One of the most pleasant surprises of Fantastic Fest this year was Timecrimes (Los Cronocrimenes), which had its world premiere at the Austin fest -- and won the top prize. I went to the second screening at the festival after the audience at the first screening urged the rest of us not to miss it. Not only was the movie itself supposed to be good, but Spanish writer/director Nacho Vigalondo's Q&A was also getting buzz. (The funniest parts are unsuitable for family reading.) The movie lived up to the hype, although the plot was almost too clever for its own good.

As you might guess from the title, Timecrimes does involve time travel, but first and foremost it's a suspense thriller. Hector (Karra Elejalde) and his wife are spending a routine afternoon unpacking furniture at their new house in the country, but things aren't quite perfect. First, Hector receives an odd phone call. Then as he lounges in the backyard with binoculars, he catches a glimpse of a topless woman in the woods behind the yard. He decides to explore the wooded area, perhaps hoping for more salacious peeks, and that's when everything starts to go wrong. A man with a bandaged face seems to be attacking him, and Hector escapes to a very strange scientific facility manned by a lone scientist (Vigalondo). I can't say any more without spoiling the plot ... I hope I haven't revealed too much as it is.

The film is ultra-low-budget, with a small cast and limited sets, but the scenes in the open woods and the implied spaciousness of the scientific facility keep the movie from feeling cheap or claustrophobic. As in many low-budget films, the acting is a little uneven -- it's difficult to figure out why we should care much about Hector, and sometimes his motivations seem muddled, but the action moves quickly enough to make this only a minor concern. The female roles have little depth, but Vigalondo adds an almost humorous note in his performance as the scientist.

There's a bit in the second Austin Powers movie where Michael York's character, asked about some time-travel anomaly, says, "I suggest you not worry and just enjoy yourself," then turns to the audience and adds, "That goes for you, too." Many time-travel films seem to work only on that level -- when you try to think about them too hard, the premise crumbles. Timecrimes, however, is so tightly and intricately scripted that upon reflection, everything fits logically. you have to pay close attention, because every scene ends up being re-referenced later in the film. It's the kind of movie where more than once, you end up thinking, "Oh! So that's why we saw -- ah, I get it now." At the same time, the earlier scenes are not confusing or dull. It all makes an acceptable amount of sense at the time, but everything makes a lot more sense later.

Timecrimes is as difficult to review as Hard Candy: if I tell you about all the good stuff, I'll lessen the suspense. It's challenging to have to convince you that this is a good movie when I have to be vague about specifics. The delight in watching the story unravel is similar to what you might feel when solving a challenging puzzle. The film is playing at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain this month, and I hope it will eventually find U.S. distribution. Until then, you'll just have to trust my opinion.