Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Much like Ouija: Origin of Evil, the latest entry in The Conjuring universe, Annabelle: Creation, has quickly earned the reputation of being a huge improvement on the film that came before it, to the point where its predecessor is entirely skippable so that you can get to the good stuff. 2014’s Annabelle was indeed a huge letdown even for the most dedicated of evil doll horror films, essentially burying what’s an incredibly powerful villain design under a hopelessly generic Rosemary’s Baby riff nobody asked for. That setup made it near effortless for its prequel, Annabelle: Creation, to exceed expectations, something Lights Out director David F. Samberg does with ease. Samberg’s slick production design & impressive control over jump scares & haunted house atmosphere makes for a surprisingly decent Annabelle corrective, delivering an evil doll-themed major studio horror similar to the machine-like precision of last year’s financially beastly adaptation of IT. As someone who’s always a sucker for evil doll horror as a genre, however, I have to admit I still don’t believe the Annabelle franchise is living up to its full potential. Creation is a well-made major studio horror movie, but it’s one that largely ignores the brilliant design of the evil doll at its center; it’s hardly an evil doll movie at all.

A 1940s doll maker & his religiously faithful wife lose their young daughter (named Annabelle, duh) in a freak accident, sending their lives into a depressive tailspin. Over a decade later, they open their home as a makeshift orphanage out of religious duty, bringing a fresh crop of young girls & their corresponding caretaker nun into the now-haunted house. Enter the titular doll Annabelle, whom the dead daughter’s spirit has taken residence in and uses to scare & maim her soul-weary parents’ new boarders. Unfortunately, the doll itself is used more as set dressing and a talisman than a direct threat in the film’s various scares & kills. Samberg has a sharp mind for tapping into the nightmare logic of a scared child: lights go out without explanation, hallways stretch into infinity, traditional sources of terror like a ghost under a sheet or the crack between a bed & wall are reinforced with a genuine sense of dread. This collection of haunted house scares feels entirely separate from Annabelle herself, however. Instead of directly using her in the film’s kills, Creation brings in other threats in the form of creepy nuns & demons made of black smoke, unsure how to deliver on the basic pleasures of a creepy doll horror flick.

As with a lot of films in the post-MCU mode of franchise filmmaking, Annabelle: Creation feels like it’s torn in too many directions trying to satisfy its position in a larger, franchised story. The movie concludes with a lengthy, unnecessary epilogue connecting it to the opening minutes of the first Annabelle feature, establishing above-and-beyond continuity for a film practically no one remembers or values. It’s also tasked with teasing an upcoming horror film about demonic nuns to be set in The Conjureverse, plainlly titled The Nun. What really bothered me, though, is that Creation finds its scares in the dollmaker’s haunted home, not the evil doll he created, which connects the film to the haunted house themes of the original The Conjuring movie at the expense of a super creepy doll that’s used as a prop instead of an active player. I can totally back Annabelle: Creation as a well-made major studio horror film and an improvement on the previous Annabelle entry. Hell, I’d even cite it as an improvement on Samberg’s work in Lights Out, a film I found to be a thematically repugnant carbon copy of The Babadook. It’s still not as great as a proper Annabelle film could be, though, which won’t arrive until this franchise involves its killer-looking doll in its onscreen kills, something that should’ve been a given from the start.

-Brandon Ledet

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Lady Macbeth (2017)

I’ve always thought of myself as enough of a costume drama nerd to always be on the hook for a period piece with enough pretty dresses & careful attention to set design. Lady Macbeth proved me wrong. Adapted from the 19th Century bodice-ripper
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and stripped to only the barest of narrative details, the film is both slight & driven by prurience. That exact formula didn’t stop me in the past from enjoying the Russ Meyer schlock Fanny Hill: A Memoir a Woman of Pleasure, though, so the things that bothered me about Lady Macbeth have been much more difficult to pinpoint. My problems with the film have been much more tied to how its narrative structure obscures its themes & intent until the very last minute, so that the film’s thesis plays like a gotcha! twist instead of a fully explored idea. Lady Macbeth is a harsh film packed with cruel, confusing behavior from characters we don’t know and we don’t get to know. Withholding the purpose of their vicious selfishness until the last minute leaves the film leading up to the reveal feeling pointlessly ugly on a spiritual level, something even a (very) pretty dress can’t quite cover up.

Florence Pugh stars as the murderous protagonist referenced in the title, a young woman recently married off as part of a land deal to an older man who has zero sexual interest in her. Alone in a rural England home with her husband, his ornery father, and a mostly black staff of servants & farm hands, she finds herself emotionally isolated & hopelessly bored. She acts out under this pressure in dangerous ways, “failing miserably in every one of [her] marital duties,” which, since her husband will not sexually interact with her, mostly includes listening to the clock tick while wearing a beautiful blue dress. Her protest of this unwanted life mostly entails starting a dangerous, adulterous affair with one of her PoC farm hands, a transgression she makes little, if any effort to hide. As the Shakespeare allusion in the title suggests, it’s a transgression that comes with a body count. She and her lover have to commit an exponentially depraved set of crimes to keep their affair alive, a path of atrocities she pressures the man into until his conscience can no longer take it. There’s a tonal shift from sympathy to shame as her transgressions progress this way, but by the time the film attempts to make a coherent point about the damage she’s causing the runtime comes to halt.

Lady Macbeth is a 90 minute adaptation of a (trashy) novel, stripping almost all story & character development that might provide helpful context for its flawed-by-design protagonist’s actions. There’s a Marie Antoinette-style critique built into the story that faults the title character for her flagrant misbehavior risking other people’s lives as she carelessly has her fun. That subversion of typical costume drama sympathies for women who are sold as wives/property against their will into a story about mishandled, deadly white privilege is certainly interesting, but there’s something infuriating about how Lady Macbeth saves that theme’s development as a last second twist. In the meantime, character motivations are baffling & left to be interpreted as pointlessly cruel. Two early, violent sex acts are depicted so coldly and without context that the question of consent is left entirely obscured, leaving them to feel like un-critical participation in the rape fantasies common to ancient romance novels. It takes an incredible amount of time for the protagonist to start laying the blame for her crimes on her PoC servants, who stand to lose much more than her for the transgressions, leaving no room for reflection on what that dynamic means after the film has concluded. In the meantime, what’s left onscreen feels far beneath the film’s visual quality as a period piece, yet not nearly fun or exciting enough to justify its pulpy tone. Then eventual theme is worthy of exploration it never receives, the characters on both sides of the crimes are never developed enough to elicit a genuine emotional reaction, and everything in-between feels like wasted time, save Pugh’s performance & costuming. Depending on your patience with its thematic reluctance, it might test the period drama devotee in you as well, if not make you question that inclination entirely.

-Brandon Ledet

#52FilmsByWomen 2017 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 the entirety of a 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 taken & fulfilled the #52FilmsByWomen pledge in 2017, 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 appreciated about the experience is the way it consistently reminded 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 64 films directed by women in 2017. The full inventory of those titles can be found on this convenient Letterboxd list, which includes all the short films & re-watches of the batch. For the purposes of this article, I’ll only list the feature-length movies I saw for the first time last year, which serendipitously totaled a clean 52. Each film is ranked & linked to a corresponding review, since I was using the challenge 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 2018. It’s an experience I highly recommend, as I got so much out of it myself that I’ve already started a new Letterboxd list for my second year of participation.

5 Star Reviews

The Lure, dir. Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2017) – “The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. As a genre film with a striking hook in its basic premise, it’s the kind of work that invites glib descriptors & points of comparison like An Aquatic Ginger Snaps Musical or La La Land of the Damned, but there’s much more going on in its basic appeal than that sense of genre mash-up novelty.”

