Want to hold on to your personal pleasures and aspirations? Well, you’ll need to live a spartan lifestyle for that. Jeon Go-Woon’s dramedy takes aim at this mindset, condemning the choice many adults find themselves in and — crucially — not condemning its cast for the choice they made.
Miso, a young woman in South Korea, loves nothing more than smokes, whiskey, and her boyfriend. But the price of cigarettes sharply rises, forcing her to re-balance her budget if she wants to hold on to her pleasures. Taking to the streets, she starts couch-surfing, with brief stays at the homes of her former bandmates. Said bandmates have all achieved financial stability, but at the cost of personal happiness and fulfillment, putting them in stark contrast to their friend.
While Microhabitat could have easily vilified or deified its characters for choosing one side of the coin or the other, the film instead places its sights on the system that put them in this mess. Rather than sellouts or sainted poor, its players are portrayed as people who made a choice that they really shouldn’t have had to make.
One of the tragically rare female voices in the South Korean film industry, Go-Woon cements herself as a talent to watch with Microhabitat, an impassioned cry for economic justice in an age where everything has a cost. (Thomas O’Connor)
Closing out this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, Pantos Cosmatos’ Mandy is, in my opinion, the best film that screened at the festival this summer. The Canadian filmmaker’s second feature (after his criminally overlooked Beyond the Black Rainbow) is not especially easy viewing, and unquestionably is not for all tastes, but Mandy is an extraordinary film no less — one touched with moments of crazed inspiration and imagery that reaches beyond language to something primal and original. While I can’t guarantee you will like it, Mandy will no doubt blow your mind, kick your ass, and burn in your subconscious long after the credits roll.
The revenge film is a well-worn genre, but Mandy is in a class of its own; it’s safe to say no one’s ever made a revenge film that looks or feels quite like it. This is experimental genre filmmaking at its very best. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and should be approached with caution — but if you don’t mind the copious amounts of bloodshed, you’re in for one hell of a ride. Expertly directed and superbly conceived, Mandy is an astonishing achievement that packs an unexpectedly powerful emotional punch. Only two films into his career, Cosmatos is poised to become one of the boldest filmmaking talents of his generation.
Although this is the first time I’ve experienced the films at Fantasia, in theory it’s a perfect fit. I love genre films, and I’m also looking for them to break up the long blocks of more traditional dramas and comedies that I review. Unfortunately, what I look for in genre films isn’t necessarily what other fans crave. I crave the same subtlety in a horror film or a gangster movie that I would want in a film by Hong Sang-soo or Paul Thomas Anderson, the same invention that I would expect from Jean-Luc Godard or Steven Soderbergh. That an understated element is often missing from genre films is an unfortunate characteristic that is mostly due to the financial realities of making genre films — they can be made cheap, and even with little advertising can still make a profit. In the rush to put out these films, sometimes quality control goes out the window.
Not so with Number 37, the best film I saw from Fantasia. Written and directed by South African filmmaker Nosipho Dumisa, it’s a modern adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). In this version, the peeper is an aspiring drug dealer who has been paralyzed from the waist down after he failed to pay off a loan for a botched deal. With no job and no way to leave his apartment (the building has no elevators), he takes up spying on his neighbors with a pair of binoculars. It’s a pleasant diversion until he witnesses some rival thugs murder a corrupt cop. The gears start turning, and he tries to blackmail them to pay off his debts, with disastrous results.
Dumisa’s screenplay is indebted to the original classic, but not overly reverent. Her vision is unique to South Africa, and sensitively explores the lives and dignity of those living in the shadow of crime. Despite most viewers being able to guess the basic structure of the film, Dumisa manages to keep the suspense elevated. It’s an exciting debut from a filmmaker to watch. (Brian Marks)
It’s not hard to make a scary film about fraternities, as even documentaries and straightforward dramas can drift toward horror when detailing the hazing and abuses of Greek life. What’s impressive about Daniel Robbins’ Pledge is how well it handles the aspects that most horror films fail at. It’s a well-written a well-acted scary movie, an outlier in the genre.
The action centers on three freshmen navigating their new campus. They fall into various archetypes: the chatty one who talks to calm himself, the perceptive nerdy one, and the chubby yet sensitive one who serves as their moral compass. After striking out with parties and girls (they get kicked out of frat parties for being too weird, and their fellow students tell them to arrive for day drinking after everyone has already left), when they’re finally invited to a frat party it seems too good to be true. And of course, it is! The WASPish leaders of the fraternity turn out to have rather dastardly plans for the pledges. Their hazing, at first extreme, turns violent, then deadly.
