Brandon’s Top Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2018

1. 2.0 The more I watch big-budget Asian cinema the more I understand that it’s common for a single movie to touch on as many genres it can instead of sticking to just one. This Kollywood flick fully lives up to that ethos, melding technophobic sci-fi, Environmentalist political advocacy, ghost-possession horror, android-on-android romance, slapstick farce, superhero action spectacle, and philosophical debate into one lumbering, silly-ass beast. I loved it all, both for the surprise of its novelty and for its audacity to go big & so silly.

2. The Misandrists Queer punk prankster Bruce LaBruce’s latest work is a little too cheeky & misshapen to stand out as my favorite movie of the year but it is the most John Watersiest film I’ve seen all year, which, close enough. The Misandrists has clear thematic & aesthetic vision and a distinct political voice, but its commanding ethos is still aggressively amateur & D.I.Y. Its burn-it-all-down gender & sexual politics are sincerely revolutionary but are also filtered through a thick layer of sarcasm & over-the-top-camp. You might be justified in assuming it was a film school debut from a young, angry upstart with a still-fresh appetite for shock humor & pornography, but it’s got the clear vision & tonal control of an artist who’s been honing their craft for decades – like John Waters at his best.

3. The First PurgeThere’s nothing subtle about The First Purge’s political messaging in its depictions of white government operatives invading helpless, economically wrecked black neighborhoods to thin out the ranks of its own citizenry, nor should there be. We do not live in subtle times. What I didn’t expect, though, was that the film would be willing to push the imagery of its volatile racial politics to the extremes it achieves as the violence reaches its third act crescendo. I greatly respect its bravery & lack of restraint, almost enough to finally give the rest of the series a chance.

4. Blockers This modern teen sex comedy shifts away from the bro-friendly humor of its genre’s American Pie & Porky’s past by approaching the subject from a femme, sex-positive perspective. I don’t quite understand the narrative that its mold-breaking challenge to the gendered politics of the typical high school sex comedy is revolutionary. If nothing else, The To Do List already delivered an excellent femme subversion of the trope to a tepid critical response in 2013 and 2014’s Wetlands has set the bar impossibly high for what a gross-out femme sex comedy can achieve. Blockers is a damn fun addition to that tide-change, though, one that’s surprisingly emotionally effective in a John Hughes tradition beyond its sexual buffoonery.

5. A Simple Favor Mainstream comedy mainstay Paul Feig shakes up his usual schtick with a tongue-in-cheek Gone Girl riff. The performances, writing, and costuming are all naughtily playful at the exact perfect one, especially in how they converge to create a career-high showcase for Blake Lively. The wild shifts in tone from dark humor to dime story mystery novel intrigue can leave unsuspecting audiences more befuddled than amused, but this has serious cult classic potential among the weirdos on its distinctly modern wavelength.

6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Into the Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & medium that should be a total drag but is instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity here.

7. VenomTom Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout the film as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

8. Hotel ArtemisUnlike most overwritten post-Tarantino crime thrillers, this misshapen gem is genuinely, consistently hilarious. With the hotel setting and absurdist mix-ups of an Old Hollywood farce, Hotel Artemis embraces the preposterousness of its exceedingly silly premise in a way that more cheap genre films could stand to. However, the joys of watching Jodie Foster waddle around the titular hotel and lovingly tell patrons they look “like all the shades of shit” are very peculiar & very particular. That kind of highly specific appeal can be a blessing in disguise for a scrappy, over-the-top genre film, and I can totally see Hotel Artemis gathering a dedicated cult following over time.

9. Overlord There’s nothing especially nuanced or unique about the message “Nazis are evil & gross and must be destroyed,” but in the context of 2018’s political climate it still feels damn good to hear. This is especially true when said Nazis are shot, set aflame, and exploded in an over-the-top action spectacle that cares way more about cathartic fun than it does about historical accuracy. We may be living in a world where war thrillers & zombie pictures are all too plentiful, but there can never be enough condemnation of Nazi scumbaggery.

