Swampflix’s Top Films of 2017

1. Get Out – Jordan Peele’s debut feature displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form as it pushes past discussion of explicit racism to explore the awkwardness of microaggressions, the creepiness of suburban culture, and the fetishization and exotification of people of color. It’s a staggeringly well-written work that has convincingly captured the current cultural zeitgeist, becoming instantly familiar & iconic in a way few movies have in our lifetime. It’s a horror film that families should watch together, especially if you have some of those white “I’m not racist, but” family members. Let it flow through you and inform you about the daily experiences of people of color in our country. Let it teach you a lesson about the power of cell phone video as a liberator, and about the frequent hypocrisy of white liberalism. Let it be the light for you in dark (and sunken) places. Let its truth live in you and affect your daily life, teaching you to recognize the toxicity within yourself. Live it.

2. mother! – A sumptuous movie with haunting imagery, strong performances, an excellent cinematic eye, and an amazing cast. A movie about which it’s impossible to be apathetic but completely acceptable to feel ambivalence. A beautiful, messed up, literally goddamned movie that might just be the most important major studio release of 2017.  mother! demands discussion & analysis in a way most major studio releases typically don’t. The important part of that discussion is not whether you are personally positive on the film’s absurdist handling of its Biblical & environmentalist allegories or the way it makes deliberately unpleasant choices in its sound design & cinematography to get them across in a never-ending house party from Hell. The important thing is recognizing the significance of its bottomless ambition in the 2010s Hollywood filmmaking landscape.

3. Raw – The debut feature from director Julia Ducournau is one of the more wonderfully gruesome horror films of 2017, but it’s also much more tonally & thematically delicate than what its marketing would lead you to believe.  A coming-of-age cannibal film about a young woman discovering previously undetected . . . appetites in herself as she enters autonomous adulthood, Raw is actually pretty delicate & subtle, especially for a remnant of the New French Extremity horror movement. Although there are plenty horror elements at play, the movie also works as a dark (dark, dark) comedy. It’s gross, but it’s also hilarious, and surprisingly endearing.

 

4. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore – A movie about getting justice for yourself and fighting the assholes of the world, this is the sweetest tale of revenge that ever was. Part Coen Brothers, part Tarantino, but uniquely its own thing, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore deftly balances itself between romcom and gritty revenge flick. Melanie Lynskey’s mission of principle— not in search of compensation, but for the simple demand that “people not be assholes”— boasts an absurd, intangible goal and the movie itself never shies away from matching that absurdity in its overall tone, but impressively still keeps its brutality believably authentic. It vacillates between grave-dark humor and truly grotesque outbursts of violence, but it also demonstrates a wealth of heart and subversiveness.

5. The Shape of Water – A vision of hope & empowerment. Revisionist justice for the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Guillermo del Toro’s latest is emotional comfort food for the outcasts, downtrodden, and misfits of the world. A brutal, lushly shot fairy tale, The Shape of Water is a beautiful love story between a disabled woman and an aquatic humanoid. It’s also a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit, especially in seeing the world’s true, institutional monsters overcome by an alliance comprised of the “other”: a “commie,” a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, an older queer man, and their sexy fishman accomplice.

6. Split – A near-borderless playground for James McAvoy to villainously chew scenery. He does so admirably, fully committing to the film’s morally dodgy, but wickedly fun D.I.D. premise. Split is a thriller that makes you feel the fear and anxiety of the protagonist (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor Joy), whom McAvoy holds hostage. That horrible trapped & confused feeling overwhelms even as the film descends into gleefully trashy genre tropes that don’t at all deserve the attention to craft M. Night Shyamalan affords them.

7. IT – Steven King’s novel IT is a lengthy screed about friendship and the loss of innocence upon the road to maturity, a book that holds the record for “Product Most Obviously Created by a Coked-Up Lunatic.” It’s not King’s best work, but last year’s film adaptation finds the kernel of perfection in it and brings it to life. Many were quick to compare it to the terribly boring TV miniseries adaptation from 1990, but the film is a major improvement on that attempt. Loaded with jump-scares and legitimately terrifying sewer clown action, IT was the best true-horror film of the year, an excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of “elevated” horror, IT is a declarative, back to the basics return to Event Film horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions, which tend to lurk at the edges of the frame.

8. Logan – A somber meditation on age, obsolescence, loss, and death, this R-rated X-Men film’s throat-ripping hyperviolence offers a legitimate glimpse into the grim future of Trump’s America. It also breaks new ground as a superhero narrative that finally tries its hand in genre contexts outside the action blockbuster. This is a neo-western set in a dystopian, dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. It’s perhaps the starkest look into our likeliest future that came out all year.

9. The Lure – Gore has never been so glamorous! The Lure beautifully mixes fairy tale lore with glitterful violence and a fantastic synth-heavy soundtrack to deliver a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen. 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. The film somehow tackles themes as varied as love, greed, feminism, addiction, body dysmorphia, betrayal, revenge, camaraderie, and fluid sexuality while still maintaining the vibe of a nonstop party or an especially lively nightmare.

10. Marjorie Prime – The best hard sci-fi film of the year is a deeply introspective and meditative piece on the nature of grief, memory, loss, and family. Love and grief have a profound effect on the way that our memories evolve and devolve and undergo a metamorphosis as we age. The ravages of time on the human body and mind also contribute to our imperfect personal narratives. This serene, philosophical stage play adaptation about artificial intelligence dwells on these themes at length, mostly to the sounds of distant waves crashing and softly spoken dialogue. Marjorie Prime is the most quietly elegant film listed here, but it’s also the most philosophically rewarding in its reflections on memory, truth, and the erosive nature of time.

Read Alli’s picks here.
Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.
Hear James’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

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Ken Russell’s Streamlined Modernization & Perversion of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm

Ken Russell’s 1988 film adaptation of the 1911 Bram Stoker novel The Lair of the White Worm is often criticized for being an adaptation in name only. Critical consensus is that Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm maintains only minor details of Stoker’s original premise and the most the two works share is a common title. It’s true that Russell’s adaptation strays much further from its source material than 1922’s Nosferatu does in its faithful, but copyright-infringing bastardization of Stoker’s Dracula novel. The film The Lair of the White Worm is not a blasphemous, in-name-only adulteration of a sacred text, however. Bram Stoker’s White Worm novel is incoherent pulp. It’s a tawdry mess of a work written late in the author’s life, long past when his mental facilities were at their sharpest. Russell modernized and drastically altered basic components of the late author’s work, but he was much more faithful to the source material than what’s typically acknowledged. There’s even a prideful title card that proclaims, “Screenplay by Ken Russell from the Bram Stoker novel” to boastfully acknowledge their posthumous collaboration. Russell did not disrespectfully diminish a well-loved literary work. The filmmaker streamlined and enhanced an imperfect, misshapen novel that had been largely (and perhaps rightfully) forgotten by time by accentuating its most worthwhile aspects. He transformed a painfully slow read into a wildly fun horror film.

Although Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm is a mid-length novella, it reads like a rambling epic that drones on for thousands of pages. Its story is essentially a simplistic rehashing of Dracula, in which a naïve outsider intrudes on a world of supernatural menace while conducting entirely unrelated, mundane business. Instead of providing legal service for suspiciously inhuman royalty like the solicitor Jonathan Harker in Dracula, The Lair of the White Worm’s naïve outsider, Adam Salton, is thrust into contact with similarly inhuman gentry by neighborly proximity. During a routine getting to know the attractive neighbors visit, Salton finds two wicked figures tormenting the innocent women of the house. One of these figures, Sir Caswall, is a weak carbon copy of Count Dracula. Although his apparent vampirism is never made explicit he physically resembles Bram Stoker’s most infamous creation and shares Dracula’s passion for hypnotizing women, this time under the guise of practicing “mesmerism.” The second tormentor, Lady Arabella, is more of a creation original to this novel. Lady Arabella is gradually revealed to be a shape-shifting “worm” (skewing closer to a giant snake or a dragon than an earthworm) known to feed on locals who dare encroach on its territory. While Dracula touches on the danger of female sexuality, Lair explicitly refers to our villainess, Lady Arabella, as a “cocotte”, French for prostitute. Despite her Anglo-Saxon good looks, a dangerous fiend like Lady Arabella could “infect” respectable English women with her serpentine (and independent) ways and seduce men to their ruin.

Furthering the Dracula parallels, a Van Helsing-type (Sir Nathaniel) helps Adam concoct a plan to destroy the worm’s pit below Diana’s Grove, but instead of confronting the villainous Arabella and Caswall on their adjacent ancestral lands, Adam and his wife Mimi bafflingly run around the countryside in an effort to avoid the villains. Lady Arabella is responsible for her own destruction by running a wire directly from the kite to her own well in hopes of lurig Caswall into her clutches. The villains’ fate is sealed by a random lightning strike that ignites dynamite meant to destroy the pit below Arabella’s property, where the worm is known to feed. It’s as if the lightning were a direct punishment from God or, more likely, Stoker had no idea how to wrap up a mess of a plot he had dug for himself.

