No matter how you spent the last days of September (Sept. 23-30, to be exact), you didn't have as much fun as the folks at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. Lucky attendees at the sold-out sixth annual film festival found themselves up to their eyeballs in sci-fi, horror, action, and fantasy cinema from around the globe, not to mention all the gore/perversity/Sharktopi a genre fan could want, karaoke, parties, karaoke parties, and the kind of crazy shenanigans that have become synonymous with Fantastic Fest. Is this the only film festival in the world where the fest director spars in the ring with celebrity guest boxers? You bet your shakey-face badge photos it is. Read on to see what else you missed and mark your calendar for next year, already.
10. Let the Right Choir In Fantastic Fest got off to a crowd-pleasing start with its opening night film, Let Me In, the Americanized English-language adaptation of the Swedish novel Let the Right One In. Stars Kodi Smit-McPhee and Elias Koteas attended the gala screening, where Fantastic Fest founder and director Tim League -- wearing a Viking costume, naturally -- brought director Matt Reeves onstage. Reeves was joined by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, who in turn treated the audience to a live performance of music from the film's haunting score sung by the Texas Boys Choir.
9. "A rapper, a Hobbit, and Bill Pullman walk into a bar…" Said bar was the Alamo Drafthouse's Highball lounge, where the "Chaos Reigns" karaoke party earned its name the moment League brought festival guests Elijah Wood, Bill Pullman, and the Wu Tang Clan's RZA up onstage to join in on an impromptu performance. Their song of choice: that horrendously catchy Black Eyed Peas song "I Gotta Feeling."
Within seconds a shirtless League was crowd-surfing, RZA was on the mic, and filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) began dancing back-up while Elijah Wood frantically took his own photographs of the scene. Chaos reigned, indeed. (And it reigned again later that night when the group took to the stage to dance back-up on "It's Raining Men." Hallelujah!)
8. The Beatles + Japanese intrigue = Golden Slumber Keeping with the musical theme, the Fantastic Fest crowd picked up early on the sweet Japanese import Golden Slumber, a comedy-thriller about a simple delivery man who unwittingly gets caught up in a conspiracy plot and assassination. Titled after the Beatles song of the same name, which is sung repeatedly throughout the film by actors in Japanese-accented English, Golden Slumber had festival-goers singing to themselves all week ("Once there was a way/To get back homeward") -- but will the difficulty of procuring song rights hinder a stateside release?
7. Yuen Woo Ping and the Cormans Fantastic Fest played host to three estimable genre legends, martial arts director/choreographer Yuen Woo Ping (Kung Fu Hustle, The Matrix) and low budget mavericks Roger and Julie Corman, who made appearances to receive the Fest's Lifetime Achievement Awards. Naturally, said awards came in the form of swords. Giant, shiny swords.
Critic Elvis Mitchell bestowed the award to between screenings of the grind house cinema documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed and the Cormans' latest Sci-Fi Channel creature feature, Sharktopus; Wu-Tang Clan rapper-filmmaker RZA flew in to present Yuen with his giant sword of awesomeness between presentations of the Hong Kong legend's very first film, the Jackie Chan starrer Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, and his latest, True Legend.
6. A Jackass. In person. On fire. In 3-D! The week was packed with celebrities doing bizarre things (two words: Nacho Vigalondo) but none was quite as memorable as the one from Jackass alum Steve -O, who brought footage from the upcoming Jackass 3D. First, he showed off his tattoos and regaled the crowd with stories of his early days in Austin, when he was so poor he had to submit his body to science for money. Now having reached some modest level of success, Steve-O put on a live demonstration of Jackassery by dousing his head in hairspray and lighting his head on fire as a friend shot a stream of alcohol across it, in effect becoming a "human fire-breathing torch."
Minutes later, the lights dimmed and the Alamo Drafthouse crowd got another Steve-O treat: an eight-minute reel from Jackass 3D highlighted by a segment featuring Steve-O and a Port-o-Potty. It was called, simply, "Poo Cocktail Supreme." It was a hit.