This simple story succeeds primarily because of the film’s strong dialogue and an excellent cast. Zach Weiner’s screenplay is deficient in some aspects (there’s absolutely no backstory or character development), but he has a way with language that sounds unusually natural for a horror film. Despite the actors all being too old, we mostly buy them as suggestible freshmen, thanks to his words. The cast is particularly strong, with none of the leaden acting one might expect. In particular, Zachery Byrd shines as the pledge who is first to realize that something horrible is going on.
There’s nothing revolutionary going on in Pledge. It’s merely some excellent filmmaking applied to a simple premise, but that’s all it takes. (Brian Marks)
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Akin to last year’s The Florida Project, Tigers Are Not Afraid centers around youth trapped in an inhospitable environment. They are always on the run, always keeping an eye over their shoulder, and always barely making it through the day. Of course, a lot of this is because children are generally naive, but in Issa Lopez’s film, the children are acutely aware of how risky life is. The kids in Tigers Are Not Afraid are without parents, and thus put into a precarious situation of trying to live alone, but also with demons constantly knocking at their door. Tigers Are Not Afraid counters hope with hopelessness, leaving the film a morbid look at youth. It’s a perspective that defines it as one of the best coming-of-age films, and a harrowing take on the effects of the drug war on the youth of Mexico. (Christopher Cross)
Tokyo Vampire Hotel
Released originally as a ten-episode series for Amazon, Tokyo Vampire Hotel is the kind of film that could only have come from the mind of Sion Sono. While channeling the absurdity of Takashi Miike’s weirder efforts, Sono has always been a messier director, and perhaps even more ambitious because of it. What makes all of his films worthy of weirdness is that they always come together by the end. He also comments on many social and political topics — usually, Japanese-centric, though occasionally more universally applicable. Tokyo Vampire Hotel is no exception, and is exactly what to expect, par for the course for its director. Even with its bold attempt to condense ten episodes into a single film, the issues that arise don’t feel like something that are present because of trying to pare down Sono’s insanity — they’re just small kinks in one of his greatest films to date. (Christopher Cross)
‘Harpoon’ — A Nasty Thriller that Mostly Hits the Target
Harpoon is best described as Dead Calm meets Alive. It follows Jonah (Munro Chambers), Sasha (Emily Tyra), and Richard (Christopher Gray)— a trio of unlikable friends with some serious issues who do horrible things to one another for roughly eighty-two minutes.
After Richard, the son of a mob boss suspects his best friend Jonah and long-time girlfriend Sasha are having an affair, it sends him into an uncontrollable rage that leaves Jonah a bruised and bloody mess. Only it seems Richard is wrong (or so they say), and after convincing Richard the allegations are false, Richard invites them on his family’s yacht to celebrate his birthday. It was meant to be a fun day trip in order to win back their trust but as tensions boil and the yacht’s engine fails, Richard’s anger management issues kick in and his birthday present (a speargun mistaken for a harpoon) becomes a threat. Stranded without food, drinking water, and other supplies, their only hope of survival is to set aside their differences and work together. But as secrets continue to be revealed and accusations are made, it seems this fuc*ed-up trio has little to no hope of ever reaching land alive.
At its core, Harpoon is really a film about friendship, albeit a toxic friendship between three young adults who have drifted apart but somehow remain bound only by the amount of time they’ve known each other. When the trio are left stranded in the middle of the ocean, both their friendships and their lives are tested in excruciating ways. Rob Grant and co-screenwriter Mike Kovac’s script features an unseen narrator (Brett Gelman) who offers insight into the interpersonal background of the trio along with a clever and amusing history lesson about sailors and their superstitions. It seems the uncontrollable nature of the sea has given way to many a nautical lore, each one as curious as the next and Harpoon dives deep into these myths and legends feeding us snippets of info during a swift montage. As the plot twists, and turns (of which it does plenty), the trio realizes they’ve jinxed themselves in a barrage of ways. As they wait in hopes that someone will come to their rescue, they pass the time looking for ways to survive while discussing stories such as Edgar Allan Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and the true tale of Richard Parker, whose life at sea unbelievably mirrored the plot of Poe‘s writing which was released 50 years earlier.
For what is essentially a horror film shot on a single location, director Rob Grant does a superb job in delivering a nasty little thriller. In spite of the short running time and limited claustrophobic setting, Grant keeps the film interesting with his camera choices and clever editing. As the film progresses the camerawork slowly draws in ever tighter on the three leads heightening the suspense at key moments while also further adding to the claustrophobic feel. It really is impressive how much mileage the filmmakers get when working with so little.
Held together by three impressive performances, Harpoon deftly plays with our emotions as we become less and less sympathetic to the trio, no matter what horrible things they may be experiencing. What makes Harpoon different than your average survival thriller is how it continuously encourages the audience to laugh at the series of unfortunate events. No matter how deceitful, violent and psychotic these three friends are, Harpoon somehow manages to remain darkly funny.