10. Black Panther I can’t pretend that this movie hit me as the mind-blowing, form-breaking revelation most audiences see it as (mostly because its titular hero is something of a moralistic bore). I’d even feel comfortable calling it the least of Ryan Coogler’s works, even if it is his best-funded. As an Afrofuturist sci-fi spectacle with a killer villainous performance from the consistently-great Michael B. Jordan, however, it’s easy to cite this franchise entry as one of the best of the MCU canon. My appreciation for Black Panther might be relatively subdued when compared to others’, but I could contently watch spaceships fly around Wakanda while Michael B Jordan chews scenery & background actors model Afrofuturist fashion designs for a blissful eternity.

11. How to Talk to Girls at Parties A jubilant, musically-charged mess of bisexual, youthful rebellion that’s half theatre-kid earnestness & half no-fucks-given punk. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s (incredibly short) short story of the same name, How to Talk to Girls at Parties finds John Cameron Mitchell crafting his own Velvet Goldmine vision of pop excess, except set in England’s early-stages punk scene, years after the demise of the glam scene lauded in Todd Haynes’s film. The film’s future-kink set design, punk needle drops, irreverent culture-clash humor, and performances by indie scene heavyweights Elle Fanning (as a babe-in-the woods space alien rebel) & Nicole Kidman (as a parodic Vivienne Westwood knockoff) are all intoxicating pleasures that readily distract from the fact that Mitchell has greedily bitten off more than any human could possibly chew, only to spit the overflow into the air in defiance of tastefulness.

12. Halloween Like with The Force Awakens, this Halloween sequel/remake/reboot has the impossible task of pleasing everyone, ranging from devotees of the original who want to know how Laurie Strode’s doing 40 years later to first-weekend horror-gobbling teens who just want to see some jump scares & interesting kills. I believe it did an excellent job of satisfying the most extreme ends of that divide by treating them as separate tracks, then giving them a substantive reason to converge. The tension between the original Halloween’s storyline’s need to logically seek closure & the slasher genre’s need to propagate random, senseless violence makes this film one of the best examples of its franchise – one that has something substantive to say about Fate, Evil, and self-fulfilling prophecies.

13. Marrowbone If you’re not especially in love with the atmospheric feel of the traditional haunted house genre, this film’s aesthetic details and bonkers third act might not be enough to carry you beyond the sense that we’ve seen this story told onscreen many times before. More forgiving Gothic horror fans should find plenty of admirable specificity to this particular story, though – the kind of tangible, unhinged detailing that allows the best ghost stories to stick to the memory despite their decades (if not centuries) of cultural familiarity.

14. Assassination NationUpdates & subverts the Heathers formula by adopting the glib, dark humor of Twitter-speak, where all human experience – even the worst misery & public embarrassment imaginable – is fair game for a flippant, casually tossed-off joke. This weaponized, empathy-free brand of online humor sits on the stomach with an unease, only to gradually erupt into full-on, gendered violence once it escapes the anonymity of the internet and devolves into a public display. Assassination Nation may be costumed like a glib, modernist Heathers descendant, but it’s ultimately less interested in making you laugh than it is in making you sick to your stomach. Once you catch onto that nausea being its exact intended effect, it’s an incredibly impressive work.

15. Mom and Dad A wickedly fun satire about traditional families’ barely concealed hatred for their own; a chaotic portrait of selfishness & self-loathing in the modern suburban home. This movie hides behind tongue-in-cheek touches like a 70s exploitation-themed credits sequence & stylized dialogue like “My mom is a penis,” but just under its ironic camp surface rots a charred, bitterly angry heart, one with no respect for the almighty Family Values that mainstream America holds so dear. Show up for Nic Cage destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing “The Hokey Pokey;” stay for the pitch-black humor about “successful” adults who find their manicured, suburban lives with the right career & the right family bitterly unfulfilling.