Russell’s screenplay adaptation cleans up the mess Stoker made by combining and excising characters to essentialize what makes it distinct from being yet another Dracula. One major change was combining the Dracula and Van Helsing archetypes of Sir Caswall and Sir Nathaniel into a single character. Portrayed by a young Hugh Grant, Lord James D’Ampton is a destined hero ordained by heritage to destroy Lady Sylvia Marsh (Lady Arabella in the Stoker version) once she’s revealed to be a shapeshifting, killer “worm.” D’Ampton remains a “mesmerism” enthusiast, but in the way of a snake-charmer, a skill willed to him through family to aid in his task of hypnotizing and slaying the titular worm beast. Two major villains tormenting Derbyshire, England is one too many for a work this simple; Russell was smart to remove the most Dracula-reminiscent one of the pair. His other character changes are basic modernizations meant to update Stoker’s outdated material to a 1980s setting. For instance, the naïve Adam Salton character (now named Angus Flint and portrayed by Peter Capaldi) is an archeologist, not newly-landed gentry. This style of modernization did require some major changes in terms of character traits, however. Russell removed the bizarre racial fixations Stoker focused on in his novel. In particular, Stoker exhaustingly others an African immigrant servant to Sir Caswall and a biracial female love interest for their cultural and (worse yet) supposed biological differences. Oolanga is framed as an obviously evil character. He writes, “But the face of Oolanga, as his master at once called him, was pure pristine, unreformed, unsoftened savage, with inherent in it all the hideous possibilities of a lost, devil-ridden child of the forest and the swamp—the lowest and most loathsome of all created things which were in some form ostensibly human.”  Meanwhile, Mimi Watford is compared favorably to her white, but passive & tragically doomed cousin as an exotic, fiery beauty: “Strange how different they are! Lilla all fair, like the old Saxon stock she is sprung from; Mimi almost as dark as the darkest of her mother’s race. Lilla is as gentle as a dove, but Mimi’s black eyes can glow whenever she is upset.” Russell excises this aspect of the work entirely by casting white actors in their roles and diminishing the parts they play in the central story. There is both a shrewdness and a cowardice to Russell’s avoidance of the uncomfortable racial issues at the heart of his Bram Stoker source material, but it’s ultimately an improvement that helps declutter the work just as much as removing the redundant, Dracula-reminiscent villain.

Russell had to polish and streamline Stoker’s original vision to craft a fun, watchable horror movie out of the rubble, but the novel plays directly into the auteur’s pet obsessions. At the heart of Stoker’s novella is a deep-seated fear of female sexual autonomy, detectable in the sexual imagery of Lady Arabella’s phallic “worm” form and the vaginal cave where that monster feeds. Russell was well established as a sexual provocateur by the time he adapted Lair of the White Worm in 1988. Transgressive works like Crimes of Passion and The Devils had already allowed the director to indulge in blatant depictions of the perceived horrors of autonomous female sexuality in a way Stoker’s much earlier novel could only subtly imply. Streamlining The Lair of the White Worm’s most exciting components allowed Russell more time to exploit the Cronenbergian sexual menace inherent to the character of Lady Arabella (Lady Sylvia). He wastes no time revealing that she is a shapeshifting, humanoid snake, unlike Stoker who saved her mysterious villainy for much later in his novella. Before actress Amanda Donahue is even depicted spitting venom or baring comically oversized fangs, she is costumed wearing cowls and headscarves that accentuate her reptilian nature, affording her the silhouette of a bipedal cobra. This allows more time for Russell, who was never one for subtlety, to indulge in the character’s over-the-top sexual villainy. Her consumption of young, innocent locals is made explicitly analogous to sexual desire and is even tied to an elaborate sex ritual that involves a giant, sharpened phallus (a favored instrument of death for Russell, as indicated by its inclusion here and in Crimes of Passion). The director’s screenplay may play loose with the details of its source material, but there’s enough of Bram Stoker’s influence detectable to see why he was drawn to it. Russell maintained the mesmerism hypnosis of the novella, but made it a psychedelic side effect of Lady Sylvia’s venom (in imagery directly pulled from his previous works Altered States and The Devils). Russell latched onto Stoker’s subliminal sexual anxiety, but elevated it from subtext to the forefront. He even held onto the Dracula-reverberating aspects of the novel by accentuating the comically oversized, vampire-like marks Lady Sylvia’s snake bites leave on her victim’s necks. Russell made major changes to the novella, but in a way that was more of a personalized distillation than a disrespectful dilution.

Besides cleaning up its loose ends and blatant character-based redundancies, Ken Russell improved The Lair of the White Worm by making it fun, memorable, and genuinely unnerving. Many movie adaptations of literary works are derided as lesser echoes of superior source material. Russell, by contrast, altered a near-forgotten work for the better. As Stoker’s original The Lair of the White Worm was never considered to be an especially well-written or even well-conceived literary work, the decades-late, culturally updated revision had to come from a genuinely enthusiastic place as a reader. Ken Russell was himself no stranger to critical consensus that his work was over the top, messy pulp and saw some of his own perverse passions in Stoker’s little-loved final novel. His adaptation may have been more dedicated to bringing out those auteurist similarities between their two minds than it was to faithfully mimicking Stoker’s work, but given the lowly place where the novel started that’s something of an honor.

-CC Chapman

Alli’s Top Films of 2017

It has been a year, both good and bad, mostly bad, but it’s the worst years that inspire some of the best art. Or at least that’s the bit we’re all told, as suffering artists. There were a lot more original stories of note for me this year, rather than remakes and book adaptations, so there may be something to that.

It being a rough year for me, though, which meant I fell behind, and because of that I’m keeping my ranked list short at 5.

1. The Shape of Water – It’s a tragedy to me that the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon got treated so badly. It’s an injustice that scientists would resort to killing and maiming a creature instead of just trying to avoid and passively observe it in the hopes of understanding it. The Creature always deserved better, and I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who thinks so. The revisionist justice of this movie is emotional comfort food for me.

Besides the Creature getting a better ending, The Shape of Water also serves as a countercultural rallying cry. The outcasts, downtrodden, and misfits work together to foil the plans of the establishment. Working class women, the lowest paid of anyone in America, actually get back at condescending bosses. Del Toro gives us a vision of hope and empowerment.

The cast is fantastic! Michael Shannon is horrifying. Sally Hawkins sweetly plays a mute rebel. Octavia Spencer gets a great role as a proud black woman in the time of the Civil Rights movement (when many proud black women made a difference and provided a strong backbone to the movement, only to be unfortunately overlooked). Doug Jones, though. He has played some of the most iconic del Toro roles: the Faun and Pale Man of Pan’s Labyrinth and the ghosts of Crimson Peak. Now, he will forever be known as the sexiest fish man onscreen.

I already knew I would love this movie just from del Toro’s name alone. He is one of my favorite currently working directors. The art he creates is lush and fantastic. He has a way of preserving the fun and excitement of fairy tales while also never letting his audience forget that there’s a real terror to them. With The Shape of Water he hands us another original modern fairy tale with a bittersweet ending, because he knows exactly what people like me want: a beautiful love story between a disabled woman and an aquatic humanoid.

2. Get Out – What can I say? So many writers have written so many pieces that offer better words than I could.

I’m glad that it didn’t just focus on the horrifying explicit racism, but the neoliberal hypocrisy that comes from the wealthy elite “nice white people.” The awkwardness of microaggressions, the creepiness of suburban culture, and the fetishization and exotification of people of color all help it succeed not only as a political movie, but also as a horror. The final act is a bloody catharsis that reminds me in many ways of the famous Anansi “get angry” monologue from the TV adaptation of American Gods:

Angry is good. Angry gets shit done. You shed tears for Anansi, and here he is, telling you you are staring down the barrel of 300 years of subjugation, racist bullshit, and heart disease. He is telling you there isn’t one goddamn reason you shouldn’t go up there right now and slit the throats of every last one of these Dutch motherfuckers and set fire to this ship!

American media has been rightly political in recent years. Get Out is another wonderful commentary on how weird and messed up the good old USA is.

3. mother! – I’ve always had mixed feelings about Aronofsky. I hate Requiem for a Dream, but absolutely love Black Swan, as Brandon and I discussed in the Swampflix Podcast episode about “ballet horror.” I went into mother! knowing it was one of those movies that elicits extremely polarizing reactions. I tend to be in the love it camp when it comes to those, and this was no exception.

It’s full of religious allegory, sure, but it also plays out like the absolute worst anxiety dream ever. I felt so personally offended by all the rude guests Mother had to deal with. The sink isn’t braced!! You weren’t invited! Just leave already!! Then the movie just totally breaks down into bonkers chaos, with literal bombshells and mobs. It’s all so gorgeous and frustrating.

I like the audacity of pointing out the wrongs and bizarreness of the Bible in an often heavy handed and overly dramatic movie. (I mean, what is the Bible itself if not heavy handed and overly dramatic?) The mother is so often referenced in Christianity, but where is she? The women of the Bible are so taken advantage of. It’s not right. Not in their own homes.  As the titular character played by Jennifer Lawrence screams at the godlike character of Javier Bardem, “YOU’RE INSANE!”

Really, that one line sums up the whole beautiful, messed up, literally goddamned movie.

4. I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore – Superhero movies are everywhere and, because of that, vigilante justice is normalized to a certain extent. We cheer when robbers and thieves actually get caught and put in their place by Spider-Man or Batman or whoever else decides to focus on small criminals that day. Realistically, going after bad guys and taking them down is terrifying and scary, yet we’ve all had the temptation to put a bike thief or burglar in a headlock. This movie is about giving into that, getting justice for yourself, and fighting the assholes of the world.

