At Fantastic Fest, the Glitzy Fall Movie Season Comes with a Dose of Local Charm

Austin's annual genre festival continues to gain clout. This year's lineup includes a Timothée Chalamet cannibal romance, the Anya Taylor-Joy thriller 'The Menu,' and 'The Banshees of Inisherin.'

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'Jojo Rabbit' director Taika Waititi at Fantastic Fest in 2019 | Rick Kern/Getty Images
'Jojo Rabbit' director Taika Waititi at Fantastic Fest in 2019 | Rick Kern/Getty Images

Fall film festivals are among Hollywood's most reliable customs. In scenic locales stretching from the canals of Italy to the mountains of Colorado, awards-season dreams are made and broken, celebrities become couture-clad tastemakers, and the industry staggers out of its summer blockbuster haze. As far as glamour goes, it's impossible to compete with the three major players bookending Labor Day—the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals—but a late-September staple in Austin, Texas, has risen above the clamor.

Fantastic Fest, which kicks off its 17th edition at Alamo Drafthouse on Thursday, is a genre-focused alternative to the rarefied blowouts that launch the autumn and winter movie seasons. Its lineup comprises horror, science fiction, fantasy, outré comedy, and off-kilter curiosities with cult potential. Following a modest launch in 2005, the festival began picking up more and more zeitgeist-chasing Oscar hopefuls, positioning itself as a stop along the proverbial campaign trail. Previous lineups have featured Best Picture nominees Gravity, The Martian, Arrival, Jojo Rabbit, and Parasite, as well as art-house favorites (Melancholia, Force Majeure, The Lobster, Elle, Climax) and commercial hits (Cloud Atlas, Halloween, Dolemite Is My Name, Knives Out). In 2016, M. Night Shyamalan's Split made its world premiere there, four months before opening theatrically.

This year includes plenty of awards-friendly showstoppers that have been buzzing their way through the festival circuit. There's Bones and All, director Luca Guadagnino's road-trip cannibal romance starring Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell; The Banshees of Inisherin, a Martin McDonagh dark comedy sparking chatter for a career-best Colin Farrell; Decision to Leave, the latest from Korean master Park Chan-wook; Triangle of Sadness, a class satire starring Woody Harrelson and Harris Dickinson; and The Menu, an amusing eat-the-rich thriller depicting Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, and Hong Chau at an exclusive remote restaurant.

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Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet in 'Bones and All' | United Artists Releasing

Recently appointed Fantastic Fest director Lisa Dreyer and her programming team attend many of the glitzier festivals that occur prior to September, including Sundance in January and Cannes in May. "We try to pick out the best from those big festivals, and then we really try to find smaller hidden gems," she tells Thrillist. Just like Bones and All is making its way from Venice to Austin before screening again at next month's New York Film Festival (it arrives in theaters November 23), some of those underdogs will go on to play such genre galas as the Brooklyn Horror Festival, Beyond Fest in Los Angeles, and the Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans. Dreyer cites the folk-inspired The Nightmare, the vampire romp Blood Relatives, and the Spanish zombie flick The Elderly as this year's possible breakouts.

The world-premiere offerings aren't nearly as flashy as Fantastic Fest's prestigious counterparts—the biggest this go-round is Smile, a Paramount Pictures film that opens September 30—but it has what A-list frenzies lack: regional charm. Ticket holders can attend parties, podcast recordings, and award ceremonies in a way they can't elsewhere. "At film festivals, you usually have to wake up at some ungodly hour, go to some ticketing office, or wait in line for hours," Dreyer says. "Our festival is so easy for the audience. We're all based in one theater. You can hang out in The Highball, which is our attached bar, and then 20 minutes before your film starts, they'll call out that they're seating for your film."

Fantastic Fest also inspires a spiritedness familiar to Austin's filmgoing community. You won't see Keanu Reeves debating Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League about tai chi anywhere else. That happened in 2013 as part of an annual centerpiece called the Fantastic Debates, a cultural deliberation often followed by a planned boxing match. (Sadly, Reeves didn't partake in the sparring.) Over the years, League has boxed Michelle Rodriquez and X director Ti West. Lord of the Rings co-stars Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan once "beat the shit out of each other" (Wood's words) after arguing about World of Warcraft.

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Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League and actor Keanu Reeves at Fantastic Fest in 2013 | Gary Miller/FilmMagic

So-called secret screenings are another Fantastic Fest hallmark. Audience members who attend these don't know what they're about to see—and usually it's something noteworthy. Remarkably, There Will Be Blood had its first public screening as a closing-night surprise back in 2007, after which it went on to win two Oscars. Since then, Paranormal Activity 3, The Skin I Live In, Goodnight Mommy, Crimson Peak, The Lighthouse, Suspiria, and Last Night in Soho have been classified selections. So was Split. This year's will occur on September 25 and September 28. Dreyer says only she and two other Fantastic Fest staffers know what the films are. (My money is on the high-profile October release Halloween Ends, partly because director David Gordon Green grew up in Texas and attended college in Austin.)

As was the case with the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, 2022 will mark Fantastic Fest's first proper in-person gathering since the COVID-19 pandemic began. With a wide-open Oscar race and some skepticism surrounding the elitism on display at the more paparazzi-eager festivals, further Fantastic ascendancy seems possible. "Every year, with our connections and the strength of our festival and the press that it gets and the deals that are made out of it, the bigger titles and the studios are coming to us more and more for those types of premieres," Dreyer says. "We love to give our audience the first look at films that are going to be super relevant to the cultural conversation at large."

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Matthew Jacobs is an entertainment editor at Thrillist. Follow him on Twitter @majacobs.