Brandon’s Top 20 Films of 2019

1. Midsommar A humorously traumatic nightmare-comedy about a Swedish cult’s destruction of a toxic romance that’s far outstayed its welcome. Its morbid humor, detailed costume & production design, and dread-inducing continuation of Wicker Man-style folk horror made for an intensely satisfying theatrical experience. Twice! (Thanks to an extended “Director’s Cut” that packed in an extra half hour of winking Jokes at the expense of its lead’s self-absorbed idiot boyfriend.)

2. In Fabric A tongue-in-cheek anthology horror about a killer dress. I loved every creepily kinky minute of this, but also a total stranger scolded me for laughing during our Overlook Film Fest screening because it is “not a comedy” so your own mileage may vary? If an arthouse take on the Killer Inanimate Object genre of films like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats sounds enticing, then you’d probably dig it. Just go in knowing that it’s okay to laugh.

3. Knife + Heart A cheeky giallo throwback set against a gay porno shoot in late 1970s Paris. Picture Dario Argento’s Cruising. And it only improves on repeat viewings, as the disjointed imagery from the protagonist’s psychic visions gradually start to mean something once you know how they’re connected, and not being distracted by piecing together the mystery of its slasher plot allows you to soak in its intoxicating sensory pleasures.

4. When I Get Home A feature-length music video from singer-songwriter Solange, presented as an “inter-disciplinary performance art film” and a companion piece to her album of the same name. It’s an R&B sci-fi acid Western portrait of black culture in Houston, reaching more for visual poetry than clear messaging or linear storytelling.

5. Us A surreal reimagining of C.H.U.D. that reflects & refracts ugly, discomforting truths about modern American class divides. Both of Jordan Peele’s feature films are self-evidently great, but I slightly prefer the nightmare logic looseness of this one to the meticulously calibrated machinery of Get Out – if not only because it leans more heavily into The Uncanny. It’s like getting twenty extra minutes to poke around in The Sunken Place.

6. Parasite A twisty, crowd-pleasing thriller about class resentment, with a particular focus on how Capitalism forces its lowliest casualties to fight over the crumbs that fall from on high. It’s been fascinating to watch this earn sold-out screenings & ecstatic critical praise for months on end as its distribution exponentially spreads, a true success story for weirdo populist cinema.

7. Climax A deranged dance party fueled by a lethal dose of LSD, packing in more death drops in its opening half hour than you’ll see in the entirety of Paris is Burning. Pretentious, obnoxious, “French and fucking proud of it” smut that leaves you just as miserable as the tripped-out dancers who tear each other apart on the screen.

8. Violence Voyager Easily the most bizarre & brutal release of the year. A gross-out gore middle ground between animation & puppetry with a haunted amusement park plot from a vintage Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel.

9. Wounds The age-old tale of a New Orleans bartender’s battle with a haunted smartphone; also a grotesque look at a “functioning” alcoholic losing what little control he pretends to have over his life until all that’s left is rot. The low-50s aggregated ratings for this horror gem on Rotten Tomatoes & Metacritic can eat the roaches directly out of my ass. The imagery is legitimately scary, and it has a lot more going on thematically than it’s getting credit for. Clearly the most underrated film of the year.

10. Luz A lean demonic possession oddity with some real grimy 70s Euro horror throwback vibes. As a student thesis project with a small cast and just a few sparse locations, this should-be-mediocre genre exercise is the most unassuming indie gem of the year to achieve such a sublime must-see cinematic effect. A deranged, sweaty, deliriously horny nightmare that all demonic possession media strives for, but few titles ever achieve.

11. One Cut of the Dead A deceptively complex zombie comedy about a film crew who are attacked by the undead in the middle of a cheap-o horror production. This starts off quietly charming, then gets disorienting & awkward, then emerges as one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a theater in a long while. It requires a little patience, but the payoff is an incredibly successful love letter to low-budget filmmaking that makes the entire film feel retroactively brilliant.

12. Gully Boy A lengthy Indian melodrama about an aspiring street rapper in Mumbai rising to fame across class lines & familial roadblocks. It doesn’t necessarily do anything narratively or thematically that you wouldn’t expect, but it is astonishing in its refusal to pull political or emotional punches. It’s also a genuine miracle in finally allowing the world to enjoy the triumphs of 8-Mile without having to look at or listen to Eminem, something we sadly can’t always avoid.

13. Homecoming An incredibly ambitious concert film that documents both nights of Beychella, the most iconic live music performance of the 2010s. The cultural context for what Beyoncé is doing with this piece is rooted in celebrating HBCUs, but a lot of the sights & sounds are pure New Orleans Mardi Gras. The brass, the bounce, the dance troupes, the Solange of it all: I didn’t realize how much our local traditions were an extension of HBCU culture (or at least are seamlessly compatible with it) until I saw this film.

14. The Last Black Man in San Francisco A bizzaro Sundance drama about gentrification & friendship. Occupies an incredibly exciting dream space that filters anxiety & anger over housing inequality through classic stage play Absurdism touchstones like Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Wild, beautiful stuff doled out at a weirdly calming pace.

15. Aniara A surreal, existential descent into despair that processes the horrors of climate change through a space travel narrative. Initially plays as a much more conventional SyFy Channel version of High Life but eventually blossoms into its own blissfully bizarre object. Major bonus points: weirdo space cults, Gay Stuff, and a stunner of a lead performance from relative unknown Emelie Jonsson.

16. High Life Claire Denis delivers a much more divisive space travel chiller about climate change, one with a penchant for violence & abstraction. 100% feels like the director of Trouble Every Day launching her quietly fucked up little horror show into the furthest reaches of deep space – with all the narrative frustrations, ice cold cruelty, and disgust with the human body that descriptor implies.

17. The Lighthouse Willem Dafoe & Robert Pattinson costar as a lighthouse-keeper odd couple who gradually grow insane with hate & lust for each other. A black & white period drama crammed into a squared-off aspect ratio, this mostly functions as an unholy, horned-up mashup of Guy Maddin & HP Lovecraft. It’s also, somewhat unexpectedly, a total riot. Its tight frame is packed to the walls with more sex, violence, and broad toilet humor than you’d typically expect from high-brow Art Cinema.

18. The Beach Bum I was the only person laughing at my opening-weekend 4:20pm screening of this abrasive stoner-bummer, in which Matthew McConaughey plays a Florida-famous poet named Moondog. I was also the only person gasping in horror. Harmony Korine always works best when he reins his indulgences in with a little guiding structure, and this one does so by riffing on 90s Major Studio Comedy tropes to nightmarish success. It’s basically Korine’s Billy Madison, which I mean as a major compliment.

19. Diamantino Exposed to the existence of human suffering for the first time as an adult man, a sweet-sexy-idiot soccer star falls down a rabbit hole of political turmoil – like a gay porno version of Chauncey Gardner. This is a delightfully absurdist, satirical farce (taking wild, unsubtle jabs at the disasters of MAGA & Brexit in particular), bolstered by surreally cheap CGI and a peculiar sense of humor that alternates between wholesomeness & cruelty at a breakneck pace.

20. Lords of Chaos A playfully revisionist true-crime dramedy about the 1990s black metal band Mayhem, whose “breakup” story involved a spectacularly violent murder. Ruthlessly satirizes shithead metal nerds as trust fund brats with loving parents & purposeless suburban angst. Especially commendable for zapping all the supposed Cool out of the black metal scene’s infamous church burnings, bigotry, and animal cruelty by treating them as the edgelord posturing that they truly were.

-Brandon Ledet

High Life (2019)

Oddly enough, two nights after I went and saw Knife+Heart, I took in a screening of High Life, the new English-language sci-fi horror film from French director Claire Denis, the visionary behind Un beau soleil intérieur and Beau travail. When asked by a friend how I liked them, I said “I loved Knife+Heart! It’s so French!” followed immediately by “I hated High Life! It’s so French!”

CW/TW: Discussion of on screen sexual assault. That’s way more of a warning than this movie gives you. Also, you know, there’s a scene in this movie where a female character rapes a sedated man to acquire his ejaculate, then squats and drips it out into her open palm so she can impregnate someone else. You know, for science.

In its defense, High Life is not a bad movie. It’s beautifully framed and edited, and the extended lingering shots of both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic–from the depths of space and all the beautiful delights and terrors that it contains to close-ups of eyes and protracted shots of delicate droplets of water on leaves—make for a beautiful experience on the big screen. But there’s also sexual assault aplenty, shot with the same cold indifference, not to mention flat performances from almost every member of the cast, all of whom you’ve seen give stronger, bolder performances in other things.

High Life tells (in non-chronological order) the story of Monte (Robert Pattinson), a mostly unwilling astronaut on a damned voyage. A convict serving a life sentence, he and other young prisoners in the same situation are placed aboard a utilitarian space ship for the purpose of determining if black holes can be used to provide a source of renewable energy. The captain, Chandra (Lars Eidinger) is the only person who is not a felon, and the life support on the ship demands he make a log entry every 24 hours, or the crew will die. The real authority, however, is Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a medical officer who killed her own children and now oversees the regulation of sedatives among the crew and is engaged in her own side experiment to try and create a perfect offspring, although her efforts have largely been in vain and none of the children survive, even if they make it to term. Members of the crew use “The Box,” a masturbatorium, to relieve their pent-up sexual frustrations, and Dibs collects DNA from all aboard as part of her “scientific” enquiry, most notably Ettore (Ewan Mitchell). Other crew members/prisoners of note include Tcherny (André Benjamin/3000) and Boyse (Mia Goth, of Suspiria); Tcherny is Monte’s only real friend, who reminisces about life on earth and the family he left behind, while Boyse is a deeply troubled and unpleasant woman who is the first and only mother on the ship to successfully bear a child, as the result of two separate sexual assaults.

I’m really not quite sure what to make of this movie. Were it directed by a man, we could call this film troublingly sexist and degrading and call it a day, but with Claire Denis at the helm, it’s not so easy. A lot of this is bound up in the treatment of Boyse, and the questions that revolve around her. She is utterly unlikable in every imaginable way, which speaks to Goth’s range, considering how much I enjoyed her turn in Suspiria. There’s something to admire in her declaration that “[her] body obeys [her]” after Ettore sexually assaults her, but we never learn what her crime was that landed her in prison and thus on this shit detail in the first place, and her willingness to kill Nansen (Agata Buzek), who attempted to come to her defense, further obscures any possibility that we could really understand Boyse. She’s more than just an animal running on instinct, but she’s wild in a way that makes it impossible to understand her actions or desires.

In addition to being non-linear, the film is deliberately obtuse and obscure when revealing details. No one on the ship ever recounts why they ended up there; we only learn of this from a brief scene aboard a train in which a young reporter interviews a man credited only as “Indian Professor” (Victor Banerjee). Very little takes place planetside: this Professor rides inside of a train, two children play with a dog that later dies, and Ettore and Boyse are also seen riding on the tops of a train (presumably not the same one but who knows) while Monte discusses what it was like to be a societal castoff and outcast. The traintop scenes are shot in the first person, but the audience is never given clarification of whether these are Monte’s memories or not, or if they are projections of his assumptions; after all, we later learn that the crime for which he is incarcerated occurred when he was a child, so it makes very little sense for him to be free and enjoying the lifestyle of a crusty wanderer as a young adult. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it shouldn’t matter. But to me, it does.

At a very cursory glance, the film seems to be attempting to create a narrative about the dehumanizing treatment of the incarcerated, perhaps weaving that together with a statement about overpopulation or resource allotment, or even eugenics. As a statement about any of these topics, the film is fairly shallow. Is the film about the fact that all human progress in some way relies upon exploitation of the labor of a lower class? Is it about historical precedent of experimentation on prisoners? Is it about countering the idealized speculative fiction narratives of Star Trek and its cohort that point toward a lofty future of post-scarcity humanitarian egalitarian utopiae by showing that space travel and technological advancement will really only show us our true, animalistic selves? Yes! To all those things! Maybe(?)! It’s also about 110 minutes long, but that still doesn’t really tell you anything, does it?

That’s what I mean by the film being “too French.” High Life is has awful lot of Big Ideas, but not much in the way of Big Statements. It would be intellectually dishonest to say “This film does not demonize the prison system,” because it clearly wants to and expects the audience to fill in those gaps; at the same time, it would be a more straightforward lie to say “This film demonizes the prison system,” because it never really does. We see that there are outright dangerous people in the system, like Dibs, as well as seemingly good people like Monte (it helps that his crime was one of passion that was in defense of a helpless animal, which is almost laughable in its lack of subtlety), and others who were perhaps decent but were pushed beyond their limits as the result of the dehumanization of incarceration, like Boyse and perhaps Ettore (I’m not saying that Ettore’s aggressive assault of Boyse isn’t morally reprehensible or that it’s an unavoidable consequence of being involuntarily celibate, just that the film might be making that argument). Is Denis’s thesis that even good and moral people will become monsters in a captive prison state? If so, it follows that murder and rape are inevitabilities in such a broken system, absolving the individual from both agency and responsibility, which is grotesque. The only person that we see rise above these moral lapses is Monte, whose only stated difference from his shipmates is the fact that he is voluntarily celibate, going so far as to even abstain from the dubious pleasures of “The Box.”

I’ve never seen any of Denis’s other work. The friend with whom I saw this movie is very pro-Denis; when I asked if he wanted to check this one out, he cited her as his favorite living director. He was rather pleased with this cinematic experience, noting that she had directed his favorite movie about cannibalism, which led to me asking about Raw (we also saw that one together), and he made the statement that Raw wouldn’t exist without Denis. That’s all well and good, but as my first foray into her oeuvre, I’m not sure that I’m impressed. The musical score is haunting, every actor gives a great performance, and many of the visuals are pure visual art, but on the whole, this is a film that I’m not sold on, and I’m not sure I’m sold on Denis. Looking back over her filmography, she’s made multiple films with Vincent Gallo, and even wanted him to star in this one, which makes me question a lot about her instincts (if you’ve ever accidentally swallowed something that had a label on it that says “Induce vomiting if consumed,” here’s a self-aggrandizing, Trump-worshipping essay by Gallo to get you started; my favorite commentary on it came from The Playlist, which wrote “[we] reached out to Roger Ebert for comment, [then] remembered that Roger Ebert passed away in 2013, and that Gallo is picking a fight with a dead film critic.”).

I’m not here to pick fights with anybody. Honestly, I’ve given a lot of other films credit that they didn’t deserve. But this one? Not so much. Its unimaginative plot is given the semblance of originality through an irregular nonlinear narrative structure, but that doesn’t make up for making a film that is a sad slog through human misery.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Podcast Movie Report: High Life (2019), Jour de Fête (1949), and Cruel Intentions (1999)

Brandon and CC experiment with a new podcast feature: a weekly report on what we’ve been seeing in theaters. This week they discuss three disparate dispatches from French cinema: High Life (2019), Jour de Fête (1949), and Cruel Intentions (1999). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotify, iTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet