Defining “A24 Horror”

By now, I hope everyone’s learned to call bullshit whenever they hear the term “elevated horror.” Audiences who checked out from the genre back in the dismal days of the torture-happy, nu-metal scored 2000s might have to do mental gymnastics to justify enjoying high-profile entries into a canon they’ve deliberately chosen to ignore in the years since, but anyone who’s been paying attention in the last decade knows that the days of the genre being defined by Saw & Hostel sequels are long behind us (well, mostly). Horror has been enjoying a huge creative upswing in recent years, offering young & hungry directors room to experiment in a creative medium that has a built-in commercial potential, an increasing rarity outside the $100+ mil blockbuster landscape. Some lingering genre-bias held over from past eras of torture porn & slasher sequel exhaustion makes “horror” a dirty word in some critical circles, however, which has been inspiring some people to justify removing the descriptor from titles they believe to be a cut above the norm. This goes beyond labeling any horror film with an attention to atmosphere & craft as “elevated” too. There was an attempt to reframe Get Out as a “social thriller,” an entirely new genre descriptor that willfully ignores that film’s continuation (and subversion) of classic works like Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and the better half of Wes Craven’s catalog. While promoting his recent film A Quiet Place, actor-director John Krasinsky talked down the genre as much as he could, saying he sought to make “a good movie,” not a horror movie, as if those terms were mutually exclusive (not to mention that his film is about as genre-faithful as they come). As these examples pile up (see also: The Babadook, It Follows, The Invitation, Raw, etc.) terms like “elevated horror” have become so widely applied to so many disparate films that they’re entirely useless as descriptors. They’re basically just frustrated admissions that there are horror movies with artistic merit, which, duh.

Something that’s much easier to define is the term “A24 horror,” which has a very specific connotation, but still embodies what people typically mean when they say “elevated horror.” The production/distribution company A24 has consistently attached themselves to some of the film industry’s most exciting creative projects in the last few years, including some of my all-time favorite works in any genre: 20th Century Women, The Florida Project, Good Time, Moonlight, Spring Breakers, etc. Their taste for well-crafted, thematically daring cinema extends to the horror films they distribute as well, works that often fall under the supposed “elevated horror” umbrella. Let’s just assume that when someone says “elevated,” what they mean is “artsy-fartsy”: movies that value atmospheric dread & experiments in craft over traditional horror genre payoffs like masked killers & jump scares. What’s helpful about using “A24 horror” as a lens to discuss this artsy-fartsy horror style is that it narrows down the pile of titles worth discussion. A24 is a small company that only puts out so many titles a year in any genre, but their selection is so specific & consistent that it does have its own distinct, identifiable vibe. So, what are the films of the “A24 horror” canon? The films Tusk & Green Room are a little too traditionalist to qualify, as they deal more in familiar genre payoffs than the atmospheric dread that typically guides A24’s artsy-fartsy style. A Ghost Story, Swiss Army Man, and Life After Beth are all morbid genre deviations that could be described as horror-adjacent, but don’t quite comfortably fit in the genre’s parameters. Similarly, the films Krisha, Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Enemy all nail the atmospheric dread aspect of the “A24 horror” subgenre, but use that effect outside the confines of strict horror classification, potentially excluding them from the conversation. When we discuss “A24 horror” as a descriptor, then, we’re only really discussing four titles: The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, It Comes at Night, and Hereditary. Those four titles also happen to be among the best horror films in recent memory.

