Swampflix’s Top Films of 2018

1. Annihilation A beautifully terrifying tale of life, death, rebirth, and the trauma that haunts us throughout it all. On one level, Annihilation is just a visually gorgeous, weirdo monster movie that reimagines Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a pastel color palette & more traditional genre thrills. On a deeper level, it’s a powerful reflection on how grief & trauma transform us into entirely different people, to the point where that change becomes physical & irreversible. Our bodies and our minds are fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part of our original form remains. The fact that the movie itself is its own creature separate from its source material novel also makes it an oddly fitting adaptation, since transformation and change is an essential part of its DNA.

2. Mandy The most metal movie of 2018 (and maybe even of all-time?). When Nicolas Cage axe-murders biker demons & religious acid freaks in an alternate dimension 1980s, Mandy is headbanging party metal, a blood-splattering good time. In its quieter moments it also captures a stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs version of metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.

3. The Wild Boys An erotic fever dream that’s part Guy Maddin, part James Bidgood, part William S. Burroughs, and part Treasure Island adventurism. Its visual experimentation, transgressive gender politics, and surreal depictions of sexual violence achieve an unusually focused version of imaginative dream logic. Both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender, it lives up to the “wild” descriptor of its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could possibly want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic bazaar.

4. Sorry to Bother You Incredibly dense, gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire about the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re already living in today – just bursting with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out. Boots Riley’s debut is remarkably well executed despite the sheer number of ideas it throws in your face, especially in how it handles its brazen third-act rug pull. Still, its most impressive feat is how it captures the moment we’re currently struggling through, but somehow finds a way to make it even worse.

5. Unsane Filmed on an iPhone and shamelessly participating in every mental institution thriller cliché you can imagine, Unsane is a purely Soderberghian experiment in the lowest rung of genre filth. Since it trades on the worn-out clichés and tired tropes of the Scary Asylum genre to induce its ugly, cheap-thrills panic attack, it’s not the most original movie in the world, nor the most sympathetic or responsible. However, it does use that unlikely genre platform to explore themes ranging from capitalist greed in modern medical & prison systems to male-dominated institutions’ dismissal of the concerns of women to the power dynamics of money & gender in every tier of society.

6. Paddington 2 We always say we wish more children’s films were ambitious in their craft & purposeful in their thematic messaging; Paddington 2 wholly satisfies both demands. It’s timelessly wholesome, visually precious, and emotionally fragile – all while teaching kids an important lesson about applying simple concepts like politeness & manners to their interactions with social & cultural outsiders. After praising so much exploitative horror & lowly genre trash year after year, Paddington 2 was a welcome change of pace for the crew. It lifted our spirits and made us want to be better people. (It even inspired James to learn how to make marmalade).

7. Hereditary Effectively gaslights the audience by starting as a fairly down-to-earth exploration of mourning, rage, helplessness, and grief before fully descending into the supernatural – striking an uneasy balance between heart-wrenching family drama & spine-chilling horror. Where Hereditary overachieves is in anchoring all of its glorious 70s horror vibes & stage play familial viciousness to the best Toni Collette acting showcase to reach the big screen since Muriel’s Wedding.

8. Cam A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam is set in a digital world where identity is no longer stable nor protectable. It mashes up Unfriended-style user-interface horror about the Evils of the Internet with smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace. It’s excellently written, staged, and performed for a movie of its modest budget, one bolstered by subversive politics that will have you cheering for a sex worker to return safely to her profession instead of being punished for her supposed sins, which is sadly extraordinary for its subject & genre.

9. You Were Never Really Here Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell obscures the emotional release of traditional macho revenge thrillers by focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. This is a powerful film about the tolls that violence takes on its enactors & its witnesses, tracking the many ways it can destroy a soul. It hypnotizes and mesmerizes, but not in an uplifting way, just in a way that makes you feel hollowed & alone.

10. Eighth Grade With a piercingly astute eye for the way social media has reshaped & mutated adolescent anxiety into an entirely new beast, Eighth Grade excels both as a snapshot of what life online looks like in the 2010s and as a distinct, character-driven drama even when removed from that of-the-moment focus on social media. Following an actual 8th grader as she relives our own past moments of unbearable anxiousness, we both identify with her all too well and feel a desperate need to protect her from the world. It’s both a fresh, important coming of age story for modern kids and a timeless anxiety Litmus test for all ages.

HM. Dirty Computer An anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, this “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones of Janelle Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. Its story of non-conforming Others being captured to have their culture erased becomes such an explicit expression of Monáe’s own identity as a queer black woman in an increasingly hostile world, it reaches a point where a tyrannical government is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze before she rises against them in open bisexual rebellion. It’s fiercely queer, femme, and black – the most defiant, punk thing you can be in modern times.

Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.
Read CC’s picks here.
Hear James’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

Britnee’s Top Films of 2018

1. Hereditary Toni Collette, my favorite actress of all-time, gives the best performance of the year in the best movie of the year. Hereditary falls somewhere between a heart-wrenching family drama and spine-chilling horror film. It’s beautifully haunting, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since the first time I watched it.

2. Mandy The most metal movie of 2018 (maybe even of all-time?). Nicolas Cage proves that he’s more than just a “bad movie” actor while playing a complete badass who gets revenge is the most brutal ways imaginable. It’s a headbanging, blood-splattering good time.

3. Unsane Steven Soderbergh’s high-anxiety thriller is my worst nightmare. It stressed me out so much that I popped the hair tie that was around my wrist from pulling on it during all the intense parts. There were a lot of them.

4. The Ritual The best Netflix horror film ever. It’s an amped up non-found footage version of The Blair Witch Project mixed with Norse mythology. The 2nd most metal movie of 2018.

5. Elizabeth Harvest A modern, stylish retelling of Bluebeard with a fun sci-fi twist. The film has a slow pace yet manages to be entertaining the entire time. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.

6. Mom and Dad Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair are suburban American parents that try to murder their children after an unexplained phenomenon causes parents to randomly start killing their kids. It’s wild and funny as all hell.

7. Paddington 2 After watching so many horror movies this year, Paddington 2 was a nice change of pace. This movie lifted my spirits and made me want to be a better person. Paddington is my idol.

8. The Wild Boys Brandon let me borrow his copy of the film a few weeks before the end of 2018, and it shot up my list immediately. It’s such a weird mix of beautiful imagery and disturbing scenarios that it made me smile and chuckle through the end.

9. Annihilation A beautiful tale of life, death, and rebirth with lots of freaky sci-fi scares.

10. Apostle Yet another fantastic Netflix horror film release from 2018. While it may seem to be a cheap knockoff of The Wicker Man in the beginning, it becomes a wild gorefest with tons of one-of-a-kind horror elements.

-Britnee Lombas

CC’s Top Films of 2018

1. Dirty Computer – A feature-length series of music videos from Janelle Monáe that combine to tell the story of a dystopian future society where non-conforming others are captured to have their memories & identity erased. On the surface, it’s just one of the most visually lush works of artistic beauty in recent memory. Beyond that, it’s fiercely queer, femme, and black – the most defiant, punk thing you can be in modern times.

2. Sorry to Bother You – Remarkably well executed despite the sheer number of ideas it throws in your face, especially in how it handles its brazen, astonishing third-act rug pull. Still, its most impressive feat is how it captures the moment we’re currently struggling through, but somehow finds a way to make it even worse.

3. The Favourite – The costume drama & the Yorgos Lanthimos dark comedy wrestle each other in this tale of two women wrestling for their queen’s affections. I’m always onboard for costume dramas for their visual treats alone, but they are rarely as adventurous in storytelling or tone as this stunning examination of power, aggression, and desire.

4. The Wild Boys – An erotic fever dream that’s part Guy Maddin, part William S. Burroughs, and part Treasure Island adventurism. Its visual experimentation, transgressive gender politics, and surreal depictions of sexual violence achieve an unusually focused version of imaginative dream logic.

5. Cam – The best horror film of 2018 is set in a digital world where identity is no longer stable or protectable. Its subversive politics will have you cheering for a sex worker to return safely to her profession instead of being punished for her supposed sins, which is sadly rare for the genre.

6. Eighth Grade – Holds up remarkably well on rewatches in terms of basic technical craft. The performances, editing, music, and narrative are all in service of a concise, precise story about something most modern audiences can relate to: anxiety. Following an actual 8th grader as she relives our past moments of unbearable anxiousness, we both identify with her all too well and feel a desperate need to protect her from the world.

7. Beast – A repressed young woman from a semi-abusive home falls in love with a mysterious stranger who may not be as harmless as he initially seems. There really aren’t enough modern takes on the Gothic romance, especially not enough that compete with this one’s plunges into Wuthering Heights levels of darkness.

8. Mandy – The scene where Mandy is violently abducted, involuntarily dosed with psychedelic drugs, and expected to bask in the splendor of her abuser but instead laughs loudly in his face is an incredibly cathartic moment to witness as a woman.

9. You Were Never Really Here – Narratively mimics the plot of a Taken-style thriller where a macho man rescues a young girl in crisis, but filters that formula through Lynne Ramsay’s very peculiar sensibilities, becoming a much stranger beast as a result. This is a powerful film about the tolls violence takes on its enactors & its witnesses, tracking the many ways it can destroy a soul.

10. Annihilation – The fact that this is its own creature separate from its source material novel is partly what makes it a fitting adaptation, since it’s a story about transformation and change. It’s also remarkable that it’s the third sci-fi film featuring Tessa Thompson on my list, making her the clear MVP of the year.

-CC Chapman

Brandon’s Top Films of 2018

1. The Wild Boys As an art film oddity & a transgressive object, this gem lives up to the “wild” descriptor of its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could possibly want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic bazaar. More importantly, though, Wild Boys is thoroughly, defiantly genderfucked – a freshly radical act of nouveau sexual politics represented via the tones & tools of the ancient past. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender.

2. Double Lover Not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller, but rather a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare. Double Lover’s basic premise is a familiar template, but as it spirals out into total madness there’s no bounds to its erotic mania, which is communicated through an increasingly intense list of sexual indulgences: incest, body horror, gynecological close-ups, bisexual orgies, negging, pegging, “redwings,” erotic choking, and nightmarish lapses in logic that, frankly, make no goddamn sense outside their subliminal expressions of psychosexual anxiety. It’s a gorgeous work of fine art that disarms its audience with its nonstop onslaught of inelegant prurience as a means of crawling under our skin and rotting us from the inside.

3. Mandy So sinisterly beautiful & deafening that its aesthetic indulgences become a grotesque, horrifying display. This is less of a revenge thriller than it is a Hellish nightmare, a dream logic horror-show that drifts further away from the rules & sensory palettes of reality the deeper it sinks into its characters’ trauma & grief. Nic Cage may slay biker demons & religious acid freaks with a self-forged axe in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but Mandy is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.

4. Dirty Computer A fifty-minute narrative film stringing together an anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, this “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones promised in Janelle Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. There are seven different directors listed as having collaborated on individual segments of Dirty Computer, but Monáe clearly stands out as the auteur of the project. A large part of that auteuism is how the film works as an expression of her newly public identity as a queer black woman navigating an increasingly hostile world that targets Others in her position, to the point where a tyrannical government facility is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze before she rises against them in open bisexual rebellion.

5. Sorry to Bother You – Incredibly dense, gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire about the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re already living in today – just bursting with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out. I can see how this movie’s third-act rug-pull could make a lot of people wince at it for going too far over-the-top, but that’s exactly when it went from good to great for me. The fact that it’s never satisfied with exploring one idea at a time when it could just as easily flood the screen with thousands is what endears it to me as one of the year’s clear stand-outs; more films cold benefit from being this wild & unrestrained, subtlety be damned.

6. Paddington 2 There has always been dissent against the wholesome tweeness of visual artists like Michel Gondry & Wes Anderson, but those naysayers typically don’t give full credit to the deeply devastating sadness that lurks just under their works’ meticulously manicured surfaces. Paddington 2 nails both sides of that divide – the visually precious and the emotionally fragile – while teaching kids an important lesson about applying simple concepts like politeness & manners to their interactions with social & cultural outsiders. We always say we wish more children’s films were ambitious in their craft & purposeful in their thematic messaging; Paddington 2 wholly satisfies both demands.

7. Annihilation It’s a shame more people didn’t take a chance on this Alex Garland sci-fi stunner when it was on the big screen. On one level, it’s just a visually gorgeous, weirdo monster movie that reimagines Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a Tumblr-ready pastel color palette & more traditional genre thrills. On a deeper level, though, it’s a powerful reflection on how grief & trauma transform us into entirely different people, to the point where that change becomes physical & irreversible. Haunting stuff.

8. Upgrade The very real, very macho anxiety of approaching obsoletion at the hands of automated future-tech is shown in gloriously over-the-top extreme, where a once-mighty macho man now needs a computer’s help to even move a single muscle, much less stage a gory revenge mission against an effete Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade has an entirely different plot & satirical target than RoboCop, but the way it buries that social commentary under a thick layer of popcorn movie Fun that can just as easily be read at face value is very much classic Verhoeven. It’s a subversive, playing-both-sides tone that’s exceedingly difficult to pull off without tipping your hand, which is what makes this sci-fi action gem so instantly recognizable as a modern genre classic.

9. Cam Between its Unfriended-style user interface horror about the Evils of the Internet and its smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace, this movie is so extremely weighted to things I personally love to see in cinema that my adoration for it was practically predestined. A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam was custom-built to be one of my favorite films of the year just on the strengths of its subject matter & visual aesthetics alone. It’s only lagniappe, then, that the film is excellently written, staged, and performed – offering a legitimacy in craft to support my default-mode appreciation of its chosen thematic territory.

10. You Were Never Really Here Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell obscures the emotional release of traditional macho revenge thrillers by focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. You Were Never Really Here’s artistic merits are found almost entirely in its editing room tinkering, searching for freshly upsetting ways to depict onscreen violence by both lingering on its brutality and removing all of its tangible payoff. In crime thriller terms, this resembles the skeletal structure of a Liam Neeson-starring Dadsploitation power fantasy, but its guts are all the emotional, gushy stuff most action films deliberately avoid. And because this is a Lynne Ramsay picture, those guts are laid out to rot & fester.

11. BlacKkKlansman As its buddy cop & blacksploitation throwback narratives power through their natural conclusions, BlacKkKlansman pretends to be a straight-faced, well-behaved participation in old-fashioned genre tropes meant to leave audiences entertained & satisfied. Then all of that easy, comforting payoff is swept away with an epilogue that effectively punches the audience in the gut, reminding us that we’re not supposed to feel good about the way the past has shaken out, that the modern world remains messy & nauseating in a way that can’t be captured in a fully satisfied genre exercise. Spike Lee knows exactly how storytelling conventions have trained audiences to expect easy, comforting resolutions to even the most sickening thematic territory, and he’s found potent, purposeful ways to weaponize that against us.

12. Unsane Filmed on an iPhone and shamelessly participating in every mental institution thriller cliché you can imagine, Unsane is a Soderberghian experiment in the lowest rung of genre filth. It uses that unlikely platform to explore themes ranging from capitalist greed in modern medical & prison systems to male-dominated institutions’ flagrant dismissal of the concerns of women to the power dynamics of money & gender in every conceivable tier of society. Unsane experiments with a teetering balance between microbudget exploitation cinema & power-skeptical radical politics. They’re two flavors that shouldn’t mix well together in a single container but do find a chemically explosive reaction in the clash.

13. Flames A collaboration between two filmmakers & conceptual artists documenting the rise & fall of their own romance, Flames presents a scenario where not being able to tell what’s genuine & what’s performance art can have emotionally devastating effects on a real-life relationship. Instead of merely manipulating audience perception, the filmmakers manipulate their own understanding of what’s even happening in their own lives, turning the already volatile emotional powder keg of a passionate romance into a daily terror of bruised egos, questionable motives, and petty acts of self-serving cruelty. It’s deeply fascinating, but it’s also deeply fucked up.

14. Shirkers This documentary figuratively hit close to home with me in its profile of a D.I.Y. art project tragedy, but it also literally, geographically hit close to home with me in the trajectory of its narrative. I was pleasantly surprised to personally connect with the film as a self-portrait of a socially tactless, self-sabotaging D.I.Y. artist; director Sandi Tan got through to me via the merits of her brutal self-honesty & her authentic zine culture aesthetic. More superficially, she also got through to me with her story’s exponentially rapid trajectory to my front doorstep. It’s shocking how much of this story about a conflict that begins in Singapore finds its way to Mid-City New Orleans.

15. Eighth Grade With a piercingly astute eye for the way social media has reshaped & mutated adolescent anxiety into an entirely new beast, Eighth Grade excels both as a snapshot of what life online looks like in the 2010s and as a distinct, character-driven drama even when removed from its of-the-moment focus on social media. Reductively speaking, it also excels as an anxiety Litmus test. You can either read its plot as a relatively low-stakes depiction of an adorable teen girl’s final week of middle school or as a horrifyingly relatable depiction of an anxious mess puzzling her way through a world that no longer seems conquerable & a changing self-identity she has little control over. I was personally watching it through my fingers as if it were a jump scare-heavy slasher.

16. Vox Lux – Brutal and coldly funny like a Yorgos Lanthimos film, yet absurdly earnest like a Mommie Dearest melodrama. A distanced philosophical statement on the current shape of Western pop culture, but also a gleefully perverse, intimate portrait of a woman behaving monstrously. Like mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, shamelessly unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.

17. The Favourite No matter how wild or devilishly cruel The Favourite may seem in a costume drama context, it’s also a rare glimpse of Yorgos Lanthimos on his best behavior. Part of this smoothing out of his most off-putting impulses is due to the setting; an 18th Century royal court is the exact right place for buttoned-up, emotionally distanced mockery of “civility,” whereas it often feels alien or robotic in his more modern settings. Still, the jokes fly faster & with a newfound, delicious bitchiness. The sex & violence veer more towards slapstick than inhuman cruelty. The Favourite is Lanthimos seeking moments of compromise & accessibility while still staying true to his distinctly cold auteurist voice – and it’s his best film to date for it.

18. Beast Partly a murder mystery concerning missing young girls in an isolated community, but mostly a dark romance tale about two dangerous people who can’t help but be pulled into each other’s violent orbits. There’s a distinctly literary vibe to Beast, nearly bordering on a Gothic horror tradition, that almost makes its modern setting feel anachronistic. The intense, primal attraction at the film’s core and the seedy murder mystery that challenges that passion’s boundaries make it feel like Wuthering Heights by way of Top of the Lake, like a modern take on Beauty & the Beast (except with two beasts).

19. Good Manners On a horror movie spectrum, this is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. Descriptors like “queer,” “coming of age,” “romantic,” “body horror,” and “creature feature” can only describe the movie in spurts as it loses itself in the genre wilderness chasing down the details of its own nature & narrative. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on centuries-old genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.

20. Hereditary Requires a little patience in allowing it to establish its peculiar version of atmospheric dread, but once the nightmare imagery & themes of familial resentment start piling up it more than makes up for the unease of that early stretch. Where it overachieves is in anchoring all of its glorious 70s-throwback horror vibes & stage play familial viciousness to the best Toni Collette acting showcase since Muriel’s Wedding (give or take a season of United States of Tara). You can’t overvalue a novelty like that.

-Brandon Ledet

Panos Cosmatos’s Overlooked Emotional Hellscapes

My most immediate reaction to Mandy when sent stumbling from the theater this past September was that it was a kind of emotional & narrative breakthrough for director Panos Cosmtos. By comparison, I had remembered his debut feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow, to be less plotty & more emotionally detached. Upon revisiting that debut with the rest of the Swampflix crew for our most recent Movie of the Month discussion, I no longer believe that to be true. There’s plenty of deeply-felt emotion running throughout Beyond the Black Rainbow; it’s just something I had forgotten in retrospect while considering the film’s more immediate surface pleasures: its gorgeous washes of color, its overwhelming synth score, its eerie psychedelic mutation of early 80s genre pastiche, etc. Beyond the Black Rainbow is just as emotionally bleak as Cosmatos’s follow-up, and both films actively subvert any potential attempts to reduce them to bro-friendly 80s genre nostalgia by sinking into those painful emotional hellscapes at a gruelingly slow pace. The colorful, synthy textures of those hellscapes wouldn’t mean a thing without that deep hurt at these two films’ cores, which is something that’s easy to forget when praising more immediately rewarding images like The Sentinauts or The Cheddar Goblin.

You would think that Mandy would be the more difficult film to take seriously on an emotional level, given its pedigree as an over-the-top Nic Cage curio. It’s easy to lose sight of the film’s pathos when praising Cage’s chainsaw-wielding revenge mission against a demonic biker gang or the fake commercial for boxed mac & cheese created by the folks behind Too Many Cooks. Mandy dares you to not take its emotional core seriously, opening with a knock-knock joke in its first lines of dialogue and interrupting Cage’s Oscar-winning mode of sad restraint for his more meme-worthy freak-out mode in a lengthy bathroom-set meltdown. Even the central narrative conflict that drives that emotional meltdown and the concluding revenge rampage recalls macho genre tropes in the home invasion & rape revenge tradition that would indicate a detachment from raw emotion in its exploitative violence. However, the central overriding tone of Mandy is emotional pain. The demonic chainsaw rampage that concludes its narrative is not made to feel satisfactory or badass, but is rather a grotesquely macho expression of frustrated emotion, an unhealthy processing of loss. The film opens in a romantic nirvana shared between Cage & Andrea Riseborough, a peaceful domesticity that cannot be fully mourned once it’s lost to the “crazy Evil” of the world outside. For a movie that’s likely to be remembered most for its heavy metal brutality & Cheddar Goblin buffoonery, that frustrated mourning commands a surprising amount of Mandy’s screentime – whether in a lengthy monologue about a traumatic childhood memory or in an extensive shot of Nicolas Cage crying through a barb wire mask, as if he were paying homage to the messages-from-home scene from Interstellar in a Hellraiser sequel.

That same tactic of lingering on silent, distraught faces was already present in Cosmatos’s arsenal in his debut. Beyond the Black Rainbow risks losing its pathos to the same macho genre pastiche & sensory pleasure indulgences as Mandy, especially in its co-option of the woman-in-captivity thriller narrative. It also loses a lot of its potential for a potent emotional core to its deliberate lack of dialogue; there are seemingly more lines spoken in Mandy’s early scene of stoney-baloney pillow-talk about outer space than there are in the entirety of Beyond the Black Rainbow. The emotional textures of the two films are also drastically opposed: Mandy finds its pathos in a violently disrupted utopia of marital bliss, while the only romantic pairing in Beyond the Back Rainbow is defined by a seething, resentful anger. It’s in that quiet, jaw-clenched resentment that Beyond the Black Rainbow finds its own tones of emotional devastation, however, depicted through the same lengthy gazing at distraught facial expressions that we’re confronted with in Mandy. Although the emotional core of Cosmatos’s debut is largely calm & silent, it’s conveyed with such devastating conviction from its two central performers (Michael Rogers & Eva Bourne) that it lands with thunderous impact. Stuck on either side of the observation glass in a go-nowhere science research project—one as captive subject and the other as studious captor—the two central characters in Beyond the Black Rainbow are visibly, absurdly miserable. The captive’s misery manifests in deep, pensive sadness while the captor’s misery takes the form of seething, resentful anger; either way, they’re both feeling a lot, which is something that might not stand out in initial viewings of the film, given the flashier, plentiful sensory pleasures that threaten to drown it out.

Panos Cosmatos has explained in interviews that he thinks of both films as art therapy – using the subliminal tools & methods of cinematic expression to cope with the loss of his parents and to reflect on the domestic tones of his own romantic life. Yikes. I don’t know that I can see any direct, concrete allegories for what he’s saying about those topics through either of these works, nor do I believe the filmmaker is even attempting to achieve that kind of direct, concrete expression. The emotional extremes of Beyond the Black Rainbow & Mandy bleed through the two films’ visual intensity as an evocation of pain & mood. It’s a much more difficult effect to pinpoint or explain that the enormity of Johann Johannsson’s score or the hilarity of The Cheddar Goblin (an image that itself is even used to contrast a character’s misery); but once you pay attention to the emotional torment at the core of Cosmatos’s art, it becomes just as deafening as anything else at play.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and our examinations of the influences it pulled from Phase IV (1974) & Dark Star (1974).

-Brandon Ledet

 

Mandy (2018)

For a few years now, I’ve considered Deathgasm the most authentically metal film I’ve ever seen, but Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic freak-out Mandy may have just usurped that distinction. In Deathgasm’s version of heavy metal cinema, the demon-slaying D&D power fantasy that visually defines the genre’s iconography is depicted as decidedly fun & badass, an escape from the mundanity of teenage suburban boredom. Mandy’s vision of metal soundscapes is something much darker & more sinister, fully capturing the way a funeral-doom beat or a stoner metal riff can feel like a Hellish descent into the darkness of the human soul. Mandy dwells in metal’s emotional catharsis, bathing itself in the grotesque blood & grime of human misery. It only pauses to laugh at the absurdity of life’s continual embarrassments, finding a much more sinister humor in metal’s extremity than the gory slapstick of demon-slaying horror comedies like Deathgasm. That same absurdist humor was present in Cosmatos’s debut, the tongue-in-cheek psych horror Beyond the Black Rainbow, but the hideous emotional catharsis of this follow-up feels like new, freshly rewarding territory for the director. It also feels metal as fuck, just in a more devastating way than the badass power fantasy that descriptor may imply.

Nicolas Cage stars as Red, a gruff logger in alternate reality 1980s overrun with LSD cults, demonic bikers, and cosmic chaos. His heavy metal girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) is the titular Mandy, an amateur fantasy artist who spends long stretches painting & drawing in the woods while Red works in remote wilderness locales. The tragic couple temporarily seal themselves away from the “crazy evil” of the outside world in a perpetual state of insular, marital bliss. We mostly see the world through Mandy’s POV in this early stretch, which filters reality through the D&D fantasy and heavy metal album cover aesthetics that also guide the art she creates & consumes. It’s in the second half of the film that reality breaks completely. The acid cults, biker demons, and cosmic menace that command the world outside take Mandy away from Red, whose grief takes on an ugly, punishing violence as he exacts grotesque vengeance on the “crazy evil” that destroyed his blissful home. On paper, the film’s plot sounds exactly like the macho revenge power fantasies that have lingered on the big screen at least since the Death Wish-style thrillers of the 1970s. In action, it’s a slow, gross descent into the hell of personal grief; nothing about Red’s revenge on the world’s Evils feels macho or badass. It’s all bleak, hopeless, and haunted by the memory of Mandy – all while monster doom riffs & washes of punishing synths (provided by recently-deceased composer Johann Johansson) overwhelm the soundtrack.

Besides its bifurcated POV, it’s the relentless overload of those brutal sights & sounds that differentiates Mandy from typical revenge thriller fare. Like in Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos throws himself head-on into the most sensory concerns of filmmaking indulgence, approximating what a Guy Maddin film might look like if you were Robo-tripping at 3am. As someone made helpless by the simple combination of synths & neon lights in any genre cinema, I was automatically charmed by the film’s punishingly loud soundtrack & washes of intense, artificial colors. Cosmatos himself seems to be taken with these indulgences even more than your average 80s-nostaglic genre enthusiast, turning the combo of neon & synths into an almost fetishistic religious ceremony. Mandy is so gorgeous & deafening that its aesthetic indulgences become a grotesque, horrifying display. This is less of a revenge thriller than it is a Hellish nightmare, a dream logic horror-show that drifts further away from the rules & sensory palettes of reality the deeper it sinks into its characters’ trauma & grief.

Like Vampire’s Kiss, Drive Angry, and Knowing before it, this is a film that’s going to be best remembered for Nic Cage’s more extravagant, meme-ready freak-outs. I highly doubt anyone solely looking to laugh at those stray dialed-to-eleven moments from the notoriously absurd actor are going to leave fully satisfied by the slow, traumatic doom metal march to oblivion they find instead. While 2018’s Mom & Dad is a meme-friendly party movie worthy of being shared with friends over beers & jeers, Mandy is more of a headphones listen, a solemn knockout that leaves you in a stupor. Nic Cage’s over-the-top, absurdist humor shines through in isolated moments of cartoonish what-the-fuckery, but when considered in the context of the hideous grief his character is working through, the effect is just as ugly as it is amusing. His performative extremism is less of a for-its-own-sake novelty than it is in service of Panos Cosmatos’s auteurist vision of a heavy-metal emotional Hell. Nic Cage may slay biker demons with a chainsaw & a self-forged axe in his personal war against religious acid freaks in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but Mandy is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.

-Brandon Ledet