I decided to leave Marvel movies off of my list this year. Unusual for me, I know, but this comes after having no superhero movies at all on my list last year and sleeping the sleep of the innocent after separating comic book movies from other films when compiling my respective top 100 movies of the 2010s list vs. the top 15 four superhero flicks of the 2010s. That said, there is a movie on this list that’s technically a comic book movie, although for me it’s mostly on the list because it’s a (gross) James Gunn picture. So, yeah, I’ve already spoiled it. That having been said, I saw both Black Widow and Spider-Man: No Way Home and enjoyed them both quite a lot, so feel free to read my reviews of those.
For Christmas 2021, my best friend also gave me this shirt, which is an in-joke from Jenny Nicholson’s THE Vampire Diaries Video, which would be my favorite film of 2021, measured by any metric that counted said content as cinema. Apparently, in her order, my best friend thanked Jenny for creating the best film of 2021, and Jenny responded “Thanks.” When this was divulged to me, I had a parasocial glee that I can’t describe. I don’t know why I’m even explaining this, since it’s currently sitting at 6.9 million views (up from 5.9 million at Christmas), which means that, statistically, you’ve already watched it (twice). I will not be answering follow up questions about my mathematical process, but this was the best long form video format thing that cannot technically be called a movie.
I also want to say that I really wanted to like Together Together. I absolutely adore Patti Harrison. Although we only know of one planet with sapient life on it, I think Patti would be in the top ten funniest beings from the five funniest orbs. I don’t know why her Funny or Die skits in which she reviewed animals have disappeared from the internet, but at least they were up long enough for me to make some GIFs, like this one. I wish I could have put this in the top list, but while this one would be worth watching for Patti alone (and with appearances from Julio Torres and Rosalind Chao, that should really push it over the top), if you, like me, can’t really get behind a film that has Ed Helms as the leading man, maybe just stick to Patti’s standup.
Honorable mentions for what almost made the list: Rare Beasts (which ended up ranked at 16th), What Lies Below (discussed briefly here shortly after the 18-minute mark), and A Classic Horror Story.
Ok, without further ado!
15. Things Heard and Seen
This slow-burn thriller is the third annual winner of the unofficial “film with the most Shining vibes,” joining 2019’s champ Doctor Sleep and 2020’s winner The Lodge. Read my review here.
14. The Paper Tigers
The perfect movie to watch with your male relatives when you need something to fill the void between you! From my review: “The action here is nothing short of spectacular. It’s always a treat to see martial arts depicted with an emphasis on the arts over the martial, and this is a truly elegant film to behold. […] The comic elements are more grounded in character than we’re accustomed to [and] Paper Tigers doesn’t rely on old stereotypes and tiresome cliches to create a rhetorical space for joke-telling, and the comedy that does recall those dead horses is punching (and kicking, and breaking bricks) up, not down.”
13. We Need to Do Something
From my review: “We Need to Do Something proves that, even if one has to film under pandemic restrictions, some of our old stalwarts [like IFC Midnight] can still get something into the consumer’s home that mostly hits, all while doing more with less. […] I’ll grant that this could be because of some of my own psychological fears and damage contributing to the overall discomfort and anxiety that I felt during the runtime. Just asUnsane ended up as my number three film of 2018 by knowing where all of my fears live, so too does We Need to Do Something effectively and articulately seek out and find all of my weak points.”
12. The Toll
A movie that could easily have fallen into the trap of being kinda dumb, this one ends up being far more interesting than it has any right to be, as it counterposes images of memories with a truly deep, dark forest, within which dwells something truly inhuman. I feel like when I recommend this one to people, I’m like the older woman on the tractor who tells the main characters that it may seem like they’re in the same place but that they are really worlds apart, since it seems like no one else has been as impressed by this one as I have. Still, maybe you’ll like it, dear reader? Read my review here.
11. The French Dispatch
I have a friend who hates Wes Anderson. Like, really, really hates him. Seeing the trailer for The French Dispatch sent him into a rage, so much so that I sent this to him a while back:
I, however, am not a hater. In fact, when I learned from a friend who worked for Vulcan Video (North) that their DOS rental records went back so far that he could even take a look at what Anderson rented when he was a UT student developing the ideas and images that would go on to influence Bottle Rocket, I became obsessed with obtaining this information and possessing it for myself. If you’re reading this, Mr. Anderson, you can rest assured that this information never made its way into my hands, as the good people of Vulcan kept your privacy, and I couldn’t get my FOIA filed in time before that location closed. Even though the computer with that information sat at South Vulcan in order to merge the two databases, I still never managed to get my nerdy little talons on it. I do think that this is a more personal effort than others from the director’s oeuvre, and it’s as much a career inspection (I hesitate to use the term “retrospective,” as it has such a… finality) as it is a film, which means it doesn’t connect with me as a viewer with the same intimacy and immediacy as my favorites from that filmography (which, for the record, are Fantastic Mr. Fox, Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic, and Grand Budapest Hotel). In those, the conceits of the story and framing form less of a barrier for me than they do here, as I didn’t really slide into the world of Dispatch as smoothly, but it’s still effervescent and fun, and I recommend it. Read Brandon’s review here.
10. The Suicide Squad
You know, I just love Starro. I think about every iteration of Starro that I’ve seen over the years and how they’re always kind of … cute. Blue and purple starfish guy; he’s only got one eye but it’s a big Bambi of a peeper, and he’s threatening but not very … gross. I’m a simple man and I like my James Gunn like I like my Cronenberg: again, gross. What The Suicide Squad has going for it in terms of sheer entertainment value is that it’s loud, slippery, fun, bloody, and full of bilge and bile. We all know seastars are gross, right? They have eyes at the ends of their limbs and they move around on gross little tentacles and there are over 2000 species of them in almost every kind of aquatic environment you can name. Here, Starro isn’t an adorable cartoon seastar but a massive, disgusting monster with nauseatingly realistic flesh, and then sometimes it opens up little trypophobia-triggering pores and shoots out more gross little dudes. I know I’m stuck on that point and there’s a lot more going on here than that, but I was very pleased with this one. Read Brandon’s review here.
I’ve been working on this list for a while, and this past week, the internet gifted us with this performatively sneering tweet about people watching “baby food culture” on airplanes, which of course set off a great deal of discourse about what constitutes said baby food, whether an airplane was really the proper space in which to engage with (presumably) richer texts like Schindler’s List or Hereditary. Others raised the point that some people opt for these as they are reasonably certain that they will be free of things that they might be embarrassed for watching in public (although I was plenty embarrassed to watch Ready Player One in 2018 but was reasonably certain that I would never see anyone on that flight again; now that’s baby food culture). There have been times for me when watching a movie on a plane actually contributed to the film, if that can be believed; there’s nothing like being forced to make yourself small as 6’2’’ guy with a shoulder width of 24+ inches sitting in a middle seat and subjecting yourself to Unsane. What I will say is that I watched Pig on an airplane, mostly, and I was still moved by it. Well, I watched the first 70 minutes on the flight from Raleigh to Atlanta, and then watched the rest of it on Hulu at home, and it was still one of the best films (and viewing experiences) I had last year, just as much as the Very Cinematic film that’s next on this list. Read Brandon’s review here.
