Brandon’s Top 20 Films of 2020

1. Ask Any Buddy A post-modern mash-up of clips from 125 golden-era hardcore films, loosely constructing a morning-to-night day in the life of a post-Stonewall gay male archetype (one with an incredibly bustling sex life). Transgressive D.I.Y. outsider art that could easily be tediously academic or pointlessly provocative in the wrong hands, but instead comes across as a playful, genuinely loving catalog of tropes & narrative throughlines clearly assembled by a true fan of the supposedly low-brow, disreputable film genre.

2. We Are Little Zombies Four orphans meet at their parents’ simultaneous funerals and run away to form a surprisingly successful pop punk band. One of those movies where every single in-the-moment comedic gag & tangential flight of whimsy makes you shout “That’s so cool!” at the screen. Pushes the twee video game nostalgia aesthetics everyone drools over in Scott Pilgrim to much more exciting, surprising extremes; just absolutely overflowing with creativity.

3. The Wolf House A nightmare experiment in stop-motion animation that filters atrocities committed by exiled-Nazi communes in Chile through a loose, haunting fairy tale narrative. It’s a relentlessly grotesque display, one that fully conveys the hideous evils of its allegory’s real-life parallels even if you aren’t familiar with that particular pocket of fascism history.

4. The Twentieth Century A gorgeous, absurdist fantasy piece that retells the history of Canadian governance as “one failed orgasm after another.” It’s like Guy Maddin directing an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch, stumbling out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor. A German Expressionist farce that features tongue-in-cheek drag routines & ejaculating cacti; I couldn’t help but love it.

5. Birds of Prey My favorite superhero movie since Batman got deliriously horny in the 90s. All hyperviolent, hyperfemme slapstick from start to end; there can never be enough mainstream movies where obnoxious women gleefully misbehave. It also felt nice to finally enjoy a Deadpool movie for once (it helps that Margot Robbie is, unlike Ryan Reynolds, actually funny).

6. Possessor Apparently Brandon Cronenberg took note of the often-repeated observation that Andrea Riseborough loses herself in roles to the point of being unrecognizable, and built an entire fucked up sci-fi horror about the loss of Identity around it. A damn good one too.

7. Deerskin An absurdist thriller from Rubber director Quentin Dupieux about a vapid man whose obsessive love for his own deerskin jacket leads him to a life of crime, including serial murder. Consistently funny, but also incredibly vicious when it wants to be. Works as a macho counterpart to In Fabric, but more importantly it’s an excellent joke at the expense of Male Vanity (including the vanity of making an entire movie about a deerskin jacket).

8. Color Out of Space Richard Stanley returns to the director’s chair after decades of mysterious exile to adapt an H.P. Lovecraft short story about a meteor crash and an Evil Color. Genuinely just as upsetting as anything Stanley accomplished in Hardware, if not more so. I mostly saw it as a traumatic nightmare movie about cancer tearing a family apart, 80s throwback vibes & Nic Cage affectations aside.

9. Horse Girl A woman-on-the-verge mental illness drama filtered through a trippy sci-fi narrative. In my eyes, the most shamefully underrated movie of the year. It’s like watching the first half-hour of a mumblecore movie and then, bam, you’re in the third act of Bug . . . Then again, I always seem to enjoy Jeff Baena movies at least 30% more than everyone else and I don’t know why that is.

10. Emma. A basic appreciation of the Jane Austen source material is a requirement at the door, since it’s a super faithful adaptation, but this is coldly hilarious and gorgeously composed from start to end. The dips into thoughtless cruelty hit just as hard as the physical comedy, both of which are majorly enhanced by the buttoned-up tension of the setting. Each performance is aces; ditto the confectionery production design & the deviously playful costuming. Just a pure, icy delight.

11. Zombi Child A from-the-ground-up renovation of the zombie film, one that directly reckons with the genre’s racist, colonialist history onscreen and the untapped potential of its roots in genuine Voodoo religious practices. Somehow evokes both Michael Haneke’s cold, academic political provocations and Celine Sciamma’s emotionally rich coming-of-age narratives while still ultimately delivering the genre goods teased in its title.

