James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.
James Cole Clay// Film Critic
Going to Fantastic Fest is like going away to adult summer camp: It’s wise to get in shape by sleeping, taking your vitamins and preparing your mind to melt from the cavalcade of genre films presented at the flagship Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar in Austin, TX.
Here’s how it works: over the course of the eight day festival, there are five rounds per day with five choices per round. There are video games, beer, fried food, great friends and even better conversations.
This place is Disney World for the film junkies and weirdo who are completely detached from the outside world. Fantastic Fest is its own little paradise, and this year was absolutely incredible.
Between myself and our editor Preston Barta we saw north of 30 films, ranging from a movie about a group of butt-munching dwarves (THE DWARVES MUST BE CRAZY) to the French selection for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars (ELLE).
Point being, Fantastic Fest has range. You never know what you’re going to get, as each and every film could be a life changing filmgoing experience. (I know I’ve had several, including taking a shot of fireball with 200 other maniacs while screening Adam Wingard’s THE GUEST.)
This year had numerous exciting titles, both big and small. So in this unorthodox version of “best of the best” I’m going to list a few of my favorite films I saw at the festival, which reignited a love for movies that I rediscovered at the Alamo in 2016.
In no particular order:
AMERICAN HONEY – This is a movie by British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (FISH TANK). It had a huge premiere at Cannes Film Festival back in May and was heralded as a meandering masterpiece. Since then, some have declared Texas native star Sasha Lane the next big thing.
It follows a group of wayward youth — including a rat-tailed Shia LaBeouf — around the country, where they are scheming to sell magazines to middle American suburban folk. But really, they are boozing, popping pills, smoking weed, listening to rap music, while our two aforementioned leads engage in a forbidden romance.
Lane and LaBeouf are incredible together onscreen. The weirdness of their relationship feels natural, taboo and just plain sexy.
Arnold’s film is about being young and finding meaning in the definition of the “New American Dream.
Read our full review of AMERICAN HONEY here.
RAW – This is a French horror/coming-of-age film that completely floored Preston and myself.
A couple weeks before the Fantastic Fest a story came out of a screening in Toronto that people were passing out and needed an ambulance. But no such thing happened with audiences at Fantastic Fest, as we can hold our own.
RAW follows the trend of arthouse horror that has been doing so well in recent years, but this jarring film might be the most artful of them all.
Director Julia Ducournau’s film is about a young vegetarian named Justine (Garance Marillier) who after an intense hazing ritual at a veterinarian school develops an increasingly insatiable appetite for meat of all kinds (human included).
Not only is this film haunting, it also has beautiful statements about growing up and discovering sexuality, with a nice sibling rivalry element thrown in the mix.
Ducournau and Marillier are a match made in heaven. Together, they make a subtle yet deeply thought provoking film that is one of the few perfect movies to come out in recent memory.
Read our full review of RAW here.
THE HANDMAIDEN – Korean filmmaking genius Park Chan Wook (OLDBOY) makes directing a complicated film look easy. His stories are dark, with a hint of precious beauty mixed in with some seriously messed up conclusions.
However, his latest, THE HANDMAIDEN — which is being released by Amazon studios — is an atypical type of love story. It follows a con where a man called The Count (Jung-Woo Ha) and his “loyal” associate Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) infiltrate a remote estate of the abusive Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) and his sequestered niece Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). The duo essentially plot to take all their money.
Allegiances change– and with every carefully placed shot Wook makes you see the relationship unfold from several perspectives.
This is a movie that causes you to run the gamut of emotions throughout its run-time. Trust us, this is one is not to be missed. See it in the theater in late October, if you can.
Look out for our full review in the coming weeks.
COLOSSAL – This may be the most fun film of the festival. It’s a love letter to “kaiju” films (just think GODZILLA) and a difficult drama about substance abuse.
Nacho Vigalondo (OPEN WINDOWS) was reportedly brought to tears at the closing night screening of the film when they brought out a cake in the shape of a monster with his head firmly planted on top. This is the kind of crazy energy the film has, with an incredible and rather funny performance from leading star Anne Hathaway.
This is a confident work from a filmmaker that has proven he can handle even the trickiest of high-wire acts in directing this year. Above all, it’s just fun to watch these massive stars in something so peculiar.
Hathaway has caught some bad breaks in her career from critics, but this is one of her best roles in years. Even when some things don’t fully stick the landing – like the cause for the monster attacks and some side characters that don’t get resolved – the film still works marvelously.
Read our full review of COLOSSAL here.
ELLE – Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s sly adult thriller ELLE is going to make waves this awards season. The movie takes a slightly humorous spin on sexual assault.
OK, stick with me: the film is not egregiously offensive towards victims or anything like that. It’s about power struggles within relationships led by a brilliant leading performance by Isabelle Huppert (HEAVEN’S GATE), who’s a successful video game developer.
How about that for progress?
The titular character struggles through her relationship with her son, ex-husband, secret lover, best friend and her other, other secret lover.
The layered drama of Verhoeven’s work is finally a film for adults that can take on many different meanings, depending on your mood.
ELLE doesn’t try to make a large statement with its, at times, difficult thematic elements. Verhoeven allows the film to breathe with each scene building to a climax that’s freeing and simultaneously perplexing.
Look for our full review in the next few days.
RATS – Morgan Spurlock’s freaky-funny documentary on the world’s rat problem. (Coming to the Discovery Channel on Oct. 21.)
THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS – A British zombie film that is part 28 DAYS LATER and part completely original. Plus, Glenn Close plays a mad scientist. (No US release date yet.)
THE GREASY STRANGLER – A movie that could only be described as NAPOLEON DYNAMITE on bath salts. Not for the faint of heart. (Coming to VOD and limited release Oct. 7.)
THE CREW – A French heist film with the action style of the 1995 film HEAT, but in half the run-time. (US release date unknown, if ever.)
SPLIT – M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, where an unhinged James McAvoy kidnaps three young girls and showcases 24 different personalities. This one is not to be missed. (Coming to theaters nationwide Jan. 20, 2017.)