Boomer’s Top 15 Films of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Uncut Gems (2019)

The Safdie Brothers’ breakout film Good Time was a knockout sucker punch that benefited greatly from its total surprise as a grimy novelty. Robert Pattinson’s starring role as an irredeemable scumbag who systematically burns every social bridge he’s crossed in NYC to achieve petty, self-serving goals was the final severed tether to the actor’s previous life as a vampiric teenage heartthrob. The synth assault soundtrack from Oneohtrix Point Never pinned the audience to the back of our seats like an overachieving Gravitron. It sets out to disgust, rattle, and discomfort for every minute of its small-minded heist plot and it succeeds wholesale. At first it appears that the Safdies’ follow-up, Uncut Gems, aims to repeat that very same experience – bringing back OPN for another oppressive score, revisiting the grimy underbelly of NYC, and swapping out RPatz for another against-type actor who’s far more talented than the roles he’s best remembered for implies. The nature of this particular lead actor’s screen presence changes the texture of the film entirely, though, subtly redirecting the same basic parts of Good Time towards an entirely new purpose.

Adam Sandler stars in Uncut Gems as a diamond jeweler and gambling addict who’s willing to melt down his entire life for the chance of orchestrating the ultimate score. He shuffles borrowed money around from sports bet to sports bet, caters to a wealthy black clientele of rappers and athletes who are lightyears outside his expected social orbit, and obsessively nurtures the sale of an uncut Ethiopian gemstone that appears to have magical, cosmic powers (but isn’t worth nearly as much as he self-appraises it to be). Like RPatz in Good Time, he runs around NYC making petty, self-serving chess moves to seal this ultimate score until everyone in the world is pissed off at him: his wife, his mistress, his bookie, the various mobsters that he owes money, Kevin Garnett, The Weekend, everyone. Unlike RPatz, he responds to this exponentially growing list of enemies by shouting with the same apoplectic rage that defined Sandler’s comedic roles in 90s cult classics like Billy Madison & Happy Gilmore. Whereas Good Time is all clenched jaws & gnawed fingernails from start to finish, Uncut Gems distinguishes itself by being consistently, disturbingly funny – thanks to Sandler’s willingness to redirect his usual schtick towards the grotesque.

While Uncut Gems didn’t have me quite as enraptured or rattled as the surprise blunt force of Good Time did, I’m in awe of how it revises that throat-hold thriller’s template into a darkly comedic farce without losing any of its feel-bad exploitation discomforts. Sandler’s unscrupulous gambler/jeweler shamelessly benefits from the exploitation of diamond miners in far-off foreign countries and employees just under his nose, and the movie never lets him off the hook for these sins. Watching the walls close in on him as he makes crooked deals across town is weirdly, uncomfortably fun, though, if not only through the ludicrous caricature of Sandler’s performance. The Safdies amplify the humor of this grimy feel-bad comedy with throwaway gags about cosmic colonoscopies & bejeweled Furbies and, in a larger sense, by bringing all its disparate elements to a frenetic climax in a classic farcical structure. Still, the responsibility of changing the film’s basic flavor enough to distinguish it from Good Time falls entirely on Sandler’s shoulders. It’s a bet that pays off, as he’s capable enough to make the audience laugh while simultaneously making us feel like shit. Repeating that bet for a third revision of Good Time‘s template would be ill-advised, though. Hopefully, the Safdies will realize it’s time to walk away from the table while they’re still up and find a new angle for their next project.