8. The Green Knight
In what I advised in what I correctly characterized as “more of a summary than a review” of The Green Knight, I recognized that it was “an exercise for myself as much as it is a recommendation.” When talking about Alicia Vikander’s big speech, I asked and answered a question that applies as much to the film as a whole as it does to that scene: “Is it ‘good’? I’m not sure, but it sure was huge.”
7. Saint Maud
Last year during the introductory segment for our podcast about Ginger Snaps, we briefly discussed the film Ghost Stories, and specifically how it does “that thing I like.” We didn’t get into specifics since the specific thing that I like (henceforth TTIL) is always a spoiler, but for a longer discussion of that, feel free to check out our early Lagniappe episode about Housebound, which also does TTIL. All of this is to say that Saint Maudalso does TTIL, and it does so with style and aplomb aplenty. The trailer for this one played before the last film I saw in theaters before the first quarantine, and I had already seen it several times before then, but this was a film that was definitely worth the wait. The relationship between people of fundamentalist faith and those without is a constant source of interest for me, as demonstrated pretty extensively here over the years, not least of all with my Planet Mirth series. Here, our protagonist is a woman of a newfound faith, a belief born more of trauma and recrimination than one with which she was endowed by her parents or arrived at via a winding road of theological research. As such, it’s very personal and fervent while also being wild and piecemeal; despite its fragmentary and uninformed nature, the title character is nonetheless devoted and holds others to the strictures of her ideology, despite the fact that no one on earth could possibly know what’s going on inside her mind. And what’s in there is fantastical: visions of God and the devil, heaven and hell, and all of it finally coming to a head in an attempted act of self-canonization that’s almost too harrowing. Read Brandon’s review here.
6. Psycho Goreman
Brandon was less-than-sold on this one when he reviewed it last year, and I think that his review is fair and reflective of his taste. His opinions aren’t my own (although I would also compare it to Turbo Kid, which was my number three film of 2015), however, and although we align in a lot of ways, this one sat at the top of my list for most of the year, until a few late-in-the-year surprises managed to dethrone it. Although I used “smorgasbord” when describing Turbo Kid in the above-linked 2015 list, it’s been six years, so I feel comfortable using it again. This is a movie about a truly horrible and unlikable little girl, a bully who through nothing more powerful than coincidence comes into possession of a totem that allows her to control an otherwise unstoppable killing machine. Of course, Psycho “PG” Goreman (as she dubs him) isn’t a machine, he’s a living being, albeit one who defies “life” in much the same way as the monsters on the covers of 1980s metal album covers. Against his will, PG undergoes a journey of self-discovery, of a kind at least, as he learns that he has a fondness for hunky boys as well as dealing death. My favorite bits are when he is forced to become the drummer in his young friend(?)’s band, as well as the conversion of poor Alasdair into a big ol’ brain monster, which is never reversed. I got a kick out of this one.
When we recently discussed Titane on the Lagniappe podcast, I confessed to my intense jealousy about the fact that Brandon got to see (and review) the film before I did, especially after I got to see Raw in limited release and got copy on it to editorial within a day, beating a lot of actual media outlets to the punch, which is rare for our Little Swamp Engine that Can. There were many delays, caused first by COVID, then a friend’s school schedule, then COVID again, before I finally got the film through legitimate means (wink) and watched it at home. When I told the friend with whom I shared that viewing experience about how high the film would likely end up ranking on my list, she was shocked, and noted that she thought the film was pretentious. I could hardly agree less, to be honest, as I don’t think that this film is putting on any airs at all. It’s a body horror dark comedy about a serial killer who gets pregnant with a Cadillac’s baby and finds herself hiding out with an aging French firefighter and trying to disguise herself amongst a bunch of his macho employees. That it might be saying something about gender as performance is there, but I think it’s communicating less of a capital-M “Message” than something like Videodrome, which is the film it most reminded me of. It’s a long, strange journey, and I loved it.
4. Plan B
From my review: “[Plan B]’s not just funny, it’s funny in a very intimate way, which matches the subject matter, appropriately interspersed with emotional reminders of the potency of teenage emotion. […] And it does it all with humor that verges-upon-but-does-not-quite-become gross-out comedy, vignetted character portraits of outlandish but somehow instantly familiar personalities, and the warmth of basking in the effortless conversational volley between two best friends who know each other better than anyone else in the world.”
As I summed it up in my review of the film (slash jeremiad about the state of online film discourse and criticism, as is my wont), “Dune is good. See it.”
The end of the opening pre-title sequence of Cryptozoo may as well have been written by the Magical Realism bot on Twitter: In 1967, a woman wearing a unicorn’s horn around her neck finds a sign warning of dangerous cryptids; the paint is wet. And at that point, we’re only getting started. I was surprised to see only a single director listed on IMDb and Wikipedia for Cryptozoo, because I distinctly remembered seeing a woman’s name in the “A Film By” credit, which is usually reserved for the director(s), and marveling that I had accidentally managed to watch four films directed by women in a row without any intent to do so (following Rare Beasts, Plan B, and Matrix: Resurrections). The film does conclude with “A Film by Jane Samborski and Dash Shaw,” but Shaw is the writer and director, while Samborski is later credited as the film’s Animation Director, which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense, as the animation here is completely integral to the storytelling in a way that advancing animation technology has unintentionally driven creativity to the margins. As digital animation (or more specifically vector-asset based animation) becomes more the norm, a lot has been lost over the years. This can be found everywhere but the particular longevity of The Simpsons allows for an easy reference point: take for instance the way that Marge’s hair moves with character in this GIF of her in the opening credits that The Simpsons had for decades, and compare it to her hair’s stiff, lifeless lack of movement as she turns her head at the same moment in the HD credits which are now 10+ years old at this point. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that there’s now a lower barrier to entry for potential animators, but corporate interests mean that corners are going to be cut when it comes to animation and as a result, we now have stuff like that Red Ape Family cartoon thing that I’m not going to link to. The animation here is stunning, truly one of the most novel things I’ve seen in years, and I was captivated by every moment of this movie. This was released by Magnolia Pictures, and you know you wouldn’t see a film that would be so undisguised in its criticism of neoliberalism’s tendency to act capitalism apologia or attempt to correct social problems by invoking the free market in a wider release from a bigger studio; Disney Studios might let the Red Guardian in Black Widow have “Karl Marx” tattooed across his knuckles, but a monopoly of that size is never going to engage with leftist ideas in a meaningful way. Within Cryptozoo, capitalism will clearly not create a path for social acceptance of The Other. Simply gathering beings into a single location like a reservation zoo and grafting them onto the larger apparatus of capitalism will not forge freedom. Yes, it may possibly save them from greater harm in the outside world, but it also forces them to exist alongside of and engage with an economic system that allows them to subsist but not excel; cryptid keeper Lauren specifically notes that her business partner Joan’s inheritance will not last forever and that there is a profit motive to making Cryptozoo an enterprise and not merely a cryptid sanctuary because it is otherwise unsustainable. This is the best original animated feature I’ve seen in a very long time. Read Brandon’s review here.
