Top 10 Festival Films of 2021 You Haven't Seen Yet

From retro horror to COVID survival, the best of the fests

The 2022 film festival is just around the corner (even if events like Sundance and Slamdance have had to go virtual). But that doesn't mean we're done with some of the selections from 2021. Here's our guide to some of the best movies that made the circuit in Austin last year, and when you may get to see them.

1) The Black Phone

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

It's always the quiet ones, isn't it? I mean, after Sinister we all knew that the disturbing duo of Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill were adept at torturing the audience, and in that first outing they saw Ethan Hawke how most people do: as the fallible protagonist. Yet in their post-Doctor Strange return to terror, they flipped the script and cast the Boyhood star as the Grabber, a truly unhinged child murderer who hides his identity and reveals his personality through a demonic mask. Their adaptation of Joe Hill's short story revitalizes the throwback Middle American horror, and gives Hawke one of his meatiest, most unexpected roles since PTSD Western In the Valley of Violence. (Read our review here.)

Odds you'll get to see it: Great, but it will take a while. Universal had it primed for a Feb. 4 release but has pushed it back into prime Summer territory: June 24.

2) Down With the King

Screened at: Austin Film Festival

Freddie Gibbs in Down With the King

"Rapper moves to the country" sounds like a comedy setup, but writer/director Diego Ongaro and first-time actor Freddie Gibbs deliver something much deeper and more insightful with this free-flowing drama about a star (Gibbs) questioning why exactly he's caught up in the music biz when there's something more immediate and visceral beckoning in the rolling fields and misty woods of Massachusetts. Gibbs gives a startling performance as a man whose dreams may outstrip his inner strengths, with equally cunning and canny support from Jamie Neumann as his unlikely love interest, and farmer/actor Bob Tarasuk as a pig breeder with some mean beats of his own. (Read our review here.)

Odds you'll get to see it: Great. The film was acquired by Stage 6 (one of Sony's boutique shingles) in September.

3) Belle

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

Sometimes a seeming failure leads to great success. Mamoru Hosoda getting fired from directing Howl's Moving Castle because he wanted to make it his own movie has lead to an era-defining run of anime: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, Wolf Children, The Boy and the Beast, Mirai, and now Belle, a reinvention of Beauty and the Beast that pulls the fairy tale into the here and now. Half set in a gorgeous virtual reality realm called U, half in the very real world, Hosada's script looks at how we deal with our internet lives. There's a mystery about the brutal beast that catches the attention of schoolgirl Suzu/online singing star Belle (Kaho Nakamura), but it's not romantic. When Hosoda reveals what Belle is really about, it will catch you off guard in the best possible ways.

Odds you'll get to see it: Wait just a week. Anime experts GKids are giving it a full theatrical release, including IMAX screenings.

4) Mad God

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

There are rare moments when a filmmaker constructs a truly monumental work by abandoning all the rules of cinema. Alexander Sukorov's single-take epic Russian Ark. Derek Jarman's splashed paint pot anti-visuals in Blue. There's the same boldness in Mad God, the stop motion epic by Phil Tippett, the methodical lunatic behind the VFX of The Empire Strikes Back, Starship Troopers, and more. Three decades in the making, watching it is like finding a completed print of Richard Williams' lost and unfinished The Thief and the Cobbler, an inimitable and idiosyncratic work that comes as close to a pure auteur expression as possible. Less a narrative, more a pure dive into the chasms and chaos of Tippett's boundless imagination. (Read our interview with Tippett, "Behold! The Mad God, Phil Tippett," Sept. 24.)

Odds you'll get to see it: After 30 years of production, it doesn't seem Tippett is in a rush to get this into theatres, as it's still getting rave reviews on the festival circuit.

6) Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

There are two distinct pleasures in Junta Yamaguchi's low-budget SF comedy Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes. The first is in watching the story of a group of likable regular schmoes who discover that the TV in their favorite little cafe is actually showing events two minutes in the future. The second is in trying to work out how the director and his endlessly enthusiastic cast pulled off this headscratching one-shot miracle. People have been calling it this year's One Cut of the Dead - and rightly so, because it's just as unique and joyous. (Read our review here, and come back for our interview with the director, "Junta Yamaguchi goes beyond The Infinite Two Minutes," Oct. 3.)

Odds you'll get to see it: Great news from the future! Yamaguchi's delightful romp arrives on VOD in North America Jan. 25, and physical media buffs can always pick up that snazzy UK region-free release Blu-ray from Third Window Films .

6) Offseason

Screened at: SXSW

Jocelin Donahue in Offseason

If Severin Films had waited a little longer to release their bumper box set of folk horror, All the Haunts Be Ours, they'd arguably have had to include the latest horror from indie nightmare maker Mickey Keating. His work often knowingly weaves threads from older frights into new and terrifying tapestries, and Offseason is no exception, with homages to Dan O'Bannon's Dead and Buried, Lovecraft, Carpenter, Fulci, and more, yet still remains insidiously original. Plus, he brings Jocelin Donahue (The House of the Devil) and Joe Swanberg back to the horror fold, as a couple returning to her family's seaside home and doomed as soon as they can smell the rancid tide. (Read our review here.)

Odds you'll get to see it: Excellent. RLJE Films and horror streamer Shudder have a March 11 limited theatrical and VOD release lined up.

7) Buck Alamo

Screened at: Austin Film Festival

Few figures have been as revered in pop culture as Austin's cosmic cowboys, the reefer rednecks that blazed through the '70s. But what happens to the ones that didn't have the dramatic vision to follow through with the whole "leave a pretty corpse" part of the equation? They become Buck Alamo, an aging, self-mythologizing screwup portrayed with tender viciousness by the great Sonny Carl Davis. An elegiac character study of a man starting to regret his transgressions a little too late, Buck Alamo's visual poetry is given grit by its domestic drama, and strange comedy by the narration provided by Death himself, voiced by Bruce Dern. (Read our review here, and don't miss our chat with Davis and director Ben Epstein, "Lonesome Cosmic Cowboy," Oct. 22.)

Odds you'll get to see it: The filmmakers are working with sales agents, so here's hoping that some wise distributor picks up this Austin original.

8) Who Killed the KLF?

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

Who Killed the KLF?

Has any band imploded so perfectly as the KLF? The duo of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty gave the increasingly conventional world of rave a dose it never got over. Everything from Abba to grindcore was filtered through their Discordian mythology, creating absolute nonsense that their fanbase understood implicitly, even to the point at which they disappeared completely. Does it make sense? No. Does director Chris Atkins managed to reconstruct the insanity perfectly? Yes. Is "It's Grim Up North (Part 1)" a perfect club banger? Yes. Yes, it is.

(Read our review here, and our interview with the filmmakers, "Chris Atkins Investigates Who Killed the KLF?," Oct. 6.)

Odds you'll get to see it: Well, that's a little complicated. Film Mode Entertainment is repping the film internationally, but there's the slight issue that the KLF is suing the filmmakers, arguing they did not have the rights to use any of their music. Atkins has fired back that it's covered by fair usage by virtue of the work being a critique of the band. Let the legal wrangling commence!

9) The Deer King

Screened at: Fantastic Fest

Sometimes a work only becomes more relevant with time. Nahoko Uehashi published her fantasy novel Shika no Ō in 2014, but the new animated film version, with its story of those fighting with compassion and science against superstition and disease, could not be more timely. Imprisoned warrior Van and doctor Hossai are both struggling to save their magical kingdom in very different ways, allowing directors Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji to create a world that evokes both the quiet mysticism of Castle in the Sky and the bone-crunching action of Fist of the North Star, all while making its own distinct political points and building an enchanting high fantasy realm.

Odds you'll get to see it: Excellent. GKids is promising a release in both the original Japanese version, and also a new English-language dub.

10) The Same Storm

Screened at: Austin Film Festival

Mary-Louise Parker in The Same Storm

There's been a major discussion recently about whether filmmakers should want to make movies about the pandemic. Personally, I think it's insane to think they shouldn't, like suggesting that no filmmaker in 1941 should mention the w-a-r. But rather than have that argument, the simplest solution would be to show someone Peter Hedges' restructuring of Arthur Schnitzler's sexually audacious La Ronde. Rather than an interlocking chain of lovers, the What's Eating Gilbert Grape writer connects a series of New Yorkers, isolated within their apartments but linked by their screens, as they navigate the hideousness of their new normal. The Same Storm doesn't flinch from the disease in the way that most pandemic films have: instead, characters die unexpectedly, or contend with strange new symptoms, or struggle with the emotional pain of being a survivor while so many fall. With an all-star cast (Sandra Oh, Sarah Jessica Parker, and the glorious return of Elaine May) who swoop between comedy and tragedy, as the moment requires, The Same Storm is a vivacious document of a time of death, a Manhattan Decameron. (Read our interview with the director, "Director Peter Hedges on Why Austin Film Festival Means So Much to Him," Oct. 22.)

Odds you'll get to see it: No word yet on when this remarkable record of one of the worst years of our lives will be on a screen.

Honorable Mentions

Disintegration Loops (Screened at SXSW) William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops multi-album cycle was the unlikely emotional catharsis New York needed after 9/11, and David Wexler's documentary connects the original recording, the ambient composer's life, the 20th anniversary, and how the seconds-long sample at its heart resonates through the COVID lockdown. (Read our review here.)

Jockey (Screened at Austin Film Festival) There have been many stories about old athletes being forced to give up the game, but few told with the enthralling authenticity of Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar's last ride with ailing jockey Jackson Silva. Clifton Collins Jr.'s performance as a man at the end of his track should be on every year-end list come next December. (Read our interview with the directors, "Family History Gives Clifton Collins Jr. the Role of a Lifetime in Jockey," Oct. 22.)

Hellbender (Screened at Fantastic Fest) The Adams family showed that zero budget filmmaking is no restriction of imagination with their 2019 festival phenomenon The Deeper You Dig, and lightning struck twice with Hellbender: directed by father John Adams, and starring mother Toby Poser and daughters Lulu and Zelda Adams, this tale of inherited darkness is just as much of a scream. (Read our interview with the Adams family, "From Backyard Movies to Festivals With Hellbender," Sept. 24.)

Madelines (Screened at Other Worlds Film Festival) Holy multiple Brea Grants! The rising star of innovative indie genre fare cowrote and stars in this twisted screwball comedy about a scientist whose drunken blunder results in her unleashing homicidal alternate versions of herself into our reality. (Read our review here.)

Alien on Stage (Screened at SXSW) Everyone loves the underdog, and there are few more heartwarming true stories than the English amateur pantomime company that decided to perform a homemade version of Ridley Scott's sci fi horror masterpiece in the West End. (Read our review here.)

Now let's look at what happened with the movies on our 2020 festival faves list:

1) Jumbo: Zoé Wittock's wonderful and weird romantic fable about a young woman (Noémie Merlant) in love with a fairground ride soared in February when it was released by Dark Star Pictures.

2) Rare Beasts: Billie Piper's quixotic and acerbic directorial debut (which we described as "L.A. Story by way of Harold Pinter") would have been a SXSW 2019 hit, but at least it's available now on Starz.

3) Fugitive Dreams: Another directorial debut, with Jason Neulander directing Caridad Svich play about two drifters traversing the United States of Limbo. No word yet on a release date, but it's been an international smash on the festival circuit (Read our review here, and our interview with Neulander, "Riding the Rails From Stage to Screen," Oct. 16, 2020.)

4) Murder Bury Win: Michael Lovan's AFF delight about how designing games can be murder is available on iTunes, Amazon, Tubi, and on VOD everywhere now. (Read our review here, and our interview with the director, "Michael Lovan Draw All the Right Cards in Murder Bury Win," Oct. 22, 2020.)

5) The Capote Tapes: Of course a documentary about the Breakfast at Tiffany's scribe had to be fashionably late. After a series of delays, the aGLIFF 2020 opening night film graced us with its presence in theatres in September via Altitude, and is on VOD now. (Read our review here, and don't miss our interview with docmentarian Ebs Burnough, "Ebs Burnough Plays The Capote Tapes," Aug. 5, 2020.)

6) Bloodthirsty: Amelia Moses drew blood not once but twice in 2020, with her vampire mindbender Bleed With Me and lycanthropic chiller Bloodthirsty, and both are on VOD now. (Read our review here, and our interview with the filmmaker, "The Creatures of the Night Make Beautiful Music in Bloodthirsty," Sept, 24, 2020.)

7) Lapsis: Noah Hutton's brilliant and subtly funny attack on ubiquitous technology and the gig economy (anchored by Dean Imperial the ultimate everyman as Ray) is on VOD now. (Read our review here.)

8) The Boy Behind the Door: Part child abduction shocker, part affirmation of young friendship, this heartwarming bonechiller was acquired by horror streaming experts Shudder, and is also on VOD now. (Read our review here, and don't miss our interview with the filmmakers.)

9) The Block Island Sound: Icy as a nor'wester, this coastal Cthuloid cult thriller is streaming on Netflix now. (Read our review here.)

10) For the Sake of Vicious: Canadian violence artists Reese Eveneshen and Gabriel Carrer teamed up for this wicked twist on the home invasion thriller, available on VOD and Blu-ray now. (Read our review here.)

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Fantastic Fest, SXSW, Austin Film Festival, Mad God, Down With the King, Madelines, The Deer King, Belle, Who Killed the KLF?, The Black Phone, Offseason, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, Buck Alamo, The Same Storm, Phil Tippett, Peter Hedges

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