Episode #74 of The Swampflix Podcast: 2018’s Honorable Mentions & A Simple Favor (2018)

Welcome to Episode #74 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our seventy-fourth episode, the podcast crew continues our discussion of the Top Films of 2018 with some honorable mentions, including a Movie of the Minute discussion of the Paul Feig comedy-thriller A Simple Favor. Enjoy!

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-Brandon Ledet, Britnee Lombas, and CC Chapman

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

Boomer’s Top Films of 2018

Let’s get this out of the way: 2018 was a miserable year for yours truly. From March to June, I was locked in a constant battle with the manager of the property where I live with regards to a phantom leak that they “observed,” leading to them cutting a 4′ square section of my bathroom ceiling being cut, without being repaired or replaced, for three months. I picked up a staph infection while on vacation, arrived home after nearly a day-and-a-half of travel due to an overnight layover in Dublin, only to find that my luggage had been lost and that my refrigerator was abloom with monstrous polyps and fungi due to its motor failing while I was gone. And then in October, I was standing innocently at the corner of 7th and Colorado Streets in downtown Austin, waiting for my bus to take me home after a long Monday, when a man in a pickup truck ran the red light, was struck by another vehicle, spun out, and then ultimately hopped the curb and pinned my leg to the bus stop bench and dragging me the length of it before coming to rest in a position that trapped me and rendered me immobile. This broke my fibular neck and left me with extensive tissue damage, including an internal degloving event (don’t look it up unless you’ve got a strong stomach), and trapped me in my apartment for six weeks; I only got out to go to the doctor and to vote, because it’s going to take a lot more than being mangled and nearly killed to keep your boy from voting. As a result, anything that was released after October 15 pretty much flew under my radar. There was so much I wanted to see this year: I had tickets to Bad Times at the El Royale for the day after the collision that has (temporarily, fingers crossed) hobbled me, and a pass to Good Manners (As boas maneiras) for that weekend, both of which went unused. Perhaps the greatest crime is that I, the self-proclaimed foremost expert on Dario Argento’s body of work among all the people that you know (unless you know Maitland McDonagh, in which case, can you introduce me?), still have not seen the remake of Suspiria. Of course, this year also blessed me in some places: I took my first vacation since 2014 and got to go out of the country for the first time for it as well! Also, Black Panther came out and my cat outlived (and continues to outlive) the veterinarian’s projections, so here we are. Also, I’m not going to see Boy Erased. It’s just too triggering and personal.

All the movies that I wanted to see but did not in 2018, and thus should not be considered omissions from this list for lack of quality, but simply due to availability and my getting mangled: Bad Times at the El Royale, Foxtrot, Three Identical Strangers, Summer of ’84, Green Fog, Call Me By Your Name, Isle of Dogs, American Animals, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Blackkklansman, The Kindergarten Teacher, Let the Corpses Tan, Good Behavior, and If Beale Street Could Talk. Also, probably that one about the Spiders-men.

2017 Hangover
(Movies I Wish I Saw Last Year So They Could Have Been on My 2017 List)

The Babysitter: Every word of Brandon’s review of this one is correct: it is a sugar rush of gory absurdity, in the vein of Turbo Kid, one of my favorites of the past few years. I, too, could have done without some of the elements that were designed to pander to the lowest denominator of movie viewers, with their foundationally eradicated attention spans (more on that in a minute). The pop-up text on screen (especially anything to do with the pocketknife) was distracting and fundamentally lowered the level of discourse we can have about this movie, but I was still enthralled from minute to minute, even after walking shirtless scene Robbie Amell took his plunge. This one gets a strong recommendation from me.

I, Tonya: Although this fine crew found each other through the sheer force of will and love for cinematic Things That Should Not Be, we are not of one mind, and I, Tonya is a pretty clear example of that. Brandon was not impressed, but I was enraptured by every moment of it. I can’t remember the last time that I was so sucked into a movie that I watched it again almost immediately, and then a third time just a few days later. There’s violence aplenty, which I think was the main detraction for our Dear Leader, but while the omnipresent domestic abuse that permeated the film was so true-to-life that I wasn’t pushed out of the scene by it, but was only drawn further in, even in the moments that it got very close to home. It’s certainly a movie that needs a trigger warning, and I have my issues with a sympathetic portrait of a person whose political views are, um, bad, but I nonetheless found this utterly compelling.