1. Promising Young Woman
I kinda do this thing almost every year where I do a whole song and dance about how I feel that films released on or after Christmas don’t really count for that year’s list and should count for the following year’s. In 2016, this was my logic for including Anomalisa; in 2019, I did a whole round-up of films that I missed in 2018 because of my accident. This film, which released as a nasty little present on Christmas Day in 2020, is my holdover for this year, and ended up being my favorite movie of the year. And before you start flogging me for this choice: I understand that this is a Problematic Fave. I’ve read the thinkpieces about how this piece of media is Bad, Actually, and I don’t think any of them are incorrect. This one in particular is often pointed to as a source of the reasons why this movie is bad and you should feel bad for liking it, and I have to say that I don’t disagree with a single one of its points. I’ll try to avoid spoilers about it, but this is a movie about a woman getting revenge “on behalf” of her now-dead friend in a method that ultimately costs her everything and makes her a victim as well. That’s a totally acceptable thing to find objectionable, frankly. In fact, the backlash against this one was so bad that on three separate occasions, I withheld telling people this was my favorite movie of 2021 until pressed, and in each instance, my companion had pretty similar feedback about the ongoing problems with contemporary film discourse revolving around the apparent need for the objet d’art to perfectly align with their personal morals and ethics. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve never fallen into this trap myself (looking back, a one-star review for 4 mosche di veluto grigio is a little harsh, especially since my biggest problem with the film was just how shitty and unlikable the protagonist was), but I don’t think that this is the best way to discuss a piece of art, and certainly shouldn’t be the only way through which we explore the text. There’s a lot going on with our lead Cassandra’s self-destructive behavior and her self-sacrifice, and although the sheer volume of critical writing that takes aim solely or primarily at this aspect of the narrative is demonstrative that it can’t be just a few people for whom this is their primary critical lens, but a large portion of it. For some people, self-sacrifice is noble; for others, it isn’t. For me, something that aligns with my values, or professes to, does not make it a good work of art, and a piece of art does not necessarily become objectionable because it does not share my values. The SNL of the Trump years wasn’t funny just because they (professed to) hate him as much as I did. In fact, that was frequently the least funny satire they ever did; I spent a lot of my youth rewatching SNL in syndication with references to political events that were before my time or outside of my frame of reference, and they could still be funny even without knowledge of the specifics. The lip-service, inoffensively topical social statements in There’s Someone Inside Your House made the film worse, in my opinion, than it would have if it were simply a straightforward slasher. As I write this at this very moment, I have a poster from the Guggenheim’s 2014 Italian Futurism exhibit behind me; most of the participants in that movement were fascists, but Dinamismo di un Ciclista and Lampada ad arco don’t become bad paintings just because Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla were bad people. To me, this was a fascinating piece of art, regardless of whether I thought its morals and values were aligned with my own. I felt its highs and its lows, the dread and the hope and the guilt and the exhilaration, and ultimately the vindication, in spite of itself. Read Brandon’s review here.
There are a lot of things that they just don’t make like they used to. Cadbury creme eggs, Star Warses, western democracy. But one thing that’s still reliably chugging along through the same well-worn, comfortable ruts that the covered wagons made, and that’s the small-town crime thriller. Now with more Eric Bana!
Bana stars in The Dry as Aaron Falk, a federal agent in Australia who returns to his fictional hometown of Kiewarra, some twenty years after he was run out of town by locals who believed the then-teenaged Aaron (Joe Klocek) had something to do with the drowning death of his girlfriend, Ellie (Bebe Bettencourt). Although Kiewarra is now suffering economically due to the titular intense drought, flashbacks show a verdant river and fields as backdrop to the youthful friendship between Aaron and Luke (played by Martin Dingle-Wall as an adult and Sam Corlett in the past), as well as Luke’s then-girlfriend, Gretchen (Claude Scott-Mitchell). Unfortunately, it’s the tragic death of Luke and his family that’s brought Aaron home after all this time, in an apparent murder suicide at the hands of his old friend.
Asked by Luke’s parents to stay and investigate further in order to prove their son’s innocence, Aaron finds himself the object of scorn and scrutiny by Ellie’s older brother Grant (Matt Nable), who still believes Aaron got off scot-free for his sister’s murder, as well as Ellie’s now cognitively challenged father Mal (William Zappa), who confusedly accuses Aaron for covering up for his son, not recognizing that the man he’s accusing is the Falk boy. He also reunites with Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly), and the two reconnect while he investigates. While reviewing the files of Luke’s wife, Aaron discovers “Grant?” written on the back of a document, which leads him into conflict with Ellie’s family once again.
Most of the reviews for this film label it a “slow burn,” and it’s definitely that, with an emphasis on “slow.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it also wasn’t really what I was in the mood for when I was finally able to set aside some time to screen this one. There are no molds being broken here; nothing ever starts to get meta or strays from the conventional. It’s your standard Protagonist Archetype 7C (Law Enforcement Officer, Federal) with modifier 32-A (Chip on the Shoulder) sigma (adolescent tragedy), in setting 3 (small town) B (where they grew up) dash 5 (in economic crisis) dash B (due to inclement weather), where Kappa (a homicide) has occurred, involving Pi-3 (their childhood friend). The plot is solid and hangs together. It’s nothing new, but if this is the thing that’s up your alley, then you will enjoy it.
Normally, when we apply the descriptor “paint by numbers,” which certainly applies here, we’re talking about something with mass market appeal and application. This film is more of a masterpiece by numbers, where your end result is something that’s good enough to be truly proud of, or even be turned into a 1000-piece puzzle. I wish I could speak more highly of it, because what normally renders the more run-of-the-mill versions of these films to the heap of forgotten mediocrity is that they have no staying power beyond their twist, but this one is gorgeously shot, thoughtfully edited, and masterfully acted. You can really feel the heat radiating off of the ground in draught-addled Kiewarra, but it’s not enough to elevate this into the pantheon of its genre. It’s above average but does not exceed expectations.
I was very excited this past summer when, during that period when things were starting to reopen and I was able to go back to the theater for the first time sinceEmma. way back in March 2020, to seeBlack Widow. I managed to see two others in theaters before the end of the year, when threats of Omicron (Persei 8) means that many of us are once again sworn off of the in-person theatrical experience, Nicole Kidman be damned. For the past two weeks, I’ve been trying to squeeze in a few last 2021 releases in order to soothe my conscience with regards to ensuring that my forthcoming end of the year list was sufficiently well rounded and informed, consistently texting Brandon that “I just need[ed] to finish Matrix Resurrections/The French Dispatch/etc. and then I [would] ‘call it.'” Many years ago, I wrote that no one could gaslight me like I could gaslight myself, and like Charles Boyer himself, I just kept moving those goalposts, until I think we are finally at an end, as I got the opportunity to see Spider-Man: No Way Home in a relatively safe environment courtesy of coincidental access to a GMC Terrain and Austin’s own Blue Starlite Drive In.
We open just where we left off inFar from Home, with our friendly neighborhood Spider-Twink (Tom Holland) having just had his secret identity as Peter Parker exposed by J. Jonah Jameson, once again played by J.K. Simmons, although this time instead of being an editorial-mad editor, he’s here running a Daily Bugle that, instead of being a decently respectable publication, is not-quite-InfoWars. Although no criminal charges associated with the accusation that he killed Mysterio manage to stick (thanks in no small part to Charlie Cox reprising his role as Matt “Daredevil” Murdock), the repercussions of the allegations ripple throughout his life. Peter and May have to move out of their apartment to avoid harassment from Mysterio truthers, and the controversy costs Peter and his friends the opportunity to go to MIT together. It’s the last of these that prompts Peter to seek out assistance from Dr. Strange to try and reverse the damage, but Peter’s second guessing causes the magic to go haywire, setting off a bizarre series of events.
As a result, everyone who knows Peter Parker is Spider-Man, even in other universes, begins to appear in New York. Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) from Spider-Man 2? Of course! Willem Dafoe’s hypnotic Sam Raimi-movies Green Goblin? You betcha! Electro (Jamie Foxx) from Amazing Spider-Man 2? Um, ok, yeah. Thomas Haden Church as Raimi’s Sandman and Rhys Ifans as Lizard? If, um, if you want, I guess. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris)?! Unfortunately, no, although I kept an eagle eye out for both her and Mageina Tovah. Peter manages to round up these accidental invaders with help from Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya), and Strange prepares to send them back. However, when each of them shares that the last thing that they remember are the moments leading up to what we the audience know are their deaths (give or take a Sandman), Peter decides that he can’t knowingly send them to their respective dooms without instead curing them so that they might live instead: repairing the broken interface between Octavius and his cybernetic arms, ridding Osbourne of the Goblin identity, delectrifying Electro, etc. It’s actually kind of nice, but of course, goblins gotta goblin, so it goes off the rails, which is where things start to get really interesting.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one. A few years back, the CW DC shows did a big multiverse crossover event that managed to incorporate a shocking number of appearances from “other universes” that were explicitly other media adaptations: Smallville, Doom Patrol, Titans, the 1990s Flash, Superman Returns, and even more esoteric examples like Lucifer. There were appearances from Huntress from the short-lived Birds of Prey series from 2002, Burt Ward reprising his role as Dick “Robin” Grayson from the 1960s, and having Kevin Conroy, who voiced Batman in the 1990s animated series (aka my Batman), appear in the flesh as Bruce Wayne for the first time. Watching it unfold was like a matryoshka doll of niche specificity; it was a much lower budget than this, obviously, but it was still fun. I knew Far from Home was planned as a big crossover, that would start off the multiverse thing, which was hinted at in WandaVision and would play a big role in the upcoming Doctor Strange and the Who Cares, blah blah blah. But following on the heels of the what narratively should (but obviously capitalistically never could) have been the finale of this whole enterprise withEndgame, I didn’t really think that another installment in the Disney money-printing machine would manage to elicit the same kind of emotional thrill that of four-color yesteryear.
And then it did, somehow. Maybe? There’s no Disney logo at the beginning; when the Sony logo came up, followed by Tristar, I thought it was another trailer, until the ending audio from Far from Home played. But I’m getting off track. Pre-release, it was impossible to avoid the rumors. Would Tobey Maguire come back? Surely not. The rights alone would make it all so complicated. But someone saw, or said they saw, or maybe heard from the PA that you met at a friend’s party that Andrew Garfield and his Tumblr-famous jiggly puffs were spotted back in the old spandex. And somehow, post-release, even after a couple of weeks, I assumed that it must not have happened, since no one on Twitter had spoiled it (for me) yet, but yeah, here they are. And, like, it’s impossible not to feel a swell of something warm inside when they all meet here.
It’s common to call reference-heavy, perhaps even fan service-y fare a “love letter to the fans.” I’m not usually a fan of that phrase since most of the things that are intended to be so—perhaps especially when it comes to my beloved Star Trek franchise—usually come out muddy at best and are frequently, sometimes infamously, bad. And this does run the risk of that, especially if one is too young to really remember or to have ever even seen the older films referenced herein. But sometimes, especially in trying times, maybe a little bit of nostalgia is all that you need. Sometimes, it’s more than enough. Spider-Man: Three Spider-Men wrang legitimate tears out of me, and not just because no one bothered, I assume, to see what Rosemary Harris was doing. After the two older Spider-Men recount to Gen-Z Peter how they respectively lost their Uncle Ben and/or Gwen Stacy, Amazing Spider-Man gets the opportunity to save a falling MJ here, and this time he succeeds where he failed before, and it’s genuinely one of the most emotionally satisfying things that this bombastic, bloated franchise has ever managed to affect.
And that’s just the bittersweet stuff; there’s still plenty of humor to go around, although obviously not on the level ofHomecoming. I’ve spoiled enough of the drama that I’ll leave the comedy unrepeated so that there’s something for you to still discover if you haven’t already seen this one. If there’s one big quibble that I do have, it’s that Jameson as no-celebrities-were-harmed Alex Jones doesn’t quite work for me. Firstly, there’s no way that Marvel could ever let J.K. Simmons ever go full Jones; Disney might take a couple of potshots at him by having Jameson hawk not-quite-nootropics, but a film under their umbrella is never going to have Jameson get involved with Pizzagate or get taken to court for calling the Battle of New York survivors crisis actors. Although the film briefly touches on what the equivalent of our own real world conspiracy theorists would look like in the MCU, it’s pretty toothless. Going soft on Jones with a parody that neither sees him get his comeuppance nor push his pathological adherence to his outrageous beliefs past the line where his charisma fails to walk him back … you just wonder why they bothered.
I guess I should close by saying that although this was a lot of fun, it doesn’t really hook me on the franchise’s future at all. I didn’t stay for the post-credits scene, and although it’s true that I was, as stated, at a drive-in and that my bladder was full, I still simply couldn’t bring myself to care enough to stay. But, like, does that matter? Did it ever? Maybe. Probably not. As a capper on the Spider-Man series, this would also do, and it brings it all home.