12. Impetigore An Indonesian ghost story about the lingering evils of communal betrayal & inherited wealth (and horrific violence against children in particular, it should be said). This walks a difficult balance of being gradually, severely fucked up without rubbing your face in its Extreme Gore moments. Handsomely staged, efficiently creepy beyond the shock of its imagery, and complicated enough in its mythology that it’s not just a simple morality play.

13. Host Basically a kindler, gentler Unfriended with actually likeable characters (I don’t think that necessarily makes it an improvement, but it’s at least a different flavor). It’s also got a lot of COVID-lockdown specific details that make it extra eerie in a way that really leans into the of-the-moment documentary quality of these tech-driven horror novelties. Big fan of both the genre and this example of it.

14. Swallow An eerie, darkly humorous thriller in the style of Todd Haynes’s Safe, in which a newly pregnant woman is compulsively drawn to swallowing inedible objects, much to the frustration of her overly-controlling family & doctors. Appearing like a scared child in June Cleaver housewife drag, Hayley Bennett conveys a horrific lack of confidence & self-determination in every gesture. Her fragility & despondence under the control of her wealthy, emotionally abusive family make you want to celebrate her newfound, deeply personal path to fulfillment, even though it very well might kill her. As she snacks on fistfuls of garden soil while watching trash TV instead of obeying her family’s orders all I could think was “Good for her!”

15. Vivarium Imogen Poots & Jesse Eisenberg are a young couple in search of a suburban starter home to begin their life together, only to get trapped in a hellishly bland eternity of supernatural imprisonment in that very abode. I knew this was going to be grim & abrasive. I didn’t know that it was going to be so Funny. A humorously cruel sci-fi chiller about resenting your own spouse & child (one that I’m not surprised is so divisive, since the child is 1000x more shrill & frustrating than even the kid in The Babadook).

16. Bacurau A delicately surreal sci-fi take on “The Most Dangerous Game” that’s so gradually, subtly escalated that you don’t notice how truly batshit it is until you’re deep in the thick of it. Uses familiar tropes & techniques to tell a story we’ve all heard before in a new style & context that achieves something freshly exciting with those antique building blocks. In other words, it’s genre filmmaking at its finest.

17. The Invisible Man This was excellent, but Remake Culture is just getting so out of hand. Are we so out of ideas that we need the Upgrade guy remaking Unsane only two years after the Soderbergh original? Shameful.

18. You Cannot Kill David Arquette A documentary that chronicles Arquette’s recent self-destructive campaign to win over pissy wrestling fans who are somehow still mad about a silly angle from over 20 years ago. A really fun, surprisingly emotional watch. Reminded me a lot of the Andy Kaufman “documentary” I’m From Hollywood (one of my all-time fav wrestling movies) in how it mixes reality & self-mythology to become a wrestling angle & performance art project in itself.

19. The Shock of the Future Alma Jodorowsky stars as a fictional synthpop composer in late-70s Paris. This is almost 100% aesthetic posturing; its entire thesis is that synths sound cool-as-fuck and women didn’t get enough credit for pioneering their use. It’s not wrong; synths and the women behind them are incredibly cool and, apparently, endlessly watchable. There’s also something super relatable about watching someone work tirelessly alone in their apartment on art no one else in the world cares about; feels very of-the-moment even though it’s a nostalgia piece.

20. Dogs Don’t Wear Pants A Finnish drama about a widower who processes his grief by hiring a dominatrix to help him explore an emerging kink for breath play. Follows a plot template I’m always a sucker for: Our protagonist is obsessed with something they know is going to eventually kill them but they keep going back to it anyway because it makes them super horny.

-Brandon Ledet

Ask Any Buddy (2020)

Austin-based genre aficionado Evan Purchell’s depth of knowledge for obscure, disreputable schlock has long impressed me as an online follower of his work. Purchell’s Letterboxd lists, Austin-area repertory programming, and contributions to the Rupert Pupkin Speaks film blog always seem to uncover some grimy, unsung genre gem that no one has yet to highlight as a forgotten trashterpiece. Watching him fall down one hyper-specific rabbit hole within that larger fascination with low-budget genre relics has been especially rewarding, though, and I selfishly hope that he never climbs out of it.

Starting with an Instagram account (and most recently evolving into a weekly podcast), Purchell’s multi-media project Ask Any Buddy is an archival, celebratory effort to gather as much vintage ephemera he can find from the golden era of hardcore gay pornography. Like with the (mostly hetero) Rialto Report podcast & blog or HBO’s dramatized The Deuce, Ask Any Buddy sets out to highlight the underdog circumstances of independent filmmakers who produced vintage pornography in the days when it had delusions of Going Mainstream. There’s an academic, documentarian quality to this work, which seeks to preserve the real-life stories of an outsider film industry that was effectively outlawed in its time, making the allure of its circumstances irresistible to fans of low-budget, transgressive art. Purchell’s focus on the gay hardcore of the era offers an even more distinct POV within that vintage pornography academia, though. Through the Ask Any Buddy project, he’s effectively arguing against the fallacy that there was no solid queer filmmaking identity preceding the New Queer Cinema boom of the 1990s, as posited in works like The Celluloid Closet. In Purchell’s view, queer filmmaking already had its own established tones & tropes long before folks like Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, and Bruce LaBruce arrived to the scene to greater critical acclaim; the earlier films just needed to include unsimulated blowjobs to secure financial backing and a guaranteed audience.

The centerpiece of this Ask Any Buddy project is its incarnation as a feature-length film. Currently making the “theatrical” rounds through online film festivals (after COVID-19 fucked up its initially planned distribution through AGFA), the movie is both a transgressive piece of D.I.Y. outsider art and a vital work of archival academia. A post-modern mash-up piece, Ask Any Buddy is composed of pre-existing clips from 126 gay porno films from the genre’s golden era in the 1970s & 80s. Rather than contextualizing these clips with any narration or talking-heads interviews, Purchell has simply edited them together in a linear, remarkably cohesive narrative that highlights the various tropes & collective fixations of vintage gay hardcore as a genre. The film loosely constructs a morning-to-night day in the life of an urban, post-Stonewall gay male archetype with an incredibly bustling sex life. With characters from over a hundred films taking turns amalgamating a single protagonist, we watch “a” gay man awake from a loopy wet dream, brush his teeth in the bathroom mirror, venture out into his city’s various cruising spots (bathhouses, the docks, drag clubs, porno theaters, etc.), celebrate with his local community at a house party, and then return to bed with his long-term partner to repeat the loop again. If vintage porno is supposed to have a documentary quality built into its unpermitted, renegade filmmaking style, here’s proof that you can repurpose that effect to loosely construct a typical day in the life of one of its subjects (one with an incredibly high libido and an incredibly short refractory period).

Approaching this film from a purely academic, documentarian lens is actually selling its merits short. Its deliberate inclusion of vintage Pride march footage, mapping out of glory hole etiquette, and illustration of what public cruising looked like in the 70s & 80s land it squarely in the realm of academic discourse, but that framing doesn’t fully capture how it works as an in-the-moment cinematic experience. By removing the typical signifiers of a documentary or essay film and instead assembling a found-footage tapestry narrative, Ask Any Buddy leans into the dreamlike, surrealist quality of cinema as an artform. In that way, it’s more akin to Kenneth Anger’s incendiary landmark short Fireworks than it is to anything like The Celluloid Closet, even though it is directly commenting on the history of queer identity & queer sex onscreen. Its disorienting match-cuts, its interchangeable characters & locations, and even the intentional surrealism of its source material all make the film more of a sensual, cerebral experience than a coldly academic one. By the time the “protagonist” reaches the celebratory house party at the film’s crescendo, the shared lived experience of the larger narrative comes into sharp detail, making the whole picture feel like a communal vision of political defiance & erotic imagination rather than anything as pedestrian as a mere documentary. Its overall effect is more hypnotic & psychedelic than it is intellectual.

The Ask Any Buddy film could easily have been tediously academic or pointlessly provocative in the wrong hands, but it instead comes across as a playful, genuinely loving catalog of tropes & narrative throughlines clearly assembled by a true fan of this supposedly low-brow, disreputable genre. As a stand-alone specimen of transgressive outsider cinema, it has plenty to offer its drooling spectators, including out-of-nowhere fistings and stunt “celebrity” cameos from the likes of “Gene Simmons” & “Marilyn Monroe”. Obviously, it also functions as commentary on pre-existing transgressive cinema from outsider artists of the past, whose contributions to the queer cinema canon Purchell argues have been undervalued. This film is a strikingly surreal, hallucinatory correction to that oversight, as much as it is an academically crucial one.

-Brandon Ledet