Part Coen Brothers, part Tarantino, but uniquely its own thing, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore elegantly balances itself between romcom and gritty revenge flick. Melanie Lynskey strongly carries this movie on her back. She somehow doesn’t even get outshined by Elijah Wood playing an awkwardly sweet “sword guy” with a dog named Kevin! The chemistry between the two of them is sweet and wonderful here. The concept of revenge is dissected and not glamorized at all. The gory violence, raging criminals, and shady underbelly of the world are put on full display.

The world is a horrible place, but if you have a katana-swinging nerdy neighbor with a rat tail, it’s probably going to be A-Okay.

5. Ingrid Goes West – Is there a more relevant movie to the times that will soon be completely obsolete and irrelevant? iPhones, Instagram aesthetic, self-made social media personalities . . . What will the future think of our preoccupation with that culture? A charming fixation on the New or beating a dead horse with a stick? Either way, the cynical approach Ingrid Goes West takes is a new direction and tone, not the wariness and fright of Unfriended or other social media based horror.

Instead of following the victims, we follow Ingrid, Aubrey Plaza, an Instagram obsessed stalker who just wants to be friends with and be like the popular girls. So much so that she assaults a girl and has a stay at an inpatient facility for her mental health. Shedding some of her usual deadpan delivery, Plaza opens up at points and shows true vulnerability. Ingrid is not an easy character to empathize with. She’s manipulative and pathetic, but like all of us she has problems. It’s hard not to observe her flaws and see them as exaggerated versions of your own insecurities and needs. Plus, the people she aspires to be are the intolerable rich hippie types who curate their own Instagram aesthetics: found object art, mason jars, “sun bleached” hair, and airplants. It’s hard to feel sorry for try-hard rich kids who attempt to look “just thrown together.”

At times Ingrid Goes West feels like another, “damn kids with their phones” rant, but honestly we all know people like the ones in this movie, and we all wish they would just get off Instagram for a minute (at least).

Honorable Mentions

Movies I desperately want to talk about but couldn’t quite rank:

The Little Hours – Aubrey Plaza is on a roll. I hope she never stops. Although here, Kate Micucci steals a lot of the spotlight.

I can’t say too much about this movie other than it’s ridiculous, hilarious, and made a lot of Catholics upset. My favorite scene is where a few nuns get drunk and start singing.

A Ghost Story – Problematic as hell, of course. Brandon has every right to hate it and people have every right to judge me for appreciating a lot of it. I hate the choice to work with Casey Affleck. I hate him and his male entitlement, and honestly him being in this movie feels totally unnecessary. Luckily, most of the time his face is covered with a sheet. And he barely gets any dialogue. Yes, he scares off a hardworking single Latina mother by breaking all her plates. Yes, it’s sort of pretentious on top of all of that.

But it’s extremely emotionally manipulative and I feel like that bears saying. At the end, I even thought it was good. I like the concept of a ghost being a loser who can’t let go, stuck in a fixed point. I like the idea of the classic image of a ghost in its burial shroud as the costuming. Also, in the end, he was the negative vibes of the house he desperately wanted to stay in, so it feels revelatory to watch this jerk bro silently face infinity itself. I like to imagine when he gets the note at the end of the movie it just says, “My boyfriend is a jerk.”

I wish this movie had been made with a different cast and a different sort of ghost. Why not the ghost next door even?

It Comes At Night – Speaking of anxiety dreams! I have in the past suffered from a bunch of different parasomnias, including but not limited to: night terrors and sleep paralysis. I typically try to avoid movies that play off of those, but this one is just too good and too spooky. I found a little bit of the acting to be off and I still think the ending is a little weak, but it’s well worth the watch if you want a slow burn creep-out.

-Alli Hobbs

Brandon’s Top Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2017

1. Power Rangers – The last thing I would have expected from a superhero origin story that’s simultaneously a reboot of a 90s nostalgia property and a long-form Krispy Kreme commercial is that would bring a tear to my eye, but it happened several times throughout the latest Power Rangers film. Long before Power Rangers is overrun with alien sorcery, robot dinosaurs, and corporate-made donuts, it shines as a measured, well-constructed character study for a group of teenage outsiders longing for a sense of camaraderie, whether terrestrial or otherwise. Isolated by their sexuality, their position “on the spectrum,” their responsibility of caring for ailing parents​, and their past bone-headed mistakes, the teens who eventually morph into the titular Power Rangers are a broken, lonely lot. Still, this is a nostalgia-minded camp fest that’s not at all above cheap pops like briefly playing the 90s “Go Go Power Rangers” theme during its climactic battle. Its greatest strength is in the tension between those tones.

2. Monster Trucks – The rare camp cinema gem that’s both fascinating in the deep ugliness of its creature design and genuinely amusing in its whole-hearted dedication to children’s film inanity. It isn’t often that camp cinema this wonderfully idiotic springs up naturally without winking at the camera; it’s a gift to be cherished.  Monster Trucks feels like a relic of the 1990s, its existence as an overbudget $125 million production being entirely baffling in a 2017 context. It may be a good few years before any Hollywood studio goofs up this badly again and lets something as interesting-looking & instantly entertaining as Creech see the light of day, so enjoy this misshapen beast while you can.

3. IT – An excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. IT is an Event Film dependent on the jump scares, CGI monsters, and blatant nostalgia pandering (even casting one of the Stranger Things kids to drive that last point home) that its indie cinema competition has been consciously undermining to surprising financial success in recent years. What’s impressive is how the film prominently, even aggressively relies on these features without at all feeling insulting, lifeless, or dull. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of “elevated” horror, IT stands as a declarative, back to the basics return to mainstream horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions, which tend to lurk at the edges of the frame.

 

4. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2/ Thor: Ragnarok – Apparently, all of the MCU’s tendencies to squash auteurist voices with a collective House Style go out the window when they launch their franchises into space. Hip nerds James Gunn & Taika Waititi were both allowed to deliver the most aggressively bizarre, personal entries in the MCU yet with their respective space operas. Thor: Ragnarok‘s Planet Trash buffoonery (complete with off-the-wall contributions from eternal freaks Jeff Goldblum & Mark Mothersbaugh) was particularly idiosyncratic, like Pure Waititi doing Flash Gordon in the best way. Gunn’s film is much more emotionally grounded, somehow pulling off a genuinely touching climax after two full hours of cartoonishly violent, darkly comic id. Both works deserve kudos for excelling as intensely creative, memorable feats in blockbuster filmmaking.

5. XX –  Four concise, slickly directed, but stylistically varied horror shorts that each take chances on premises rich enough to justify an 80 minute feature’s leg room, but are instead boiled down to digestible, bite-sized morsels. As a contribution to the horror anthology as a medium & a tradition, XX is a winning success in two significant ways: each individual segment stands on its own as a worthwhile sketch of a larger idea & the collection as a whole functions only to provide breathing room for those short-form experiments. On top of all that, it also boasts the added bonus of employing five women in directorial roles, something that’s sadly rare in any cinematic tradition, not just horror anthologies.

6. Logan – There’s a lot to be excited about here: a superhero narrative that tries its hand in genre contexts outside the action blockbuster (even though I’m not particularly a fan of Westerns), the throat-ripping hyperviolence, a Wolverine Who Cusses, a Lil’ Wolverine you can fit in your pocket, etc. What really won me over in Logan, though, was how deeply weird the movie felt. Aesthetically, the closest reference point I could conjure for its mixture of childlike imagination & dispiriting grime is Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, which is a much more challenging vibe than what we’re used to seeing in superhero fare. The fact that it (accidentally) offers a legitimate glimpse into the future of Trump’s America in the process makes it all the more bizarre & worth seeking out.

7. The Fate of the FuriousThe Fast and the Amnesious is a universe without a center. It’s a series that continually retcons stories, characters, and even deaths to serve the plot du jour. That’s why it’s a brilliant move to shake up the sense of normalcy that’s been in-groove since the fifth installment in the series by giving Daddy Dom a reason to walk away from his Family, whom he loves so dearly.  F. Gary Gray brings the same sense of monstrously explosive fun to this franchise entry as he did to the exceptional N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. He strays from past tonal choices and character traits, but ultimately sticks to the core of the only things that have remained consistent in the series: there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved by a deadly, explosion-heavy street race and even the most horrific of Familial tragedies can be undone by a backyard barbeque, where grace is said before every meal and Coronas, um, I mean Budweisers are proudly lifted into the air for a communal toast. There’s something beautiful about that (and also something sublimely silly).

8. Free Fire – In its earliest, broadest brushstrokes, Free Fire is disguised as a return to the over-written, vulgar shoot-em-ups that flooded indie cinemas with their macho mediocrity in the years immediately following Quentin Tarantino’s first few features. Thankfully, things get much stranger from there. What’s fascinating is the way High-Rise director Ben Wheatley pushes a bare-bones premise, which is essentially a feature-length shoot-out, past the point of mediocre Tarantino-riffing into something much more transcendently absurd. By the film’s third act, its stubborn dedication to a single, bombastic bit becomes so punishingly relentless that it’s sublimely (and hilariously) surreal. It’s the shoot-em-up equivalent of a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. I’m not sure I ever want to see a gun fired in a movie again.

9. Wheelman – There weren’t many action movies last year leaner & meaner than this direct-to-streaming sleeper. The heist-gone-wrong plot is lizard brain simple, leaving plenty of room for the slickly edited camera trickery & city-wide mountain of paranoia that drive the film’s action. It’s as if the opening getaway sequence of Drive was stretched out for a full 80 minutes and packed to the gills with explosively dangerous testosterone. The majority of the film is shot from inside a car, even the conflict-inciting bank robbery, so that the audience feels like they were shoved in the back seat against their will and taken on a reckless ride into the night.

10. Atomic Blonde – One of the more bizarre aspects of this Charlize Theron action vehicle is the way it hops on the 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the Stranger Things & Ready Player One trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in 1989, the film’s estimation of 80s pop culture include references like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. As nerdy as its 80s pop culture references can be, though, its basic pleasures are universally apparent. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. It’s not wrong.

11. Girls Trip – An unashamedly maudlin comedy about adult sisterhood that drowns its audience in melodramatic cheese in its reflections on motherhood, religious Faith, adultery, betrayal, and falling out of touch with loved ones. Also one of the bawdiest, most aggressively horny comedies of the year, with a turn from breakout star Tiffany Haddish steering the ship out of Hallmark Channel waters towards the prankish filth of Divine’s turn in Pink Flamingos every opportunity she’s allowed at the helm. These two warring halves– the raunchy & the sentimental– make for a wholly unpredictable, tonally chaotic summertime comedy with gleeful participation in overt, oversexed filth that plays directly to my raccoonish tastes.

12. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Objectively speaking, this  horrible excuse for a space opera is a colossally goofy embarrassment. But I think I loved it? Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element somewhat passes as a normal movie if you squint at it from the right angle. This spiritual follow-up never had a chance, thanks largely to its titular lead. Dane DeHaan pretty much delivers a feature-length Keanu Reeves impersonation as the space-traveling swashbuckler Valerian, doing as much as he can to suck all the fun out of the film’s weirdo indulgences in grotesque creatures & alien planet dreamscapes. The movie persists as a misshapen good time anyway and I was oddly won over by DeHaan’s charisma vacuum as the story recklessly barreled along, despite myself.

13. Happy Death Day – Its defining gimmick may be dutifully reimagining the 1990s comedy Groundhog Day as a violent teen slasher, but what’s most surprising is that the slasher end of that gimmick is very much tied to the second wave slasher boom that arrived in the nü metal days of the late 90s & early 00s. Happy Death Day‘s depictions of PG-13 acceptable violence echo the big budget action & comedy beats that tinged post-Scream slashers like Urban Legend & I Know What You Did Last Summer. There’s a masked killer who murders our (deeply flawed) protagonist dozens & dozens of times on her birthday as she relives the same time loop on endless repeat, but outside a few jump scares & moments of horror tradition teen-stalking, the film doesn’t truly aim to terrorize.  Repetition allows the doomed sorority girl to adjust to her supernaturally morbid predicament and Happy Death Day gradually evolves into a girly (even if mean-girly) comedy that employs horror more as a setting than as an ethos.

14. Friend Request – When this dirt cheap supernatural slasher was first released in its native Germany, it was originally titled Unfriend. To avoid confusion with the modern found footage classic Unfriended (known as Unknown User in Germany), the title was later switched to Friend Request in its move to the US. This uninteded comparison does Friend Request no favors, really, as it’s the Bucky Larson: Born to be a Porn Star to Unfriended’s Boogie Nights, the Corky Romano to its Goodfellas. As the sillier, more formulaic entry into the social media-age technophobia horror canon, the film only stands a chance to excel as a campy, over-the-top novelty. Thankfully, as an airheaded jump scare fest about a Faceboook witch, it delivers on that entertainment potential (in)competently.

15. Death Race 2050 – Not much more than an R-rated version of straight-to-SyFy Channel schlock, but makes its cheap camp aesthetic count when it can and survives comfortably on its off-putting tone of deeply strange “bad”-on-purpose black comedy. Much more closely in line with the Paul Bartel-directed/Roger Corman-produced original film Death Race 2000 than its gritty, self-serious Paul W.S. Anderson remake, Death Race 2050 is a cheap cash-in on the combined popularity of Hunger Games & Fury Road and makes no apologies for that light-hearted transgression. The original Death Race 2000, along with countless other Corman productions, surely had an influence on both the Mad Max & Hunger Games franchises and it’s hilarious to see the tirelessly self-cannibalizing film producer still willing to borrow from his own spiritual descendants for a quick buck all these years later.

16. Alien: Covenant -Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags the Alien series’ newfound philosophical themes down to the level of a pure Roger Corman creature feature. This prequel-sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise. Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years (it really should be retitled Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot), Covenant easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series. If it could be considered middling, it’s only because the Alien franchise has a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand typically has eight films into its catalog.

17. Kuso -How do you feel about the idea of watching Parliament Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton play a doctor who cures a patient of their fear of breasts by allowing a giant cockroach to crawl out of his ass & puke a milky bile all over their face? Your answer to that question should more or less establish your interest level in the gross-out horror comedy Kuso, in which that visual detail is just one minor curio in the larger freak show gestalt. With his debut feature as a director, Steve Ellison (who produces music under the monikers Flying Lotus & Captain Murphy) has made a Pink Flamingos for the Adult Swim era, a shock value comedy that aims to disgust a generation of degenerates who’ve already Seen It All, as they’ve grown up with internet access. Most audiences will likely find that exercise pointless & spiritually hollow, but I admired Kuso both as a feature length prank with Looney Tunes sound effects and as a practical effects visual achievement horror show.

18. The Babysitter – McG might finally found a proper outlet for his directorial style’s music video kineticism: bubblegum pop horror. The director’s tacky, over-energized breakfast cereal commercial aesthetic tested audiences’ patience in his Charlie’s Angels adaptations. The unbearably dour Terminator: Salvation proved that tonally sober seriousness would never be his forte either. The straight-to-Netflix horror comedy The Babysitter might be proof, however, that there is a perfect place in this world for McG’s hyperactive tastelessness. Essentially Home Alone 6(?!): Invasion of the Teenage Satanists, The Babysitter turns the cheerleader uniforms, spin-the-bottle games, and babysitting gigs of horny teen archetypes into a screwball comedy of violent terrors, an excellent backdrop for the tacky live action cartoon energy of McG’s crude, auteurist tendencies.

19. The Book of Henry – An unintended camp pleasure, entirely due to the unfathomably poor writing behind Naomi Watt’s mother figure, whose complete deferment to her 12-year-old son for every single adult decision is comically bizarre. In the film’s funniest moment, Watts’s protagonist is visibly frustrated that she can’t ask her son Henry for permission to sign medical documents because he’s in the middle of having a seizure. Her narrative trajectory of gradually figuring out that maybe she shouldn’t get all of her life advice from a precocious 12-year-old, not to mention a (spoiler) dead precocious 12 year old, is treated like a grand scale life lesson we all must learn in due time, when it’s something that’s already obvious from the outset. It’s also a scenario that only exists in this ludicrous screenplay anyway. She’s the most ridiculously mishandled adult female character I can remember seeing since Bryce Dallas Howard’s starring role in Colin Trevorrow’s last abomination, Jurassic World, another performance I’d place firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good camp.

20. Pottersville – Plays a lot like a Christmas-themed, kink-shaming episode of Pushing Daisies, with its plot’s overarching sweetness more or less amounting to It’s a Wonderful Yiff.  I wouldn’t suggest entering Pottersville if you’re not looking for a campy, tonally bizarre holiday comedy, but its novelty subversion of the Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie formula is both deliberate and surprisingly successful. Considering that Michael Shannon stars as an undercover Bigfoot hoaxer drunkenly attempting to infiltrate a community of small town furries in a modern retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life, I have to assume everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing in achieving this aesthetic imbalance. You don’t stumble into that kind of absurdity completely by mistake no more than you can accidentally wander into yuletide yiffing.

-Brandon Ledet

Britnee’s Top Films of 2017

1. Raw – The debut feature from director Julia Ducournau is hands-down my favorite film of 2017. What I adore the most about this coming-of-age cannibal film is that its terrifying plot feels so real. The main character, Justine, was so relatable to me, even though our lives are vastly different. The way she is able to portray her emotions when encountering new, unfamiliar social situations while trying to figure out her internal struggles was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in a fictional character. Aside from the emotional side of the film, Raw also has some of the coolest/grossest gore scenes of the year. This is definitely not one for those with weak stomachs.

2. Split – James McAvoy is one of my all-time favorite actors because he gives every performance his all, and that’s exactly what he does in his lead role in Split. It’s a thriller that’s able to make you feel the fear and anxiety of the protagonist, whom McAvoy holds hostage. That horrible sense of feeling trapped and confused overwhelmed me to the point that I had to remind myself that I was in my own bedroom, where I do most of my movie-watching. Like with most M. Night Shyamalan films, Split is an endless puzzle. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, you get slapped in the face with an ending that is guaranteed to blow your mind.

3. Get Out – This is a horror film that families should watch together, especially if you have some of those white “I’m not racist, but” family members. Get Out is the perfect blend of horror, comedy, science fiction, and tear-jerking moments, so there’s a little something for everyone. The sound of a teaspoon stirring in a ceramic teacup has haunted me just as much as the film’s surprise ending.

4. IT – Loaded with jump-scares and legitimately terrifying sewer clown action, IT was the best true-horror film of the year. Many were quick to compare it to the terribly boring original television miniseries, but the film is completely different in the best way possible. For a film that centers on a killer clown, the spooky clown scenes are sparse; but when they occur, they are absolutely terrifying. This was the only film I saw last year in 3-D, and it was on of my most memorable 2017 film experiences for sure.

