(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week we celebrate Fantastic Fest’s 15th anniversary with a look at some of the best films that played over the years that failed to find the audience they deserved.)
As mentioned above – literally just two lines up – this year’s Fantastic Fest Film Festival in Austin, TX is their 15th, and that’s something worth celebrating. It remains one of the best genre festivals in North America thanks to the venue, the fans, and most importantly, the wide variety of movies programmed each year. They play their fair share of bigger movies destined for wide release with the likes of Jojo Rabbit and Knives Out opening and closing this year’s fest, but the magic is in the far smaller titles.
The fest programs films from around the world and across genres, and while some eventually find their way to a proper US release – Rubber (2010) is about a sentient, homicidal tire and is available on Blu-ray! – just as many are rarely (if ever) seen on these shores again. As a big fan of genre films (horror, action, thrillers, dark comedy, etc) I’ve been introduced to numerous films and filmmakers over the years thanks to Fantastic Fest. Keep reading for a look at six of my favorites that never quite found the eyeballs and acclaim they deserve.
Fish Story (2009, Japan)
It’s 2012, and a comet is heading towards Earth promising to prevent humanity from ever seeing 2013. Two men in a record store enter into a conversation about a Japanese band that invented punk back in 1975, and while it’s a way to pass their final hours it also sets the stage for a revelation – the band’s thirty-seven year-old song “Fish Story” might just be the key to saving the world.
The premise to Yoshihiro Nakamura’s terrifically entertaining and endlessly surprising gem seems oddly simple enough, all things considered, but there’s real beauty in the way the pieces fall together. The film jumps back to the 70s, 80s, and 2000s with seemingly unconnected characters including the punk band, fans recalling the music a decade later, and an unlikely duo facing off against terrorists on a ferry. Action, humor, drama, and sci-fi mesh together with ingenious precision to deliver a rewarding and highly memorable watch.
It’s an end of the world scenario told on an intimate scale, and what it lacks in big budget spectacle it more than makes up for in smarts, imagination, and pure magic. Nakamura pulls you into his delightful adventure with a mystery that unfolds against a ticking clock of sorts – we know the world is doomed and can’t quite imagine how the varied elements at play here can change that – while celebrating the power of hope. It’s a “feel good” movie that avoids cliche and embraces the best we have to offer each other, and it’s the kind of film that will get you instantly hooked on the filmmaker’s style leading to your hopeful discovery of other fantastic films including A Boy and His Samurai (2010) and See You Tomorrow, Everyone (2013).
Fish Story is currently unavailable in the US.
Sound of Noise (2010, Sweden)
A terrorist group has invaded Sweden, and only one rogue cop stands in their way. So far so normal, but this is where things get weird. Their weapon of choice is music, and unfortunately for them, Det. Amadeus Warnebring is a man who hates melody and musical talent with a passion.
If this brief synopsis sounds absurd that’s because it absolutely is, but the fun comes in how perfectly the film pairs its ridiculous details with a familiar genre plot. The group takes over a bank at one point yelling “Nobody move! This is a gig!” and it’s played deadly serious. The investigation proceeds as expected with pressure from above about stopping these “musical scum,” but the story throws some additional turns with an unexpected love story and Amadeus’ unusual hearing loss. It’s constantly engaging and fresh and demands time with both your eyes and your ears.
Speaking of which, the other major element that works so beautifully here is the actual music itself. The terrorists aren’t using traditional instruments and instead find their rhythms in whatever’s handy. In the bank that means calculators and counter tops, and in a hospital room that means finding percussive beats on an anesthetized patient. It’s bonkers, but the music is catchy and designed to draw you in to the delights of disruption. You can’t say there aren’t original films out there when something like this exists.
Sound of Noise is available on DVD and to stream.
Haunters (2010, South Korea)
Cho-in has the ability to control people’s minds, and while it’s a power born in tragedy and violence it’s become a gift used for, well, tragedy and violence. He murders with abandon, steals with ease, and lives a lonely life wanting for nothing but human companionship. Kyu-nam has a power of his own in that he’s indestructible, and when combined with his moral compass he becomes the only thing standing between the psychic villain and far more bloodshed.