-Brandon Ledet

#52FilmsByWomen 2019 Ranked & Reviewed

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

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

5 Star Reviews

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

Smithereens (1982), dir. Susan Seidelman

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

Blood & Donuts (1995), dir. Holly Dale

4.5 Star Reviews

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

Blue Steel (1990), dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Homecoming (2019), dir. Beyoncé Knowles

4 Star Reviews

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

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

Gully Boy (2019), dir. Zoya Akhtar

Aniara (2019), dir. Pella Kågerman

High Life (2019), dir. Claire Denis

Paradise Hills (2019), dir. Alice Waddington

Hail Satan? (2019), dir. Penny Lane

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

Yellow is Forbidden (2019), dir. Pietra Brettkelly

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

The Farewell (2019), dir. Lulu Wang

Jezebel (2019), dir. Numa Perrier

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

Braid (2019), dir. Mitzi Peirone

Buckjumping (2019), dir. Lily Keber

Booksmart (2019), dir. Olivia Wilde

3.5 Star Reviews

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

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

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), dir. Susan Seidelman

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

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

Knives and Skin (2019), dir. Jennifer Reeder

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

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

Tenement (1985), dir. Roberta Findlay

Ladyworld (2019), dir. Amanda Kramer

Share (2019), dir. Pippa Bianco

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

Nancy (2018), dir. Christina Choe

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

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

3 Star Reviews

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

Disco Pigs (2001), dir. Kirsten Sheridan

Stripped to Kill (1987), dir. Katt Shea

Captain Marvel (2019), dir. Anna Boden

Dumplin’ (2018), dir. Anne Fletcher

Satanic Panic (2019), dir. Chelsea Stardust

Psycho Granny (2019), dir. Rebekah McKendry

Riot Girls (2019), dir. Jovanka Vuckovic

Daddy Issues (2019), dir. Amara Cash

Origin Story (2019), dir. Kulap Vilaysack

Would Not Recommend

The Loveless (1981), dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Detroit (2017), dir. Kathryn Bigelow

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

Fyre Fraud (2019), dir. Julia Willoughby Nason

-Brandon Ledet

Five Years of Film Blogging, 2015 – 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

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

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

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

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

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

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Quick Takes: Last-Minute 2019 Catch-Ups

I am terrible at watching movies this time of year, like bad at the actual act of doing it. Most of the Awards Season titles that light up pro critics’ lists don’t do much for me personally, and I’ll play catch-up with movies I’ve been dying to watch for months and genuinely think things like “This is really good but is it Best of the Year good?” Shameful. In the few instances where a surprise gem stands out as something special (Luz being my most recent example), I then fret over how to make room for it on my already overstuffed list of favorites from the year. I’m extremely grateful to have finally pushed through to the lawless chaos of January Dumping Season. Now we can all binge on gimmicky genre trash no one really gives a shit about; this is when I shine brightest.

Instead of entirely discarding the few last-minute splurges of 2019 catch-ups that I enjoyed but failed to be wowed by, I figured I’d collect them here in a short list of quick takes. Because I was aiming to cram in as many titles as possible, I knocked out the five shortest movies on my watchlist. They were all good-to-okay, and probably (definitely) all could have benefited from being viewed outside this unholy end-of-the-year cram session season. Here they are listed by shortest-to-longest runtime (with corresponding star ratings) in case you too want to rush through a few more interesting titles before we wrap up the list-making process and leave 2019 behind us forever, forgotten and discarded.

This Magnificent Cake! – 44min

A satirical series of stop-motion vignettes that mock the imperialist brutes of Belgian-occupied Congo as absurd grotesqueries. The soft felt & yarn materials used to construct the stop-motion puppets and the Looney Tunes-style modes of death—including discarded banana peels & falling pianos—clash horrifically with the real-life horrors of colonialism & racial subjugation. The film mostly interprets its setting through the nightmares of the oppressors, but it’s oddly reserved for something so steeped in surrealism & historical cruelty.

I never quite fell in love with it, but its combination of ambling dream logic & ice-cold Roy Anderssonian slapstick humor at least felt freshly upsetting in an interesting way.

Share – 87min

A dramatically realistic crossroads between Unfriended & HBO’s Euphoria, in which a high school athlete & honor student discovers a disturbing cellphone video of herself from a night she doesn’t remember. Our troubled teen protagonist wants to put the (almost certain) possibility that she was assaulted while blackout drunk at a party behind her, but the nature of social media & modern tech means her experience with the trauma cannot be handled privately. While the teen boys who filmed her (and likely physically assaulted her) mostly avoid legal & social repercussions due to a lack of physical evidence, their victim is the only one who’s effectively punished. Isolated, forced to dwell on the details of the event for months on end, and missing out on the best stretch of high school play, she sinks further into a private, internal misery while the outside world moves on, unchanged.

