A look back at Fantastic Fest 2011

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Tilda Swinton stars as the mother a demented child in Lynne Ramsey’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Aliquam vestibulum lorem eu augue interdum et tincidunt magna consectetur. (Photo courtesy of BBC Films)

Fantastic Fest, which was held at the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse from Sept. 22 to 29, is an annual film festival composed entirely of genre fare, from horror to sci-fi to fantasy to whatever genre the average Japanese film falls into. It’s also arguably the best week of the year to be a film fan in Austin, both for the sheer eclecticism of the films offered and the great community of movie buffs that springs up at the Alamo Drafthouse. Attendees range from Austinites, filmmakers, fans from around the country and even from the furthest corners of the world.

While previous festivals have held their opening night gala at the Paramount Theatre, often screening a hotly anticipated genre film, this year, the entire festival relocated to the Drafthouse, resulting in a smaller scale that carried over to the festival. While last year’s opening night included a double feature of “Buried” and “Let Me In,” this year gave us the revolting “Human Centipede II.”

In fact, very little love was lost for major studios at this year’s festival. Lionsgate, which purchased the award-winning “You’re Next” after its Toronto debut, canceled a second screening of the film, making its sole Saturday midnight screening one of the most in-demand of the festival. Paramount’s “The Loved Ones” was pulled from the program a few days before its first screening (although they did make it up to the crowd with an early screening of “Paranormal Activity 3.”)

While the lack of major features was apparent at this year’s festival, this just made room for a wide range of wonderful, under-the-radar titles that became popular as the festival went on. Small titles like “Juan of the Dead” and “A Boy and His Samurai” were discussed at length, heralded as the best of the festival, and additional screenings sold out quickly.

Thanks to the staff at Fantastic Fest, actually attending the movies was made much easier. In previous years, lines formed outside the Drafthouse around 9 a.m. every day of the festival — not an easy schedule to keep when most attendees are operating under the explosive combination of midnight movies and plenty of beer for the entire fest. This year, online ticketing was available, a huge benefit that removed the drawback of roasting in line outside the Drafthouse to get tickets.

As always, Fantastic Fest remains the most fun and unusual of Austin’s three large film festivals, with opening night’s human centipede-themed party, the first-ever Fantastic Fest prom and a closing night superhero carnival where the deep-fried culinary options could clog your arteries on sight. To put it simply, any Austin movie buff who misses out on Fantastic Fest is missing out on much more than the films — they’re missing out on a wonderful week where a small community springs up at the Alamo Drafthouse, fueled by a mutual love of food, beer and movies, and there is no better place to be in the last week of September.

Below, the best films of Fantastic Fest:

“You’re Next”

The story of crossbow-wielding, animal mask-wearing menaces terrorizing an anniversary dinner at a mansion in the woods could have been a commonplace home invasion film, but thanks to director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, “You’re Next” is a smart, funny and often scary twist on the genre. Thanks to the film’s quick pace, skill at subverting the audience’s expectations and relentless, confident execution of its premise and characters, Wingard has crafted a true crowd-pleasing slasher flick and perhaps the best American horror film of the year. “You’re Next” will probably see theatrical release sometime next year, and this one is more than worth the wait.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

There was no better performance at Fantastic Fest than Tilda Swinton’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” tour-de-force and director Lynne Ramsay’s challenging gut punch of a film is a red-tinged examination of the odd relationship between a psychopath and his bewildered mother. Swinton’s mother, torn between her maternal obligation to her son and her instinct to get away from the malicious Kevin (Ezra Miller), is a fascinating character to watch, and Swinton sells the internal struggle with everything she has, from the barely-contained sanity as an infant Kevin sobs from sunrise to sundown to the pure devastation of the film’s final moments. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is enthralling, disturbing stuff and a very hard film to shake, executing its deeply unsettling material with a nuance that makes the potentially exploitative feel creepily plausible.

“A Boy and His Samurai”

Who would have thought one of the best films at Fantastic Fest wouldn’t have a body count? Yoshihiro Nakamura’s understated romantic comedy about a time-traveling samurai (Ryô Nishikodo) is perhaps the sweetest and most wholesome film of the festival, and its predictable formula has enough new elements and easy charm that its predictability is more or less irrelevant. Really, “A Boy and His Samurai” proves that Fantastic Fest-ers are a bunch of big softies at heart. Even if a film doesn’t fit into the traditional confines of the festival, it will still be wholly embraced if it’s as great as this one.

“Juan of the Dead”

“Juan of the Dead” is both the first independent film to come out of Cuba in 50 years and a relatively fresh, original take on the zombie comedy genre. As Juan, Alexis Díaz de Villegas is likeable even as he exploits the impending apocalypse for financial gain, and writer/director Alejandro Brugués stretches his budget to impressive levels, working in a few large-scale scenes of zombie mayhem and one of the most memorable mass undead decapitations to ever grace the silver screen. “Juan of the Dead” is heartfelt, just gory enough and oddly, kind of touching, and one can only hope it finds a U.S. distributor so zombie fans all over can see this unique film.

Sleep Tight

“Sleep Tight” is a creepy, creepy movie, one that worms under your skin and wiggles around, so icky and squirm-worthy that it’s near impossible to stop thinking about. Director Juame Balagueró has a true exercise in gross-out intensity with the film, which stars Luis Tosar as Cesar, a doorman obsessed with one of the tenants of his Barcelona apartment complex. The film doesn’t play nice, and a few of its late revelations up the creepiness to uncomfortable levels, but nothing at this year’s Fantastic Fest came close in terms of nail-biting, seat-clutching intensity as “Sleep Tight.”

Printed on Monday, October 3, 2011 as: Fantastic Fest pleases crowds with smaller scale