5. Okja – The silly CGI super pig Okja completely stole my heart, weird farts and all. Okja is a wild ride filled with themes relating to food production and animal rights, but it never loses focus on the main point of the story: the friendship between a young girl and her pet/best-friend. I watched Okja with my dog (who looks a bit like Okja), and I squeezed her so tight for some of the tear-jerking scenes. It’s amazing how a CGI super pig has made me question many of my life choices.

6. The Lure – This was the last film I watched in 2017, as it was featured at Brandon and CC’s New Year’s Eve movie-watching extravaganza. It was nothing short of a blessing. Gore had never been so glamorous! When it comes to movies about mermaids (possibly my favorite “mythical” creature), they’re either fairy tale-like or violent; The Lure is able to beautifully mix the two into a swirl of Polish horror insanity. Oh, it’s also a musical packed with loads of fantastic synth-heavy music that I immediately fell in love with.

7. mother! – The hype for mother! was just as enjoyable as the film itself. Advertisements branding the film as the “most controversial movie of the year” were around every corner, but when the film actually came out, people began to shit on it so hard. That’s when I became even more interested in watching it! It received a lot of criticism for containing very obvious allegories, but that’s one of the qualities I enjoyed the most, as it added to its unintended silliness. The bottom line is that mother! is just a lot of stupid fun and has a pretty sick scene at the end that shouldn’t be missed.

8. The Babysitter – This Netflix original teenybopper horror-comedy about a satanic babysitter is just as amazing as it sounds. The Babysitter is a satirical throwback to 80s teen horror, loaded with vibrant colors, fun musical numbers, and hilariously violent death scenes. Of all the movies in my top ten, I have watched The Babysitter the most. It’s just a fun movie to throw on after a long day of work.

9. Hounds of Love – Not only is this the title of my favorite Kate Bush album, but it’s also one of my favorite films of the year! Hounds of Love reminds us that human beings can be complete monsters. The film is loosely based on the Australian Moorhouse murders, and it does a great job of depicting the real-life tragedy that involved the capture and torture of a young woman by a sadistic couple. This is one of those movies that would be difficult to watch more than once, but as a true crime fan, I can’t rave about it enough.

10. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore – If you’re wondering what Elijah Wood has been up to lately, he plays a dorky rat-tailed neighbor to Melanie Lynskey in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (possibly the longest movie title of the year). The film follows the eccentric Batman and Robin-like duo on their quest to get stolen goods back from a group of dangerous criminals. It’s the sweetest tale of revenge that ever was.

-Britnee Lombas

The Horrors of Adolescent Female Bodies & Bonding in Jennifer’s Body (2009)

At first glance, the 2009 horror film Jennifer’s Body doesn’t fully display the feminist credentials that would be expected from a film of its pedigree.  After the critical and commercial success of Juno, Academy Award Winner for Best Screenplay, it may have been a surprising career move for in-demand screenwriter Diablo Cody to follow up her modest independent debut with a 20th Century Fox-distributed horror film starring famed sex symbol and Michael Bay muse Megan Fox.  Karyn Kusama could also have been accused of slumming it as the film’s director, given the prestige of her own debut film Girlfight, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner.  As collaborators on the picture, however, Cody and Kusama were able to covertly deliver a subversive feminist horror film in Jennifer’s Body, despite the oversight of the male-dominated business of major studio filmmaking that backed the project.  Jennifer’s Body has the look and feel of countless other slickly-produced major studio horrors from the mid to late 2000s.  Its mixed reviews and underwhelming box office returns posit it as a misfire for 20th Century Fox, one with no more vital feminist or cultural subtext than any other 2009 horror mediocrities, like Saw VI or the Friday the 13th remake.  Jennifer’s Body’s expensive production values, studio-driven marketing, and employment of Megan Fox in its titular role distract from the feminist subtext of the story it tells, but it’s still a work driven by two behind-the-camera female artists who are directly exploring subjects specific to the modern female experience.  Specifically, Jennifer’s Body utilizes the destructive power of pubescent female bodies and the intensity of adolescent female friendships as direct sources for its horror, something that may not be immediately apparent on the surface.

One of the ways Jennifer’s Body subverts audience expectations of a major studio horror film starring the often-objectified Megan Fox is by incorporating the actor’s objectification into its text.  As suggested in the title, the film is specifically about her body, not her soul or unique personality, which was pointed out by A.O. Scott in his review for the New York Times.  This focus on Megan Fox’s physique was attractive to 20th Century Fox’s marketing machine, who completely misunderstood the intention of Cody and Kusama’s work.  Shockingly, the studio suggested that Fox promote Jennifer’s Body by participating in online chat rooms through popular pornographic websites to appeal directly to the men who might be pruriently compelled to see her onscree.  The idea was shot down before it was ever suggested to Fox in sincerity, but it does exemplify the types of marketing schemes she was asked to participate in after becoming an object of desire in Michael Bay’s Transformers series.  Jennifer’s Body does not ignore the celebrity baggage that comes with casting Fox in its titular role, but rather incorporates it into its basic composition.  In the film, a bumbling nerd played by Amanda Seyfried ogles Jennifer’s body just as much as the heterosexual teen boys in their high school class, even though she is Jennifer’s best friend and not just a casual admirer.  The friendship between the two central characters, Jennifer (Fox) and the playfully-named “Needy” (Seyfried), is depicted to be just as horrifyingly intense as the film’s explicit acts of supernatural violence, but there is also clearly a sexual attraction component built into their dynamic.  Jennifer is universally desired by her peers the way Fox was presented as an object of desire in the real-world media at large (including among this film’s own marketing team) and that intense allure instigates most of the film’s horrific dangers.

Being widely sexually desired is only the start of the terror lurking in Jennifer’s body.  Like with many coming of age horror films set in teenage environments, the film relies heavily on the real-world body horrors associated with puberty and the developing body.  Unlike the film Ginger Snaps, which uses the traditionally masculine metaphor of werewolf transformations to represent its own female puberty body horror crisis, Jennifer’s Body notably adopts the myth of the succubus, which is historically coded as feminine.  Both films apply the tropes of curse and possession not only to the horrors of werewolves and succubi, but to the specifically female condition and the burgeoning sexuality of their protagonists. Ginger’s monstrous form just happens to be a werewolf, which less specifically coded to be female than the succubus.  In most folklore, the succubus is a female demon that drives men insane and into poor health through coerced and repetitive sexual intercourse, essentially functioning as a deadly seductress.  Jennifer’s transformation into a succubus is presented in Jennifer’s Body as involuntary, much like the body horror ritual of puberty. After pursuing a traveling rock band as a hopeful groupie, Jennifer is forced into the role of a live sacrifice for the band’s Satanic ritual, which is botched when they discover she is not a virgin.  A lesser film might have focused more heavily on the grotesqueness of the band’s attitudes towards female sexuality in this moment and spent much more time gleefully depicting their comeuppance, but Jennifer’s Body is mainly concerned with the fallout of Jennifer’s subsequent monster transformation than any kind of traditional revenge narrative.  Becoming a succubus is a side effect of the band’s failed ritual and the symptoms of this transformation show largely in the ways puberty normally manifests in teenage, cisgender female bodies.  The typically ebullient Jennifer is drained of energy, thin-haired, oily-skinned, and just generally not her meticulously perfect Megan Fox self after her transformation into a succubus.  As a metaphor for pubescent transformation, her newfound life as a succubus has robbed her of the power she once enjoyed as the most attractive girl in her high school class.  She does find new, dangerous power in the demonic sexual energy the transformation affords her, however.  Picking on the “nice guy” social outcasts who treat her like an unobtainable sex symbol from afar, Jennifer discovers that she can regain her power and her gorgeous looks by seducing and literally feeding off male victims, which magically restores her vitality and sex appeal. Jennifer may have “preyed” on men prior to her transformation, but her curse creates an extreme situation where her behavior is more horrific and she becomes even more physically attractive (both to the audience and to her subsequent victims).  As with many horror films, Jennifer’s Body leans heavily on the transgression of teenage sexuality as an instigator and justification for its onscreen violence.  The film subverts this trope significantly by having this newfound, dangerous sexuality tragically forced upon its titular killer by the men around her as opposed to something she chose for fun or to satisfy curiosity.  Her newfound sexual potency is no more of a choice or a boon than the horrors of puberty and the male gaze, whether it makes her more powerful or not.

