The Best Films of Fantasia 2019
Horror, fantasy, Hong Kong action, animation, strange documentaries, thought-provoking science-fiction, Japanese new wave, and martial arts are just among the many genres the Fantasia Film Festival covered in its twenty-third year of programming. Famous for being the largest genre film festival in North America, Fantasia is packed with Canadian, North American and worldwide feature-length premieres as well as shorts. This year’s line-up did not disappoint.
With over 130 films screened, it’s impossible to see them all. Festival veterans and newcomers alike had a stunning choice of movies to discover and while it may not have been Fantasia’s strongest year (that honour still goes to the 12th edition) the lineup was incredibly strong once again.
After twenty-two exhausting days of nonstop movie watching (and writing), our staff has watched over 70 films and written well over 40 reviews and now we’re ready to reveal our personal favourites. In no particular order, here is the list of movies we most recommend watching when and if you ever have the chance.
Side note: We will still be producing a ton of coverage over the next four days, so be sure to check back for more reviews, features and even a podcast.
Those of you searching for truly original work, look no further. This impressive first feature from Montreal-based duo Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer is one of the most unusual films ever fashioned out of the fears of depression. The script alone is a marvel of subtlety and intelligence, and for a micro-budget film made in a span of only ten days, Dead Dicks is funny, unexpected, and engaging.
Dead Dicks is the surprise hit of this year’s Fantasia Film Festival — an ingeniously engineered slash of modern horror that doubles as a poignant family drama addressing topics of dependency, identity, and mental illness. It is clear that Dead Dicks is also a deeply personal film, and one can feel the passion and love that went into making each and every frame. (Ricky D)
Come to Daddy
Come to Daddy
Come to Daddy is a genre-bender and one of the finest genre films of 2019. It’s a grueling little noirish thriller with slasher-worthy gore and humour that is sure to make audiences laugh. There’s no shortage of scenes that you’ll watch through your fingers but you’ll watch all the same to witness the many secrets, successful twists, and brilliant performances it offers. Come to Daddy is certainly a strikingly assured first feature and recommended viewing for genre fans everywhere. (Ricky D)
A Good Woman is Hard to Find
A Good Woman is Hard to Find
Though at times it may seem as quiet and unassuming as its main character, A Good Woman is Hard to Find is a low-key thriller that knows how to draw attention to itself at just the right moments, expertly building tension from muted scenarios before punctuating them with bloody release. Though an anticlimactic end perhaps puts too neat a bow around the otherwise messy and fascinating package, confident direction and compelling performances bolster the deliberately paced story, resulting in low-key thriller that is rarely less than gripping.
This story of a blue-collar, widowed mother whose husband was recently murdered falls square into the ‘pushed too far’ section of the genre, as she is subjected to daily humiliations and the threats of a goofy-yet-menacing two-bit drug peddler. Eventually, the dam must burst, and the young woman must fight back. But what separates A Good Woman is Hard to Find from much of the empowerment pack is just how skillfully it paints its picture, never putting a halo over anyone’s head. Writer-director Abner Pastoll mostly maintains a more grounded subtlety, not afraid to understand that human beings come in shades. So, while the sadistic crime boss might not feel too out of place in a Guy Ritchie film, the rest of the characters are given dimension enough to keep viewers on their toes.
The proceedings eventually come to a boil in a brilliantly staged and edited event that is appropriately bloody and squirm-inducing, but the lack of sensationalism preceding it increases the impact. Anchored by Sarah Bolger’s powerful performance as a suppressed woman finally discovering what she might be capable of, and showcasing Pastoll’s confident, steady direction, A Good Woman is Hard to Find is a subtle thriller to look out for. (Patrick Murphy)
Lake Michigan Monster
Lake Michigan Monster
Emerging from the murky depths of the state of Wisconsin, Lake Michigan Monster is a dizzying whirlpool of goofiness that manages to bizarrely combine the hit-or-miss broadness of a sketch comedy show with a rapid array of mesmerizing imagery that pays homage to black-and-white creature features, the imagination of Georges Méliès, and German expressionism. The resulting freakish spawn might not always swim gracefully, but neither did the rubber suit in The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and both turn out to be quite a bit of fun.
A makeshift plot about a sea-captainy fellow seeking revenge upon the titular beast who killed his father doesn’t hold much water, and those wanting more of a sincere love letter to the kind of cheesy drive-in movies that serve as inspiration might be a tad disappointed at the overt zaniness. Still, it’s hard not to smile at the film’s overall good nature as it zips merrily along, showcasing feverish dream sequences, a pirate painter, a haunted ferry, a magical underwater journey, sneaky tentacle attacks, and a large, spotted egg that may or may not be an abomination of nature. These are all fantastically imagined, and cheap has rarely looked so good; each successive edit holds the promise for something dazzling to appear on screen next, something the film delivers more often than not.
Add a likable cast (even if they come off a bit stilted at time) whose humor is sometimes surprisingly effective to the sheer amount of sensational images that the makers have managed to cram in, and Lake Michigan Monster becomes sunken treasure — a rollicking fish story jam-packed with old-fashioned cinematic goodies. Movie lovers should seek this goofy gem out wherever they can. (Patrick Murphy)
Working less as a Shakespearean political drama and more as a small-scale, fantastical period piece, Shadow is decked out in luscious trappings and painterly compositions, bolstered by passionate performances and balletic battles with umbrellas made of blades. The result is both shallow and rich, but remains a look at ancient intrigue that always manages to entertain one way or another.
