Fantasia 2020: Our Top Picks
Ten titles to look out for from Fantasia Film Festival 2020
Written by Katherine McLaughlin
The virtual edition of Fantasia 2020 proved to be a thoughtfully curated experience, featuring survival horrors, surreal trips, modern portraits of isolation, dark comedies, pitch-black satires, profound reflections on online life, bleak dystopias that investigate the human price of callous capitalism and nightmarish visions of history not only repeating itself, but playing out as cautionary tale. The jury have deliberated and awarded prizes to their top choices as have the audience - and you can read the results here.
In our picks of the best of the festival, characters wander down darkened paths into the unknown, enact glorious revenge, stab the patriarchy through the heart, scream for mercy, reveal tragic stories of loss, trawl through murky waters and explore their subconscious. The films we’ve chosen are headed up by a combination of confident newcomers and established names, each one displaying a distinctly unique vision of what it is to be human.
The Dark and the Wicked (Bryan Bertino)
From the director of The Strangers comes a nightmarish depiction of pain, suffering and scrutiny of faith that never lets up. Set on a rural farm, the children of a terminally ill man return home to help their mother out with caregiving duties. She’s warned them off entering the property but they refuse to listen.
Bryan Bertino wrote and directed this frightening supernatural horror on his family farm. He uses the isolated location, the farmyard animals, the enclosed pens, the stark surroundings, religious imagery and a father’s deathbed to skilfully eke out dread and suspense as he envelops his characters in suffocating layers of grief. Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr. and Julie Oliver-Touchstone all turn in affecting performances – the mother character is already severely worn out by her husband’s illness and burden of care on introduction. Her children are not far behind; their guilt driving them to despair and desperate actions.
The film stares intently into the darkness and rightly reflects the fear, confusion and chaos of a family on the brink of self-destruction. If the devil came knocking on the door a while back, then he’s made himself a cosy home in this rural setting. The manifest evil that plagues this family is already in the house, and Bertino uses everything at his disposal to invoke a claustrophobic atmosphere of impending doom and woe. Even as the characters scream for mercy their prayers go unanswered and it’s scary as hell. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Read our full review here.
Marygoround (Daria Woszek)
In the hands of Polish director Daria Woszek, womanhood and the menopause are turned into a compassionate, radiant Hopperesque vision. Working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Sylwester Piechura and Aleksandra Swierk, it was informed by both her lead actress Grazyna Misiorowska and mother’s experience of ‘the change.’ The film is even dedicated to Woszek’s mum.
The film never veers into schmaltzy and the dynamic between the female characters is beautifully observed as they offer each other support in their own unique way. It’s joyful and weird and feels true to life as they pass each other in the night or catch up in the morning, one with a hangover, the other in a pensive state. Read more about the film and our interview with the director here.
The Block Island Sound (Kevin McManus and Matthew McManus)
Whenever you think you’ve got a handle on where this unnerving coastal horror is headed, it slips into unexpected territory. This clever horror has a strong grasp on its themes of climate change and family dysfunction and unsettles the viewer with menacing sound design and unforgettable images. Low growls, roars and synth emanate from the shores of this remote New England fishing village where theories about the disappearing and dying wildlife are shared between the locals.
Without giving too much away, the main figures in the film are a thirty-something man caught in his grief for his late mother and stuck at home with his ailing, alcoholic father. His sister, who has returned from the mainland with her daughter to help out suggests its time for a change, but he refuses her help.
The ensemble cast deliver moving performances, and the human drama is beautifully observed as it touches upon addiction and self-destructive behaviour. There’s also a memorable supporting turn from Jim Cummings as a conspiracy theorist, shooting the shit like a young Casey Affleck in Good Will Hunting. It all merges together as a potent, paranoia-filled study of human behaviour in the darkest of circumstances as it bracingly upends our place in the ecosystem.
Lucky (Natasha Kermani )
Working from a screenplay written by Brea Grant (who also stars) Natasha Kermani directs a surreal and satirical Groundhog Day style horror that’s part home invasion and part wake-up call. It’s all terror all the time for a self-help author who is reeling from an intruder attack in her home. Her husband seems weirdly blasé about it all and after an argument leaves his wife alone in the house. Every night her anonymous stalker returns, and every time she thinks she’s defeated him he mysteriously disappears and returns the next day.
The tightly written screenplay by Grant toys with slasher tropes from a refreshing angle, and it makes for a cathartic and relatable watch. It’s a powerfully performed film that skilfully conveys an unnerving sense of impending doom and palpable rage as it tackles society’s disconcerting response to the repetitive cycle of violence against women. Read our full review here.
Detention (John Hsu)
Director John Hsu adapts the Taiwanese horror video game of the same name with true compassion for its characters and an eye for eerie visuals. The game is set in 1960s Taiwan during the White Terror period, and follows two students who find themselves trapped in their High School. At the start of the film we meet a group who study banned books in secret. It’s both thrilling and frightening. Then we switch to witnessing the horrific torture of one young man who gets knocked out and enters a purgatory like nightmare at his high-school.
