Brandon’s Top 20 Genre Gems of 2020

1. VHYES A sketch comedy anthology that mimics the uneven rhythms of a home-made VHS “mixtape,” combining spoofs of late-80s cable access garbage & a fictional home movie wraparound. It’s lean, strange, and amusingly absurd in all the ways I wanted it to be. Post-Adult Swim filmmaking at its finest.

2. The Berlin Bride Two reclusive 1980s Berliners split ownership over a mysterious mannequin; one uses her right arm to replace his own amputated one, the other treats the rest of her as his newlywed bride. Very funny & weirdly upsetting. Often feels like a surreally cheap riff on Peter Strickland’s work, which I mean as a high compliment.

3. Crazy World A Ugandan gang of kidnappers are thwarted by the unexpected Kung Fu skills of their pint-sized captives & their enraged parents. My first Wakaliwood experience was just as wildly entertaining & inspiringly low-fi as I had hoped. A total blast & a surprisingly heartwarming document of no-budget regional filmmaking.

4. Spree A grotesque satire about social influencer brain rot in the eternal search for likes, following a live-streaming ride share driver who becomes a serial killer in a desperate bid to Go Viral. I’m always a huge sucker for technophobic thrillers about how the Internet is going to kill us all, and this one was a worthy addition to the canon. It’s especially apt at pinpointing just how pathetic clawing for social media clout feels to an outside observer, even as a near-universal vice.

5. The Platform A nasty dystopian sci-fi pic that’s a lot like Snowpiercer & High Rise in its blatant illustration of wealth disparity, except that it’s so into Philosophy & economic theory that there’s room for little else. It’s almost 100% worldbuilding but it has more than enough Big Ideas & gory catharsis to pull that off.

6. Gretel & Hansel As beautiful & creepy as it is silly, and I kinda wish more movies were allowed to just dick around like this. The tension between conventional genre payoffs & Oz Perkins’s “elevated horror” tendencies is absolutely thrilling throughout this self-conflicted novelty. I don’t believe Perkins has it in him to make a genuine opening-weekend crowd pleaser, and this delightfully weird attempt at such a prospect is outright adorable.

7. Come to Daddy Elijah Wood stars as a hipster coward who finds himself sparring in a cramped isolated locale with his deadbeat alcoholic father. Written by the guy who penned The Greasy Strangler, it eventually turns into a Greasy mutation of a Jeremy Saulnier-type dark comedy as its violence escalates.

8. Bad Hair A Justin Simien horror comedy about a killer hair weave. A lot of people are going to ding this for taking its over-the-top premise too seriously in its first hour, but I think that’s its saving grace. If it were zanier and less politically purposeful it would’ve gotten old real quick; instead it really earns the campy B-movie payoffs of its climax by laying a lot of thematic groundwork and, against all odds, establishing a genuine sense of dread.

9. Weathering With You For its first hour this feels like an amusing-but-weak echo of Your Name., but the plot keeps pushing further & further into the weirdest direction possible until it ends at an absolutely stunning Choice of a conclusion that fully won me over. I really liked how Your Name. applied the Miyazaki reverence for Nature to Big City environments and this one goes even further in that respect by having Nature reclaim the City as part of itself.

10. She Dies Tomorrow Amy Seimetz’s dryly humorous chiller in which fear of impending Death is a communally transmitted disease. Rarely is cosmic horror so relatable. This feels like the darkly Funny existential crisis other people have been describing I’m Thinking of Ending Things as, but I didn’t experience. Whimsically bleak.

11. Sea Fever An eerily well-timed aquatic horror about a crew of deep-sea fishermen who have to quarantine themselves because a Cronenbergian parasite has infected their water supply. I was genuinely chilled by this once it got cooking, even if it borrows a well-worn story template from The Thing; it’s a much more impressive entry in the genre than this year’s so-so Underwater was, if nothing else.

12. Palm Springs I don’t know that this is the tip-top best of the recent string of post-Groundhog’s Day time-loop media (there’s been a lot of good’ns!), but I do like that it pushes the genre forward by acknowledging the audience’s familiarity with it and jumping into the flow of things way downstream. It doesn’t hurt that it’s really funny & charming throughout.

13. The Pool A bargain bin riff on The Shallows, in which a couple is stranded in a drained swimming pool with a killer crocodile. The CGI on the croc is so absurdly shoddy that the movie has no choice but to pave over its budgetary restrictions with a playful sense of humor. And then, just when you think it’s going to play Everything for cheap laughs, it gets shockingly fucked up. Fun, upsetting trash that’s willing to push its limited scenario to its furthest extreme. It also might be Pro-Life propaganda?

14. The Hunt It’s difficult to get too excited by another “Most Dangerous Game” riff the same year as the great Bacurau, but I enjoyed this far more than I expected to. Its both-sidesing makes it a little too timid to succeed as a satire, but I appreciated the way it treats modern American politics with the broad, ugly, unsubtle caricature of a pro wrestling angle. Feels accurate to the Moment as a cultural temperature check and packs plenty of cheap payoffs as an exploitative novelty.

15. His House Reinvigorates haunted house genre tropes with the same tactics that titles like Blood Quantum, Zombi Child, and The Girl With All the Gifts used on the similarly overworked tropes of the zombie genre: by shifting the cultural POV and the purpose of the central metaphor. You’ve seen these exact story beats & jump scares before, but never in this exact cultural context.

16. The Lodge This is not as solid as the directors’ breakthrough Goodnight Mommy but it covers a lot of the same ground: creepy kids with maternal resentment, a few chilling indulgences in dream logic, telegraphing its Twist but then following through in the grimmest way possible. Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz just seem to hit an icy sweet spot for me, even though they seem to disappoint a lot of people. And it turns out they’re an aunt-nephew duo? Weird.

17. Blood Quantum A zombie breakout among white urbanites reaches an isolated Indigenous reservation, and it appears that the Indigenous people are immune. It’s a solid genre entry, especially in how hard it leans into post-Romero gloom & gore. Outside its central conceit & cultural context it’s very much a straight-forward zombie movie, though, so it’s unlikely to win over many people with general zombie genre fatigue.

18. Spontaneous A post-Heathers high school black comedy about a spontaneous combustion pandemic, one that feels shockingly well-timed in a way the filmmakers could not have anticipated.

19. Capone Covers only the final year of the notorious gangster’s life, which he spent under house arrest while left senile by neurosyphilis at the age of 48. This is in the same genre as Venom, by which I mean it’s a tragically bland nothing of a movie that Tom Hardy’s bizarro performance transforms into a riotous good time through sheer force of will.

20. Tito First-time director Grace Glowicki casts herself as an impossibly timid geek who’s drawn out of his cowardly seclusion by an idiot stoner who barges into his life. Meanwhile, vaguely menacing demons attempt to invade the frame but never arrive. The central performance is consistently entertaining, grotesque, and frustrating, like watching Crispin Glover suffer a traumatically bad acid trip. The movie itself is much more difficult to pin down. It’s an arthouse-horror/stoner-comedy? I almost want to describe it as Josephine Decker’s Cheech & Chong, but that’s way overselling what it can deliver.

-Brandon Ledet

Druids Druids Everywhere (2020)

For the first half hour of Druids Druids Everywhere, I thought I had finally hit a wall with my enjoyment of Matt Farley’s backyard horror comedies. Now that I’m nearly a dozen feature films into his staggering catalog, it’s not like there’s much left to discover anyway. This past year I’ve found myself looking under every unturned rock in the Motern Cinematic Universe looking for Matt Farley movies that slipped by me a couple summers ago when I was at the heights of my Motern madness. It’s mostly been worth the effort! While not as heavily promoted or discussed as cult-gathering Motern Classics like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, both Obtuse Todd & The Paperboy offered some of the most sublimely inane moments of understated comedy in any Matt Farley work I’ve seen to date. Then, Druids Druids Everywhere shook my faith in the entire endeavor. Was it possible that Farley (along with longtime collaborator Charles Roxburgh) had made a movie even I, a hopeless devotee, couldn’t enjoy? It was scary; then it got better.

Originally intended to be the fourth & final entry into Farley & Roxburg’s “Druid Cycle”, Druids Druids Everywhere was always going to be a for-fans-only proposition. To fully appreciate their crazed commitment to the long-running bit of the Druid Saga, you’d not only have to already be under the spell of their greatest non-druid hits like Local Legends and Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, but also to have seen the pre-requisite druid titles Adventures in Cruben Country, Sammy: The Tale of a Terrible Teddy and, the crown jewel of the series, Druid Gladiator Clone. That’s a lot of homework, especially for a no-budget comedy about a druid cult. It makes sense, then, that they decided to shelve the film in 2014 without ever officially releasing it, if not only to avoid scaring off new audiences who might have stumbled into it as their very first Motern experience. In the six years since that decision to shelve the film, though, public demand for Motern Content has only gotten louder, making Druids Druids Everywhere a Day the Clown Cried type Holy Grail for the few dozen freaks who’ve seen all the other Druid Saga films and maintained enthusiasm for more. And now it’s finally been released as an extra feature on the recent (excellent) Gold Ninja Video release of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!. I wish I could report that it was fully worth the wait.

To put it as simply as possible, the first act of Druids Druids Everywhere suffers what I’ll call The Adam Sandler Problem. Recalling the most annoying, soul-draining performances in Sandler’s cursed oeuvre, Matt Farley starts the film speaking in a painfully unfunny Voice that threatens to tank the whole enterprise if he sticks to it the entire runtime. It’s not exactly Little Nicky-level bad, but it’s not far off. Thankfully, he eventually drops the Voice (and its accompanying Spirit Halloween Store fake beard) and teams up with Roxburgh to rid the New England woods of the druid cult that’s been haunting them for four movies solid. Immediately, Druids Druids Everywhere feels like classic Motern, with extensive straight-faced gags involving evil clouds, home-cooked cans of Spaghetti-Os, and cargo pockets stuffed with magical dirt. The back half of Druids Druids Everywhere is rewardingly funny, but you have to suffer through some pretty dire schtick to get there. But, let’s face it, if you’ve gotten this far into the Motern catalog you’re going to be willing to put in the effort.

All the underplayed absurdism & recurring goofball players Motern fans love eventually bubble to the surface in this movie’s final act. If you’re already a Motern convert, it’s genuinely just a joy to dick around the woods with Farley, Roxburgh, and company MVP Kevin McGee for 90min. I doubt anyone who’s not already a fan would find much of value here, or likely even make it past the fake beard & Adam Sandler Voice intro in the first place. They knew that when they made the film, though, and it’s honestly generous of them to release it now anyway just so hopelessly curious nerds like myself could complete the Druid Saga and feel at rest. Sure, this is for-fans-only, but if you’re a Motern fan all you really need is moments of recognition to point at the screen at such classic Matt Farley Bits as walking!, ranting!, and playing basketball!. Please refer to the ranked Motern hierarchy below to determine whether you’re ready to enjoy such a low-key, but warmly familiar indulgence.
Must-See Motern Classics
Local Legends
Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!
Monsters, Marriage and Murder in Manchvegas
Second-Tier Motern Gems
Slingshot Cops
Freaky Farley
Druid Gladiator Clone
For-Fans-Only Motern Charmers
The Paperboy
Obtuse Todd
Sammy: The Tale of a Terrible Teddy
Adventures in Cruben Country
Druids Druids Everywhere

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Snowpiercer (2013)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut Snowpiercer, which was selected as Swampflix’s Movie of the Year in our very first week as a website.

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTubeTuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Liberté (2020)

The premise for Albert Serra’s latest #slowcinema provocation was too alluring of a hook for me to pass up, even though my patience was stretched beyond its limits in his previous film. In The Death of Louis XIV, Serra captured the boredom of waiting for death, filming French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud as the titular monarch in his dying days, practically passing away onscreen in real-time. In its follow-up, Liberté, Serra captures the boredom of an unenthused orgasm, framing sex as the same kind of tedious bodily function as he previously framed death. I naively assumed meaningless sex would be more interesting to watch than a meaningless death, but Serra manages to make them equally boring & spiritually empty. To be fair, both movies are about boredom; I just don’t find that an especially rich subject, turns out.

In this glacially paced period drama, a small group of pre-Revolution French Libertines in exile take political refuge in the woods, passing the time by diddling each other and members of a nearby convent. There are no character beats or plot points to speak of, just bored old men seeking debaucherous sexual thrills over an unfulfilling, never-ending night in a “cursed place in the woods.” Figures don’t arrive on the scene so much as they materialize like ghosts, haunted by their philosophical commitment to seeking orgasms as an act of political rebellion, even though the going-through-the-motions drudgery suggests their hearts aren’t really in it. Throughout, Serra contrasts the gorgeous & the grotesque, the obscene & the serene. Quiet shots of the eerie woods are scored only by crickets and the rustling of pantaloons. That nature footage alternates with depraved, often unsimulated sex acts like analingus & piss play, presented with the same lack of urgency. There’s no purpose or direction for this monotonous, half-hearted activity, and it only ends because the sun eventually, thankfully rises.

