The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2020

There are 38 feature films nominated for the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony. We here at Swampflix are conspicuously more attracted to the lowbrow & genre-minded than we are to stuffy Awards Season releases, so as usual we have reviewed fewer than half of the films nominated (so far!). We’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees, though, including four titles from our own Top 10 Films of 2019 list. The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually choosing the winners, but as a list this isn’t too shabby in terms of representing what 2019 cinema had to offer.

Listed below are the 16 Oscar-Nominated films from 2019 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best, based on our star ratings. Each entry is accompanied by a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

1. Parasite, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best International Feature Film, and Best Production Design

“Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.”  – Boomer

2. Avengers: Endgame, nominated for Best Visual Effects

“This is the perfect capstone for this franchise. If there were never another MCU film, it would be totally fine, because as a finale, this is pitch perfect. Every important and semi-important character gets a moment to shine, as the Snap is undone (come on, you knew it would be). There’s even a moment where every living lady hero from the entire MCU is onscreen at once, and it is delightful, although I’m sure the internet is already full of comments about how it was ‘forced’ or ‘cheesy,’ but I don’t feed trolls and I try not to cross the bridges that they live under, so I wouldn’t know.” – Boomer

3. Knives Out, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“I’ve long been a fan of comedy pastiches and homages of genres that function perfectly as examples of those genres despite humorous overtones; my go-to example is Hot Fuzz, which I always tout as having a more sophisticated murder mystery plot than most films than most straightforward criminal investigation media (our lead comes to a logical conclusion that fits all of the clues, but still turns out to be wrong). Knives Out is another rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot.” – Boomer

4. Little Women, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Saiorse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Florence Pugh), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score

“This is a beautiful film, a timeless piece of literature made fresh once more with a cast overbrimming with talent and filmed with an eye for chromatic storytelling and such beautiful Northeast scenery that when I tell you I was there, I was there. This is also such a talented cast that they breathe a new life into characters that, in the original text and in previous film incarnations, were at times sullen, unlikable, or intolerable.” – Boomer

5. The Lighthouse, nominated for Best Cinematography

“Packed to the walls with more sex, violence, and broad toilet humor than you’d typically expect from high-brow Cinema. If you can push past the initial barriers of Eggers’s patient pacing & period-specific dialogue, the movie is a riot.” – Brandon

6. I Lost My Body, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“This is two films for the price of one. And it’s a very low price at that, considering its 80min runtime. As with all two-for-one bargains, however, one of the two complimentary films on this simultaneous double bill is far more satisfying & impressive than the other. To fully appreciate I Lost My Body, then, you have to appreciate its two dueling narratives as a package deal. The stronger movie in this combo pack carries the lesser, even if just by the virtue of their pairing.” – Brandon

7. Marriage Story, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Adam Driver), Best Actress (Scarlett Johannson), Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Score

“A superb breakup story about how you can love somebody so much, and create a life with them that you love, and it still has to dissolve. It specifically illustrates how hard it can be for parents when their child arbitrarily prefers one over the other. The way those formative childhood phases affect permanent legal repercussions is devastating, as is the realization that you might not actually be best parent for your own child.” – The Podcast Crew

8. Joker, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing

“None of the endless months of vitriolic complaints against its honor resonated with me in the theater, where I mostly just saw a creepy character study anchored by an effectively chilling performance. If anything, the fact that a movie this unassuming and, frankly, this trashy was somehow causing chaos in the Oscars discourse only made it more perversely amusing.” – Brandon

9. Missing Link, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“Very cute in its slapstick humor, and often stunning in its visual artistry. It’s about on par with The Boxtrolls all told, which is to say it’s mediocre by Laika standards but still on a level far above most modern children’s cinema.” – Brandon

10. 1917, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects

“The video game mission plot might not make for especially complex drama between its solider protagonists, but the way those babyfaced boys contrast against the unearthly gore, rot, and decay of the war-torn earth beneath them is viscerally upsetting. There are many ways in which the long-take gimmick is a distracting technical exercise, but it does force you to stew in that discomfort for long, uninterrupted stretches. It’s surprisingly brutal in that way.” – Brandon

11. Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Leonard Dicaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing

“I appreciate this movie most as a passionate argument for a sentiment I could not agree with less. I have no love for the traditional machismo & endless parade of cheap-o Westerns that clogged up Los Angeles in these twilight hours of the Studio Era. Still, it was entertaining to watch an idiosyncratic filmmaker with niche interests wax nostalgic about the slimy, uncool bullshit only he cares about.” – Brandon

12. The Irishman, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Al Pacino and Joe Pesci), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Production Design, and Best Visual Effects

“Finds plenty more to say about the corruption & violence of organized crime that Scorsese has not addressed in previous efforts. Unfortunately, it allows that new material to be drowned out by an overwhelming flood of the same-old-same-old.” – Brandon

13. Jojo Rabbit, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Scarlett Johannson), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, and Best Production Design

“Works best as a maternal parallel to the paternal drama of Boy. The difference is that I left Boy marveling at how he pulled off such a delicate tonal balance with such confident poise, whereas I left Jojo Rabbit wondering if I had just seen him lose his balance entirely and tumble to the floor for the first time.” – Brandon

14. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, nominated for Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“Look, Rise of Skywalker is good. It’s not great like The Force Awakens or passable like The Last Jedi, but it’s also not that spectacular either. It doesn’t take the chances that TLJ took, and I was glad that the return of JJ Abrams meant that we went back to mostly practical FX for the aliens (those stupid chihuahua horses from TLJ will haunt me to my goddamned grave) even if the resultant film felt like he was trying to railroad the ending back to his original concepts after not liking how another director played with his toys.” – Boomer

15. Ad Astra, nominated for Best Sound Mixing

“Has all the building blocks needed to achieve something great; they’re just arranged in a confoundingly dull configuration. Worse, there’s literally not one thing about its combination of vintage sci-fi pulp & faux-philosophical melodrama that Interstellar didn’t already achieve to greater success, so there’s constantly a better viewing option hanging over its head.” – Brandon

16. Rocketman, nominated for Best Original Song

“The narration continually reassures the audience that Elton John’s life was ravaged by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, but everything we see onscreen is musical theatre kids playing dress-up in squeaky clean sound stage environments.” – Brandon

-Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movies to See in New Orleans this Week 2/6/20 – 2/12/20

Here are the movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week, including a few major Oscar contenders.

Oscar Nominees

Parasite The latest from Bong Joon-ho (director of Okja and Swampflix’s favorite movie of 2014, Snowpiercer) is a twisty, crowd-pleasing thriller about class resentment that’s been selling out screenings & earning ecstatic critical praise for months as its distribution & Awards Attention exponentially spreads. Don’t miss your chance to see one of 2019’s universally beloved genre gems big, loud, and with an enraptured crowd. Playing at AMC Elmwood and Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge.

Little Women Greta Gerwig’s directorial follow-up to Lady Bird is an ambitious literary adaptation that scrambles the timelines & narrative structure of its source material to break free from the expectations set by its cultural familiarity. Major bonus points: yet another featured role for 2019 MVP Florence Pugh, who had a legendary year between this, Midsommar, and Fighting with my Family. Playing at AMC Elmwood.

Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood! I enjoyed Tarantino’s latest overwritten provocation despite it communicating a sentiment I couldn’t agree with less. Do I wish the macho drunkards & Westerns of Old Hollywood kept clogging up LA with their mundane traditionalism forever and ever? Not at all, but it’s still amusing to watch an idiosyncratic filmmaker with niche interests passionately wax nostalgic about the gross bullshit only they care about. Playing at AMC Elmwood.

Knives Out Rian Johnson cashes in his Last Jedi money to make an old-fashioned Agatha Christie throwback whodunnit with a massive cast of celebrity faces. He’s clearly having a ton of fun with the genre, and the best part is that the joke at the expense of the Nazi dweebs and Middle America fascists who hounded him for supposedly making TLJ too SJW. Playing at AMC Elmwood.


Other Movies

The Sons of Tennessee Williams (2011) An essential local documentary about our city’s largely overlooked gay Mardi Gras tradition, detailing the gay krewes & ball culture of both past & present. Screening Wednesday 2/12 at the All-Ways Lounge with a Q&A from director Tim Wolff and complimentary king cake.

Cane River (1982) – A locally-produced romance melodrama with an all black cast & crew, considered “lost” since it first screened in New Orleans in 1982 (largely due to the director’s untimely death before it landed distribution) until this five-years-in-the-making restoration started making the rounds. It’s sweet, surprisingly funny, and loaded with local, historical, and political significance.  Playing only at The Broad Theater.

Color Out of Space – Richard Stanley returns to filmmaking after a lengthy, storied hiatus following early triumphs like the sci-fi chiller Hardware.  For his much-anticipated comeback, he  directs Nicolas Cage in an adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft classic “The Colour Out of Space,” a staple of the cosmic horror genre. Playing only at The Broad Theater.

Gretel and Hansel – Oz Perkins warps the age-old fairy tale into one of those new-fangled “elevated,” Atmospheric Horrors everyone loves to rattle on about. After the director’s past work on the moody slowburns The Blackcoat’s Daughter & I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, it’s nice to see him have fun with this looser, sillier effort. It’s as beautiful & creepy as it is goofy, and I kinda wish more movies allowed themselves to just dick around like this one. Playing wide.

-Brandon Ledet

1917 (2019)

I was very skeptical about the necessity of 1917’s existence, especially as someone with very little patience for War Movies in general. It’s not only that its time-obsessed, boots-on-the-ground warfare felt redundant after the technical achievements of Dunkirk or that it’s a big-budget spectacle about wartime brutality that cheekily features surprise celebrity cameos in bit roles (British celebrities, anyway). What really put me off the film initially was its “single-take” gimmick that hides all cuts between shots to look like one continuous image, à la Birdman. How could the movie possibly justify using such a flashy, attention-grabbing technical exercise for a gruesome war story that doesn’t even occur “in real time?” I still don’t know that I fully understand director Sam Mendes’s intentions in making that choice, but it did allow the movie to weigh on me heavily in the moment in a way few other war dramas ever have, which I suppose is more than enough justification for the indulgence. I dare say I even enjoyed it.

Two British soldiers in the trenches of WWI are tasked to cross enemy lines to hand-deliver a letter that calls off a sure-to-be-disastrous attack before it begins. They must evade death at the hands of German combatants to save fellow British soldiers’ lives. That’s it; that’s the plot. Everything from there is an emphasis on in-the-moment experience, which does indeed include surprise appearances from Posh British Thespians and even more distracting camera trickery from Industry legend Roger Deakins. Every time the screen goes black in the darkness of a tunnel or is temporarily obstructed by a passing object, a “hidden” cut announces itself, calling attention to the long-take gimmick, the same way vintage 3D movies would needlessly protrude objects directly at the screen to highlight the tech wizardry on display. The movie even has to work in a fade-to-black act break that allows a jump forward in time, showing a lack of faith in the “single” take gimmick you won’t see in more fully committed works like Russian Ark. It’s all very flashy & self-indulgent, so it’s no wonder its technical feats & dramatic prestige have earned it so much Oscars attention.

Putting all these distractions aside, I did find 1917’s in-the-moment experiential approach to be effectively horrific in a general War Is Hell sense. This is especially true of the film’s earliest stretch, where two sweet little boys in soldier drag are crawling through war-decimated hellscapes. The opening & concluding settings of the film are fields of wildflowers, calling attention to the Natural beauty of rural European landscapes. Every environment between those bookends are Tarkovsky-level nightmare zones, populated by shards of exploded buildings, piles of rotting corpses, discarded horse skeletons, and the only vermin willing to tread through that filth: rats. There are so many goddamn rats. The video game mission plot of 1917 might not make for especially complex drama between its solider protagonists, but the way those babyfaced boys contrast against the ghastly gore, rot, and decay of the war-torn earth beneath them is viscerally upsetting. There are many ways in which the long-take gimmick is a distracting technical exercise, but it does force you to stew in that discomfort for long, uninterrupted stretches. It’s surprisingly brutal in that way.

1917 is at its best when it’s gruesomely gross, which his never too far off from beat to beat. A few casting & editing choices can be distracting in the moment, but in a big picture sense it’s an effective portrait of how war mutates people & landscapes into hideous monstrosities. It’s a pretty good movie all in all, which is more than you can say for most years’ Oscar favorites.

-Brandon Ledet

Joker (2019)

Uh oh, I ended up enjoying the disreputable movie about the Crime Clown, may the gods of Good Taste have mercy on me. The angry backlash surrounding Todd Phillips’s supervillain origin story Joker has been raging since before the movie was even theatrically released, so I can’t imagine that its recent anointment as this year’s Oscars Villain is going to make my defense of it any easier. Even I balked at the film’s existence when watching its early trailers, seeing nothing about what it was promising that hadn’t already been accomplished expertly in You Were Never Really Here & The King of Comedy. Yet, watching Joker on the big screen recently (thanks to its Oscars-boosted second run) I didn’t find anything that really needed defending. None of the endless months of vitriolic complaints against its honor resonated with me in the theater, where I mostly just saw a creepy character study anchored by an effectively chilling performance. If anything, the fact that a movie this unassuming and, frankly, this trashy was somehow causing chaos in the Oscars discourse only made it more perversely amusing.

On a plot level, there’s nothing remarkable here. Phillips merely piles another gritty comic book movie on top of the pile by replacing De Niro’s deranged stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy with The Clown Prince of Crime. Joker checks off all the necessary boxes to function as both an unimaginative Batman movie (yes, that includes a shot of Mrs. Wayne’s pearls) and as a middling Scorsese riff. There’s not even any room for surprise in the titular arch-villain’s transformation from sign-twirling clown-for-hire to deranged serial killer, since he already looks like a homicidal maniac in clown drag from scene one. The only relatively daring narrative specificity here is setting the film during the grimy days of a 1980s NYC (excuse me, “Gotham”) garbage strike, but even that choice reeks of Scorsese worship. This is not a film that desperately wants to surprise you, though. We all know the sign-twirling clown will become a murder clown by the third act, and in the meantime the soundtrack bombards us with the least imaginative song cues conceivable (including “Send in the Clowns” and “Everybody Plays the Fool,” but somehow not “Tears of a Clown”?).

I don’t see all this routine adherence to prescribed story templates as intellectual laziness, however. It’s just an exercise in genre. Like many great genre films, Joker overcomes its narrative familiarity with other virtues – namely in the bizarre screen presence of Juaquin Phoenix in the central role. Like Tom Hardy’s Herculean feat of transforming Venom from microwaved superhero leftovers to deeply strange camp fest all by his lonesome, Phoenix miraculously carves out a deeply weird character study from these uninspired backdrops. From his alien skeletal contortions in the sign-twirling clowns’ locker room to his piercing laughter at the exact wrong social cues to his public displays of bedroom-dancing, Phoenix delivers a genuine nightmare of a performance, flash-freezing my blood as soon as the first scene. I was too terrified of what he might do from moment to moment to worry about how pedestrian the film around him was. If anything, heightening the world around him to match his energy might have been too overwhelming. The familiar backdrop of a “gritty,” Scorsese-inspired comic book movie was just the muted tone his loud, upsetting presence needed to pop against in contrast.

The great irony of Joker is that much ado has been made about its political messaging where there is none, which is the exact folly that’s depicted in the film’s third act. Joker has become a popular irl boogeyman as a call-to-arms for potentially dangerous white men to rise up in revolt. Such a revolt is depicted in the film itself, with thousands of rioters taking to the streets in clown masks, inspired by the Crime Clown’s perceived “Kill the Rich” ethos. The thing that he has no awareness of class politics, and his adoring proto-Anonymous fans are reading into what’s essentially a blank slate of a hero. He might as well be Forest Gump or Chauncey Gardner, offering only empty platitudes like “What’s the world come to?” and “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” when prompted for an opinion on the state of things. If anything, the film functions like a horror movie about how scary isolated white men on the fringe can be once they’re fired up. Anyone who finds a hero in this indiscriminate murderer is deliberately searching for validation of their own already-established political agenda on a blank canvas – which is exactly what happens in the movie. This is a character study of a dangerous creep, not the incel dog whistle it’s been reported to be. Anyone who finds meaning there is just another kind of clown.

Of course, all art is inherently political in some way, and there’s been plenty of valid critique lobbed at Joker for its representation of racial power dynamics and mental health crises in particular. I don’t want to be dismissive of those claims, but I believe they mostly just point to the kind of movie this is at its rotten core: a trashy genre picture that has no real place being lauded in a prim & proper Awards Season context. I found Joker to be a deeply upsetting creep-out, thanks almost exclusively to Phoenix’s outright demonic performance. It’s rare that a slimy, grimy movie like that sneaks into Awards consideration, and a lot of people apparently don’t know what to do with it in that context except to get loud & get angry. Personally, I’m starting to find this particular bit of Oscars Season Chaos perversely amusing in a way I didn’t with past Awards Season villains like Green Book or Three Billboards. In other words, I used think that Joker’s existence was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a comedy.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top 25 Films of the 2010s

1. The Wild Boys (2018) – Adult femme actors play unruly young boys who are punished for their hedonistic crimes in a magical-realist fashion that violates their gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing a wet dream, and it has the nightmare logic of erotica written on an early 20th Century mushroom trip. Both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender.

2. 20th Century Women (2016) – An ensemble drama anchored by small, intimate performances that somehow covers topics as wide-ranging as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a “good” man in modern times, the shifts in status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe.

3. The Duke of Burgundy (2015) – The least commercial movie about a lesbian couple in a BDSM relationship possible. Although prone to cheeky pranksterism & confounding repetition, it excels both as an intentionally obfuscated art film and as a tender drama about negotiating the balance between romantic & sexual needs in a healthy relationship.

4. The Lure (2017) – A mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story.

5. The Neon Demon (2016) – This neon-lit fairy tale of a young fashion model being swallowed up by The Industry is exquisite trash, the coveted ground where high art meets id-driven filth. It skips around an amoral minefield of female exploitation, competition, narcissism, and mystic power, but Nicolas Winding Refn makes the exercise so beautiful and so callously funny that those thematic discomforts amount to a joyful playground for intoxicatingly ill-advised ideas.

6. We Are the Flesh (2017) – A Buñuelian nightmare in which doomed siblings seek shelter from a post-Apocalyptic cityscape in a forbidden man-made cave of their own design. Disorients the eye by making grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to thematically pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time.

7. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) – Tilda Swinton & Ezra Miller square off as a combative mother-son duo in a cerebral chiller about the scariest, least noble crises of parenting. Now that I’ve seen each of Lynne Ramsay’s features at least twice, I believe that a convincing argument could be made that any one of them are her career-best, but this remains the clear stand-out for me. One of the great works about the horrors of motherhood.

8. Upstream Color (2013) – Shane Carruth’s mind-control whatsit is the most impressively edited film of the decade, considering how it communicates an exponentially complex sci-fi narrative through a jumble of disjointed imagery and yet its basic outline is crystal clear for every minute you afford it your full attention. Its closed loop of human connection & subhuman exploitation is a deeply weird trip for as long as you allow yourself to remain under its spell.

9. Midsommar (2019) – A humorously traumatic nightmare comedy about a Swedish cult’s destruction of a toxic romance that’s far outstayed its welcome. Its morbid humor, detailed costume & production design, and dread-inducing continuation of Wicker Man-style folk horror improved a lot of things I liked but didn’t love about Hereditary, quickly converting me into an Ari Aster devotee.

10. Double Lover (2018) – This erotic thriller’s doppelganger premise relies on a familiar template, but as it spirals out into total madness there’s no bounds to its prurient mania, which is communicated through an increasingly intense list of sexual indulgences: incest, body horror, gynecological close-ups, bisexual orgies, negging, pegging, “redwings,” erotic choking, and nightmarish lapses in logic that, frankly, make no goddamn sense outside their subliminal expressions of psychosexual anxiety.

11. Mandy (2018) – Less of a revenge thriller than it is a Hellish nightmare; a dream logic horror-show that drifts further away from the rules & sensory boundaries of reality the deeper it sinks into its characters’ trauma & grief. Nic Cage may slay biker demons & religious acid freaks with a self-forged axe in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but this is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal.

12. The Witch (2016) – A haunting, beautifully shot, unfathomably well-researched witchcraft horror with an authenticity that’s unmatched in its genre going at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan. It immerses its audience in 17th Century paranoia, making you feel as if fairy tales like “Hansel & Gretel” and folklore about wanton women dancing with the Devil naked in the moonlight are warnings of genuine threats, just waiting in the woods to pick your family apart and devour the pieces.

13. Black Swan (2010) – Darren Aronofsky amplifies the supernatural horror undertones of the classic ballet industry melodrama The Red Shoes to a giallo-esque fever pitch. A terrifying (even if familiar) tale of a woman who’s controlled & infantilized in every aspect of her life to the point of a total psychological break, confusing what’s “real” and what’s fantasy onscreen in the most unsettling way.

14. Your Name. (2017) – A post-Miyazaki anime that resurrects the 1980s body swap comedy template for a new, transcendent purpose. From its tale of star-crossed, long distance romantics to its mildly crude sexual humor, bottom of the heart earnestness, supernatural mindfuckery, and pop punk soundtrack, this was the distilled ideal of a teen fantasy film in the 2010s.

15. Dirty Computer (2018) – A feature-length anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, this “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones promised in Janelle Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. It’s defiantly blunt in its tale of a queer black woman navigating an increasingly hostile world that targets Others in her position, to the point where a tyrannical government facility is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze before she rises against them in open bisexual rebellion.

16. Knife+Heart (2019) – A cheeky giallo throwback set against a gay porno shoot in late 1970s Paris. Picture Dario Argento’s Cruising. And it only improves on repeat viewings, as the disjointed imagery from the protagonist’s psychic visions gradually start to mean something once you know how they’re connected, and not being distracted by piecing together the mystery of its slasher plot allows you to soak in its intoxicating sensory pleasures.

17. Us (2019) – A surreal reimagining of C.H.U.D. that reflects & refracts ugly, discomforting truths about modern American class divides. Both of Jordan Peele’s feature films are self-evidently great, but I slightly prefer the nightmare logic looseness of this one to the meticulously calibrated machinery of Get Out – if not only because it leans more heavily into The Uncanny. It’s like getting twenty extra minutes to poke around in The Sunken Place.

18. Stranger By the Lake (2014) – An explicit tale of a heavenly public beach’s gay cruising culture being disrupted by the world’s most gorgeous serial killer. Equally a despairing drama & an erotic thriller, conveying a melancholic dynamic between physical desire & intimate connection. Haunting in its exploration of how we’re subservient to our own lusts & erotic obsessions.

19. The Florida Project (2017) – Captures a rebellious punk spirit that laughs in the face of all authority & life obstacles among the children who run wild in the extended-stay slum motels just outside the Disney World amusement parks. Doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults.

20. Boy (2012) – Taika Waititi’s best work to date is a deeply personal coming-of-age film. Perfectly captures the fantasy-prone imagination of young children’s minds in a way that feels wholly authentic & endearing. Also pulls off the neat trick of starting as a hilarious knee-slapper of a childhood-centered comedy, but then gradually laying on a series of escalating emotional wallops that leave you wrecked.

21. Wetlands (2014) – Most likely the cutest movie about an anal fissure you’ll ever see, this plays as if Marquis de Sade had written a formulaic 90s romcom. If there’s a particular bodily fluid, sexual act, or unsanitary pizza topping that you absolutely cannot handle this may not be the movie for you. However, like its 18-year-old protagonist Helen (expertly played by Carla Juri), the film’s hardened shock-value exterior is only a front for a big old softie lurking just under the surface.

22. Unfriended (2015) – This laptop-framed live chat horror flick is so ludicrously invested in its gimmickry that it comes off as a joke, but its commitment to the bit leads to genuinely chilling moments that remind the audience a little too much of our own digital experiences online. As a dumb horror flick filmed entirely from the first-person POV of a gossipy teen operating a laptop, it’s both more fun and way creepier than it has any right to be.

23. Girl Walk//All Day (2011) – Stealing its soundtrack & candid reactions from outside sources and operating around permitless film shoots, this Girl Talk fan video & modern dance showcase has an inherent sense of danger at its center, forfeiting its right to officially exist. Yet, its star dancer Anne Marsen broadcasts a childlike exuberance that overpowers its earthquake-shaky legal ground and should earn it the right to be officially exhibited out in the open—uncleared music samples or no—instead of suffering its current state of being periodically removed from sites like Vimeo & YouTube.

24. The Future (2011) – With the benefit of retrospect, Miranda July’s time-obsessed breakup drama feels like the official, miserable on-screen death of Twee Whimsy – which I mean as a compliment. It’s that hard post-youth stare in the mirror when you realize you’re not special and life is largely pointless & devoid of magic, a painful but necessary rite of passage.

25. Local Legends (2013) – Backyard filmmaker Matt Farley’s crowning achievement is essentially an infomercial for his own back catalog – tripling as a narrative feature, a documentary, and an essay film on the joys & embarrassments of amateur art production in the 2010s. Stunning in its bullshit-free self-awareness as a small-time regional artist’s self-portrait, something I strongly identify with as an amateur film blogger & podcaster in our own insular, localized community.

-Brandon Ledet

Missing Link (2019)

Laika has already earned a lifetime pass with their spooky stop-motion gems Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings, but it’s not going to be much of a lifetime if the animation studio doesn’t start pulling in more money. As beloved as those titles are among movie nerds and very specific budding-horror-fan children, none have really broken through to genuine box office success. The studio has essentially depended on the money its CEO Travis Knight has inherited from his Nike co-founder father Phil Knight, who is technically Laika’s owner. That sneaker money won’t keep them afloat forever, and Laika is desperate for a hit to become a self-sustaining enterprise. That might explain why they stepped slightly outside their usual spooky, Halloween-flavored children’s media realm to produce a cutesy comedy about a goofball yeti. The gamble did not work in a financial sense, but the resulting movie was still about as solid as you’d expect from the studio – who are maybe too high-brow & visually polished for their own good.

I’m not sure what movie greenlighting algorithm has prompted animation studios to believe that yetis are what children are salivating to see on the big screen at the moment, but it was a decision that paid off nicely for DreamWorks & Universal – who recently had sizeable hits with the CG-animated shrugs Smallfoot & Abominable, respectively. Laika, of course, was the only studio of the trio to outright flop in this endeavor, doubling their usual production budget on what appeared to be a surefire hit and only earning 1/5th of it back at the box office. Their mistake was being the one studio who actually gave a shit about animation as an artform – pushing their usual combination of tactile stop-motion wizardry & CGI-smoothed touchups to create a one-of-a-kind globetrotting adventure. Casting overgrown man-child Zach Galifianakis as a buffoonish sasquatch who takes figures of speech as literally as Amelia Bedelia was their only attempt to bridge the gap to what most modern animation studios do in their globally-exported box office hits – a real “Zendaya is Meechee” kind of decision. It wasn’t enough.

Thematically, Missing Link makes for a lighthearted companion piece to the recent stop-motion arthouse bummer This Magnificent Cake!. Both films use traditional slapstick humor to satirize the absurdity of historical colonialism, although Missing Link’s approach to the material is much sillier than it is traumatizing. Hugh Jackman voices a self-proclaimed “famous” monster hunter (the one nod to the studio’s typical horror bent) who attempts to earn the respect of legitimate big-game hunters by capturing creatures like The Loch Ness Monster and, yes, Bigfoot. Galifianakis voices that living Bigfoot specimen, a sweetly non-confrontational beast who longs to find more creatures of his own kind so he can stop living as an ostracized misfit. The pair team up to help each other’s causes. The yeti is a crude New World goofball searching for purpose & a sense of Home in his Old World ancestry, while the monster hunter learns just how harmful his self-serving, globetrotting colonialism is to everyone he touches. The mistake the movie made was in having themes or a point of view at all. It probably would have made much more money if they had just animated Galifianakis singing Meghan Trainor karaoke or some other such horseshit.

Missing Link is very cute in its slapstick humor, and often stunning in its visual artistry. It’s about on par with The Boxtrolls all told, which is to say it’s mediocre by Laika standards but still on a level far above most modern children’s cinema. It sucks to have to focus so much on the film’s financial failure in appraising its worth as art, but that failure is very much a part of its story. This is Laika reaching out as far as possible from their niche spooky-stop-motion corner of children’s media to welcome in a wide audience, and the most they got for the effort was a token Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature (which I fear will just automatically defer to whatever microwaved Disney or Pixar sequel it’s up against this Sunday). It’s not their strongest work, but it manages to be their most accessible while still maintaining a unique, technically marvelous visual style and an admirably pointed worldview. I wish it had been enough of a smash success to fund more weirdo, spooky outliers like Coraline or Kubo, but instead I’m left worrying that their sneaker money is going to dry up any day now.

-Brandon Ledet

Ad Astra (2019)

I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to judge an Okay movie against its potential to be Great (as opposed to appreciating how decent it already is), but I can’t help doing so with Ad Astra. If this were a direct-to-VOD space travel thriller featuring nobody actors and a shoestring budget, I might be more forgiving towards it as a sci-fi mediocrity. As is, the film has all the building blocks needed to achieve something great; they’re just arranged in a confoundingly dull configuration. Worse, there’s literally not one thing about its combination of vintage sci-fi pulp & faux-philosophical melodrama that Interstellar didn’t already achieve to greater success, so there’s constantly a better viewing option hanging over its head. Ad Astra never does enough to justify its own existence, much less its Major Studio budget, which makes its momentary flashes of greatness all the more frustrating.

Brad Pitt is a near-future astronaut who’s tasked to retrieve his war-hero father (Tommy Lee Jones) from the furthest reaches of our solar system, as he’s assumed to have become a radicalized domestic terrorist, attacking Earth’s power supplies from afar. If that sounds like a trashy space thriller, that’s because it kind of is. The video game style obstacles that obstruct Pitt’s path to his deranged father include Moon pirates, feral space baboons, and mutinous astronaut crews who’d rather fight to the death following company orders than do what’s obviously right. Ad Astra seemingly wants to be a fun, swashbuckling space adventure – a Flash Gordon for the late 2010s. Instead, it somehow comes across as microwaved Malick leftovers.

Through a godawful, entirely unnecessary narration track, Pitt continually steers the focus away from the B-picture Moon Wars thrills towards a shallowly introspective story about toxic masculinity. His dangerously emotionless protagonist prides himself on maintaining a calm, “manly” control over his feelings – despite the obvious heightened emotional stakes of chasing down a father who abandoned him (by the length of an entire solar system). In theory, this opens the film to some interesting themes about the emotional prisons of gender. In practice, it steals screen time away from the much more enticing trash-thriller beats that actually make the film entertaining for short bursts – replacing them with purposefully emotionless voiceover announcements like “I always wanted to become an astronaut, for the future of mankind,” and “I’ve been trained to compartmentalize. It seems to me that’s how I approach my life.” What a bore.

I very much want to like this movie, which only makes me harsher towards its faults. I’m drawn to its cosmetic near-future speculation about interplanetary commercial flights and crowded Moon Malls, as much as I am to its more somber speculation about a future where Macho Men are forced to regularly seek therapy for psych-evaluations. These touches never quite match the thrills of its video game action sequences, though, which only makes them feel like annoying distractions instead of the main drive of the text. I want to enjoy the film as a big-budget B-picture with exquisite visual compositions that far outweigh the heft of the killer space baboons & Moon Pirate conflicts they serve. Unfortunately, its function as a sub-Tree of Life stargazer frequently gets in the way of that indulgence, and I spent most of the film wishing I had just rewatched Interstellar or Aniara instead.

-Brandon Ledet

Swampflix’s Top 10 Films of 2019

1. Midsommar A cathartic breakup drama disguised as a gruesome daytime horror. This traumatic nightmare-comedy about a toxic romance that’s far outstayed its welcome is distinguished by its morbid sense of humor, its detailed costume & production design, its preference for atmospheric dread over traditional jump scares, and its continuation of occultist, Wicker Man-style folk horror into a new generation of genre nerdom.

2. Parasite Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece is a twisty, crowd-pleasing thriller about class resentment, with a particular focus on how Capitalism forces its lowliest casualties to fight over the crumbs that fall from on high. It’s a genuine phenomenon that such a savage commentary on class politics has become so universally popular, earning sold-out screenings & ecstatic critical praise for months on end as its distribution exponentially spreads. When was the last time such a wide audience embraced a movie that features *gasp* subtitles, much less such a tonally explosive expression of economic anger?

3. Knife+Heart This is fantastic smut, especially if you happen to enjoy classic slashers & gialli. Picture Dario Argento’s Cruising. Set against a gay porno shoot in 1970s Paris, it really turns the usual male gaze & female victim empathy of those genres on their head in a fascinating way. And it only improves on repeat viewings as its psychedelic flashback imagery and its Goblin-inspired synth soundtrack from M83 sink further into your subconscious.

4. In Fabric A tongue-in-cheek anthology horror about a sentient killer dress. Fully indulging in the Theatre of the Absurd, it’s a fun watch, but it also makes fashion photography, corporate employment, and romantic loneliness legitimately menacing. Especially recommended for anyone who’d be enticed by an arthouse remake of Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, as it could easily be read as both over-the-top camp and a deadly serious creep-out.

5. Knives Out A modernized Agatha Christie-style whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that manages to deliver both a sophisticated, winding plot and pointed class politics. Like Get Out before it, it mocks a specifically Left version of political ignorance vis-à-vis latent and uninspected racism among the privileged class. Stumbling upon something this fun and this fiercely political feels like finding a rare gem in the cinematic wilderness.

6. The Lighthouse Willem Dafoe & Robert Pattinson costar as a lighthouse-keeper odd couple who gradually grow insane with hate & lust for each other. A black & white period drama crammed into a squared-off aspect ratio, this functions as an unholy, horned-up mashup of Guy Maddin & HP Lovecraft as well as a seafaring, swashbuckling mutation of Persona. It pushes the basic tenets of traditional masculinity and macho bonding rituals into the realm of a hallucinatory fever dream.

7. Us A surreal reimagining of C.H.U.D. that reflects & refracts ugly, discomforting truths about modern American class divides – mostly in the way that escaping the darkness of poverty is often impossible, and that those who manage to somehow embody the mythological idea of social mobility must do so at the expense of others. It also commands a nightmare-logic looseness throughout that was only hinted at in Peele’s debut, leaning heavily into the horror of The Uncanny. It’s like getting an extra hour to poke around in The Sunken Place.

8. The Beach Bum An abrasive stoner-bummer in which Matthew McConaughey plays a Florida-famous poet named Moondog. Harmony Korine always works best when he reins his indulgences in with a little guiding structure, and this one does so by riffing on 90s Major Studio Comedy tropes to hideous success. It’s basically Korine staging Billy Madison on the lower decks of a Jimmy Buffett pleasure cruise, a perfect continuation of the Floridian hellscape he previously sketched out in Spring Breakers.

9. Uncut Gems Another Good Time-style panic attack from the Safdie Brothers, in which New York City is just as loud, chaotic, and crowded as it feels irl. Adam Sandler’s manic performance of gambling addiction & familial regret toys with audiences’ empathy, and its larger story of international jewelry trade emphasizes upsetting truths about the exploitation & suffering that’s behind all the world’s beautiful stones.

10. The Irishman A late-career mafia epic from Martin Scorsese, the undisputed master of that genre. It’s a beautiful yet tragic story about obsoletion and the emptiness of a life spent mired in sensationalist violence, one with a metatextual significance in the life of its aging, self-reflective filmmaker.

Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.
Read CC’s picks here.
See Hanna’s picks here.
Hear James’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

Movies to See in New Orleans this Week 1/29/20 – 2/5/20

Here are the movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week, including major Oscar contenders and a rare chance to see short films on a proper screen.

Oscar Nominees

Parasite The latest from Bong Joon-ho (director of Okja and Swampflix’s favorite movie of 2014, Snowpiercer) is a twisty, crowd-pleasing thriller about class resentment that’s been selling out screenings & earning ecstatic critical praise for months as its distribution & Awards Attention exponentially spreads. Don’t miss your chance to see one of 2019’s universally beloved genre gems big, loud, and with an enraptured crowd. Playing at AMC Elmwood and Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge.

Little Women Greta Gerwig’s directorial follow-up to Lady Bird is an ambitious literary adaptation that scrambles the timelines & narrative structure of its source material to break free from the expectations set by its cultural familiarity. Major bonus points: yet another featured role for 2019 MVP Florence Pugh, who had a legendary year between this, Midsommar, and Fighting with my Family. Playing at AMC Elmwood.

Oscar-Nominated Shorts Showcases Both The Prytania Theatre & AMC Elmwood are packaging this year’s Oscar-nominated shorts in three category-specific showcases: live-action narrative, live-action documentary, and animated shorts. I’m personally only intrigued by the animation package, but it’s honestly just nice to have the opportunity to see short films in a proper cinema, outside of a film festival.


Other Movies

Silent Era Shorts Speaking of rare opportunities to see short films in a proper theatrical environment, Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge will be screening two silent classics with live musical accompaniment on Wednesday 2/5: Charlie Chaplin’s A Night in the Show and W.W. Young’s Alice in Wonderland, both from 1915.

Gretel and HanselOz Perkins warps the age-old fairy tale into one of those new-fangled “elevated,” Atmospheric Horrors everyone loves to rattle on about. Given the director’s past work on The Blackcoat’s Daughter & I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, it promises to be a total creep-out with detailed attention paid to eerie, immersive sound design. Playing wide.

Uncut Gems The Safdie Brothers revise the sweaty desperation of their traumatizingly anxious thriller Good Time by casting Netflix Doofus Extraordinaire Adam Sandler in the lead role, transforming that throat-hold thriller’s template into a darkly comedic farce without losing any of its feel-bad exploitation discomforts. It’s wonderfully stressful. Playing at The Broad Theater & AMC Elmwood.

-Brandon Ledet