It Comes at Night: Holy shit is this a great movie. From the disorienting refusal to clarify anything about the layout of the house in which all of the action takes place, to the twists and turns in plotting, this is another great A24 release, even if it comes so soon after the similarly plotted Into the Forest (2015, also distributed by A24), which found Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood as two sisters alone in a deteriorating cabin in another undisclosed location somewhere in otherwise idyllic wilderness. What I liked most about this one was the dread atmosphere that takes hold from the first moment, when an elder member of the clan meets his heartbreaking demise: it makes you side with the first family that you meet, although another film could just as easily follow the other family. What if their inconsistent information about their past is just the result of not wanting to give too much about themselves away in case their apparent saviors aren’t all that they appear to be (which . . . ends up being the case, essentially). This one is on Amazon Prime now and Into the Forest is on Netflix, so treat yourself to this double feature. Read Brandon’s review here.

Honorable Mentions

Sierra Burgess is a Loser: While certainly not the great follow up to the surprise Netflix hit To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before that Netflix was hoping it would be, given the reappearance of the internet’s newest celebrity boyfriend, Noah Centineo, and the presence of Shannon Purser (a.k.a. Barb from Stranger Things), Sierra Burgess is a Loser is a perfectly serviceable little teen romcom that retells the well-worn Cyrano de Bergerac story: a physically “imperfect” suitor woos a perfect specimen with the help of a more attractive counterpart. It’s not groundbreaking, even with the gender flip that lands Purser as loser Sierra Burgess trying to win the heart of Centineo’s Jamey through surrogate Veronica (Kristine Froseth), a mean girl with a rough home life whom Sierra ultimately befriends, albeit with some bumps along the way. Much of the negative reaction to this one, I’m assuming, stems from the desire for another pitch-perfect romantic comedy like TATBILB, not the movie’s actual quality. First time screen-writer Lindsey Beer does a pretty good job here, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her work.

Bird Box: My roommate read Josh Malerman’s novel Bird Box a couple of years ago and was super excited when he learned that it was being adapted into a film, citing the book as one of the scariest things he had ever seen. From his description of the novel, I was sitting in a movie theater in November 2017 to see Lady Bird and saw the trailer for A Quiet Place and thought “wow, they got that into production faster than I would have expected,” before realizing that it was not a trailer for Bird Box that was playing out before me. Here it is, over a year later, and the comparisons to A Quiet Place and The Happening are still rolling around out there on the internet, largely in response to (and revolt against) Netflix’s bizarre (but effective) meme-heavy marketing strategy. Still, derivative though the film may seem now after the release of other similarly themed apocalyptic titles in the years since the book was first released, this is a pretty effective little thriller with a star-studded cast and a new dimension from lead Sandra Bullock, who has rarely had the opportunity to play a character who is both sentimental and hardened, at turns charming and unlikable. The biggest drawback here is that the film somehow manages to feel both overstuffed and somewhat overlong as well, with a lot of plot points that should have been given more time to be explored, but having too many of these to make a film with a pat running time. This one should have been a miniseries.

The Haunting of Hill House: Speaking of miniseries (or limited series), I’m giving a special mention to The Haunting of Hill House, a breakout ten-episode mini that Netflix released this year. Very loosely based on the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, Hill House follows the story of the Crains, a large family headed by patriarch Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas in the past and Timothy Hutton in the present), a house flipper before that term really existed. He and architect wife Olivia (Carla Gugino), who looks forward to the day when the family can finally build their “forever house,” have moved their five children into the Hill House mansion, where a series of escalating supernatural events leaves the family broken and traumatized, with that trauma spilling over into their adult lives: Stephen (Michael Huisman) is a skeptic who writes books about other supposed hauntings; Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a mortician who resents that Stephen’s books have dragged the family’s history into the public eye; Theodora (Kate Siegel) is a queer social worker unable to form relationships because of her psychic sensitivity; and twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti), the former of whom is a drug addict who has burned his family more times than can be counted and the latter of whom was the most affected by the house in her youth and has never really recovered. I’m putting this on my list because it’s not a movie, in any technical or real way, but it does stretch the boundaries of what we can consider a movie, as it feels less like a series of episodes and more like a ten hour movie broken into manageable chunks. There’s also a one-shot in the sixth episode that blows away any competition from actual films on my list as far as technical mastery. As with Bird Box, I’ve seen the split on my Facebook feed between people who loved this and people who hated it, but unlike with BB there’s a notable difference: the only people I’ve seen consistently hating on Hill House are those who have terminally limited attention spans and who don’t have the patience to watch a whole movie, let alone a miniseries, without checking their phones every 5 minutes (sorry if you feel called out by this, but you know it’s true). If that’s you, stick to Vine compilations, but if you have the ability to, you know, watch things, give this a try.

Dishonorable Mentions

Solo: A Star Wars Story: I may have given a lukewarm defense of this one in my review of it last summer, but this movie really doesn’t work. Ehrenreich is charming in everything, and I got a kick out of L3-37, but further reflection on this film has really not been kind to my remembrance of it. It helps that so much of it was forgettable, and I’m hoping that we’ll see more of Ehrenreich and Donald Glover on the big screen in years to come, but I’m not holding my breath.

Deadpool 2: I fell asleep during this movie, in a theater. That disqualifies me from reviewing it unless I see it again, and through to the end, but honestly, I’m just not sure I’m up for it. I’ve always been a Domino fan, and her character is about the only thing that I remember from the film, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care (or keep my eyes open). Luckily, Brandon managed to stay awake through it.

Avengers: Infinity War: “What’s this?” you say. “He didn’t like Infinity War? But everyone liked Infinity War!” Well, sorry to break anyone’s hearts, but my opinion of this movie has only gone down following my review last summer. I even gave it a slightly higher star review at the time than I felt in my heart, because the people I had seen it with had enjoyed themselves so thoroughly and I wanted it to be better than it was. But while it was technically proficient, visually stimulating, and managed to weld together nearly two dozen characters into a plot that was serviceable and well-executed, it left me so cold. I didn’t feel anything in this movie, not even for a moment. I thought maybe I was just in a bad mood when I saw it the first time, so I gave it another watch a couple of months later and I was even less engaged the second time around. I should have loved this movie. I wanted to love this movie. And I just didn’t.

Ready Player One: Holy shit was this a pile of self congratulatory garbage. I’d diatribe here about the way that this reinforces toxic gatekeeper culture and also about how it’s still pretty vapid and shitty despite all of that (“You’d love me but not my birthmark!”), but this isn’t a movie worth investing that kind of emotional energy and labor into. Just read Brandon’s review or Vox‘s primer.

Open House: Britnee beat me to it with her review of this stinker a full year ago, but I stuck it in my Netflix queue last January, largely based on my fondness for Dylan Minnette, where I promptly forgot about it until I was housebound and working my way through those things I hadn’t watched yet. Having run out of Star Trek: Voyager, Haunting of Hill House, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and, god forgive me, Riverdale, I turned my sights on movies in my queue. I watched the Australian movie where Robin Wright and Naomi Watts bang each others’ sons; I watched a horrible coming of age movie called SPF-18 in which the most exciting thing that happens is that Noah Centineo breaks a disco ball; I even watched a boner comedy by way of Groundhog Day called Premature about a high school kid who is stuck in a repeating day that restarts every time he, well, ejaculates (prematurely). But by far the most disappointing one was Open House, a mediocre rehash of every “creepy things happen in a remote house to a family in crisis” movie that you’ve ever seen, but without the kind of twist or resolution that a film of this type needs to be memorable, or at the very least the catharsis that it needs to be passable. Forbes reviewer Paul Tassi wrote that Open House made him feel like someone was asleep at the switch in Netflix’s quality control, but if they managed to let this movie out into the world, the person in charge of QC must have died at the wheel.

And now . . . Boomer’s Top 15(ish) Movies of 2018

15. Mary and the Witch’s Flower: Make no mistake, this is a children’s movie. It’s also not a Hayao Miyazaki movie, or even a Studio Ghibli film, although you can be forgiven for assuming either given the film’s visual style. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, formerly of Ghibli (first working as a clean-up animator on Princess Mononoke before doing key animation on Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Tales from Earthsea, among others) and now well-known for his directorial debut The Secret World of Arrietty and, a few years later, his Oscar nomination for When Marnie was There, turns a fairly thin story about a young girl who encounters a world of magic and sorcery through the discovery of the titular “witch’s flower,” a kind of bud that, when burst, grants those whose juice it touches temporary access to magic. The film’s strong opening sequence, breathtaking flying scenes, and the exploration of the visually entrancing and dynamic magical college that Mary finds in the clouds elevate what would otherwise be just another The Worst Witch/Harry Potter knock-off (although one with a stronger pedigree: the source novel, The Little Broom, was published in 1971, a full three years before the first Worst Witch book). Read Brandon’s review here.

14. A Simple Favor: A bit of an uneven movie, this comedy thriller is held aloft by some decent twists and turns coupled with strong performances from Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Read more in my review here.

