The 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival is now in the books. Online platforms have been accessed, movies have been screened, and awards have been handed out. MMC! is so grateful for the opportunity to have covered this year’s hybrid version. Thanks to all of those that made Fantasia happen! Jusqu’à l’année prochaine!
With that said, lets get on to the good stuff — counting down MMC!’s top
ten twelve favourite feature films!
Mad God (Phil Tippett, 2021)
MMC!’s favourite film at Fantasia proved to be the favourite film of many others, as Phil Tippett’s Mad God took home the audience prizes for Best Animated Feature and Most Groundbreaking Film. Tippett’s special effects sorcery has been seen in the original Star Wars trilogy, Robocop, Jurassic Park, and Starship Troopers, and Fantasia celebrated Tippett with a Lifetime Achievement Award and the North American Premiere of Mad God, Tippett’s highly personal masterwork thirty years in the making. This stop motion opus observes a masked figure (equal parts steampunk plague doctor and World War One trench soldier) lowered in a suspended container into a nightmare landscape of industrial horrors and misshapen monstrosities. Tippett’s central character, the “Assassin,” descends from horrifying world to horrifying world in a Dante-esque tour of mankind’s compulsions and degradations made real. The Assassin’s goal is unclear and so Mad God functions as more of an experiential film than a classical narrative, resembling something like a videogame walkthrough if Hieronymus Bosch worked today as a game designer. The variety and complexity of Tippett’s worlds are truly jaw-dropping and Mad God makes the most of its rare moments of live action performance, such as a cutscene featuring Alex Cox playing a fingernail-enhanced mad scientist. Mad God’s abundance of grotesquerie will surely make it an acquired taste, but it is nevertheless a crowning achievement for Tippett on par with the work of Ladislas Starevich, Jan Švankmajer, and the Quay Brothers.
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (Junta Yamaguchi, 2021)
Another film very deserving of its honours was Junta Yamaguchi’s Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, winner of a Special Jury Mention from Kim Newman’s New Flesh Competition jury and named the Best Asian Feature by Fantasia’s audience. MMC! declared its appreciation for Yamaguchi’s lo-fi take on sci-fi when promoting the film as part of a potential Fantasia double feature with Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s Strawberry Mansion. If anything, MMC!’s appreciation has only grown for this story of a pair of computer screens divided in time by two scant minutes. The micro-time loop that constantly circles through the film’s various nesting dolls is both ingeniously simple and maddeningly complicated. More importantly, the film’s high concept never subordinates its characters to its premise, but instead always keeps it firmly placed as a springboard for personalities, relationships, and interactions. No film at Fantasia this year was as good-naturedly clever as Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (Kier-La Janisse, 2021)
The obvious winner of Fantasia’s audience prize for best documentary, Kier-La Janisse’s epic folk horror survey arranges a murderer’s row of films and experts to ably unpack the themes, tensions, and wonders of the folk horror mode. While some grounding in the material greatly assists the viewing experience as the documentary takes a fair amount of familiarity with these films for granted, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched takes a deep dive with its three-plus hour runtime and casts its net broadly. Essential discussions of folk horror’s unholy trilogy and its infernal take on British heritage give way to treatments on American shores. By its end, the documentary flits across the globe to explore expressions of folk horror in Brazilian voodoo, Japanese ghost cats, Russian fairy tales, vampiric reindeer, and Aztec mummies. Janisse has created a must-see for horror fans looking for a half-course’s extra credit toward their undergrad film degree and anyone looking for an edifying addition to their Shocktober watchlist. Someone please fit Kier-La Janisse for her daisy chain crown – the queen has returned atop her caprine steed!
Office Royale (Kazuaki Seki, 2021)
At last year’s Fantasia, MMC! fell for Hideki Takeuchi’s Fly Me to the Saitama, a wacky portrayal of modern civic rivalries imagined as a sci-fi/fantasy treatment of Japan’s warring clans period in the 16th century. Picking up that torch at this year’s Fantasia is Kazuaki Seki’s Office Royale, an action-comedy-fantasy which explores inter-office and inter-company rivalries between “office ladies” and explodes into the violently ridiculous by conflating these women into sneering, swaggering, copy-making gangsters. The film follows Naoko (Mei Nagano), a quiet office worker who carefully steers clear of her company’s turf wars until she befriends Ran Hojo (Alice Hirose), a new employee who unites the company’s bickering gangs with her indomitable fighting ability. It’s all well and good until other companies start sniffing around and Naoko becomes a pawn between these new warring clans. Kim Newman’s New Flesh Jury deservedly gave Office Royale a Special Jury mention, calling it “a bonkers and hilarious debut film” that “is as thrilling as it is refreshing.” At its core, Office Royale is a kind of wacky Highlander with an ascendancy/discovery of successively transcendent warriors such that there can be only one, and its battles, fought between teased-out, corn-rowed support staff in hallways, foyers, and outdoor plazas, are both credibly fought and outrageously staged. The film’s funniest moments are found in the regular intrusion of office duties like collating copies and making coffee. As Office Royale progresses, it gradually becomes clear that much of the film’s action is hilariously staged during coffee and lunch breaks and alongside apparently oblivious salarymen. This is wonderfully silly fun, right down to the drag-cast rivals and the misapplied lipstick, and was a surprise charmer through and through.
