There are always hot tickets at film festivals, the movies that everyone with a badge knows about and wants to see. At this year's Fantastic Fest, everyone wanted to see A Boy and His Samurai because director Yoshihiro Nakamura is a festival favorite. Everyone wanted to see You're Next and Sleepless Night because of the incredible buzz floating down from the Toronto International Film Festival. Movies like Michael and Juan of the Dead demanded immediate attention thanks to premises that immediately stuck out as provocative or original.
Still, there were over 70 films playing at Fantastic Fest this year and when those hot tickets sold out, audiences gravitated elsewhere and discovered the hidden gems, the films that came out of nowhere with little to no buzz. Some of these films transformed into festival hits through word of mouth. Some of them stayed under the radar. Five films in particular stand out as the "secret successes" of Fantastic Fest 2011.
The feature version of a Danish television series that surely 99.9% of the American population has never even heard of, let alone watched, Clown doesn't immediately sound like the most accessible film in the world. However, you don't have to know a thing about the original series to enjoy the adventures of two very poorly behaved middle-aged men who embark on a canoe trip to an incredibly exclusive brothel and, thanks to circumstances that can't be described in polite company, bring an 11 year old boy along for the ride. Despite premiering before an audience that was only about half full, word of mouth on the film exploded, making its second screening one of must-sees of the festival and leading to Clown winning best comedic film and best comedic screenplay at the Fantastic Fest awards.
4. Boys on the Run
After seeing Boys on the Run, it's a head-scratcher as to why it was one of the least talked about films of the festival. It's a crowd-pleaser, a very funny, very sad and very real movie about being young and in love and barely being in control of your own emotions and your sexuality. Maybe we can blame the blurb from the festival program, which promised a wacky, raunchy sex comedy filled with debauchery and "serial masturbation." A special note: serial masturbation has never been something that audiences flock to unless they're into a very specific kind of movie. The plot description is a genuine turn-off that kept a lot of people from seeing one of the stronger films of Fantastic Fest 2011.
Where exactly did Headhunters come from? It doesn't have any big stars, it doesn't have director whose name commands attention and its plot (an art thief steals from the wrong man) seems like the kind of movie we've seen many times before. For whatever reason -- a primo time slot, perhaps? --Headhunters emerged as one of the biggest hits at the festival, transforming its second showing into one of most in-demand screenings of the week. Perhaps the film's success can be connected to how it has something for everyone: it somehow manages to balance being a gritty crime movie, a realistic and touching romance, a cat and mouse thriller and a hilarious dark comedy. Based on the sheer amount of love floating around the fest for Headhunters, I can't help but be shocked by its going home empty-handed at the awards.
2. Sleep Tight
The sad truth is that a bad time slot can hurt a film. Sleep Tight's first screening put it up against the hotly anticipated French horror film Livid, the critically acclaimed crime drama Bullhead and Juan of the Dead, a film that had just about everyone at the Fest curious. With everyone talking about those films,Sleep Tight flew quietly under the radar, so when it played again on the second to last day of the fest in the Alamo Drafthouse's biggest theater in front of a sold-out crowd, everyone had one reaction: why the hell haven't we heard about this film? The only film at Fantastic Fest this year that could be remotely described as "Hitchcockian", Sleep Tight places the audience on the side of truly despicable sociopath as he stalks and emotionally torments the gorgeous woman who is the object of his desire (and unquenchable rage). It's a creepy, classically suspenseful masterwork of a thriller that sadly didn't receive the praise it deserves until a little too late.
1. Snowman's Land
Both of Snowman's Land screenings were half empty. The film went in with no buzz and left with none. The premise (aging hitman teams up with hotshot rookie for a job that goes horribly wrong) is something that everyone and their mother has seen a thousand times before. The execution, though, is something else: a strange, violent, existential black comedy filled with endearing and terrifying characters, left field twists and beautiful cinematography that takes perfect advantage of the terrifying wilderness the characters find themselves stranded in. The film wears its influences on its sleeve (the Coen brothers, Martin McDonagh), but it emerges as its own beast, a nasty and smart look at how people react to act and fail to act in a time of crisis.