Weathering With You (2020)

Japanese animator Makoto Shinkai earned so much international success with his supernatural teen romance Your Name. that he unintentionally sparked an entire subgenre of imitators. Watching blatant Your Name. knockoffs like Fireworks & I Want to Eat Your Pancreas in the few years since Shinkai’s breakout hit has been amusing, but also a threat to dilute & over-familiarize the director’s schtick before he could deliver a proper follow-up himself. The first hour or so of Shinkai’s Weathering With You seemed to confirm that fear – essentially landing like an amusing-but-weak echo of what Your Name. had already accomplished. However, with time it eventually gets somewhere truly incredible that Shinkai’s imitators have failed to replicate, pushing its plot further & further into the weirdest direction possible until it ends at a stunning Choice of a conclusion that fully won me over. It by no means bests Shinkai’s previous highs, but it does break far enough away from that precedent to justify its own existence as a bizarro YA romance tale.

In terms of plot & aesthetic, Weathering With You shares a lot of DNA with Your Name. Its tale of two star-crossed teens who yearn for each other so earnestly that their bond defies the limits of real-world physics is as shamelessly derivative of that predecessor as Fireworks or Pancreas. Shinkai seems to have a genuine weakness for that realm of teenage yearning as a storyteller, however, given how his debut feature 5 Centimeters per Second was already hinged on teenage runaways throwing caution to the wind for love. In this update, a small-town boy runs away to the big city with no money to his name and a vaguely abusive past homelife behind him. While working odd jobs as a “journalist” for a paranormal investigation rag (think Weekly World News), he falls in love with a similarly emancipated teen who happens to be a “Sunshine Girl.” Amidst record-setting, unrelenting rainfall that keeps Tokyo under a constant downpour, this “Sunshine Girl” has the ability to produce small patches of sunlight as a temporary, hyper-local relief. The pair form a small sunshine-for-hire business around this phenomenal ability, developing feelings for each other along the way, but alas her gift is gradually revealed to come with a price that could ruin their life together before it has a chance to blossom.

As fun as the heart-on-sleeve teenage romance & small-town angst can be in these supernatural heart-tuggers, that’s not really what stood out to me in Shinkai’s previous work. What I’ve been especially enamored with in his modernized anime aesthetic is the way he applies a Miyazaki-style reverence for Nature to Big City urban environments. With Your Name., I was struck by how Tokyo skyscrapers were flanked by birds & sunshine, reflecting the same sense of majesty a Miyazaki picture would typically reserve for an undisturbed forest or the miracle of flight. Weathering With You pushes that Natural wonder for Modernity even further in its third act as its rainstorms continue to flood the streets of Tokyo. This is a film where Nature reclaims the Big City as part of itself, a big-picture phenomenon that sneaks up on you as you get lost in the intimate, insular teen drama in the foreground. I don’t believe the soaring romance or the small-town angst gave me anything I didn’t already absorb from pop punk anthems in my own youth (dutifully replicated here by returning Shinkai collaborators Radwimps), but the way the film captures the Natural beauty of the Big City in traditional animation flourishes will likely stick with me for a long time. I’m not sure I’ll ever look at a downtown rainstorm the same again.

If you’re looking to shoot Shinkai down for the sin of repeating himself, he’s willing to supply more than enough ammo. Weathering With You even features the definitive calling card for the Your Name. knockoff: a CG fireworks display. It also indulges in shameless product placement (most egregiously in a scene where the main character declares that a Big Mac was “the best meal of his life”) & gun violence sensationalism that drags its teen drama down into a much trashier stratosphere than its predecessor occupied. Still, the intrinsic pleasures of the supernatural YA romance & Shinkai’s visual majesty remain intact enough here that repeating the exercise is a pure joy, despite your better judgement. Most importantly, the way Shinkai pushes his interest in the border between Nature & Cityscapes into new, grandly bizarre directions in the film’s third act feels like an entirely new growth sprouting from the foundation of his previous work. Thanks to its full-hearted commitment to its own outlandish premise, all that overlap feels less like a redundancy and more like an expression of auteurist preoccupation. I would pay to watch Shinkai warp the basic outline of Your Name. into new, weird shapes forever, whether or not I’ve already gotten a little exhausted with his paint-by-numbers imitators.

– Brandon Ledet

Britnee’s Top 15 Films of 2019

15. Sunkist Family A cute, sex positive South Korean family film. It’s all about the importance of being open and honest with all members of your family (spouse and children). As the first film from female South Korean director Kim Ji-Hye, it’s super impressive. I can’t wait to see what else she has up her sleeve.

14. Ready or Not Rich people are weird, and this movie takes that notion to another level. Watching Ready or Not was probably the most fun that I’ve had in a theater in all of 2019. There’s tons of dark humor, bloody violence, and cigarette smoking babes. All things that I enjoy in a horror movie.

13. Gully Boy Brandon raved about Gully Boy for quite some time, but I avoided watching it initially because it’s 2 ½ hours long. I finally got around to watching it when we did a podcast episode on hip-hop biopics, and I really enjoyed it. The film was so lively, and the time went by pretty quickly. To my surprise, I kind of wanted it to keep going for another hour or so at the end.

12. Booksmart Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is one of the best coming-of-age comedies to ever grace the screen. It’s witty, realistic, and insanely funny. This is the teen movie that I so desperately needed to see as a teenager. I’m not bitter about it, though.

11. Paradise Hills While I found the plot of Paradise Hills to be interesting, that’s not why the film made it on my Top 15 Films of 2019 list. It’s sort of like Stepford Wives for teenagers, so I think I would’ve been stupid obsessed with this movie if I was like 15 years old. For 29-year-old me, the film’s success comes from its gorgeous futuristic visuals. Everything from the buildings, décor, costumes, etc. are breathtaking.

10. Leto I was clueless about Russian rock music until watching Leto, the coolest black and white Russian rock musical I’ve ever seen. It offers a glimpse into the Leningrad rock scene in the early 1980s, when the Soviet Union was alive and well. Somehow, the film is able to take what is a very revolutionary moment in history and make it not over-the-top dramatic. I think this is what makes it so compelling. Oh, and the film’s director, Kirill Serebrennikov, went to prison for essentially pissing off the Russian government during the last few weeks of the film’s production. How much more revolutionary can a movie get?

9. Us Watching Jordan Peele’s second horror film made me feel like I was trapped in a nightmare. Just when you think the film is over, there’s a bizarre twist that legitimately haunted me for weeks. It does everything that a good horror movie should do and as a bonus, it really makes you think about what class system looks like in American society.

8. Climax A dance party gone wrong that just feels so right. It’s really hard not to catch yourself bopping your head to the sick beats in the background while watching a dance troupe rip each other to shreds (emotionally, not literally). This movie is perhaps the darkest movie that I’ve seen all of 2019.

7. Greta I’m becoming what one might call a psychobiddy connoisseur, and I give the film Greta the psychobiddy stamp of approval. An older woman’s obsession with a young waitress turns into a bat-shit crazy nightmare before the film is even halfway through. Isabelle Huppert’s psychotic old-world charm makes modern day NYC seems like 1950’s Paris at times, and she serves 100% psychobiddy realness in every second she is on screen. While Huppert was a huge reason why I love this movie so much, Chloë Grace Moretz’s performance was surprisingly impressive. There’s some strange chemistry between these two extremely different actresses that makes for a very interesting experience.

6. Velvet Buzzsaw Paintings that kill, death by tattoo, and Toni Collette. What more could I ask for? The film’s satirical humor blends well with its truly horrifying imagery, which seems to be a difficult task for a film with a plot surrounding haunted, killer paintings. I love this movie for so many reasons, but what I am thankful for the most is my newfound love and respect for Jake Gyllenhaal.

5. Mister America The wild On Cinema universe continues to grow with a feature-length film. It’s a brilliant mockumentary that gives fans of Tim Heidecker the particular type of humor they crave while providing a bit of a character study of a self-absorbed small-town politician. It made me laugh more than any other film that came out in 2019.

4. Parasite Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece was the talk of the town once it was released in theaters. It’s not every day that your family, friends, and coworkers are raving about a South Korean film with *gasps* subtitles. After sitting through a showing at a local theater, and I was stuck in state of awe. The way this film treats the explores the class structure of South Korea is truly brilliant.

3. In Fabric 2019 was a fabulous year for movies about killer inanimate objects (looking at you, Velvet Buzzsaw). In Fabric brings the idea of a killer dress to the table, and I absolutely loved it. Told in the style of an anthology, this horror comedy provides entertainment in just about every second while serving up gorgeous giallo-style visuals.

2. Midsommar Never have I seen daytime horror be so gruesomely terrifying. Super dark subject matter is played out in the bright sunny fields of Sweden, and it creates a really strange feeling that I’m unable to describe in words. You just have to see it to understand what I’m talking about. Ari Aster is making a name for himself as one of the greatest directors of horror with this incredible follow up to last year’s Hereditary.

1. Knife + Heart This is without a doubt the best film of 2019. I spent a good while trying to determine whether Knife + Heart (Un coteau dans le coeur) or Midsommar should take the number one spot, but after watching both films a second time, there was no doubt in my mind that Knife + Heart was the winner. The film contains all components of a classic giallo, except that every character is homosexual. The plot becomes more intriguing with each watch, and its bright, neon colors with the fabulous M83 soundtrack pulsating in the background will turn any room into a seedy nightclub. I love it all so much. This queer twist on the giallo genre is nothing short of perfection.

-Britnee Lombas

Boomer’s Top 15 Films of 2019

Full disclosure: I haven’t seen The Lighthouse. I know I would love it, and hope I get the chance to see it before I compile my “best of the decade” list so that it gets its proper acknowledgement from me.

First the 2018 holdovers. As I mentioned in last year’s year-ender, I was laid up for much of the last few months of 2018 after a pretty bad accident. I even already had tickets to Suspiria and Bad Times at the El Royale for the weekend after I got hit by a truck. I even reached out to some of my friends in The Industry to see if any of them could get me a screener of Suspiria because if there was anyone in the world who had a vested interest in how it would turn out, your boy here is that person. So here are my holdovers from 2018 that would have made my list were it not for other circumstances:

  • Bad Times at the El Royale: I was a much bigger fan of this one than Brandon was. I loved just about every part of it, including getting to see Jon Hamm playing both into and against type as a much more openly racist version of Don Draper, vacuum salesman. As someone who generally feels anxiety in public accommodations, I always get a kick out of thrillers set at hotels (Bug, Identity) and doubly so if there’s a voyeurism element to them, even if they’re overall not very good (Vacancy). Combine that with a lethal cult, a necessarily oddball hotel, and great direction from Drew Goddard, and you’ve got a hit, as far as I’m concerned. 5 stars!
  • If Beale Street Could Talk: A tender portrait of a love that is stronger than falsehoods and white police rage, a love that can outshine and outlast injustice even if it is unable to defeat or overcome it. Stunningly, achingly beautiful, this is a film that engenders rage, frustration, gentleness, and mercy, all wrapped in a single package, and although it passed pretty quickly from the public consciousness, I expect it to be vindicated by history. 4.5 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
  • Three Identical Strangers: Holy shit, did you see this documentary? Every time I thought we had hit the weirdest wall possible in the story of these three brothers separated at birth, another revelation was waiting around a blind corner to pull the rug out from under me again. A heartwarming story of siblings who find each other as adults becomes a bizarre conspiracy about testing the limits of nature and nurture. This is not one to skip. 4.5 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
  • Mom and Dad: Nicolas Cage builds and destroys a pool table, just as he built and destroyed a family. An interesting pairing with something like Who Can Kill a Child?, Mom and Dad is a hell of a ride, even for those among us who may be growing tired of Cage’s nonstop drag race to be in every movie that’s sent his way. Not to be overlooked here is Selma Blair, who really ought to be getting more work; she’s a treasure. 4 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
  • Cam: Essentially a full length episode of Black Mirror focusing on one woman’s career as a successful cam girl whose identity is stolen wholesale by an evil… virus? Digital doppelganger (digiganger)? There are weaknesses in the film, especially when Patch Darragh as Arnold / TinkerBoy appears and the film drags, but overall, it’s a compassionate and humanizing look into the world of sex work and the travails thereof. It’s also a great showcase for Madeline Brewer, who at one point I laughed off as a poor addition to an already pretty terrible program, but she’s really proven me wrong. 4 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
  • Suspiria: Holy shit, what a ride! Vulture may have ranked this one 5,234th out of the 5,279 films released this decade, but they are wrong, wrong, wrong. As a noteworthy fan of Dario Argento in general and the classic Suspiria in particular, I didn’t want this film to exist. En route to a screening of the Creepers cut of Phenomena last year, a friend asked me if I was excited for the then-upcoming remake, and I admitted that I preferred that it wasn’t happening, but since it was happening andfor better or worsewe would all have to live with it, I was cautiously optimistic. And I have to say: if you’re going to remake an inarguable classic, this is the way to do it. It even makes you wonder, retroactively, why the original didn’t include certain elements that were nominally part of the plot (i.e., dancing) as more integral aspects of the narrative. Despite being an altogether very different film, tonally and visually, the spirit was true. They even had characters discussing the importance of counting steps! 5 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.

Honorable mentions! My favorite short-form horror-comedy of the year comes to us from the genius who decided to pair that horrible and horrifying trailer for CATS with the remixed version of “I Got 5 On It.” I have watched this video no fewer than twenty times since it first hit the internet, and I doubt I will ever get tired of it. I also wanted to give special mention to Happy Death Day 2 U, which I thoroughly enjoyed as a bubblegum pop horror flick, even if it skewed more closely to science fiction and I had no knowledge of the first one (the decision to watch a sequel to a movie I never saw came after a long and spirited debate that exhausted me mentally and physically).

I also want to give special commendations to Hulu’s Into the Dark series, produced by Blumhouse (stay with me here). An anthology series that aired its first few episodes in 2018, Into the Dark airs a new feature-length “episode” once a month, with each episode based around a holiday occurring in that month. I’ve been working on backtracking to do a review of each of these, but four of the episodes/films released in the first season of the show deserve particular attention. I couldn’t in good conscience put all four in my “top” list, but I did pick what I consider the best one for that (dubious) accolade and wanted to highlight the other three here.

  • First, in April, ITD‘s producers skipped over the more obvious choice of an Easter-based feature and instead went for broke with I’m Just Fucking With You, an April Fool’s Day episode that features Keir O’Donnell as Larry, a man who seems like the posterboy for the word “nebbish.” En route back to his hometown to attend the wedding of an ex-flame, he arrives at a hotel and, after encountering the business’s aggressively impish clerk Chester (Hayes MacArthur, a.k.a. Mr. Ali Larter), proceeds to obsessively clean every surface in his room. Here we learn that Larry leads a double life: mild-mannered by day, edgelord supreme by night. He’s the worst kind of internet troll, and this includes slut-shaming and recommending suicide to the very friend whom he’s intending to visit. Chester is just the worst parts of Larry made manifest in the real world, a trickster who pushes him to go further and further until there’s no turning back. Gorgeously shot (I think that part of the denouement may even have been filmed at the same pink/blue saturated pool area as the end of Strangers: Prey at Night, which barely missed being on my 2018 holdovers list) and extremely tense, this one’s worth checking out, even if it doesn’t stick the landing (a common problem for Into the Dark episodes, if we’re being honest).
  • After my Erstwhile Roommate and I finished watching Culture Shock, the Independence Day-themed episode that premiered in July, we turned to each other and I noted that while it wasn’t the most thoughtful Into the Dark, it certainly was the most thought filled. This debut directorial effort from Gigi Saul Guerrero is truly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen from an American production house, following the harrowing and dangerous journey of pregnant immigrant Marisol (Martha Higareda) as she makes a second attempt to cross the Mexican-American border in an effort to find a better life for herself and her child. And find it she does! Marisol, suddenly able to speak English with ease, awakes to discover herself in a seemingly perfect small American town, a pastel Pleasantville, where she is encouraged to integrate and assimilate. She slowly discovers that this new life is not all that it seems, but not in the ways one expects. Although the ending of this one is rather messy (again, an Into the Dark recurring feature), Culture Shock has the most powerful final image of any ITD episode to date.
  • All That We Destroy, ITD‘s Mother’s Day episode, broke the boundaries of what the series had done so far up to that point. October’s The Body followed a hitman trying to get rid of a victim’s body on Halloween, November’s Flesh & Blood featured an agoraphobic girl wondering if her father was a serial killer, December’s Pooka! was the story of one man’s descent into madness during his employment as the mascot for Christmas’s hottest new toy, February’s Down was a banal “trapped in an elevator with a psycho” story, and March’s Treehouse was a confused jumble of mysticism and revenge fantasy. All That We Destroy goes full sci-fi thriller as a powerful geneticist (Samantha Mathis) confronts the reality that her artistic but withdrawn son (Israel Broussard) may be a budding serial killer. To determine how best to rectify this problem, she creates clones of his first victim (Aurora Perrineau) over and over again to see if she can find another outlet for his tendencies, all while he grows closer to a new girl in the neighborhood (Dora Madison), who must be really desperate for company. This is one of the few ITDs that manages to stick the landing, despite some narrative missteps.

Whatever, brah, enough talking, let’s blade.

15. The Perfection. Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer wasn’t a fan of this one and its narrative conventions, and neither was Brandon, who validly criticized the film for its lazy use of tired sexual assault tropes in its examination of the motivations of its main characters. I would never argue that the narrative crutch of sexual violence isn’t an overused trope in Western media, nor that any individual bears responsibility for overlooking its use in a work; I may have been disappointed that The Mary Sue stopped doing Game of Thrones coverage after a particularly heinous plot turn in that show’s fifth season because their coverage is always great, but far be it from me to be the kind of person who doesn’t respect that decision. But in an era when there’s greater visibility of the behavior and verbalizations of casual misogynists and sexual assailants with no accompanying increase in accountability, this is a film that lays bare the ways that dangerous men can be passively protected from public scrutiny by the inaction and presence of women in their lives (as Steven Weber’s Anton is by his wife, Alaina Huffman’s Paloma) while taking aim at the cabals of men who support and reinforce each other’s vile natures. The way that men talk about women when they think that they’re only in the presence of other straight men is fucking vile, and this is a film that doesn’t shy away from the end result of what can happen when that kind of attitude is unopposed. It also doesn’t lie about the consequences of what happens to victims: there are no happy endings; the happiest thing you can hope for, even when justice is meted out and revenge has run its course, is to still be only part of what you once were (visualized in an extremely literal way). There is no more innocence, no more perfection, no more feeling of being complete.

14. IT: Chapter 2. From my review: “Man, people really, really hated this one, didn’t they? I guess I can see why, but I’m also not really sure what anyone was expecting. IT is a novel that could be adapted a dozen times, and there’s always going to be one shining (no pun intended) truth about it: the Losers Club is always going to be more interesting when the constituents are children, and the ‘adult’ half of the narrative is always going to pale in comparison. There’s just no way around it; it’s baked into the narrative’s very structure. That’s even kind of the point: the extradimensional entity we call Pennywise feeds on fear, and it prefers the fear of kids because children’s fears (killer clowns, abusive parents, monsters) are specific and easy to manipulate, while adult fears (not being able to provide for a family, dying alone, being trapped in a loveless relationship) are abstract and amorphous. Director Andy Muschietti made the right call here by opting to forego the pants-soiling horror of the first film and channel more comedy into this one, although how effective you found that to be does seem to vary from person to person. There’s verisimilitude in that, though: as a child, you’re powerless against the monsters you perceive in the world, and your best hope is to hide under your bed until the ‘monsters’ go away; as an adult, one of the only real ways to defend against one’s anxieties and fears is to minimize and trivialize them, to turn them into jokes.”

13. New Year, New You. You may have noticed that, above, I skipped over mentioning the January episode of Into the Dark, and that’s because this one was so much fun that it surpassed honorable mention status and belongs on the list. Ably directed by Sophia Takal, who also wrote and directed this year’s Black Christmas remake (which I have not seen), I can honestly say that the 2010s contribution to the ongoing legacy of Heathers, Jawbreaker, and Mean Girls has finally arrived, and just under the wire, too. Starring Suki Waterhouse as Alexis, the film follows the New Year’s Eve reunion of a quartet of high school friends after years apart. Kayla (Kirby Howell-Baptiste of Crashing and Killing Eve) and Chloe (Melissa Bergland) are the first to arrive, and they’re doubtful that Danielle (Carly Chaikin), now a successful new media influencer, will show up. When she does, she first attempts to take advantage of their longterm friendships for more social cache with her online audience, but the other three women have other designs: to get Danielle to confess to bullying one of their high school classmates, social torture that eventually led the girl to kill herself. Alliances shift and, as no surprise to anyone familiar with the cutthroat world of Instagram influencing, things get out of control quickly, until people are locked in steam rooms with murderous intent. It’s a fun ride that demands to be seen.

11 and 12. Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened and Fyre Fraud. Speaking of influencer culture, the beginning of 2019 saw the release of two separate documentaries about the implosion of the dead-in-the-water music/culture event known as the Fyre Festival. The brainchild of Billy McFarland, a privileged kid from an incorporated suburb in New Jersey who ran one of the best long cons of the new millennium, Fyre Festival was a music “experience” intended to promote the launch of an app that would function as a kind of Uber for fans to set up performances with musicians, artists, and “influencers.” Co-signed by Ja Rule, the festival was a disaster from the word “go,” and the festival became a laughingstock of the internet, where the overprivileged goons who were foolish enough to pay a ludicrous amount of money in order to attend found themselves sheltered in emergency housing and feasting upon white bread and cheese slices instead of the promised luxury cabins and gourmet meals. Theoretically in competition (The Greatest Party That Never Happened was released by Netflix and Fyre Fraud was released by Hulu), the two actually function as sublime companion pieces that should be seen together to get the full picture of just how much schadenfreude money can’t buy. Read my reviews of Fraud here and Greatest Party here.

10. Shazam. Zachary Levi makes a star turn as DC’s Big Red Cheese, the Shazam formerly known as Captain Marvel, one of the oldest comic book superheroes in existence (fun fact: while home from work on Christmas Eve, I watched an episode of The Donna Reed Show in which the lead visited a bunch of children in the hospital and one of them was reading a comic book featuring this very character). A surprisingly good flick coming out of the DC film house, this one takes all the wish fulfillment that has long been a part of this character’s naturea child becomes an adult superhero when he speaks the titular magic wordand crafts a narrative about two separate people whose home lives leave much to be desired and how each charts their own path, a narrative of choosing to let go of resentment and naïveté to embrace hope or hopelessness. All that, and it’s a throwback to the kids movies of the eighties, films that understood that children want to be scared sometimes, and embraces that paradigm, balancing fright and fun in equal measures. Read my review here.

9. Midsommar. From my review: “I’m pretty much always on board with a daytime horror movie. Midsommar pushes past the boundary of the ‘day won’t save you’ concept into a completely disorienting perpetual daylight. This starts even before the audience has the opportunity to ask themselves if something’s rotten in the village, when Mark expresses unease upon learning that it is after 8 PM, despite the sun still appearing high in the sky; the film takes advantage of the northern latitudes’ geographically anomalous prolonged days and plays on the effects that could arise from being unaccustomed to such an unusual night/day rhythm. Characters attempt to circumvent community rules under the cover of ‘darkness’ with about the success that you would expect. […] What makes Midsommar work isn’t just the unease that comes from the finding of no safe haven from horror in the light, it’s also the discomfiting nature of lingering on what Aster called ‘static image[s] of relatively little interest.’ […] The mainstream horror-going audience has spent over a decade now subsisting on films that depend heavily on unearned jump scares to produce a reaction, but Midsommar and its predecessor instead use the quietness of their presentation to inspire a disquiet of the soul. We’ve been forcefed Baghouls hiding behind open medicine cabinet doors for so long that when lingering shots of pastoral peace are succeeded by calm pans across striking farmhouses or documentarian framing of a Swedish banquet, there’s nowhere for that energy to go; so it just builds and builds until whoops, now you’re wearing a bear suit and boy are you not going to like it.”

8. Hustlers. Don’t let the marketing fool you: Lizzo is barely in this movie. But that’s okay! Jennifer Lopez gives what may be the performance of her career in this based-on-a-true-story crime comedy thriller set during the 2008 economic collapse. Ramona Vega (Lopez) is a single mother and veteran stripper with aspirations of becoming a swimwear designer. She takes Destiny (Constance Wu) under her wing and teaches her how to profit from men’s piggishness, and for a time, their cohortincluding Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Anabelle (Lili Reinhart)are living the high life. When the economic crisis hits the upper echelons of Wall Street, aka their clientele, the apparent glamour of their lives is removed and the bloom is off the rose, and desperate times call for criminal measures.

7. Knives Out. From my review: “Knives Out is [a] rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot. The film is surprisingly political, as well, and not just in a ‘Communism was a red herring’ way. Like Get Out before it, Knives Out mocks the occasional ignorance of the political left vis-a-vis latent and uninspected racism on the part of Joni and Meg, who profess progressive values while being, respectively, a largely uninformed buffoon and an easily corrupted intellectual. On the other side of the aisle, the fact that all of the Thrombey children and grandchildren consider themselves to be ‘self-made’ despite succeeding only due to the generosity of their wealthy patriarch calls to mind certain statements about a ‘small loan’ of a million dollars that a certain political figure has made.”

6. Us. From my review: “It doesn’t give too much of the film’s message away to say that it is about class and the way that it creates dark mirrors for ourselves everywhere, the way that getting out of the darkness of poverty is often impossible, and that those who manage to somehow embody the mythological idea of social mobility must do so at the expense of others, ultimately becoming complicit in the suffering of those who might otherwise have been your peers. Of course, with a film like this one, there are going to be other interpretations, but it’s all there. Consider: Adelaide’s father, playing Whack-a-Mole, knocking down facsimiles of rodents as they try to rise up out of the darkness underground. Consider: that Gabe constantly finds himself trying to one-up Josh, only to find that Josh himself is imitating his own decisions, in an orobouros of attempts to keep up with the Joneses. Consider: that ‘I Got 5 On It’ is about how one person covets an entire object despite said object being a dime bag that both parties going halves should share between the two of them (‘I got some bucks on it, but it ain’t enough on it’). Consider: the power of art as the impetus to empower the recognition of interclass economic struggle and the ability to transcend (or at least ascend within) it. Consider: the repeated refrain of the ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ that eternally attempts to climb and is forever pushed back down. Consider: when arriving at the beach house, the family eats fast food, except for Adelaide, who eats strawberries; why? Consider: what does a Black Flag t-shirt mean in 1986 when worn by a teenager working long hard hours versus being worn by the child of a comfortably wealthy family in 2019?”

5. Avengers: Endgame. Unlike in past years, I’m not just going to stick all of the Marvel movies in one slot, because really, only one of them really and truly stood out to me this year. Captain Marvel was good, and Alison Brie is always cool, but I haven’t felt the need to revisit it at all, and its position as the first Marvel flick to end up solely on Disney+ instead of Netflix has put it out of my reach (I’m at once disappointed in all of you for not boycotting the announcement of yet another streaming service in order to force Disney to put its material back on one of the existing services while also recognizing that we are all but ants in the House of Mouse’s shadow). Tom Holland’s latest outing was also nothing to write home about, either, other than some pretty good Mysterio illusions and that scene where everybody talks shit about dead Tony Stark. Love it or hate it, the MCU is here to stay, but if it weren’t (and even I have argued that a break would be a good idea, as I did in my Spider-Man’s European Vacation review), this would be a loving and lovely finale to the end of the first “volume” of a franchise that is going to either peter out in the next few years or outlive us all (see also: Star Wars). As I said in my review, this is the “All Good Things” of the Marvel film franchise, and I loved it, no matter what comes next. But I’d be surprised to find an MCU movie in my list next year, if we’re being honest. Also, Peggy‘s in it!

4. Doctor Sleep. From my review: “I loved this movie. […] This film never feels its length, and the muted public reaction and mediocre box office returns are a personal disappointment; this film was never going to surpass The Shining, but it’s not far behind, and [director Mike] Flanagan was right to mix the original film’s solemn meditative qualities with occasional frenetic setpieces. In a lifetime of watching movies, I’ve never been so invested or felt so much tension in my spine when watching a scene of a man eight years sober struggle to not take a drink, even in Kubrick’s opus; it’s powerful movie-making at its best, and I can’t recommend it more highly. McGregor gives one of his best performances here, and Ferguson is likewise a delight. Sleep really and truly deserves all the attention that it’s failing to garner in the mainstream, and is the rare horror sequel to live up to (and feel like it truly belongs to) the legacy of its predecessor.”

3. Parasite. From my review: “‘Money is an iron.’ This is the thesis statement of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a beautiful film about the lengths that one family living in poverty will go to in order to climb the ladder of social success. As stated by a member of this quartet, money is an iron, as it irons out all the wrinkles in life, both metaphorical and literal, leaving behind flawless skin and a life virtually devoid of the anxieties of the common man. […] Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.”

2. The Farewell. I loved The Farewell, so much so that it came pretty close to unseating my number one, which would have been the first time in my 4.5 years writing for Swampflix that my number one wasn’t a horror picture. A heartbreaking story of the ties that bind, across great expanses of land and ocean and time, of the love that only grandmothers can give (and receive), of the consequences of secrecy and the secret wounds we bear and take on in order to make life just that much more bearable for the people in our lives. It’s a story of the purest kind of love, the kind that comes from a loss of self as part of a greater whole, the loss of identity following the wrenching of being taken from the places and people that we love, even if all we have are impressions of them. Sometimes, to love is to scream and strike back at the world; sometimes, to be is to shout and declare “I am here.” But sometimes, to love is to sacrifice in silence, and the simple act of being requires a quiet acceptance of the inevitable which cannot be fought, and which shouldn’t. I can’t even think about this movie without crying; it’s just that beautiful. You can read Brandon’s review here.

1. Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife + Heart). Of course this is my number one. What else could it possibly be? This may be my new favorite movie of all time. Never in my life has there been a film that slotted into so many of my particular and particularly obscure interests. From my review: “Never before have I ever seen a movie that was made for me the way that Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife+Heart) was. Seventies [period piece] giallo featuring a masked killer in black leather gloves? Check. Queer story that focuses on a troubled woman who drinks herself into unconsciousness on a nightly basis and is unable to let go of a lost love? Check. Vertigo/Body Double-esque plot points about obsession with apparent doppelgangers? Check. M83-as-Goblin soundtrack? Check. A plethora of shots of old school film editing equipment being put to good use? Check. A peek behind the curtain of the seventies gay porn scene? Check! Women in white wandering around a forest as gales of wind blow all about them? You betcha. A strangely centric fable about grackles? Is it my birthday?” My year-end Spotify data even revealed that M83 was my most-listened artist this year, with the track “Detective Rachid” as my most-played song from the group. I think about this movie all the time, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

I Lost My Body (2019)

The 2D-animiated French oddity I Lost My Body is an economic bargain, especially if you consider an audience’s time & attention to be the true currency of cinema. This is two films for the price of one. And it’s a very low price at that, considering its 80min runtime. As with all two-for-one bargains, however, one of the two complimentary films on this simultaneous double bill is far more satisfying & impressive than the other. To fully appreciate I Lost My Body, then, you have to appreciate its two dueling narratives as a package deal. The stronger movie in this combo pack carries the lesser, even if just by the virtue of their pairing.

One movie is a thrilling action adventure starring a sentient severed hand (think Thing from The Addams Family) who bravely travels across the city to find its former home — a still intact, living human body. The other is a wistful twee romance starring the awkward man who used to be attached to that hand. That melancholy romance angle is obviously the more familiar narrative track — especially considering the twee pedigree of the film’s co-writer, Guillaume Laurant, who also penned Amélie. An excruciatingly shy pizza delivery guy falls in love with a customer who is seemingly unaware that he even exists. Instead of simply introducing himself, he devises an elaborate scheme to insert himself into the woman’s life that he believes makes himself out to be a hearthrob romantic, but instead makes him out to be a total creep. As cosmic penance he loses his hand. Thankfully, that means we gain better cinema.

While our lovesick anti-hero is an overthinking, neurotic mess, his severed hand is a creature of pure action. From the moment it flops onto the hospital floor to teach itself to walk until when it attempts action hero stunts ziplining between buildings to reach its far-off destination, the hand is in constant motion. High-risk train rides, adopting a soup can as hermit crab armor, brawls with rats & pigeons: there’s no denying the hand’s adventures across the city are more exciting to watch (if not only for their novelty) than the frustrating, self-sabotaging inaction of its former human partner. Despite that glaring contrast, however, it gradually becomes clear that both of these protagonists are suffering from the same emotional ills: grief & purposelessness. As they both yearn for intimacy & a sense of purpose that’s been violently removed from their lives, the man and his hand become clearly linked thematically (as well as anatomically).

A bolder, more idiosyncratic film might have fully committed to the severed hand as the sole POV protagonist. In its most transcendent moments, I Lost My Body ponders what a hand’s fantasies & memories might look like. Through the hand’s “eyes,” we’re invited to ponder all the various tasks the tools at the ends of our arms are useful for: violence, art, tenderness, sex, labor, play, etc. It also never stops being wonderfully bizarre to see a world of infinite dangers animated from the hand’s low-to-the-ground POV. A melancholy twee romance & tale of ennui cannot compete with that kind of novelty. Still, the two contrast-and-compare narratives make for a delightfully strange combination, and their pairing makes for a remarkably efficient 80min stretch of traditional animation entertainment.

-Brandon Ledet

Wounds (2019)

Either Wounds is clearly the most underrated film of the year or I’m a filthy alcoholic dipshit from New Orleans who sees too much of himself in this horror gem to acknowledge its most glaring faults. Can it be a little of both? The novella the film was adapted from, The Visible Filth, was written by Nathan Ballingrud – a former bartender at the exact Garden District pub I worked at as a grill cook when I was treading water in the service industry post-college. I didn’t know that extratextual factoid while watching the film (in a late-night stupor after meeting friends at another, much trashier New Orleans bar, appropriately enough). Yet, I felt that personal connection to the material scarily deep in my boozy bones anyway. Wounds thoroughly, genuinely freaked me out by regurgitating an eerily accurate snapshot of my hyper-local, self-destructive past through the most horrifically grotesque lens possible. It’s a wickedly gross, deeply upsetting picture – one I believe deserves much more respect for the ugliness of its ambitions.

Armie Hammer stars as a hunky, arrogant bartender who moved to New Orleans to study at Tulane University, but flamed out early to instead become a charming drunk. Bored & inert, he spends his days passive-aggressively sniping at his fiancée (Dakota Johnson) and his nights seducing his barroom regulars who’d be much better off without his enabling influence (Zazie Beetz, for the time being). This tricky balance is toppled over when a group of underage college student brats drunkenly leave behind a cursed object in his bar, one of my personal favorite horror movie threats: an evil smartphone. The messages, photos, videos, and electronic tones he’s exposed to via this wicked phone have a kind of King in Yellow quality that break down his sense of reality – as mundane & dysfunctional as it already was. The imagery Iranian director Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow) conjures to convey this supernatural evil is spooky as fuck: Satanic rituals, re-animated corpses, tunnels to nowhere, floods of flying cockroaches, etc. Our dumb stud bartender never fully uncovers their meaning or origin, though. They merely unravel his modest, liquor-soaked kingdom until he has nothing left.

The most baffling criticism of this film is that its scattershot haunted house imagery is spooky without purpose, framing Wounds as a jump-scare delivery system with nothing especially coherent to say. My personal, geographical proximity to the material might be clouding my judgement, but I believe the film has a lot more going on thematically than it’s getting credit for. Wounds is a grotesque tale of a “functioning” alcoholic losing what little control he pretends to have over his life until all that is left is rot. When we start the film, our dumb hunk is a bitter shell of a person who drinks to distract himself from the disappointments of a go-nowhere life and a festering relationship. Externally, he appears to be doing pretty great: living in a beautiful shotgun apartment and paving over his grotesque personality with his winking, handsome charm. His Lovecraftian run-in with a haunted smartphone is only a heightened exaggeration of his internal “functional” alcoholism crisis spiraling out of control until he has nothing left: no job, no friends, no home, barely a couch to sleep on. Not all of the imagery that accompanies the phone’s curse clearly correlates to this plight, but there’s a reason that cockroaches are a major part of it. He’s gross, and soon enough so is the boozy world he occupies.

Not to get too gross myself, but the low-50s aggregated ratings of this horror gem on Rotten Tomatoes & Metacritic can eat the roaches directly out of my ass. Wounds is an unpredictable creep-out overflowing with genuinely disturbing nightmare imagery and a lived-experience familiarity with what it means to be a charming drunk who works the graveyard shift at the neighborhood bar. Its tale of emotional & spiritual rot for a hunky, barely-functioning alcoholic on the New Orleans bar scene is so true to life that I have an exact bartender in mind who the story could be based on (although he’s a dead ringer for Lee Pace, not Armie Hammer). I guess I should message him to beware any abandoned smartphones he might find lying around the bar, but I get the sense that he’s already doomed no matter what.

-Brandon Ledet

New Mutants is the Defining Film of the 2010s

Always slightly late to the table, the Swampflix crew won’t be filing our collective picks for the best films of the decade until sometime in February. Meanwhile, pro critics have already been making busy work of distilling the 2010s into digestible Top Ten lists long before they’re even officially over. All of this discourse pinpointing the films that defined the decade—titles like Fury Road, The Social Network, Boyhood (blech), and latecomer dark horse Parasitehas me thinking about what one movie could possibly define the entire era. And since it’s apparently become acceptable to declare such things with incomplete data (some of these lists arrived as early as October), I’m just going to go ahead and stake my claim now: New Mutants is the defining cinematic work of the 2010s. It’s a film no one has yet seen. For all we know, it may not yet even be complete. Yet, its behind-the-scenes tinkering and disastrous presence in the cultural zeitgeist encapsulates so much of what mainstream filmmaking has become over the course of the decade.

It’s obvious to me that the defining film of the 2010s would have to be a superhero picture, considering what the MCU has ballooned into since Iron Man kicked off the franchise twelve years and twenty-three sequels ago. It feels like the only non-sequel, non-remake feature films that make significant box office returns anymore are superhero movies and talking-animal animation disposables, and only one of those categories eats up critical discourse space with an alarming regularity. Marvel & DC tentpole films have become such oxygen-sucking behemoths that interviewers are now encouraged to ask arthouse auteurs light-years outside their wheelhouse for an opinion on their merits (see: Scorsese’s “theme park” nontroversy). Now, the lie about the superhero movie’s cultural dominance is that the genre is in itself a vast medium open to endless possibilities — so that smaller, experimental mutations of the genre could allow for much more variety & creativity than you’d expect from a typical comic book adaptation. New Mutants was supposed to be a major experiment in that genre deviation — breaking with the superhero picture’s usual sci-fi & fantasy modes to deliver a full-on horror film. Instead, it’s become an oft-repeated joke, delivering the exact same punchline with each new announcement every few months.

I swear I saw a trailer for New Mutants in a movie theater two years ago. That surely can’t be, since the movie does not—in a practical sense—exist. It does have an excellent hook, though, as a horror film offshoot of the X-Men starring teens in a spooky asylum, like a superhero version of Dream Warriors. What it doesn’t have is the strong, personal creative vision we’ve been promised from these superhero genre detours. Supposedly, the film was a passion project helmed by two nerds who grew up with a shared adoration for its comic book source material (the same dudes who adapted The Fault in Our Stars of all people), but it’s since been taken out of their hands by the true filmmaking elite of the 2010s: boardroom directors & studio executives. The reason the movie has been delayed for two full years (so far) is because it’s been hijacked from its (admittedly mediocre) creative team to be retooled & reshot into oblivion in an attempt to “save it in the edit.” This is a signature Major Studio move that has ballooned many, many budgets in recent years, to the point where films are guaranteed to be flops before they’re actually released (Fantastic 4, Monsters Trucks, Sonic, Solo, etc.). What started as a potentially fun, tiny genre experiment is now a years-spanning money pit & a public embarrassment — a distinctly 2010s trajectory.

So if a final, set-in-stone cut of New Mutants does not yet exist, how is it that the film’s already had multiple rounds of theatrical trailers advertising its release? That’s because the #1 fetish that movie studios have discovered this decade is announcing release dates. They love it. They’re addicted to it. Years before most blockbusters (especially ones on a superhero scale) are even completed, their studios will announce their far-off release dates in a truncated press release. Now, most audiences aren’t going to have a three-year plan about what movie we’re going to be watching opening night on a specific Friday in the distant future (not least of all because it’s not guaranteed Earth will be inhabitable in the distant future). These calendar real estate claims have nothing to do with getting butts in seats. Rather, they’re about keeping almighty Intellectual Property name brands like X-Men, Avengers, and Batman in constant cultural conversation even when there’s no current product to advertise. That way, we’re constantly talking about Marvel movies that aren’t even out yet instead of smaller, original productions that could actually use the critical oxygen — thanks to fun press tricks like release date adjustments, casting announcements, and “leaked” set photos. New Mutants had had no fewer than four release date announcements to date, which means it’s done more to keep the X-Men brand alive in The Discourse than even Dark Phoenix, a film that was actually released (but no one saw). The only reason these release date delays were necessary to announce via the press is because the film didn’t make its initial self-imposed deadline thanks to its behind-the-scenes retooling. In a best case scenario, New Mutants would have been rushed to meet that initial, arbitrary deadline whether or not its CGI or sequencing were entirely completed to their best possible standard. Instead, its “delayed” release is being used as IP kindling for naive bloggers (Hello) to keep talking about X-Men movies even though we didn’t even enjoy the other, completed entries in the series of recent memory. It’s doing a great job even though, again, it does not exist.

The biggest offender in this release date fetishism and, if we’re being honest, the biggest offender in all things is Walt Disney Pictures. And, thanks to Disney’s monopolistic acquisition of 20th Century Fox, New Mutants is now officially a Walt Disney film. So far, Disney is seemingly committed to theatrically releasing New Mutants in April of 2020, but it wouldn’t be the first, second, or third time that plan changed. It’s just as likely that the film will be demoted to a straight-to-streaming release on Hulu, Disney+, or whatever other streaming service the great dictator mouse absorbs by next Spring. Or maybe they’ll scrap the production entirely, making it the newest ghost to haunt the famed Disney Vault. No matter what happens with New Mutants‘s release in 2020 (or, just as likely, 2022, 2025, or never) I can’t think of a more definitive 2010s trajectory for a movie than that. New Mutants was supposed to be a small, fun experiment that cashed in on the superhero movie’s box office invincibility to push the genre into new, weird directions. Instead, it’s now a Disney acquisition that’s little more than a ballooning budget & a series of release date announcements meant to keep its almighty IP alive in the cultural zeitgeist. It’s likely doomed to be unceremoniously dumped on a streaming service rather than reach wide theatrical distribution, and it’s all but guaranteed to be forgotten in either instance. What one movie could encapsulate mainstream filmmaking in the 2010s better than that?

-Brandon Ledet

Kathryn Bigelow and the Few Bad Apples

For most of its sprawling, thematically dense runtime, Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—our current Movie of the Month—is a politically daring, eerily prescient rebuke of the historically racist Los Angeles Police Department. As much as the film’s futuristic VR recording tech was predictive of the way police body cams & citizens’ cell phone footage would later change the way we publicly processed police brutality in the coming decades, it also served a snapshot of its then-current political angst. Strange Days plays like a big-budget blockbuster amplification of the racial police force pushback that led to the Rodney King riots, reinterpreting real-life civil unrest through a futuristic sci-fi lens. It’s a bizarre jolt of a letdown, then, when those citizens vs. police tensions are resolved in a last-minute turnaround where a police commissioner swoops in to admonish his corrupt, racist employees – simplifying the LAPD’s systemic racism to just a few rogue cops who don’t follow protocol. That same misinterpretation of racist policing in black neighborhoods would pop up again decades later, when Bigelow fixed her eye on a racist past instead of a racist future.

2017’s Detroit drew much more vocal criticism for its political shortsightedness than Strange Days suffered in the 90s, but that’s likely because more people happened to see it in the first place (not to mention the democratization of critical publication in a post-Twitter world). A brutal historical drama about the 1967 Detroit race riots, the film wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleasing box office smash, but Bigelow’s transformation from underappreciated genre film auteur to Oscar-winning establishment director means that every feature she releases in the modern era is something of an event. Like Strange Days, Detroit rushes out the gate throwing wild punches in a frenetic, meticulously detailed account of how one police raid of an unlicensed black nightclub spiraled out into a weeks-long, city-wide riot. The first hour of the film is an adrenaline-flooded nightmare as handheld war-style photography mixes with real-life news footage to paint the backdrop for the smaller, more confined story to follow in its second hour. It’s once the story slams the brakes to park at The Algiers Hotel in that second hour that the film draws a lot of its political backlash from critics – an unease with depictions of police brutality that was only exacerbated by the film being released the same week as the police-condoned racist mayhem of Charlottesville.

Once Detroit shifts from its macro view of how the 1967 riots ignited & spread to the specific, intimate terror of The Algiers Hotel, its interests shift from political unrest to militaristic torture. Convinced that a sniper in the hotel is shooting at the National Guards, a small band of police officers torture the business’s residents to “confess” who is guilty of the (non-existent) crime. The duration & methodical repetition of this sequence, in which several black men are murdered & psychologically tormented by white cops, drew a lot of criticism as torture porn that turned black pain & brutalized black bodies into mass entertainment. That lingering fixation on physical abuse & torture had been part of Bigelow’s visual language since her earliest features, an approach to storytelling that could only be described as “unflinching.” Whether that sensibility was worth continuing when she shifted into telling real-life black stories as a white artist is a conversation worth having, especially since Charlottesville was such a raw nerve when the film was first released. What really disappointed me about Detroit personally, though, was Bigelow’s continued reluctance to interrogate the racism of the offending police force as an institution rather than a defect among a few bad apples. She showed very little progress on that front in the 22 years between Strange Days & Detroit, if any at all.

In its superior opening hour, Detroit is actively interested in the institutional reinforcement of racial segregation & subjugation, which only makes its third-act backpedaling all the more frustrating. In a bewildering mixed-media collage of animation, real-life newsreel footage, and blood pressure-raising historical reenactments, Bigelow paints a wide picture of the systemic racial inequality that led to the civil unrest at the film’s core: the history of urban housing inequality and the cycle of white flight; the media coverage of the riots as senseless self-destruction rather than a purposeful expression of political discontent; the police force’s unwillingness to shoot looters dead, as they value property over black lives; etc. When we zero in on the extensive torture session at The Algiers, however, that critical eye towards institutionalized inequality becomes much murkier, to the point of being meaningless. Every commanding officer, National Guardsmen, and varying other police force higher-ups who catch wind of what the “rogue” cops did at The Algiers (entirely under the direction of a single bully, played by the eternally punchable Will Pourter) is disgusted by their actions. Although the real-life cops who committed these heinous acts were never fully held accountable, the movie makes sure it’s clear that they acted as a standalone gang of rotten apples. It makes no moves to interrogate how their evil acts may have been encouraged or even deliberately trained into them by their higher-ups. They’re portrayed as human flaws in the system, instead of the ugly truth that they’re a sign of the system working exactly as intended.

For me, Detroit is overall a mixed bag, but the in-the-moment effect of its intense opening hour is almost enough to carry it. There’s some truly impressive, ambitious craft on display from Bigelow before the film slams its brakes to dwell on militaristic torture tactics for a literal eternity. Strange Days is similarly upsetting in is own depictions of intimate brutality, but its bigger sci-fi ideas remain a work of sprawling ambition throughout, making for a wholly satisfying picture in its entirety. No matter how much my genre-nerd impulses allow me to overlook Strange Days’s political shortcomings, however, I can’t help but be disappointed to see Bigelow’s “a few bad apples” misinterpretation of systemic police brutality & racism continue all the way into the 2010s. It only makes the superior firm’s own backpedaling conclusion more of a letdown in retrospect.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Singular (2019)

I first fell in love with jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant at her 2015 Jazz Fest performance, where her unpretentious, playful stage presence felt like a once-in-a-lifetime gift I didn’t deserve. It says a lot about her accessibility that she affected me at all, given that I listen to essentially zero modern jazz. Yet, there was a sinisterly subversive, rawly sexual prankishness to her art that read as being punk-as-fuck to me across that genre divide. Salvant has also been a hit among people who actually are in tune with the current state of jazz, winning multiple consecutive Grammys in the few years since that performance and many other accolades besides. Part of her rise-to-legend path now includes the PR-boosting documentary Singular, which premiered in her hometown of Miami this year before screening at The New Orleans Film Festival to an audibly delighted crowd. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t quite live up to Salvant’s subversive, audience-rattling stage presence, but I’m not sure it ever had a fighting chance to do so.

Smartly, Singular anchors its recap of Salvant’s quick rise to relative fame on a Miami concert where the genius of her art is on full, open display. Talking-head interviews & home video footage of her pre-fame years interrupt the concert at regular intervals, but you do get just enough of a taste of what she’s up to onstage to understand why she’s so distinct in her field. The problem is that it’s difficult to not want more, especially if you’re hearing her music for the very first time. I’d usually be thankful for a film with this straightforward of a subject sticking to a slim 68min runtime, but here that compression means that Salvant’s performances are frequently disrupted by the commentariat, with interviewees talking over her art about how great that art supposedly is, as opposed to letting the work speak for itself. It’s probably unfair of me to wish this were a full-on concert film instead of a documentary, but in all honesty the story of Salvant’s life (as presented here) isn’t nearly as interesting as the story her work tells onstage. Few things are.

This is ultimately a very polite, well-behaved documentary for a subversively raunchy, confrontational performer who deserves something with much sharper teeth. Salvant’s backstory of training with an intimidating French professor at her “momager’s” insistence before returning to America to wow jazz snobs who didn’t know what to expect from her is endearing, but not especially eye-opening. As the narrative approaches her modern day interests—confronting the performance of racial caricature in jazz history, drawing psychedelic cartoons of a “lobster woman” in her free time, modeling some world-class couture glasses-frames, etc.—the story starts to get more interesting but then abruptly shuts down as if those were footnotes & addendums instead of the central text. Part of the issue might be that these legend-building docs usually arrive posthumously or late in an artist’s career, while Salvant’s story is still very much unfolding. At this point, anything but a proper concert film is bound to feel a little premature.

Whatever faults Singular might have as an overly reserved document of a wild, punches-throwing artist, it does have plenty of net benefits in pushing Salvant in front of an even wider audience. I imagine if you’ve never heard of her before this doc could play as a revelation that a Nina Simone-level genius is alive & working in plain sight, waiting for your eyes & ears. The contrast between her work & the doc’s reserved nature might even unintentionally emphasize her art’s subversive playfulness, which seeps through the concert footage despite the buttoned-up style of the interviews. The movie also does convey a kind of lighting-in-a-bottle aspect of her current work by contrasting it with her life & career as a whole. In early footage of her amateur concerts & competitions, Salvant is obviously talented, but feels like a relatable, pedestrian nerd from Miami. In her contemporary performances, she’s a ferociously confident, once-in-a-lifetime persona, as if something magical within her had clicked into place that cannot be fully explained. It’s difficult to not yearn for more of that modern, magical footage in a feature-length concert film, but this document of that trajectory from green talent to world-conquering confidence is still worthwhile on its own merits – even if barely so.

-Brandon Ledet

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019)

I remember when the news of Marion Stokes’s death made headlines because of her massive home-recorded VHS collection. At least, I recall the news of that self-produced library being absorbed by the Internet Archive in San Francisco years later, where its unparalleled immensity first became evident. For three consecutive decades, the seemingly anonymous, obsessive woman simultaneously recorded multiple television news networks on 70,000 VHS cassettes. In the hands of a media watchdog organization or an avant-garde digital artist, this project might have been contextualized as a radical act of persevering history. From a non-publicized, self-funded effort from an unknown, private citizen, however, it was treated more as a sign of mental illness. The inherent value of Marion Stokes’s D.I.Y. archive is instantly recognizable to anyone with a passing interest in pop culture preservation – especially given the scope & consistency of her efforts – but the discussion around what she accomplished was initially framed as an unintended byproduct in the life of a hoarder & a crackpot. Recorder, a new documentary that attempts to clarify who Stokes was and why she created such a labor-intensive archive, is an essential corrective to those misinformed assumptions. This movie vindicates Marion Stokes as an absolute fucking genius who know exactly what she was doing, even when those closest to her didn’t have a clue.

I don’t mean to suggest that Stokes’s characterizations as a reclusive eccentric and a hoarder are entirely inaccurate. Her obsessive collection of television news broadcasts extended to other, less uniquely valuable “archives” of furniture she liked, Apple computer products, books, and the tell-tale Achilles heel of many hoarders: newspapers & magazines. It’s just entirely unfair & disingenuous to suggest that Stokes did not understand the full value of her D.I.Y. television news broadcast archive, which was very much a deliberately political & academic project of her own design. At one time in her early life as an ideologically combative idealist, Stokes worked as a legitimate, professional librarian in NYC. Her political associations with Socialist and Communist organizations in the 1950s eventually locked her out of that work, as she was effectively backlisted for her leftist ideals. Her interest in broadcast television as a powerful ideological communication tool began with later appearances on a local roundtable panel discussion show called Input, where she was a regular pundit as a political organizer in the 60s & 70s. Recording & preserving a physical archive of TV news broadcasts became a personal interest to her since even the primordial days of Betamax, but it was the news coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis in the late 70s that really kicked her diligent recording into high gear. As coverage of the event evolved from news to propaganda, she became fascinated by the way TV news was reshaping & repackaging facts in real time – something that would extend to how American crises like police brutality, the War on Terror, and the AIDS epidemic would be covered in the future. This was not some unplanned hoarder’s tic that blindly stumbled into cultural relevance; it was a purposefully political act from the start.

You could easily assemble a hundred distinctly fascinating documentaries out of this one rogue librarian’s archive. Stokes’s tapes are a bottomless treasure trove for an editing room tinkerer, which leads to some truly stunning moments here – particularly in a sequence that demonstrates in real time how all TV news coverage was gradually consumed by the tragedy of 9/11. As this D.I.Y. archive is an extensive cultural record of American society over the past thirty years, the list of trends & topics that could be explored in their own full-length documentaries are only as limited as an editor’s imagination. Recorder does excellent work as a primer on the cultural wealth archived in those VHS tapes (which have since been digitized), as it both explores larger ideas of how media reflects society back to itself and does full justice to the rogue political activist who did dozens & dozens of people’s work by assembling it. The film doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that the project became an escapist & dissociative mechanism for the increasingly reclusive Stokes as the years went on, but it also makes it explicitly clear that she knew the full value of what she was preserving well before anyone else validated her efforts. Was Marion Stokes paranoid that America was being taken over the by the Nazi Right, that the media was systemically racist in how it contextualized police brutality, that all of this raw cultural record would be lost by television networks that claimed they were archiving their own material? Or was she an incredibly perceptive activist who’d be proven right on all those counts, given enough time? Recorder is a great film, but it’s only the first step in giving this visionary her full due.

-Brandon Ledet

New Orleans Uncensored (1955)

The Prytania has been running an unofficial William Castle retrospective over the past few months as part of their ongoing Classic Movies series. That programming choice made a lot of sense around October, when Castle’s iconically kitschy team-ups with Vincent Price – The Tingler, The House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, etc. – where a perfect celebratory lead-up to Halloween. One Castle title just before that run stood out like a sore thumb, though, as it predated his infamous theatrical horror gimmicks and instead fell into a genre Castle isn’t often associated with. New Orleans Uncensored is a cheap-o, locally shot noir about corrupt shipping dock workers, much more in tune with films like Panic in the Streets than anything resembling the Percepto! or Emergo! horror gimmickry that later made Castle a legend. The director does find stray chances to exhibit his eye for striking, attention-grabbing imagery throughout the film, but for the most part his presence is overpowered by New Orleans itself, making the film more of a worthwhile curio for locals than it is for Castle fanatics.

Originally titled Riot on Pier 6, this film mostly concerns the organized crime rackets that had quietly, gradually overtaken hold of the second largest port in the U.S. Amazingly, it frames the suggestion that New Orleans government & business might be susceptible to corruption as a total shock; sixty years later it’s as obvious of a fact as the sky being blue. The docks themselves are portrayed as gruff working-class playpens where fistfights often break out en mass to the point where workers are recruited for professional boxing careers and assigned nicknames like “Scrappy.” This wild, bully-overrun schoolyard is controlled from behind the scenes by a few Dick Tracy-level mobster archetypes who tend to fire bullets instead of throwing punches, the cowards. We watch a naïve outsider who hopes to start his own legit shipping business at the docks get seduced by the power & convenience the existing mafia structure offers him instead; he then eventually helps the fine folks at the NOPD take those criminals down once he realizes the full scope of their corruption & violence. It’s all very surface-level, familiar noir territory.

The one distinguishing element of New Orleans Uncensored is the visual spectacle of its locale – a 1950s New Orleans backdrop that looks almost exactly the same half a century later. Whereas Panic in the Streets was a document of local faces & personalities, Castle’s film is actively interested in documenting the physical locations of the city like an excited sight-seeing tourist. Panic in the Streets was mostly contained at the shipping docks and backrooms that concerned its plot, while New Orleans Uncensored goes out of its way to capture as many of the city’s cultural hotspots as possible: Pontchartain Beach, The Court of Two Sisters, Jackson Square, French Quarter nightclubs, Canal Street float parades, etc. In one particularly egregious indulgence in sight-seeing, a couple shares a nightcap beignet at Café du Monde, claiming the ritual is “a traditional New Orleans way of saying goodnight.” It’s practically a tourism board television ad. Of course, as the title suggest, the appeal of this local sightseeing to outsiders is the city’s national reputation for sin & debauchery. The film’s plot about corrupt shipping dock companies getting their due punishment for their transgressions against social order is mostly an excuse for displaying as much sex, drunkenness, and Cajun-flavored merriment as the Hays Code would allow. That becomes a major problem in the snooze of third act when the tourism is sidelined to resolve the much less engaging mafia plot, but it’s fun while the good times last.

There isn’t much room for William Castle to show off this unique touch for attention-grabbing gimmickry & cheap-o surrealism while ogling “The Mistress of The Mississippi.” Outside an opening credits graphic where a disembodied hand stamps the word “UNCENSORED” on a map of the city and a drunken montage depicting an all-nighter of a couple partying until dawn in French Quarter nightclubs, Castle is fairly well behaved in his visual stylings. The closest the film comes to touching on his iconic gimmickry is the way the movie is presented as if it were a documentary instead of a fictional drama – bolstered by stock footage & news reel voiceover. However, that choice often reads as an Ed Woodian means of cutting financial corners more than some deliberate artistic vision. If anything, the movie does function as a genuine documentary, as its sightseeing record of a 1950s New Orleans is far more valuable & purposeful than its criminal conspiracy drama or its William Castle visual play. The history & personality of the city is far more pronounced than Castle’s here, and if the movie maintains any value as a cinematic artifact it’s in that local tourism.

-Brandon Ledet