As a pair, The Witch & The Blackcoat’s Daughter feel like the baseline definition of what “A24 horror” looks & feels like. Both films deal directly in demonic, occultist genre tropes with a very long-established tradition within horror cinema lore, dating at least as far back as Häxan. They also both rely much heavier on dread & tone than the more immediate, tangible payoffs of more commercially-minded horror films like A Quiet Place & IT. What distinguishes them from one another is how A24 chose to distribute them. The Blackcoat’s Daughter had a years-long, troubled road from when it was a film festival darling titled February to its short-lived theatrical run & eventual fade into streaming platform oblivion (which is a shame, because its sound design & visual mood really deserve to be experienced as big & loud as possible). It’s sad to say so, but that’s a fairly standard, appropriate release model for a modern artsy-fartsy picture with limited appeal. Selling The Blackcoat’s Daughter as a wide-release genre picture, as if it were a Blumhouse-produced Purge or Insidious sequel, would have been a little disingenuous, essentially tricking fans of traditional jump scares, monsters, and gore into watching a quietly disturbing art film. That’s exactly what A24 did with The Witch. It may have been Swampflix’s Top Film of 2016, but wide-release horror audiences (generally) hated that film’s artsy-fartsy guts. The exact limited imagination of what horror can be that inspire the genre’s detractors who whip out defensive, apologetic terms like “elevated horror” & “social thriller” also turned supposed horror enthusiasts against The Witch for not delivering the exact genre thrills they expect from wide-release entries in the genre. A24 also sold The Witch as a terrifying spookfest with wide appeal, something I personally appreciated for being able to see it large & loud (with a vocally unappreciative crowd), but left a lot of first-weekend horror audiences feeling ripped-off. It was in that wide divide between artsy-fartsy cinema nerds who appreciated that film’s effective sense of atmospheric dread and pissed-off horror traditionalists who found the film to be a total bore that the “A24 horror” genre was born that very weekend.

If The Witch & The Blackcoat’s Daughter established the “A24 horror” baseline, then the more recent works It Comes at Night & Hereditary have served to test its boundaries. Personally, It Comes at Night is my favorite film of the pair, if not only for its stubborn doubling-down on The Witch’s least commercially appealing impulses. It Comes at Night is a film about dread. More specifically, it’s about a very particular kind of grief & dread that only hits you late at night when you’re unable to fall asleep to relieve the pain of your own oppressive, obsessive thoughts. That’s a daringly abstract villain for a monster movie, which left many audiences pissed, since they were expecting the “it” from the film’s title to be a physically-manifested monster (which is essentially what A Quiet Place turned out to be a year later). Hereditary plays with the opposite end of the “A24 horror” spectrum, lightening up on the atmospheric dread to delve further into its family-in-crisis drama through a tangible, horrifically violent threat, even if a supernatural one. Guess what? Wide audiences still despised it, saddling the film with a D+ CinemaScore for not being “scary” in a traditional, easily identifiable way. A large portion of that reaction is due directly to A24’s marketing, which repeated the often employed claim that Hereditary is “the scariest horror event since The Exorcist” (a tactic last used by Paramount to promote mother!, hilariously). Hereditary is a long, weird journey into bizarrely-expressed themes of grief & familial resentment, which could also be said about It Comes at Night. The difference is that Hereditary is much more accommodating to a wider audience, especially in a go-for-broke third act that delivers the exact genre film thrills traditional horror enthusiasts supposedly want to see, achieved through relentlessly nightmarish imagery. They (mostly) hated it anyway, which is just as much an intrinsic part of “A24 horror” as atmospheric dread at this point.

In just four films, “A24 horror” has become such a distinctly identifiable tone that you can see it echoed in other genre titles A24 never had a hand in releasing: The Neon Demon, Goodnight Mommy, Tale of Tales, etc. Calling these works “elevated horror” is an insult to just as worthy genre entries that don’t focus entirely on atmospheric dread & metaphorical subtext, as it frames them as “lowly” by comparison. The term “A24 horror” is much more useful, as there’s a specificity to its implications. Although A24 distributed the Kevin Smith horror “comedy” Tusk, that’s far from the first title that comes to mind when you hear the term “A24 horror”, maybe even behind other titles the company never touched. “A24 horror” is distinct, succinct, and doesn’t insult other, more crowd-easing genre entries in the process. I’d even prefer use of the term “artsy-fartsy” over “elevated,” since it’s at least honest. There’s nothing inherently worthier about a horror film just because it focuses on craft & atmosphere over delivering the goods. In fact, since we appreciators of the “A24 horror” subgenre appear to be in the minority and most audiences are displeased with what that approach offers, it’s arguable that this end of the genre spectrum is the lower, less-respectable medium.

-Brandon Ledet

Alli’s Top Films of 2017

It has been a year, both good and bad, mostly bad, but it’s the worst years that inspire some of the best art. Or at least that’s the bit we’re all told, as suffering artists. There were a lot more original stories of note for me this year, rather than remakes and book adaptations, so there may be something to that.

It being a rough year for me, though, which meant I fell behind, and because of that I’m keeping my ranked list short at 5.

1. The Shape of Water – It’s a tragedy to me that the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon got treated so badly. It’s an injustice that scientists would resort to killing and maiming a creature instead of just trying to avoid and passively observe it in the hopes of understanding it. The Creature always deserved better, and I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who thinks so. The revisionist justice of this movie is emotional comfort food for me.

Besides the Creature getting a better ending, The Shape of Water also serves as a countercultural rallying cry. The outcasts, downtrodden, and misfits work together to foil the plans of the establishment. Working class women, the lowest paid of anyone in America, actually get back at condescending bosses. Del Toro gives us a vision of hope and empowerment.

The cast is fantastic! Michael Shannon is horrifying. Sally Hawkins sweetly plays a mute rebel. Octavia Spencer gets a great role as a proud black woman in the time of the Civil Rights movement (when many proud black women made a difference and provided a strong backbone to the movement, only to be unfortunately overlooked). Doug Jones, though. He has played some of the most iconic del Toro roles: the Faun and Pale Man of Pan’s Labyrinth and the ghosts of Crimson Peak. Now, he will forever be known as the sexiest fish man onscreen.

I already knew I would love this movie just from del Toro’s name alone. He is one of my favorite currently working directors. The art he creates is lush and fantastic. He has a way of preserving the fun and excitement of fairy tales while also never letting his audience forget that there’s a real terror to them. With The Shape of Water he hands us another original modern fairy tale with a bittersweet ending, because he knows exactly what people like me want: a beautiful love story between a disabled woman and an aquatic humanoid.

2. Get Out – What can I say? So many writers have written so many pieces that offer better words than I could.

I’m glad that it didn’t just focus on the horrifying explicit racism, but the neoliberal hypocrisy that comes from the wealthy elite “nice white people.” The awkwardness of microaggressions, the creepiness of suburban culture, and the fetishization and exotification of people of color all help it succeed not only as a political movie, but also as a horror. The final act is a bloody catharsis that reminds me in many ways of the famous Anansi “get angry” monologue from the TV adaptation of American Gods:

Angry is good. Angry gets shit done. You shed tears for Anansi, and here he is, telling you you are staring down the barrel of 300 years of subjugation, racist bullshit, and heart disease. He is telling you there isn’t one goddamn reason you shouldn’t go up there right now and slit the throats of every last one of these Dutch motherfuckers and set fire to this ship!

American media has been rightly political in recent years. Get Out is another wonderful commentary on how weird and messed up the good old USA is.

3. mother! – I’ve always had mixed feelings about Aronofsky. I hate Requiem for a Dream, but absolutely love Black Swan, as Brandon and I discussed in the Swampflix Podcast episode about “ballet horror.” I went into mother! knowing it was one of those movies that elicits extremely polarizing reactions. I tend to be in the love it camp when it comes to those, and this was no exception.

It’s full of religious allegory, sure, but it also plays out like the absolute worst anxiety dream ever. I felt so personally offended by all the rude guests Mother had to deal with. The sink isn’t braced!! You weren’t invited! Just leave already!! Then the movie just totally breaks down into bonkers chaos, with literal bombshells and mobs. It’s all so gorgeous and frustrating.

I like the audacity of pointing out the wrongs and bizarreness of the Bible in an often heavy handed and overly dramatic movie. (I mean, what is the Bible itself if not heavy handed and overly dramatic?) The mother is so often referenced in Christianity, but where is she? The women of the Bible are so taken advantage of. It’s not right. Not in their own homes.  As the titular character played by Jennifer Lawrence screams at the godlike character of Javier Bardem, “YOU’RE INSANE!”

Really, that one line sums up the whole beautiful, messed up, literally goddamned movie.

4. I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore – Superhero movies are everywhere and, because of that, vigilante justice is normalized to a certain extent. We cheer when robbers and thieves actually get caught and put in their place by Spider-Man or Batman or whoever else decides to focus on small criminals that day. Realistically, going after bad guys and taking them down is terrifying and scary, yet we’ve all had the temptation to put a bike thief or burglar in a headlock. This movie is about giving into that, getting justice for yourself, and fighting the assholes of the world.

Part Coen Brothers, part Tarantino, but uniquely its own thing, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore elegantly balances itself between romcom and gritty revenge flick. Melanie Lynskey strongly carries this movie on her back. She somehow doesn’t even get outshined by Elijah Wood playing an awkwardly sweet “sword guy” with a dog named Kevin! The chemistry between the two of them is sweet and wonderful here. The concept of revenge is dissected and not glamorized at all. The gory violence, raging criminals, and shady underbelly of the world are put on full display.

The world is a horrible place, but if you have a katana-swinging nerdy neighbor with a rat tail, it’s probably going to be A-Okay.

5. Ingrid Goes West – Is there a more relevant movie to the times that will soon be completely obsolete and irrelevant? iPhones, Instagram aesthetic, self-made social media personalities . . . What will the future think of our preoccupation with that culture? A charming fixation on the New or beating a dead horse with a stick? Either way, the cynical approach Ingrid Goes West takes is a new direction and tone, not the wariness and fright of Unfriended or other social media based horror.

Instead of following the victims, we follow Ingrid, Aubrey Plaza, an Instagram obsessed stalker who just wants to be friends with and be like the popular girls. So much so that she assaults a girl and has a stay at an inpatient facility for her mental health. Shedding some of her usual deadpan delivery, Plaza opens up at points and shows true vulnerability. Ingrid is not an easy character to empathize with. She’s manipulative and pathetic, but like all of us she has problems. It’s hard not to observe her flaws and see them as exaggerated versions of your own insecurities and needs. Plus, the people she aspires to be are the intolerable rich hippie types who curate their own Instagram aesthetics: found object art, mason jars, “sun bleached” hair, and airplants. It’s hard to feel sorry for try-hard rich kids who attempt to look “just thrown together.”

At times Ingrid Goes West feels like another, “damn kids with their phones” rant, but honestly we all know people like the ones in this movie, and we all wish they would just get off Instagram for a minute (at least).

Honorable Mentions

Movies I desperately want to talk about but couldn’t quite rank:

The Little Hours – Aubrey Plaza is on a roll. I hope she never stops. Although here, Kate Micucci steals a lot of the spotlight.

I can’t say too much about this movie other than it’s ridiculous, hilarious, and made a lot of Catholics upset. My favorite scene is where a few nuns get drunk and start singing.

A Ghost Story – Problematic as hell, of course. Brandon has every right to hate it and people have every right to judge me for appreciating a lot of it. I hate the choice to work with Casey Affleck. I hate him and his male entitlement, and honestly him being in this movie feels totally unnecessary. Luckily, most of the time his face is covered with a sheet. And he barely gets any dialogue. Yes, he scares off a hardworking single Latina mother by breaking all her plates. Yes, it’s sort of pretentious on top of all of that.

But it’s extremely emotionally manipulative and I feel like that bears saying. At the end, I even thought it was good. I like the concept of a ghost being a loser who can’t let go, stuck in a fixed point. I like the idea of the classic image of a ghost in its burial shroud as the costuming. Also, in the end, he was the negative vibes of the house he desperately wanted to stay in, so it feels revelatory to watch this jerk bro silently face infinity itself. I like to imagine when he gets the note at the end of the movie it just says, “My boyfriend is a jerk.”

I wish this movie had been made with a different cast and a different sort of ghost. Why not the ghost next door even?

It Comes At Night – Speaking of anxiety dreams! I have in the past suffered from a bunch of different parasomnias, including but not limited to: night terrors and sleep paralysis. I typically try to avoid movies that play off of those, but this one is just too good and too spooky. I found a little bit of the acting to be off and I still think the ending is a little weak, but it’s well worth the watch if you want a slow burn creep-out.

-Alli Hobbs

Brandon’s Top Films of 2017

1. The Florida Project – Captures the rebellious punk spirit that laughs in the face of all authority & life obstacles among the children who run wild in the extended-stay slum motels just outside the Disney World amusement parks in Florida. The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults. Although financially locked out of The Happiest Place on Earth, they defiantly turn the Magic Castle & Futureland Inn knockoffs they are allowed to occupy into a punk rock amusement park all of their own.

2. We Are the Flesh – Disorients the eye by making grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to thematically pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitalia, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores.

3. The Lure – Synths! Sequins! Sex! Gore! What more could you ask for? The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. A debut feature from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, the film somehow tackles themes as varied as love, greed, feminism, alcoholism, body dysmorphia, betrayal, revenge, camaraderie, and (forgive my phrasing here) fluid sexuality all while feeling like a nonstop party or an especially lively, glitterful nightmare. It’s astounding.

4. Tom of Finland – Depicting the adult life of Finnish illustrator/pornographer Touko Valio Laaksonen as he drew his way into queer culture infamy, Tom of Finland excels as a kind of filmmaking alchemy: it turns an unlikely tonal mashup of Cruising & Carol into the feel-good queer drama of the year. While its sexuality isn’t quite as transgressive as the leather daddy-inspiring art of its subject, it’s a passionate, celebratory work that sidesteps the typical pitfalls of queer misery porn dramas, yet still manages to feel truthful, dangerous, and at times genuinely erotic. It’s hard to believe the film is half as wonderful as it is, given the visual trappings of its subject & biopic genre, but its leather & disco lyricism lifts the spirit and defies expectation.

5. Your Name. – From its tale of star-crossed, long distance romantics to its mildly crude sexual humor, bottom of the heart earnestness, supernatural mindfuckery, and pop punk/post-rock soundtrack (provided by the appropriately named Radwimps), Your Name. is the distilled ideal of a teen fantasy film in the 2010s. It’s also the most beautifully animated and strikingly empathetic picture I can remember seeing on the big screen in a long while. Small town angst & romantic desperation, cornerstones of teenage inner life, dominate its early proceedings, but several monumental narrative shifts completely disrupt those concerns as the co-protagonists’ stories strive to intertwine in a shared, physical space. The film almost operates like Persona in reverse, where two jumbled identities slowly detangle and then have to desperately search for common ground.

6. Brigsby Bear – 2017 was the year Kyle Mooney made me cry in a comedy about an animatronic bear, a time I never knew to expect. Although a darkly funny film that builds its narrative around a fictional television show that stars said bear & adheres to an Everything Is Terrible VHS aesthetic, Brigsby Bear is remarkably earnest, with genuine emotional stakes. I never thought I’d see the best parts of Room & Gentlemen Broncos synthesized into a single picture, but what’s even more impressive is that this film manages to be both more emotionally devastating & substantially amusing than either individual work. My only real complaint is in the frustration of knowing that I can’t be locked in a room to watch a few hundred episodes of The Brigsby Bear Adventures myself.

7. The Shape of Water – Easily one of Guillermo del Toro’s best features, assuming that you’re just as much of a sucker for brutal, lushly shot fairy tales as I am. The Shape of Water rights the wrongs of old school monster movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon by paying attention to how their supposedly villainous beasts are spiritually in line with the oppressed & the marginalized, depicting their governmental enemies as the true monsters instead of the assumed heroes. It also functions as a love letter to the visual delicacies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (whether intentional or not), an aesthetic I never tire of. Behind The Lure, it’s only the second best film of 2017 about interspecies fish-fucking, but the competition was surprisingly stiff for that honor.

8. mother! – The most important major studio release of 2017. From the rapturous praise to the horror stories of angry, vocal walkouts during its violently bonkers third act, mother! demands discussion & analysis in the way crowdpleaser comedies, superhero action epics, and computer-animated cartoons about talking animals typically don’t. The important part of the discussion it sparks is not whether you were personally positive on the film’s absurdist handling of its Biblical & environmentalist allegories or the way it makes deliberately unpleasant choices in its sound design & cinematography to get them across in a never-ending house party from Hell. The important thing is recognizing the significance of its bottomless ambition in the 2010s Hollywood filmmaking landscape.  There aren’t nearly enough major player Hollywood studios taking chances like this.

9. Good Time – Essentially a mutated version of Refn’s Drive with all of the sparkling romance thoroughly supplanted with dispiriting grime, Good Time filters an old-fashioned heist plot through Oneohtrix Point Never’s blistering synths and the neon-soaked cinematography of Sean Price Williams (who also shot Queen of Earth). That sounds like it could be a blast, but The Safdie Brothers employ those electric lights & sounds for a much more grueling purpose than you’ll find in typical action movie entertainment. The film is defined less by neon glamor than it is soaked in the economy-driven discomfort of state-sanctioned psychoanalysis sessions and the cold glow of television-lit hospital rooms. Good Time aims to disgust & discomfort, offering all of the surface entertainment of a film like Drive without softening its real life implications with the fantasy of movie magic the way that film does so well.

10. My Life as a Zucchini – A French language black comedy written by Céline Sciamma, director of Girlhood & Tomboy, My Life as a Zucchini is more spiritually aligned with the quiet comedic gloom of Mary and Max than the kid-friendly antics of more traditional stop motion works like Shaun the Sheep & A Town Called Panic. Its coming of age plot is quietly simple. Its stop motion animation style is adorable, but unambitious. However, its empathetic portrait of young, lonely orphans in search of a family to call their own is rawly authentic and had me crying like an idiot baby throughout. Still, it isn’t overly maudlin or emotionally manipulative. It’s just honest. One of my favorite aspects of My Life as a Zucchini is that (with very few exceptions) there are no real enemies driving its central conflicts. Life is just difficult.

11. It Comes at Night – Distinctly captures the eerie feeling of being up late at night, alone, plagued by anxieties you can usually suppress in the daylight by keeping busy, and afraid to go back to sleep because of the cruelly false sense of relief that startles you when you slip into your stress dreams. It’s in these late night, early morning hours when fear & grief are inescapable and nearly anything seems possible, just nothing positive or worth looking forward to. Trey Edward Shults stirs up that same level of anxious terror in his debut, Krisha, with the same deeply personal focus on familial discord, but It Comes at Night features a new facet the director couldn’t easily afford until this better-funded follow-up: beauty. The film’s nightmares & late night glides through empty hallways are frighteningly intense, but they’re also beautifully crafted & intoxicatingly rich for anyone with enough patience to fully drink them in.

12. Get Out – Instead of a virginal, scantily clad blonde running from a masked killer with an explicitly phallic weapon, Get Out aligns its audience with a young black man put on constant defense by tone deaf, subtly applied racism. Part horror comedy, part racial satire, and part mind-bending sci-fi, Jordan Peele’s debut feature not only openly displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form (directly recalling works as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Under the Skin, and any number of Wes Craven titles); it also applies that knowledge to a purposeful, newly exciting variation on those past accomplishments. It’s a staggeringly well-written work that has convincingly captured the current cultural zeitgeist, becoming instantly familiar & iconic in a way few movies have in our lifetime.

13. Split -A near-borderless playground for James McAvoy to villainously chew scenery. He does so admirably, fully committing to the film’s morally dodgy, but wickedly fun D.I.D. premise. When an M. Night Shyamalan film is great, it’s brilliantly stupid, combining over-thought & over-stylized art film pretension to an empty, trashy property that doesn’t at all deserve it. When a Shyamalan movie is bad, it’s boringly dumb, the worst kind of limp, undercooked cinematic inanity Hollywood dumps into wide distribution without giving enough thoughtful consideration. Split is brilliantly stupid.

14. Okja – Too much of an ever-shifting set of complexly self-contradictory tones & moods to be wholly described to the uninitiated. Okja is both a scathing satire of modern meat industry & a slapstick farce poking fun at the activists who attempt to dismantle it. It’ll stab you in the heart with onscreen displays of animal cruelty, but will just as often giggle at the production of farts & turds. I could describe the film as an action adventure version of Death to Smoochy or a more deliberately adult reimagining of Babe 2: Pig in the City, but neither comparison fully covers every weird impulse that distracts & delights Bong Joon-ho as he chases his narrative across multiple continents. It’s not something that can be readily understood or absorbed on even a scene to scene basis, but its overall effect is deliriously overwhelming and expectation-subverting enough that it feels nothing short of magnificent as a whole.

15. Raw – One of the more wonderfully gruesome horror films of 2017 is much more tonally & thematically delicate than what its press would lead you to believe. Early reports from the festival circuit sold Raw as a shock-a-minute gross-out that requires barf bags & potential trips in an ambulance. That reputation is definitely more a facet of its marketing than anything the film itself is attempting to accomplish. The heart of its story about a young woman discovering previously undetected . . . appetites in herself as she enters autonomous adulthood is actually pretty delicate & subtle, especially for a remnant of the New French Extremity horror movement.

True story: the first time I saw it in the theater, someone brought their tiny, tiny kids. They almost made it to the end credits too, despite the toddlers’ screams. Incredible.

16. Icaros: A Vision – Upon recovery from a near-fatal bout with breast cancer, visual artist Leonor Caraballo traveled to Peru to seek therapeutic guidance from the country’s local ayahuasca clinics to help emotionally process her unexpected confrontation with mortality. While participating in the religious ritual of ingesting the psychotropic plant with the guidance of shamans, Caraballo saw a vision of her own death. She returned to her home in Argentina convinced of two things: 1) that she was going to die of the cancer’s soon-to-come aggressive return and 2) that she had to make a film about her experience with the ayahuasca plant. The result of these convictions, Icaros: A Vision, partly serves as a therapeutic processing of dread & grief personal to Caraballo’s story. However, the film also strives to capture the religious reverence Peruvian people find in plants like ayahuasca and to poke fun at outsiders who treat the ritual that helped the filmmaker through her darkest hour like a colonialist act of tourism.

17. The Untamed – Not quite as structurally sound or as thematically satisfying as We Are the Flesh, but employs a similar palette of sexual shock value tactics to jolt its audience into an extreme, unfamiliar headspace. It adopts the gradual reveals & sound design terrors common to “elevated horrors” of the 2010s, but finds a mode of scare delivery all unto its own, if not only in the depiction of its movie-defining monster: a space alien that sensually fucks human beings with its tentacles. The Untamed alternates between frustration & hypnotism as its story unfolds, but one truth remains constant throughout: you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

18. Nocturama – I’m not sure the world necessarily needed a movie that makes acts of terrorism look sexy & cool, but with so few transgressive places left for cinema to go you’ve got to respect Nocturama for finding a way to push buttons in the 2010s. Nocturama is certain to ruffle feathers & inspire umbrage in the way it nonchalantly mirrors recent real life terror attacks on cities like Paris & London. That incendiary kind of thematic bomb-throwing is difficult to come by in modern cinema, though, considering the jaded attitudes of an audience who’ve already seen it all. It helps that the film is far from an empty provocation; it’s a delicately beautiful art piece & a hypnotically deconstructed heist picture, a filmmaking feat as impressive as its story is defiantly cruel.

19. I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore -As cartoonishly silly as I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore often feels, director Macon Blair does his best to place it in the context of a real, relatable world. Light beer, country music, upper-deckers, meth, and sudden bursts of intense violence all sketch out a real world playing field where Melanie Lynskey’s unreal vigilante warpath can be staged. Her mission of principle— not in search of compensation, but for the simple demand that “people not be assholes”— boasts an absurd, intangible goal and the movie itself never shies away from matching that absurdity in its overall tone, but impressively still keeps its brutality believably authentic.

20. The Little Hours – Profiling the sex & violence pranksterism of nuns running wild in a Middle Ages convent, Jeff Baena shines at his leanest, funniest, and most visually beautiful. Not only is his latest film an unbelievably tight 90 minutes of blasphemous, hedonistic hilarity; it’s also a gorgeous indulgence in the grimy, sunlit beauty of 1970s Satanic horror & nunsploitation cinema. Although obviously informed by improv experimentation, the film is sharply edited down to its most bare essentials in a way more modern comedies could stand to be. I especially appreciated the opportunity it affords Kate Micucci to run absolutely feral among her more seasoned vets of chaos castmates (Aubrey Plaza & Allison Brie). It’s also wonderful to see Baena let loose from his usual high-concept, emotionally dour black comedies to deliver something much more unashamedly fun & light on its feet.

-Brandon Ledet

It Comes at Night (2017)

In his debut feature, Krisha, young director Trey Edward Shults crafted an incredible level of tension & terror by staging a dramatic Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’ house. The wait to see what Shults could do with a bigger budget and a more straightforward horror tone has been blissfully short. His follow-up feature, It Comes at Night, has been pushed into wide release by modern indie distribution giants A24 and boasts recognizable actors like Joel Edgerton & Riley Keough (unlike Krisha‘s cast, which was mostly filled out by Shults & his family). First weekend horror audiences have been loudly disappointed by the film, saddling it with a “D” CinemaScore for not living up to their genre expectations, the same way a mass of people vocally derided The Witch, (our favorite film of 2016) upon its initial release. Do not be fooled by the grumbles & whines. Shults’s command of tension & terror is just as impressive here as it is in Krisha, even continuing that debut’s focus on familial discord & grief. The exciting thing is seeing that terror blown up to a slick, multi-million dollar film budget instead of a self-propelled scrappy indie production. 

Two young families struggle to survive a post-apocalyptic American landscape devastated by a deadly virus, a plague. This isn’t the outbreak horror of the more narrative-focused The Girl With All the Gifts, however. There are no zombies, no monsters, no transformations. The infected merely die, rot, and spread disease. The two families we get to know in this bleak scenario attempt to find peace & optimism in domestic cohabitation. They keep telling themselves everything will be fine, but there’s no indication that anything can or will ever improve. Edgerton’s paterfamilias often commands the room, setting firm rules on how to keep infected strangers & animals locked out of their peaceful, isolated cabin in the woods. It’s his teenage son who acts as the film’s de facto protagonist, though. Late at night, once the comfort of domestic routines and keeping busy fades away, the teen boy’s mind begins to wander into darkness. Anxieties over survival, sexuality, and sorrow for those already lost haunt him in hallucinatory dreams and late night walks through the house’s eerie hallways. What comes at night is not any kind of physically manifested evil, but rather an extreme grief for what’s already been lost and a dread for the violent, depressing end that’s fated to come in the near future.

Dream logic and nightmare imagery are a cinematic pleasure I never tire of and Shults does a fantastic job of building tension in these moments of subconscious dread. If It Comes at Night can be understood as the horror film A24 marketed it to be, those genre beats are wholly contained in the teen protagonist’s stress-induced nightmares. Nightmare imagery is not exactly unique territory for horror, though. Its presence in the genre stretches at least as far back as the German Expressionism movement of the silent era. What It Comes at Night captures more distinctly than any other horror or thriller I’ve seen before is the eerie feeling of being up late at night, alone, plagued by anxieties you can usually suppress in the daylight by keeping busy, and afraid to go back to sleep because of the cruelly false sense of relief that startles you when you slip back into your stress dreams. It’s in these late night, early morning hours when fear & grief are inescapable and nearly anything seems possible, just nothing positive or worth looking forward to. Shults inexplicably stirs up that same level of anxious terror in Krisha, with the same deeply personal focus on familial discord, but It Comes at Night features a new facet the director couldn’t easily afford in his debut: beauty. The nightmares & late night glides through empty hallways are frighteningly intense, but they’re also beautifully crafted & intoxicatingly rich for anyone with enough patience to fully drink them in.

Not everything in It Comes at Night is disjointed dream logic & slow burn focus on atmospheric tone. There’s plenty of tense dialogue, creepy treks through the woods, gunfire, and desperate scavenging for food & clean water. Often, the film’s late night eeriness is used to quietly lull the audience into a false sense of safety before a loud, disruptive threat explodes onscreen. It can even be a visually ugly film when the moment calls for it, often lighting trees & hallways like a crime scene via rifle-mounted flashlights. I’m not surprised that first weekend audiences were frustrated by their expectations of a straightforward genre film, though. Edgerton is an amazing screen presence who once again wholly disappears into his role, somewhat anchoring the film in dramatic moments of disagreement with his wife & son. There’s no explicit explanation of his demeanor or plans, however, just like how there’s no expositional explanation of the history of the plague that has trapped his family in that cabin in the woods. The highlights of the film are more image-focused & ethereal: a triangle-shaped shadow, complex tree roots & branches, sweeping pan shots & drone-aided arials, an intense fixation on a red door that separates the family from the plague lurking outside.

The subtlety of It Comes at Night‘s overwhelming potency is never more apparent than it is at its violent climax. That’s when its aspect ratio gradually, almost unnoticeably constricts its action into an increasingly cramped frame that gets more constrictive by the second until there’s no room to breathe. It’s in that climax that you get the sense that Shults may just be a master in the making. Let’s just hope that the memory of that “D” CinemaScore fades away quickly enough for more production money to flow the director’s way. If he can craft such memorably terrifying, personally revelatory works on budgets this minuscule, I’d love to see what he could do with total financial freedom, general audiences be damned.

-Brandon Ledet