I’ve been a huge fan of Natalie Morales for a very, very long time. In fact, I just got the Middleman DVD box set for Christmas and am doling out episodes to myself at a slow rewatch pace like a post-holiday Advent calendar, after my last rewatch of gray market .avi files that are still watermarked with the ABC Family branding. I heard about the then-unfilmed Plan B, Morales’s directorial debut, sometime back and then don’t remember ever hearing anything else about it until it premiered on Hulu. There’s a distinct style to her comedic delivery and timing that I have always loved, and it’s present in her other non-Wendy Watson roles with which we have been graced over the years; it’s also present here, in an esoteric spiritual way and in the way that her voice comes through so clearly in the cadence of her characters’ dialogue.
Lupe (Victoria Moroles) and Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) are best friends. Both have single parents: Sunny is an only child being raised by her mother, Rosie (Jolly Abraham), a driven real estate agent with high expectations for Sunny’s academic performance; Lupe has younger brothers, and her mother passed away some time ago, pushing her minister father (Jacob Vargas) towards overprotection, against which she bristles. Sunny’s crushing on Hunter (Michael Provost), a sensitive boy whose signature pairing of cardigan and P.E. uniform revs her engine, and she’s egged on by the ostensibly more sexually experienced Lupe. When Rosie leaves for an out-of-state realty conference, Lupe convinces Sunny to throw a house party in order to spend time with Hunter, but when he leaves with another girl, Sunny ends up having (brief and unsatisfying) sex with a different classmate, the zealously Christian dweeb Kyle (Mason Cook).
The next morning, she realizes that despite her best efforts to use protection, she may be amongst the minute percentage for whom condoms are ineffective. This kicks off a series of events in which the girls try to obtain the titular pharmaceutical, during the course of which they run afoul of a pharmacist (Jay Chandrasekhar) who invokes the state’s laws allowing for those of his profession to withhold medication based on “moral” objections, a gas station attendant (Edi Patterson, of The Righteous Gemstones) with her own issues, and a supposedly teenaged drug dealer (the 31-year-old Moses Storm) whose apparent age is the result of never drinking water. En route to the closest Planned Parenthood, a several-hour car ride that turns into an overnight coming-of-age road comedy, Sunny has an unexpected encounter with Hunter, and Lupe finally meets her oft-mentioned off screen love interest, Logan, for the first time in person; both we and Sunny learn that Logan (Myha’la Herrold) is actually a woman. With the ticking clock to get both the Plan B pill before it starts to lose its efficacy, and for the girls to get home before Sunny’s mom gets back from her conference, one never forgets that stakes, regardless of how many peals of laughter are experienced between delays.
There’s a great scene early on in which we get a one-scene performance from Rachel Dratch as Ms. Flaucher, the characters’ sex ed teacher. Just like I did, they’re getting an abstinence-only curriculum in which premarital sex is given an elaborate metaphor. You know the one; in his late-2019 stand-up special, Jaboukie Young-White talked about his Catholic upbringing in which the sinfulness of the Marital Act outside of the Marriage Bed was demonstrated by having everyone spit in a cup and challenging the last person to drink it. My school also had the one with the Scotch tape, in which once you put it on someone’s shirt, then someone else’s, then a third person’s, the tape lost adhesiveness, to show how we could never really properly bond to our future spouses if we allowed ourselves to be sullied by physical encounters in which loose threads were exchanged, if you follow. The September 2019 installment of Into the Dark, entitled Pure, took place at a purity retreat; during the scene in which the event’s spiritual leader asked for a piece of gum and started chewing it, I told my then-roommate that this was about to become a metaphor for how “gross” and “used” people were, and he couldn’t believe that this prediction came true. At least I am too old to have been subjected to Christian trap music, which plays a role here in Plan B.
On the VHS tape (ha!) shown to Lupe and Sunny’s class, a woman’s virginity (and it’s specifically a woman’s in this case, which is discussed) is presented as a much-abused car, which her husband refuses to ride in. There’s something essential about comedy that requires it to be knowing, and that’s what elevates Plan B. It’s not just funny, it’s funny in a very intimate way, which matches the subject matter, appropriately interspersed with emotional reminders of the potency of teenage emotion. Sometimes, no matter how adult you think you are and attempt to take care of your problems, you’re still a child and you need an adult, and it’s ok to acknowledge that. That emotional honesty plays out in its demonstration of young love, and how it can be sweet and still a little embarrassing. And it does it all with humor that verges-upon-but-does-not-quite-become gross-out comedy, vignetted character portraits of outlandish but somehow instantly familiar personalities, and the warmth of basking in the effortless conversational volley between two best friends who know each other better than anyone else in the world. There are a few missteps; I personally can’t stand a late-film friendship-threatening argument, and although this one is blissfully short and quickly reversed, that really underscores how unnecessary it is. But I’m not here to get bogged down in those details, and neither should you be. This one’s a lot of fun.
Rare Beasts is the directorial debut of Billie Piper, whom you might know as a nineties British pop star, the companion of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, or perhaps even from Secret Diary of a Call Girl or Penny Dreadful. It also stars the talented Piper and was written by her as well, and it’s a bizarre, barbed delight, despite the mixed reviews, which we’ll get to.
Mandy (Piper) is a single mother to the behaviorally challenged Larch (Toby Woolf), who may be on the spectrum. She works for a TV production company where she and several others are tasked with delivering pitch ideas, and the ones which the audience is allowed to hear are universally bad. It’s here that Mandy meets her relationship interest, Pete (Leo Bill). I say “relationship interest” because I initially typed “love interest” and then gagged a little, updated it to “romantic interest” and thought that this was an inaccurate adjective as well, given that there’s very little in the way of romance either. Pete’s a horrible man who comes very close to turning red and having kettle steam jet out of the sides of his head on their first date, as he spews unprompted vitriol about how much he hates women and desires what he considers an ideal marriage (one of female subservience), and how these questionable values align with his religious identity. Like, no one ever says “MRA” or “red pilled” but there’s a very clear reason why he’s alone.
Nonetheless, the two navigate through the stations of the canon of the romcom plot; they go to their first wedding together (where Mandy briefly flirts with a man with whom she clearly has a history, and whose eyes twitch exactly like Larch’s), have a day in the park (which ends in a scene in which Pete and Larch bond and seemingly come to some kind of understanding by way of a screeching tantrum mirror match), and Mandy meeting Pete’s family for the first time. Every situation is frighteningly familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a screaming match break out at a wedding or family dinner, but also takes comfort in the bleak humor of detachment; it’s Marge Simpson in “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield” murmuring her way into the act break after grimly telling herself “At times like this, I guess all you can do is laugh” – The Movie. That’s especially true as these relationship woes play out against the scenery of her relationship with her mother (Kerry Fox), who is terminally ill and, although separated from him, is still tormented by the not-so-harmless shenanigans of Mandy’s mostly absentee father (David Thewlis).
I’m always someone who’s more interested in a fascinating movie over one that’s “good,” but I think Rare Beasts manages to be both. There’s a hyperreality to the bizarre dialogue, which is stilted and almost impenetrable in its content at times, but always delivered in a perfect clipped cadence. It’s an experience that ends up feeling like you’re hovering halfway between an unfamiliar Shakespeare play performed with the original dialogue but in a modern setting and one of those short films or musical performances that are meant to evoke the experience of what English sounds like to non-English speakers. It’s surreal and hyperreal at the same time.
Mandy is captivating (as is Piper). She’s struggling, and that’s life. Larch is going to be who he is, and there’s very little that can be done about it. People are horrible, meeting dates is a tragedy in slow motion, and your parents will, someday, die. My favorite detail about Mandy is that, according to her father, she would write little death threats when she was a child. He laughs this off, but when pressed for what kind of threats they were, he notes that they were the kind “that would have you thinking,” as his eyes widen. Rare Beasts is a film of subtle details in that way; in an attempt at foregoing all the potential issues with intimacy, she shows Pete every part of herself, revealing in extreme detail which parts of her body she is neurotically obsessed about (there are many, including her legs, which are “too much femur, not enough tibia.”
The camerawork here is fantastic, shockingly ambitious for a first-time director and surprisingly effective and empathetic where it needs to be. When her sexist boss insults her talent and fires her, there’s a reversal of the kind of shot that’s so frequently applied to women; she is framed though his legs, and instead of being titillating, the angle at which his legs are spread (much more than would make logical sense for a standing person not in the middle of a cheer routine) creates a sense of overall wrongness that permeates the film just as it permeates our existence. At one point after Mandy stands up for herself, there’s an immediate cut to a crane shot of Pete and Mandy running through a deserted London intersection, and it’s like something out of a coming-of-age film, but it feels wrong, long before the details set in. At one point, when Mandy is eavesdropping on her parents by sitting on the floor outside of her mother’s bedroom, her father notices here and shuts the door, but he’s looking down on her as if she were a child, shortly before a sequence in which Mandy tap dances from childhood to her present age, in line with the film’s frequent dream logic.
I was surprised by the film’s low Rotten Tomatoes score, which is an extremely imperfect metric at best, but when looking at the reviews and the critics who provided them, I noticed a pattern, and dug in a little further. There were 50 reviews, and for 48 of them, I could identify the critic’s gender (bless Rory Doherty for putting his pronouns in his Twitter bio and keeping that from being 47). Of those, 26 (54.2%) were written by women, and 22 (45.8%) were written by men, which is pretty uncommon; normally, reviews from male critics on RT outnumber those by women 2:1. I tried to find a film with similar statistics that I could compare that to and confirm, and after taking a look at The Novice, which had 60 reviews, I realized that it was also a film with a woman helming it, as both writer and director, so that would hew too close and skew the results. Then I found Cyrano, which at the time had 51 reviews, Joe Wright’s period piece with Peter Dinklage in the title role. With roughly equivalent reviews, 12 (25.5%) were written by women, and 38 (75.5%) by men. So yeah. Of Rare Beasts‘ 48, 10 of the male critics (45.5%) gave it a negative review, as opposed to 8 (30.8%) critics who are women. So not only did this film attract disproportionately female critical attention, more men still somehow managed to dislike it than women, and with women having an internal positive/negative ratio of 2.25:1, compared to 1.2:1 for dudes. So, I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re a man, maybe this one won’t be to your liking, but that’s not a guarantee since, you know, I thought it was excellent. Then again, this film is very much Not For Everyone, so maybe that’s to be expected.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss Julia Ducournau’s Titane, a distinctly macho, thematically elusive nightmare about a serial killer who learns how to love a fellow human being as much as she loves cars.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the psychedelic sci-fi horror The Visitor (1979), a chaotic mix of psychic space aliens, killer birds, and Satanic blood cults.
01:11 The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) 03:24 Don’t Hang Up (2016) 05:22 In the Earth (2021) 09:27 Gaia (2021) 10:50 A Nasty Piece of Work (2019) 12:55 A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) 18:33 The Innocents (1961) 23:23 Streets of Fire (1984) 27:00 The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)
Although the Hulu/Blumhouse collaboration Into the Dark has come to an end, I was still holding out on catching up on the episodes I hadn’t seen yet, since it was a tradition between me and Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer to watch them together, and although we have seen each other in person several times this year, as things start to open back up, catching up on movies from an anthology series wasn’t really at the forefront of anyone’s agenda. The series was never very far from my mind, however, as I still managed to mention it several times, whether I was saying thatThe Unholy orBlack Box felt better suited for the series, or including one of its installments at number 13 in my Top Films of 2019 list. However, after getting my little family unit to buy in on the delightful Deadly Games, I didn’t want to push things by nominating another subtitled Christmas horror flick, and there was much objecting to the Creepshow holiday special (you still have one fan in this house, Anna Camp), so we switched from Shudder to Hulu and checked out the 2019 December/Christmas release, A Nasty Piece of Work. Some spoilers! Big ones! But not of everything!
Ted (Kyle Howard) just can’t seem to get into the good graces of his unpleasant and unpleasable boss, Steven (Julian Sands, star of the worst Phantom of the Opera), especially in comparison to and competition with perennially brown-nosing Gavin (Dustin Milligan). After a particularly embarrassing incident in which he put himself in harm’s way to retrieve and deliver Steven’s golf clubs in an ass-kissing attempt, only to be dressed down by Steven for doing so and shown up by Gavin, who mocks him for picking up Steven’s [dumb rich people bullshit] clubs instead of his [also dumb rich people bullshit] ones, Ted destroys the mirror in an executive bathroom with said implements. He’s got impulse issues! Later, following the announcement at the annual office holiday party that there will be no Christmas bonuses that year, Ted sees Steven alone on the office balcony and at first seems to be planning to push the older man to his demise, but instead delivers a clipped corporate platitude of gratitude about what an honor it is to work there, etc. Steven takes this opportunity to invite Ted out to his home for a special Christmas celebration, implying that he plans to share more information about a promotion for Ted then.
When Ted and his wife Tatum (Angela Sarafyan) arrive at the party, they barely have any time to bask in the opulence of the exterior of Steven’s home before they’re nearly run down by Gavin in his Porsche; he and his wife Missy (Natalie Hall) have also been invited. Although Ted spots someone in an upstairs window, Steven’s wife Kiwi (Molly Hagan) insists that the three couples are alone in the house. What follows is an evening of increasing mind games, some of which work and some of which are purely fantastical. Kiwi and Steven go full Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with her withering remarks about his priorital elevation of his business over starting a family as well as his present impotence, while he bons mot about her drinking and other indulgences. Paul Soter of Broken Lizard fame is the credited writer here, but there may as well be a “based upon characters created by Edward Albee” thrown in there for good measure, since we even get a staged shooting, just as in Woolf, although this time when Steven splatters Kiwi’s “brains” all over the marble walls, he immediately turns to Gavin and Ted for recommendations for plans of action to ensure none of them see jail time. It bears mentioning here that, like their husbands, Tatum and Missy are also fundamentally different. Tatum is a down-to-earth woman who works as an insurance mediator and is excited about her snowflake earrings. Missy, for her part, is an astrology-espousing unemployed trophy* wife who shares her husband’s drive for sucking up, although she’s less successful at it; when she tells Kiwi that the older couple’s home has excellent feng shui, Kiwi playfully says that at least designers don’t charge extra for that, but her contemptuous scowl doesn’t disguise just how little she thinks of this input. Missy’s not a complete slouch, however, as when Steven prompts his employees for a solution for what to do about Kiwi’s “corpse,” Gavin is speechless, while Missy manages to kick him into gear, and when Ted reluctantly joins in, Tatum is justifiably horrified.