Orlando, dir. Sally Potter (1992)

Born in Flames, dir. Lizzie Borden (1987)

Mikey and Nicky, dir. Elaine May (1976) 4.5

4.5 Star Reviews

Office Killer, dir. Cindy Sherman (1997) – “Cindy Sherman delivers exactly what I want from my genre films here, the exact formula that won me over in Tara Subkoff’s #horror. She mixes lowbrow camp with highbrow art production in an earnest, gleeful work that values both ends of that divide. As faintly silly as Carol Kane’s performance can be as a deranged killer, Sherman colors her background with a genuinely horrific history of sexual assault, where she constantly has to hear praise for her abuser in a work environment. She employs infamous provocateur Todd Haynes to provide ‘additional dialogue’ to make sure that discomfort seeps in. The sickly, flickering florescent lights of her film’s office setting afford it a horror aesthetic long before the kills begin, especially when she focuses on the harsh, moving light of a copier running in the dark. Even the opening credits, which glides as projections across still, office environment objects, have an artfulness to them missing from a lot of tongue-in-cheek horror.”

Blood Bath, dir. Stephanie Rothman (1966)

Raw, dir. Julia Ducournau (2017)

4 Star Reviews

Blood Diner, dir. Jackie Kong (1987)  – “A supposed sequel to the grindhouse ‘classic’ Blood Feast (a film I have zero affection for), Blood Diner is pure 80s splatter comedy mayhem. It boasts all of the shock value violence & misogynistic cruelty of its predecessor (this time at the hands of a female director, Jackie Kong), but has a lot more in common with ZAZ spoofs or Looney Tunes than it does with its grindhouse pedigree. Everything in Blood Diner is treated with Reagan-era irreverence to the point where this pointlessly stupid horror comedy starts to feel like inane poetry. It shocks; it offends. Yet, Blood Diner is so consistently, absurdly mindless that all you can do is laugh at its asinine audacity in its cheap midnight movie thrills.”

Icaros: A Vision, dir. Leonor Caraballo (2017)

Lady Bird, dir. Greta Gerwig (2017)

A Night to Dismember, dir. Doris Wishman (1983)

Band Aid, dir. Zoe Lister-Jones (2017)

The Beguiled, dir. Sofia Coppola (2017)

Lemon, dir. Janicza Bravo (2017)

XX, dir. Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Annie Clark, Jovanka Vuckovic (2017)

The World is Mine, dir. Ann Oren (2017)

Maggie’s Plan, dir. Rebecca Miller (2016)

Casting JonBenet, dir. Kitty Green (2017)

3.5 Star Reviews

Viva, dir. Anna Biller (2007) – “There are some thematic aspects of Viva I wish Biller had pushed a little further (and a few scenes I wish were shaved down to expedite the pace), but there’s an endlessly enjoyable aesthetic in her staging of the film’s lingerie lounging, Scotch swilling, porn-browsing swinger-era softcore smut I can’t help but take delight in. Just the way characters punctuate each of their own lame jokes with unwarranted, maniacal laughter feels both so true to the era & so clearly aligned with what Biller wants to accomplish in her modernization. It’s incredible she was able to figure out her own concrete sense of style as soon as her first feature.”

The Watermelon Woman, dir. Cheryl Dunye (1996)

Landline, dir. Gillian Robespierre (2017)

Loving Vincent, dir. Dorota Kobiela (2017)

Wonder Woman, dir. Patty Jenkins (2017)

The Kid Stays in the Picture, dir. Nanette Burstein (2002)

Mudbound, dir. Dee Rees (2017)

Prevenge, dir. Alice Lowe (2017)

Kedi, dir. Ceyda Torun (2017)

Isthar, dir. Elaine May (1987)

American Fable, dir. Anne Hamilton (2017)

Beware the Slenderman, dir. Irene Taylor Brodsky (2017)

Beach Rats, dir. Eliza Hittman (2017)

Speed Racer, dir. Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski (2008)

Snowy Bing-Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone, dir. Rachel Wolther (2017)

Nude on the Moon, dir. Doris Wishman (1961)

Deadly Weapons, dir. Doris Wishman (1974)

B.C. Butcher, dir. Kansas Bowling (2016)

Sickhouse, dir. Hannah Macpherson (2016)

3 Star Reviews

The Velvet Vampire, dir. Stephanie Rothman (1971) – “The frustrating thing about The Velvet Vampire is that it’s almost something truly great. The dreamscape seduction scenes have a surreal Altered States quality to them that makes them immensely exciting and there’s a few stray moments of cinematic beauty elsewhere in shots of the titular vampire eating raw liver in her lingerie or lying naked in her husband’s coffin. The film’s also slightly transgressive in its third act shift toward lesbian seduction once the husband is no longer interesting as a plaything, especially in the vampire’s monologue about men’s envy over the power of female sexual pleasure. The film doesn’t follow through on any of its genuine art film impulses, though, so it’s much easier to take delight in its campier touches like its rubber bats, loosely defined vampire rules (sunlight’s apparently not a problem), and inane dialogue (listening to a man scream in pain, the dolt husband shrugs it off with, “It’s probably just a coyote.”). Because The Velvet Vampire is so beholden to the slow & stoned hippie energy of its era (as opposed to the much more alive go-go erotica of The Vampire and the Ballerina), though, it’s difficult to get too excited about the film’s occasional pleasures that languidly float by onscreen.”

Things to Come, dir. Mia Hansen-Løve (2016)

Another Day, Another Man, dir. Doris Wishman (1966)

Rough Night, dir. Lucia Aniello (2017)

Most Beautiful Island, dir. Ana Asensio (2017)

Bridget Jones’s Baby, dir. Sharon Maguire (2016)

Wexford Plaza, dir. Joyce Wong (2017)

Cold Steel, dir. Dorothy Ann Puzo (1987)

 Bound by Flesh, dir. Leslie Zemeckis (2012)

The Being, dir. Jackie Kong (1983)

Kiki, dir. Sara Jordenö (2016)

Mirror Mirror, dir. Marina Rae Sargenti (1990)

Would Not Reccomend

Play the Devil, dir. Maria Govan (2017)

The Bad Batch, dir. Ana Lily Amirpour (2017)

Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, dir. Beeban Kidron (2004)

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top Films of 2017

1. The Florida Project – Captures the rebellious punk spirit that laughs in the face of all authority & life obstacles among the children who run wild in the extended-stay slum motels just outside the Disney World amusement parks in Florida. The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults. Although financially locked out of The Happiest Place on Earth, they defiantly turn the Magic Castle & Futureland Inn knockoffs they are allowed to occupy into a punk rock amusement park all of their own.

2. We Are the Flesh – Disorients the eye by making grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to thematically pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitalia, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores.

3. The Lure – Synths! Sequins! Sex! Gore! What more could you ask for? The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. A debut feature from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, the film somehow tackles themes as varied as love, greed, feminism, alcoholism, body dysmorphia, betrayal, revenge, camaraderie, and (forgive my phrasing here) fluid sexuality all while feeling like a nonstop party or an especially lively, glitterful nightmare. It’s astounding.

4. Tom of Finland – Depicting the adult life of Finnish illustrator/pornographer Touko Valio Laaksonen as he drew his way into queer culture infamy, Tom of Finland excels as a kind of filmmaking alchemy: it turns an unlikely tonal mashup of Cruising & Carol into the feel-good queer drama of the year. While its sexuality isn’t quite as transgressive as the leather daddy-inspiring art of its subject, it’s a passionate, celebratory work that sidesteps the typical pitfalls of queer misery porn dramas, yet still manages to feel truthful, dangerous, and at times genuinely erotic. It’s hard to believe the film is half as wonderful as it is, given the visual trappings of its subject & biopic genre, but its leather & disco lyricism lifts the spirit and defies expectation.

5. Your Name. – From its tale of star-crossed, long distance romantics to its mildly crude sexual humor, bottom of the heart earnestness, supernatural mindfuckery, and pop punk/post-rock soundtrack (provided by the appropriately named Radwimps), Your Name. is the distilled ideal of a teen fantasy film in the 2010s. It’s also the most beautifully animated and strikingly empathetic picture I can remember seeing on the big screen in a long while. Small town angst & romantic desperation, cornerstones of teenage inner life, dominate its early proceedings, but several monumental narrative shifts completely disrupt those concerns as the co-protagonists’ stories strive to intertwine in a shared, physical space. The film almost operates like Persona in reverse, where two jumbled identities slowly detangle and then have to desperately search for common ground.