Since pubescent body horror is often explored through monster movie metaphors in high school-set horror films, Jennifer’s Body is much more unique as a feminist horror work in the way it explores the terrifying intensity of adolescent female friendships.  As the protagonist, Needy describes her relationship with Jennifer as long-term “sand box love,” meaning they have been best friends since they were young enough to play in sand boxes together.  The introduction of pubescent hormones and sexual relationships with boys drives the usual wedges between them you’d expect from a coming of age teen girl narrative, but Cody and Kusama focus more on the intensity of Needy and Jennifer’s relationship itself than what would typically be explored in a male artist’s version of the same narrative.  Jennifer and Needy are overly sensitive to each other’s actions and opinions.  Skepticism and disgust over each other’s chosen sexual partners drives most of their verbal conflicts, but mainly because they are unhealthily possessive of each other’s bodies.  They emotionally bully and abuse each other in subtle, long-term ways that feel more appropriate of a decades-old bad marriage than a friendship between teenagers.  This only gets worse once Jennifer’s murderous impulses as a succubus seem to specifically target male partners Needy has expressed romantic interest in, either verbally or through body language.  This tendency is more than just a petty tactic to display the dominance Jennifer’s traditional beauty affords her over Needy; it’s also designed to provoke a detectable reaction out of her, the way an emotional abuser looks for satisfaction in visible proof that they hold power over their victim.  In turn, Needy attempts to claim power over Jennifer’s body by offering to “cure” her of the succubus “curse,” at least in the original screenplay.  In a deleted scene, Needy appeals to Jennifer’s sense of morality by pointing out that her newfound powers come with an unfair cost: a sizable body count.  Jennifer retorts that she’s not killing people, just boys, whom she does not value as anything but playthings and sources of power.  Although casual sex is substituted with murder in this scenario, the exchange is clearly coded as Needy trying to exert control over Jennifer’s choices in how she relates to sexual partners and uses her own body, which is essentially none of Needy’s business. Jennifer and Needy are unhealthily obsessed with one another, which is an aspect of adolescent female friendships that isn’t often explored in any mass media, much less major studio horror films.

The most glaring wrinkle in the subtle, nuanced ways Jennifer’s Body explores the horrific intensity of female adolescent friendships is in how the film depicts queer desire.  Needy’s awe of Jennifer is apparent as soon as the first scene of the film and she often leers at her friend’s physical beauty from the same distant admirer vantage point as the heterosexual boys in their high school class.  It’s only natural, then, that her queer romantic desire of Jennifer would be explicitly addressed onscreen at some point in the film.  It’s not at all an extraneous or tongue-in-cheek intrusion on the story.  Cody and Kusama play much of the central characters’ relationship as sincere melodrama, which Kusama describes on a recent episode of Switchblade Sisters as “the nightmare of obsessive relationships between girls [that] can make or break you,” a genuine conflict that’s meant to be taken even more seriously than the film’s often humorous demonic kills.  That’s why it’s so bizarre that the same-sex kiss shared between Needy and Jennifer feels so passionless and seeped in the male gaze.  Shot with the over-the-top production values of a music video, their single kiss as a pairing is treated as a moment worthy of pornographic leering from the audience instead of a genuine dramatic beat within the context of the story.  It’s as if the salacious businessmen of the film’s marketing team had stepped into the director’s chair for a single shot, drowning out Cody and Kusama’s voices with a heap of studio notes on how best to sell the romantic exchange as a sexual commodity.  What’s even more alarming is the way Needy and Jennifer’s kiss is immediately followed by a moment of what’s often described as “gay panic.”  It’s possible to read Needy’s freaked-out reaction to her out of nowhere sexual encounter with Jennifer as an extension of her general horror with the changes brought on by her best friend’s body (and its corresponding body count), but by recoiling in fear from the brief exchange she pushes the film into participating in a harmful homophobic trope that persists in media at large.  The real shame of that stumbling block is that the queer desire shared between Needy and Jennifer is a legitimate facet of the script that does deserve onscreen exploration.  In the film Heavenly Creatures, the two young female protagonists’ budding sexual obsession with one another, which is notably not played for titillation, is also a means of exploring class issues and socio-economic envy.  By contrast, the homoerotic scene in Jennifer’s Body is played for pure audience arousal, with none of the thematic weight it easily could have carried.  It’s embarrassingly mishandled in a way that exemplifies the studio tinkering that muddled the film’s feminist themes in a myriad of ways, from conception to post-production marketing.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Jennifer’s Body manages to subvert the expectation of major studio horror filmmaking with meaningful feminist themes.  Not only does a collaboration between Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama already suggest the likelihood of that accomplishment, but the film also telegraphs its intent by borrowing its name from a Hole song and opening with the line, “Hell is a teenage girl.”  Still, it’s a miracle that a film this heavily subjected to major studio influence could extend its feminist worldview beyond the surface level power of a female monster violently destroying the men who ogle her.  The expected tropes of coming of age body horror, punishment for transgressive sexuality, and revenge for unwanted sexual advances are all incorporated into Cody’s screenplay, but the film still carves out its own thematic space in the horror landscape by focusing on the intense female friendship between its two leads.  As many boys as Jennifer kills in her quest to restore her energy and make her hair shiny again, none are ever as significant to the dramatic plot as her relationship with Needy, a long-term obsession that extends beyond romance into an entirely different, terrifying realm.  The bond between adolescent female friends drives just as much of the tension in Jennifer’s Body as the kills and the horrors of puberty.  That dynamic is not the flashiest or most immediately apparent aspect of Jennifer’s Body; it’s often overwhelmed by the demonic kills and leering at Megan Fox’s physique that would typically be expected of most major studio horrors in the film’s position.  It’s what makes the film unique as a feminist text, however, and its positioning as the heart of the film was entirely intentional on the part of Cody and Kusama. They knew what they were doing, even if the studio behind them did not.

-CC Chapman

The Fame-Economy Afterworlds of Wings of Fame (1990) & The Congress (2014)

It’s become a kind of unofficial tradition that I find an excuse to rewatch & write about the 2012 sci-fi film The Congress every year of blogging. I first reviewed the film in our inaugural year as a website. I then returned to it to explore its continued relevance in the shifting Hollywood landscape last year, finding it just as potent it as I had the first time, if not more so. Now, in year three, Boomer has introduced a Movie of the Month selection to us with unignorable thematic connections to The Congress, though its approach to the same topics is much more subdued. The 1990 Dutch film Wings of Fame presents a version of the afterlife where immortality is determined by cultural longevity; dead historical figures & celebrities mingle in a shared, surrealist space where their level of adoration among the living determines their status on the other side. The Congress alters that formula by allowing the living to buy into & borrow that fame immortality, essentially ruining their lives on Earth by assuming the guise of a celebrity in a fantasy space. Both works are wonderfully bizarre, though I’d argue The Congress is both flashier & more complex in its reflections on fame economy surrealism.

Part of the reason The Congress feels more memorably bizarre than the delicately philosophical Wings of Fame is that it leans heavily into the surrealist juxtaposition of seeing many incongruent celebrities onscreen at once. Where Wings of Fame notably stocks its cast of “famous” dead celebrities with archetypal placeholders instead of real life historical figures, The Congress overwhelms the audience with multiple copies of Jesus Christ, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, Marilyn Monroe and anyone else you can imagine. It accomplishes this by setting its fame economy afterworld in an “animated zone,” a brightly colored Max Fleischer fantasy space that posits the film as a Cool World/Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-style live-action/animation hybrid. The live-action lead-up to that surrealist free-for-all can be just as measured as anything in Wings of Fame, though, with Robin Wright starring as herself in the not too distant future as introduction to the world (not unlike Peter O’Toole playing a Peter O’Toole type in Wings of Fame). Hollywood executives pressure Wright to sell her likeness so she can be digitally inserted in any part they choose, even long after she’s dead, sealing her immortality as a movie star. Just a few decades later, “regular” people can buy into that celebrity themselves, taking on her identity in the “animation zone, extending the film’s celebrity-outliving-your-body themes into even more bizarre, speculative territory that feels increasingly relevant to modern celebrity culture every passing year.

In Wings of Fame, being an unfamous nobody means you fade into a greyed-out mist of anonymity, drifting directionless for eternity. The Congress, being made in a time where a celebrity’s digital likeness can be sold & recreated independent of a physical performance, puts a lot more thought into how the unfamous nobodies among the living could pay to participate in the glamorous luxury of fame. The Congress is the flashier, more currently relevant film of the pair, but Wings of Fame is more philosophically reflective on how fame can outlast the body. The Congress only introduces that concept briefly before focusing on the intricacies of how fame has evolved as in industry, a commodity that co be bought, sold, rented, and loaned. I’m not sure that I’ll return to Wings of Fame as often as I apparently feel compelled to return to The Congress, since its broader approach to the fame economy afterlife feels a little less relevant to our specific relationship to modern celebrity as a 2010s audience and more tied to a larger philosophical provocation. In tandem, the pair offer an unlikely surrealist fantasy that visualizes fame’s function as immortality currency in literal terms. The difference is that Wings of Fame’s version of that dynamic is reflective on how fame has functioned through all of history, while The Congress depicts a future we still haven’t fully arrived at, but inch closer to every passing year.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison to its less restrained Harmony Korine counterpoint, and last week’s look at the strange ways its meta Shakespeare & romantic rivalry themes extend into Shakespeare in Love (1998).

-Brandon Ledet

Colin Firth, Peter O’Toole, Romantic Competition, and the Immortal Bard

I was mostly on board with the subtlety & restraint exercised in December’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s Wings of Fame, but there was one glaring area where the film’s delicate approach to its surrealist premise could have benefited from a stronger hand. The film establishes a version of the afterlife that runs on a kind of fame economy, where the level of a historical figure or celebrity’s postmortem notoriety determines their privilege & prestige in an Eternal Limbo. Our introduction into this world is through a Shakespearean actor (Peter O’Toole) and his bitter assassin (Colin Firth) as they die near-simultaneously and blindly enter the fame-economy afterlife. Mostly, the breathing room allowed by the film’s patient, delicate approach to surrealism invites philosophical discussion & audience hypothesis on how, exactly, this fantasy realm operates. That exact openness to interpretation is likely the movie’s greatest strength. Where the restraint frustrates me, however, is in not populating its afterword with real life historical figures & dead celebrities. Besides familiar names like Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Lassie, the movie’s ranks are mostly filled with fictional, archetypal placeholders: a psychedelic rocker, a Freudian psychologist, a Russian political poet, etc. Not using familiar personalities to fully explore the absurdity of its premise seemed like a missed opportunity, especially when it came to the comeuppance of the movie’s chief cad, played by Peter O’Toole. It seems obvious that a pompous Shakespearean actor obnoxiously blowing hot air in an afterlife populated by famous historical figures would have an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, but it’s a moment that never arrives. Oddly, his co-star did have that confrontation with Shakespeare many years later, despite Colin Firth not being nearly as closely associated with the bard.

It’s strange to say that Peter O’Toole is known mostly as a Shakespearean actor, when he has never appeared in any Shakespearean films. Before he transitioned to TV & film work in the late 1950s and eventually achieved infamy as the lead in Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole was already a well-known thespian, respected for his work on the British stage, especially in the coveted role of Hamlet. Once he blossomed into a screen actor, however, he mostly left Shakespeare behind, possibly out of fear of being typecast, possibly by simply aging out of the Hamlet role. He did portray King Henry II in two Shakespeare-esque films (Becket & Lion in Winter), but mostly left his Shakespeare career on the stage, not onscreen. Still, he was closely associated enough with Shakespearean drama as a medium that his casting in Wings of Fame was a meta reflection of his real life persona. His co-star in the film, Colin Firth, was also “discovered” while playing Hamlet on the stage, but was much more closely associated with another infamous literary author: Jane Austen. Firth’s role as Mr. Darcy in the 90s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (and, parodically, in the Bridget Jones franchise) would command much of his career onscreen for well over a decade, falling into the exact kind of restrictive typecasting Peter O’Toole managed to avoid. It’s strange that despite both actors emerging through a British stage tradition in the same Shakespearean role and both separately working with Lawrence Olivier, the only thing they’ve happened to collaborate on together was this single Dutch picture about fame in the afterlife. What’s even stranger is that where Wings of Fame withholds the satisfaction of seeing famed Shakespearean actor Peter O’Toole get into an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, the Jane Austen-associated Colin Firth would later play Shakespeare’s nemesis for the entire length of a high-profile, Oscars-sweeping feature.

John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is one of those decent, mildly entertaining pictures that seems to draw a lot of critical heat merely because it was showered with a heap of Academy Awards. Although the film is dressed up like a prestige costume drama, it’s much more spiritually aligned with Shakespeare’s more frivolous farces (and not necessarily the exceptional ones). Everyone can enjoy a decent screwball comedy once in a while, though, and the film maintains its endearingness as such, especially now that the unfair, tremendous weight of its many Oscar wins has faded. Joseph Fiennes stars as (a forgettable, bland) William Shakespeare, who is suffering severe writer’s block as his romantic life hits a major rut. He finds his manic pixie dream muse in a noblewoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who auditions for his latest play (eventually titled Romeo & Juliet) in disguise as a man. Surface level meta humor about the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s work (drag, comic misunderstandings, drunken fools, confusion with Christopher Marlowe, exact lines & scenes from Romeo & Juliet, etc.) unfolds along with this new romance and shapes the course of the play the couple are collaborating on. Enter Colin Firth as Lord Wessex, an empty-pursed nobleman who arranges to marry Paltrow’s disinterested theatre nerd for her dowry. As Shakespeare’s romantic rival and an all-around cad, Colin Firth’s mustache-twirling villain brings life to an otherwise light romantic romp. Similar caricatures from Judy Dench, Geoffrey Rush, and (Bostonian sore thumb) Ben Affleck are amusing in flashes, but Firth is so over-the-top as the villain it’s near-impossible to focus anywhere else. First of all, his look includes the world’s worst goatee and a dangly earring. He’s introduced negotiating marital terms with his intended’s father by asking questions like “Is she fertile? Is she obedient?” Minutes later, before he even announces his marriage plans to their shared love interest, he pulls a knife on Shakespeare “for coveting his property.” He only gets more dastardly from there, singlehandedly setting up the forbidden love oppression that required two whole families of brutes to establish in Romeo & Juliet.

This romantic rivalry between Wessex & Shakespeare, enforced through violence & wealth, is far more intense than what I was hoping to see in Wings of Fame. My hope was for a mere Shakespeare cameo, where the bard could offend Peter O’Toole’s posh sensibilities either by insulting his acting skills or by acting like an Al Bundy-modeled slob in a moment of don’t-meet-your-heroes disillusionment. Wishing for for something that specific to happen in a movie’s script is usually an idiotic way to approach cinema, but Wings of Fame feels like it sets up that conflict (or any kind of interaction, really) by sending a fictional, famous Shakespearean actor played by a real-life, famous Shakespearean actor to an afterworld populated by dead famous people, Shakespeare blatantly excluded. That’s what makes it so strange that Colin Firth would later be the actor to participate in an onscreen rivalry with the bard. What’s even stranger is that Wessex’s contentious relationship with Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love is not too dissimilar to the main rivalry that drives Wings of Fame. Once they arrive in the afterlife, O’Toole’s Shakespearean actor and his professionally bitter assassin get caught up in a (passionless) love triangle as they compete for the affections of the same demure French pop singer. Of course, O’Toole plays the blowhard cad in that scenario, not Firth, who would assume those duties in Shakespeare in Love. Shakespeare in Love is a much lesser film than Wings of Fame (although the pair are largely incomparable), but it both complicates & satisfies the two caveats I had with the otherwise impeccable surrealist comedy that had managed to unite Firth & O’Toole onscreen. All of the romantic rivalry intensity & onscreen conflict with Shakespeare himself I felt was missing from Wings of Fame was oddly misplaced in Shakespeare in Love; it also happened to feature the wrong actor of the duo.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and last week’s look at its less restrained Harmony Korine counterpoint.

-Brandon Ledet

Wings of Fame (1990), Harmony Korine, and the Virtue of Restraint

One of the more fascinating aspects of December’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s Wings of Fame, is how delicately surreal the picture can be despite the heightened absurdity of its premise. You’d think that a movie about a fame-economy afterlife where celebrity & cultural longevity determine your post-mortem soul’s access to eternal existence would be an aggressively bizarre work, but Wings of Fame is exceedingly gentle with its own surrealist fantasy. The movie is patient with the potential absurdity of its juxtapositions of dead famous people converging in a shared afterlife, finding much more interest in poking at the existential & philosophical implications of how that fantasy realm would work. To contrast that restraint with a more aggressively bizarre version of a similar work, you’d have to look to one of the most unrestrained button-pushers working in modern cinema: habitual provocateur Harmony Korine. As a filmmaker, Korine’s grimy, crassly misshapen aesthetic is downright antithetical to the refined elegance of Wings of Fame, which calls on respectably mannered performances from actors Peter O’Toole & Colin Firth to establish its tone. That’s what makes him such an excellent point of comparison, even if an unlikely one.

Sandwiched between the unrelenting oddities Julien Donkey-Boy & Trash Humpers, it should be no surprise that Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely is an uncompromising, aggressively surreal work. Considered in the larger context of the director’s career, however, it’s much more akin to his more strictly narrative works Gummo & Spring Breakers than those looser, less accommodating titles. Diego Luna stars in Mister Lonely as a Michael Jackson impersonator struggling to make a living as a street performer in Paris. His life changes dramatically when he’s recruited by a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (Samantha Morton) to live in a Scottish commune with other celebrity impersonators. Michael Jackson did not die until a year after Mister Lonely went into wide distribution in 2008. The film also features impersonators of the still-alive Madonna and the deceased-since-2014 Shirley Temple. Still, it explores similar themes to the fame economy afterlife in Wings of Fame. In an early scene before he’s recruited for the commune, “Michael Jackson” shouts to patients he’s entertaining at an old folks home, “We can all live forever! We can all be children forever! Don’t die! Live forever!” between his iconic dance moves. The immortality he’s promoting in that speech is something he achieves in his own life through adopting Michael Jackson’s celebrity, just like the fame-envious consumers in The Congress. When Jackson boats to the Scottish castle commune with Monroe, it’s like he’s crossing over into a surrealist afterlife (much like the foggy rivers Styx access to the afterlife in Wings of Fame) where famous people like Charlie Chaplin, James Dean, Abraham Lincoln, Sammie Davis Jr., Buckwheat, and Little Red Riding Hood can cohabitate, seemingly removed from the reality of space, Death, and time.

An odd commonality shared between Wings of Fame & Mister Lonely is that they both structure their famous fantasy realms with a remove that restrains the full potential of their absurdist premises. Besides a few recognizable names line Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Lassie, Wings of Fame mostly fills its celebrity ranks with non-existent historical figures. Instead of a specific Russian political poet or psychedelic rocker, the movie substitutes an archetype placeholder. This may limit the potential absurdity of seeing famous dead people from across time share a single space, but it does leave more room for philosophical discussion of their fantastic plight instead of dwelling in the details of their individual personalities. Similarly, Mister Lonely uses the remove of gathering celebrity lookalikes instead of actual celebrities in its own fantasy realm. The image of Michael Jackson & Charlie Chaplin playing ping-pong together is absurd, but not nearly as absurd as it could be if those players were the real deal, not lookalikes. Korine’s remove through impersonators might be the one area where his film displays restraint exercised in the much more delicate Wings of Fame. It’s a choice that opens the film to the same fame-as-immortality themes as its counterpoint, although their approaches to the subject are drastically different.

It’s strange to cite any given element in a Harmony Korine film as an example of artistic restraint, since so much of his work is associated with aggressive looseness & crass self-indulgence. Indeed, the only limiting choice made in Mister Lonely is in structuring the film around dead celebrity impersonators instead of actual dead celebrities. Everything else is a free-for-all, completely detached from the subtle tone of Wings of Fame. “Abraham Lincoln” spins a basketball under a strobe light while cursing like a sailor. “Michael Jackson” tenderly says goodbye to individual pieces of his furniture in his rented room with deep sincerity before departing to his new communal home. Celebrity faces appear in clouds & painted eggs to sing to Michael and address his internal conflicts. An entire subplot unfolds, separate from the concerns of celebrity lookalikes, where Werner Herzog plays a priest who wrangles a mission of nuns who resemble The Virgin Mary; together they develop a skydiving cult that requires them to regularly leap from airplanes without parachutes. In typical Harmony Korine fashion, this all sounds very chaotic, but somehow amounts to a slow-moving, unrushed feature that’s just as willing to abandon its audience in its pacing as it is playful with its subject. It’s a challenging watch, but one that rewards in individual, absurdist moments.

The difference in the relative restraint exercised in Wings of Fame & Mister Lonely, respectively, could not be clearer. At the conclusion of the much less bombastic Wings of Fame, the audience is left with so much to ponder about what the film is trying to say about the real life implications of its fame-as-immortality premise. Mister Lonely, by contrast, exhausts its audience with an overload of frivolous (though often fascinating) indulgences, leaving very little room for spiritual or philosophical thought to linger among the flashier details. Wings of Fame can feel frustratingly incomplete & reluctant to fully push the absurdity of its fame-economy afterlife premise, but Korine’s counterpoint suggests that’s not entirely a bad thing. Its quiet, restrained surrealism leaves room for a much more extensive philosophical provocation & thought exercise. Korine’s aggressive exhaustion of his own subject leaves so much less ground to be explored in his viewer’s minds after the credits rolled, having laid all of his cards out on the table. Both films are entertainingly absurd in their own surprising ways, but patience & restraint affords one of them cinematic immortality their characters could only achieve through celebrity.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

The Best of NOFF 2017 Ranked & Reviewed

Here we are almost two months since the 28th New Orleans Film Festival has passed and I’m finally gathering all of titles I caught at the fest in one spot.  CC & I recorded a more fleshed out recap of our festival experience on Episode #45 of the podcast in case you’re interested in hearing about the weird goings-on at the handful of downtown theaters where the festival was held, the various short films that preceded some of those screenings, and the reasons why I’m wrong for hating I, Tonya. This list is more simplistic than that kind of recap: a better-late-than-never ranking from the best to . . .  the least best of the titles I managed to catch at this year’s festival.  Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. The Florida Project: “The Florida Project 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.”

2. Tom of Finland:Tom of Finland excels as a kind of filmmaking alchemy that turns an unlikely tonal mashup of Cruising & Carol into the feel-good queer drama of the year. Its high class sense of style & lyrical looseness in narrative structure feels like the best aspects of Tom Ford’s features, but without his goofy storytelling shortcomings. While its sexuality isn’t quite as transgressive as the leather daddy-inspiring art of its subject, it’s still a passionate, celebratory work that sidesteps the typical pitfalls of queer misery porn dramas, yet still manages to feel truthful, dangerous, and at times genuinely erotic. It’s hard to believe the film is half as wonderful as it is, given the visual trappings of its subject & genre, but its leather & disco lyricism lifts the spirit and defies expectation.”

3. She’s Allergic to Cats: “She’s Allergic to Cats hides its emotions behind an impossibly thick wall of ironic detachment. It even goes out of its way to reference infamous so-bad-it’s-good properties like Congo, Howard the Duck, Cat People (’82, of course), and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to throw the audience of the scent of the emotional nightmare at its core. When its protective walls break down, however, and the nihilistic heartbreak that eats at its soul scrolls ‘I need help’ across the screen, there’s a genuine pathos to its post-Tim & Eric aesthetic that far surpasses its pure shock value peers. It’s a hilarious, VHS-warped mode of emotional terror.”

4. Love & Saucers: “David Huggins is entirely sincere about his reports of hundreds of encounters with space aliens, which are mostly sexual in nature. His impressionistic paintings that illustrate these encounters are more art therapy than ironic kitsch, and you could hear the terror & the sadness in his voice as he recounts the stories behind them. There’s inevitably going to be a contingent of viewers who view Lovers and Saucers as a ‘Get a load of this weirdo!’ line of humor at David’s expense, but the truth is that both the movie and the artist are tragically, horrifyingly sincere.”

5. Damascene: “Detailing a single, hour-long conversation shot on two bike helmet-mounted GoPros, Damascene boasts the bare bones storytelling of a one act stage play. It makes the best of its limited resources it can, though, reaching into the discomforting dark humor and emotional trauma typically reserved for deep-cutting stage dramas. It’s an exciting reminder that a great film doesn’t necessarily require a great budget, that a handful of people and a commercially-affordable camera are enough resources to produce top tier cinema in the 2010s.”

6. The World is Mine: “It would be easy to imagine a more traditional, informative documentary about Hatsune Miku’s history as a cultural phenomenon or Westerner cosplay as an act of cultural appropriation, but The World is Mine isn’t especially interest in either line of thought. Instead, Oren implies a simulated identity crisis performed for the camera through the guise of an already simulated character. Lines like ‘The problem with reality is that fairy tales are full of frauds,’ don’t help much in illuminating what Oren’s learned as a living doll modeled after a popular computer program. She’s just one physical copy of Hatsune Miku among many and the eeriness of her lack of a distinct personality is only amplified in the Miku fandom visually approaching a kind of ecstatic singularity.”

7. Young and Innocent: “Young and Innocent is a little stilted by its student film production values & depends heavily on audience familiarity with Hitchcock’s original film, but it plays so loosely with Psycho’s basic DNA that it generates a tense sense of mystery & dread all of its own. More clever than outright hilarious, Young and Innocent’s awkward romantic tension is endearingly cute, while still maintaining the original film’s sense of impending doom through surrealistic violence in its dream imagery and the basic vulnerability of following a runaway teen protagonist through a series of risky decisions.”

8. Mudbound: “Mudbound is at its weakest when it’s tasked to convey a sense of grand scale scope it can’t deliver on an Online Content budget. The voiceover narration and scenes of tank & airplane warfare are where the seams of the limited budget show most egregiously. Rees still delivers a powerful punch whenever she can afford to, though, making sure that the muddy & blood details of Mudbound’s smaller moments hit with full, unforgiving impact.”

9. Wallay: “Wallay feels significant in the way it adds a new wrinkle to the European housing block narrative by giving that community an external perspective. These kids really are caught halfway between two identities and I haven’t seen that cultural limbo represented onscreen quite like this before.”

10. Wexford Plaza: “At its heart, Wexford Plaza is a dark comedy about the difference between treating menial service labor as a consequence-free playground in your 20s and the way it becomes an escape-free economic rut you depend on for sustenance in your 30s & beyond. The movie can be frivolously funny in the aimless stoner comedy moments of its opening half, but evolves into a much more surprising, rewarding watch as its story unfolds onscreen.”

11. The Joneses: “I can’t recommend The Joneses as much of a transformative feat in documentary craft; if anything, the filmmaking style often gets in the way of the work’s best asset: its subject. As a work of progressive queer politics, however, it’s often endearing just for its patience in documenting a universally recognizable American family that just happens to have an adorable trans woman at the center of it. There’s a political significance to that kind of documentation the film should have been more comfortable with instead of pushing for immediate dramatic conflict.”

12. Serenade for Haiti: “There might possibly be a more informative documentary to be made about the grand scale aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but by profiling members of a single music school within Port-au-Prince before & after the event, the film offers an intimacy & a specificity a more wide-reaching documentary could not accomplish. The filmmakers behind Serenade for Haiti would have had no way of knowing the significance of what they are documenting when the film first began production, but they stumbled into a personal, up-close look at a historic tragedy in the process.”

13. Play the Devil: “Play the Devil is effective in its evocation of a spiritual & cultural atmosphere, but the story it manages to tell within that frame is a disjointed mess. I assume that the movie was aiming to be a poignant coming of age drama and not the less fun The Boy Next Door remake with #problematic queer subtext in accidentally stumbled into, which is a total shame. The Carnival imagery almost makes up for it, but not quite enough to turn the tide.”

14. As Is: “The recent small scale documentary As Is details the behind-the-scenes production of a one-time-only multimedia performance staged by visual artist Nick ‘Not That Nick Cave’ Cave in Shreveport, Louisiana in 2015. The film documents all of the artist’s intent, production logistics, and cultural context in the weeks leading up to this performance, then stops short of documenting any of the real thing once it’s executed. It’s like watching the behind the scenes footage of a concert you weren’t invited to for a band you’ve never heard of before. It’s very frustrating.”

15. I, Tonya: The violence leveled on Harding throughout I, Tonya certainly makes her more of a recognizably sympathetic figure than what you’d gather from her news coverage. However, the nonstop beatings are near impossible to rectify with the Jared Hess-style Napoleon Dynamite quirk comedy that fill in the gaps between them. The film either doesn’t understand the full impact of the violence it portrays or is just deeply hypocritical about its basic intent.”

-Brandon Ledet