10 Must-See Films at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival

Christel Deskins

Few things are as scary as real life these days, but for those seeking more refined thrills and chills, this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival continues to provide the best in “genre” entertainment. While the “genre” moniker is wide-ranging enough to stir up images of everything from slasher films to […]

Few things are as scary as real life these days, but for those seeking more refined thrills and chills, this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival continues to provide the best in “genre” entertainment. While the “genre” moniker is wide-ranging enough to stir up images of everything from slasher films to kung fu epics, the annual Canadian festival has consistently stretched the concept to embrace all sorts of off-beat features that go somehow beyond the norm of mainstream cinema.

This year’s lineup is no different, encompassing not just terrifying horror movies and wild martial arts action, but true stories about unique people, unexpected romantic dramas, even a careful examination of how a cute cartoon frog became a symbol of hate. If it’s weird or wacky, it just might land at Fantasia.

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This year’s festival runs August 20 through September 2, though it is only available online to Canadian audiences. The program features a mixture of “live” virtual screenings and on-demand offerings as well as special events. You can check out the full schedule right here, along with the festival’s robust FAQ.

Here are a dozen films worth keeping tabs on, even if you can’t tune in.

“12 Hour Shift”

It’s been more than 18 years since Angela Bettis seared herself into the firmaments of modern horror with her singularly demented performance as a modern Dr. Frankenstein in Lucky McKee’s “May,” and to this day her presence in a movie still promises the kind of unhinged (yet ineffably human) swing for the fences that represents Fantasia at its best. Her fraying and fearless performance as a drug-addicted Arkansas nurse in Brea Grant’s “12 Hour Shift” makes good on that promise and then some.

Set in the late ’90s — the silent dawn of the opioid crisis in America — Grant’s vividly realized horror-comedy follows Nurse Mandy through a double shift that starts on the wrong foot and spirals out of control from there as its heroine tries to juggle her patients, her own needs, and her side hustle as an organ-harvester without any of these demands bleeding into each other. Needless to say, it doesn’t go so well. A plunge into the heart of darkness that will have you laughing in horror all the way down, “12 Hour Shift” is one of the rare movies deranged enough to make sense of America’s healthcare system. —DE

“Crazy Samurai Musashi”

Shimomura Yuji’s “Crazy Samurai Musashi” might hinge on a simple gimmick, but it’s a good one: Legendary 16th century swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (played here by “Versus” star Sakaguchi Tak) squares off against 588 foes in the span of a single 77-minute take. No cuts, but a lot of slices. Written by the great Sion Sono — who probably churned the script out in a single afternoon — the movie opens with a quick bit of superfluous table-setting before the vaunted ronin arrives and starts hacking people apart. The choreography is a bit redundant (you’ll quickly lose count of how many people Miyamoto bonks in the head with his blade) and the camerawork never aspires to offset a low budget with high art, but “Crazy Samurai Musashi” is hard to beat as a sheer feat of cinematic endurance. Watching Sakaguchi get winded, dig deep for whatever strength he has left, and then dispatch another circle of foes… it’s a riveting drama unto itself. —DE

“The Dark & the Wicked”

Billed by Fantasia brass as “one of the most unsettling films we’ve seen this year” — which is saying something — “The Strangers” filmmaker Bryan Bertino’s latest sounds like precisely the kind of skin-crawling psychological horror show he’s so adept at crafting. Set in a different kind of haunted house than his 2008 suburban nightmare, “The Dark & the Wicked” stars Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. as a pair of siblings who are tasked with caring for their ailing older father during his final days.