This South Korean riff on superhero films in general, and M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2001) in particular, is an absolute blast from start to finish. Brooding, emotional turmoil is layered throughout, but the film’s focus is on carnage, terrific action set-pieces, and laughs both pleasant and grim. It’s a fun movie that never neglects the darkness at its soul, and that tonal balance works beautifully to keep viewers on their toes.
As a heads up, though, for sensitive viewers, while the film fits the superhero mold it is as dark as they come. From the opening scene showing the arrival of Cho-in’s abilities – it does not end well for his parents – through the film’s extremely high body count, this is comic book fare that embraces the darkness with grinning glee. Fans of the recent Prime series The Boys (2019) will want to give it a spin as it offers up the same balance between disdain and hope for humanity.
Haunters is available to stream.
Blind (2014, Norway)
Ingrid’s sight has faded, victim to a degenerative disease that has left her a hermit in the apartment she shares with her husband. The outside world terrifies her now, and her fears have started creeping inside. She sits and “stares” out the window, and through her we’re introduced to two others nearby. They’re every bit as lonely and on journeys of their own, but are they even real?
Most films about blind women come in the form of thrillers marking them as potential victims for some creep, but while some of them are fantastic slices of genre fare both the character and the condition have far more to offer than mere victimization. Ingrid is a flesh and blood woman, and the film’s honest look at her thoughts, fears, and passions comes to life with creative visuals, adult sexuality, and warm imagination. Are we seeing the real world or her world? And ultimately, is there really much of a difference?
The film is the directorial debut of Eskil Vogt, co-writer of two Joachim Trier masterpieces (Oslo August 31st, 2011; Thelma, 2017), so it shouldn’t surprise that his first step behind the camera results in an equally memorable and powerful experience. The film an emotional adventure shifting effortlessly between drama, comedy, suspense, and wonder, and it lets audiences into a character’s mind in ways we rarely see or feel. It’s quite simply one of the most beautiful films you’re likely to experience.
Blind is available on DVD and to stream.
The Treatment (2014, Belgium)
A young boy is missing, and his parents are left bound and in horrendous shape. The detective on the case finds a personal connection to the disappearance of his own brother when they were just boys, but is it wishful thinking that binds the two together or could the brutality of the present offer answers for the past. Either way, things are going to get far more disturbing before he finds his answer.
If you ask someone to name a fantastic yet grim thriller the likes of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) or Seven (1995) will probably be named, but while both are genre perfection their darkness still pales beside the revelations on display here. Happily, the evil acts don’t exist in a bubble of sensationalism and instead come in the form of a brilliantly structured and executed film that taps into fears we haven’t even imagined yet.
The targets here are young families, and the reveals are occasionally jaw-dropping, but while the film doesn’t shy away from the horror it’s also not interested in rubbing our faces in it. Director Hans Herbots brings Mo Hayder’s (even darker) novel to life with a focus on the anguish of uncertainty, and it’s no small achievement that the film makes the eventual certainty even more chilling. There’s a real humanity here, but while that means it teases the good it also highlights the utterly terrible among us too resulting in a thriller that will leave you wanting to take a walk outside in the sun once it’s over.
The Treatment is available on Blu-ray/DVD and to stream.
Bad Genius (2017, Thailand)
Lynn is a smart teen susceptible to dumb choices, and when an opportunity arises to help her friends and make some money for her hard-working dad in the process, she jumps right in. What starts as a simple act of cheating, though, grows to much larger proportions as her client roster moves outside of not just her school but also her country.
Heist movies come in all shapes and sizes, but while most involve money or objects of some kind this riff on the sub-genre instead comes down to cheating on an internationally recognized exam. Those stakes should feel different, both in scope and moral outcome, but it’s to the film’s credit that viewers are swept along with the scheme and its precision execution as if this was the latest Ocean’s 11 installment. It’s a suspenseful, heartfelt, and exhilarating ride up through an ending where you can’t help but root for these kids to succeed at cheating.
The film doesn’t treat that lightly, though, and while it presents these teens as fully rounded characters it never suggests they’re necessarily the “good guys.” It’s a fine line to walk, but it succeeds through strong performances and equally compelling direction/writing from Nattawut Poonpiriya. He captures the characters with warmth and the heist with such slick visuals and editing that the sheer entertainment almost hides the moral message nailed home by the end.
Bad Genius is currently unavailable in the US.