The story revolves around a body double who has taken the place of the legendary but critically-wounded Commander of the kingdom amid an effort to recapture an ancient city from an uneasy ally. Typical court figures make an appearance, such as a deceitful king, a fiery princess, a sniveling courtier, and a loyal general. They each have Machiavellian schemes of their, spinning webs that will eventually become entangled with one another’s, and those who casually wander into this inter-kingdom squabble will no doubt soon become as lost in the plot as these ancient civilizations themselves.
The real reason to watch Shadow is for the sumptuous look of every frame. Working with a relatively small canvas, director Zhang Yimou has carefully composed grandiose images filled with nuanced staging, deliberate movement, and indelibly rich texture. His choices give otherwise modest engagements an epic feel, and not just in moments where swords are flashed. He is aided greatly by a magnetic cast, whose faces display just the right amount of expression for each conversational duel. They are eminently watchable, completely up to the task of holding down the fort even when besieged by layers of backstabbing that would require a more talented contortionist than the script is capable of.
That’s Shadow itself; from one-on-one political maneuvers to an entertainingly inventive battle involving hundreds, there is almost always something splendid to soak in, even if it makes your head spin. (Patrick Murphy)
The Father’s Shadow
The Father’s Shadow
Written and directed by Gabriela Amaral Almeida, The Father’s Shadow is the sort of film that only comes around once in a while — the perfect marriage between genre ghoulishness, mystery, and genuinely earned drama, ripe with characters that the viewer deeply desires to see happy by the film’s end. So often ghost and monster movies feature characters that might be funny, might be somewhat engaging, but generally adhere to age-old personality tropes that tick off the boxes needed to make a ‘horror film.’ Then there are more rare breeds like The Father’s Shadow, a movie that strives for something more. Not implicitly better, for that would imply that general horror movie fair is to be snubbed (why would we enjoy Fantasia so much were that the case?), yet aiming for something that makes a horror movie that much more whole, and that much more dramatically satisfying. (Edgar Chaput)
There is a lot to discover at Fantasia; make no mistake about it. Yes, there are provocative pieces of artistic expression that use genre filmmaking as their platform, and the festival is all the better for offering those filmmakers a venue in which to share their work. Then, there is the other type of movie that the event features: the populist, undeniably charming winner. This is Extreme Job. Leaving the theatre after this movie is like leaving a great restaurant with friends. The stomach is comfortably full, the gang has shared a barrel of laughs, the service was great, and the taste buds are still giddy. Three-star Michelin, it may not be, but damned if it wasn’t an awesome place for a mid-afternoon lunch. (Edgar Chaput)
Blood On Her Name
Blood On Her Name
Blood on Her Name is a gift from the formidable duo of Matthew Pope and Don M. Thompson, who expertly bathe their film in a realistic southern state atmosphere so authentic that one can practically feel the heat waves from off the screen. There is little question that they understand the ebbs of flows of noir, that most difficult to define of film movements (not a genre, as many a cinephile would quickly retort). Many of its beautifully twisted tropes resonate loudly throughout the film, with the filmmakers adding some modern flavours to the fold, in addition to the aforementioned southern personality, which, to be perfectly honest, brilliantly adds another layer of toughness to the story. There is something to be said about how certain people of the region have a habit of handling their issues with a particular forcefulness or bluntness that makes them unique in the United States. That rugged attitude serves film noir especially well, with Blood on Her Name serving as a prime example of the wonderfully and dangerously charming aura southern USA carries itself with. (Edgar Chaput)
Why Don’t you Just Die!
Why Don’t you Just Die
Making a room full of dead bodies funny isn’t nearly as easy as you might think. Black comedy, especially the pitch-black kind that involves things like murder and dismemberment, is probably the hardest kind of comedy to get right. Get something wrong and you just come across as mean-spirited — or worse yet, you fail to be funny entirely. But when one gets the formula right, the result is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser (especially if your crowd is at Fantasia). A fairly simple narrative that takes place mostly in one cramped apartment, Why Don’t You Just Die! is the kind of film guaranteed to have its audience caught in a constant stream of “ohhhhs” as characters careen headlong through walls, or have CRT TVs collide with their faces at unhealthy speeds. Like a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon, the film is a cavalcade of brutal violence and dry wit, but with gory consequences to the former. Crude, messy, and over-the-top in all the right ways, it might just go down as this year’s best Fantasia crowd-pleaser. (Thomas O’Connor)
For the most part, we all want a place to belong — a community that loves us and accepts us and pushes us to be the best versions of ourselves. 1BR takes this need and poses the question of what we’d be willing to endure to obtain that. Would we be willing to undergo the brutal events that befall poor Sarah? To potentially surrender a significant portion of our agency in order to find such a group? It seems like an easy question, but Marmour and his cast throw doubt into the mix — seemingly for Sarah, and in all likelihood, for much of the audience as well. Community and belonging are intoxicating things, and sometimes come at a high cost. But how high is too high? After seeing the film, you may not be so sure anymore. (Thomas O’Connor)
The Purity of Vengeance
The Purity of Vengeance
The fourth installment of the popular Department Q series, adapted from the novels by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen, has all the elements of a great thriller. A gloriously macabre crime scene is discovered, seemingly ripped from the pages of an EC Horror comic, that includes three mummified corpses seated around a set table in a walled-off room. Two hard-bitten detectives take the case, but what begins as a simple murder investigation soon leads to a sinister conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of government. There are explosions, chases, a shootout or two, and the airing out of some very dirty laundry from Denmark’s past. While lacking a degree of cinematic flair, The Purity of Vengeance is a cracker of a movie, with an engaging cast and an unflinching desire to bringing the injustices of the past into the light. (Thomas O’Connor)