Meditative films divert attention from Fantastic Fest controversy


Preston Barta // Features Editor

What a year it was in Austin at Fantastic Fest.

Normally I would take this time to dish about how awesome it was to be at the film festival, how many new people I met, and how my horizons as a movie lover has broadened. This much is true, but it was hard to shake off the controversy surrounding the festival going in and during, especially considering how even more reports surfaced after it started on September 21.

In addition to Alamo Drafthouse CEO and festival co-founder Tim League quietly rehiring a former employee with an ostensible sexual assault history, festival-goers watched as League’s other festival co-founder and Ain’t It Cool News head honcho, Harry Knowles, was also accused of sexual misconduct. This news and the disgusting fact that a soft-core porn film screened during one of the secret screening slot goes to show that Fantastic Fest still has some growing and healing to do.

Thankfully, patrons were able engage in hopeful conversations on the matter and see some great, pensive features in the process.

THE SQUARE – Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund (FORCE MAJEURE) is one of those movies that throws obscure content your way and it’s up to the viewer how they brew the stew. The Square follows an art museum director named Christian (an exceptional Claes Band), whose life becomes a comedy of errors as he prepares for his next great exhibit.

He meets some curious people (including Elizabeth Moss’ journalist character) and has even more curious encounters. (One artistic demonstration where a man takes on the personality of a primate at a dinner party will send your heart racing.) There’s so much to unpack in its eccentricity; you won’t soon forget it.

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER – The polarizing film follows a Cincinnati surgeon with some skeletons in his closet. When our protagonist, Steven (Colin Farrell), unexpectedly reconnects with the teenage son (a scary good Barry Keoghan) of a man he once lost on the operating table, some sinister events of biblical proportions happen. No one in Steven’s family (Nicole Kidman, Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic) is safe, and it drives the doctor toward the unthinkable. Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow-up to last year’s THE LOBSTER doesn’t just crawl under you skin, it lives there.

BRAWL ON CELL BLOCK 99 – Talk about a movie that stomps on all your nerves and doesn’t let up. A beefy, unrecognizable Vince Vaughn plays a drug runner who lands himself in prison after a deal goes south. Not only does he have to pay the price for his crimes, but he also has to pay for messing up his deal. Vaughn has entered the ring of compelling action stars and proves he can play just about anything. BRAWL ON CELL BLOCK 99 will take you on one of the most gruesome but exciting rides of your life.

THE CURED – I’m as sick of seeing zombie movies as the next person. But sometimes you will get one that doesn’t eat its own brains and has more cooking than the undead chasing after poor humans. THE CURED, starring Ellen Page, is very much one of the most innovative features about the subject yet. Its story is set after an epidemic has happened and a cure has healed most of the world’s population.

Where it gets fascinating is that the previously infected can remember all of what they did when they were feasting on human flesh. The transition back into human life after a zombie apocalypse hasn’t been done before, and its creativity doesn’t just stop in the plot description. It also deals with themes of a divided nation, rebellion and trust. It’s a sly wonder of a film.

PROFESSOR MARSTON & THE WONDER WOMAN – As you can tell from the four films already discussed, Fantastic Fest could be defined as a genre film festival. But every now and then you’ll stumble across a title with serious awards potential, and that film this year was PROFESSOR MARSTON & THE WONDER WOMAN.

Set in the 1920s and beyond, this romantic and powerful film gives the too-crazy-to-be-true story of how the character Wonder Woman came to be. If you loved the Gal Gadot-starring summer blockbuster, try delving into the controversial story of how her character was created. It’ll give you something to think about.

Other films to recognize: THELMA, WHEELMAN, GERALD’S GAME (available on Netflix), MY FRIEND DAHMER and 78/52.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.