Episode #33 of The Swampflix Podcast: Allegro non troppo (1976) & A Mid-Year Return to the Best of 2016

Welcome to Episode #33 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our thirty-third episode, the old gang gets back together! Britnee joins James & Brandon to discuss the most noteworthy movies from last year theyve seen in the six months since they made their respective Top Films of 2016 lists.  Also, James makes Brandon watch the druggy Italian Fantasia spoof Allegro non troppo (1976) for the first time. Enjoy!

-The Swampflix Crew

Cross-Promotion: The 2016 Phantom Awards on The Bangers n’ Mash Show

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I was recently invited to contribute to The Bangers n’ Mash Show’s annual Phantom Awards episode to once again highlight the Best Films of 2016. According to the episode description, “Mr. Bangers and Mr. Mash welcome the new year with [their] annual tradition: The Phantom Awards! As [they] do every January, [they] gather to give awards out to the best sci-fi, horror, and fantasy films of the previous year.” I submitted a few audio clips to the episode along with several other contributors (including Crushed Celluloid’s Marcus Jones) to throw some much deserved praise towards the Kevin Spacey talking cat comedy Nine Lives, the under-seen home invasion thriller Emelie, and my beloved The Neon Demon.

Give a listen to the 2016 Phantom Awards below! And if you like what you hear, give a listen to more episodes of The Bangers ‘n Mash Show on their YouTube playlist.

-Brandon Ledet

20th Century Women (2016)

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“How do you be a good man? What does that even mean nowadays?”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a finer example of why critical Best of the Year lists are absolute bullshit (due to the arbitrary wackiness of release dates) than 20th Century Women. From an official standpoint, Mike Mills’s latest (and greatest) has a December 28, 2016 release date thanks to its limited release screenings in major cities like New York & Los Angeles. It took nearly a month for the film to expand its distribution wide enough to reach cities like New Orleans, though. These Oscar-minded, slow trickle releases usually mean that modest little pleb film bloggers like myself, who don’t have the luxury of festival circuit browsing & For Your Consideration advance screeners, miss a lot of major Best of the Year contenders until weeks after their year-end roundups are published & etched into digital stone. So let me announce right here & now that my personal Top Films of 2016 list is a total sham, a shameful fraud. No disrespect meant to my beloved The Neon Demon, but its crown is made of the flimsiest fool’s gold. The best film of 2016 is, in fact, 20th Century Women.

Just about the last thing I expected when I bought a ticket to this immaculate, miraculous picture was a reach-for-the-fences ambition in narrative structure & visual craft. The advertising leading up to its release did an exceptional job of highlighting its function as an actors’ showcase for its holy trio of talented women: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning. The movie certainly does not disappoint there and I guess on some level it does function as the kind of insular Awards Season drama about alternative family structures & eternally hurt feelings you might expect based on the trailers. That’s only a fraction of the territory writer-director Mike Mills covers here, though. Although 20th Century Women is constructed on the foundation of small, intimate performances, it commands an all-encompassing scope that pulls back to cover topics as wide as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a “good” man in modern times, the shifts in status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For me, this film was the transcendent, transformative cinematic experience people found in titles like Tree of Life & Boyhood that I never “got.” Although it does succeed as an intimate, character-driven drama & an actors’ showcase, it means so much more than that to me on a downright spiritual level.

It would be incredibly easy to reduce the plot of this semi-autobiographical work down to a sentence or two. Annette Bening stars as a dream mom, an incredibly intelligent & self-confident woman who had her only child at the age of 40. Concerned that she’s not fully equipped to alone raise her son to be a “good” man, she enlists the tenants of her home (played by Billy Crudup & Greta Gerwig) and the boy’s best friend/biggest crush (Elle Fanning) to raise him as a village, the way a commune would, a plan cited to be inspired by her own communal upbringing during the Great Depression. This coming of age narrative could feel painfully over-familiar, even within the hyper-specific context of its late 70s West Coast punk scene setting, especially since the assumed POV of the narrative would center on the 15 year old boy everyone’s helping “raise.” Mills’s narrative structure is far too non-linear for the story to play as Oscar season convention, though (a fact backed up by the film only earning a single nomination, one for Best Original Screenplay). 20th Century Women engages in an internal tug of war between over-explaining & withholding information. It will introduce a character’s persona by telling their entire life’s story from birth to death in the length of a paragraph, only to double back to fill in the details & color between those lines. It will continually threaten to slip into time-spanning montage, only for the in-the-moment immediacy of a specific image to crash to the surface. It will threaten heartbreaking moments of devastating melodrama only to reveal that life is more often defined by smaller, less obviously significant events & conversations. The film almost plays like a feature-length trailer, but without the lack of depth that descriptor implies. It’s cliché to say so, but 20th Century Women is pure cinema, the art of the moving image; and it confidently, abstractly allows its medium to dictate its narrative in a way that a simple, reductive plot synopsis cannot convey. It’s in so many ways more than a sum of its parts.

A large portion of my rapturous appreciation of this film is undeniably hinged on the way it plays directly into my personal pop culture obsessions. The very first needle drop sound cue (a literal needle drop thanks to Greta Gerwig’s young punk tenant character) is my favorite early-career Talking Heads song, “Don’t Worry About the Government.” From there it takes the time to explore punk culture as a philosophy and an ethos, not just name-dropping niche artists like The Raincoats for cool points, but verbalizing what makes their DIY aesthetic life-affirming & interesting to the ear. It explains how the scene can be paradoxically empowering through a sense of community among outsiders and alienating in its bitter, insular rivalries that arise from things as petty as who’s slept with whom and what bands people associate with as a personal philosophy. The movie also indulges in the beauty of its own imagery the way only cinema can, often functioning as an Instagram or Tumblr account in motion. From its opening shots of calm ocean waves & symmetrically framed car fires to its slideshow photographs of punk scene portraits, outer space imagery, and common objects like cigarette packs & birth control pills isolated in an art studio void, 20th Century Women never shies away from the simple pleasure of a well-constructed image, but always finds a way to make each indulgence thematically significant. Its structure is explained in-film through easy metaphors like a mixtape or a self-portrait series made through photographs of possessions (which is described as “beautiful, but a little sad”), but I think those reference points sell short its command of “movie magic.” Each stylistic choice is a natural extension of its 1979 setting, but feels as if it were speaking to me directly on a much deeper level than pure aesthetic.

It’s a shame I didn’t see 20th Century Women in time to properly cite it as my favorite 2016 release. It’s also a shame that Annette Bening didn’t earn any Academy Awards attention for her deeply endearing role as the film’s matriarch. At the very least, her lines like, “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to bring depressed,” and “Don’t kiss a woman unless you know what you mean by it,” would’ve made great fodder for an awards show highlight reel. No matter. Long after these end of the year roundups are long forgotten, this film will still be its wonderful, perfect self. Mike Mills has delivered a timeless, masterfully beautiful triumph of humanist filmmaking and no arbitrary release dates or Oscars snubs can delegitimize that accomplishment.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #22 of The Swampflix Podcast: 2016’s Honorable Mentions & Videodrome (1983)

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Welcome to Episode #22 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-second episode, we’re doing a little tidying up. Brandon, CC, and James continue their discussion of the Top Films of 2016 with some Honorable Mentions. Also, Brandon makes CC watch David Cronenberg’s cult classic Videodrome (1983) for the first time, a viewing experience that’s been in the works for years. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet, CC Chapman, and James Cohn

Episode #21 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Top Films of 2016

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Welcome to Episode #21 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-first episode, the first of the year & by far our longest to date, Brandon & CC welcome back former co-host James Cohn to count down their favorite movies of 2016. We don’t want to spoil what everyone’s individual Top Ten choices were in this description, but here’s a glimpse of what the official Swampflix’s Top Films of 2016 list would’ve looked like with the podcast crew’s input:

1. The Witch
2. 10 Cloverfield Lane
3. Moonlight
4. Arrival
5. Kubo and the Two Strings
6. Midnight Special
7. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
8. The Handmaiden
9. The Nice Guys
10. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Brandon’s Top Films of 2016 list is already available for anyone who wants to read it, but to hear what CC & James loved from last year (and to hear Brandon defend outlier choices like Nerve & Tale of Tales) give the episode a listen below. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet, CC Chapman, and James Cohn

Swampflix’s Top Films of 2016

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1. The Witch – A cinematic masterpiece from the first frame to the last, The Witch at once acts like a newly-discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, a “Hansel & Gretel” type fairy tale about the dangers of the wild, a slice of Satanic panic folklore, and an impressively well-researched historical account of witchcraft unmatched in its eerie beauty since at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan. Despite its historical nature and Puritan setting, this film will make your skin crawl with dread. Each captured moment is elegant and haunting, transporting the audience back to the 17th Century and tempting those along for the ride to question their sanity. The Witch is a true New England American Gothic piece. It sidesteps the mushy romances and familial dramas typically set in New England, one of the most beautiful areas of the country, in favor of a spine-chilling Satanic tale that features dense layers of historical & moral subtext, an amazing soundtrack of ominous ambient sounds, and a breakout star in its scene-stealing goat, the almighty Black Phillip. It’s not the usual terror-based entertainment you’d pull from more typical horror works about haunted houses or crazed killers who can’t be stopped, but even as a beautiful, slow-building art film & a mood piece it just might be the spookiest movie of 2016.

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2. 10 Cloverfield Lane – Far better than it has any right to be, this sequel in-name-only combines elements of horror, sci-fi, and the supernatural thriller to craft an intimate, difficult-to-categorize indictment of doomsday prepper culture. In a year that saw an excess of great confined-space thrillers (Green RoomDon’t BreatheEmelie, Hush, The ShallowsThe Invitation) 10 Cloverfield Lane stands above the rest by locking its audience in the basement with a small cast of fearful apocalypse survivors and a complexly monstrous John Goodman. Relentlessly & intoxicatingly tense, this Louisiana-set woman-in-captivity horror will rattle you in a way that its 2008 found footage predecessor never even approached. It will disturb you, surprise you, and confirm your deepest fears about “survival” nuts’ ugly thirst for post-apocalyptic power grabs, largely thanks to a career-altering performance from someone we formerly knew as the cool dad from Roseanne.

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3. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – The pop music version of This Is Spinal Tap, Andy Samberg’s greatest achievement to date thoroughly skewers the totality of hedonistic excess & outsized hubris on the modern pop music landscape. In a larger sense, it also functions as an incisive & withering dissection of the dreamy pop culture star-making machine as the industrial complex that it really is. Popstar can be easily dismissed as a profoundly stupid film. In its smaller moments, it often delivers the quintessential mindless humor we all need to endure this increasingly shitty life & its throwaway consumer culture. There’s legitimate criticism lurking under its frivolously parodic mockumentary surface, though. Popstar smartly & lovingly dismantles the entirety of pop’s current state of ridiculousness, from EDM DJ laziness to Macklemore’s no-homo “activism” to the meaninglessness of hip-hop that apotheosizes empty materialism to the industry’s creepy fetishization of military action & nationalism. Do yourself a favor and at least download the song “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” to sample the film’s well-calibrated sense of pointed, yet absurd satirical humor.

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4. The Boy – There’s really no pleasure quite like a campy horror movie about a haunted evil doll. Not every scary movie is (or ought to be) the next big thing in horror, and The Boy is fairly run of the mill in its light supernatural tomfoolery. That is, until a sharp left turn in its third act completely obliterates its more generic psychological/supernatural slowburn to delve into some utterly bonkers motherfuckery that should be a crowdpleaser among all schlock junkies looking for entertainment in pure novelty. The Boy delivers both the genuinely creepy chills and the over-the-top camp that we crave in our horror flicks, ultimately feeling like two memorable genre pictures for the price of one. In its own goofy way, it completely upends what we’ve come to expect from the modern PG-13 evil doll movie as a genre in recent years, offering a surprise breath of fresh air in its last minute deviation from the norm.

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5. Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday – Our favorite Netflix Original in a year that saw many, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is essentially Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on a Big Top Pee-wee scale & budget, which is all that Pee-Wee Herman fans could really ask for in a direct-to-streaming release after a 30 year gap. Following a giant Rube Goldberg device of a plot, with each chain reaction proving to be just as kooky (or even kookier) than the last, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’s most immediately endearing aspect might be the love story of the year: a steamy bromance between Pee-wee Herman and Joe Manganiello (who are both billed as playing themselves). Manganiello enters the scene as a living embodiment of a Tom of Finland drawing on a motorcycle and the queer subtext certainly doesn’t end there, eventually blossoming into a really sweet, very romantic story about two souls who just can’t get enough of each other. We can’t get enough of those two either. In fact, we’re ready for a sequel!

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6. Tale of TalesIn a world full of fairy tale media (Once Upon a Time, Disney Princess movies, live action remakes of Disney Princess movies, etc), it’s a curious thing that more keeps getting made, and that so much of it is adapted from the same tales we already know. Adapted instead from the more rarely-seen source of 17th century Italian fairy tales that fell into obscurity, Tale of Tales is narratively unique, visually striking, morbidly funny, brutally cold: everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. The film fearlessly alternates between the grotesque & the beautiful, the darkly funny & the cruelly tragic. Its cinematography as well as its set & costume design will make you wonder how something so delicately pretty can be so willing to get so spiritually ugly at the drop of a hat (or a sea beast’s heart). There is no Disney-brand fantasy to be found here, only black magic, witches, ogres, and giant insects, each waiting to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson about the dangers & evils of self-absorption once you let your guard down in a dreamlike stupor.

7. Kubo and the Two StringsThe latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika is pure, gorgeous art. The puppetry is incredible, an overwhelming triumph in Laika’s continued attention to detail in visual & narrative craft. At heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic, Kubo and the Two Stings finds inspiration in Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics to craft an immense visual spectacle and to explore dramatic themes of past trauma & familial loss. This allows for a darkness & a danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but what Laika most deserves bragging rights for is the mind-boggling way they pulled off this awe-inspiringly beautiful innovation in the moving image, the most basic aspect of filmmaking.

8. Hail, Caesar! Would that it were so simple to sum up this movie’s charms. A smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous movie about The Movies, Hail, Caesar! might be one of the Coen Brothers’ strongest works to date. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens look back to the Old Hollywood studio system in Hail, Caesar! as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. In the process, they perfectly capture Old Hollywood’s ghost. There’s the hyperbolic threat of Communism, ancient Hollywood scandals, endlessly moody directors, a musical number featuring a tap-dancing Channing Tatum and, behind it all, an unsung hero just trying to hold everything together off-camera. Hail, Caesar! is not only worthwhile for being loaded with its stunningly beautiful tributes to Old Hollywood, however; it’s also pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that’s becoming a rare treat on the modern comedy landscape.

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9. Midnight SpecialFocused more on mood than worldbuilding, Jeff Nichols’s sci-fi chase epic mirrors the best eras of genre cinema giants Steven Spieldberg & John Carpenter. Midnight Special is surprisingly accessible for an original sci-fi property, never getting wrapped up in the complex terminologies and detached-from-reality scenarios that often alienate audiences in the genre. This may be the Nichols’s most ambitious work to date in terms of scale, but he’s smart to keep the individual parts that carry the hefty, supernatural mystery of its narrative just as small & intimate as he has in past familial dramas like Mud & Shotgun Stories. You never lose sight that these are real people struggling with an unreal situation. And, if nothing else, a world-weary Michael Shannon’s studied command of his role as the father of a child with godlike, unexplainable powers is something truly special, a grounded, believable performance that everyone should witness at least once.

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10. Hunt for the WilderpeopleThe story of a young boy going on the lam in the New Zealand bush with his reluctantly adoptive uncle after a devastating tragedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople very nearly tops Boy for Taika Waititi’s best feature to date, mixing small, endearing character beats with the large scale spectacle of a big budget action comedy. We all need a good laugh this year; we also need a good cry. Fortunately, Wilderpeople has both! It’s funny, cute, and even twee in a way that sometimes resembles a Wes Anderson movie, but there’s also a certain darkness to the film that doesn’t shy away from real life consequences or scathing political satire. Many people have rightly latched onto this adventure epic as one of the most consistently funny comedies of recent memory (with a surprisingly gruff comedic turn from Sam Neill registering as especially cherishable), but there’s so much more going on in the film than a mere assemblage of a long string of jokes.

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Honorable Mentions – Here are a few films we loved that just missed our collective Best Of list: The HandmaidenMoonlightArrivalShin Godzilla, Ghostbusters, and Keanu. They may not have made our Top Ten, but they’re each worthy of praise & attention in their own various ways.

Read Alli’s picks here.
Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

Brandon’s Top Campy Treasures & Trashy Comedies of 2016

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1. The Mermaid – At heart, The Mermaid is a very basic tale of “evil” humans learning that making money isn’t necessarily more worthwhile than simple universal needs like clean, unpolluted water & air. What’s fascinating is the way that director Steven Chow (of Kung Fu Hustle fame) tells this story through a kaleidoscope of different cinematic genres. Part earnest romcom, part heartbreaking drama about environmental destruction, part spoof of the 60s super-spy genre, The Mermaid is a bizarre, hilarious, wonderfully idiosyncratic live action cartoon that might stand as the director’s most satisfying work to date. Chow’s hyper-specific & increasingly focused comedic lens feels like a melting pot of aesthetics that establishes him as a sort of goofball auteur. At different times throughout The Mermaid, I felt sincere romance, I laughed until I was physically sore, and I sat in abject terror as the movie took a nastily violent turn in his portrayal of just how evil humanity can be. Like most parody artists (or at least most of the ones who are good at what they do) Chow has an innate sense of how genre tropes work & how they can be repurposed for varying effects. The film requires a leap of faith in its opening minutes, but once you get into its cartoonish, almost psychedelic groove it’s greatly rewarding as a slapstick comedic fantasy with a charming interspecies man-and-mermaid romance & a unique visual palette, one that puts its cheap CGI to profoundly effective & deeply silly use.

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2. The Greasy Strangler – As a creature feature, The Greasy Strangler undeniably delivers the goods. Although a decidedly camp-minded comedy, it boasts a truly hideous, horrifying, grease-coated monster that’s sickening to behold. What I find much more unique, however, is the way the film satirizes and sets aflame the modern indie romance genre. The color palette & social awkwardness of titles like Juno or Napoleon Dynamite (or whatever their post-aughts equivalent would be) is meticulously recreated here, but employed for a grotesque effect. This is quirk used for pure evil. Within seconds the antagonistic humor of this dirt cheap indie horror comedy establishes itself as the definition of not-for-everyone, but it shouldn’t feel too out of step for folks who’ve spent enough time following Adult Swim’s ever-evolving line-up over the years. I wouldn’t fault anyone who disliked the film for being cruel, grotesque, or aggressively stupid. Those claims would all certainly be valid. As a nasty slasher by way of Eric Warheim, however, that’s just a natural part of a very unnatural territory.

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3. The Love WitchThe Love Witch plays like a restoration of the best camp film you’ve never heard of. It’s pursues an eerily accurate dedication to recreating the half-hearted attempts at sophisticated smut of many erotic horror B-pictures of the 60s & 70s, right down to the awkward dead space that punctuates each line of dialogue & the over-use of goofy lighting tricks to evoke its love potion psychedelia. Filmmaker Anna Biller doesn’t rely solely on easy humor & cinematic nostalgia to make this schlocky throwback worthwhile, however. She instead uses her backwards gaze into the B-picture abyss to reappropriate traditionally misogynist modes of genre filmmaking for a fresh, fiercely feminist purpose. The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect from an intentionally “bad” movie about witchcraft & strippers.

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4. The Bronze – Anyone going into The Bronze looking for Melissa Rauch to deliver the broad, calculated comedy she’s associated with on The Big Bang Theory is going to be shocked by the loose, raunchy cruelty she brings to the screen here. Rauch helms The Bronze as a writer/lead actor & the film reveals that her personal sense of humor has a wicked mean streak to it that is sure to alienate a lot of fans, but also draw in some new devoted ones, myself included. Besides the dark humor of her merciless selfishness, The Bronze‘s ex-Olympic gymnast protagonist is eternally horny in a purely animalistic, Jerri Blank sort of way. She’s constantly barraging her mild-mannered, Midwestern counterparts with phrases like “cock hole” & “clit jizz” and lights up the screen with the film’s centerpiece: an epic sexual encounter that could only be pulled off by a pair of oversexed Olympic gymnasts. Some of my favorite comedies of the past decade have been this gender-swapped version of raunch cinema (The To Do List, Appropriate Behavior, Wetlands, etc.) and The Bronze fits snugly among them. Combine that genre subversion with the film’s heartless cruelty, the novelty of its gymnastics-world setting, and expert use of my all-time favorite movie trope, the plot-summarizing rap song, and you have a strong contender for a future cult classic.

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5. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – Andy Samberg’s greatest achievement to date lovingly skewers the totality of hedonistic excess & outsized hubris on the modern pop music landscape. Popstar smartly & lovingly dismantles the entirety of pop’s current state of ridiculousness from EDM DJ laziness to the devastation of a negative Pitchfork review to Macklemore’s no-homo “activism” to U2’s invasive album release snafu. The modern pop documentary format, the character, his world, and our own pop music terrain all back up each ridiculous gag Samberg & his fellow Lonely Island bros throw at the screen, making the film out to be an efficient little comedy machine in comparison to the sprawling, Apatow-dominated landscape comedic cinema’s been exploring to death in recent years. You’re never entirely shaken by a throwaway gag like a baby playing drums like Neil Peart or an artist responsible for the “brilliance” of catchphrases like “#doinkdedoink” having the self-confidence to declare the Mona Lisa “an overrated piece of shit” because the movie is well-calibrated enough to support those kinds of over-the-top indulgences. There’s certainly loose improv afoot in Popstar, but it’s arranged & edited into highly functioning efficiency.

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6. Ghostbusters – Easily the most over-complained about film of 2016, the Ghostbusters reboot is an all-around hilarious, well-made popcorn flick. I most appreciated the way director Paul Feig & casting director Allison Jones have delivered an undercover SNL cast ensemble. When they just comprised half of the main cast in the original property, all four of the Ghostbusters are SNL players in the 2016 version: Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and honorary cast member (through regular, fully-committed hosting gigs) Melissa McCarthy. They’re also backed up by the bit role roster of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Higgins, and Cecily Strong. More convincing yet, the movie is proving to be something of a star-maker for the consistently funny McKinnon, who’s been up there with Strong, Bryant, Moynihan, and (formerly) Killiam as one of the most essential backbone pieces of the show’s current cast. If Ghostbusters did nothing more than promote & develop Kate McKinnon’s screen presence, it would already have done its job, but by lighting internet nerds’ idiotic indignation on fire in the process, a nontroversy the film addresses directly in some brilliant moments of meta-commentary, it stood out as one of the more notable dumb comedies of the year.

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7. Clown – Without any intentional maneuvers in its fashion, music, or narrative, Clown effortlessly taps into a current trend of reflective 90s nostalgia by lovingly recreating the horror cheapies of that era. It does so by striking a very uncomfortable balance between horror comedy & gruesome misanthropy, forging a truly cruel sense of humor in a heartless, blood-soaked gore fest featuring a killer clown & his tiny tyke victims. You’d have to change very few details of Clown to convince me that it was actually a Full Moon Features release made twenty years ago. Besides small details like cell-phone usage and the inclusion of “That guy!” character actor Peter Stormare, the only noticeable difference is that, unlike most Full Moon “classics”, it’s a genuinely great product. Clown is smart & incredibly uncomfortable, but houses its horror film thrills in a very specific era of nontheatrical genre trash, so it’s easy see how its better attributes might be readily dismissed by those not in tune with its highly specific aesthetic.

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8. The Boy – I expected The Boy to play out more or less exactly like the last PG-13 evil doll movie to hit the theaters, the largely disappointing Rosemary’s Baby knockoff Annabelle, but the film sets its sights much higher than that light supernatural tomfoolery. It’s far from wholly original as a horror flick, but instead pulls wacky details from a wide enough range of disparate sources that it ended up being an enjoyably kooky melting pot of repurposed ideas. A sharp left turn in the third act of The Boy completely obliterates the psychological/supernatural slowburn established in its first half & delves into some utterly bonkers motherfuckery that should be a crowdpleaser among schlock junkies & trash gobblers. I’m always a sucker for the evil doll movie as a genre, so it was a given that I’d see The Boy no matter what, but the film really does prove itself to be a solidly fun thrill of a horror trifle in the end, even if it functions as a pastiche.

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9. Pee-Wee’s Big HolidayPee-wee’s Big Holiday is essentially Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on a Big Top Pee-wee scale & budget, which is all that fans could really ask for in a direct-to-streaming release after a 30 year gap. It also helps that the film finds Pee-wee just about as charming & hilarious as he’s ever been, even if its financial freedom & resulting ambition are somewhat diminished. All the movie has to do to succeed is provide Herman (who’s billed as playing himself) with a variety of backdrops & supporting players to bounce his bizarrely childish humor off of. In one highly pertinent scene, Herman proves that he can entertain an entire village of on-lookers with a single, ordinary balloon. Just about the only aspect of Pee-wee Herman’s Big Holiday that isn’t bare bones in this way is Joe Manganiello’s involvement. Manganiello, also playing “himself,” enters the scene as a living embodiment of a Tom of Finland drawing on a motorcycle. The gay subtext certainly doesn’t end there. By the conclusion of the film, Herman & Manganiello’s instant attraction to each other fully blossoms into a really sweet, very romantic story about “friendship”. If there’s any chance for a non-Pee-wee fan to enjoy Big Holiday it’d be in watching just how naturally & enthusiastically that “friendship” develops.

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10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows – Instead of pushing the brooding grit of the post-Dark Knight era of needless reboots to its most ludicrous extreme (like its hilariously hideous predecessor), Out of the Shadows calls back to the light, fun, cartoonish energy that made the original Ninja Turtles trilogy such a nostalgia-inducing pleasure in the 1990s. I guess you could argue that banking on 90s nostalgia is a dispiriting snapshot of where blockbusters are seated in 2016, but that’s not what makes Out of the Shadows special. Here’s what does make it special: a manhole-shooting garbage truck modeled after the franchise’s infamous pizza van toy; a pro wrestler that plays a tank-operating rhinoceros; a perfectly hideous realization of the villainous mech suit-operating brain Krang; etc. Given enough time, this is a film both silly & visually memorable (read: deeply ugly) enough to generate its own future nostalgia entirely separate from that of a previous generation’s (not that it was above playing the 90s cartoon’s theme song over the end credits). Kids are going to grow up loving this movie and its reputation will outlast the short-term concerns of however well it did or didn’t do at the box office this summer. In that way, it’s a successful work of art.

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11. Nine Lives – Speaking of 90s nostalgia, mark August 2016 down as the exact moment it reached peak ridiculousness, since we’re apparently now making movies about corrupt businessmen who learn life lessons by getting turned into talking animals again (in this case a cat). And I’m talking real movies with real theatrical releases, too, not just some straight-to-DVD trifle from Air Bud Entertainment. Said talking animal comeback film, Nine Lives, even features two (!!!) Academy Award-winning actors and hinges its lovable furball antics on topics as hefty as greed, adultery, the ethics of leaving a vegetative state loved one on longterm life support, and attempted suicide. If you regularly find yourself losing valuable time to internet wormholes of cat-themed home video, you’re likely to get a kick out of Nine Lives‘s simple pleasures: a cat drinking scotch, a cat falling over, a cat slow-dancing with his human daughter, a cat rushing to prevent his human son’s attempted suicide. You know, the little things.

12. Mother May I Sleep With Danger? – James Franco’s 2016 remake of the Tori Spelling Lifetime Original Movie Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? is a biting sociopolitical commentary on the pervasive homophobia, sexism, and rape culture issues that plague college campuses in the 2010s. That’s a half-truth. The film is also a shameless, leering camp fest about lesbian vampires that sometimes borders on the less-than-prestigious realm of dime store erotica. Either way you look at it, it’s is easily the most outrageously entertaining work I’ve seen from Lifetime in decades (unless you include those Mommie Dearest marathons they do every Mother’s Day; those are hilarious). It’s funny, it’s trashy, it’s dirt cheap, and it’s more than a little bit sleazy: pretty much the perfect calibration for an instant Lifetime classic. Better yet, its penchant for cheesy sleaze feels 100% earnest, never truly crossing into the winking parody of an Asylum mockbuster or a ZAZ-style spoof, despite what you may assume from its pedigree. If this vampiric “re-imagining” is an indication of where Lifetime programming is currently headed, we’re in for some tawdry good fun in the years to come, a second golden age of made-for-television schlock.

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13. Hardcore Henry – This trashy novelty’s central gimmick of mirroring the look of 1st person shooters by mounting GoPros to its camera/stuntmen is a lot to handle for 90 minutes of action cinema and the video game-thin plot & villains that accompany it don’t help much either. There’s far more to hate about Hardcore Henry than just its video game gimmick, too. Its rampant misogyny, gay panic humor, and constant, gleeful violence & gore are sure to turn off a lot of folks, rightfully so. However, I don’t personally see much of a difference between the misanthropy on display here and the macho-hedonism of any other generic shoot-em-up. Hardcore Henry is loud, obnoxious, one-note, nearly plotless, and entirely over the top in its meat-headed self-indulgence, but so are a lot of my favorite hallmarks of action cinema: Commando, Rambo IV, Invasion U.S.A., etc. I contend that the film’s glaring, perhaps even deplorable faults are all outweighed by its consistently goofy tone (particularly in the scenery-chewing sorcerer villain & 1st person POV visual experimentation). There are hordes of 13 year olds who’ll latch onto Hardcore Henry‘s naked girls, guns, and cocaine version of masculinity in an unsavory way, I’m sure, but I never really look to my dumb action movies for moral high ground and, truth be told, those kids will grow out of it eventually. Hopefully.

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14. The Shallows – The 2016 version of the giant shark creature feature is smart to recognize its place within this trashiest of cinematic traditions. The popcorn thriller The Shallows is brilliant in the way it keeps things simple. It’s Blake Lively in a neon bikini fighting off a CGI shark for 90min. What do you need, a road map? There’s so much swinging The Shallows in the direction of goofball camp: a couple especially silly encounters with CGI dolphins & jellyfish, a gratuitous explosion, a hideous model of a whale carcass, a caricature of a witless drunk so over the top it could’ve comfortably existed in the 1930s, a puke-eating sidekick named Steven Seagull (who’s easily up there with Black Phillip for Animal of the Year), etc. Even the film’s basic 1-shark-vs.-1-woman premise has a campy appeal to it. However, the shark attacks do have a real gravity to them as well. There’s intense gore in the film’s moments of self-surgery & genuine heart-racing thriller beats when our hero & her friend the seagull have to stave off real-life dehydration & cabin fever. The Shallows is satisfied relegating itself to a 100% trashy surface pleasure ethos, but it doesn’t let up on the practical results of its central scenario’s violence & confinement and that dual goofy/scary balance is what makes this such effective summertime schlock.

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15. Elvis & Nixon – Written around the photo op/publicity stunt in 1970 when Elvis Presley visited the White House & was awarded an official title as a federal narcotics agent, Elvis & Nixon is a low-energy camp delight. Taking great pleasure in its own historical inaccuracies & caricaturist liberties, the film finds easy camp value in casting Michael Shannon as Elvis & Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon and propping the mismatched pair up in a room (the Oval Office, of all rooms) merely so it can stew in its own unlikelihood. The result isn’t anything mind-blowing or revolutionary, but it is an offbeat pleasure to behold. Elvis & Nixon finds its best possible self in its laidback, weirdly relaxed vibe. Instead of pushing for big, unlikely moments between The President & The King, the film instead finds lowkey fascination in a past-his-prime rock ‘n roller living out a fish-out-of-water comedy in a political atmosphere he knows nothing about.

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16. Look Who’s Back – A Borat-style farce in which Adolf Hitler clumsily navigates & eventually finds popularity in the modern world, Look Who’s Back mixes seemingly tame, broad comedy with fiercely biting, unforgiving political satire, a tonal whiplash that’s as odd of a delight as it is difficult to classify. The film starts with a sci-fi/fantasy premise where Adolf Hitler is mysteriously transported to modern times Germany and follows his first-person POV as he tries to make sense of concepts like selfies, television, the internet, etc. This broad, cheaply campy farce mostly functions as a Trojan horse for the film’s real bread & butter: unscripted, Borat-style street interviews where Hitler interacts with the modern public. A lot of folks treat Hitler like a joke — hugging him, posing for pictures, chirping “I love Hitler!” & honoring him with a Nazi salute — an uncomfortable gaze at toxic hipster irony & modern refusal to engage with life sincerely. However, Look Who’s Back‘s main mode of political satire is in pairing Hitler with real-life, unscripted people who agree with his nationalistic, horrifically racist rhetoric when it comes to the issue of Muslim immigration. They aren’t all easily identifiable neo-Nazi skinheads, either. Think of the German equivalent of your average diehard Trump supporter and you pretty much get the picture. Look Who’s Back is something of a structural mess, but it’s a fascinating mess with a surprising amount to say about current political attitudes towards immigration that disgraces a vast majority of The West, America included (obviously).

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17. Keanu – Not unlike their sketch comedy show, Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele’s debut feature is not always consistently funny, but has really great, transcendently absurd moments. A fun action movie spoof featuring a cute kitten, plus some remarkable flashes of both Anna Farris and George Michael content, Keanu’s more memorable touches are rare gems to come by (especially in light of George Michael’s recent death). It also gets major bonus points in my mind for being the first movie I’ve seen smart enough to include not one, but two Future songs on its soundtrack, which is a resource more movies really need to start tapping into.

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18. Masterminds – A harmless madcap bank heist comedy starring Zach Galifianakis & three Ghostbusters (Jones, Wiig, and McKinnon), Masterminds is essentially a feature length visual punchline. The machinations of Zach Galifianakis’s hapless security guard being coerced into robbing a bank by his milquetoast seductress, Kristen Wiig, or her sleaze ball cohort, Owen Wilson, aren’t nearly as amusing as just the mere look of him. The Prince Valiant haircut, the full beard, the tight novelty t-shirts: Zach Galifianakis is the fashion version of a slapstick pratfall. Certainly, there are funny turns of phrase in the film (mostly delivered by Jason Sudeikis’s cold-as-ice contract killer) but no dialogue made me laugh nearly as hard as just the distinctly awkward visual tableau divisive comedic director Jared Hess crafted with his vanity-free players. In many ways Kate McKinnon was perfect casting for this comedy style, as it’s the criticism she most often receives from her work in SNL. She doesn’t deliver jokes so much as that she is the joke, striking such a specifically strange, crazy-eyed image that no verbal play is needed to sell the humor. This might not be enough for some folks, but just the mere sight of her posing for wedding photos with Zach Galifianakis to an Enya song is personally all I need to guffaw.

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19. Suicide Squad – The studio meddling of Suicide Squad, with its joke-heavy re-shoots, shoehorned-in neon color palette, diminished screen time for Jared Leto’s Joker, and Guardians-aped soundtrack was admittedly haphazard & disharmonious, but it at least made the troubled material a decently fun action picture in the process. In a lot of ways Suicide Squad is just as bloated & tonally inept as Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel. It’s never boring, though, and thanks to some studio meddling it actually allowed for a few interesting moments & decent performances to shine through all of director David Ayer’s trashy genre film bravado. In an ideal world I wouldn’t necessarily want to see Ayer’s Sabotage (a film I described as “oozing with scum” & “garbage water pessimism” in my review) reworked as a superhero spectacle, but Warner Bros. found a way to make that formula remarkably palatable. Kudos to the studio for reigning in Ayer’s bad taste & aggression just enough to make the movie work while still allowing it to breathe new, testosterone-corrupted life into what was previously a drab, depressive franchise. Suicide Squad is not the winning success the budding DC Comics film franchise desperately needs to turn its frown upside down, but I left the theater in a much better mood than I did with the two Batman & Superman films that preceded it.

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20. Scooby-Doo & WWE: Curse of the Speed Demon – Recognizing that its larger-than-life cast of musclebound pro wrestler characters don’t necessarily have to live in a wrestling ring in their animated form, Curse of the Speed Demon picks an entirely new context for them to flex muscles & deliver promos in: off-road monster truck racing. The sequel to WWE’s original Scooby-Doo collaboration plays less like an animated pro wrestling picture & much more like a little kid’s imagination as they smash together Hot Wheels toys in a sandbox. Instead of attending a second WrestleMania, Scooby & the Mystery Gang find themselves at Muscle Moto X, an impossible Vince McMahon startup that combines monster truck mayhem with dirt track speed racing. As the plot unravels, Curse of the Speed Demon gets further & further away from realistic versions of what off-road pro wrestling monster truck races might look like (as unrealistically goofy as that starting point is on its own), eventually just says “Fuck it.” and indulges in some Mario Kart-type cartoon races & settings you’d find doodled in an eight year old’s dream journal.

-Brandon Ledet

Alli’s Top Films of 2016

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1. The Handmaiden – Park Chan-wook has a way of crafting gorgeous Victorian-inspired scenery and making it work even if the setting (in this case, The Japanese Occupation of Korea) doesn’t necessarily call for it. I say “Victorian-inspired” because of the film’s occasional frilly costuming and elaborate, lushly decorated sets, but The Handmaiden is definitely sexy enough to make any room full of self-respecting Victorians faint. It’s such a lovely erotic thriller. Like any of Park Chan-Wook’s other films, it also gets gritty and brutal, but despite the tension and brutality, it’s my favorite love story of the year.

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2. The WitchThe Witch follows in the footsteps of Häxan and presents a more historical account of witchcraft. Despite its historical nature and Puritan setting, the film will make your skin crawl with atmospheric dread. It is beautiful and dark; and, like with every great horror movie, its soundtrack is amazing, just teeming with ominous ambient sounds. Also, how many movies have a goat as the star??? Black Phillip is the king of everything.

3. MoonlightMoonlight is a lovely deconstruction of the hazards of toxic masculinity, homophobia, and the war on drugs. I can’t begin to say how important this movie is. It comes at a time when tensions in our country are high, and people are actually fighting to be able to discriminate against other people. To have a film like this right now, showing us how damaging these attitudes are, is vital. It helps that Moonlight is so good. It has such a tender earnestness in how it approaches the subject, and the way it’s told in three parts gives it a poetic rhythm.

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4. Ghostbusters – This movie was so much funnier than I expected. I think I was predisposed to like it anyway, because it made a bunch of man-children angry, but all the jokes landed and it captures just enough of the original film’s spirit while also having its own liveliness.  The cast really picked up the torch and ran with it. In particular, it was really great to see a lighter side of Chris Hemsworth that isn’t just his culture-shocked Thor act. I’m so glad that this movie didn’t just function as another unnecessary reboot.

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5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – I think we all need a good laugh this year, but we also need a good cry. Fortunately, Wilderpeople has both!  This is the story of a boy going on the lam in the New Zealand bush with his reluctantly adoptive uncle after a devastating tragedy. Though it’s funny and cute, even twee in a way that resembles a Wes Anderson movie, there’s a certain darkness to it. It doesn’t shy away from real life consequences or scathing political satire.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings – This movie is pure, gorgeous art. The puppetry is incredible. The first time the origami flittered and moved, I just teared up at how wonderful it looked. I’m not even sure how they pulled this stuff off. Laika has done it again, and they deserve all the bragging rights.

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7. Tale of Tales – In a world full of fairy tale related media (Once Upon a Time, Disney Princess movies, live action remakes of Disney Princess movies, etc), it’s a curious thing that more keeps getting made, and that so much of it is adapted from the same tales we already know. Adapted from a book of 17th century Italian fairy tales that fell into obscurity, Tale of Tales weaves together many stories which, while very old, feel very new. There is no Disney here. The stories told are everything fairy tales should be: strange, eerie, brutal, gory, and beautiful.

8. Hail, Caesar! – Would that it were so simple to sum up this movie’s charms. It’s such a fun parody of McCarthy-era Hollywood. There’s the hyperbolized threat of Communism, old Hollywood scandals, moody directors, a musical dance number with Channing Tatum tap dancing and singing about gams, and the one guy in the background who’s just trying to hold it all together. On top of all of that is the Coen Brothers’ ability to assemble an amazing cast. I think Hail, Caesar! might just be one of their strongest works.

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9. Shin Godzilla – It’s very difficult for a franchise this old and with so many titles to it to offer a new take on the tale, but Shin Godzilla really pulls it off. Instead of a story about a giant lizard terrorizing Tokyo, it’s a deconstruction of Japanese bureaucracy and foreign policy with a giant hideous monster destroying Tokyo in the background. It’s In the Loop meets Kaiju and just about as strange and wonderful as you’d expect from that combo.

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10. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday – If The Handmaiden was my favorite love story of the year, the bromance between Pee-wee Herman and Joe Manganiello might be my second favorite. Just like any Pee-wee movie, it’s just a giant Rube Goldberg device of a plot, with each chain reaction being just as kooky or even kookier than the last.

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11. Into the Inferno – Herzog and his vulcanologist friend Clive Oppenheimer nerd out about volcanoes for an hour and forty five minutes. It’s a dream come true.  Part anthropological exploration, part nature documentary, Into the Inferno is gorgeous and enlightening.

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12. Rogue One – How political can a Star Wars movie get while the producers vehemently deny it? Very. Rogue One is about the rebel group who smuggled the Death Star blueprints. Somehow, it manages to take a 40 year old franchise and frame it in such a newly dark light. Also, despite the all haters, I thought that CGI Peter Cushing was very impressive.

-Alli Hobbs

Britnee’s Top Films of 2016

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1. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Of all the wonderful films to come out in 2016, I can’t help but make my choice for the best movie of the year Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  The film left me completely satisfied after each time I watched it at the theater, a total of three. What I admire most about Fantastic Beasts is that it manages to have just a small hint of romance (if you would even call it that). It’s too often that films rely on romantic relationships to capture the audience. Fantastic Beasts focuses on non-romantic human relationships as well as human/creature friendships, and that’s why it won my heart and top pick.

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2. The Witch The movie that was not so much in-your-face scary but haunted me for months would be, in my opinion, the spookiest movie of 2016. The Witch is one of those films that makes you question your sanity. What is really going on?  Satanic panic? Full-blown witchcraft? I am a sucker for films set in New England, but many of those are mushy romances or family dramas, not spine-chilling Satanic tales. A slow-building horror flick that takes place in one of the most beautiful places in America is truly a gift from the movie gods.

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3. Captain Fantastic It seems that everyone wants to live in a tiny house way out in the wilderness these days, and this movie made me realize how that way of life could be so appealing. Captain Fantastic is sweet, but not in an obnoxious way, and it’s super funny.  It’s also stunningly beautiful. The landscape, the outfits, and the way the family interacts with each other are cinematically gorgeous.

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4. Midnight Special  I watched this one on a plane ride home after a long trip, and I remember waking up the couple on the side of me from all of my loud gasps. It was like watching a picture book story come to life. For a sci-fi flick, Midnight Special was surprisingly easy to follow, so I could focus more on enjoying the movie instead of trying to keep up terminologies and scenarios I couldn’t understand. Also, Michael Shannon as the father of a child with special, unexplainable powers is something that everyone should experience.

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5. The Boy There’s really nothing like a horror movie about a haunted evil doll. The Boy delivered the campiness that I crave in horror flicks, but it also seriously freaked me out more than I expected. When the big twist is revealed towards the end, it turns into a completely different film altogether. Basically, The Boy is like getting two really great horror films for the price of one. It’s a bigger steal than any Bluelight Special at KMart.

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6. Ten Cloverfield LaneJohn Goodman will always be the cool dad from Roseanne in my eyes, so seeing him as a completely unstable psychopath in Ten Cloverfield Lane was beyond insane.  The strange part is that he is so good at being crazy. Ten Cloverfield Lane combined elements of horror and sci-fi so well that it’s difficult to categorize it into one genre. The movie also takes place in Louisiana, so it made me feel a little bit special even though I hope there’s no psycho in a bomb shelter within at least 500 miles from me.

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7. Hello, My Name is Doris – I contemplated not adding this one to my list because I never got around to reviewing it, but it was truly one of my favorite movies that came out this year. Sally Field is a bomb actress. There’s simply no other way to put it. In Hello, My Name is Doris, she plays a socially awkward hoarder that falls for a guy that’s about half her age. It’s a quirky comedy, but there are some serious moments that’ll heighten your blood pressure. No lie, this is one of my favorite comedies of all-time.

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8. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping I hadn’t laughed so hard in a movie theater since The Hangover. Popstar delivers that quintessential stupid, mindless humor that we all need to get through this shitty life. Mockumentaries are hard to come by, but they are one of the best styles of film out there. Popstar is like the pop version of This Is Spinal Tap, and it even comes with its own soundtrack of hits like its predecessor. Do yourself a favor and download “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song).”

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9. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday2016 was the year of Netflix originals. They were coming out almost every week. My favorite Netflix original of 2016 is Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. It was about time that the world was blessed with another Pee-wee Herman movie. It was just as whimsical as the others and had all of Pee-wee’s classic personality quirks. The fact that Pee-wee had a questionable bromance with Joe Maganiello gave me so much to live for. I’m ready for a sequel!

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10. Keanu As a lover of all things cat-related, I initially went to see Keanu for the cute kitten dressed up in gangster clothes. I was unfamiliar with Key and Peele’s comedy, so I didn’t know what to expect. Key’s style of comedy was loud and annoying, but it really worked for his role in Keanu. It was Peele who was the show-stealer for me, though. He was so funny! The kitten that played Keanu was also fantastic. That little guy needs his own show on Animal Planet.

-Britnee Lombas

Brandon’s Top Films of 2016

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1. The Neon Demon -At once Nicolas Winding Refn’s most beautiful work to date and his most deliberately off-putting, The Neon Demon is consistently uncomfortable, but also intensely beautiful & surprisingly humorous. It’s exquisite trash, the coveted ground where high art meets uncivilized filth. Months later my eyeballs are still bleeding from its stark cinematography & my brain is still tearing itself in half trying to find somewhere to land on its thematic minefield of female exploitation, competition, narcissism, and mystic power. It’s tempting to reduce this achievement to descriptions like “the fashion world Suspiria” or “the day-glo Black Swan,” but the truth is that the work is 100% pure, uncut Refn. For better or for worse, this will be the title that solidifies him as an auteur provocateur, likening him to other technically-skilled button pushers like De Palma, Friedkin, Verhoeven, Von Trier, Ken Russell, and, why not, Russ Meyer. Like all the madmen provocation artists that have come before him, Refn stumbles while handling any semblance of nuance in the proudly taboo subjects he gleefully rattles like a curious toddler, but he makes the exercise so beautiful & so callously funny that it’s difficult to sour on the experience as a whole. Instead, you mull over provocations like The Neon Demon for days, months, years on end, wrestling with your own thoughts on what you’ve seen and how, exactly, you’re supposed to feel about it.

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2. Tale of Tales – It’s sometimes necessary to remind yourself of the immense wonder & dreamlike stupor a great movie can immerse you in and Tale of Tales does so only to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson (or three) once you let your guard down. The film is crawling with witches, ogres, giant insects, and the like that all make magic feel just as real and as dangerous as it does in The Witch, albeit with a lavish depiction of wealth in its costume & set design the latter can’t match in its more muted imagery. It’s beautiful, morbidly funny, brutally cold, everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. Its three tales all stand separately strong & immaculate on their own, but also combine to teach its characters/victims (and, less harshly, its audience) about the dangers & evils of self-absorption. Tale of Tales fearlessly alternates between the grotesque & the beautiful, the darkly funny & the cruelly tragic. Its cinematography as well as its set & costume design will make you wonder how something so delicately pretty can be so willing to get so spiritually ugly at the drop of a hat (or a sea beast’s heart).

3. Hail, Caesar! – A smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous movie about The Movies. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens look back to the Old Hollywood studio system in Hail, Caesar! as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. In the process, they perfectly capture Old Hollywood’s ghost. Every classic genre I can think of makes an appearance here: noir, Westerns, musicals, synchronized swimming pictures, religious epics, tuxedo’d leading man dramas, etc. Audiences sometimes forget that these types of films weren’t always physically degraded, so it’s shocking to see the beautiful costuming & set design achievements of the era recreated & blown up large in such striking clarity at a modern movie theater. Hail, Caesar! is not only worthwhile for being loaded with these beautiful tributes to Old Hollywood, however; it’s also pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ comedic work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly.

4. Kubo and the Two Strings – Inspired by Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics, the latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika is at heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic. Kubo and the Two Stings is an overwhelming triumph in its attention to detail in visual & narrative craft. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense visual spectacle as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent. What’s really impressive, though, is its efficiency in storytelling. There isn’t a single image or element at play, from a woven bracelet to a paper lantern to an insectoid buffoon, that doesn’t come to full significance if you lend the film enough patience. Kubo and the Two Stings could’ve easily rested on the laurels of its visual spectacle, a result of infinite hours of painstakingly detailed labor in an animation studio, but it instead pours just as much care & specificity into its reverence for storytelling as a tradition.

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5. The Witch – A haunting, beautifully shot, impossibly well-researched witchcraft horror with an authenticity that’s unmatched in its genre going at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan. This movie has many virtues outside the simple question of whether or not it was scary, but yes, The Witch succeeds there as well. At times it can be downright terrifying. Depicting the unraveling of a small Puritan family at the edge of the New England wilderness in the 17th Century, The Witch makes it clear very early on that its supernatural threat is not only real, but it’s also really fucked up. It transports the audience to the era, making you feel as if fairy tales like “Hansel & Gretel” and folklore about wanton women dancing with the devil naked in the moonlight might actually be real threats, just waiting in the woods to pick your family apart & devour the pieces. It’s not the usual terror-based entertainment you’d pull from more typical horrors about haunted houses or crazed killers who can’t be stopped, but it is a significantly more rewarding film than strict genre fare can often be when it too closely plays by modern rules.

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6. The Fits – Writer-director Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature isn’t a standard coming of age drama or a medical thriller or a supernatural horror, so much as a supernatural occurrence of divine transcendence. The Fits sidesteps strict genre classification by aiming more for a loosely menacing art house tone than a traditional A-B story structure. Though, even if The Fits were a more standard coming of age narrative about a young girl deciding between the rigidly gender-divided realms of dance & boxing at her local gym, Royalty Hightower’s stoic lead performance & the camera’s striking sense of symmetry would still make the exercise more than worthwhile. As is, it’s quietly bizarre, seemingly supernatural territory that’s bound to leave a lasting effect on you whether or not you’re on board with its ultimate destination, an act of strange majesty that’s sure to divide audiences in its swing-for-the-fences ambition.

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7. High-Rise – Adapted from a novel by J.G. Ballard, the madman who penned the source material for Cronenberg’s Crash, High-Rise is a modern reflection of 1970s anxieties about “luxury lifestyle” commodity & spiritually-erosive consumer culture as funneled through an aggressive, vague menace of existential dread. The film posits the modern consumer as a “bio robot,” a soulless machine who cannot function without their various devices of “convenience.” High-Rise’s never-ending consumerist party starts from a seemingly dangerous, chaotic place and gets even more wild & savage from there, expanding the scope of its hedonism & cruelty to a months’ long descent into the darkness of the human soul. I’ve seen plenty movie parties go out of bounds before, but this is the one that most convincingly sets fire to the path back to civilization in the process. It’s an entirely unique obliteration of the thin line that separates the modern consumer from the wild, bloodthirsty beast, a rare nightmare of a good time.

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8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Taika Waititi is on a wicked hot streak. His 2007 debut Eagle vs Shark wasn’t half bad as an off-center romantic comedy, but his last three films (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, and now Hunt for the Wilderpeople) are pretty much perfect works. In its best moments, Wilderpeople very nearly tops Boy for Waititi’s best to date, mixing small, endearing character beats with the large scale spectacle of a big budget action comedy. Many people have rightly latched onto this adventure epic as one of the most consistently funny comedies of the year (with a surprisingly gruff comedic turn from Sam Neill registering as especially cherishable). One thing I haven’t heard enough of a fuss over yet, though, is how great the music is, from the novelty of the “Ricky’s Birthday” jingle to the legitimate action movie sounds of tracks like “Ricky Runs.” If it weren’t for The Neon Demon’s surreally intense synth submersions, it’d be an easy pick for soundtrack of the year for me.

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9. Midnight Special – Mirroring the best eras of sci-fi cinema giants Steven Spieldberg & John Carpenter, Midnight Special is massive enough in its imagination & awe-inspiring mystery to establish Jeff Nichols as one of the best young talents in the industry today. This may be the director’s most ambitious work to date in terms of scale, but he’s smart to keep the individual parts that carry the hefty, supernatural mystery of its narrative just as small & intimate as he has in past familial dramas like Mud & Shotgun Stories. An incredible work with a near-limitless scope, it’s one built on an intricately detailed foundation of grounded, believable worldbuilding & old-fashioned character work. Midnight Special may allow its ideas to outweigh its emotion in a general sense, but you never lose sight that these are real people struggling with an unreal situation.

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10. NerveThis teeny bopper millennial version of The Running Man is the single most aggressively feminine action thriller I can ever remember seeing. Nerve uses its killer smart phone app technophobia premise to create something really fun & truly memorable without devolving into so-bad-it’s-good schlock. Although the film’s premise of teens competing for social media fame through a hideously self-described “game of truth or dare without the truth” obviously carries a lot of millennial-shaming baggage in its basic DNA, Nerve‘s secret weapon is in how it celebrates teen-specific adventurousness within that digital-age moralizing. The film manages to Trojan horse a surprisingly potent coming of age narrative inside a tawdry action thriller shell, presenting a fantasy world where technology actually makes people more adventurous instead of more insular.

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11. The Dressmaker – There’s so much to love about The Dressmaker, but its most admirable quality is its minute-to-minute unpredictability. The film has obvious fun with the general structure of a Western & plays with the campy tones of an absurdist comedy, but it zigs where you expect those genres’ tropes to zag and much of its third act is an anything-goes free-for-all where the only thing that’s certain is that Kate Winslet is a badass and you’d be a fool to vex her. At once a violent camp comedy and a heartfelt melodrama, the film plays like 90s-era John Waters remaking Strictly Ballroom as a revenge tale Western where lives are destroyed by pretty dresses instead of bullets. If I were ever going to fall in love with a movie that could even vaguely be considered a Western, this formula would be my personal ideal. It’s violent, it’s campy, it’s unpredictable, it’s commanded by the female gaze; The Dressmaker is everything I love about cinema at large crammed into the mold of a genre that usually puts me to sleep.

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12. The Nice Guys – If I had to assign The Nice Guys an exact genre I’d be tempted to classify it as “sleaze noir.” A miracle of Frankensteined movie science, the film’s general aesthetic lies somewhere between Lethal Weapon & Boogie Nights, an unlikely tonal mashup resulting from its cartoonishly violent detective work set against a 1970s California porn industry backdrop. Alternating between slapstick cruelty & genuinely devastating displays of brutality, The Nice Guys finds a dangerously fun & wicked mode of entertainment that I’m not sure Shane Black has ever topped before. It’s a solid, accessible base that even leaves room for more surreal inclusions like unicorns, mermaids, and gigantic insects among its more straightforward gags. Black understands exactly what genre toys he’s playing with, but retools them all to create his own distinct work with an incredibly strong, idiosyncratic comedic voice. This is a movie made by a passionate nerd who loves watching movies and that affection is immediately obvious in every scene. The call is coming from inside the audience.

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13. Zootopia – This animated Disney film isn’t exactly about racism or sexism or any other specific kind of institutionalized prejudice. Zootopia instead addresses all of these issues in a more vaguely-defined, all-purpose dichotomy (kind of the way The X-Men have been metaphorically worked into all kinds of social issue metaphors over the decades). Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the talking animals that populate its CG concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. The attention to detail in its setting, the narrative stakes of its central mystery, and the overall theme of the ways institutionalized prejudice can corrupt & destroy our personal relationships all amount to a truly special, seemingly Important film.

14. Moonlight – Besides functioning as a queer narrative about how homosexual desire violently clashes with traditional ideas of black masculinity in the modern world, Moonlight also works as a coming of age & self-acceptance story for a single man who’s forced to navigate & survive that clash. A large part of what saves the film from dramatic banality is its basic structure as a triptych. We see our protagonist as a child, a teenager, and an adult man. Narrowing down Chiron’s life to these temporal snapshots allows us to dive deep into the character instead of casually empathizing from the surface. Director Barry Jenkins somehow, miraculously finds a way to make this meditation on self-conflict, abuse, loneliness, addiction, and homophobic violence feel like a spiritual revelation, a cathartic release. So much of this hinges on its visual abstraction. We sink into Chiron’s dreams. We share in his romantic gaze. Time & sound fall out of sync when life hits him like a ton of bricks, whether positively or negatively. What could have been a potentially middling, by the books queer drama avoids woe & despair mediocrity to instead find an ultimately life-affirming adoption of Under the Skin levels of visual & aural abstraction. It’s nothing short of mesmerizing.

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15. The Handmaiden – An erotic lesbian crime thriller with meticulous dedication to craft and a Tarantino-esque celebration of crime & revenge narratives, The Handmaiden is a gleefully tawdry art piece. Park Chan-Wook’s latest takes great delight in its own narrative cleverness, but also constructs a strong enough visual foundation for its flashy storytelling style to shine instead of annoy. A cherry blossom tree, an octopus, a coiled rope, an ink-stained tongue; The Handmaiden is first & foremost an achievement in intense costume & set design, which allows for plenty of room to accommodate its deliberately twisty crime story in which the audience is continually conned into believing half-truths depending on the minute-to-minute revelations of its various narrators, anxiously awaiting the next rug pull to knock us on our ass. If it were a little uglier or if its bigger reveals were held until its final moments, its tonal balancing act might have crumbled disastrously. Fortunately, it’s carefully calibrated to be too fun & too beautiful to resist.

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16. 10 Cloverfield Lane – A tense, horror-minded thriller about the monstrous spirit lurking within doomsday prepper culture, 10 Cloverfield Lane locks its audience in the basement with a small cast of fearful apocalypse survivors collectively suffering under the power dynamics of the cycles of abuse. It not only clouds the truth about what exact outside force is looming as a threat over its proceedings, but also introduces a complexly monstrous threat from within the characters’ ranks that is simultaneously abusive, protective, and difficult to understand. The film’s woman-in-captivity terror is far from unique, but the way its Stockholm syndrome familial bonds & doomsday prepper cultural context complicate that narrative allows it to crawl under your skin in a way that its 2008 found footage predecessor never even approached. 10 Cloverfield Lane shook me, surprised me, and confirmed my deepest fears about “survival” nuts’ ugly thirst for post-apocalyptic power grabs.

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17. Shin Godzilla – The latest entry in the longest-running film series of all time is very much reminiscent of its source material’s 1954 origins, a governmental procedural about Japan’s response to a seemingly unstoppable force of Nature ignited by nuclear fallout. Instead of recreating that exact scenario in a drab modern action movie context, however, Shin Godzilla completely shifts its genre towards kinetic political satire. The film barrels through its ambitious political topics with the quick pace absurdism of a modern comedy and the inventive framing & mixed medium experimentation of a modern indie monster movie. It’s an incredibly thoughtful, energetic work that will stick with you longer than any non-stop-Godzilla-action visual spectacle could. As always, there will be inevitable complaints that there isn’t enough Godzilla in this Godzilla movie, but when the human half of the story is as smartly funny & pointedly satirical as it is here, that line of griping rings as especially hollow. This is Godzilla done exactly right.

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18. Arrival – To convey its story about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages, Arrival similarly has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. This rewiring of audience perception takes a little patience before it reaches a significant payoff and it’s one I expect is better appreciated when experienced rather than explained. Once you learn the film’s language, though, you start to understand that it was never a straightforward story to begin with, that it was always just as strange as the places it eventually takes you in its final act. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.

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19. Swiss Army Man –At once an unconventional love story, a road trip buddy comedy, and an indie pop musical about a farting corpse with a magical boner, Swiss Army Man is loaded with feel-good scatological bleakness & divine absurdity. The director duo Daniels first cut their teeth helming music videos and it shows in their reverence for this film’s Animal Collective-style soundtrack, which bleeds beautifully into the narrative with a significant sense of thematic purpose. A teary-eyed journey featuring a farting corpse & an unlikely budding romance, the Daniels’ long-form cinematic prank is genuinely fun & free-flowing from front to end, even when it’s fixated on morbid topics like how the human body relieves itself & becomes organic garbage the second it dies.

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20. Girl Asleep – Romantic awkwardness, papier-mâché costumes, animated album covers & photographs, piles of origami birds: Girl Asleep is sure to roll many an eye in its Etsy shop dreamscape. Personally, I can’t relate to anyone who would dismiss a film outright for being this intensely manicured in its visual palette, yet impressively loose in its blurred divide between reality & fantasy. Often, when movies choose to incorporate dreamscape surrealism into the personal growth crises of their protagonists, they’re careful to distinguish a barrier between the two realms. Girl Asleep waves off the necessity of those barriers with an infectiously flippant confidence. It allows its choreographed disco freakouts & Moonrise Kingdom costumes to bleed into its real world high school melodrama, filtering the nerve-racking expectations & pressures of “becoming a woman” through a handmade surrealist fantasy realm. The results are consistently endearing, surprising, and ambitiously unhinged.

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HM. Lemonade – Beyoncé has been going through a spiritual growth spurt in the last few years where she’s struggling to break away from her long-established persona of top-of-the-world pop idol to reveal a more creative, vulnerable persona underneath. Her recent “visual album” Lemonade feels like a culmination of this momentum, a grand personal statement that cuts through her usual “flawless” visage to expose a galaxy of emotional conflicts & spiritual second-guessings the world was previously not privy to. It’s at times a deeply uncomfortable experience, as if you’re reading someone’s diary entries or poetry as they stare you down. However, it can also be an empowering & triumphant one, particularly when it aims at giving a voice to the underserved POV of being a young black woman in modern America.

-Brandon Ledet