Being tasked with finding the "best heroes" at Fantastic Fest is like being tasked to find a needle in a haystack. Or, more appropriately considering the films that play this particular film festival, it's like trying to find a drop of someone's blood in a puddle of a bunch of people's blood. It's hard. When your days are filled with films about violent criminals, serial killers, obsessive weirdos, Satan himself and the occasional abortion doctor, finding enough heroic figures to fill out a list is quite the task.
So, without further ado, here are the top five heroes at this year's Fantastic Fest. This is a definitive list and I will not allow for any debate whatsoever.
5. Judge Dredd in Dredd
The greatest thing about Dredd is the title character, played by Karl Urban with deadpan, vanity-free absurdity. How many actors would sign up to play an obscure British comic book character whose previous attempt at big screendom bombed horribly? How many would insist that they stay true to the comic by never removing his face-obscuring mask? Thankfully, Urban's chiseled jawline, imposing physique and gruff, "I've seen it all and will not hesitate to kill you" voice make things like faces feel redundant. Sure, Judge Dredd may be a violent, brutal officer of the law for a fascist regime in the apocalyptic future, but he's our violent, brutal officer of the law for a fascist regime in the apocalyptic future. To get specific, he's the greatest violent psychopath/hero since Ray Stevenson's take on Frank Castle in Punisher: War Zone. Like that film, Dredd and its hero won't find total appreciation until they hit home video.
4. Mark in Miami Connection
He's a middle-aged orphan immigrant. He's a college student who knows the importance of studying and the dangers of cocaine. He rocks out in a popular rock band called Dragon Sound. He is a Tae Kwon Do master. He is firmly anti-ninja. He's Mark, the hero of Miami Connection! A cult oddity that vanished following its 1987 release, this whirlwind blast of cinematic insanity is back, digitally restored and prepared to teach audiences the world over about the importance of school, family and roundhouse kicking drug-dealing biker ninjas in the face. At the center of it all is Mark, played by martial artist and self-help guru YK Kim. You may only understand half of what he says through his thick accent, garbled English and atrocious dialogue, but since he single-handedly saved the city of Orlando from evil Miami ninjas, he more than earned a spot on this list.
3. "Devotion" Lee in Lee's Adventure
An odd, beautiful film from a continent known for producing odd, beautiful films, Lee's Adventure is the Chinese answer to Scott Pilgrim (with a touch of Kurt Vonnegut). Jaycee Chan (son of Jackie Chan) plays an office drone/slacker with a bizarre medical disability that lets him experience time in slow motion, Lee decides to devote his life to traveling back in time to prevent the death of his girlfriend. Naturally, the road to time travel is paved with opposition and his journey to perform the impossible grows increasingly ridiculous. How exactly does becoming a video game master allow Lee to travel through time? Why does he need to become a master spy and battle terrorists alongside an animated Nicolas Cage to do so? And why are all of his adventures told in the language of movie trailers and video games (with a healthy does of anime)? No reason is ever given, but throughout all of the insanity, Lee remains our emotional center and reminds us that he may essentially be a superhero, but he's doing it all for love. Who can't get behind that?
2. Joe Swanberg in Real Life
One of the most epic conflicts at Fantastic Fest 2012 didn't take place on a movie screen -- it took place right next door to the theater in a gym in front of a capacity crowd. As part of the traditional Fantastic Debates (where two people debate a subject behind podiums before literally boxing it out to decide the true winner), filmmaker Joe Swanberg and film critic Devin Faraci took their long simmering mutual dislike to its natural conclusion. The subject of the debate was whether or not the "mumblecore" movement is worthwhile or the worst thing to happen to indie film in ages. Although I'm a fan of both men and their respective work, there was something incredibly satisfying (and ridiculously cinematic) about seeing a filmmaker soundly trounce his greatest critic in the ring and win over a crowd that was definitely not on his side at the start. To put it bluntly, Swanberg Rock IV'd it. It wasn't just a victory: it was a slaughter.
1. Victor Bariteau in The American Scream
Victor Braiteau is not a supersoldier. He's not a time traveling badass. He's not a martial arts expert. Heck, he's not even an independent filmmaker who knows how to throw a punch. He's a family man and an IT drone whose job is about to be outsourced to India. The highlight of his often financially precarious suburban existence is Halloween, when he transforms his yard into a haunted house that is enjoyed by the entire neighborhood. Michael Stephenson's The American Scream is a documentary about little victories, about people struggling to express themselves against all odds. Like in Stephenson's Best Worst Movie, the stakes here are small in the grand scheme, but they're the most important thing in the world to the subjects of the film. We root for Bariteau because he's attempting to do what all of want to do: achieve our dreams. His dreams aren't that big, but they do require steps off the beaten path. Watching Bariteau take those steps makes for one the funniest, sweetest and most thrilling things you'll ever see.