It’s difficult to know what to do with a movie that aims to shock and bore audiences in equal measure. Liberté dwells in an awkward, liminal space between amoral debauchery & art cinema refinement. It’s like watching Salò hold out its pinky out while taking dainty sips of tea, perverse both in its content and in its own self-conflicted nature. I’m not sure that it adds much to the themes & textures of explicit provocations about the self-destructive nature of meaningless sex, though, especially since that canon is populated by much more exciting, exquisite titles: Salò, We Are the Flesh, In the Realm of the Senses, Stranger by the Lake, etc. There’s a sense of humor to the exercise at least, detectable in the way the Libertines stumble between sexual partners like Romero zombies in a shopping mall, or in the way one participant declares “Open the gates to Hell!” before rimming a nun-in-training. However, I gather that most of Serra’s amusement is rooted in intentionally boring himself & his audience, which is not at all my speed. This is a provocation fit only for #slowcinema aesthetes; more hyperactive trash gobblers like myself need to seek our own perverse thrills elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

The Nest (2020)


The Nest avoids beating a dead horse, but it does bury one. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In this second feature from director Sean Durkin following the 2011 debut showstopper Martha Marcy May Marlene, Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) and his wife Allison (Carrie Coon) move their small family to Rory’s native England from suburban New York, in their fourth move in a decade. Like WW84, this is a mid-eighties period piece, and at first theirs appears to be an ideal Reagan-era nuclear family, with teenage daughter Sam (Oona Roche) and ten-year-old son Ben (Charlie Shotwell) getting along in the way that siblings rarely do. We ultimately learn that the truth is a little messier (Allison was a single mother to Sam when she and Rory met and thus this is a blended family) and that this artifice is purely for the sake of creating a perfect impression to the outside world despite the reality being perfectly normal. The family is fine as it is, but Rory needs it to be more perfect, and like most of the facades that Rory spends so much time building, it’s an unnecessary gilding that endangers the foundation.

When proposing that they return to England so that Rory can go back to work for his old boss Arthur (Michael Culkin), Allison asks him if he’s hiding the truth about the family’s financial situation, with the implication being that it wouldn’t be the first time. Discussing the move with her mother (Wendy Crewson), the older woman tells her to simply trust in her spouse—”It’s not your job to worry, let your husband do that”—and Allison, mirthfully but sincerely, teases her that this is a worrisome ideology. When Allison and the kids arrive at their new home in England, they discover that Rory has rented a positively gigantic mansion, which has grounds on which he promises to build a six-stable barn for Allison’s horse Richmond and promised future stallions and mares, with the implication that Allison can one day resume equestrian instruction, which had been her occupation prior to Rory’s repatriation.

What plays out is, essentially, a dramatic version of the Simpsons episode “You Only Move Twice,” as each member of the family succumbs to negatives in their personal and social lives in their new environment. The long distance that the family must commute into London (it’s a little under an hour’s drive from Surrey to London in 2020 and was likely longer 35 years ago) wreaks havoc on their previous unity, which fell into place with ease in their earlier suburban life. Rory insists his children attend the best private* school, which results in Ben being bullied extensively and Sam spending time with a rougher crowd of local kids, presumably in rebellion against being expected to socialize with her fancypants classmates. Ben and Sam also drift apart, as Ben clings to Sam when their parents are away because the large, empty house frightens him. The house itself also immediately becomes another millstone around the struggling family’s collective neck as it’s too large for them to even furnish, although this doesn’t stop Rory from boasting at parties about their “farm” and the intent to purchase a “pied-à-terre in Mayfair” (a very chintzy part of London’s Hyde Park area) while Allison expresses discomfort with this; whether Rory’s dishonest or delusional, she’s still troubled, as well she should be. Things come to a head when a business deal that Rory is pushing Arthur to sign off on is rejected and Allison’s horse falls ill and collapses while she’s riding him; she has to go to a neighboring farmer for help (i.e., to put Richmond out of his misery) and, because Rory has allowed the phone bill to lapse, he’s unable to let her know that he’s spending the night in London, leaving Allison alone to bear the brunt of it all. The stress drives her to a point of dissociation, in which she declares that everyone in her family has become a stranger to her.

There’s nothing wrong with The Nest. In fact, it falls into my sweet spot of “woman on the verge.” Narratively, the film is solid, as the screenplay deftly weaves in good bits of foreshadowing early on that come into play later. When we first see Rory and Ben interacting, the two are playing soccer with one of Ben’s young friends, and although Rory wins, his son declares that he did so by cheating, demonstrating that Rory doesn’t let anything stand in his way, even when the opponent is his son and the stakes are as low as backyard bragging rights. We also get to see Allison in her element as a horseback riding instructor, where she deftly and calmly handles both the beasts and her clients, collecting their payments without wheedling or the slightest hesitation. She’s better at her job than Rory is at his, and although he’s no Gordon Gecko, he is a member of that deplorable group of eighties businessmen who turn money into more money by moving it around and for whom the impending deregulation (you know, the one that allowed wealth aggregators to plunder the economy of Western society and destroy the middle class) is a cause for celebration.

We are made to sympathize with Rory to an extent, as we’re told about his lousy childhood, including social exclusion and mediocre educational opportunities (which is what prompts him to overcompensate with the enrollments of Ben and Sam), although his mother, while cold, isn’t entirely unreasonable. She accuses Rory of never reaching out to her, and he retorts that she never called him, either, but we in the audience have no reason to disbelieve her complaint that Rory moved so much that she lost track of him. Ben is ten years old at this point and we’re told that this face-to-face reunion between Rory and his mother (orchestrated so that he can ask her for financial assistance) is the first time she’s been made aware that he’s married or that she has a grandson. However, while Rory’s story is tragic, it’s tragic in a classical way, as the ultimate cause of his ruination is not the change in broad social trends, or the dissatisfaction of his family as they overcome their culture shock and become accustomed to this new old world, or even his own poor handling of his emotions in the workplace (he’s allowed to have a lot more outbursts, consequence free, than would be allowed in a contemporary office). It would also be reductive to say that Rory’s life falls apart because of his greed, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s most accurate and honest to say that Rory’s loss comes equally from his unerring adherence to using the successes of others as the yardstick against which he measures himself, even when he could live comfortably within his means, and his devotion to the “fake it until you make it” ideology that has become even more common in the intervening decades. In his attempts to emulate success as part of a campaign to acquire the wealth that he craves and plays at having, he overextends what was likely a perfectly reasonable income, because he thinks that he deserves to have access to the same playground.

As Arthur tells Rory at one point, the latter has mistaken his coincidental success (that is, being in a rising tide that lifted all boats) for genuine intelligence and aptitude, which is simply untrue. He even tells the younger man that striving for a sudden, imminent payday to put paid to all of his current woes is foolish, as he should be striving to build something for himself over time instead of impatiently demanding his success now now now. And this is where the film missteps for me on a conceptual level, as it apparently presents Arthur’s advice about what Rory should do as a kind of blanket truth, when it isn’t. What Rory even does is kept deliberately obscured with industry buzzwords that ultimately mean nothing, and neither he nor Arthur are actually productive; they simply maintain the paradigm of ownership of the means of production and acquire wealth by buying and selling that labor. In case you forgot, labor creates all value, so make sure to write that one down somewhere that you see it every day. Allison’s manual labor that she performs for the neighboring farmer is the only work that we see anyone get any emotional satisfaction from, which isn’t a bad storytelling point, but Arthur’s presentation of the idea that a living wage can be earned simply by living within one’s means, delivered from the last point in Western history when upward social mobility through hard work actually was possible (before it was brought to an end by the very deregulation that Rory worships), misses the mark, although it’s possible that this was intentional and I’m being dense about it.

Like I said, there’s nothing “wrong” with The Nest. The performances are great, as Law effectively plays a man whose charm is so powerful he’s managed to convince even himself that his delusions are true, and he’s magnetic and contemptible in equal turns. You wouldn’t be able to accept a lesser actor in this role without thoroughly hating him, and that’s a testament. He’s also possibly the only actor who has ever managed to make BVD briefs look sexy, and at nearly 50 to boot. Similarly, Carrie Coon’s Allison is pitch perfect (and she’s proper fit, as one of Sam’s rude teenage friends notes). Each interaction contains the perfect amount of emotional distance and intimacy, and Coon is fantastic. By the time she really starts to fall apart, she’s held it together with such aplomb for so long that the audience feels her every revelation with empathetic exhaustion. I also like that there’s no beating around the bush about what the family’s problems are: there’s no infidelity (if anything, the couple’s sex life is the only thing about which they both remain passionate through the entire runtime), and all of the family’s anxieties stem entirely from Rory’s pathological obsession with money.

Outside of the performances, however, the whole thing feels very rote. Allison discovers that Sam has been smoking, but doesn’t confront her about it. Sam throws a rebellious teenage party when she’s supposed to be watching Ben. Ben discovers that his mother’s dead horse is starting to rise from the ground because it was buried improperly and has a little freak out about it (ok, maybe that last one is novel). There’s simply nothing new on the table, and a full throated denunciation of deregulated economics followed by a halfhearted commemoration of a time when a single breadwinner could provide–comfortably if not extravagantly–for a nuclear unit makes for a tonally confused film. Not to bring up Queen of Earth again, but that’s a film in which what’s being attempted here is successfully pulled off: a thriller where all of the violence is emotional and the tension comes from wondering who’s going to break first, and in what way. But where Queen made that work, Nest feels like a pale version that gets by solely on the strength of its performances and its cinematography (which is gorgeous), but which lacks the freakout that would take it to the next level.

*Here using the American definition of “private,” that is, a school which stipulates a hefty tuition and is not available to members of the general public and practices elitism and classism in practice even if it disavows it in theory. In England, the terms are reversed so that “public” schools in the U.K. meet this definition while their use of “private” generally correlates to the American “public,” i.e., state-funded. Yes, it is confusing.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Britnee’s Top 20 Films of 2020

1. Deerskin Quentin Dupieux’s film about a man’s obsession with a used (yet very expensive) fringed deerskin jacket. It keeps its dark humor evenly distributed throughout its runtime, but don’t assume that this is not a horror movie because it most definitely is. There’s enough spine-chilling moments that will weigh heavy on your mind long after the movie is over. It’s obviously right up my alley.

2. Swallow This is a fun thriller about an unhappy housewife who finds great joy in challenging herself to swallow all sorts of foreign objects (marbles, tacks, etc.). Once she poops them out, she cleans them up and starts a small collection of her accomplishments. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself cheering her on as her collection grows.

3. The Painter and the Thief In a horrible year that truly exposed the horrors of humanity, it was nice to watch a documentary about compassion and forgiveness. The story of a painter who had two of her paintings stolen by a criminal who then becomes her muse and friend is told in a very interesting yet very straightforward way. It’s definitely some good medicine for the disease of 2020.

4. Bacurau A wonderful Brazilian film that’s a little bit sci-fi, a little bit western, and a little bit horror. As the fictional town of Bacurau is slowly being wiped off the map, wealthy white elites are hunting the townsfolk for sport. The film builds to a very intense blood bath that was shocking and memorable to say the least.

5. The Other Lamb This is perhaps the year’s best coming of age film. It just so happens to take place in a religious cult in the woods that’s filled with incest and misogyny. Also, I can’t go without mentioning how hauntingly beautiful its scenery is.

6. You Cannot Kill David Arquette The Swampflix crew did an entire podcast episode about this documentary of David Arquette’s return to the world of professional wrestling, and I was absolutely blown away by it. Not only did it spark my interest in wrestling, but it also got me interested in the life of David Arquette after years of just knowing him as Courtney Cox’s ex-husband who played a few goofy film roles.

7. Blow the Man Down I love films that take place in New England fishing towns, and I also love crime thrillers. Blow the Man Down is a perfect mix of both. The cherry on top is that the town full of dark secrets is quietly run by a group of sweet old ladies.

8. Come to Daddy Elijah Wood has been playing very interesting and strange roles in recent years, and he absolutely kills it in Come to Daddy. It’s constantly shocking from beginning to end. There aren’t many films that came out this year that were as entertaining as this one.

9. Relic This Australian emotional horror film about the horrors of dementia is in the same wheelhouse as Hereditary. Personally, I found it to be more sad than spooky, but that didn’t take away from it being a legitimate horror film.

10. The Berlin Bride An almost silent film about two quirky guys who are taken over by a mannequin. It’s very dreamlike and bizarre, and for some reason I felt like a total pervert when I was watching it.

11. Bad Hair A horror comedy about a killer weave. It’s a funny satire that stars one of my all-time favorite actresses: Vanessa Williams!

12. Color Out of Space The best body horror film of 2020! And as a bonus, it stars Nicolas Cage so you get all of that Cage-ian spice in an already insane movie.

13. The Invisible Man I honestly didn’t think that I was going to enjoy this as much as I did. This is everything that a good thriller should be with some sci-fi elements thrown in as a bonus.

14. Birds of Prey If you haven’t watched this yet, do yourself a favor and run to it. I made the mistake of associating it with Suicide Squad and run-of-the-mill superhero movies, so I didn’t watch it until very late in the year. It’s a blast!

15. The Rental Actor Dave Franco’s directorial debut explores that fear we all get when taking those first steps into an AirBnb. It’s a solid thriller with an awesome cast.

16. Capone This movie is a shit show, but Tom Hardy shows up and shows out in a very Nicolas Cage way. His over-the-top performance of an aged Al Capone is not to be missed.

17. Host I spent most of 2020 stuck on Zoom (mostly for work), and this fabulous Zoom horror movie came out when we needed it the most. This movie is COVID-19 AF.

18. Arkansas Funnyman Clark Duke made his directorial debut this year with this crime thriller, and it was surprisingly solid. Duke stars in the film alongside Liam Hemsworth. Both actors had really good chemistry in the film and made for a really fun duo.

19. His House A refugee couple flees Sudan and end up in the UK. They deal with the horror of being refugees in a new country that doesn’t treat them humanely while also dealing with a more literal horror that follows them from Sudan. It’s very heartbreaking and super scary all at the same time.

20. Rent-A-Pal This is a silly VHS based horror movie about a lonely guy taking care of his elderly mother while desperately seeking out a girlfriend through a dating VHS program. When he happens upon a Rent-A-Pal VHS that stars a really creepy Wil Wheaton, the VHS tape takes over his life (similar to the deerskin jacket in my top 2020 film, Deerskin) and turns him into a monster. I’m glad I was able to watch this one before the year was over.

-Brtinee Lombas

Spontaneous (2020)

It’s very difficult for the post-Heathers high school black comedy to match the exact glorious highs of Daniel Waters’s 1989 classic. In the late 1990s, titles like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Jawbreaker, and Sugar & Spice leaned a little too hard into the flippant cruelty of the Heathers template, while more recent works like Mean Girls, The DUFF, and The Edge of Seventeen aren’t quite cruel enough. That’s why it’s a little frustrating that Spontaneous is so dead-on in its post-Heathers teen comedy cruelty in its first half, only to abandon that black comedy tone entirely as it reaches for a more earnest, less humorous conclusion. Of all the Heathers descendants I’ve enjoyed over the years, this one starts off with the most promise to share its icy, sardonic throne as the queen of the genre; then it abruptly decides it’s interested in pursuing something much more muted & emotionally grounded. I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment for that tonal shift as a result, even if the movie still holds up as a cute, enjoyable experience on its own terms.

Spontaneous is a shockingly well-timed horror-comedy-turned-teenage-melodrama. It’s about a spontaneous combustion pandemic that spreads throughout the senior class of one specific high school, forcing the student body into strict quarantine as their friends & classmates explode one by one in spectacular displays of gore. All the isolation & unprocessed grief that’s been hanging over high school & college kids since the coronavirus pandemic derailed all semblance of normalcy in March of 2020 is reflected here in a way the filmmakers could not have anticipated. Regardless of last year’s hyper-specific health pandemic context, though, the spontaneous combustion phenomenon works well enough as a generalized representation of the social pressures & gloom that hang over the heads of all kids who’re trying to remain optimistic about their futures as our planet continues to fall apart. It’s difficult to plan for the future when climate change, nuclear war, or your entire senior class exploding into piles of mush all threaten to end the world as we know it, so you might as well live in the moment – spontaneously.

There’s a lot to be disappointed by here if you’re looking to complain. It starts very strong when having morbid fun with its premise, but gradually loses steam as the heaviness of the material outweighs what its teen-drama earnestness can manage. I personally would’ve loved to see a version of this same film built around the lead’s friendship with her bestie rather than her brief senior-year romance with the new boy in town, since it’s a relationship that’s much better established & more worthy of exploring. I also obviously have a major mental block in assessing it as its own isolated accomplishment without constantly comparing it to my beloved Heathers, which it only echoes in its first hour. Ultimately, these are probably smart choices on the film’s part in reaching out to a teenage audience instead of my dusty thirtysomething sensibilities. The big emotions of the doomed romance, the dwelling on communal grief, and the Spencer Krug & Sufjan Stevens soundtrack cues are all perfectly pitched to hyperbolic teenage Feelings in a way I’m not sure I’ve seen matched since Your Name. Hopefully that teen audience will find this small, off-kilter gem while its context of graduating high school mid-pandemic is still a fresh, relatable wound.

If there’s any irony in me nitpicking Spontaneous‘s comedy-to-melodrama tonal shift, it’s the way that trajectory matches my very favorite aspect of the film. It perfectly captures the way that high school kids will impulsively say something mean to people who don’t deserve it in an attempt to be funny, then immediately regret that decision. The movie itself has flippant fun with its exploding-teens premise until the blood dries, and it has to clean up the emotional hurt that’s left behind – which is the same natural tendency the lead has to fight in herself as she treats everything around her as a meaningless joke. There’s something distinctly Veronica Sawyer about that character trait, as well as something universal to anyone who’s ever been a moody teenager. This is a fun, cute movie about a fucked-up tragedy, until the fun & cute evaporates and all that’s left is the fucked-up part.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Box (2020)

Black Box is the story of Nolan (Mamoudou Athie), a man suffering from amnesia following severe injury in a car crash that also claimed the life of his wife. He struggles with keeping up with the basics, like eating breakfast, making dinner, turning off the coffee pot, and picking up his daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) after school. Although he wants to go back to work as a photojournalist, his editor (Gretchen Koerner) gently rejects his new portfolio, citing both budget cuts and that his work doesn’t have the spark that it used to. After receiving nothing but negative prognoses for the return of his memories from multiple doctors, he’s not very optimistic when his doctor brother Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) recommends he see a noted specialist, Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad), who works in the same hospital as Gary. Brooks, through a combination of hypnotherapy and virtual reality brainwave augmentation, tells Nolan that there is hope to retrieve his seemingly-lost years with his wife and daughter. As Nolan starts to go deeper into the titular black box, however, what gets pulled out of his subconscious doesn’t seem to match the life he’s living now. Was he someone else once? Was Nolan once the person who could have done the things that he now remembers? 