While the examination of rape & victim-blaming in the digital age is obviously a tough topic, the film nimbly deals with the aftermath & trauma of the scenario without succumbing to the potential for exploitation or alarmism. Its sickly digi-cam footage & fluorescent lighting were also very much on-brand with the Evil Internet media I’m always a sucker for. I’m ashamed to admit it, but with a supernatural horror element & a creepy synth score, this likely would have been one of my favorite movies of the year. Instead, it’ll have to settle for just being really good.

The Banana Splits Movie – 89min

A SyFy Channel Original that’s somehow a genuine delight? The Banana Splits Movie imagines a world where its eponymous Hanna-Barbera children’s show (which was a real-life TV program in the late 1960s) starred killer animatronic robots instead of failed actors in mascot costumes. At a live taping of the decades-running pop culture relic (which only lasted three years in real life), a Chuck E. Cheese-style cast of rock n’ roll robots go haywire and murder select, obnoxious members of their audience, contrasting a cutesy Saturday Morning TV setting with amusing fits of horrific gore.

I had a lot of fun with this, or at least more fun than I expected to. The dramatic writing is about on par with what you’d expect from a SyFy production, but the practical gore gags are a nasty delight once it gets cooking. It’s goofy & violent enough to be worthwhile despite how thin the character work is, which is more than you can say for most of the originals that network broadcasts.

Relaxer – 91min

The writer & star of 2015’s Buzzard (Joel Potrykus & Joshua Burge) team back up for yet another exercise in grotesque slackerdom. This time they deliver a magical-realism period piece set during the final weeks before the Y2K Apocalypse. Two shithead brothers locked in a one-upmanship game of escalating, pointless dares they call “Challenges” seemingly bring on the Apocalypse by attempting to beat an unconquerable level of Pac-Man in a single sitting. Unable to leave the couch until the Challenge is complete, Burge’s antihero slacker rots in his own putrid filth for months on end while the world crumbles around him and the Pac-Man lights & noises help pass the time. Also, the trusty pair of 3D glasses he uses as a security blanket when upset may or may not give him superpowers.

I appreciated this slightly more than Buzzard, but I’m still not totally sold on this duo’s variation on artful slackerdom. I got a few queasy laughs out of it, though, and the supernatural angle was a plus. Mostly, I just walked away from it disgusted with the human body and fearful that if I ever lived alone, I’d quickly devolve into this exact couchbound purgatory of filth.

Pihu – 91min

This movie has an incredible ripped-from-the-headlines premise. Left alone with a mother who commits suicide, a two-year-old toddler fends for herself for several days, unsupervised. Like a horror movie variation on Kore-Eda’s Nobody Knows, this Indian melodrama follows the toddler around her (upscale, but messy) apartment for days as she attempts to accomplish simple tasks like feeding & entertaining herself without suffering a gauntlet of potentially lethal obstacles: pills, fire, heights, sharp objects, live electricity, hot irons etc.

It’s an anxiety-inducing nightmare of a premise (one we’re told is “based on a true story”), but it’s also one that undercuts its own in-the-moment effect in a few disappointing ways. There’s a cheesy After School Special quality to the way its themes of suicide & domestic abuse are dramatized, not least of all because the actor who plays the toddler’s father (mostly as a disembodied voice) is excruciatingly awkward & insincere. Worse, the movie opts for a soothing, gentle sitar score to contrast the in-the-moment danger of its pint-sized protagonist, when it really needed a Mica Levi-style nightmare of creepy ambiance. Still, if you’re looking for a novelty horror version of Baby’s Day Out, its central hook is strong enough to carry it through its minor distractions & shortcomings, even if just barely.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

I saw a Star War! And it was fine. Not great, but pretty good.