This is an incredibly moving film in the same vein as Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, as it switches between confronting historical violence and haunting images of those lost in conflict. As the two students at the centre of the film wander down darkened corridors, coming to terms with guilt and sorrow, a mystery unfolds that allows for greater understanding behind its characters actions. Hsu delivers a stylish and powerful supernatural horror that wrestles with the ghosts of the past.
The Columnist (Ivo van Aart)
In director Ivo van Aart’s tantalising revenge fantasy flick, author and columnist Boot has had enough of the daily flood of death threats from trolls so decides to take matters in to her own hands. This hilarious Dutch satire takes aim at the subject of online etiquette from all angles by debating censorship and freedom of speech in the social media era in gloriously entertaining fashion.
Allowing the main character, Femke Boot to play out the delicious fantasy of literally taking down trolls is part of the fun of watching The Columnist and Herbers does a fantastic job in the lead role. Whether she’s quietly seething over her laptop or smashing a frying pan over a harassers’ head her delivery of exasperation and rage is spot on. Of course, the film is aware Boot is taking things too far and that’s one of the points it’s making. Words are a powerful tool and their clout on social media has lasting consequences. Read our full review here.
Sleep (Michael Venus)
In his smart and visually arresting debut feature, director and co-writer Michael Venus blurs the line between dreams and reality to drop a breadcrumb trail leading to the cause of a woman’s disturbed sleep patterns. Flight attendant and single mum, Marlene (Sandra Hüller) is plagued by recurring nightmares and loss of breath, the burden of which is taken on by her nineteen-year-old daughter Mona (an excellent Gro Swantje Kohlhof) who is regularly awoken by her mother’s blood-curdling screams. When Marlene randomly finds the location of her nightmares in a magazine – a hotel in Stainbach - she secretly slips away to investigate.
This tightly scripted German chiller uses folklore and fairy-tale imagery in deeply unsettling ways to confront the ghosts of the past. Layered in its approach, the film has a strong hold on themes of repressed trauma, national shame and the threat of Nazism. Read our full review here
Bleed with Me (Amelia Moses)
This chilling psychological horror by Amelia Moses in her directorial debut feature marks her out as a huge talent to watch. The ambiguous interplay between two women who head to a cabin in the woods for the weekend is beautifully pitched and plays out in an eerily isolated setting. The two friends seem to be complete opposites, Rowan the quiet one, and Emily the outgoing one with a boyfriend - who is also along for the ride.
At first the atmosphere is cosy and welcoming as the trio play cards and sip wine. But soon Rowan is having nightmares that Emily is stealing her blood and the ambience switches to freezing cold. She wakes up every morning with a fresh scar on her arm, convinced she is in danger. Told from Rowan’s POV, the way her psychological torment is depicted strikes a powerful note which leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions on the female friendship at the centre of the piece.
Why are these two friends? What are they getting out of this friendship? And does Emily actually care for Rowan? The lead performance from Lee Marshall as she switches between shy, confused and frightened in her interactions with Emily is intriguingly played. The confident direction from Moses ably transports the viewer not only to impressively shot snowy backdrops but inside the mind of a scared and suspicious woman who appears to be weakened by the actions of her friend.
PVT Chat (Ben Hozie)
Julia Fox and Peter Vax turn in incredibly committed performances in Ben Hozie’s humorous and tender portrait of isolation and connection in the digital age. Observed through the lives of a San Francisco cam-girl and her NYC-based male client who we first meet furiously wanking at his beloved laptop, the majority of the story revolves around the pair interacting over their computer screens. Everyday life, including the alluring lights of massage parlours in NYC by night, are scattered in between sexual thrills and discussion about fine art.
PVT Chat never moralises, instead allowing the audience a voyeuristic tour of a relationship built on a combination of lies, deceit and vulnerability. Hozie whips up a frenzied mood reflecting the seemingly unquenchable sexual appetite of the film’s male character who spends his time hustling in online poker rooms while struggling to pay his rent. Themes of intimacy and moments of raw honesty are laid bare in explicit scenes that tug at the heart of the matter in this compelling depiction of modern romance.
Climate of the Hunter (Micky Reece)
Micky Reece’s 27th feature film plays out as seductive 1970s Euro-horror meets the psychological drama of the best of 1970s arthouse cinema. Titles like Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant spring to mind while watching.
A psychiatrist’s report sat open for the viewer to devour suggests Alma Summers may not be in her right mind. A diagnosis of body dysmorphia and delusions places a huge question mark over proceedings as a reunion of sorts plays out in a cabin in the woods over delectable evening feasts. Through Alma’s eyes the male guest of honour appears to be a vampire lusting over her blood; and who are we to say any different?
In this precisely shot replication of an era where society suggested you could have it all, the tormented female psyche convenes with the patriarchy for fabulous dinner parties where the food looks like it has been prepared from those famous Weight Watchers recipe cards from the 1970s. The main meal may be watching the shattered remains of women come to terms with emotional turmoil, societal pressures, and their credibility being questioned but eventually the patriarchy gets his just desserts. Read our full review here.