Little Modern Women

It used to be a matter of course that a new big-screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women would go into production every few years. As cinema jumped from silence to sound, from black & white to color, a new version of the same story would grace the screen – ensuring that each new generation of young readers in love with Alcott’s setting & characters could experience them in the flesh. Sadly, that tradition dried up after the 1940s version (featuring Elizabeth Taylor as an overgrown Amy, the littlest woman), leaving a forty-five-year gap before Little Women would be refreshed in adaptation for a new generation. The two major productions that ended that drought—1994’s Gillian Armstrong adaptation and the 2019 Greta Gerwig remix—had a lot of catching up to do, then. It wouldn’t be enough to just revive the same story with the updated stars & filmmaking tech of the modern day. Armstrong & Gerwig instead had to overhaul the material in a drastic display to make up for all the lost time. Both resulting films are great works in their own respects, but only one of the pair truly swung for the fences in its attempt to launch Little Women into the modern world.

On its surface, the 1994 version of Little Women appears to play it safe in its duties as a literary adaptation. Like the Old Hollywood adaptations that came before it, it tells the story of the fictional March sisters’ coming-of-age during the leanest years of the Civil War (an apparently autobiographical account of Alcott’s own youth) in a traditional, linear narrative. The will-they/won’t-they drama of its protagonist’s potentially romantic friendship with the wealthy boy next door drives the heart of the story. Meanwhile, the incidental episodes amongst her sisters that make the novel such a recognizably genuine depiction of childhood (which is almost entirely a series of incidental episodes, at least in memory) fill out the frame around that structural romantic storyline, so that Amstrong’s take on the material is practically a hangout film as much as it is a costume drama. Like in the previous routine of adaptations, the major overhaul in Armstrong’s picture was in seeing up-to-date actors breathe fresh air into iconic scenes from the long-familiar source material. The star-power appeal of 90s-specific heavy-hitters like Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, and baby-faced newsie Christian Bale is the major update to the source material in Armstrong’s adaptation, same as in the previous revisions. The only difference (besides sound & color no longer being new inventions) is in just how much that youth-culture casting was allowed to reshape the text.

In particular, Winona Ryder’s starring role as Jo March is the casting choice that really jolts Alcott’s writing into a 90s era sensibility. As a hopeless 90s Kid™ myself, my love for Winona Ryder as a screen presence predates even my earliest childhood memories – thanks largely to her collaborations with Tim Burton in Beetlejuice & Edward Scissorhands. I still wouldn’t exactly call her approach to acting “versatile,” though. Like fellow Gen-X icons Keanu Reeves, Christina Ricci, and Jeanine Garofalo, Ryder more or less always gives the same performance no matter the project; the trick is just casting her in the exact right role. The brilliance of casting Ryder as Jo March is that her schtick fits both the original profile of the character (a powder keg mix of dorky enthusiasm within her home & righteous disgust with the ways of the world at large) and is distinctly of her own time – effortlessly conveying a sardonic wit central to Gen-X cynicism. If nothing else, the way she rants about the ills of the outside world and indulges in oddball slang like “Capital!” & “Christopher Columbus!” from her writing desk can’t help but recall the parallel narration of Ryder’s career-defining role in Heathers. If Armstrong’s Little Women were made just a few years later it might have updated the setting around Ryder to 1990s suburbia, the way Emma was transformed into Clueless or The Taming of the Shrew became 10 Things I Hate About You. As is, Ryder is doing all of that modernization work herself, performing Alcott’s century-old text with a 90s attitude & inflection.

Greta Gerwig’s more recent, currently Oscar-nominated take on Little Women was much more stylistically aggressive in its attempts to modernize Alcott’s novel. At the very least, it doesn’t rely entirely on the 2010s indie darlings of its cast (Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet) to do all of its heavy lifting in refreshing the material. Instead, Gerwig violently shakes the story loose from the page – assuming that audiences are familiar enough with the source material to appreciate it scrambled out of sequence. In her version, the audience is informed up-front that Jo turned down the well-off heartthrob next door, essentially stripping the story of its will-they/won’t-they drama to push through to other concerns. Instead of following a linear retelling of the entire novel, we watch an adult Jo from the second volume reflect on childhood memories from the first. Meanwhile, debates between Jo and her publisher in New York City prompt metatextual speculations on how, exactly, Little Women relates to Louisa May Alcott’s actual life and what biographical events may have been altered to please her own Male publishers’ demands – forever reshaping how the original text will be interpreted for the screen in the future. In many ways, this recent adaptation of Little Women is about the very act of adapting Little Women – a much headier, more exclusively cinematic approach to the material than the versions that preceded it.

The major narrative innovation of Gerwig’s take on this story is in how it makes the adult half of Jo’s story more compelling by drawing direct parallels to the childhood half. The most iconic, memorable episodes of Little Women tend to fall in its first volume, which captures an enduring portrait of girlhood that allows the work to resonate & reverberate from generation to generation. Centering this adaptation on the adult end of the book is a bold choice, then, but it unlocks a lot of the untapped power of that second half by making direct in-the-moment connections to events from the first. As Jo returns home from New York City to care for a sister who’s taken ill, the familiar sights & personalities of her hometown trigger memories of the book’s most iconic childhood moments, revealing the power of the novel’s bifurcated structure. It also frees Gerwig to pick & choose what parts of the story she wants to emphasize thematically. Gerwig shifts the core story from focusing on Jo’s possible romance with her neighbor to instead exploring her combative relationship with her youngest, brattiest sister. Gerwig also searches for the border between truth & artifice in Alcott’s source material and interrogates how outside influences may have distorted the author’s original vision. While most adaptations lovingly stage Alcott’s exact narrative for the screen, Gerwig’s actively interprets it and its legacy.