I loved The Force Awakens. From the moment that first trailer dropped, a chill went through my body; I’ve always been more of a Trek boy, but Star Wars has a special place in my heart, too. With that trailer way back in the innocent days of 2015, I felt like I was eight years old again, seeing something that resonated with me in a special way as if it were the first time. And the film itself didn’t disappoint! Then along came The Last Jedi, which was … fine. The discourse surrounding TLJ in the past two years has been exhausting, with a lot of hatred leveled at director Rian Johnson, containing a level of vitriol that should rightfully be reserved for—and aimed at—some of the real monsters currently haunting the venerated halls of our government. For me, I usually tend to forget about the elements of a work that I find boring and instead focus on the things that entertain me, but with TLJ, I don’t remember much about what I liked. In my mind, the whole pointless, infuriating side story about Finn and Rose going to the stupid casino planet seems to take up the entirety of the film’s run time in my recollection. I got into my general issues with the way slavery in the Star Wars universe is presented and my hatred of the stupid chihuahua horse escape sequence from TLJ in my Solo review, so I won’t beg your patience by revisiting it here, but suffice it to say that I’m not terribly invested in the fate of a bunch of CGI creatures when the end of the film shows that there are still enslaved children cleaning those stables. I hate that the body politic of the internet bullied Kelly Marie Tran until she basically quit social media because that’s idiotic on the part of her bullies (not to mention cruel); you have to be a child or an idiot to blame an actor for the poor choices that their character makes, but holy shit, Rose (as written) really was a horrible addition to this franchise. She didn’t have to be, but Christ almighty did that entire subplot drag the movie down.

But this isn’t a review of The Last Jedi; it’s a review of The Rise of Skywalker. When we last left our heroes, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were dead, and Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford were alive. Leia was alive, but Carrie Fisher has, sadly, passed. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (Jon Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) were reunited with Chewie, R2-D2, and C3PO aboard the Millennium Falcon and lived to fight another day. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was throwing a tantrum about not being able to kill his uncle Luke and live up to the legacy of grandfather Darth Vader, and General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) was pretty tired of his shit. Caught up? Well, unlike TLJ, this movie doesn’t pick up right where the last installment left off; instead, we’ve catapulted some period of time into the future. Finn and Poe are off on one of those generic “gathering intelligence” missions, Rey is getting some Jedi training finally (from Leia), and Kylo Ren is micromanaging the shit out of the First Order, flying all over the place and singlehandedly attempting to wipe out any and all threats to his new position as Supreme Leader. And that’s all from the opening crawl!

Do you remember whenever Batman, as played by Adam West, would feed a bunch of information into his Batcomputer and then come to an utterly incoherent conclusion that was inexplicably correct, despite the fact that it shouldn’t have been? Half of the plot points in this film feel that way. You’ll spend the first half of this movie wanting to talk back to the screen, asking characters how they “know” that they have to go to this planet or that moon. One plot coupon leads to the next at a breakneck speed, and there’s no time for any revelations or new pieces of information to breathe before we’re off to get the next one. Some of this works, and there’s some real Indiana Jones stuff that happens with a dagger that turns out to be a compass, but even getting to the place where the dagger is found (almost by accident) takes up an inordinate amount of screen time. Information and vistas come at you so quickly that you barely have time to get your bearings before jumping to hyperspace.

Even at that pace, there’s still far too much that happens offscreen, or relies on the audience to grant meaning to information that hasn’t been pre-established. The best comparison I can make is to the later Harry Potter sequels. As someone who was just a tad bit too old for the books when they came out, I’m really only familiar with the first two of those novels from reading them as part of a college course for people who might one day teach young adult literature. The movies were fun, though, and I enjoyed them, up until around The Half-Blood Prince, where they started too become incomprehensible if you didn’t have knowledge that came from the book series alone; from what I understand from conversations with friends who read J.K. Rowling’s books and Dominic Noble’s “Lost in Adaptation” YouTube series, later films adapted plot points from the novels on which they were based, but which followed up on plot elements which had been dropped from the previous film adaptations of the source material. A notable example is that, when I finally saw The Deathly Hallows in grad school, there’s a moment where Ron has some kind of accident while apparating, and Hermione screams that he’s “splinched.” As someone who had only seen the films, I had no reference point for what that could possibly mean. There’s a lot that happens here in Rise of Skywalker that feels much the same, except that there’s not even a source material from which this is taken that might give more insight, and the film wallpapers over these narrative leaps by moving so fast that (hopefully) you won’t notice it.

I’m going to get into minor spoilers here, so skip to the last paragraph if that’s not your bag. I’m not really a fan of the term “retcon” when talking about media franchises because of the overwhelmingly negative connotations that surround that term, both within the fandom and from the outside looking in. Retcons aren’t always bad; my personal favorite comic book character, Jessica Jones, only exists because Brian Michael Bendis wasn’t allowed to use Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) in his proposed noir private eye comic and had to invent a new character out of whole cloth, then retroactively slotted her into previously established Marvel Comics continuity. Even questionable retcons, like Star Trek: Discovery‘s insertion of a human foster sister into Spock’s backstory, have their fans (I don’t hate it). But there are things that happen in Rise of Skywalker that push the limits of what a narrative can expect its audience to go along with. The fact that Palpatine is still alive (or perhaps undead), despite the previous two films in this new trilogy even hinting that this might be the case, is a big one. That’s barely a spoiler, considering that this is literally the first thing that the audience learns in the opening crawl: “THE DEAD SPEAK!” is the text that immediately following the film’s title. The fact that Rey is, in fact, related to a previously established character despite Ren’s assertions to the contrary in the last film isn’t really a big deal in comparison to this horseshit. The fact that a major character that last appeared onscreen over a decade ago is actually not (quite) dead isn’t something that you establish offscreen. That’s just bad storytelling.

But even that doesn’t bother me as much as the moment where Rey is presented with a special gift: Leia’s lightsaber. It’s a moment that’s treated with such reverence that, as a viewer, you understand that you’re supposed to be awed by it, and by gum, I really wanted to be. I wanted to feel thrilled again; I wanted to feel the rush of childlike delight, but instead I felt the all-too-familiar sting of adulthood, the realization that you can’t go home again, a hollow dissatisfaction with the artifice that was constructed to play upon your nostalgia. It was like the first time that you realized that chocolate Easter bunnies are empty inside, and that now a little part of you will be, too, forever. There’s nothing magical about learning that Leia had a lightsaber, or even that she trained as a Jedi with Luke (who really wasn’t super qualified for that, all things considered, which would have been a much more interesting arc for him in these films). It’s just more bad retconning that, if you read the expanded universe novels and comics, may mean something to you, but which is lost on the rest of us.

Look, Rise of Skywalker is good. It’s not great like The Force Awakens or passable like The Last Jedi, but it’s also not that spectacular either. It doesn’t take the chances that TLJ took, and I was glad that the return of JJ Abrams meant that we went back to mostly practical FX for the aliens (those stupid chihuahua horses from TLJ will haunt me to my goddamned grave) even if the resultant film felt like he was trying to railroad the ending back to his original concepts after not liking how another director played with his toys. On the one hand, I wish the whole thing had ended with TFA so that we could just imagine our own endings, but on the other hand, no one’s stopping you from doing that anyway.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Luz (2019)

In the mad dash to gobble down as many potential Best of the Year List contenders as possible before we start making ranking our personal favorites films of 2019, only one last-minute title has jumped out at me as a worthy dark horse entry. The bewildering thing is that it’s a student film, the thesis project of first-time director Tilman Singer. A 70min genre exercise with a small cast and just a few sparse locations, Luz is maybe the most unassuming indie gem from 2019 to achieve such a sublime must-see cinematic effect. Its ability to hypnotize & disorient an audience into a state of total delirium in just an hour’s time is a commendable act of cinematic black magic, an effect unmatched by any other last-minute 2019 catch-ups I’ve flooded my brain with in recent weeks.

This barebones genre gem is a story of demonic possession. A visibly shaken, scraped-up cab driver is held for questioning at what appears to be a late-1970s police station. Apparently driven mad by an encounter with her last customer, the cabbie is subjected to hypnotism at the hands of a creepy doctor under the cops’ employ for further interrogation. Unbeknownst to anyone in the room, the doctor is possessed by a demon who is obsessed with our dazed cabbie, waiting for its most opportune moment to strike. We cut between the interrogation, the ill-fated cab ride, the dive bar where the doctor became possessed, and the Catholic school where the cabbie first encountered the demon in a disorienting kaleidoscope of narratives that only becomes creepier the more they shift & overlap.

On an aesthetic level, Luz is a thoroughly pleasant genre throwback indulgence in all the ways you’d expect: grimy celluloid grain, analog synth score, candlelit Satanic rituals, the full works. There are plenty of other movies that can deliver that exact brand of Euro-horror genre nostalgia, though. What really stands out here to me is the narrative ambitions that disorient time & place with an aggressive, deranged fervor. As the story’s various competing fractions combine into one sharp-edged mosaic, the film achieves a deranged, sweaty, deliriously horny nightmare that all demonic possession media strives for, but few titles ever achieve. The closest comparison point I have for its accomplishments are the supernatural horrors of giallo greats like Argento & Bava in titles like Suspiria & Kill Baby Kill. That’s an impressive echelon for a film school thesis project to sneak into, which alone makes Luz stand out as one of the year’s most unexpected treasures.

-Brandon Ledet

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The icy 1940s murder comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the funniest pieces of comedic writing to ever reach the screen. It just also happens to be one of the driest pieces of comedic writing to ever reach the screen, going down like a tall glass of cold sand. The closest the film comes to approaching the over-the-top slapstick antics we’ve come to expect from comedic filmmaking as a medium is a proto-Klumps gimmick in which British stage legend Alec Guinness plays several broad archetype characters of the same family throughout the film – a vaudevillian artform that later made a mint for actors like Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry, and (maybe closer to Guinness’s pedigree) Peter Sellers. Everything else is emotionally distant cruelty and callous bitchiness penned by a serial killer mutation of Oscar Wilde. That’s not a comedic tone that’s going to resonate with every viewer, but when it hits the right target it kills.

Dennis Price stars as the callous son of a disgraced noblewoman in the early 1900s. Bitter that he was raised in poverty because his mother married for love instead of land & title, our fey anti-hero schemes to reclaim his rightful place among landed wealthy gentry. He expedites his path back to this birthright like Jet Li in the nü-metal sci-fi thriller The One: murdering everyone ahead of him in line for his familial inheritance of a proper title. The humor of this selfish, greedy mission is in how these absurdly genteel murders are arranged to look like accidents, while our POV serial killer protagonist treats the deaths like domestic chores. The way he looks for “good” news in the Obituaries section of the paper and treats a diagram of his family tree like a hit list is outrageously cold & distanced. This is the kind of movie where the announcement of a murder investigation is described by the police as “a matter of some delicacy.” It’s also narrated as an after-the-fact epistolary memoir, underlining just how much of the humor is rooted in its post-Wilde writing style.

Alec Guinness does make an impression as the killer’s rotating cast of dipshit wealthy family members, whom the audience perversely want to see dead as well. His most popular collaboration with producer Michael Balcon—The Ladykillers—is a much more traditionally humorous farce, however, where his performance(s) is allowed to be more memorably pronounced. If anything, Guinness’s multiple personae in the doomed family line here only underline the multiple personae Price’s sociopathic killer tries on to gain access to the wealthy spaces his victims occupy. Guinness’s wealthy dolts don’t even turn out to be the killer’s ultimate nemesis; that honor belongs to a childhood “love” who shares his ruthless pursuit of money (just with shrewd choices in marriage partners, not murder).

Maybe the key to loving this movie’s frozen, impossibly dry heart lies in sharing that central vice of money envy – so that you get a perverse thrill from watching a working class fop murder his way into a more . . . comfortable living. More likely, it probably just takes an appreciation for the flippantly cruel way that thirst for wealth is written on the page, as that’s where Kind Hearts and Coronets‘s most exquisite artistry & outrageously funny zingers lie.

-Brandon Ledet