The Story of Southern Islet (Chong Keat Aun, 2020)
Fantasia’s jury for the Camera Lucida section has MMC!’s full support for choosing The Story of Southern Islet for that program’s top prize. Admiration for the film will likely depend on your appreciation of the slow cinema of certain South Asian filmmakers. Enjoy the languid dreaminess of Apichatpong Weerasethakul or the still contemplation and measured distanciation of Edward Yang and this magical folk tale told in low-key, realist style will likely resonate. Essentially concerning a woman’s struggle to relieve her husband’s illness/curse, The Story of Southern Islet provides some captivating long-take visuals and documents traditions and daily customs with an almost anthropological eye. There are no jump scares or cattle prod stingers here; not even any overly creepy sequences. What is presented is a world where the spiritual is slowly and gradually revealed to coexist within a drab material plane, a magical reality that must need to be tended to like any other chore or routine. The Story of Southern Islet is genre cinema truly made for the international art house audience and it was rather enchanting.
Dreams on Fire (Philippe McKie, 2021)
MMC!’s favourite Canadian film was also the winner of the audience prize for Canadian feature. Multidisciplinary artist Philippe McKie makes his feature film directorial debut with a small town girl’s dream of making it in Tokyo as a professional dancer. Bambi Naka stars as Yume, an easy to root for ingénue taking on the big city with wide eyes and real sincerity. Drawing on his passions for music, dance, and fashion, McKie’s film is visually dynamic throughout, artfully capturing the effort of Yume’s dances, the mundane struggles her character faces, and the eye-catching diversity of Tokyo. Dreams on Fire certainly doesn’t redefine that standard story of a young hopeful looking to break through in the big city, but it is wonderful in its execution, never getting unnecessarily ugly in its obstacles and finding more positivity and encouragement throughout. And for as impressive and enthralling a story McKie and Naka create, MMC! has to acknowledge Masahiro Takashima’s hostess club owner who steals almost every scene he is in with his paper-thin, overly tanned veneer of good-natured professionalism. This was a genuine and much appreciated surprise.
Hellbender (John Adams, Zelda Adams, and Toby Poser, 2021)
Hellbender is a slow burn portrait of a witchy mother-daughter relationship punctuated with moments of blood, rock music, and folk horror sorcery. Secrets, some well kept and others not, are the film’s currency as teenage Izzy looks to distinguish herself from her mother’s authority, wrestling control of her social and supernatural natures for herself and breaking the imposed isolation of their remote home. Performances are enticing and unnerving in the slightly amateurish flatness, adding to the film’s uneasy air, and the film’s effects are remarkably convincing in the occasional moments they are employed. (Fans of a great Ken Russell-esque montage of assaultive freakery will also find themselves occasionally rewarded as well.) Hellbender is a great horror two-hander that further enhances the indie-horror reputation of the Adams family and perfectly carries on the folk horror legacy explored in Woodlands Dark. This is a maturely told winner deserving in its Cheval Noir awards for Best Actress (Zelda Adams) and Best Score (John Adams.)
Hold Me Back (Akiko Ohku, 2020)
Returning to filmmaker Akiko Ohku and novelist Risa Wataya after last year’s Tremble All You Want at the We Are One Festival, Hold Me Back has officially made me a fan of the duo’s genre-straining rom-coms. Ohku’s films seem to test generic categorization in wonderful ways, bringing darkness and anxiety to the fore without filling its spaces with villains or rivals. Main character Mitsuko (played by pop star Non) enjoys life “solo” with the counsel of “A,” her male-sounding inner voice who sees her through life’s various challenges, however a potential romance with a slightly junior salesman in her office compromises her settled ways as well as her relationship with A. Hold Me Back likes its quirk but avoids ever settling into drippy tweeness, preferring to take its romantic foibles seriously. The effect is realistically absurd, just like love, and I must now go “solo” into a world longing for Ohku’s next film to arrive like a hungry young salaryman randomly stopping by to pick up dinner.
Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It (Ernar Nurgaliev, 2020)
Veteran Kazakh comedy director Yernar Nurgaliyev takes The Hangover into ultraviolent territory, then adds a dash of rural horror with Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It. The result is silly, gory, and lots of fun and precisely the type of film Fantasia exists to discover and disseminate. A trio of hapless guys from the city go on their first fishing trip, only to witness an accidental mob hit. They’d be dead meat to the gangsters were it not for the one-eyed killing machine stalking the criminals and slaughtering them with blood-soaked ease. Sweetie gleefully revels in these three orbits crashing into each other, setting off explosions of panicked reactions, slapstick buffoonery, and grievous bodily harm. (Actually, there is a fourth orbit in play as well, but we’ll leave that as a surprise.) For movie fans wanting a more violent version of The Wrong Guy, a more loopy version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or a more spacious version of Why Don’t You Just Die!, Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It is waiting to celebrate the “men behaving badly” comedy and then drench it bodily trauma. Good, gruesome fun!
It’s a Summer Film! (Soushi Matsumoto, 2020)
How can MMC! not love a film ending in an exclamation point! Soushi Matsumoto’s It’s a Summer Film! might just as well be renamed The Student Film That Leapt Through Time. It’s certainly no accident that the often filmed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time story gets mentioned early on. Blending the coming-of-age teen drama with samurai and science fiction cinema, It’s a Summer Film! is a bold and ambitious mix of film modes but it all works remarkably well together. Though the plot is difficult to approach without spoiling the film, savvy Japanophiles familiar The Girl Who Leapt Through Time will anticipate at least some of the film’s fun. The movie is delightful at all turns, lacking any real villains and relying on the earnestness and generosity of main character “Barefoot” (played by an irrepressible Marika Ito), her friends “Kickboard” and “Blue Hawaii” (Yuumi Kawai and Kilana Inori), their ragtag group of misfits running a parallel film club and filming an ambitious samurai movie, and even the main film production team working on their own sappy rom-com. Hard work, self-discovery, and chambara film name-dropping are Summer Film’s mission statement and if that checks all your boxes (like it does mine), then Matsumoto has crafted an easy favourite.
Catch the Fair One (Josef Wladyka, 2021)
Catch the Fair One takes concerns over missing and murdered indigenous women into genre territory with this Taken-style quest for recovery and revenge – a pro-boxer’s search for her sister who disappeared two years earlier and may be trapped in a terrifying sex-trafficking network. All credit to director Josef Wladyka and pro-boxer/star Kali Reis for casting an actual female indigenous fighter in the starring role and not flinching from its subject matter. Catch the Fair One doesn’t pander. It never glorifies or demonizes with too wide a brush. It never papers over the physical challenges taken on by its central female character notwithstanding her general badassery. And most importantly, it doesn’t choose the easy ending. Instead, Wladyka barrels forward and lays bare the true gravity and harm inflicted on these lost women and their loved ones. Catch the Fair one is excellent genre cinema and emblematic of the new perspectives it can embrace.
Under the Open Sky (Miwa Nishikawa, 2020)
Under the Open Sky studiously surveys an ex-con’s reintegration into mainstream society. Star Koji Yakusho’s inherent weariness is beautifully exploited in large and small moments, exploring the quiet challenges of a gangster being forced to plan ahead, being told “No,” and being obliged to swallow his pride. Director Miwa Nishikawa explores these struggles not with old colleagues looking to reenlist the ex-con and tempting him with the trappings of power and wealth, but with the rudimentary challenges of obtaining a driver’s license, the prejudices of grocery store owners and co-workers, and the bodily frailties of growing old. Complaints on the pacing of Under the Open Sky are lost on me when its scenes so consistently express such sincerity and generosity. Yakusho’s ex-con is so easy to root for that every misstep is enthralling, be it a raised voice or a tightened chest, a failed driving lesson or a lost reunion. A thoroughly charming and sweetly gentle underdog’s story.
MMC! isn’t done with the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival yet! Our favourite short films of the Festival are still to come and imagined editions of some of these titles will follow. In the meantime, you can find all of MMC!’s takes at our Letterboxd list for the feature film program!