There’s a brief image of young children playing pretend as pirates in the March sisters’ attic that flashes in the last minute or so of Gerwig’s Little Women that I cannot stop thinking about. After Jo’s debates with her publisher call into question what “really” happened in her story vs. what literary tastes of the time dictated should happen, I couldn’t help but puzzle over what that image was implying. Was it merely a memory from earlier in Jo’s childhood play than what the book or its resulting movies cover? Was it an implication of how Jo’s published memoir would influence the childhood play of her readers? Or was it a vision of How Things Really Were, as opposed to the distorted version of Jo’s memory that we had been watching the entire film? I don’t really want an Answer to this query. The more important thing is just appreciating how the film’s metatextual self-examination had my mind racing in its final minutes to the point where I got hung up on what, like, three seconds of footage “meant” within the larger story. I really liked how Gillian Armstrong updated Little Women for Generation X by handing the source material over to one of the era’s most distinct personalities (namely, Veronica Sawyer). This latest adaptation from Gerwig is far more adventurous in its own modernization efforts, though. There’s no single image in the 90s version of Little Women that incites personal interpretation or extrapolation the way Gerwig’s film does, which makes the newer film not only more modern but also more outright cinematic.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 1/16/20 – 1/22/20

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

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Mädchen in Uniform (1931) – A once controversial lesbian drama about a girls’ boarding school in 1930s Germany. Made during the early rise of Nazi fascism and initially banned in the United States, it’s a miracle this film was completed in the first place, much less survived the censorship filters of its era. Screening free to the public (with donations encouraged) Thursday 1/16 via Queer Root Films, hosted at the LGBT Community Center of New Orleans.

Weathering with You Japanese animation wizard Makoto Shinkai follows up his heart-on-sleeve anime melodramas Your Name. & 5 Centimeters per Second with yet another magical-realist high school romance, this time about a teen girl who can control the weather. Playing wide.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top 20 Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2019

1. Fighting With My Family This melodramatic biopic about WWE wrestler Paige does an excellent job conveying the appeal of pro wrestling as an artform, offers empathy to every character its story touches without shying away from their faults, and properly sketches out how much respect for women’s wrestling has evolved in the last decade (and how influential Paige was in that sea change). It’s also way dirtier than I expected, often playing like an R-rated Disney Channel Original.

2. Ma Octavia Spencer slums it as an unassuming small-town vet tech who parties with neighborhood teens in order to enact revenge for their parents’ past wrongs. It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Spencer devour scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.

3. Child’s Play An in-name-only, shockingly fun “remake” of the classic killer doll thriller by the same name. Much like the original, this is the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flick kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them too young on cable, and it directly pays homage to that very canon in references to titles like Killer Klowns From Outer Space & Texas Chainsaw Massacre II.

4. Paradise Hills An impressive coterie of young actors (Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle McDnonald, Eiza Gonzalez) square off against veteran badass Milla Jovovich in a near-future Patriarchal hell. It’s essentially Guillermo del Toro’s Stepford Wives staged on the set of the rose garden from the animated Alice in Wonderland. A femme fairy tale that takes its over-the-top, Literotica-ready premise refreshingly seriously despite the inherent camp of its (sumptuous) costume & production design.

5. Read or Not A list of things that make this Clue & You’re Next genre mashup immensely enjoyable: the careful attention to costume design, the Old Dark house sets, Samara Weaving, Aunt Helene, that “Hide & Seek” novelty record and, most importantly, the rapid escalation of its final ten minutes into full unrestrained delirium. Great nasty fun.

6. Saaho A Indian action blockbuster that opens as a fairly well-behaved Fast & Furious rip-off in its first hour, then pulls an outrageous twist I’ve never seen in an action film before, and finally reveals its title card and the announcement “It’s showtime!” The next two hours are then a throw-it-all-in-a-blender mix of Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious, The Matrix, John Wick, Iron Man, Fury Road and practically every other action blockbuster in recent memory you can name. Pure maximalism.

7. Pledge A nasty little VOD horror about a fraternity rush week from Hell. The dialogue and performances are alarmingly good for something on its budget level, which makes it all the more horrifying when characters you kinda like are tortured in extreme gore by frat bro monsters for a solid hour of “hazing.” It also sidesteps a lot of the usual misogyny of the torture porn genre by making both the victims & villains All-American macho types.

8. Good Boys Superbad is often praised for its final emotional grace notes shared between teen-boy BFFs who’ve struggled to maintain a tough masculine exterior throughout their entire preceding gettin’-laid adventures, to the detriment of their relationship. Here, the earnest vulnerability & emotional grace notes are constant & genuine from frame one, providing some much-needed hope for the men of the future. These are very good boys.

9. Braid Two amateur drug dealers escape police scrutiny by returning to the childhood home of a mentally unwell friend who’s trapped in a never-ending game of violent make-believe. A total mess but also a total blast. Gorgeous costumes & sets, gloriously self-indulgent film school cinematography, and genuinely shocking over-the-top turns in the “plot” every few beats. Think of it as Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era.

10. War Between this & Saaho, my two favorite action movies of the year are both big budget, Twisty blockbusters from India. This one is basically a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. It’s 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.”

11. Glass M. Night Shyamalan explodes his small-scale women-in-captivity thriller Split into an MCU-scale superhero franchise, but hilariously dodges all the accompanying genre spectacle that his budget can’t afford. I am very late to the table as a Shyamalan apologist, but by the time I was the only person in the theater cackling at his attempt to connect the mythology of his own cameos in Split & Unbreakable into a cohesive narrative arc, I was converted for life. What an adorable nerd.

12. Crawl A lean, mean, single-location creature feature in which a father-daughter duo fights off killer CG alligators during intense hurricane-related flooding. Only could have been improved by an alternate ending where they survive the storm only to discover that the entire planet has been taken over by gators while they were trapped inside. Should have ended with gators piloting the “rescue” choppers.

13. Escape Room Basically the ideal version of Saw, with all the nasty torture porn & (most of) the nu-metal removed for optimal silliness. All storytelling logic & meaningful dialogue/character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, truly preposterous gimmick: an escape room, except For Real.

14. The Head Hunter A medieval monster slayer seeks to add the head of the beast that killed his daughter to his trophy collection. An impressive feat in low-budget filmmaking that knows it can’t convincingly stage battle scenes on its production scale, so it makes up for it by leaning into what it can do well – mostly delivering grotesque creature designs & a nihilistic mood.

15. Booksmart Maybe not always the most hi-larious example of the modern femme teen sex comedy (in the recent The To Do List/Blockers/Wetlands/Slut in a Good Way tradition) but one with an unusually effective emotional core and more Gay Stuff than the genre usually makes room for. If nothing else, it felt good to know that the kids of Gen-Z are more than alright.

16. Greener Grass A warped Adult Swim-style comedy of manners about overly competitive soccer moms, featuring performances from D’arcy Carden, Mary Holland, Janicza Bravo, Beck Bennett, and similar Los Angeles comedy folks. Total illogical chaos and menacing irreverence from start to finish, with a particular debt owed to John Waters’s post-Polyester suburban invasion comedies.

17. The Breaker Upperers A New Zealand comedy about professional break-up for hire artists, a premise that’s pretty much a wholesome 2010s update to Dirty Work by way of Taika Waititi. Zings quickly & efficiently with incredibly well-defined characters, like a The Movie adaptation of a sitcom that’s already been going for years & years.

18. The Banana Splits Movie A SyFy Channel Original that’s somehow a genuine delight? It imagines a world where its eponymous Hanna-Barbera children’s show starred killer animatronic robots instead of failed actors in mascot costumes. Goofy & violent enough to be worthwhile despite how thin its character work is (with some especially nasty practical gore gags), which is more than you can say for most of the originals that network broadcasts.

19. Countdown Beyond just appreciating that there was a mainstream horror about a killer smartphone app in megaplexes this past Halloween, I admired this for adding three very distinct angles to the technophobic Killer Internet subgenre: the eerie unknown of user agreement text that no one reads; the startling menace of app notifications that unmute themselves every phone update; and car backup cam jump scares.

20. CATSTom Hooper’s deranged stage musical adaptation is the exact horned-up, ill-advised CGI nightmare that Film Twitter has been shouting about for months on end and I’m happy it’s been celebrated as such. Admittedly, though, I was absolutely exhausted by pro film critics’ competition to see who could dunk on the film online with the loudest or the funniest zingers, which tempered my enthusiasm before I got to enjoy its spectacular awfulness for myself (opening week!). As such, I suspect this is the camp gem of 2019 that will improve the most in years to come, once the hyperbolic discourse around it settles and it remains just as bizarre as ever.

-Brandon Ledet

The Rise of Smut: In Praise of Cinematic Vulgarity

More so than any other time I can think of since starting this blog, the past couple months have been a period of intense reflection and reassessment. Swampflix just reached five full years of daily posts, which has me looking back to all our various projects over the years. Of course, this includes our annual Best of the Year lists, which was the very first thing we collaborated on as a crew in January 2014. As List-Making Season is an annual ritual across all online film discourse, this five-year milestone has naturally arrived just as we’re looking back at our favorite films of 2019. This year is especially daunting, though, as these discussions have also been rolled into Best of the Decade list-making, just past the end of the 2010s. Thanks to the Swampflix project, I already have access to a record of my favorite works from over half of that decade, which has allowed me to look back at how my definition of a personal favorite film has evolved over the years, and what films have stood the test of time. The #1 change I’ve noticed in all this Best of the Year/Best of the Decade/Best of Swampflix self-reflection is that over time my standout choices have become much more aggressively vulgar, if not outright pornographic. The films I’ve been promoting & recommending to friends have doubled down on explicit sex as much as they have on political awareness or cinematic surrealism. The larger story of how cinema has changed over the last decade has been one of online distribution, political radicalization, and diversified representation (on both sides of the camera). When looking at my own personal favorites, though, it looks like the story of the 2010s was The Rise of Smut.