That’s tough enough, but their dear old dad also happens to live in a house that is infused with “palpably horrific” energies. As Ireland and Abbott’s characters attempt to grapple with the emotional strain put on them (and their grieving mother) by their family troubles, the walls start to close in around them, and a different kind of horror story unfolds. Shot on location at Bertino’s own family farm, the film’s combination of pure horror and deep grief sound like a wily pairing with this year’s “Relic,” which mined similar territory to stir up big emotions. One big difference: “The Dark & the Wicked” promises nothing less than genuine occult-based horror. With “Candyman” star Xander Berkeley on deck to play a local priest, we can’t help but wonder what shape that horrific promise will ultimately take. —KE

“Feels Good Man”

It took thousands of years for people to pervert the ancient Eurasian figure of the swastika (often used to symbolize good luck) into the world’s most notorious illustration of hate, and even the German nationalists who first co-opted it as an expression of Aryan power had to wait several decades before it was formally adopted by the Nazi Party. But it only took about 10 years for a harmless frog named Pepe to be radicalized into the internet’s default expression of nihilistic evil, and his actual transition from benign meme to alt-right icon happened much faster than that. And the sweet-natured San Francisco cartoonist who conceived Pepe had to sit there and watch it happen.

On its surface, Arthur Jones’ “Feels Good Man” is the sympathetic portrait of a man who created a monster, and then (eventually) took it upon himself to reclaim Pepe the Frog as an emblem of peace and love and peeing with your pants around your ankles. But underneath the lucid digital etymology that Jones energetically glues together from a zillion bits of internet detritus — and the warm snippets of original animation that he uses to show Pepe and his animal friends in a gentler light — is a documentary so much bigger than Matt Furie that it threatens to swallow him whole. —DE

“Jumbo”

At heart, Zoé Wittock’s “Jumbo” is a rather conventional European dramedy about a single mother (the great Emmanuelle Bercot) struggling to accept the woman her daughter has become. On its surface, however, this pleasantly delirious feature debut tells the fable-like story of Jeanne, a young loner (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” breakout Noémie Merlant) who develops a deep psychosexual attraction to the tilt-a-whirl ride at the rundown Belgian amusement park where she works. So much that she orgasms at the thought of jet-black oil jizzing out of its metal parts and enveloping her nude body like the symbiote from “Venom.”

Splitting the difference between “Terms of Endearment” and David Cronenberg’s “Crash” in a way that’s often sweet and surreal (but never sinister), Wittock essentially takes an ultra-familiar premise and coats it with the candied shell of something you’ve never seen before. It’s enchanting stuff for people in the mood for a different kind of ride. —DE

“Lapsis”

Noah Hutton’s feature debut takes place in a “parallel present,” but nothing about clever sci-fi dramedy “Lapsis” feels that removed from the contemporary world. Smartly weaving together questions of corporate greed, a cheeky bitcoin stand-in, and social justice issues that don’t feel shunted in just to be “timely,” “Lapsis” is as much about the tightly constructed world Hutton has created as the one his audience lives within.

Schlubby leading man Ray (Dean Imperial) — a supporting character accuses him of having a “70s mobster vibe,” and that’s not far off — serves as our window into the world of “Lapsis.” A regular Joe adorned in aviator glasses and polyester shirts, Ray works a blue collar job in Queens, and knows the world is starting to move past him, but his resistance to change has kept him stagnant until personal issues force him to embrace a technological revolution. A new encryption technology called quantum has rocked the stock market, and it’s starting to have many other applications. Hutton’s world-building takes flight once Ray adopts a new career that forces physical labor on a suffering population of independent contractors with zero benefits, setting out into a brave new (and often, very boring) unknown, and unfolding a clever mystery while he does it. —KE

“Morgana”

It’s the kind of thing you could only ever expect to find in a movie (well, maybe): the tale of a desperate housewife who, disappointed with the trajectory of her life, considers ending it all, only to find salvation in the most unexpected of places. Such is the story of “Morgana,” which takes that idea to wild (and ultimately quite satisfying) new ends, with a twist or two along the way.

