My Fantasia Top Twelve Features

The 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival and its inaugural online edition officially reached its conclusion earlier this month and MMC! is so grateful to have been given the opportunity to participate. Scores of films were screened and new favourites were discovered. MMC! must thank Fantasia’s outstanding staff for their unbelievable work and their smoothly run festival. Shout-outs to Steven, Alyssia, Lorenzo, and Marie-Jade! Jusqu’à l’année prochaine!

This year’s Fantasia was full of very entertaining films and whittling them down to a selection of favourites wasn’t easy. Depite this challenge (and because I’m a consummate professional), here are MMC!’s ten twelve favourite films from the 2020 FIFF!

Dinner in America (Adam Carter Rehmeier, 2020)

There was no film I more purely enjoyed than Adam Carter Rehmeier’s Dinner in America. A tribute to the director’s ’90s-era Nebraska punk scene, Rehmeier creates a wonderfully antagonistic, feel good rom-com that matches Simon, a drug-dealing, bio-pimping, stridently punk arsonist, with Patty, an overly sheltered, overly medicated, dim bulb fashion disaster. Their suburban Michigan environs are enjoyably flat, most frequently centred around cringe-inducing meals, but the pair bring out the nuances in each other that create fuller, even likeable, people. In true punk spirit, there are no engineered misunderstandings, no changes of heart, and no makeovers. Simon and Patty are just two unusual people who already adore each other (even if they didn’t already know it) and are happy to flip off the rest of the world in exchange for a few memorable days of hell-raising. And if that weren’t enough, Dinner in America brought Fantasia’s most magical single moment, a goosebump-raising original song that confirms the film’s brilliance on four-tracks. This is an aggressively adorkable romance and a surprising demand for punk rock’s antiestablishment voice during these tense times. (Where are you punk rock?) In a just world, there would be a generation of high schoolers and college kids that call Dinner in America a touchstone film. Bang your head and warm your heart, dum dum.

I WeirDo (Liao Ming-Yi, 2020)

Fantasia’s flagship, in competition section saw Daria Wosjek’s Marygoround win Cheval Noir awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actress. The film concerns a 50 year-old spinster-virgin who breaks free from the kitschy doldrums of her dreary apartment and her grocery clerk job thanks to the hallucinatory effects of hormone therapy patches prescribed for her menopause. Grazyna Misiorowska gives a bold, bravura performance in Wosjek’s eccentrically luxuriating tale of a middle-aged sexual awakening. Marygoround just missed cracking MMC!’s Top 12.

For me, the star of Fantasia’s Cheval Noir section was Liao Ming-Yi’s I WeirDo, a film that starts as a twee romantic comedy between obsessive-compulsive germophobes Po-Ching and Chen Ching and spirals into something brilliantly insightful when their love causes Po-Ching’s compulsions to suddenly vanish. I WeirDo was shot an iPhone and it looks nimble, with wonderful compositions and clear-minded use of differing aspect ratios, however the film really takes off when its meet-cute is set and its relationship begins to unravel. Po-Ching is drawn to Chen Ching’s more daring (but nevertheless very OCD) lifestyle, but the sudden cure that he experiences quickly results in him longing to reintegrate with society at large. As such, the majority of I WeirDo becomes an astute exploration of the manic pixie dream girl trope, wondering what happens to this pair beyond the happy coupling that would normally mark the end of a movie. What becomes of this unconventional female character once she has served her purpose and “fixed” the male lead? How does their relationship perpetuate? What sacrifices are made and by whom? Liao’s I WeirDo could easily have been just an adorkable Taiwanese rom-com and it would have been a very enjoyable film as such. Instead, it provided a poignant interrogation of movie love’s mechanics and surprised as a sneaky smart weepy born from cheeky movie quirk.

Labyrinth of Cinema (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2020)

In Fantasia’s very strong Camera Lucida section, MMC! was a big fan of its prize-winner, Jung Hyuk-ki’s My Punch-Drunk Boxer, a lovely, warm-hearted South Korean sports melodrama that also just missed this list. For MMC!, the star of the Camera Lucida section was the title that claimed a special mention, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Labyrinth of Cinema. Obayashi’s final film, a three-hour opus, was the Festival’s most epically audacious movie, a tour-de-force meta-textual survey of Japanese war cinema. A packed movie theatre showing a marathon of war films on its closing night serves as the setting for an unusual story of three young men watching themselves onscreen as they traverse a variety of filmic contexts in an effort to save a 14 year-old girl attending the theatre with them. Obayashi piles on the content, introducing a space-and-time-traveller, the poetry of Chuya Nakahara, a cartoon character, an intermission, a reflexive theatre troupe, and, of course, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The film is full of history, music, cinema, theatre, and fantasy and it is preoccupied with artifice, particularly through some very clunky CGI that always places the creative process at its forefront. Yet for as dizzying as Labyrinth of Cinema can appear, its deliriousness never becomes exhausting thanks to Obayashi’s improbable ability to maintain a propulsive momentum through its lengthy runtime. The film culminates with a plea for peace expressed with a sincerity and almost naivety that is rarely seen anymore but which feels like a perfect capstone on the late Obayashi’s almost 60 year career.

Fried Barry (Ryan Kruger, 2020)

Fantastic festivals promise strange, unique, and transgressive film experiences and the 2020 Fantasia had its share weird and woolly flicks. For as odd as was Mikk Mägi and Oskar Lehemaa’s The Old Man Movie (Fantasia’s winner of the Satoshi Kon Award for Excellence in Animation and about a trio of boys who visit their eccentric grandfather in the country and their quest to prevent his errant cow from going nuclear), it was Ryan Kruger’s Fried Barry that stood out as the Festival’s most bizarre experience. Expanding on his 2017 short film, Kruger’s feature-length version sees the titular Barry (Gary Green), a deadbeat dad and heroin junkie, become the host to an inquisitive alien content to tour Cape Town’s rougher parts where he/they encounter drunken partiers, jonesing addicts, hookers, pimps, muggers, muggees, and the occasional psychopath. All this proceeds in a picaresque manner while evoking the tone and aesthetic of Chris Cunningham’s music video for Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy” or Jonathan Glazer’s video for UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights.” Loaded with drugs, violence, and a throbbingly propulsive score, it’s the perfect film for those who wish the Techno Viking meme was South African, 99 minutes long, and grindhouse sticky. In short, Fried Barry is exactly the type of wacky, exploitative film you attend fantastic festivals to see.

You Cannot Kill David Arquette (David Darg and Price James, 2020)

You Cannot Kill David Arquette was MMC!‘s favourite among a number of fascinating docs. Directors David Darg and Price James split dramatic and comedic responsibilities in crafting this love letter to professional wrestling, tracking David Arquette’s return to the squared circle after a doomed run in 2000 as World Championship Wrestling’s World Heavyweight Champion. Arquette, an avowed wrestling fan himself, became a vilified figure in wrestling circles for his undeserved title run and saw his acting career sunk by his stint in the strange, low-cultural morass of pro-wrestling. Looking to wrangle a redemption story of his own, Arquette is pound puppy adorable in the role as the little wrestling geek who could, paying his dues in backyard rings and training schools, performing with luchadors on the streets of Tijuana, and surviving dangerous injuries in late-night death matches. And the film plays much like an actual wrestling bout, laying out its own moves but taking real bumps in the process, and even building some imagined heat for the film’s final climactic match. You Cannot Kill David Arquette is an easy film to root for whether you’re a smart mark looking for an inside view on wrestling’s “theatre on steroids” or a casual observer happy to root for an underdog.