6. Brigsby Bear – 2017 was the year Kyle Mooney made me cry in a comedy about an animatronic bear, a time I never knew to expect. Although a darkly funny film that builds its narrative around a fictional television show that stars said bear & adheres to an Everything Is Terrible VHS aesthetic, Brigsby Bear is remarkably earnest, with genuine emotional stakes. I never thought I’d see the best parts of Room & Gentlemen Broncos synthesized into a single picture, but what’s even more impressive is that this film manages to be both more emotionally devastating & substantially amusing than either individual work. My only real complaint is in the frustration of knowing that I can’t be locked in a room to watch a few hundred episodes of The Brigsby Bear Adventures myself.

7. The Shape of Water – Easily one of Guillermo del Toro’s best features, assuming that you’re just as much of a sucker for brutal, lushly shot fairy tales as I am. The Shape of Water rights the wrongs of old school monster movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon by paying attention to how their supposedly villainous beasts are spiritually in line with the oppressed & the marginalized, depicting their governmental enemies as the true monsters instead of the assumed heroes. It also functions as a love letter to the visual delicacies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (whether intentional or not), an aesthetic I never tire of. Behind The Lure, it’s only the second best film of 2017 about interspecies fish-fucking, but the competition was surprisingly stiff for that honor.

8. mother! – The most important major studio release of 2017. From the rapturous praise to the horror stories of angry, vocal walkouts during its violently bonkers third act, mother! demands discussion & analysis in the way crowdpleaser comedies, superhero action epics, and computer-animated cartoons about talking animals typically don’t. The important part of the discussion it sparks is not whether you were personally positive on the film’s absurdist handling of its Biblical & environmentalist allegories or the way it makes deliberately unpleasant choices in its sound design & cinematography to get them across in a never-ending house party from Hell. The important thing is recognizing the significance of its bottomless ambition in the 2010s Hollywood filmmaking landscape.  There aren’t nearly enough major player Hollywood studios taking chances like this.

9. Good Time – Essentially a mutated version of Refn’s Drive with all of the sparkling romance thoroughly supplanted with dispiriting grime, Good Time filters an old-fashioned heist plot through Oneohtrix Point Never’s blistering synths and the neon-soaked cinematography of Sean Price Williams (who also shot Queen of Earth). That sounds like it could be a blast, but The Safdie Brothers employ those electric lights & sounds for a much more grueling purpose than you’ll find in typical action movie entertainment. The film is defined less by neon glamor than it is soaked in the economy-driven discomfort of state-sanctioned psychoanalysis sessions and the cold glow of television-lit hospital rooms. Good Time aims to disgust & discomfort, offering all of the surface entertainment of a film like Drive without softening its real life implications with the fantasy of movie magic the way that film does so well.

10. My Life as a Zucchini – A French language black comedy written by Céline Sciamma, director of Girlhood & Tomboy, My Life as a Zucchini is more spiritually aligned with the quiet comedic gloom of Mary and Max than the kid-friendly antics of more traditional stop motion works like Shaun the Sheep & A Town Called Panic. Its coming of age plot is quietly simple. Its stop motion animation style is adorable, but unambitious. However, its empathetic portrait of young, lonely orphans in search of a family to call their own is rawly authentic and had me crying like an idiot baby throughout. Still, it isn’t overly maudlin or emotionally manipulative. It’s just honest. One of my favorite aspects of My Life as a Zucchini is that (with very few exceptions) there are no real enemies driving its central conflicts. Life is just difficult.

11. It Comes at Night – Distinctly captures the eerie feeling of being up late at night, alone, plagued by anxieties you can usually suppress in the daylight by keeping busy, and afraid to go back to sleep because of the cruelly false sense of relief that startles you when you slip into your stress dreams. It’s in these late night, early morning hours when fear & grief are inescapable and nearly anything seems possible, just nothing positive or worth looking forward to. Trey Edward Shults stirs up that same level of anxious terror in his debut, Krisha, with the same deeply personal focus on familial discord, but It Comes at Night features a new facet the director couldn’t easily afford until this better-funded follow-up: beauty. The film’s nightmares & late night glides through empty hallways are frighteningly intense, but they’re also beautifully crafted & intoxicatingly rich for anyone with enough patience to fully drink them in.

12. Get Out – Instead of a virginal, scantily clad blonde running from a masked killer with an explicitly phallic weapon, Get Out aligns its audience with a young black man put on constant defense by tone deaf, subtly applied racism. Part horror comedy, part racial satire, and part mind-bending sci-fi, Jordan Peele’s debut feature not only openly displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form (directly recalling works as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Under the Skin, and any number of Wes Craven titles); it also applies that knowledge to a purposeful, newly exciting variation on those past accomplishments. It’s a staggeringly well-written work that has convincingly captured the current cultural zeitgeist, becoming instantly familiar & iconic in a way few movies have in our lifetime.

13. Split -A near-borderless playground for James McAvoy to villainously chew scenery. He does so admirably, fully committing to the film’s morally dodgy, but wickedly fun D.I.D. premise. When an M. Night Shyamalan film is great, it’s brilliantly stupid, combining over-thought & over-stylized art film pretension to an empty, trashy property that doesn’t at all deserve it. When a Shyamalan movie is bad, it’s boringly dumb, the worst kind of limp, undercooked cinematic inanity Hollywood dumps into wide distribution without giving enough thoughtful consideration. Split is brilliantly stupid.

14. Okja – Too much of an ever-shifting set of complexly self-contradictory tones & moods to be wholly described to the uninitiated. Okja is both a scathing satire of modern meat industry & a slapstick farce poking fun at the activists who attempt to dismantle it. It’ll stab you in the heart with onscreen displays of animal cruelty, but will just as often giggle at the production of farts & turds. I could describe the film as an action adventure version of Death to Smoochy or a more deliberately adult reimagining of Babe 2: Pig in the City, but neither comparison fully covers every weird impulse that distracts & delights Bong Joon-ho as he chases his narrative across multiple continents. It’s not something that can be readily understood or absorbed on even a scene to scene basis, but its overall effect is deliriously overwhelming and expectation-subverting enough that it feels nothing short of magnificent as a whole.

15. Raw – One of the more wonderfully gruesome horror films of 2017 is much more tonally & thematically delicate than what its press would lead you to believe. Early reports from the festival circuit sold Raw as a shock-a-minute gross-out that requires barf bags & potential trips in an ambulance. That reputation is definitely more a facet of its marketing than anything the film itself is attempting to accomplish. The heart of its story about a young woman discovering previously undetected . . . appetites in herself as she enters autonomous adulthood is actually pretty delicate & subtle, especially for a remnant of the New French Extremity horror movement.

True story: the first time I saw it in the theater, someone brought their tiny, tiny kids. They almost made it to the end credits too, despite the toddlers’ screams. Incredible.

16. Icaros: A Vision – Upon recovery from a near-fatal bout with breast cancer, visual artist Leonor Caraballo traveled to Peru to seek therapeutic guidance from the country’s local ayahuasca clinics to help emotionally process her unexpected confrontation with mortality. While participating in the religious ritual of ingesting the psychotropic plant with the guidance of shamans, Caraballo saw a vision of her own death. She returned to her home in Argentina convinced of two things: 1) that she was going to die of the cancer’s soon-to-come aggressive return and 2) that she had to make a film about her experience with the ayahuasca plant. The result of these convictions, Icaros: A Vision, partly serves as a therapeutic processing of dread & grief personal to Caraballo’s story. However, the film also strives to capture the religious reverence Peruvian people find in plants like ayahuasca and to poke fun at outsiders who treat the ritual that helped the filmmaker through her darkest hour like a colonialist act of tourism.