I must once again stress how annoying these characters are and because of this, Harpoon is a film I admire more than I enjoyed. Often the trio’s bickering is exhausting to sit through and despite a running commentary on toxic masculinity and male insecurity, Harpoon eventually runs out of steam— or rather, is left with no more wind in its sails. In the end, these terrible human beings couldn’t be any more deserving of each other but I can’t say I enjoyed their company.
- Ricky D
Editor’s Note. The review was originally published on August 7, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival. Harpoon is now streaming on Showtime and available on Sho Extreme & on-demand.
‘The Divine Fury’ is a Cool Horror-Action Hybrid that Offers Something for Fans of Both Genres
The Divine Fury has a premise you could only find in a film that would premiere at a genre film festival like Fantasia. Yong-hoo Park, champion MMA fighter, develops a bleeding wound on the palm of his hand, and medical science cannot help him. Further assailed by voices and terrifying visions, Yong-hoo turns to a medium, who directs him to Father Ahn. Ahn is a sanctioned exorcist, and one of many Vatican agents on the trail of the sinister Black Bishop, an occult practitioner who has amassed demonic powers. Father Ahn informs Yong-hoo that his wound is a stigmata, a powerful tool in the battle against evil. This comes as something of a surprise to Yong-hoo, a devout atheist since the death of his father. With his new mentor, Yong-hoo becomes a force for good — a demon-punching holy avenger who uses his physical and spiritual gifts to battle the Black Bishop.
From that description, you couldn’t be blamed for imagining something like that one scene from Peter Jackson’s Braindead, or maybe Ninja 3: The Domination, if you’re a fan of 80s Cannon Group cheese. Even worse, you might be imagining some kind of hokey, low-rent religious superhero movie, like a South Korean Bibleman. But you’re in for a surprise; while it could easily have set its sights on camp and gunned the engine, The Divine Fury instead goes a different route, playing its bonkers premise almost entirely straight. From the outset, Joo-hwan Kim’s film remains utterly sincere about itself, mixing horror and action with some deft direction and a stellar cast to create a dark, engaging, and fun hybrid.
Painting a dark and stylish portrait of modern Seoul, Kim’s direction comes off almost from the first frame as slick and confident. Smooth, elegant camera movements glide through the dimly-lit streets, where shadows lurk and fear reigns. The film often surprises with some wonderful imagery, and walks a fine line between stylish and efficient. When things start hitting the fan and demons emerge to menace our heroes, the film also busts out some serious effects wizardry, with top-notch makeup and creature effects bolstered by clever and dynamic camera work. There are flashes of terrific art direction, with brief tantalizing glimpses of a beautifully realized world of demonic forces, and even real-world locations like the Black Bishop’s luridly-lit nightclub make for interesting and unique backdrops.
As Yong-hoo and Father Anh grow closer, it becomes apparent that their chemistry and onscreen charm is one of the cornerstones the film rests on. Even when they’re just sharing a meal, the two leads are terrific to watch together, with an easy and natural chemistry that makes them eminently believable as friends, despite their vast differences in outlook. Of course, Father Ahn’s platitudes and homilies often come across as stock and predictable, and the film’s attempts at a theological discourse are pretty shallow. But when it can’t muster a convincing theological argument, the film defaults to much more universal fare in its message: defend the defenseless, oppose evil. Who can argue with that?
The Divine Fury will make you wait before it delivers the goods, but when the time is right, it delivers them in spades.
The confident direction and charming leads do help make up for one crucial shortcoming, though: the film may have a lot of the divine, but it’s a tad short on fury. After a tantalizing fight scene early in the film teases some great action, no punches fly until the film’s showstopper of an ending. For those expecting a rock ‘em-sock ‘em actionfest, much of The Divine Fury’s middle section — the vast majority of the film — may leave them cold. But be patient. Enjoy the atmosphere and the more horror-oriented segments, because that patience will be rewarded. When the film reaches its final sequence and Yong-hoo finally unleashes his holy fisticuffs, the result is, well, divine. The climactic action sequence in The Divine Fury is one worth waiting for, a slick and deftly delivered pair of fight scenes that will have action fans cheering in the aisles. The camera maintains a perfect distance, allowing the physical performances of the actors to take center stage, and never obscures the action with jittery movement or rapid-fire editing. The presentation is dynamic, but never overwhelms or distracts from the solid physical performances by star Park Seo-joon and the stunt team. The Divine Fury will make you wait before it delivers the goods, but when the time is right, it delivers them in spades.