5. Tim League vs. Michelle Rodriguez Speaking of hits, there were plenty of punches thrown and landed Sunday night at the annual Fantastic Debates held next door to the Alamo Drafthouse theaters at the South Austin Gym. In the Debates, two filmmakers/journalists/celebrities argue a topic and then duke it out in the ring, like the fight between Twitch.com critic Todd Brown and filmmaker Jon Ford, which ended in a dislocated shoulder and plenty of ill will. Thank goodness for the title match between Tim League and special guest Michelle Rodriguez, which brought the event to a fever pitch. Much more evenly matched than anticipated, it ended in a draw with both fighters bruised and bleeding but smiling ear to ear, leaving fest-goers wondering who League'll take on in 2011.
4. Donnie Yen-tastic! Fantastic Fest was a good place to be a Donnie Yen fan. The 47-year-old Hong Kong action icon starred in no less than three films in a year of programming dominated by Asian cinema, playing very different characters in each.
First to be screened was 14 Blades, a period wuxia film that earned mixed reviews but near-universal praise for Yen's turn as a lone assassin fighting his way through old friends and new enemies. Next, there was Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, with Yen reprising the iconic role he played in the 1995 series Fist of Fury (Bruce Lee and Jet Li also played the character in previous film incarnations) -- a masked vigilante in a Kato mask running around 1930s Shanghai like a Chinese Bruce Wayne/Batman. The Yen three-fer closed with the sequel Ip Man 2, in which Yen's wing chun master runs into trouble, in the form of Sammo Hung, in colonial Hong Kong.
3. And you thought Stephen King's It was freaky…Clowns. Frightening, sociopathic clowns who go nuts over the comely circus performer they both love and embark on a duel rampage of destruction and murder in Franco-ruled Spain. This was the joy and the terror of Alex de la Iglesia's The Last Circus: Balada Triste de Trompeta, which played Fantastic Fest just weeks after nabbing Best Director for Iglesia at the Venice Film Festival.
Other images seared into the brain by Iglesia's dark, dark comedy: a cross-dressing machete-wielding clown, an obese naked man eating raw deer flesh, self-mutilation, rough carnie sex, and a gorgeously filmed set piece evoking the most famous comic book death of all time.
2. The tire that kills! A rubber tire awakens, self-actualizes, and goes on a killing spree in Rubber, one of the more surprising, absurd selections of the Fest. Director Quentin Dupieux manages to make "Robert" the rubber tire live and breathe and think and feel, an inanimate object brought stirringly to life without the aid of dialogue. The pleasures of Rubber lie in watching its plucky, demented protagonist wheel around the desert stalking people (and watching him explode them with his mind!) and taking in the excellent French electro soundtrack by director Dupieux (under his musical nom de plum, Mr. Oizo) and Justice's Gaspard Augé.
1. The Closing Night party Traditionally, Fantastic Fest parties are tied thematically to big films at the fest, so when League and Co. took to a ghost town outside of Austin to host the closing night festivities some wondered what the heck it had to do with Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, a Dirty Dozen-esque tale of samurai on a suicide mission in feudal Japan. In truth, the darkened setting did evoke the rural last-stand town of 13 Assassins' final battle scene -- only instead of broken bodies and samurai swords, the place was full of booze and a 500-lb. cow spit-roasting over an open fire.
Also on hand: a full mariachi band, a poker room, a maze, bars galore, and instructors giving knife-throwing lessons to drunken revelers. Local band Arc Attack (you might have seen them on America’s Got Talent) stole the show by playing their set between two large musical Tesla coils that shot bolts of energy into the night sky, followed by impromptu fireworks in a neighboring field. A quick glance toward the pyrotechnics show revealed a well-known visiting guest filmmaker beginning to aim fireworks toward the crowd before being gently redirected towards open space, averting chaos.
Thus concluded a week of exhaustive movie-watching and relentless partying at the most fantastic film festival in America. Who's joining me in Austin next year?