17. The Untamed – Not quite as structurally sound or as thematically satisfying as We Are the Flesh, but employs a similar palette of sexual shock value tactics to jolt its audience into an extreme, unfamiliar headspace. It adopts the gradual reveals & sound design terrors common to “elevated horrors” of the 2010s, but finds a mode of scare delivery all unto its own, if not only in the depiction of its movie-defining monster: a space alien that sensually fucks human beings with its tentacles. The Untamed alternates between frustration & hypnotism as its story unfolds, but one truth remains constant throughout: you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

18. Nocturama – I’m not sure the world necessarily needed a movie that makes acts of terrorism look sexy & cool, but with so few transgressive places left for cinema to go you’ve got to respect Nocturama for finding a way to push buttons in the 2010s. Nocturama is certain to ruffle feathers & inspire umbrage in the way it nonchalantly mirrors recent real life terror attacks on cities like Paris & London. That incendiary kind of thematic bomb-throwing is difficult to come by in modern cinema, though, considering the jaded attitudes of an audience who’ve already seen it all. It helps that the film is far from an empty provocation; it’s a delicately beautiful art piece & a hypnotically deconstructed heist picture, a filmmaking feat as impressive as its story is defiantly cruel.

19. I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore -As cartoonishly silly as I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore often feels, director Macon Blair does his best to place it in the context of a real, relatable world. Light beer, country music, upper-deckers, meth, and sudden bursts of intense violence all sketch out a real world playing field where Melanie Lynskey’s unreal vigilante warpath can be staged. Her mission of principle— not in search of compensation, but for the simple demand that “people not be assholes”— boasts an absurd, intangible goal and the movie itself never shies away from matching that absurdity in its overall tone, but impressively still keeps its brutality believably authentic.

20. The Little Hours – Profiling the sex & violence pranksterism of nuns running wild in a Middle Ages convent, Jeff Baena shines at his leanest, funniest, and most visually beautiful. Not only is his latest film an unbelievably tight 90 minutes of blasphemous, hedonistic hilarity; it’s also a gorgeous indulgence in the grimy, sunlit beauty of 1970s Satanic horror & nunsploitation cinema. Although obviously informed by improv experimentation, the film is sharply edited down to its most bare essentials in a way more modern comedies could stand to be. I especially appreciated the opportunity it affords Kate Micucci to run absolutely feral among her more seasoned vets of chaos castmates (Aubrey Plaza & Allison Brie). It’s also wonderful to see Baena let loose from his usual high-concept, emotionally dour black comedies to deliver something much more unashamedly fun & light on its feet.

-Brandon Ledet

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

When you hear that 1996’s The Watermelon Woman was the first feature film directed by a black lesbian, the claim sounds both impossible and impossible to prove. Considering that the recently-restored Daughters of the Dust was the first ever theatrically-released film directed by an African American woman and came only five years earlier, however, it very well may be true. Part of what makes this historical context so fascinating (besides the obvious horror of how recently those milestones arrived) is that The Watermelon Woman is self-aware of the achievement, purposefully crafting a narrative about representation of queer black female perspectives in pop media. A post-modern relic of 1990s Indie Cinema that vaguely estimates an aesthetic of Spike Lee’s Clerks, Cheryl Dunye’s debut feature is both an academic look at cinema’s historic disregard for representing black femininity onscreen and a laidback comedy about a movie nerd navigating modern queer culture while just trying to live by the Gen-X ideal of Not Getting Hassled. It’s not an impeccably crafted work, but it is a surprisingly fun one, considering the importance of its subject & historical context.

Cheryl Dunye stars as (*gasp*) Cheryl, a video store clerk who spends her free time (between shifts & social pressures to pick up women) working on a video project about a forgotten movie star from the Old Hollywood era. Cheryl’s obsession with the unnamed, uncredited actress, who was mostly relegated to playing offensive “mammy” stereotypes in the 1930s, is palpable even before the discovery that the woman was also queer. Cheryl shirks social, professional, and romantic obligations to bury herself in the video project, uncovering as much as she can about someone she knows only as “The Watermelon Woman”. The Watermelon Woman plainly states its themes; it vocalizes protests that black women’s stories are never told, onscreen or off, and it includes a boldly explicit sex scene to push the provocation of its casual, intimate queer identity. It also tempers these academic ambitions with the cool™, laidback shrug of a Gen-X era indie comedy. This is a film that features both a typical bomb-throwing rant from critic Camille Paglia and an extensive sequence of cringe humor mined from godawful karaoke at a supremely awkward lesbian bar. Dunye’s sense of craft is rough around the edges throughout, but she still manages to blend those two tones expertly, both charming & challenging her audience at every possible opportunity.

Digitally restored for its twentieth anniversary after a long period of distribution limbo, The Watermelon Woman has likely never looked better. The contrast between its sharp, vibrantly colorful celluloid photography and the fuzzy grain of its VHS footage is a great match for its high vs. low brow thematic explorations. It’s a multimedia approach that only becomes more powerful once old photographs & doctored ephemera depicting the mythical Watermelon Woman enter the mix. However, budgeted through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Dunye’s debut can often feel as if it’s barely held together. Many scenes can be abrupt, blatant and awkwardly placed, but that ramshackle, handmade quality is also a part of the film’s charm and is tied mostly to factors outside Dunye’s control, like budget & experience. I get the sense that she’s not that different from the Cheryl we see onscreen, passionately scraping together a multimedia piece on black queer female representation with limited resources while trying to stay true to her laidback, borderline slacker self. 

The Watermelon Woman is surprisingly fun, understandably uneven 90s Indie Cinema, with invaluable context as a black lesbian milestone. Its humor smartly softens what could be an alienating academic tone, forgiving much of its rough around the edges acting & craft. Its most impressive artistry is in being just as personal as it is culturally substantial, which is a difficult line to walk. I can’t believe we allowed Dunye’s work to lurk in obscurity for so long just as much as I can’t believe we allowed her historical achievement to be delayed until so recently in our pop culture history.

-Brandon Ledet

Boomer’s Top Films of 2017

What a year it’s been! 2017 was a pretty mixed bag, all things considered. I had a pretty bad fall and busted my arm so bad that I had to have four screws put in, and that forced me to miss a few releases. On the other hand, between the Alamo Drafthouse showing Inferno back in January and closing out the last Terror Tuesday at the Ritz with the mildly-Christmasy Deep Red, plus the 4K remaster of Suspiria that screened at Austin Film Society, I got to see three Dario Argento films on the big screen last year, which is nice. On top of that, for the first time in my life I can say that I was definitively both smarter than the president and more attractive than the “Sexiest” Man “Alive” (surely I wasn’t the only person who read that news and was immediately concerned that Michael B. Jordan had died, right?).

As is my personal tradition (see here and here), let’s start out with a look back on the year, and specifically mention the things I wish I had seen so that this list could be more complete, but which I (for whatever reason) missed. Austin was lucky enough to be one of the premiere cities for The Square, but my roommate passed out at a friend’s house and his phone died the night before we were supposed to see it, and it ended up being only a one week engagement. Call Me By Your Name has yet to appear in my market (and Beach Rats completely passed me by while I was laid up with a broken arm for most of the summer), and although Austin Film Society hosted screenings of both Dolores and Carpinteros, both films were gone before I could get my ducks in a row. I kept putting off watching Brian Jordan Alvarez’s Everything is Free (I loved The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo) because it didn’t seem like it was going anywhere, but an attempt at a recent viewing party with friends was thwarted when it turned out the film had been removed from YouTube. I am keeping my fingers crossed that this means it’s getting an actual release, because that would be lovely. A Ghost Story, Baby Driver, The Lego Batman Movie, Beatriz at Dinner, and especially I Am Not Your Negro were all movies that I planned to see, but it’s been a long, weird year, and some things are bound to fall through the cracks. Brandon didn’t care for The Bad Batch, but given that he and I have vastly different opinions of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, I would likely have ended up giving Ana Lily Amirpour’s latest a more favorable rating, or at least a place on this list. As it is, however, I missed it (and my roommate, who responds to the mere mention of A Girl Walks… with a fervent hatred that is the only rift between us, is unwilling to give it a try despite the fact that it is on Netflix). And, unfortunately, I completely forgot Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was going to be a thing before it came to theaters. Finally, it should be noted that I’m composing this list prior seeing The Last Jedi or the released-at-the-very-end-of-the-year-for-some-reason of Downsizing, which I’m pretty excited about given how much I love Alexander Payne. But let’s get to it!