13. Love, Simon/To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: I’m taking the coward’s way out on this one, since neither of these films is really “quality” enough to belong on this list under its own merits. Upon Love, Simon‘s release, I was largely against it, even in theory. “Why do we need stories like this one?” I asked myself. “Where are the radical queer stories?” And then I went and saw it, and I was completely enraptured by its earnestness and clarity of vision. I wanted to hate Love, Simon, but instead found myself feeling a kind of warmth and sincerity that I haven’t felt in a long time. (The one moment of sarcasm that I allowed myself was when I leaned over to my companion during the scene in which Simon waits for his online friend “Blue,” and said “If this were Degrassi, a pedophile would show up right about now.” I also had a moment where I was like “Oh, Josh Duhamel is in this, just like Broken Hearts Club, which I guess lends this some gay romcom credibility” before I remembered that it was Timothy Olyphant in that one; I also realized in that moment that I am old.)  Likewise, I slept on To All the Boys I Loved Before because I didn’t think that I could get much joy out of a movie that generates that many posts on BuzzFeed with shirtless .gifs and quizzes about which boy from TATBILB you, BuzzFeed reader, should be with. And yet, in my time of need, I gave this one a try, and was utterly charmed by it. It’s certainly better than other efforts with leading man Noah Centineo (I refer you back to the aforementioned SPF-18), and it wears its social media age Sixteen Candles lineage on its sleeve. Lana Condor’s Lara Jean is effortlessly charming. If you just need a little warmth in your heart, either one of these would make good medicine.

12. Ant-Man and the Wasp: A fun follow-up to 2015’s Ant-Man, read my thoughts on this one here.

11. Game Night: I was warmer to this one than Brandon was; he liked it, but I really, really got on board with this one. Directors John Francis Daley (didn’t think that I would be mentioning a Freaks and Geeks alum on the same list in 2018, but here we are) and Jonathan Goldstein have churned out a fun little heist comedy that utilizes the talent of all of its participants. Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) have great chemistry, and Billy Magnussen is doing great work making a truly stupid character likable enough that you don’t find yourself doubting why he’s even friends with the others. Sharon Horgan also turns in a command performance with her continuing exasperation at Magnussen’s character’s idiocy. If I had one qualm, it would be that Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury are given little to do other than playing off of each other rather than the whole group, as Morris’s character’s obsession with the idea that his wife may have slept with one other person before they were married consistently puts the two of them in little joke cul-de-sacs rather than keeping them more central to the narrative.

10. Upgrade: Leigh Whannell’s latest is a sleek, fun, trashy romp through a futuristic Death Wish-style roaring rampage of revenge, with a cyberpunk twist. Blumhouse accidentally made a prestige picture in 2017 and has been riding that success for a while; a friend who will be doing some work on one of their upcoming TV projects told me that the first question that you would ask when you got tapped for a Blumhouse production was “Is it union?”, but now it’s a solid bet that you might end up working on something great. Upgrade may not be the greatest sci-fi, but it’s a super fun thrill ride with Logan Marshall-Green as a truly likable guy with a magnetic screen presence. While others might consider him a poor man’s Tom Hardy, he does great work here, especially when he’s in “conversation” with an AI that no one else can hear. It’s twisty, it’s turny: it’s Upgrade. Read Brandon’s glowing review here.

9. The Endless: I added this one to my Netflix queue some time ago based simply on the premise: two brothers who, years before, escaped from a UFO death cult return to the commune after receiving a strange video from one of its members. Younger brother Aaron (Aaron Moorhead) was apparently too young when they left to remember all of the truly creepy goings-on that older brother Justin (Justin Benson) has always told him they were lucky to escape, but Aaron is insistent that the video they received could mean that the UFO they were waiting for has finally arrived. Realizing that his younger brother will never be at peace until he sees the place for himself, Justin takes Aaron on a road trip, seeing a few portents of the irrational along the way. Once they arrive, things seem almost too perfect, although strange happenings and optical illusions (or are they?) begin to make the men wonder if they will be able to escape before something truly terrible happens. It’s a low budget indie sci-fi that occasionally shows it lack of money (there’s a scene in which a house is supposedly aflame but the fire itself is terribly unconvincing), but its heart is in the right place and the tension can’t be beaten. Read Brandon’s review of The Endless and its sister film Resolution here.