In my personal Top Films of 2014 list from our early days of blogging, I singled out Christopher Nolan’s space travel epic Interstellar as my favorite film of that year. It’s still a film I’m still fond of for its combination of precise filmmaking craft and over-the-top sci-fi pulp, but I doubt it would top my list if we were to rehash the Best of 2014 again. In fact, I know it wouldn’t, since I’m currently working on our Top Films of the 2010s lists (to post this February) and there are currently a few 2014 titles listed, while Interstellar is nowhere to be found. I still highly value the combination of high-art cinematic craft and low-brow genre schlock that blockbuster achieves, but it’s since been outshined in my estimation by the value of nastier, more sexually explicit works from that year like Wetlands and Stranger by the Lake. Part of this is due to the fact that we’re now living in a time when the clash of high-brow cinematic craft and low-brow genre content is a lot easier to come by, considering how the market’s been flooded by “Elevated Horror” projects in the past decade (thanks largely to the impressive marketing machine of A24). The larger issue is that this rise of well-crafted schlock has coincided with the near-total disappearance of overt sexuality from mainstream filmmaking, mostly at the hands of our corporate overlords at Walt Disney Pictures. Major studio filmmaking was remarkably less horny in the 2010s than in any previous decade (Hayes Code era included), as the takeover of sexless superhero media (with the one major exception of our collective ogling of Captain America’s ass) and easy-to-scrub blockbusters produced & sanitized for censorship-riddled foreign markets have replaced more “adult” content like the erotic thrillers of decades past. A man who earned most of his notoriety making not-so-subtly-Conservative Batman movies is simply on the wrong side of that war, no matter how much of a kick I got out of his goofy space movie.

Occasionally an overtly horny mainstream movie will break through—like the Fifty Shades of Grey or Magic Mike franchises—and they’re typically met with an appreciative, enthusiastic uproar from general audiences (especially women). These breakaways are a soul-deep relief from the Disney amusement parks that multiplexes have gradually transformed into (Magic Mike XXL especially), but they aren’t exactly the transgressive cinematic provocations I’ve been personally craving lately either. It’s hard to fathom now that there was once a time when outright pornography was threatening to cross over into the mainstream in titles like Deep Throat, Caligula, and Midnight Cowboy. Local drag queen CeCe V. DeMenthe lamented the loss of that wide audience hunger for pure, transgressive smut when she appeared on our podcast to discuss Caligula in particular. She complained that movies weren’t as weird or as vulgar as they used to be in her own heyday of trolling arthouse theaters for smut in the 70s & 80s, which is an assessment I can’t exactly agree with. I ended up making CeCe a list of recommendations for transgressive 2010s films I labeled “The New Extremity” to prove that modern filmmakers hadn’t lost their edge, and I found that most of the titles on that list were the exact works I had been championing the hardest when looking for movies to recommend to friends in general. The only real difference between this list and the films CeCe remembered from her smut-filled youth was the scope of their distribution and cultural impact. As much as I might personally love a deliriously horny cinematic bazaar like The Wild Boys or We Are the Flesh, their impact on the wider pop culture landscape has been essentially nil – to the point where a lover of explicit, bizarre cinema who’s hungry for that kind of content isn’t even aware they exist.

I don’t believe the dominance of safe, wholesome content in recent years—like Disney’s superhero sagas, made-for-Netflix Christmas romcoms, and The Great British Bake-off—is a matter of happenstance or even a corporate mandate (at least not entirely). Audiences genuinely crave this comforting, life-affirming content on a grand scale, seemingly as a reaction to what a miserable shitshow the world has become outside the cinema. Even I’m susceptible to craving wholesome pop culture figures to guide me through these dark times, especially role models of what it means to be a good, decent man in the modern world: Steven Universe, Mister Rogers, Paddington Bear, etc. It’s a necessary counterbalance to the ugly reactionary Evil that the more toxic end of masculine representation has slipped into in recent years (up to and including actual, true-blue Nazism). I even feel a little guilty when I find myself recommending depraved, explicit smut out in the open this flagrantly, as it often doesn’t feel like what the world needs right now in this exact moment. For instance, we recently threw a low-key New Year’s “party” where guests were invited to drop by for snacks & drinks as we rewatched our favorite films of 2019. As most of my favorites have been falling into the outrageous, uncomfortable smut category as of late, this led to a lot of our friends walking into selections unprepared that made them . . . squeamish – namely In Fabric, Knife+Heart, Climax and, the biggest offender of all, Violence Voyager. I stand by those choices as Best of the Year heavy-hitters and worthwhile grotesque provocations, but I still couldn’t shake a feeling of guilt for subjecting unsuspecting friends to these horny nightmares I’ve become accustomed to watching alone on the couch (not least of all because many of these titles went from festival to VOD distribution without much theatrical play). It was an epiphanic moment of clarity in which I realized just how far my tastes have been skewing away from wholesome escapism towards unrepentant smut. It felt shameful.

I’ve yet to consult with my therapist about how much of that shame is genuine concern and how much of it is just regular old social anxiety (it’s no coincidence that my version of a “party” involves everyone directing their attention towards a TV screen). I do know this, though: the novelty of seeing explicitly sexual, artistically transgressive smut through proper cinematic distribution means is a dying pastime. Yet, I believe more of it is being made now than ever before; it’s just falling outside the bounds of official distribution channels and critically legitimized media. As more of the pop culture landscape shifts towards boardroom-vetted, “morally” sanitized, Family-friendly media and corporate IPs, I find myself slinking further down these dank tunnels of cinematic depravity, finding just as much comfort in gleefully taboo titles like Double Lover & The Untamed as I do in genuinely wholesome life-affirmers like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? & Paddington 2. Maybe it’s just comforting to know they’re still out there, even though their goal is often to alienate & discomfort – like a slimy security blanket.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 1/9/20 – 1/15/20

Here are the movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Weathering with You Japanese animation wizard Makoto Shinkai follows up his heart-on-sleeve anime melodramas Your Name. & 5 Centimeters per Second with yet another magical-realist high school romance: this time about a teen girl who can control the weather. Playing in special Fan Preview Screenings on January 15 and 16 via GKids before opening wide.

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

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

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

Jezebel A dramatic memoir about a woman whose sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work in the late-90s. Thematically it falls somewhere between Cam & The Florida Project, but it’s not as stylistically aggressive as either of those titles. Wryly funny, quietly tense stuff but never in a showy way (especially considering the subject). Playing only at Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top 20 Films of 2019

1. Midsommar A humorously traumatic nightmare-comedy about a Swedish cult’s destruction of a toxic romance that’s far outstayed its welcome. Its morbid humor, detailed costume & production design, and dread-inducing continuation of Wicker Man-style folk horror made for an intensely satisfying theatrical experience. Twice! (Thanks to an extended “Director’s Cut” that packed in an extra half hour of winking Jokes at the expense of its lead’s self-absorbed idiot boyfriend.)

2. In Fabric A tongue-in-cheek anthology horror about a killer dress. I loved every creepily kinky minute of this, but also a total stranger scolded me for laughing during our Overlook Film Fest screening because it is “not a comedy” so your own mileage may vary? If an arthouse take on the Killer Inanimate Object genre of films like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats sounds enticing, then you’d probably dig it. Just go in knowing that it’s okay to laugh.

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

4. When I Get Home A feature-length music video from singer-songwriter Solange, presented as an “inter-disciplinary performance art film” and a companion piece to her album of the same name. It’s an R&B sci-fi acid Western portrait of black culture in Houston, reaching more for visual poetry than clear messaging or linear storytelling.

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

6. Parasite A twisty, crowd-pleasing thriller about class resentment, with a particular focus on how Capitalism forces its lowliest casualties to fight over the crumbs that fall from on high. It’s been fascinating to watch this earn sold-out screenings & ecstatic critical praise for months on end as its distribution exponentially spreads, a true success story for weirdo populist cinema.

7. Climax A deranged dance party fueled by a lethal dose of LSD, packing in more death drops in its opening half hour than you’ll see in the entirety of Paris is Burning. Pretentious, obnoxious, “French and fucking proud of it” smut that leaves you just as miserable as the tripped-out dancers who tear each other apart on the screen.

8. Violence Voyager Easily the most bizarre & brutal release of the year. A gross-out gore middle ground between animation & puppetry with a haunted amusement park plot from a vintage Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel.

9. Wounds The age-old tale of a New Orleans bartender’s battle with a haunted smartphone; also a grotesque look at a “functioning” alcoholic losing what little control he pretends to have over his life until all that’s left is rot. The low-50s aggregated ratings for this horror gem on Rotten Tomatoes & Metacritic can eat the roaches directly out of my ass. The imagery is legitimately scary, and it has a lot more going on thematically than it’s getting credit for. Clearly the most underrated film of the year.

10. Luz A lean demonic possession oddity with some real grimy 70s Euro horror throwback vibes. As a student thesis project with a small cast and just a few sparse locations, this should-be-mediocre genre exercise is the most unassuming indie gem of the year to achieve such a sublime must-see cinematic effect. A deranged, sweaty, deliriously horny nightmare that all demonic possession media strives for, but few titles ever achieve.

11. One Cut of the Dead A deceptively complex zombie comedy about a film crew who are attacked by the undead in the middle of a cheap-o horror production. This starts off quietly charming, then gets disorienting & awkward, then emerges as one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a theater in a long while. It requires a little patience, but the payoff is an incredibly successful love letter to low-budget filmmaking that makes the entire film feel retroactively brilliant.

12. Gully Boy A lengthy Indian melodrama about an aspiring street rapper in Mumbai rising to fame across class lines & familial roadblocks. It doesn’t necessarily do anything narratively or thematically that you wouldn’t expect, but it is astonishing in its refusal to pull political or emotional punches. It’s also a genuine miracle in finally allowing the world to enjoy the triumphs of 8-Mile without having to look at or listen to Eminem, something we sadly can’t always avoid.

13. Homecoming An incredibly ambitious concert film that documents both nights of Beychella, the most iconic live music performance of the 2010s. The cultural context for what Beyoncé is doing with this piece is rooted in celebrating HBCUs, but a lot of the sights & sounds are pure New Orleans Mardi Gras. The brass, the bounce, the dance troupes, the Solange of it all: I didn’t realize how much our local traditions were an extension of HBCU culture (or at least are seamlessly compatible with it) until I saw this film.

14. The Last Black Man in San Francisco A bizzaro Sundance drama about gentrification & friendship. Occupies an incredibly exciting dream space that filters anxiety & anger over housing inequality through classic stage play Absurdism touchstones like Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Wild, beautiful stuff doled out at a weirdly calming pace.