Per its official synopsis, the film follows Morgana Muses who, “after 20 years as a dutiful housewife stuck in a loveless, sexless marriage … has had enough of her dreary life. Desperately lonely and starved of intimacy, she books a male escort for one last hurrah before ending it all. Her final night takes an unexpected turn when her relationship with the escort opens up a new world of personal and sexual freedom. Instead of killing herself, Morgana makes an award-winning porn film about their date, moves from suburban Australia to Berlin, and becomes a celebrated feminist porn director and star.”

It’s also all true, and “Morgana” is a documentary about a remarkable woman, one who chose to embrace life on her terms, finding connection and acceptance in an often misunderstood community. The film combines interviews, verite elements, handmade miniature elements, animation, archival footage, and Morgana’s own erotica films to tell the story of her unique life. —KE

“The Paper Tigers”

A middle-aged riff on “The Karate Kid” that boasts all the raw heart and roundhouse kicks of a Shaw Brothers’ classic, “The Paper Tigers” is a hugely affectionate martial arts movie about two long-estranged friends (Mykel Shannon Jenkins and “Mulan” actor Ron Yuan) who reconnect after 30 years to avenge the murder of the master who trained them as teenagers. They are — as the saying goes — too old for this shit, but Jim and Danny aren’t going to let a few sore joints or family obligations stop them from kicking ass and rediscovering the power of their late master’s teachings.

Low-budget but hugely likeable, “The Paper Tigers” exudes old school kung-fu charm (the choreography is strong and the sound effects do not hold back), and lands almost as many solid jokes as it does punches to the solar plexus. This is Washington-born director Quac Bao Tran’s debut feature, but his time spent training with Hong Kong cinema icon Corey Yuen (whose on and off-screen credits stretch from Yuen Woo-ping’s 1979 “Dance of the Drunk Mantis” to the Jason Statham vehicle “The Transporter”) has left him well-prepared to step behind the camera. —DE

“PVT Chat”

Julia Fox turned a lot of heads with her larger-than-life breakout performance as Howie Ratner’s loyal girlfriend in last year’s “Uncut Gems,” but even in the wake of indie stardom, no one that cool was ever just going to go mainstream. Instead, Fox has dug herself even deeper into the indie New York art scene, as her second movie role finds her starring as a leather-clad cam girl in Ben Hozie’s deceptively sweet “PVT Chat,” a modern fairy tale about an excitable burnout who’s obsessed with online blackjack (Peter Vack, always down to clown) and the imposing dom he meets on the internet and masturbates to during 1:1 web calls every night.

It sounds tawdry — and it never demures — but Hozie is genuinely interested in the twisted fabric of connection in the digital age; in how sex has been too commodified to retain its value, allowing true intimacy to become the holy grail. Flirting with inspirations as far-flung as “Amélie,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” and even some of the Safdie brothers’ dingy swagger (Buddy Duress does his thing in a supporting role), “PVT Chat” explores what people are afraid of in a world where everything is exposed. —DE

“You Cannot Kill David Arquette”

Twenty years ago, David Arquette took a gamble that may have ruined his career: In an ill-fated attempt to promote “Ready to Rumble,” Arquette became a part of World Championship Wrestling’s ongoing storylines and eventually emerged as its world championship. Diehard fans were pissed: It’s one thing to watch cartoonish musclemen beat each other up under scripted circumstances — but letting the scrawny goofball from the “Scream” franchise dominate the arena was a bridge too far.

Needless to say, the blowback sent Arquette on a downward spiral of addiction and depression from which he never fully recovered. David Darg and Price James’ documentary follows Arquette as he anticipates a questionable return to the ring. An unnerving black comic exploration of celebrity, addiction, and personal responsibility, this wily portrait of Arquette’s unorthodox comeback suggests the surprising love child of “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Wrestler.” As the title suggests, it’s poised to prove the resilience of its star in a whole new way. The movie has yet to surface in other festival lineups, but there’s no question that audiences will be eager to discover the story behind Arquette’s unruly new chapter. —EK

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