For the Sake of Vicious (Gabriel Carrer and Reese Eveneshen, 2020)

While this latest Fantasia ran virtually, there were some films that obviously would have benefited from screening in a full theatre with an amped-up audience and Gabriel Carrer and Reese Eveneshen’s For the Sake of Vicious was definitely a film that would have played brilliantly in front of a live crowd. Lora Burke (last seen by MMC! in Navin Ramaswaran’s Poor Agnes (2017), a Best Canadian Feature winner at the 2017 Fantasia) stars as a nurse who comes home on Halloween to find a man beaten and tied to her kitchen chair and his hostage-taker demanding that she assist him while he is questioned. From there, For the Sake of Vicious quickly escalates into a brutal and violent siege film as multiple masked home invaders descend on the house, transforming an indie-Canadian riff on Death and the Maiden into a prolonged, two-storey version of Old Boy’s hallway fight. As violent and gory as its title is awkward and incoherent, the film’s spare and pitiless approach is unyielding thanks to some intrusively close cinematography. For the Sake of Vicious was easily MMC!’s favourite Canadian feature and is a nasty, maple-flavoured Halloween treat.

Survival Skills (Quinn Armstrong, 2020)

Fantasia’s most cannily meta film was Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills. Armstrong takes on the thorny topic of law enforcement through the audacious frame of a police training video hosted in direct address by Stacy Keach’s “Narrator,” a worldly, seen-it-all Police Chief-type. We budding cadets watching and learning from the video are given a view of a new officer’s first year on the force by following Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell), a disturbingly cheerful rookie full of police academy protocols and ready to learn how to apply them in real life contexts. His wife Jenny (Tyra Colar) is even shinier and more caricatured, however the remainder of Jim’s world fails to express the uncomplicated gloss promised by Keach’s narrator and the instructional video format. Police work in Survival Skills is despairingly real, populated by a beleaguered and cynical partner, fearful victims, and underwhelming social services. Armstrong deftly walks a delicate line that sustains the film’s dark, surreal comedy while also interrogating the challenging position the police occupy, doing so in a manner that humanizes them, sympathizes with them, but also, at times, condemns them. The film revels in its analog format, exploiting cassette tape static and other artifacting to express emotional excess with a disturbing affect. Another sneaky smart film on the Fantasia program, Survival Skills impressively showed how law enforcement loses respect for the people they are tasked to protect and how ineffectiveness gives way to frustration and anger – and it tracked that institutional jaundice in a unique and cleverly self-aware dissonance.

PVT Chat (Ben Hozie, 2020)

By all rights, Ben Hozie’s PVT Chat should not have been for me. Between its general New York shabbiness, the self-absorbed neediness of its pathological protagonist, and its echoes of too-eager, underground cinema transgression, PVT Chat should have made my skin crawl, but it didn’t. Instead, Hozie’s film worked some kind of alchemy and transformed all these infractions against my personal tastes into a kind of negative charisma that had me captivated. Peter Vack is entralling as the patently false, shamelessly aggrandizing, full of shit Jack and Julia Fox is amazingly effortless as cam-girl Scarlet. Jack hucksters himself into the virtual life of San Francisco-based Scarlet in between hands of online blackjack and his obsession takes new life when he thinks he spots her in his neighbourhood of New York. Hozie gradually weaves their digital connection into their IRL spheres, drawing their worlds together through a series of white and no-so white lies serving a number of fixations and hustles. The result is a film that plays as an improbable blend of Uncut Gems, Teenage Cocktail, and David Holzman’s Diary. Hopefully Julia Fox’s rising star will get some eyes on this unusual indie effort.

Hunted (Vincent Paronnaud, 2020)

For those that enjoyed Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2017) but wished for a bit more of a fairy tale allegory, there is Vincent Paronnaud’s Hunted. Red-hooded Eve (Lucie Debby) is a beleaguered professional in the male-dominated construction industry. Looking to blow off some steam in a nearby bar, she finds her big bad wolf in a sexual predator/psychopathic director (Arieh Worthalter) and Hunted quickly turns into a series of chases in a remote forest with Eve desperate to escape from her unrelenting pursuer. The opening act is grimly threatening but Paronnaud’s woodland conflicts are spiked with periodic moments of near surrealism that verge on hilarity and wonderment. Eve’s pivot from victim to avenger is equally stunning, eventually transforming her into a wild-eyed Celtic berzerker and leading to a wonderful domestic climax. At this point in the subgenre’s history, the rape-revenge thriller can be a hard slog, toiling through lampshaded awfulness against women to arrive at a sometimes too-brief vengeance, and so I appreciated Paronnaud’s recognition that the obvious inhumanity and willing violence of the film’s villain did away with the need actually depict a sexual assault per seHunted is an intelligent and inspired riff on a somewhat tired trope, skillfully injecting wild, outlandish humour without compromising its brutal, genre-driven conceit. MMC! loves its revenge cinema and Hunted was definitely a Fantasia favourite.

Feels Good Man (Arthur Jones, 2020)

Arthur Jones’s Feels Good Man took the 2020 Sundance Film Festival’s American Documentary Prize earlier this year and proved to be Fantasia hit, taking the top audience prize among documentaries. The film examines the troubled relationship between comic book creator Matt Furie and his amphibious creation turned alt-right mascot, Pepe the Frog. Furie, who seems like an affable, easy-going creative, finds himself in the role of bewildered parent to an affable, easy-going frog who gets in with the wrong crowd and becomes labelled a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League when the NEETs of 4chan (“Not in Education, Employment or Training” — read: alone and in a basement) adopt Pepe as their mascot, resist “normie” appropriation of their icon by relocating him into increasingly offensive contexts, and eventually get behind the 2016 Trump candidacy with Pepe in tow. Pepe and Feels Good Man trace the disinformation wars of the 2010s, debate conflicts over art and ownership, and attempt to answer why we can’t have nice things. While the impact of Pepe is occasionally conflated to the cause of Trump-era America rather than its bellwether, the film remains extremely compelling and includes some excellent animation that suggests that a Boy’s Club cartoon would be outstanding (but would probably get co-opted by haters as well). Films like Feels Good Man and You Cannot Kill David Arquette, as well as other great Fantasia documentaries like Seth Porges’s Class Action Park and Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard’s Morgana, proved once again that truth remains stranger than fiction.

Sanzaru (Xia Magnus, 2020)

Slow burn horror found a bracing home at the 2020 Fantasia with Xia Magnus’ Sanzaru. The film follows Evelyn (Aina Dumlao), a Filipina nurse who moves into a remote South Texas home with her teenage nephew to care for Dena (Jayne Taini), an elderly woman with declining dementia. Sanzaru evokes Gothic chills with distant voices carrying through empty hallways, hidden rooms with terrible secrets, and a mad woman upstairs, but it is the collision of cultures between Evelyn and Dena’s broken families and the skeletons their respective closets that make it particularly memorable. In its best moments, the movie evokes the generational trauma of Stephen King as filtered through the understated fantasy of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, creating something that is at once unsettling and hypnotic, mundane and remarkably overdetermined. Granted, Sanzaru’s conclusion could have been served by raising the intensity of its supernatural scares by a half turn, however Magnus’ first feature is a smartly-made, suitably dreadful take on family curses and otherworldly guardians.

Special Actors (Shinichiro, Ueda, 2019)

I must admit that while I enjoyed Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead (2019), I didn’t fall in love with it as many did and I suspect I may be on my own when stating that I preferred his latest film, Special Actors. The two films are comparable as both celebrate the act of performance, with Special Actors following a group of performers hired to infiltrate a cult in order to get evidence of their fraudulent nature and prevent the owner of an inn from giving away her establishment to these con artists. Heavy on quirk and presenting a sitcom-style look, the film is eminently agreeable and whimsically good-natured, yet still full of unexpected twists — think something like David Fincher’s The Game if told from the perspective of Consumer Recreation Services and a milquetoast employee prone to fainting in moments of high stress. Special Actors is a sweet, daffy, and altogether delightful kawaii caper.

More on the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival is still to come with some imagined editions of MMC!’s favourites. In the meantime, checkout all of MMC!’s Fantasia coverage at our Letterboxd list!

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