Things only get stranger from there, and although the film never really got quite as weird in the way that I wanted, it exceeded my expectations in other areas. Kiwi jokes that they got a great deal on the house due to a series of murders that were performed by people living in the walls, which, in combination with Ted’s aformentioned spotting of masked people in an upstairs window and a sequence in which Missy is watched by someone peeping from a hidden room, makes you think that this little Mike Nichols LARP is bound to take a Bad Ronaldian twist any second, but the actual resolution of that particular plot thread is an underwhelming revelation that will have you saying “You’ve got to be Eyes Wide Shitting me!”, which sort of makes sense in context and which I thought was very funny, although no one else laughed. Instead, things take a turn for the even more bizarre. For instance, we learn that Ted’s been lying to Tatum about his Friday night activities, which everyone initially infers to mean that he’s an adulterer. Instead, he’s actually visiting a boy, Daniel, whom Ted paralyzed as the result of a traffic accident that Ted catalyzed by driving in while in an infuriated state following a previous work outburst, years before he and Tatum met. This twists further when Kiwi and Steven reveal that they have Daniel (Nico Greetham) in the house with them and plan to adopt him, and that if Ted doesn’t fulfill Steven’s latest demented command, Daniel will be intentionally subjected to a life of neglect and abuse, but that scene alone contains at least two more additional revelations that push the absurdity to the extreme, but I couldn’t help loving every minute of it.
Essentially, this is a movie in which we get not only such genre-standard classics as:
Rich old creep creeps on his employee’s wife.
Drunk rich lady creeps on husband’s employee in front of her husband.
Rich old creep creeps on his other employee’s wife.
We also get such strange new heights as:
Bros wearing a suit of armor.
Angrily smashing delicate face masks.
Drunk rich lady threatens to kill herself by tying her scarf to a life-sized poolside statue and pushing it in.
A truly outstanding amount of gaslighting and preparation.
Contemporary criticism of the movie from closer to its release largely focused on the film’s lack of discussion of class friction. While that’s a valid critique, I suppose, most of them cite that there’s little discussion of the vast differences in wealth between Steven and his employees, and I’m not really sure that I agree, especially because my biggest problem with the film’s economic commentary lies in what it doesn’t talk about, rather than what it does. Essentially, I have the same complaint that I’ve had about National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation for years: the money problems that Clark Griswold faces are not relatable to me, as he has a large and lovely home, no trouble providing for his family, and doesn’t seem to be in any danger of losing his job if he takes a truly staggering amount of vacation time. Clark just wants a Christmas bonus so that he can get a swimming pool, and because he assumed he would be getting it, he made plans for it without making sure funding was secure; Christmas Vacation requires Cousin Eddy to show up and good-naturedly antagonize Clark because otherwise the only conflict is the result of Clark’s bad decision. Likewise, we never really get a very good explanation of why Ted and Tatum need this bonus so much. Ted’s so angry about being shown up by Gavin in one scene that he destroys a very expensive bathroom, but the fact that he, like Clark Griswold, has so much riding in a bonus, makes him feel like an artifact from a different era.
Clark Griswold is unrelatable because, in the 1980s, a middle class chucklenut was living the American Dream. In a 2021 where everything is worse, Ted’s desperation for a bonus, when he seems to be doing better than a lot of people, is a premise that is alienating in just how out of touch it is. One of the strengths of Into the Dark is the way that it streamlines its storytelling, and this installment (like most) takes place almost entirely in one location (Steven and Kiwi’s house), other than a couple of bookend office sequences and an interior dialogue scene in Ted and Tatum’s car. They don’t openly talk about their financial straits on that drive; they just talk about the long hours that Ted has been putting in, and because of the budget constraints that force these smooth-running narratives we see nothing of their home and the life they lead therein. There’s no sense that Ted feels distant from his wife or that she feels a particularly sharp loneliness because of their long hours apart. Of the two, it’s Gavin who’s having money problems because he’s leveraged his credit to create a facade of wealth to impress Steven, while Tatum and Ted seem to be… fine. Only 12% of employers provided bonuses in 2020, with that number up to 23% in 2021, and while that’s self-reporting from businesses, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics data from 2019 backs this up, with year-end/holiday bonuses ranging from 6-15% depending on the industry and type of bonus. I happen to be fortunate enough to work a day job where I usually get a bonus at the end of the year, but it’s not every year and I know better than to count on getting it in order to maintain financial stability (and all of them added together for the past 6 years still wouldn’t get me a swimming pool), and most people don’t at all. I certainly never got one from working in the public sector as a teacher or in academic support, and the only bonus I ever got while working retail was a frozen turkey. Hell, if we’re going to crib from Albee and Harold Ramis, why not bring old Dickens into this and give Ted and Tatum a son who needs an expensive treatment, or maybe one of them has an ill parent who needs full time care. Even being behind on a mortgage payment because of a surprise short term medical emergency would add a little bit more urgency to the proceedings.
That same need for an aerodynamic production process and quick and easy cash returns on investment that are a hallmark of even the best Blumhouse releases is great, because they’re the only company giving any real money to small-scale productions, but those pursestrings are tight when it comes to locations. Usually where Dark succeeds or fails is in the performance and the style. Director Charles Hood made only two features prior to this, and if you don’t recognize the names of the TV shows he’s directed episodes of, I don’t either. Cinematographer James Kniest, however, is a frequent Mike Flanagan collaborator, and that shows in the shot choices and composition here, elevating this episode of the anthology above some of its less ambitious peers. Milligan is known more for his comedy roles, and while he’s good at playing dim-witted here as he did on Dirk Gently, there’s a talent in the way that he can deliver a serious scene, as he does here as Gavin while Steven plays back unkind things that Gavin said about Missy in front of her, then effortlessly and seamlessly transition right back to childlike wonder. Molly Hagan is the real MVP here, however. Hagan’s an actress who has made a single appearance in virtually every television show produced between 1992 and 2015. Scarecrow and Mrs. King? Yes! NCIS: New Orleans? Of course! The Golden Girls? You bet! Chicago Hope? Uh- huh. Six Feet Under? Well, obviously! Numb3rs, Monk, JAG, and Friends? Yes, yes, yes, and duh. But here she really gets to be Elizabeth Taylor, and she does it with style and aplomb.
So yes, A Nasty Piece of Work is more than the sum of its parts. If you happen to have Hulu and want to have a little fun with a horror-adjacent Christmas special, take another journey into the dark.
* The film does seem to pretend that Sarafyan isn’t a beautiful woman, and later in the narrative Missy calls her “podunk,” but the rest of the movie doesn’t really sell that, other than a moment wherein Kiwi compliments her boots and Tatum talks about getting them on sale, to which Kiwi gently chastises her that rich people don’t brag about that sort of thing.
Thomas de Frémont (Alain Musy), age 8, has the epitome of a charmed life, living in a castle with his widowed mother Julie (Brigitte Fossey) and her father, Papy (Louis Ducreux). Deep within the walls of the castle lies a series of secret passages and a gigantic playroom, filled with toys that once belonged to his late father, and his father’s father, etc. Even the boy’s mother does not know about this room, as this secret is passed from father to son. As his mother is the manager of a nearby location of the famous French department store Printemps, he also has all of the latest high tech gadgets, including the aforementioned Minitel system, a closed circuit surveillance system that he can operate with a chunky wrist remote, and even a trapdoor with a net, which he uses to capture his dog during an opening sequence in which he gives himself Rambo-style guerilla campaign war paint and acts out a quasi-Vietnam in miniature, all before breakfast. Thomas is a young millennial Pippi Longstocking: a child’s wish-fulfillment character, a hypercompetent little boy who mostly takes care of himself while still maintaining a childlike sense of wonder 3615; he can repair his mother’s car without adult assistance, but also still believes in Santa Claus. For now, anyway.
It’s Christmas Eve, and in the city, a man in his forties wearing a yellow scarf (Patrick Floersheim) attempts to join in a children’s snowball fight, but they are disturbed by him and flee. Meanwhile, Julie manages to elicit her son’s Christmas list from him, despite his insistence that he can communicate directly with Santa using his Minitel, and leaves for work, but not before reminding him to make sure that Papy takes his insulin. Julie is given a ride by her assistant, Roland (François-Eric Gendron), much to Thomas’s annoyance, which prompts him to set to work repairing her vehicle. At work, Roland hands Thomas’s Christmas list off to an employee, to gather the desired toys and have them delivered to the caretakers at the de Frémont house, as Julie will be working late for the last-minute Christmas Eve push, which includes getting as many Santas into the store as possible. After a visit from a friend who tries to convince him that Santa is a lie, Thomas uses his Minitel to communicate with the 3516 Santa line, but unbeknownst to him, the person on the other end is the man in the yellow scarf, who asks increasingly invasive questions, until Thomas logs off. The yellow scarfed man then takes one of the Printemps Santa positions, but when a young girl is disturbed by him, he ends up striking her, which Julie sees, prompting her to fire him immediately. In the personnel office to collect his payment and be discharged, he overhears Roland giving final instructions for the delivery of Thomas’s Christmas presents, and he hides in the back of the van, with the intent to make some merry (and murderous) mischief.
This is going to date me, but the first memory I have of going to the movies was to see Beauty and the Beast. According to my mother, however, I was first taken to the theater at age 3 in 1990, to see Home Alone, which, according to Deadly Games director René Manzor, was plagiarized from his film. And yeah, there are definitely similarities; ironically, when I think about sitting in that theater watching Beauty and the Beast and being utterly captivated, what I remember most is that opening sequence with the stained glass and the musical track that is similar-to-but-legally(?)-distinct-from the seventh movement of Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’s Le Carnaval des animaux, so in reality, both of my earliest filmgoing experiences were in some part (allegedly) stolen from the French. The thing about Deadly Games is that it’s infinitely superior to its alleged American rip-off. Home Alone is a perfectly fine family movie with slapstick comedy that acts as a sort of fantasy for children, and which is slotted into being a Christmas movie by default simply because it takes place during the holidays (see also: Die Hard); the fact that Kevin is alone at Christmas is fairly incidental to the plot, and the film could just as easily be set in July with no real change to the plot and only a few minor changes to dialogue. Deadly Games, with its Santa-dressed antagonist, Christmas Eve plot elements, and explicit connection to the loss of innocence and faith in magic that comes as a result of learning that Santa Claus isn’t real, cannot be separated from the narrative without changing it substantially. Even the whiteness in the killer’s beard and hair comes from using a can of tree flocking.
Not to keep harping on the similarities to (and differences from) Home Alone, Thomas and Kevin are very different kids living in very different universes. Kevin is buoyant and well-tempered, and although our heartstrings are tugged when he misses his family, he never seems to be in too much danger; we never really fear for his life. Thomas, on the other hand, gets injured (pretty badly) over the course of Deadly Games, although he manages to take care of himself and his grandfather fairly well in spite of being a child, and his innocence is contrasted with both his hypercompetence and the distinctly adult nature of the danger that he is in. Before she leaves for work, Thomas’s mother tells him not to try and stay up to wait for Santa Claus, or see him, as Santa turns into an “ogre” if he is seen by children on Christmas Eve. Thomas still tries to use his security camera set-up to be the first kid to get proof of Santa’s existence, but when he does see the less-than-jolly intruder enter the house (through the chimney, no less), he’s excited, until the moment that the killer hurts his dog. From there, an intense cat-and-mouse ensues, and Thomas matches wits pretty well, despite his injuries including presumed frostbite from both climbing around on the roof to escape “Santa” and running through the woods to the caretakers’ house to get his grandfather’s spare insulin, a leg injury that he is forced to splint using a broken chair, and a lifetime of mental scars.
A lot of people in my friend group hate Christmas, and I’m actually the odd one out for loving it. I love Christmas lights, the joy of getting someone something that they didn’t know existed but which fits them perfectly, wrapping presents, tinsel, hot chocolate and cider and mulled wine, and the aesthetics of the Winter Wonderland. By the same token, however, I dislike many of the trappings of the holiday: the idea of “gift guides” is, in and of itself, disgusting commercialist, consumerist propaganda to me; I find Christmas music exhausting, pervasive, and annoying; I can’t stand the right wing propaganda mills’ annual manufactured outrage about the supposed “War on Christmas” and how those “news” outlets have simultaneously radicalized and rotted the brains of large swaths of multiple generations of American voters. Other than holiday-themed episodes of generally cynical shows that I already enjoy, most Christmas filmic media is far too saccharine, cloying, and regressive for my taste. How I long for a subversive anti-Hallmark Christmas movie where our lead goes back to their hometown and, instead of encountering a situation that inscribes and glorifies the morally questionable values of rampant consumerism, patriarchal family structures, and having precisely one (1) apolitical black friend, they instead are reminded that they left their podunk nowheres to pursue dreams, not of having more, but of being more, and that home is actually full of undisguised racism, self-congratulating political hypocrisy, and abuse, only to return to their found family in The City and having a truly merry Christmas. But alas, such a thing does not seem to exist. For those of us who love both Christmas and thrills, however, at least there’s Deadly Games.