Movies I saw but you won’t be seeing on this list in any form, so let’s put them here now so that you’re not holding your breath:

1. Alien: Covenant: I didn’t hate this movie. It would have had to make me feel something in order to hate it. Instead, I feel mostly indifference and disappointment at the wasted potential, and I hate what it represents. You can read a more in-depth discussion of the film’s faults here. An excerpt: “Before Scott dreamed up a reason to call it an ‘Engineer,’ the Space Jockey was just one more part of an unsolvable riddle: a giant dead body from an unknown race, seemingly eviscerated with its chest open, fossilized. It’s a tableau that induces anxiety because the riddle doesn’t seem like it can be solved, with the perpetrator and the victim both lost to time immemorial–or so it seems until the monster is born again when a group of little humans, completely unprepared for the horrors that exist beyond the fragile atmosphere of their world, stumble into the killing fields of an implacable star beast they cannot comprehend or reason with. Until Prometheus came along, there was no reason to believe that the Space Jockey had anything to do with the creation of the xenomorph; instead, he seemed to represent a previous incarnation of the cycle of violence, another innocent stargazer who happened upon a living nightmare in an earlier time and succumbed to it, its titanic stature further cementing just how fucked Ripley and her comrades are.”

2. Blade Runner 2049: I love the original Blade Runner, despite all of what the modern audience might consider faults, both inaccurately (i.e., introspective pacing) and accurately (i.e., the fact that Deckard is a straight up sexual assailant). When the sequel was announced, my reaction was more “Whyyyyyy? And why now?” than excitement; over time, though, as Denis Villeneuve was announced as director and more news came out, I came around on the idea of a Blade Runner sequel, even building up a modicum of excitement for it. But for all of this film’s beautiful vistas, stunning colors, and strong acting, I was left completely cold by it. Maybe it’s the largely unfocused nature of its narrative, or the fact that I find the idea of considering Rachael and Deckard to be endgame to be gross, or that I could live the rest of my life without another “born to be the chosen one” narrative. I’ve never seen a prettier film that left me feeling so empty.

3. I really wanted to like XX. I really, really wanted to. While the overall quality averaged much higher than other recent anthology horror films like Holidays or The ABCs of Death, it had neither the highs nor lows that made those films so memorable. Considering Holidays in particular, XX never plumbs the depths of bad storytelling and stupidity like the former film does in shorts like Halloween, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, but neither does a single frame of it have the same staying power as the images in Mother’s Day, Easter, or especially St. Patrick’s Day. While XX’s The Box is a small, personal story that haunts you, it’s impossible to say that it’s not at least a little narratively unsatisfying. The short Her Only Living Son can take credit for giving me a really strange dream while under the influence of painkillers after my arm surgery last summer (the plot of which was basically the same as that of the short, but also starred Tyne Daly as a desert mystic and leader), but while its creep factor is decent, it was still underwhelming. Most disappointing is the short Don’t Fall, as it contains not a single frame of film you haven’t seen before, and doesn’t do anything really inventive with its bare-bones premise.

4. Justice League: It’s big, loud, inexplicably cheap looking, and completely absurd! I may have given this a relatively decent star rating (with the Camp Stamp, of course), but no way does it belong anywhere on the list of best films of the year. You can read my review here. Here’s an excerpt: “I’m not going to lie to you: this movie is clearly half-baked and it makes a lot of mistakes. When you think that it’s being clever, it’s actually just a goof. […] The most important thing I can tell you if I’m trying to give you an idea as to whether or not you should see this film is this: Justice League works, if you accept it not as part of this franchise, but as an entry into the larger cultural understanding of Superman specifically and DC in general.”

Honorable Mentions:

1. I was a big fan of Train to Busan. It technically didn’t get a release in the US until 2017, so in some ways, it could fit on this list, but it would be a bit of a cheat since it was produced and released in 2016. Starring a literal train’s worth of very attractive folks to fit everyone’s type, the film is a pretty great watch. Here’s an excerpt from my review: “Train to Busan doesn’t reinvent the wheel; in fact, there’s an awful lot of 28 Days Later in its DNA, what with the Rage-like zombies, the urban environments, the involvement of military forces (although there’s no unsettling discussion about repopulating the earth by force here as there is in Days), and the ending. Still, placing the action on a train puts a new spin on things, as when one group of survivors is trying to reach another group in a distant compartment, with the horde between them. The interplay of light and darkness, the addition of color, and a child character who’s actually quite likable (serving as her father’s conscience) are all touches that this genre was missing. It’s such an obviously great idea that I’m honestly surprised it was never done before (despite searching my memory and the internet, I can find no evidence of previous zombies-on-a-train films). It’s worth checking out at the earliest opportunity.”

2. Like its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 comes blazing right out of the gates and barely lets you catch your breath. I missed the first John Wick when it came out because I couldn’t be bothered, frankly. No one expected the movie to be such a fantastic return to form both for Keanu Reeves and the action genre as a whole. Fifteen years ago, no one could have predicted that the shaky-cam aesthetic that The Bourne Identity introduced to the world and which made that film feel so fresh would eventually become the de facto shorthand for “This is action!” Since then, that style has been beaten into the ground, buried, resurrected, and beaten again, and the first film brought us back to the good old days of yore, with extensively choreographed action sequences and beautifully balanced camera movement that never distracts or tries to hide any flaws (of which there are none). This second film builds on the first’s strange but rewarding decision to create an underworld society of high class assassins, enlarging the scope of this world and taking it international. It’s definitely worth seeing, especially as a double feature with the original.

3. I can’t in good conscience say that this was one of the best films of the year, but I will say that the first ten minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (and just the first ten minutes) makes for a perfectly composed short film about an idealized human future in space. The rest of the film doesn’t live up to those expectations, unfortunately. You can read my review here, and here’s an excerpt: “The effects in Valerian are so effective at rendering a beautiful world that you can’t help but get lost in it. It’s so engrossing that, when a supposedly emotional moment is happening between Laureline and Valerian near the end of the film, you forget to pay attention to the plot, such as it is. Combine that with some heavy-handed (and questionable) use of the Noble Savage trope, a dramatic “reveal” of the film’s villain that is anything but, and a notable lack of chemistry every time DeHaan and DeLevigne are on screen together, and you’ve got a beautifully imagined world captured in a fairly lackluster film.”

And now… Boomer’s Top 15 Films of 2017

15. Nothing pleased me more this year than when Brandon sent me a screenshot of a tweet from one of his podcaster friends complimenting my review of Killing of a Sacred Deer. You can read my review here; here’s an excerpt: “The emotional distance evident in dialogue is a resounding success here, as the cold world of surgeons and diagnoses, children getting slapped (and worse), long walks with ice cream, and even awkward sexual advances are all treated with the same clinical dispassion, instilling the film with a feeling of extreme detachment that resonates in every scene. This only increases the mood of growing tension that is intentionally invoked, as the audience feels their anxiety rising like a tide while the characters observe the changes in their world and worldview with infuriatingly cold tempers.”

14. No one is more surprised than I am that an X-Film about my least favorite popular mutant was not only a great movie, but actually a favorite for the year. Logan the comic book character is, as I described him in my review, a straight white male power fantasy for people with aggressive tendencies. Logan the film, on the other hand, is a somber meditation on age, obsolescence, loss, and death. This is a neo-western in a dystopian, dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. It’s perhaps the starkest look into our likeliest future that came out all year, and demands to be seen for that reason if no other.

13. I will let my opening lines for my review of Kingsman: The Golden Circle speak for themselves: “I approached this sequel with a fair amount of trepidation. The first Kingsman was an anomaly in that it seemed to fly under most people’s radar (it was in its third week when I saw it, on a Thursday afternoon, and there was not another soul in the entire theater) but was successful enough via word of mouth (after all, there is a sequel now) that it became a bit of a cult film almost instantaneously. The press for the film has been overwhelmingly negative, and I had reservations about seeing how far a follow-up to one of my favorite films of 2015 could possibly stray into territory that garnered such negative feelings. And frankly, I just don’t get it. This movie is awesome.”

12. I recently finished Haruki Murakami’s infamously long novel 1Q84 after letting it sit on my shelf for nearly five years; I simply never felt ready to tackle its 1157 page girth. That’s about 20 pages more than most editions of Stephen King’s novel of IT, but never during the reading of Murakami’s work did it ever feel like the book was desperately in need of an editor, as I did when reading IT, even as a teenager. Even if you’ve never read it, you were undoubtedly assaulted last year by dozens of thinkpieces about the film and the novel on which it was based (and every single one of them seemed to think they were the first one to be reporting the hot scoop about the book’s creepy sex scene, even though Cracked was all over that more than a year ago). If you managed to somehow dodge all of those slings and arrows, then you should know that IT is a lengthy screed about friendship and the loss of innocence (and other things) upon the road to maturity, and also that I’ve never in my life read anything that could compete with the book for “Product Most Obviously Created by a Coked-Up Lunatic.” It’s not King’s best work (for my money, that’s The Dead Zone), but last year’s adaptation finds the kernel of perfection in that work and brings it to life, and I couldn’t recommend it more. Read Brandon’s review here.

11. When people have asked me about my 2.5 star review of mother!, the question that I get most often is if I really thought it was that bad. After all, it’s certainly a much more technically proficient film than a lot of things that I’ve given higher reviews. And there’s no mistaking that this is a sumptuous movie with intriguing visuals, haunting imagery, strong performances, an excellent cinematic eye, and an amazing cast. Even as I was writing my piece on it, I knew that I was going to be giving the film a negative rating but also that it would be on my list of 2017’s best films; this is a movie about which it’s impossible to be apathetic but completely acceptable to feel ambivalence, the perfect execution of an utterly flawed concept, and the most highly budgeted student film of all time, with all the heavy philosophical implications and themes that are so important to sophomores who just smoked weed for the first time after school with their tree-hugger friend. Those are all backhanded compliments, but they’re also completely sincere. Normally, you could call something like this a “pretentious pile of shit,” but it’s not; it’s a pretentious pile of razorblades masquerading as… diamonds? I hate it, but I also love it.

10. The Netflix original flick Clinical is one of my favorites for the year. As I wrote in my review: “Response to this film has been overwhelmingly negative, which is both disappointing and a demonstration of just what a negative and profound impact the past decade of ‘jump scare’ horror has had on western film consciousness and casual criticism. It’s not a good sign that every armchair critic is complaining about how ‘slow’ and ‘dull’ this throwback gem is, or bragging about how early they caught on to the ‘twist.’” Brandon tells me that my review of the film is currently its highest rating on Letterbox, and I couldn’t be prouder. It also prompted me to send him my impression of the kind of person I assume wrote such negative reviews, which I’ll reproduce here for posterity: “Hi, my name’s Chet and my favorite horror movies are Insidious, Insidious 2, and the last 8 years of Obummer lol jk but not really. My favorite movie is Boondock Saints (seen it 50 times!!!). I wish I could give Clinical ZERO stars because it’s soooo boring af!1!! The only hot chick in the movie is covered in blood the whole time and there are no jump scares or tits. Avoid this movie!”

9. I first saw this film on a date (yay!) with someone who later ghosted (boo!), but as with Winter Soldier, any movie that accompanies a personal tale of woe but upon which I can look back with fondness has a special place of reverence. That’s the case for Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. At the time I went to see this sequel, I hadn’t seen the first film, although my date had (albeit without subtitles). There was a valiant attempt to explain the backstory, but this one holds up enough on its own that I don’t think an understanding of the first film is strictly necessary. The movie is a completely new story set in a magical fantasy India of the past, although when I first saw the film I was under the impression that it was an epic film adaptation of a classic Indian myth, like a Tollywood The Ten Commandments, although I was later disabused of this notion. The story follows the journey of Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas), the nephew and foster son of the Queen Mother Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan) and heir apparent of the real ancient city Mahishmati, much to the dismay of her trueborn son Bhallaladeva (Rana Daggubati) and his wicked, conniving father Bijjaladeva (Nassar). Although he possesses superhuman strength, Baahubali is sent to wander the kingdoms in order to better learn to be a great leader, accompanied by Kattappa (Sathyaraj), a slave and leader of the Kingsguard; Baahubali chooses to pretend to be a simpleton in order to see how the people of various areas treat those who are “lowest” in society. While on this journey, he meets and falls in love with Princess Devasena (Anushka Shetty), but his evil uncle manipulates things back home so that she is betrothed to his cousin instead, resulting in a schism between Baahubali and the Queen Mother when he returns and leading to tragedy. Imagine a colorful, fanciful, and a little bit over-the-top amalgamation of King Arthur, Moses, and Hercules, but originating in the culture of the subcontinent instead of the western or Judaic traditions, and you’ve got the right idea. Both the original film and this sequel are currently available on Netflix (in three different languages!), so if you’ve got 5 (or just 2.5) hours to spare, check out this modern epic. Also, as we enter 2018, make it your resolution to have some decency and don’t ghost people; that’s just rude.

8. It wouldn’t really be fair to the rest of the films on this list to break the MCU’s output this year into separate segments, as that could end up pushing out a pretty worthy competitor. The year started strong with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which followed up on the threads left by the previous film while also being the most successful MCU follow-up since Winter Soldier. Further, it features an improvement over much of the franchise’s output by creating a film that is motivated entirely by character development, rather than having a plot that relies on setpieces, action sequences, and character familiarity to produce audience investment: Peter and Rocket, Gamora and Nebula, Peter and Ego, Peter and Yondu, Rocket and Groot, even Mantis and Drax. Spider-Man: Homecoming followed up on this ably, with a plot that showed us the motivations of villain and hero alike and went in depth to show how a world really would be altered by the consequences of the kinds of earth-shattering events we’ve seen in previous films. It didn’t hurt that it was charming and hilarious, either, or that every actor was charismatic as all hell (except for Downey, who I never really like, although he was used perfectly here). Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok closed out the year on another light-hearted, fun note. Check out my reviews of each of these movies for more information, and be on the lookout for our continuation of the Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. now that we’ve built up enough of a backlog for it to be fun to proceed again.

7. I wrote my review for The Shape of Water less than a week before submitting this list, so all of my ideas on the film are already on paper and too recent for me to have any additional insights, other than to say that I loved this movie and I don’t care who knows it. So, allow me to present this excerpt in lieu of a new blurb: “Strickland is a villain in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Captain Vidal: a terrifyingly familiar figure of fascistic adherence to a nationalistic, ethnocentric, exploitative, and phallocentric worldview. Whereas Vidal was the embodiment of Fascist Spain and its ideals, Strickland is the ideal embodiment of sixties-era Red Pill morality: a racist, self-possessed sexual predator empowered by his workplace superiority. Strickland is a man who professes Christian values out of the left side of his mouth while joking about cheating on his wife and threatening to sexually assault his underlings out of the right side. He mansplains the biblical origins of Delilah’s name to her while, for the sake of her job and perhaps her safety, she plays along with his assumptions of her ignorance. This is above and beyond his inhumane (and pointless) torture of the Asset, an intelligent being that he cannot recognize as sentient because of his own prejudices and assumptions about the world.”

6. In his review of I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, Brandon referenced Falling Down, a film about an unhinged person who goes on a spree following a traumatic event and triggered by the kind of acts of aggression that most of us see but ignore in our everyday life (with a few exceptions). When I saw I Don’t Feel at Home, I felt it was more of a spiritual successor to Bobcat Goldthwaite’s 2011 opus God Bless America, in which an unassuming insurance salaryman learns he has a brain tumor and spends the rest of the film tracking down and doling out justice to those individuals he believes are responsible for the ills of society. His is a sporadic cross-country trek that involves the destruction of Super Sweet 16 brats, reality TV judges who destroy people on national television, and the occasional real monster. Our heroine in I Don’t Feel at Home isn’t on quite that level, and her pursuit–not of justice but of an apology–is much more reasonably presented and linear, and thus favorably compares to Goldthwaite’s picture. There’s the same vacillation between grave-dark humor and truly grotesque outbursts of violence that Bless has, but there’s also more heart and more subversiveness. I also love that Elijah Wood is essentially playing a gender flipped Manic Pixie Dream Girl in this movie, with his bizarre fashion sense, eccentric behavior, and lack of any apparent life outside of assisting the protagonist in reaching his, or in this case her, potential. It’s refreshing but also highlights how real people would consider such a person to be, as he says he has been accused of being, “obnoxious.”

