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Fantastic films and where to find them

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Preston Barta

Austin-based film festival to unleash eccentric features

Fantastic Fest is only a few days away, which means badge holders should take the time to enjoy the calm before the storm. Ready your liver and catch all your z’s right now.

The Austin-based film festival is more than just one huge rager for movie lovers. It’s an institution built on friendship and community. It’s a comfortable place where fans can open their eyes to as many films as possible and immerse themselves in fun. Though this year will be different amid recent controversy involving festival co-founder Tim League and a former Alamo Drafthouse employee, festival-goers are prepared to show they’re bigger than any situation tossed their way. Because really, all we want to do is watch some good flicks and hang out with our best buds.

So while those attending take the time for introspection, and those unfamiliar learn what they’re missing, let’s review some of the most anticipated titles making their way down south.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — (Editor's note: The filmmaker has pulled the film from the festival in protest of the controversy surrounding an Alamo Drafthouse hiring decision.) Kicking off the festival on Thursday night is the already acclaimed, and really long-titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It was one of the best reviewed films out of festivals in Venice and Toronto, and has critics buzzing about it as a top awards season contender. If you have ever seen filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s work before (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), it’s not a stretch for the imagination. In the dark comedy, Frances McDormand plays a grieving mother whose daughter was brutally murdered. She decides to call out her local police chief (Woody Harrelson) on three giant billboards for failing to catch the culprit, in hopes of driving him and his team (including charm-master Sam Rockwell) into action.

Thelma — My favorite film of 2017 thus far, Raw, premiered at Fantastic Fest last year. Thelma appears to come from the same twisted root. While it doesn’t involve cannibalism and crazy veterinarian schools, it’s a lowkey coming-of-age story planted inside a genre film. Thelma is a supernatural tale about a sheltered young woman who begins to fall in love, but during the time, she also learns she is capable of otherworldly powers. Think X-Men, but directed by a filmmaker (Joachim Trier) who doesn’t have to answer to any producers with deep pockets.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer — From the spectacularly bizarre mind of The Lobster comes Yorgos Lanthimos’ equally as deranged follow-up: The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Colin Farrell re-teams with Lanthimos for a paralyzing film about a Cincinnati surgeon with some skeletons in his closet. When the doctor unexpectedly reconnects with the teenage son (Barry Keoghan, who will be at the festival) of a man he once lost on the operating table, some sinister events of biblical proportions happen. Expect nothing less than an unforgettable film.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 — Fantastic Fest wouldn’t be complete without its crowd-pleasing bruiser movies, and this one appears to fit the bill. Vince Vaughn stars as a former boxer who loses his job as an auto mechanic as his marriage is falling apart. At a crossroads in his life, he turns to drug running, which lands him in prison battleground after a deal gone wrong. Since Liam Neeson is only getting older and less believable as a neck breaker, might as well toss Vaughn in the ring to see how he performs. If the trailer is any indication of how brutal this may be, we’re in for a bloodbath.

Gerald’s Game — Audiences are hot off the heels of Stephen King’s theatrically released It. So we might as well prepare ourselves for some more adaptations in the pipeline, and Fantastic Fest has more than one.

Along with 1922, Gerald’s Game will also be taking King’s words to the screen. Between the two Netflix-distributed films, Gerald’s Game looks all the more gripping. Like Buried and 127 Hours, this is an exercise in claustrophobia and survival. It centers on a couple looking to spice up their love life in a remote cabin. But when the husband (Bruce Greenwood) unexpectedly kicks the bucket during a sexual act, his wife must free herself from the handcuffs that have her bound to the bed.

Secret Screening — There’s nothing like entering a theater without the faintest idea of what you’re seeing. You may see a foreign language film you’ve never heard of, or be in the company of an acclaimed filmmaker with his or her next big project. Last year saw the world premiere of M. Night Shyamalan's Split — a tough act to follow in terms of surprise. At this point, anything could happen.

Downsizing — Closing out the festival is Alexander Payne’s imaginative sci-fi drama Downsizing, starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig. It envisions a world where scientists have the power to shrink humans to be the size of action figures, all to save our overpopulated planet. It’s an ambitious idea. Let’s hope it delivers and closes the book on another great year at Fantastic Fest.

All screenings take place at the Alamo Drafthouse, 1120 South Lamar Blvd. in Austin. Screening times and ticket information (badges runs $225-$490, with individual tickets available 10 minutes prior to showtime) can be found on www.fantasticfest.com.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter @PrestonBarta.