8. The Ritual: A kind of modern day Blair Witch Project (minus the found footage element) paired with a heaping dose of morbid survivor’s guilt and including a pretty original… let’s say “monster,” for lack of a better term, The Ritual follows four men who venture onto a Swedish nature hiking trail to honor a fallen friend. Luke (Rafe Spall) entered a liquor store with Rob (Paul Reid) after a boy’s night out with his university buds, only to discover that the place is in the middle of an armed robbery. Luke hides but Rob is seen by the thieves and, upon refusing to cooperate, is killed. As Rob’s wish was to take this hiking trip, Luke joins hardass Hutch (Robert James-Collier), gone-soft family man Dom (Sam Troughton), and nervous Phil (Arsher Ali). When Dom injures himself along the trail, the group opts to take a shortcut back to their last occupied way station through the deep, dark woods. Fair enough, until they take shelter in an abandoned shack during a heavy rain storm and emerge the next morning to find that the storm prevented them from noticing all the runes carved into nearby trees, and that’s not even getting into the bizarre effigy in a room upstairs, or the fact that they discover a dead elk pinned in a tree like an offering. At every turn, Luke is confronted by memories and hallucinations of Rob’s last fateful moments. Is he cracking up in another stressful situation, or is there something in the woods that’s forcing him to relive that night over and over again? Although not the most original story, it makes up for its flaws with a haunting ambiance and a reveal of a… being that is truly unique. Check it out, and read Brandon’s review here.

7. Sorry to Bother You: This is a movie that’s only gone up in my opinion since I first saw it. Read my review here.

6. Phantom Thread: I’ve previously mentioned my theory that if a film that comes out after December 20th, it really should only count on lists for the following year, so I’m including Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest (and supposedly Daniel Day Lewis’s last) film here. There’s so much to say about this movie, and so much of it has already been said, but I would say that this is a movie worth seeing, for all of the passive aggressive eating if nothing else. Read Brandon’s review here.

5. Black Panther: I’m not sure that there’s much more that I can (or am qualified to) contribute to the discourse on this movie that I haven’t already, so just read my review here.

4. You Were Never Really Here: Brandon said everything I could say about this movie better than I could here. This movie hypnotizes and mesmerizes, but not in an uplifting way, just a way that makes you feel alone.

3. Unsane: I can say without a moment’s hesitation or mental evasion that Unsane is hands-down the most unsettling and disturbing film that I have ever seen. I have never, in my entire life, been more uncomfortable than I was when watching this movie. I know that Unsane is trading on a lot of worn-out cliches and tired tropes of the Unspeakable Horrors of the American Mental Health System, or the general Scary Asylum genre. I don’t care: this movie knows exactly where every single one of my psychological pressure points are and just how much weight to apply to each one in sequence to make me physically ill. My reaction watching this film was like my friend’s reaction to seeing Raw for the first time and being unable to handle it at all: I almost had a panic attack. It’s not the most original movie in the world, or the most sympathetic or responsible, but it made me sick. Read Brandon’s review here.

2. Annihilation: Our bodies and our minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part remains. Read my review here. For those of us in parts of the world where this wasn’t released straight to Netflix, it’s now streaming on Hulu.

1. Hereditary: My favorite thing about Hereditary is that it actually effectively gaslights you, the audience member. Spoilers ahoy, so just skip this if you haven’t seen it: there’s some weirdness at the beginning with odd sigils appearing in places that make sense and which do not, strange mourners, and unearthly glowing and droning. But then after the event (you know the one), the film instead turns into a fairly down-to-earth exploration of mourning, rage, helplessness, and complete surrender to the abyss of grief, and you convince yourself that all of the signs of supernatural interference that you saw must have just been things you thought you saw. The movie teaches you to mistrust yourself, then turns another hairpin corner and says, nope, there were demonic shenanigans all along. Or, to put it another way: this movie was marketed as The Bad Seed and appears to be this at the beginning before turning into Ordinary People for an hour before morphing once again into Rosemary’s Baby. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Read my original review here.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

A Simple Favor (2018)