16. Batman Ninja The concept of mashing up Batman with anime sounds like a nerd’s wet dream, a juvenile pleasure impulse Batman Ninja attempts to live up to in every self-indulgent frame. With intense character redesigns from Japanese manga artist Takashi Okazaki and an impressive team of traditionalist animators, this movie is almost well-crated enough to pass itself off as an art piece instead of what it truly is: nonstop over-the-top excess, a shameless sky-high pile of pop culture trash. Batman Ninja seems entirely unconcerned with justifying its own for-their-own-sake impulses. Its experiments in the newly discovered artform of Batmanime seem to be born entirely of “Wouldn’t it be rad if __?” daydreaming. It’s a refreshing approach to Batman storytelling, as most of the character’s feature-length cartoons are much less comfortable with fully exploring the freedom from logic animation affords them.

17. Ghost Stories For most of its runtime, this movie pretends to be a very well-behaved, Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level horror anthology with open-ended, unsatisfying conclusions to its three mildly spooky vignettes. It turns out that dissatisfaction is deliberate, as it sets the film up for a supernaturally menacing prank on an unsuspecting audience. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent-enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure us into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith.

18. Revenge “Resolving” rape through gory bloodshed may be a faulty narrative impulse, but the way Revenge filters its all-out gore fest indulgences through psychedelic, sun-rotted fantasy is an especially novel mutation of a rape revenge genre formula that must evolve to be sustained (or, better yet, must be destroyed for good). The trick is having the patience in watching the film participate in that despicable genre long enough to be able to explode it from the inside.

19. SuperFly A modernized retooling of one of the most iconic titles in the blaxploitation canon, this low-budget, high-fashion action thriller sets itself up for comparisons that jeopardize its chance to stand out on its own from the outset. The soundtrack may have been updated from Curtis Mayfield funk to Future trap, and some of the nihilism from the original may have been supplanted with wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it is still largely the same story of an ambitious hustler with beautifully over-treated hair struggling to get out of the cocaine business with one big, final score. It’s a gleefully trashy, hyperviolent action cheapie with more of an eye for fashion & brutality than any technical concerns in its visual craft or its debt to stories told onscreen in the past. It’s entirely enjoyable for being just that.

20. Truth or Dare – There are two competing gimmicks at war with each other in the gleefully idiotic trash-horror Truth or Dare?. As suggested in the title, one gimmick involves a supernatural, deadly version of the schoolyard game truth-or-dare that drives the film both to explorations of contrived ethical dilemmas and to even more contrived novelty indulgences in demonic possession clichés. As delightfully silly as a haunted truth-or-dare game is for a horror movie premise, though, it’s not the gimmick that most endeared the film to me. It’s Truth or Dare?’s stylistic gimmick as The Snapchat Filter Horror Movie that really stole my trash-gobbling heart. Films like Unfriended, #horror, Afflicted, and so on are doing more to preserve the history of modern online communication than they’re given credit for, specifically because they’re willing to exploit pedestrian trash mediums like Skype, Candy Crush, and webcasting as foundational gimmicks for feature-length narratives. For its own part, Truth or Dare? has earned its place in cheap horror’s academic documentation of online discourse by exploiting Snapchat filter technology as a dirt-cheap scare delivery system. As silly as its titular gimmick can be, it wouldn’t have deserved camp cinema legacy without that secondary Snapchat filter gimmick backing it up.

-Brandon Ledet

2.0 (2018)

There’s a cinematic downtime in the post-Thanksgiving afterglow, when Major Oscar contenders have not yet arrived in smaller markets and Falls’ big-budget blockbusters have long outworn their welcome, leaving little to be excited about on local big screens. This entertainment void can sometimes lead to risky programming choices, like walking into an Indian sci-fi action epic with no preparation or context for what you’re watching. I saw the Tamil-language “Kollywood” production 2.0 in 3D as a total blind-purchase. I didn’t even know it was a sequel to the 2010 film Endhiran until I recognized its superhero character Chitti from “viral content’ memes of its predecessor’s more ludicrous scenes. The heroic android Chitti does not arrive until at least an hour into the film. The full nature & history of the supervillain he’s tasked to disarm is withheld for even longer. As such, I had absolutely no idea what direction 2.0’s sprawling 3-hour narrative was going to swerve at any point, making for one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. I don’t know how well that experience will translate to people who have already seen Endhiran or have a better familiarity with the peculiar structure & tones of a typical Kollywood sci-fi action comedy. Even reading this review before seeing 2.0 compromises your chance to replicate the experience. All I can report is that I was shocked & delighted throughout this go-for-broke live action cartoon.

I was already pleased with my blind purchase of a 2.0 ticket as soon as its opening credits, which are constructed like the kind of 3D virtual reality “rollercoaster” that people used to go gaga for at Disney World in the early aughts. That cheap-thrills amusement park ride through the “futuristic” opening credits is then disrupted by an incredibly bleak simulation of an entirely different VR experience: a first-person POV suicide. A gloomy old man hangs himself by a noose from a cellphone tower, birds swarming around his swinging body in a pitch-black tonal shift. His damned spirit then somehow uses the amplification of the cellphone tower to confiscate & spiritually possess all the world’s smartphones as revenge for the planet’s modern ills that drove him to suicide. 2.0 quickly reveals itself to be a gleefully over-the-top participant in my pet favorite genre territory: the technophobic cyberthriller about the Evils of the Internet. Our freshly-minted Luddite ghost is righteously angry about the ways cellphone towers have disrupted the lives & flight patterns of birds, so he hacks/haunts every phone he can gather to attack the very men who have greedily traded in bird lives for profit. Smartphones gather in slow-creeping blankets that cover entire rooms & roads, surrounding their bird-killing capitalist targets and eventually exploding them from the inside in moments of Cronenbergian body horror. Only one force is considered effective enough to subdue this supernatural birds’ rights activist: everyone’s favorite superhero android Chitti, whom I’ve honestly ever heard of despite his worldwide heroic acclaim.

Chitti’s universally lovable superheroics play like a silly joke – and it’s hilarious. The same slightly pudgy, middle aged actor who plays the scientist who created Chitti, Rajinikanth, also doubles as the superhero robot – distinguished as a piece of future-tech by his shiny silver jacket & knockoff Oakley sunglasses. He looks like someone’s milquetoast uncle snuck into one of those creepy Duracell commercials from the 90s, like the mild-mannered sitcom equivalent of Max Headroom. He travels by metal-gear heelies, leaving a comically unimpressive trail of sparks behind him as he zips around the city. He’s also supported by updated Chitti models that allow Rajinikanth­­ to stretch his acting chops in high-concept questions like “What if Chitti was a macho asshole?” or “What if Chitti were tiny & cute?” The deliriously over-the-top fun of Chitti’s mugging-at-the-camera superheroics is enough of a sugary blast to make you forget that 2.0 was once a grim, violent cyber-horror about vengefully possessed smartphones. The way the two halves of that divide clash in a giant go-for-broke superhero climax is far sillier, wilder, and more memorable than anything you’ll find in the MCU. The more I watch big-budget Asian cinema the more I understand that it’s common for a single movie to touch on as many genres it can instead of sticking to just one. 2.0 lives up to that ethos, melding technophobic sci-fi, Environmentalist political advocacy, ghost-possession horror, android-on-android romance, slapstick farce, superhero action spectacle, and philosophical debate about the power of positivity into one lumbering, silly-ass beast. It almost doesn’t matter if you aren’t already familiar with Chitti or the usual modes of Kollywood filmmaking; the movie will go out of its way to entertain you in any way it can, even if it means concluding on a Dirty Computer-esque sci-fi music video that blows through the entire budget of an indie feature in just a few minutes.

I look forward to reviewing Chitti’s previous adventures in Endrihan and exploring similarly over-the-top Kollywood action spectacles, but I’m also glad I was able to stumble into 2.0 without any contextual preparation. That’s a rare treat for a modern moviegoer. It’s so rare, in fact, that I found myself tickled by stray novelties that might have otherwise bothered me if they were something I had come to expect as cinematic norms: in-your-face 3D ad placements, Indian nu-metal, slow-motion reaction shots that hold on an extra’s face for at least a beat too long. I loved it all, both for the surprise of its novelty and for its audacity to go big & so silly. Chitti & company are 100% in on the joke, but 2.0 still commits to its ludicrous premise with full sincerity. I’d be lucky to experience that at the cinema every year.

-Brandon Ledet