15. Aniara A surreal, existential descent into despair that processes the horrors of climate change through a space travel narrative. Initially plays as a much more conventional SyFy Channel version of High Life but eventually blossoms into its own blissfully bizarre object. Major bonus points: weirdo space cults, Gay Stuff, and a stunner of a lead performance from relative unknown Emelie Jonsson.

16. High Life Claire Denis delivers a much more divisive space travel chiller about climate change, one with a penchant for violence & abstraction. 100% feels like the director of Trouble Every Day launching her quietly fucked up little horror show into the furthest reaches of deep space – with all the narrative frustrations, ice cold cruelty, and disgust with the human body that descriptor implies.

17. The Lighthouse Willem Dafoe & Robert Pattinson costar as a lighthouse-keeper odd couple who gradually grow insane with hate & lust for each other. A black & white period drama crammed into a squared-off aspect ratio, this mostly functions as an unholy, horned-up mashup of Guy Maddin & HP Lovecraft. It’s also, somewhat unexpectedly, a total riot. Its tight frame is packed to the walls with more sex, violence, and broad toilet humor than you’d typically expect from high-brow Art Cinema.

18. The Beach Bum I was the only person laughing at my opening-weekend 4:20pm screening of this abrasive stoner-bummer, in which Matthew McConaughey plays a Florida-famous poet named Moondog. I was also the only person gasping in horror. Harmony Korine always works best when he reins his indulgences in with a little guiding structure, and this one does so by riffing on 90s Major Studio Comedy tropes to nightmarish success. It’s basically Korine’s Billy Madison, which I mean as a major compliment.

19. Diamantino Exposed to the existence of human suffering for the first time as an adult man, a sweet-sexy-idiot soccer star falls down a rabbit hole of political turmoil – like a gay porno version of Chauncey Gardner. This is a delightfully absurdist, satirical farce (taking wild, unsubtle jabs at the disasters of MAGA & Brexit in particular), bolstered by surreally cheap CGI and a peculiar sense of humor that alternates between wholesomeness & cruelty at a breakneck pace.

20. Lords of Chaos A playfully revisionist true-crime dramedy about the 1990s black metal band Mayhem, whose “breakup” story involved a spectacularly violent murder. Ruthlessly satirizes shithead metal nerds as trust fund brats with loving parents & purposeless suburban angst. Especially commendable for zapping all the supposed Cool out of the black metal scene’s infamous church burnings, bigotry, and animal cruelty by treating them as the edgelord posturing that they truly were.

-Brandon Ledet

#52FilmsByWomen 2019 Ranked & Reviewed

When I first learned of the #52FilmsByWomen pledge in late 2016, I was horrified to discover that I hadn’t reached the “challenge’s” quota naturally that year, despite my voracious movie-watching habits. Promoted by the organization Women in Film, #52FilmsByWomen is merely a pledge to watch one movie a week directed by a woman for an entire calendar year. It’s not at all a difficult criteria to fulfill if you watch movies on a regular routine, but so much of the pop culture landscape is dominated by (white) male voices that you’d be surprised by how little media you typically consume is helmed by a female creator until you actually start paying attention to the numbers. Having now taken & fulfilled the #52FilmsByWomen three years in a row, I’ve found that to be the exercise’s greatest benefit: paying attention. I’ve found many new female voices to shape my relationship with cinema through the pledge, but what I most appreciate about the experience is the way it consistently reminds me to pay attention to the creators I’m supporting & affording my time. If we want more diversity in creative voices on the pop media landscape, we need to go out of our way to support the people already out there who work outside the white male hegemony. #52FilmsByWomen is a simple, surprisingly easy to fulfill gesture in that direction.

With this pledge in mind, I watched, reviewed, and podcasted about 52 new-to-me feature films directed by women in 2019. The full inventory of those titles can be found on this convenient Letterboxd list (along with a re-watch of Goodnight Mommy for our “Good Torture Porn” episode of the podcast). Each film is also ranked below with a link to a corresponding review, since I was using the pledge to influence not only the media I was consuming myself, but also the media we cover on the site. My hope is that this list will not only function as a helpful recap for a year of purposeful movie-watching, but also provide some heartfelt recommendations for anyone else who might be interested in taking the pledge in 2020.

5 Star Reviews

Strange Days (1995), dir. Kathryn Bigelow – “Incredibly prescient about the way virtual reality technology, misogynistic abuse in the entertainment industry, and documentation of systemically racist police brutality would play out in the following couple decades. Bigelow frames the social & political crises of the 1990s as the beginning of the End Times. The scary thing is that it feels like we’re still living in the exact downward trajectory depicted onscreen.”

Smithereens (1982), dir. Susan Seidelman

When I Get Home (2019), dir. Solange Knowles

Blood & Donuts (1995), dir. Holly Dale

4.5 Star Reviews

Messiah of Evil (1973), dir. Gloria Katz – “You can approximate a nearly exact equation of what genre pieces were assembled to create its effect; it plays like a post-Romero attempt at adapting ‘Shadows over Innsmouth’ as an American giallo. However, you can’t quite put your finger on how these familiar pieces add up to such an eerie, disorienting experience. That’s just pure black movie magic, the goal all formulaic horrors should strive for but few ever achieve.”

Blue Steel (1990), dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Homecoming (2019), dir. Beyoncé Knowles

4 Star Reviews

Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls (1989), dir. Katt Shea – “In its most surreal moments, Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is like a psychedelic, Kate Bush-inspired porno where the performers took too many hallucinogens and accidentally slipped into interpretative dance when the script said they should bone. At its worst it’s low-energy Skinemax sleaze, which can be charming in its own way. In either instance, it’s way more entertaining & bizarre than the first Stripped to Kill film, despite their shared penchant for poorly aged, queerphobic conclusions.”

Punisher: War Zone (2008), dir. Lexi Alexander

Gully Boy (2019), dir. Zoya Akhtar

Aniara (2019), dir. Pella Kågerman

High Life (2019), dir. Claire Denis

Paradise Hills (2019), dir. Alice Waddington

Hail Satan? (2019), dir. Penny Lane

I Am Not a Witch (2018), dir. Rungano Nyoni

Yellow is Forbidden (2019), dir. Pietra Brettkelly

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), dir. Marielle Heller

The Farewell (2019), dir. Lulu Wang

Jezebel (2019), dir. Numa Perrier

Confessions of a Suburban Girl (1992), dir. Susan Seidelman

Braid (2019), dir. Mitzi Peirone

Buckjumping (2019), dir. Lily Keber

Booksmart (2019), dir. Olivia Wilde

3.5 Star Reviews

Greener Grass (2019), dir. Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe – “Whether it’s grossing you out with the moist, passionless sex of its suburbanite goons or it’s breaking every known rule of logical storytelling to drive you into total delirium at a golf cart’s pace, the film is uniquely horrific & punishing – and hilarious. You should know approximately thirty seconds into its runtime whether or not its peculiarly antagonistic humor is something you’ll vibe with; there’s just very little that can prepare you for what it’s like to experience that aggressive irreverence for 100 consecutive minutes.”

The Breaker Upperers (2019), dir. Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), dir. Susan Seidelman

This Magnificent Cake! (2019), dir. Emma De Swaef

Steven Universe: The Movie (2019), dir. Rebecca Sugar

Knives and Skin (2019), dir. Jennifer Reeder

The Banana Splits Movie (2019), dir. Danishka Esterhazy

Slut in a Good Way (2019), dir. Sophie Lorain

Tenement (1985), dir. Roberta Findlay

Ladyworld (2019), dir. Amanda Kramer

Share (2019), dir. Pippa Bianco

Hunting for Hedonia (2019), dir. Pernille Rose Grønkjær

Nancy (2018), dir. Christina Choe

Cassandro, the Exotico! (2019), dir. Marie Losier

The Field Guide to Evil (2019), dir. Veronika Franz, Katrin Gebbe, Agnieszka Smoczyńska

3 Star Reviews

Spookies (1986), dir. Genie Joseph – “Fractured across two separate production crews and held together only by its central haunted house locale, this is effectively a creature feature horror anthology: a series of disconnected vignettes that each present a spooky-creature-of-the-minute for our temporary enjoyment.”

Disco Pigs (2001), dir. Kirsten Sheridan

Stripped to Kill (1987), dir. Katt Shea

Captain Marvel (2019), dir. Anna Boden

Dumplin’ (2018), dir. Anne Fletcher

Satanic Panic (2019), dir. Chelsea Stardust

Psycho Granny (2019), dir. Rebekah McKendry

Riot Girls (2019), dir. Jovanka Vuckovic

Daddy Issues (2019), dir. Amara Cash

Origin Story (2019), dir. Kulap Vilaysack

Would Not Recommend

The Loveless (1981), dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Detroit (2017), dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Always Be My Maybe (2019), dir. Nahnatcha Kahn

Fyre Fraud (2019), dir. Julia Willoughby Nason

-Brandon Ledet

Five Years of Film Blogging, 2015 – 2019

In November of 2014, I was laid off from a call center job that completed its government contract, leaving me with a lot of unexpected free time. It was a struggle to find comparable full-time office work in the couple years that followed, but I did my best to occupy myself (and pay my bills) in ways that related to the hobby I’m most passionate about: watching & discussing movies. Not all of these schemes worked out; I did not manage to turn on-set PA work or location scouting into a decent living, and the movie theater kitchen where I eventually worked as a grill cook no longer exists. The one major satisfying success from that post-college search for purpose is this lil’ ol’ film criticism blog you’re reading right now.

Swampflix started as a group effort between me, Britnee Lombas, and James Cohn after we were all left unemployed by the same defunct call center job. Our first collaboration as a group was listing our favorite films of 2014, and we’ve posted at least one piece of film writing or film-related criticism a day in the five years since that launch. Our crew has since expanded to include at least five other contributors – most significantly Mark “Boomer” Redmond (who has anchored our silly-ass takes with astoundingly thoughtful academic writing since year one), Alli Hobbs (who stuck with us for three out of five of our years), and CC Chapman (whose work in zine production, film festival coverage, podcasting, and behind-the-scenes support has kept us afloat through the many crises when it felt like the ship was going down). We’ve gradually ballooned from a small collective of amateur film bloggers to include projects as wide-ranging as podcasting, zine-making, library science, andthanks to our newest crew member Hanna Räsänenholiday card illustration. We even started our own Mardi Gras krewe. This is easily the longest I’ve ever collaborated on a single creative project with a group of friends, and it’s exciting to know it’s still alive and evolving five years later.

I have absolutely zero qualifications to run a film blog. My college degree is in Poetry. The first time I ever wrote critically about a movie was in the comment section of an article on The Dissolve, a now long defunct film criticism website. When The Dissolve crashed, I saw a group of much smarter, more talented, better experienced writers suffer the collapse of quality, lucrative online criticism – which has since devolved into a mess of freelance desperation & attention-grabbing hot takes on Twitter. Still, writing about movies (and setting my own arbitrary one-post-a-day deadlines) has been a great personal motivator in a way no other project has proven to be post-college. The earliest, primordial incarnation of Swampflix was when I “published” combination movie & restaurant reviews in the call center newsletter Britnee organized when we worked together, a section we called “Movies and Munchies.” In those days, she and I would trade DVDs of films from our personal libraries that the other hadn’t seen yet, a regular recommendation structure not unlike our Movie of the Month conversations that persist until today (a format I wholly ripped off from The Dissolve, I’ll admit). We write with no real authority and no significant audience, but we write with an enthusiasm for bizarro cinema and a joy for trading recommendations for little-seen movies we personally love.

A D.I.Y. film criticism collective with a niche audience & no proper qualifications, I like to think we function like an online zine. The high-contrast Sharpie illustrations we post with each review have come to feel at home with that digi-zine aesthetic, but I doubt that’s what I had in mind when I first started doodling them. Honestly, I don’t know that I ever have anything specific in mind at all for where Swampflix is going, other than I want us to do better and to do more. With this article, we’ve reached five consecutive years of daily posts – a personal, arbitrary achievement I’m proud of, but am also ready to slack off from so we can aim for bigger, broader goals. I don’t know what’s in store for us in the next five years (assuming humanity’s existence on Earth makes it that far), but I do have some big ideas on the backburner: a proper zine store, a YouTube channel, a more functional web design, public movie screenings, etc. No matter what we do or don’t accomplish going forward, however, I’m already very proud of the quality & consistency of the work we’ve already put in over the last five years. Our work isn’t always timely or precise, and it takes us about a year to reach the pageview counts that legitimate, professional blogs reach in just a month, but it’s been a personally rewarding creative project for our small crew of Southeast Louisiana film geeks.

Thank you if you’ve ever read anything we’ve written or—better yet—if you’ve ever taken one of our movie recommendations. We’ve been having a lot of fun figuring out exactly what it is we’re doing and how we can do it better moving forward. As a minor victory lap, I’m going to list below five projects we’ve tackled so far that I’m especially proud of. Enjoy!

Movie of the Month: Every month, one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. I’m particularly proud of this year’s coverage of Matt Farley’s Local Legends (2013), a bravely honest and darkly funny look at what it’s like to produce amateur art in the digital hellscape of the 2010s.

The Swampflix Podcast: We’ve gotten significantly better at putting together a biweekly movie podcast over the last four years, figuring our shit out just in time for us to hit our 100th episode in the next few weeks. The new format we started with Episode #81: Christian Evangelicalism was a significant creative breakthrough, and I think the last 20 or so episodes since then have been especially great. I know from experience that it’s difficult to find movie podcasts that discuss low-budget, high-gimmick genre films with sincerity instead of mockery, so I’m proud to be producing one of the few that are out there (even if we’re drowning in a vast sea of better funded, better produced podcast content).

Krewe Divine: In 2017, a few members of the Swampflix crew decided to finally grow up and get serious about Mardi Gras. We collectively shed our annual personal crises about what themes to include in our Fat Tuesday costuming by pooling our resources to pray at the altar of a single cinematic deity: Divine, the greatest drag queen of all time. Our intent was to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fucked up glory by founding Krewe Divine in her honor, a costuming krewe meant to masquerade in The French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday into perpetuity.

Film Festival Coverage: Some of the most rewarding experiences we’ve had reviewing tiny films without much public visibility have been at local film festivals, something we’ve been getting more & more involved with as the years roll on. In 2019 alone, we covered dozens of films across four local festivals: New Orleans Film Fest, New Orleans French Film Fest, Overlook Film Fest, and PATOIS. Each hosted screenings of some of the best films we saw projected in proper movie theaters all year, a significant portion of which we would not have been able to cover for the website otherwise.

Zines: Thanks largely to the New Orleans Comics and Zines festival (R.I.P.), we’ve gradually gotten into the business of printing physical copies of pieces we’ve written & illustrated for the site – making our function as an online zine a literal, physical practice. It’s a rewarding (although labor-intensive) ritual both because there’s a tangible product associated with our work that we obviously don’t get from blogging and because it helped us contextualize everything we’re doing as an amateur film criticism collective with no chance of ever going legit. Basically, everything we know about blogging & online self-promotion we learned from physically tabling zines in the real world, mostly at NOCAZ.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 1/2/20 – 1/8/20

Here are the movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

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

Queen & Slim The debut feature of Melina Matsoukas, whose work on the Lemonade-era Beyoncé video “Formation” already establishes her as a director who demands our attention. Pulling from pervious on-the-run epics like Bonnie & Clyde and Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, this modern tale of accidental cop killers on the lam looks like a stylistically sharp, politically furious punch to the gut. Playing wide.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

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

Jezebel A dramatic memoir about a woman whose sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work in the late-90s. Thematically it falls somewhere between Cam & The Florida Project, but it’s not as stylistically aggressive as either of those titles. Wryly funny, quietly tense stuff but never in a showy way (especially considering the subject). Playing only at Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge.

-Brandon Ledet