Brandon’s Top Films of 2015

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1. The Duke of BurgundyPossibly the least commercial movie about a lesbian couple in a BDSM relationship possible. Equal parts an intentionally-obfuscated art film & a tender drama about negotiating how to balance romantic & sexual needs in a healthy relationship, The Duke of Burgundy isn’t for everyone, but it is the most beautifully-shot film of the year and a surprisingly poignant portrait of a timeless romance. If you have the patience for its languid pacing & reliance on repetition, the rewards are rich & plentiful.

2. What We Do in the Shadows In a year when a surprisingly limited number of American comedies hit the mark, this gem from New Zealand geniuses Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi was an easy pick for best comedy of the year, if not the decade. You’d think that a mockumentary about vampire roommates in modern times would be the last breath of a dying genre, but What We Do in the Shadows is readily-available proof that the stake hasn’t been driven into its heart quite yet. This is a hilarious film that only improves upon repeat viewings, with a wealth of quotes waiting to make their way into your daily vocabulary. Now leave me to do my dark bidding on the Internet.

3. Ex Machina – Just really solid, well-constructed sci-fi. I can’t think of a film from this year that got a bigger effect out of so few, subtle moving parts. A lot of what immediately stands out about Ex Machina is the incredible talent of its three lead actors, but the film also has an intense, well-curated visual language to it that can make your blood run ice cold with the most minimal of efforts.

4. Tangerine The movie from 2015 I’d most like to watch/discuss with (the greatest human being walking the Earth) John Waters. Tangerine is a raucously fun, poorly behaved whirlwind of an adventure through Los Angeles’ cab rides & sex trade. For a movie shot entirely on iPhones it’s got a surprisingly intense cinematic eye & despite leaning hard towards over-the-top excess there’s a very touching story at its heart about the value of friendship & makeshift family.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road – Probably the most intensely weird & go-for-broke action film of the past decade. George Miller may be in his 70s, but this is the work of a youthful spirit grinding the gas peddle hard to the floor, hands off the steering wheel. In a time where CGI is casting an insufferable blandness across most action properties, Fury Road is a practical effects masterwork that feels like a breath of fresh air, despite the chokehold it takes on your senses.

6. Magic Mike XXL – The first Magic Mike film is a somber, reflective drama that just happens to be centered on a gaggle of male strippers. XXL, on the other hand, is an over-the-top road trip comedy where said strippers act like an over-aged boy band: horny, sassy, and high on drugs. One of the most unashamedly fun movie-going experiences of the year, not to mention the lagniappe of its intense cinematography.

7. The Diary of a Teenage Girl – An incredibly uncomfortable coming-of-age drama about a young girl in 1970s San Fransisco exploring her sexuality in wildly dangerous ways. Its comic book art visual palette works like a major asset instead of a gimmick & relative newcomer Bel Powley delivers what might be the best lead performance of the year.

8. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Interstellar was the most hilariously over-complained about movie of 2014. The Force Awakens easily earned that distinction in 2015. It’s a genuinely fun, intricately detailed return to form for a franchise that hasn’t been nearly this satisfying since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. If you need insight into just how much the movie bends over backwards to please its audience, just take a look at the beyond-adorable BB-8. What a little cutie.

9. Straight Outta Compton – As far as its historical accuracy as an N.W.A. biopic goes, Straight Outta Compton might be shooting about 20%. All of its self-congratulating indulgence aside, it’s a 100% awesome (or “dope”, if you will) late-80s/early-90s pastiche with a killer soundtrack and some stunning visual work from regular Aronofsky-collaborator Matthew Libatique.

10. Felt – A hazy, disconnected portrait of a visual artist coping with a past, vaguely-defined (but likely sexual) trauma. Felt is an unforgivingly intense gaze into a super-specific form of art therapy, even before its meandering pace crashes in a grandly violent display at the film’s conclusion.

11. White God – As most revenge movies tend to go, the endless parade of abuse in this film’s early storylines are not nearly as fun or as easy to watch as it is when shit hits the fan. It just so happens that in this case the revenge is carried about by a massive herd of stray dogs that have a very good list of reasons to tear down an entire city. It’s an incredible, one-of-a-kind spectacle.

12. Appropriate Behavior – Writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan brings an impressive amount of authenticity to a genre that’s been a little too popular to feel truly distinct lately: the drama-comedy about the 20-something New York City woman who just can’t seem to figure her shit out. This a dark, but hilariously raunchy work & for my money its far more satisfying than its most (financially) successful comparison point from the same year – Trainwreck.

13. Spring – Part of what makes Spring so fun is that it’s such a difficult film to pin down. Is it a tender romance drama or a modern version of a natural horror? What’s more important: its central doomed-to-be-seasonal romance or the horrific nature of its shape-shifting sci-fi beast? Let’s just split the difference & call it the most interesting answer to Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset series to date.

14. It Follows – In a lot of ways it feels like John Carpenter’s entire aesthetic is making a (much deserved) cultural comeback. Weirdo action films like The Guest & Drive have at least incorporated his distinct soundtrack work into their highly-stylized worlds, but It Follows takes the homage a step further and constructs more or less what a modern John Carpenter horror would look and sound like. It isn’t as successful as Carpenter’s masterworks like Halloween or The Thing, but its haunting sexually-transmitted-curse premise & killer synth soundtrack make for some remarkably weird & memorable moments.

15. Driving While BlackPresented on the surface as a laid back stoner comedy, this film actually packs a surprisingly powerful (and unfortunately timely) political punch in its depiction of “the extra layer of bullshit on top of regular life” that black people have to face daily in modern America. Detailing the public harassment & personal violation of being constantly persecuted by the police on the receiving end of racial profiling, Driving While Black walks an impressive tightrope of feeling like an important movie, but never losing track of being consistently funny.

16. Creep/The Overnight – Writer/director Patrick Brice just had a pretty incredible year. His first two feature films, Creep & The Overnight, earned wide distribution withing months of one another and both stood as darkly funny, often hilarious reminders of how much of an impact a director can pull from a great script, a limited set, and just a handful of actors. Although one is a found footage horror (Creep) and the other is a twisted play on the traditional sex farce (The Overnight) they pair nicely in their lean towards minimalism & in their collective declaration of Brice as a talent to watch.

17. Queen of EarthThe two minute trailer for Queen of Earth might be the best short film of the year, but the movie itself is a lot more delicate & detached than the psychological horror that the ad promises. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what transpires in this film (I personally see it as a vicious, yet subtle tale of revenge through drawn out emotional torture), but the seething hatred mounting between its two leads is bound to bore a hole into your memory no matter where you land on its plot.

18. Predestination – Predestination is neither a wholly unique work nor an exercise in good taste. It is, however, an example of the virtue of sincere, traditional acting & storytelling and how those elements can elevate ludicrous material into something special. Although its major twists & reveals may occasionally be telegraphed, it’s fascinating to watch the film reach those conclusions in its own time and on its own terms. There’s a sci-fi tradition to its sincere, pulpy sense of tonal balance, but it’s a vintage tradition that’s unconcerned with the new territory that sci-fi cinema’s been exploring in recent years.

19. Goodnight Mommy – There’s a major twist at the core of Goodnight Mommy that most discerning folks will be able to catch onto within minutes of the film beginning, but that withheld reveal in no way cheapens the ugly brutality of its horror imagery or the delicate beauty of its art film surreality. Goodnight Mommy is not looking to outsmart you with its plot, but rather to tie you down & torture you with its relentless horror film intensity. As a bonus, it also functions like cinematic birth control the same way that great works like The Bad Seed, The Babadook, and We Need to Talk About Kevin have in the past. It’s a very specific genre that I’m always a sucker for.

20. Mistress America Noah Baumbach’s latest pulls an incredible trick of not only exposing the harrowing emptiness behind a know-it-all, creative-spirit Millenial’s Everything Is Perfect & So Am I facade, but also making you feel sort of bad for her when the illusion crumbles. Like the film’s protagonist who looks up to this human anomaly, we want to believe that someone so free & so in tune with The Ways of the Universe could actually exist, but by the end of the film you’re left with the feeling that the very idea of someone living that impossible lie on a daily basis is not only far from admirable, it’s also deeply sad.

H.M. Girlhood – Despite what you might expect from a film about roving packs of French girl gangs, Girlhood is far from an on-the-nose melodrama with explicit messages about the powder keg of poverty & puberty. Instead, it’s a brutally melancholy slow burner about an especially shitty youth with dwindling options for escape. It’s far more open-ended & hazy than I was anticipating, opting more for a gradual unravelling than a grand statement. It’s that aversion to closure & moralizing that makes the film special when it easily could’ve gone through the motions of rote Lifetime Movie schmaltz. Besides, its mid-film, impromptu music video for Rihanna’s “Diamonds” easily ranks among the year’s most uplifting moments in film.

-Brandon Ledet

A Belated 2015 NOFF Report

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The 26th Annual New Orleans Film Fest stretched across the city about a month ago & I’m finally getting around to submitting this better-late-than-never journal of my experience. My relationship with the festival is usually fairly removed, amounting to a single screening a year. It’s typically where I catch limited release indies that played months earlier in larger cities before they arrive at Netflix purgatory. It’s where I first saw the grossout romcom Wetlands, the grossout grossout Human Centipede 2, and the not-gross-at-all documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This year, on the other hand, I was up close & personal with the festival. I’m currently working at a movie theater that serves as a NOFF venue, so the fest literally swirled around me on a daily basis during its run. I’d liken that experience to what it might be like if a small mom & pop record store were used as a venue for a large music festival one week out of the year. It’s pretty intense. More importantly, though, I actually exceeded my quota & got to see triple my usual amount of NOFF screenings this year. It’s far from what more dedicated attendees gobbled up while they had the chance, but I’m still proud of myself for making the effort. The three movies I saw have already been covered on the site, but here’s a quick report of how the screenings went.

The very first screening I caught was the Roy Ferdinand documentary Missing People at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s Howard Memorial Library. If you’ve never seen that space before, you should really check it out as soon as you get a chance. It’s a gorgeous room, one I’ve seen at various poetry readings & museum-curated events, but never fail to be impressed by. Watching a movie about fine (outsider) art in that context elevated the material a great deal, especially since the Ogden is one of the few venues in New Orleans that still displays Ferdinand’s work & is located mere blocks away from some of the film’s establishing shots. Also strengthening the atmosphere was a post-film Q&A featuring the documentary’s director David Shapiro, the owner of Barrister’s Art Gallery Andy Antippas, and the deceased Ferdinand’s surviving sisters. The director added some context of interest, especially in the details of his relationship with the film’s other subject, art collector & Ferdinand enthusiast Martina Batan. Shapiro had first met Batan when she collected a piece of his work & it took two full years of knowing her before she trusted him to film in her Brooklyn apartment. He also revealed that Batan’s real-life MRI scans were included in the film & that the word “missing” in the title was meant to be read as a verb & a noun. Ferdinand’s sisters were even more fascinating, though, however sad. They joked about Roy’s claim about being an OG in the film, but mostly they lamented that they never had a chance to collect their brother’s work (and had seen most of if for the first time while watching the film) and argued with Antippas about how Roy’s ashes (which they donated to Barrister’s) are currently displayed in a Voodoo alter instead of a Christian display. It was a little awkward, as was Antippas’ nitpicking of the film’s Batan-Ferdinand content balance, but it was also a fascinating, one-of-a-kind experience.

Just a couple hours after Missing People concluded, I zipped Uptown to catch a BYOB, midnight screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing at the Prytania Theatre. Although it technically wasn’t an official NOFF screening, it directly followed one & the crowd very much felt in the festival spirit. It was somehow my first time ever seeing The Thing, as I’ve mentioned before, and that communal, loopy, nearing-2am atmosphere was more or less the perfect introduction to the immortal creature feature. After watching the film a second time in dead-sober daylight, I’m perfectly willing to declare it a masterpiece & am proud to have it included in The Swampflix Canon. It only sweetens the deal that I pushed through after the Missing People screening (and a boozy intermission at The Kingpin) to catch it on the big screen.

The next NOFF screening I caught was the second & final showing of Driving While Black at the Theatres at Canal Place. The movie itself was hilarious & politically provocative, playing very well with a large crowd (as opposed to watching comedies in the silent room of at-home streaming). The post-screening Q&A with director Paul Sapiano, however, was more or less fruitless. The questions were less frequent, less enthusiastic, and less interesting than they were at the Missing People screening. This might’ve had something to do with Sapiano’s visible fatigue with self-promotion, which was gradually edging towards open hostility. There were some interesting revelations nonetheless, even if they were mere confirmations of things I had already assumed. For instance, he & the film’s lead actor Dominique Purdy started writing the film as a comedy, but it took a much darker turn from there in terms of tone. Also, Purdy improvised a lot of his own lines, while Sapiano was responsible for the majority of the racist cops’ dialogue. Makes sense to me. I also liked Sapiano’s confession that, “I get bored easily in movies, so I like to keep things moving,” when questioned about the movie’s pace. Otherwise, the screening was mostly significant due to the game-to-laugh audience & the accompaniment of a short film titled Traction, which more or less amounted to a 5min one-liner about mock outrage vs. true-life racism. I found myself wishing after the screening that Purdy were there to answer questions instead of Sapiano & I doubt the director himself would disagree with that sentiment. He seemed pretty exhausted with the process.

The third & final screening I caught this year was on the closing night of the festival. I made it out to Chalmette Movies for Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian art house horror film that I had been itching to see since Boomer reviewed it for the site. Because of that review’s warnings I spotted the film’s (admittedly overblown) plot twist long before its third act revelation, but I still wasn’t prepared for the gruesome violence ahead of me. For a film so crisp & so beautiful, it’s surprising how willing Goodnight Mommy is to devolve into schlocky brutality, setting its creepy children antagonists free to gruesomely torture a woman they believe is not their mother, but an imposter. As with Driving While Black, it was great to see the film with a full-capacity audience, as their discomfort (along with my own) with the film’s intense, intimate violence was very much audible. It was a great way to close out the fest for me, personally, because it took me back to the uncomfortable squriming of my past NOFF experiences with Wetlands & Human Centipede 2. I have no idea if I’ll be able to squeeze in as many screenings next year as I did this time, but I hope to have at least one of those uncomfortable group experiences again if possible. There’s an incredible sense of camaraderie that comes from surviving screenings like that as a group, especially when the audience is caught off-guard by what’s coming (let’s face it; film fest audiences can paradoxically be both stuffy & unassuming). Those are the experiences I live for & this year wouldn’t have felt complete without one, so it was a perfect note to end on.

-Brandon Ledet

Driving While Black (2015)

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fourstar

“As a black man, I have to deal with an extra layer of bullshit on top of regular life.”

The same year the aggressively crass (and surprisingly touching) Tangerine took America on a whirlwind tour through the seedy side of Los Angeles populated by trans sex workers & drug-addled pimps, Driving While Black offers a different perspective of the city rarely seen in cinema: that of the young, black stoner. With its tape warp hiphop/Stones Throw Records-leaning soundtrack (complete with a Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf ringtone) & graffiti-flavor title cards, Driving While Black poses itself on the surface as a laid-back stoner comedy, but packs a much heftier political punch than what you’d typically expect from that genre. Detailing the public harassment & personal violation of being constantly persecuted by the police on the receiving end of racial profiling, Driving While Black walks an impressive tightrope of feeling like an important movie, but never losing track of being consistently funny. Unlike the way Dear White People softens its political provocation by focusing on the emotional stress of its college student protagonists, Driving While Black never strays from its musings about police brutality & abuse of power, but still somehow mixes that message with goofball gags like the image of its protagonist getting so high that he glides down the street like Dracula. It’s an impressive & often powerful balance in comedic tone.

Here’s the plot of Driving While Black in an over-simplified nutshell: Dimitri, an aspiring artist/overgrown pizza deliver boy, is trying to make it to a job interview at the behest of his girlfriend & mother to better himself, but on his way he is constantly derailed by a historically race-obsessed police force, the LAPD. There’s a depressing sense of routine & ritual in his run-ins with the law, which prompts him to mutter things like “Here we go again with the bullshit” whenever he’s pulled over. With direct references to milestones like the Rodney King riots & our current era of online activism in reaction to police murders of unarmed black youth, the film has a keen sense of history & knowing, hands-on experience with police abuse of power in L.A.’s black community. Establishing that it’s a cradle-to-grave problem, cops are even shown harassing children, calling them “little assholes” & “cum socks” (and then humorously over-explaining the meaning of that latter insult), and accusing them of crimes they obviously didn’t commit. In some encounters, cops lecture the protagonist on how to not look suspicious (because dressing or acting a certain way is likely to get you pulled over). In others, they overstep their authority with statements like “You’re not under arrest, but I am going to handcuff you for your safety and for mine”. There are some surreal scenes, like depictions of Ku Klux Kops (who wear a sort of police uniform, hooded robe hybrid) with glowing eyes & demonic voices, as well as just-as-surreal encounters where cops are surprisingly helpful. There are also some more believable moments where they’re portrayed as real people, however nerdy or unnecessarily aggressive. What really stands out, though, is the fact that Dimitri has to deal with police on (at least) a daily basis, completely against his will, a point hammered home by the fact that the LAPD uses his pizza place as a social meeting ground.

Speaking of Dimitri, actor Dominique Purdy should be given a lot of credit for making sure that the movie never tips too far into a didactic, political downer. He’s just a generally affable, funny guy, something that the movie is smart to exploit. Watching him go about his day, interacting with L.A. weirdos, drug dealers, street performers, and Homes to the Stars tour groups, are some of the film’s most enjoyable moments, which invites the audience to share in his frustration when his day is sidelined by police-related complications. The film is also smart to directly reference Dave Chappelle multiple times, as the comparison to his likeness & stoner-minded sense of political humor is likely to come up time & time again anyway. Since Purdy collaborated with director Paul Sapiano as a writing partner on the film’s script, he has a personal connection with the material that more or less allows him to be his effortlessly funny/charming self. It’s tempting to infer that Driving While Black is a glimpse of his Purdy’s personal Los Angeles, an affable stoner’s guide through the relentless annoyance & potential danger of a racist institution that complicates & threatens his otherwise pleasant, laid-back lifestyle. And because it’s a problem with no clear answer, the film ends that tour on a chillingly ambiguous note, a brave choice in conclusion for a screwball stoner comedy, however political. It’s a rare treat that a movie can be this consistently funny & still leave you with such a provocative feeling once the credits roll. I’m excited to see the rest of the world’s reaction as Driving While Black‘s distribution starts to gain traction. There’s surely to be a good bit of great post-screening lobby talk in the coming year as more people get to experience this gem.

-Brandon Ledet