5. In her review of Wonder Woman, Alli wrote “I’m going to admit up front that this movie was not made for me.” That’s reflected in the film’s 3.5 star rating, which will haunt me to my grave. If there’s one superhero movie that came out in 2017 that belongs in the Swampflix canon, Wonder Woman is it. Not only is it visually stunning, hilarious, exciting, empowering, and overall just a hell of a lot of fun, it actually manages to bring the overall average of DC’s output up by several points. I loved this movie. I loved, loved, loved it. It was everything I wanted and more. As I noted in my Justice League review, when I was a kid, the DC comics characters were much dearer to me than Marvel’s, and it’s for that reason that I’ve been so disappointed by DC’s attempts to ape the success of the House of Ideas, not out of any loyalty to Marvel. In fact, when I was a kid, my favorite character was Batman. I never wanted to be Batman, though, I wanted to be Wonder Woman, because she was the coolest. With her lasso, jet, magical creation (I’m not about these retcons that she wasn’t made from clay), royal heritage, tiara, bullet-deflecting bracelets, and her personality as the living embodiment of compassion, truth, and justice, she was an amazing model of citizenship and a role model that one could aspire to be. Gal Gadot is perfection in this role, and she perfectly encapsulates all the traits of Diana, Princess of Themyscira, that made my childhood heart soar. Every actor in this film is perfectly cast, and I have never been happier to see an actress have a career renaissance than I am every time I see Robin Wright on screen. In almost any other year, this would be my number one movie, despite the fact that the ending does peter out a bit (the climactic finale gets a little first-draft nonsensical, but that hardly drags it down).

4. Every single trailer for Lady Bird made it look like exactly the kind of cloying, overly sentimental coming of age piece that I could live the rest of my life without ever seeing again. When we saw the preview as part of the coming attractions at our screening of Killing of a Sacred Deer, my roommate and I turned to each other in unison and made the “finger at the throat means puke” gesture, and made a rude noise or four. I wouldn’t have even given the movie a chance except that a friend I don’t get to see enough desperately wanted to go, so I joined him. Never let it be said that I cannot admit when I’m wrong: this movie was beautiful. I cried three times, big beautiful tears rolling down my face. Saoirse Ronan is fantastic, but the real MVP here is Laurie Metcalf, who’s been hiding out of sight for too long. Every performance is pitch perfect, and Greta Gerwig captures the honesty and earnestness of youthful dreams and the anxieties of class distinction (and how that distinction affects families at every level, and how class reverberates through a person’s whole life regardless of talent, brilliance, or desire). I want to wrap myself inside of this movie like a warm blanket for days on end. The cynic in me is sick to the point of near death when it comes to narratives about people who want to move to New York; I honestly feel that people whose sole desire in life is to move to The City are shallow people with unimaginative dreams. Sure, every one of us has had that desire at some point in their life, but even a deeply entrenched cinephile like me who can’t have a single conversation that doesn’t involve pop culture knows better than to let television and movies make my choices for me, and I’m not an idiot so I’m deeply conscious of the fact that the “New York” that everyone dreams of moving to hasn’t existed since the Giuliani administration Disneyfied the whole place. But in this movie, as the shallow dream of a deeply real, flawed teenage girl who doesn’t understand just how good she has it, it works for me, against all odds. No one needs to be told that this is one of the best movies of 2017, as it’s been all over the place, but if you’re feeling contrary like I was, listen to a coal-hearted Grinch like me: it’s worth it. (You can also read Brandon’s review here.)

3. Lady Bird wasn’t the only major feature to star Lois Smith last year. Smith is also featured as the title character in Marjorie Prime, a deeply introspective and meditative film about the nature of grief, memory, loss, and family. I can’t recommend it more highly without going too deep into the film and revealing more than I should, so I suggest reading my review for a clearer picture of whether or not this film will touch you as it touched me. Perhaps it’s that my grandmother, who passed away last Christmas, was very much like Marjorie in her own last days, but there’s a verisimilitude to this story that transcends personal experience as much as it is informed by it.  “As Tess (Geena Davis) points out, when we remember an event, what we’re actually remembering is the last time we remembered the event, back and back and back, like a series of photographs slowly fading out of focus in a recursive loop. Or, as underlined in another of the film’s conversations that mirrors the plot, one of Tess recounts how one of her students had inherited their father’s parrot, which sometimes still spoke with the dead man’s voice, even twenty years after his death. Love and grief have a profound effect on the way that our memories evolve and devolve and undergo a metamorphosis as we age, and the ravages of time on the human body and mind also contribute to this imperfect personal narrative.”

2. I’ll try not to repeat what I already wrote in my review of Raw (original French title Grave). I recently rewatched the film with a different group of friends following its release on home video, and loved it even more the second time around. We ordered a pizza, and I asked if they were still down to watch Raw even though we were eating. Friend 1: “Wait, is the movie gross?” Me: “I think that we’ll be finished eating before it gets gross.” And boy, does it! Friend 2 had to turn away from the screen during a certain scene (at the risk of giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it, it’s the scene with Alex’s finger), which was also the point in the film that infamously prompted audience members at Cannes to flee, vomit, or faint, all of which are completely reasonable reactions. Roommate of Boomer was delighted, however; he had also seen the trailer for Raw at the Alamo Drafthouse many times and assumed it was going to be a basic horror movie with delusions of grandeur, and was pleasantly surprised to find that, although there are horror elements at play, the primary genre the movie fits into is that of dark (dark, dark) comedy. Raw is gross, but it’s also hilarious, and surprisingly endearing and sweet at certain moments. It’s also now streaming on Netflix, so check it out while you can (and if you think your stomach can handle it).

1. What else is there to say about Get Out that hasn’t already been said? What tiny pieces of information could I pick up, turn over, and inspect for a deeper meaning that haven’t already been inspected to the point of total knowledge by various other critics, people talking about their lived experience, the black twittersphere and blogospheres, and every other person under the sun? This is the best movie of 2017. There’s not much more to say about it that you haven’t read elsewhere and from a better writer than I am. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Let it flow through you and inform you about the daily experiences of people of color in our country. Let it teach you a lesson about the power of cell phone video as a liberator, and about the frequent hypocrisy of white liberalism. Let it be the light for you in dark (and sunken) places. Let its truth live in you and affect your daily life, teaching you to recognize the toxicity within yourself. Live it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Wheelman (2017)

“I drive the car. I’m the wheelman. That’s it. End of story.”

The incredible thing about the film Locke is how much tension it manages to generate by depicting Tom Hardy making telephone calls about a concrete pour & a domestic snafu while driving practically in real time in a fancy car. The much grimier, less delicate Netflix Original™ Wheelman sets that restraint & refinement aflame and then pisses on the ashes. Wheelman is essentially Locke with all of the references to concrete substituted with variations on the word “motherfucker” (so much so that Shea Whigham’s Travis Bickle-esque scumbag is billed simply as Motherfucker in the credits) and its stage play dialogue being run over at full speed by GTA-style video game action/chaos. Most people who adored Locke weren’t likely wishing to themselves that it would be remade as a hyper-violent, bitterly macho shoot-em-up, but they’d likely have fun with what Wheelman does with the formula anyway. There aren’t many action movies this year leaner & meaner than this direct-to-streaming sleeper and the fact that it resembles a much classier high-concept picture makes it all the more charming in its own scrappy way.

Frank Grillo stars as the titular Wheelman, a tough-as-nails ex-con who drives getaway missions to repay mobsters for debt he accrued in prison. The movie details a single night of mayhem in his miserable life when a heist goes horribly wrong & puts everything he loves in jeopardy. Instructed to abandon his crew in the middle of a bank robbery, the wheelman finds himself stuck between two warring criminal factions while in possession of the cash they both claim ownership over. Between street chases & gunfights across the city, he negotiates the terms of the money’s surrender by phone between both parties while also sending instructions to his daughter & ex-wife on how to avoid the mobsters’ clutches and tracking down the people responsible for getting him stuck in such a dangerous position in the first place. The plot is lizard brain simple, leaving plenty of room for the slickly edited camera trickery & city-wide mountain of paranoia that drive the film’s action. It’s as if the opening heist sequence of Drive was stretched out for a full 80 minutes and packed to the gills with explosively dangerous testosterone. In other words, it’s a blast.

It’s easy to imagine an action film with this little dedication to establishing complex plot & characters feeling boring or empty, but Wheelman compensates for these deliberate deficiencies just fine in its attention to craft. The majority of the film is shot from inside the car, even the conflict-inciting bank robbery, so that the audience feels like they were shoved in the back seat against their will and taken on a reckless ride into the night. Even when drivers switch hands at the wheel, the POV remains with the car itself. Shots are framed tire-level at dangerously sharp turns. Gunshots & head wounds are allowed to sink in with full impact, even though the movie’s usual M.O. is to chase break-neck kineticism. Much like Locke, Wheelman is little more than a sequence of phone calls made by a single character in the driver’s seat of a nondescript car, but it finds a way to make every moment of that dynamic unbelievably thrilling. It’s much trashier & flashier than Locke, though, so the fact that it’s able to pull off its same formula is much less surprising, even if it is a brutally constant source of action mayhem/fun.

-Brandon Ledet

Quick Change (1990)

For years, I’ve been curious about the New York City-set heist comedy Quick Change because of a single, isolated image: Bill Murray robbing a bank while dressed like a birthday clown. Since at least as far back as Rushmore, Murray has been perpetually playing a sad clown type in nearly all of his onscreen roles, so it seemed too perfect that there was a film out there where he made the archetype literal. Unfortunately, Murray The Clown does not last too long into Quick Change‘s runtime. It makes for a wonderfully bizarre image, but the bank-robbing clown sequence is only a short introduction to the film’s larger plot. As a heist film, Quick Change does not put much stock into the intricate difficulties of robbing a bank in New York City; it’s more concerned with the complications of making away with the loot in a city that resembles an urbanized Hell. As the tagline puts it, “The bank robbery was easy. But getting out of New York was a nightmare.”

The cliché statement “New York City itself is a character in the film” usually means that a movie uses the rich, multicultural setting of the city to breathe life into the background atmosphere, usually by including a large cast of small roles from all walks of NYC life. In Quick Change, New York City is a character in that it’s a malicious villain, going out of its way to destroy the lives of the film’s bank-robbing anti-hero. In a media climate stuffed with so many gushing love letters to the magic of New York, Quick Change is fascinating as a harshly critical screed trying to tear the city down, which is an impressively bold perspective for unassuming mid-budget comedy. The birthday clown bank heist is certainly the best-looking & most impressively choreographed sequence of the film, especially in the gradual reveal that Murray had two insiders helping him pull off the robbery while hiding in plain sight as hostages (Geena Davis & Randy Quaid). The dynamic among this trio doesn’t hold as much emotional weight as the film requires it to, but they are amusingly dwarfed by the complex shittiness of a larger city that has trapped them with a never ending series of obstacles between them & the airport. Murray explains to his cohorts, in reference to the police on their tails, “Our only hope is that they’re mired in the same shit we have to wade in every day.” This filthy, crime-ridden, pre-Giuliani New York is crawling with reprobates always on the verge of sex & violence. Passersby whistle at & ogle Geena Davis and express disappointment when strangers nearly die but pull through. Mobsters, construction workers, and fascist bus drivers make simple tasks complex ordeals. Mexican immigrants joust on bicycles with sharpened garden tools. There’s a hideous, hateful side of the city waiting to reveal itself at every turn, which the movie posits as a facet of daily life in the Big Rotten Apple.

Quick Change falls at an interesting midpoint in Bill Murray’s career, halfway between the comedy megastar days of Ghostbusters & Stripes and the serious artist collaborations with auteurs like Wes Anderson & Sofia Coppola. Once Jonathan Demme dropped out as the film’s director, Murray himself stepped in as co-director (along with his partner in the elephant-themed road comedy Larger than Life, Howard Franklin) and you can see why it was important for him to hold onto the project in that way. Quick Change was not a commercial hit (despite positive reviews), but it does a good job of allowing Murray to play to his strengths as a downtrodden, put-upon cynic while still adhering to the general aesthetic of a commercially-friendly late 80s comedy (which unfortunately includes gay panic & racial stereotype humor in its DNA). A more interesting film might have held onto his birthday clown costuming for longer into the runtime, even as he struggled to escape the chaotic nastiness of New York City at large, but as a transitional piece between too radically different points in Murray’s career the movie is admirably goofy & bizarre. It even has a kind of cultural longevity in the way it includes then-young actors like Tony Shalhoub, Phil Hartman, and Kurtwood Smith among the general population of the ruffians of New York, a city the movie clearly hates.

-Brandon Ledet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-CC Chapman

The Little Hours (2017)

To date, I’ve been a huge fan of all three of Jeff Baena’s features as a director. I was even an unwitting devotee going as far back as his first writer’s credit on the required taste absurdist comedy I Huckabees. Besides consistently collaborating with Aubrey Plaza, however, there’s no solid pattern to his output as an auteur. The zom-com Life After Beth & the bachelor party from Hell black comedy Joshy have a vaguely similar dedication to bleak humor in the midst of a romantic fallout, but don’t resemble each other in the slightest in terms of genre, plot, or tone. With his latest film, The Little Hours,  Baena even leaves his usual bleakness behind for an entirely different kind of dark comedy altogether. Profiling the sex & violence pranksterism of nuns running wild in a Middle Ages convent, The Little Hours finds Baena at his leanest, funniest, and most visually beautiful. Not only is his latest film an unbelievably tight 90 minutes of blasphemous, hedonistic hilarity; it’s also a gorgeous indulgence in the grimy, sunlit beauty of 1970s Satanic horror & nunsploitation cinema. I swear Baena improves with every picture.

Aubrey Plaza, Allison Brie, and Kate Micucci star as a trio of “tough & violent” nuns bored out of their minds in a 14th Century convent. As a period piece, the movie makes several subtly played points about how young women without proper dowries were dumped into these religious institutions when their families became irritated with their presence at home & how class determined their place in the convents once admitted. Mostly, though, the film is a nonstop bacchanal reminiscent of the second half of Ken Russell’s The Devils or a sex comedy version of The Witch. Their lives are mostly an endless routine of dutiful prayer/domestic chores being interrupted by devious experiments with getting drunk, making out, flirting with black magic, and beating a poor farmer with his own lousy turnips. Their juvenile acts of depravity & vandalism become more focused with the introduction of a deaf, mute hottie played by Dave Franco, but the movie is mostly an episodic catalog of wild, vulgar nuns’ misbehavior. This slight, but eccentric dynamic works exceptionally well thanks to the immense comedic talent of the three leads, who rarely get as much freedom to cause havoc as they do here.

Based on one isolated section of the 14th Century text The Decameron, The Little Hours more or less lives up to the diminutive modifier of its title. Brevity is healthy for a comedy, though, and although the film is obviously informed by improv experimentation, it’s sharply edited down to its most bare essentials in a way more modern comedies could stand to be. At a lean 90 minutes and armed with the idyllic Garden of Eden sunshine of a sexed-up European “art film” (softcore porno) of the hippy-dippy Satanic psychedelia era, The Little Hours might just be both the best traditional comedy and the best period piece I’ve seen all year. I especially appreciated the opportunity it affords Micucci, who is usually cast as a reserved nerd, to run absolutely feral among her more seasoned vets of chaos castmates. It’s also wonderful to see Baena let loose from his usual high-concept, emotionally dour black comedies to deliver something much more unashamedly fun & light on its feet. As always, I look forward to whatever unexpected project he’ll deliver next, but I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard or been as visually in awe of his work as I was with this release.

-Brandon Ledet