Charmaine Bingwa and Donald Watkins also star in this sci-fi thriller from first time feature director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, who also shares a writing credit with Stephen Herman. Both men have experience with several shorts, and it’s not immediately apparent that this is their first feature. It does feel a little slight in places, and it’s not a surprise when Jason Blum’s Executive Producer credit shows up in the early credits, as this feels very much like a slightly off-brand episode of Black Mirror, which is an appellation that could also be applied to some of the more sci-fi slanted episodes of Into the Dark, like All That We Destroy or Culture Shock, but with a sensibility that’s more in the realm of Bloodride. This works better than any of those, however, as it never feels like a TV show, but it does exist in the realm of the near-future speculative fiction indie realm that features pictures like Marjorie Prime.

Between the time that I first started writing this review and picking it back up to complete it, I reread the Wikipedia page for it, and wouldn’t you know, there’s a reason it feels so much like Into the Dark: it’s an “installment in the anthological Welcome to the Blumhouse film series.” Still, it’s worth noting that Into the Dark has still produced multiple films that are actually quite good, and one of them (New Year, New You) even made it into my best of 2019 list. Like New Year, New You, Black Box uses its “smallness” as an asset instead of fighting the smaller budget and trying to make something outside of its grasp, creating a world in which the stakes are personal and rooted in internal struggles with the worst elements of our nature. The twist that centers the film comes very late in the game, but it’s well-seeded with just the right amount of foreshadowing, and there’s still sufficient screen time in the movie’s relatively lean 100 minutes that follow that reveal to let us explore the implications of what we’ve learned and the ethics of what our lead has to do next. But one of the ways that Black Box spins its humble budget of straw into passable onscreen gold is in its cleverness.

For instance, the representative mind world inside the box features a frightening creature in human form but which moves with distinctly inhuman noises (like the cracking of bones) and motions (crabwalking in the upward bow yoga pose); this is accomplished by the hiring of contortionist Troy James for the role, but instead of attempting to CGI a different face onto him, every face in the dream world is initially blurred Ringu style. This is incorporated into the narrative as part of the process, as the blurry face represents an incomplete memory for Nolan to reconstruct. A lesser movie would try to do something more complex and ultimately overcomplicate things, but by leaning into the limitations, Black Box turns them from flaws into strengths. 

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the film because writing around the twist is always a little tricky. In films like this one, that’s often the main drawing point, and my lifetime love of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone proves that I’m always on board for it, as long as the twist is good. This one’s a little more complex than normal, and it requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, but you’d have to be a real taskmaster for realism to be unwilling to go along with this one. It’s not the strongest one I’ve ever seen in this type of film, but as someone who has the unfortunate writer’s tendency to try and guess the next twist instead of letting the work take me on a journey, this was one in which I couldn’t guess the twist, and that’s always a plus. Luckily, Black Box doesn’t depend solely on that twist, as it becomes a different story afterward, about what the reframing of what has happened so far and what could happen next is a pivot that changes the film but doesn’t muddy it at all, which would be a feat for even a more experienced director. Its only real crime is that it lacks a truly cinematic eye, which is clearly a matter of budget in this case and not behind-the-camera crew. It remains to be seen how many pies Jason Blum can stick his thumb into, and Into the Dark has already run thin in a few places, but you wouldn’t know it from Black Box

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #125 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Top Films of 2020

Welcome to Episode #125 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee discuss their favorite films of 2020.

James’s Top 20 Films of 2020
1. Deerskin
2. First Cow
3. Another Round
4. Color Out of Space
5. Black Bear
6. The Twentieth Century
7. Possessor
8. Dick Johnson is Dead
9. Sound of Metal
10. Bloody Nose Empty Pockets
11. His House
12. You Cannot Kill David Arquette
13. Shit House
14. The Berlin Bride
15. American Utopia
16. The Wolf House
17. City Hall
18. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
19. The Invisible Man
20. Palm Springs

To hear everyone else’s picks, listen to the show . . .

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Podcast Crew