The Divine Fury is a fun, surprising and just plain cool horror-action hybrid that offers something for fans of both genres. Kept aloft by two engaging and charismatic leads and some top-notch direction, it pulls you into its ridiculous world of exorcisms and action with gusto. While it does make you wait before it fully unleashes its premise, which can and has strained the patience of some viewers and critics, its final action sequences are worth waiting for.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 2, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival.
‘Promare’ Feels Like the Younger Brother of ‘Gurren Lagann’
Gurren Lagann is a cult classic directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, and written by Kazuki Nakashima. It has over-the-top action, constant bravado, quotable lines, and non-stop escalation into madness. Subtly is not a common word used in Imaishi and Nakashima’s vocabulary, and luckily, fans of their work will not be disappointed with their newest animated movie, Promare. Hot-headedness (literal and metaphorical) and grandiose speeches are rampant when Promare kicks logic to the curb and goes beyond the impossible in its own unique way. What it lacks in a cohesive story, it makes up for in elaborate visuals, eye-popping action, and charismatic characters.
No matter how many times Spider-Man or Superman saves someone from a burning building, the real heroes are the firefighters; they are the ones on the ground, first on the scene. In the world of Promare, firefighters are not just stopping regular old fires; they are tasked with extinguishing supernatural infernos caused by the Burnish — humans mutated to become pyrokinetics. Called the Burning Rescue, they heroically save any and every civilian threatened by these eternal flames, doing so with advanced gear, amped-up water cannons, and hand to hand combat. In addition, they have high-tech equipment that includes drones, an armory of ice and water-powered firearms, and numerous models of mech suits.
These heroes are tasked to stop the flaming terrorists and the havoc they wreak, and in the first act of Promare, a Burning Rescue team led by a young man named Galo take on one of the most feared Burnish terrorists. They use their pyrokinesis to give themselves black, spiky armour and motorcycles that would make Ghost Rider jealous, and after a rousing success with eleventh-hour powers, Galo floats in his victory. Soon, the more militaristic, anti-Burnish organization called Freeze Force barges in and detains the Burnish, taking some of the credit and diminishing Burning Rescue’s efforts. This testosterone-driven act kindles a small spark in the back of Galo’s head, later pushing him to discover a conspiracy that suggests not all is as it appears to be.
Galo is essentially a carbon copy of Kamina from Gurren Lagann. He’s a shirtless, blue-haired, brash young man who jumps in head first to save everyone, and makes sure he looks cool doing it every time. His peers and rivals mock his intelligence and audacity, but in a rare twist, Galo immediately proves that his not simply all bark; he is also a talented rescuer, and is able to stop multiple Burnish solo. Eventually, he develops a rival with Lio, a blonde-haired, light-eyed, somewhat effeminate villain with his own code of honour. He also runs across Kray Foresight, the governor, who is appreciative of Burning Rescue and all their work. However, though Burning Rescue is comprised of many equally talented members, they are mostly pushed to the background outside of being given a few moments to shine.
Promare takes advantage of new animation styles, and combines both hand-drawn and computer-animated designs. The vapourwave art style is bombastic and chaotic, while the angular designs of the Burnish’s powers add a little edge to the action scenes, guaranteeing that there is no wasted space on screen. The movie runs from inferno-hot to sub-zero cold with no in-between; one would expect nothing less from Imaishi and Nakashima.
Walking into this film and expecting some kind of subtly, even when it comes to the most mundane of actions, is expecting far too much. In classic fashion, the filmmakers keep making every scene more grandiose and epic. Fight scenes aren’t simply adding an extra bad guy or giving the hero a handicap; everything grows to an exponential scale. The moment you expect that Promare has reached its limit, suddenly everything goes to the extreme. But this does has its disadvantages, as subtly and clear explanations of events go by the wayside. The plot moves fast and glosses over the details of the world, history, and lore. Instead of questioning “why is this weird thing happening,” it’s better to accept that it’s happening simply “just because” — far better to just watch the bonker visuals and series of events. This pacing also makes it difficult for character growth, where relationships are created and destroyed on a whim, yet could have benefited more with extra content. It’s like the difference between the Gurren Lagann series and the movies. Sure, the movies cover a lot of ground, but they are very much more loud, operatic spectacles rather than the growing confidence of a young shy boy into a full-fledged legend.
Promare is certainly a movie that stimulates the lizard-brain neurons. It’s flashy, over the top, and outright ridiculous. The heroes and villains are operatic, and there is no nuance stored anywhere in the character’s development. But that’s why the movie is wonderful; the creators are able to depict these extreme levels of silliness, then lampoon and expand on it. There are even moments where the characters themselves have to acknowledge that this level of weirdness is actually happening. But that’s why this movie is spectacular — it’s loud, it’s big, but it’s 100% unfiltered fun.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 4, 2019 as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage.
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