Paul Feig is a strange animal. Freaks and Geeks is classic television, Bridesmaids is certainly popular even though I couldn’t quite get into it, and I’m probably one of the eight people in the world who saw Other Space, and I really, really enjoyed it (I’m still over here waiting for Karan Soni to really and truly break out). Never was Paul Feig’s eccentricity more clear to me than in the recent (all-too-brief) resurgence of The Soup under the Netflix banner as The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale. Feig, who was a producer of TJMSWJM, appeared in every single episode. There was a lot that was . . . off about TJMSWJM. The Soup‘s recurring characters appeared organically as part of sketches and happened to reappear only if there was a reason or they struck a chord with the audience, while TJMSWJM seemed to be forcing new characters onto the show without any rhyme or reason and segments like “That Happened,” while occasionally funny, were completely tone deaf about who the show’s demographic was and who they wanted to appeal to. If there was one element of The Soup that I would have forsaken when rebooting, it would have been the once-per-episode celebrity appearances; TJMSWJM actually compounded this problem, as each time Feig appeared on screen, the show ground to a halt (although I did get a kick out of him using the money gun in the finale). I like him, I think that he has a great sense of humor, and you’d be hard pressed to find a white man in the business who is so consistently and effectively using his privilege to promote women in the industry, but I also feel that he has the problem that some comedians I know personally have, which is an inability to recognize when something doesn’t quite work. In short, I’m not sure that Feig knows how to kill his darlings.

A Simple Favor is one of his least uneven films. There are still some comedic moments in it that feel very out of place; the worst offender in the film comes at the conclusion, when a comic bit of action happens and a very minor character reappears to say a terrible line, which is then followed by several much-better lines from our main characters. It stands out because, for the most part, the comic timing in the film is pretty perfect, but when it clunks, it clunks hard, in a way that is more noticeable than in some of his other work since this one is much more intricately plotted.

Widowed single mother Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a mommy vlogger whose son Miles befriends his classmate Nicky, which leads to Stephanie entering into an unequal friendship with Emily Nelson (Blake Lively, giving the best performance of her career). Emily is the PR manager for a fashion house that is run by your standard fashion mogul type, and her ultramodern home, huge income, hands-off parenting, hard drinking, and high fashion conflict with Stephanie’s tendency to commit to every school event, her recognition that her late husband’s insurance money will soon run out, and her felt-and-pompom arts and crafts aesthetic (although she does wear this cat study Anthropologie apron, which I recognized because don’t ask, so she’s more “Hollywood broke” than “real world poor”). Emily’s husband Sean (Crazy Rich Asians‘s Henry Golding) is a failed writer who teaches at a local institution, although Stephanie read his only novel as part of her book club years before. As their friendship grows (at least on Stephanie’s part), Emily elicits a dark secret from Stephanie under the guise of compassion and interest before asking her to pick up both boys one afternoon. Then Emily . . . disappears.

The police initially suspect Sean, but his alibi is solid. When evidence starts to point toward suicide, Stephanie refuses to believe it and launches into her own investigation, winding into and out of the lives of such disparate people as Sean’s T.A. (Melissa O’Neil, who I’ve been sorely missing since the unfortunate cancellation of Dark Matter), a painter who was once Emily’s lover (the ever-wonderful Linda Cardellini), and Emily’s dementia-afflicted mother (Jean Smart, always a pleasure). Her investigation leads her to the offices of fashion magnate Dennis Nylon, a Christian summer camp, a burned-out wing of a formerly glorious mansion, and even Emily’s gravesite. Emily–if that’s even her name–was not who she seemed to be. But then again, maybe Stephanie isn’t either . . .

Multiple reviews of A Simple Favor have drawn comparisons to the 2014 thriller Gone Girl, and with good reason, especially given that the film’s marketing seems to place it firmly in the largely humorless thriller genre (if there’s any way to describe Gone Girl, “humorless” is pretty high up there on the list). What appears to be taking audiences by surprise is A Simple Favor‘s comedic lightheartedness amidst all the sociopathy, implied and explicit violence, half-incest, debatable paternity, and arson. There’s a lot going on, but it’s never overwhelming, and if you’ve ever seen one of these movies before then there will be revelations that will lead you say, “Oh, I know where this is going,” and then the film promptly goes there. Regardless, there are still a few surprises buried in its bones, and the performances are strong enough to carry the film even when it seems to be simply following the outline of thrillers of this ilk. As noted above, this is probably the first film in which I’ve really been thrilled by a performance from Lively; I know that her shark movie was well received around these parts, but after Oliver Stone’s Savages I had no interest in another Lively vehicle. She’s really dynamic here, and it’s fantastic.

The only real problems in the film are the moments in which the comedy doesn’t land. Unfortunately, it’s the more ostentatious (and dare I say more Feigian) humor that thuds lifelessly on screen, and unfortunately those moments are more memorable than the praiseworthy subtle humor that’s woven throughout. Still, the actors and the French pop music lift the film when the plot starts to flail, and it would be a mistake to let this curiosity slip into obscurity without giving it a watch.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond