Emma. (2020)

I really think that I would have liked Emma. a lot more if it hadn’t come right on the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’m reaching a saturation point on period pieces, and it isn’t helped by the fact that the title character is one of the least likable of all of Jane Austen’s protagonists. While waiting outside the bathroom for the two friends with whom I went to see the movie, I overheard a family of four—mother, father, middle school daughter, 13/14ish son—discussing the movie. The boy said he thought it was “boring” and there were “only like two funny parts.” And honestly? I didn’t agree, but I don’t begrudge him this feeling. If I were a teenage boy, I probably wouldn’t have seen much of myself in the film either. My companions emerged shortly after, laughing; inside, one had asked the other (a huge Austen fan) whether the film had encouraged him to like Emma more as a character, and the answer was “No.”

It’s not a completely unique opinion. According to A Memoir of Jane Austen, the author herself wrote that, in creating Emma, she would craft “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” To that end, the opening lines of the novel (and the film) are thus: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition [had] lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” In the sense and intent of the era, this meant that Emma was unusual: handsome (stately and elegant, but not “cute” in a traditional sense), clever (to quote this review of the book, “not ‘accomplished’ or ‘intelligent'”), and rich (as opposed to less judgmental synonyms like “affluent”). Emma is, as a character, spoiled sweet, and is possibly the first example of the archetype, which makes it possible to read her as less kindly as other examples.

In the new film directed by Autumn de Wilde and stylized as Emma., period and all, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is found in the film’s opening moments creating a bouquet of flowers for the wedding of her dear friend and governess, Anne (Gemma Whelan), who is preparing to marry Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She doesn’t clip the flowers herself, of course, but selects them. Her father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), complains that the house shall be empty soon, given that Emma’s older sister Isabella (Chloe Pirrie) has married, and that it will only be a matter of time before Emma follows her example. Emma repeatedly declares that she has no interest in marrying, but considers that she finds matchmaking a pleasant enough enterprise, as she aided in the courtship of Anne and Mr. Weston. When she learns that a new young woman—of indeterminate breeding and ancestry, which is important because this is the Georgian regency—named Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) has arrived at the local school, Emma decides that she is best matched not with Robert Martin, a local farmer who reciprocates Harriet’s interest, but with vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor).

Emma’s meddling invites rebuke from George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Emma’s brother in law (his brother married Isabella), who lives at the nearby Donwell Abbey and oversees its farms, one of which belongs to the Martin family. He is proven correct when Elton reveals that he has no interest in marrying someone as “low” as Harriet and instead seeks to climb the ranks of society by courting Emma, who rejects him outright. Emma herself is enamored of the unknown but oft-referenced Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), son of Mr. Weston who was adopted and raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle while Mr. Weston was serving in the militia. He finally appears in the town of Highbury not long after the arrival of Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the niece of Miss Bates (Miranda Hart). Miss Bates, the widow of Highbury’s last vicar, was born into relative wealth and now lives in genteel poverty, dependent upon the largesse of her more affluent neighbors. The orphaned Jane has long been suggested as a proper friend for Emma, but Emma rejects this, although if it is because Jane is of a lower social station (which is true) or because she is more talented than Emma herself in the areas on which Emma prides herself, like music (also true) is unclear. Miss Bates herself is considered a nuisance by Emma, who finds her to be a prattling bore, but her politeness (almost) never falters.

Austen adaptations are a tough business, and I’m not sure that the world needed another adaptation of Emma, given that Clueless did all of the work 25 years ago, but as adaptations go, this is a decent one. It’s extremely faithful to the source material, down to phrasing and monologues—Knightley’s dressing down of Emma after she unthinkingly insults Miss Bates is a particular highlight—but there’s just something … off. Taylor-Joy seems to be incapable of providing anything less than a perfect performance, and although there are moments where Emma’s blindness to her own privilege is actually more frustrating and enraging than in the text (such as when she defines the Martins as being too high on the social ladder for her to think about them as charity cases, but too far below her station to be considered as peers), Taylor-Joy imbues those scenes with such innocence that you can see that she truly is a good person possessed of horrible (and period accurate) ideas about social class.

Emma.‘s biggest weaknesses are not in the film itself, but in its timing. If it wasn’t nipping at the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I’d be spending a lot more time gushing over its color palette and period costumes, but despite the vibrancy and the spectacle of virtually every piece of clothing, I wasn’t as blown away as I would have liked to be. The film is also held back by the aforementioned fact that Emma the novel is sparsely read and even more rarely enjoyed. The trailer set a high bar for the film’s energy and pacing, and I was cautiously optimistic about whether that kind of energy could be sustained over the length of a feature, especially given that it is de Wilde’s first film after a career largely consisting of helming music videos (although we’re talking about “Big God” and “Rise Up With Fists” here, so nothing to scoff at). The film itself is less chaotic than the trailer would have you believe, which is not to its detriment; the pacing is instead pitch perfect. Ironically given de Wilde’s past, my major complaint about the film as a film (as opposed to a transposed complaint about the source material) it would be the score. It’s not bad per se, but the hymns which accompany Emma. pale in comparison to Portrait‘s silence, periodically punctuated with musical moments as well as Alexandre Desplat’s lively piano compositions for Little Women. The music is unmemorable, which is unfortunate when adapting something as slavishly as this film adapts the novel; it’s one of the few areas in which there is room to embellish or create, and that possibility is squandered here.

Emma. is not a bad film. It’s not a great film, either. There’s a lot of conversation about class but very little commentary on class, which is something that a modern Austen adaptation really ought to address. Compare this, for instance, to the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion, which took great pains to show servants hustling and bustling about in the background of virtually every scene; here, we see virtually no servants at all save for a few faceless coachmen and Mr. Woodhouse’s two footmen, who are only “dissatisfied” with their lot in life so far as it extends to catering to Woodhouse’s hypochondria and not, say, their frustration with having to perform useless and silly manual labor in a society where birth determines everything about one’s station in life. Instead, everyone is happy and content in servitude or gentility, which makes the film feel more dated than Persuasion, which, lest we forget, came out 25 years ago. I foresee Emma. becoming one of those pieces of media that, like the 1978 Peter Hammond version of Wuthering Heights or Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is used as the most triumphantly faithful adaptation for students to watch before test time if they procrastinated. That’s not high praise, I know, but it does put Emma. in good company, and it’s a fun little movie to have with tea.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020)

“Thou hast made the furies weep, Orpheus. This is unheard of.” So says Persephone in one of the best retellings of the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Special #1. “Thou hast made the furies cry, Orpheus. They will never forgive you for that.” The three leads of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (French: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) read and discuss this myth near the middle of the film and take from it different interpretations. It’s a well-known myth: Eurydice, beloved wife of the poet/musician Orpheus, is bitten by a viper and dies; Orpheus’s musical mourning so moves the spirits of the earth, the Furies, and even Hades himself that Eurydice is allowed to return with Orpheus to the world of the living, so long as he does not turn around until he has emerged from the Underworld. At the last moment, Orpheus turns and sees his beloved for but a moment before her spirit is pulled back into the world below.

Let’s circle back around to that. Portrait relates the story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter who has been hired to go to an isolated island off of the French coast in order to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). It’s the end of the eighteenth century, and Héloïse has returned to her home after spending some time in a convent; previously, the responsibility of marrying a wealthy man and ensuring her family’s continued financial status fell on Héloïse’s eldest sister, but with her death, that now falls to Héloïse herself. She has no interest in modeling for a portrait that is to be sent to a Milanese merchant to secure a proposal, and previously ran off the last painter by refusing to sit for him. As Héloïse’s countess mother (Valeria Golino) explains, Marianne is to keep the true purpose of her arrival secret and pose as a kind of lady-in-waiting/hired companion for Héloïse on her walks. She is assisted in this subterfuge by maidservant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who fills in the details about the history of the house and its inhabitants.

Héloïse and Marianne grow quite close, and we learn that Héloïse had loved the convent because there was music and books and art, and she wants nothing to do with the life of playing wife to a stranger and bearing him heirs. Marianne sympathizes, as she lives adjacent to the world of art and artists, with men as gatekeepers. Her father is likewise a painter, and although she will one day be able to live as a free agent by inheriting his business (and not be forced to marry for economic security), she is still forced to submit her paintings in his name in order for them to be displayed, and she is forbidden from painting male nudes. When asked why, she explains that the stated reason is for the sake or propriety, but that the truth is that the establishment wants to ensure that women are never able to break through into “real” art. This doesn’t stop Marianne, who paints the male form in secret. “It is tolerated,” she says — as long as no one knows. Eventually, when the Countess is away, Marianne and Héloïse help Sophie try to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy, and the three grow close as a result, with Héloïse and Marianne eventually admitting their love for each other and submitting to their growing passion.

Upon hearing the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Sophie proclaims it unfair to Eurydice, who was damned by the folly and insecurities of her husband and through no fault of her own. Another proffered interpretation is that Orpheus, ever the poet, found himself at a crossroads with the opportunity to live with and love his wife for the rest of their days or immortalize her and enshrine her in poetry forever, and chose the latter. Yet another interpretation is that Eurydice had all of the agency, and asked that her love turn to her one last time and resolved herself to the darkness of the Underworld voluntarily. It’s an effective demonstration of the power of story in general and mythology in particular: a single narrative, interpreted differently by three different women who are all bounded and informed by the horizons of their experience and expectation. Sophie, who has limited means of changing her social status and needs the assistance of others to get rid of her fetus lest the Countess turn her out, sees herself in Eurydice as the victim of circumstance. The artist in Marianne recognizes the artist in Orpheus and sympathizes with both his love and his potential for self destruction. Héloïse sees herself as Eurydice the defiant, who would rather live in a world of her choosing than follow a man, and as Eurydice the empowered, who would rather that the one she loves look upon her once and for all and see her as she is than live as a shadow of what she truly wishes to be.

This is a powerful film, haunting and beautiful. I wept openly at the film’s ending, and immediately told everyone I could that they must see it as soon as possible. When a friend first saw Call Me By Your Name, he messaged me to ask if I had seen it yet, and he said that it had left him “undone.” That descriptor stuck with me in the intervening years, and it finally applies to something for me in equal measure: I was undone by Portrait. It’s a story of a brief love, but one which inspects the brevity of love and the all-consuming power of obsession and delights in, rather than condemns, it. The genre of romance is one in which the “happy ending” of the story is one in which the happy couple overcome the odds against them and set off for a live together. In other words, romance as a genre is a lie. Falling in love is the easy part; people do it all the time, often with people who are no good for them. The reality of life is that getting together isn’t a finish line, it’s just a new starting position, and that the “race” entails work, compromise, understanding, and sacrifice. As much as Héloïse wishes that Marianne would ask her to do defy her destiny as a trophy bride for a foreign businessman, Marianne, with her greater knowledge of how the world works, knows that she can’t and won’t. For her, Héloïse is better enshrined, as she is in the title painting, even if she will never stop loving her. The world simply does not have room for them to live in it as themselves.

This is a sumptuous film, full of life and fire and pulsing waves. It is quiet, save for the murmur of voices and the omnipresent clack of boot against hollow wood floor, and the roaring of fires and music of the sea. Only three times do we hear music: when Marianne attempts to play Vivaldi’s Summer Presto for Héloïse, when a seaside group of women sing an acapella chorus, and at the end when Héloïse attends a symphonic performance of Vivaldi. Its music is purely of the soul and not the ear, but you can hear it in every moment.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: True Stories (1986)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and Hanna watch True Stories (1986).

Boomer: “Look at it. Who can say it’s not beautiful?”

On tour, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne used to keep clippings and cutouts from various tabloids, and imagined a place where all the stories from them were true. Out of that thought experiment, True Stories was born. Starring David Byrne as a visitor to the fictional small Texas town of Virgil, True Stories is (technically) a musical featuring nine new songs written by the Talking Heads, performed in-story by various eccentric characters in and around the utterly banal Virgil as they gear up for the town’s sesquicentennial, to be marked by a “Celebration of Specialness” that includes a parade and culminating in a stage show.

There’s not really much of a narrative here, but the closest thing to a traditional story is the arc of Virgil citizen Louis (John Goodman in his first feature role), a consistently panda bear-shaped man seeking matrimony. Louis is a clean room technician at Varicorp, the computer manufacturing corporation that employs most of the town (housed in “an all-purpose shape,” Byrne’s narrator observes, “a box”). Over the course of the film, he finds himself on dates with some of the town’s eligible women, including The Cute Woman (Alix Elias), who loves and adores cute things and can’t bear sadness, even for a moment, as well as The Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen), who attributes her nonexistent psychic powers to the vestigial tail she was born with and claims to be responsible for both the death of JFK and the writing of “Billie Jean;” none are a good fit. Other citizens we encounter include a conspiracy theorist preacher (John Ingle), a woman who got so rich from Varicorp stock that she no longer gets out of bed (Swoosie Kurtz, making her second MotM appearance after previously being seen in Citizen Ruth), and Varicorp founder Earl Culver (monologuist Spalding Gray) and his wife Kay (Annie McEnroe), who no longer speak directly to one another despite being perfectly civil.

Years ago, when Lindsay Ellis did her review of Freddy Got Fingered under the Nostalgia Chick banner, she dismissed that film with the following: “See film students? You want your auteur theory? It’s right […] here: Fellini’s 8 1/2, Godard’s Contempt, Green’s Freddy Got Fingered: all shocking insights into the souls of their creators.” I think that this applies to True Stories and David Byrne as well: a fearless peeling back of Byrne’s public persona (as unobtrusive as it is) to lay bare the core of this being called “David Byrne.” It’s truly a celebration of the specialness of the mundane, and even the specialness of something as ugly as suburban tract housing. Who can say it’s not beautiful? There ought to be a law.

Hanna, infamously the studio forced the Talking Heads to re-record the songs written for this film as a band, and a lot of the meaning gets lost in that translation. Like, the Heads version of “Dream Operator” is great, but it’s missing some of the magic that comes from the inherent sweetness in McEnroe’s version, which didn’t exist separate from the fashion show sequence until the soundtrack got an actual release in 2018. Which songs, if any, do you think would actually benefit from being sung by Byrne, outside of the context of True Stories? Which do you think would lose all meaning divorced from the context of the film?

Hanna: I’m probably not the right person to answer this question. I love David Byrne and Talking Heads, but I am embarrassingly late to the party; I saw Stop Making Sense for the first time within the last year, and I literally just learned that the band is not called “The Talking Heads.” I think the soundtrack works best as a delightful little showcase for each surreal voice of Virgil (I especially enjoyed “Dream Operator”, “Puzzlin’ Evidence”, and “People Like Us”); the Talking Heads re-recordings take the individuality out of those voices. I have more investment in those characters’ stories than I do in hearing the Talking Heads record the songs, so I think it’s a shame that it took so long (34 years!) to release the soundtrack as it was originally recorded, and I’m glad David Byrne eventually got to put out the version he envisioned from the beginning.

The cast of lovingly painted, idiosyncratic characters was my favorite part of this movie. Last summer I visited the Texas State Fair, which housed the winning entries of Texas’s Creative Arts contest in a large gymnasium. The walls were lined with glass cases overflowing with hundreds of Texas oddities, which were neighbors by virtue of their proximity and their shared point of origin. Yards of quilted cotton pastures meticulously embroidered with lowing longhorns was draped two cases away from a demented carving of a hand, crudely sculpted from pure Texas butter; on the opposite wall, a doomsday-proof abundance of canned pickles, jams, and relishes loomed over ceramic souvenir plates. The haphazard collection of crafted artifacts embodied a particular kind of tender strangeness that never fails to delight me; that same feeling is threaded throughout True Stories.

The citizens of Virgil (including the aforementioned rich woman and Mr. Culver, who bursts into an ecstatic dinner demonstration of the spiritualization of capitalism, among other things) coexist in intimate isolation, seeking recognition from one another through brief encounters in well-worn public spacesthe one mall, the one bar, the one factory floorwithout any real expectations, because everybody inevitably believes they already know everything there is to know about every other person. Louis is an especially sad character, and especially isolated; he works in Varicorp’s clean room, which is totally shut off from the friendly bustle of the assembly line floor. He goes to great lengths to find a wife for himself, including installing a marquee indicating his bachelorhood outside his home and taping a two-minute personal ad on a local TV station. Despite his unfortunate circumstances, he seems to be immune to any negative emotional state beyond hapless ennui; he doesn’t take it too personally when his dates don’t go well, and he is absolutely unflappable in his quest for love. This appearance of stability belies a disturbing loneliness that’s reaches its zenith at the Specialness showcase, where he sings “People Like Us”, a jaunty country-western tune that is terrifying in its desperation for human connection; he happily throws away any claim to freedom and justice for the chance to be loved by someone. This display of vulnerability pays off big time for Louis, but the expectations for his existence and his estimated self-worth are so cruelly distorted that it still feels like a loss, a reminder that things are very often nice and bad at the same time.

Tell me, Britnee: what did you think of the characters? Who stood out to you, and who faded into the background? Did you think they formed a cohesive picture of Virgil, Texas?

Britnee: There are quite a few eccentric characters in True Stories, which isn’t a rarity among films of this sort. There’s just something about this particular gaggle of wacky characters that set them apart from other similar casts. The unique folks of Virgil really make the town feel like its own universe, and each individual is an important piece of the town’s puzzle, no matter how big or small their role may be. Everyone was such a pleasure to watch, and each character brought something special to the film. Specifically, there are two characters that I would get super excited about whenever they graced the screen: Miss Rollings and Ramon. Miss Rollings is everything. She’s glamorous in a very psychobiddy way, and she has rigged up her bedroom with all sorts of gadgets to make her life as easy as possible. This includes a robot, a feeding machine, and a mechanical page turner. She would own so many Alexas if this film was set in modern times. Her sloth was so over-the-top, and I loved every minute of her screentime. As for Ramon, his smile and zest for life was so contagious. Not only does he gift of reading people’s tones, but he is a super passionate musician. I loved watching him do anything.

Something that I really admired about True Stories was how its bizarre events clashed against such a bland setting. Take for instance the shopping mall fashion show. In a very basic mall, there’s an audience of very basic people awaiting what one would expect to be a very basic fashion show. Well, as time progresses, the fashion becomes more and more insane. Astro turf dresses, oversized suits, loofah dresses, and mile-high headpieces grace the runway while “Dream Operator” is being sung by the soft voice of Mrs. Culver. Another example would be the family dinner at the Culver residence where the upper-middle class table setting includes oddities such as raw bell peppers stuffed with raw mushrooms and Japanese fish cakes atop sliced cucumbers surrounding a lobster. Mr. Culver proceeds to use the raw vegetables from the spread to explain the future of microelectronics in Virgil. It’s like the suburban American version of the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

Brandon, how important is it for the fictional town of Virgil to exist in Texas? Would this film still carry on the same if it were to take place in, for instance, a suburban town in the Mid-West?

Brandon: I absolutely believe Virgil’s Texan setting is essential to the movie’s abstracted portrait of American culture, as Texas is maybe the most stereotypically American state in the union. When other countries mock American sensibilities from an outsider’s perspective, it’s usually a parody expressed through explicitly Texan iconography. The cowboy costuming, Southern drawl, and Conservative Values of Texas are a perfect distillation of American culture at large, even though this is a vastly sprawling country with endless localized quirks. David Byrne is himself an American, but he’s studying our peculiar ideology & social rituals here as if he were a total outsider – which he kind of is, considering that he’s an art school weirdo who was born in Scotland and accidentally made it big with an NYC punk band in his 20s. It’s outright alarming when the citizens of Virgil start interacting with his onscreen narrator as if he were just a normal person just walking among them, as he initially reads as an omnipotent spirit who exists in an ethereal realm outside their earthly existence. Watching the aww-shucks, panda bear-shaped John Goodman directly interact with the strange, alien spirit of David Byrne is like watching Fred Flintstone chat with the Great Gazoo. He’s so far outside their quaint, small-town American way of living that he’s practically a figment of their imagination. Yet, he seems to have a genuine affection for Virgil even though he finds their ways deeply strange, and the movie functions almost like a love letter to the surrealism of Americana through that abstracted outsider’s lens.

I was impressed that this awestruck outsider’s portrait of American culture doesn’t shy away from our country’s more brutal history. Before the modern American absurdism of the shopping mall & channel surfing sequences light up the screen, the film opens with a crash history in the state of Texas’s establishment. We watch in a blur how the land was seized from Native cultures by white colonialists, which is an ugly undercurrent that colors the more frivolous parking lot hangouts & talent show frivolities later staged on the same land. Byrne manages to find beauty & wonder in the modern American consumer culture that replaced Native people’s own lifestyles & customs before they were ransacked. Supposedly, the occasion for the film’s celebration of Americana (through the climactic talent show) is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the state of Texas, but it’s really an abstracted portrait of America at large. The effort wouldn’t be a complete picture without that ugly colonialist history, and I admired the film for starting there before gushing over our more adorable eccentricities.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I was disturbed by my soul’s unequivocal resonation with The Lazy Woman; her slowly reclining bed, sumptuous silk sheets in pastel pink, and little robot dutifully spooning scrambled egg into her mouth filled me with wonder and vicarious ennui. I don’t think I’ve seen a clearer representation of my deepest desires.

Boomer: If you’ve been driving yourself crazy trying to figure out where you’ve seen the fantastic preacher from the “Puzzlin’ Evidence” sequence before, put your mind at ease: John Ingle was the principal in Heathers.

Brandon: Boomer’s dead-on about the overwhelming auteurism of this picture. True Stories is part sketch comedy, part music video, part essay film, and part experimental video art, but it’s mostly just a 90-minute visit inside David Byrne’s wonderful brain as he puzzles at the basic nature of rural Texas and, by extension, America. He has a childish, exuberant sense of wonder for the world that I very much wish I had left in my own dull, jaded POV. Decades later, we’re still surrounded by this same iconography every day, but we rarely prompt ourselves to consider its basic nature or value. I wish I could live in David Byrne’s America, and the only thing really stopping me is my own mental roadblocks.

I specifically wish I could live in the America depicted in the “Wild Wild Life” karaoke dance party sequence, where every member of our local communities has a chance to share the stage and be celebrated for their unique personality & sense of personal fashion. I’m afraid that I instead live in the America of the fire & brimstone pulpit sermon “Puzzlin’ Evidence”: an increasingly insular, reactionary pitchfork brigade rife with paranoid conspiracy theories & fear of the unknown. In either instance, I’m sure I’d find more joy & adoration for the sprawling concrete monstrosity we’ve built if I could just better absorb some of Byrne’s abstracted, endlessly delighted worldview.

Britnee: Usually, when famous musicians make movies, they tend to be vanity projects or just sucky failures with the only redeeming quality being the musician’s contribution. I was delighted at how David Byrne did not make this film to glorify himself. It is heavily influenced by his style, but one doesn’t need to be a David Byrne fan or even know of his existence to enjoy True Stories.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Britnee presents Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
May: Hanna presents Playtime (1967)
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

-The Swampflix Crew

Boomer’s Top 15 Comic Book Movies of the 2010s

I had to do it, guys. I had to put my top comic book movies into one list. Why? Well, I couldn’t in good conscience rank Winter Soldier over The Favourite or spend the rest of my natural and unnatural life debating the artistic merits and differences between Batman: Under the Red Hood and Phantom Thread. I didn’t want to live that way. So here they are, my favorite 15 comic book movies of the 2010s.  You can check out my other 100 favorite films of the decade here.

15. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018). From my review: “Like the first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp prioritizes fun shenanigans over the more superheroics of its MCU brethren. 2015’s Ant-Man was following in the footsteps of what was arguably the franchise’s first true comedy outing in Guardians of the Galaxy, but by foresaking that film’s space operatics for the more terrestrial mundanity of a heist film, it cemented a move that has come to be one of the motivating forces of why people love these movies and keep forking over money for them: humor, plain and simple. This is not a heist film, however, and unlike other outright comedic entries in the MCU (Thor: Ragnarok = synth-heavy 80s-style gladiator opera, Guardians 2 = manchild coming-of-age narrative, Spider-Man: Homecoming = John Hughes-style eighties high school flick), there’s not an easily-identifiable genre or style that director Reed has grafted the Ant-Man team onto this time around. There’s a little bit of Ferris Bueller energy floating around here, especially with Scott constantly having to return home before the FBI (herein acting with the same vaguely-menacing but largely bumbling inefficiency as Ferris’s principal), and while that’s central to the narrative, it’s not the central plot.”

14. Ant-Man (2015). From my review (my first writing for Swampflix!): “My initial skepticism about this movie mirrored my early skepticism for Guardians of the Galaxy: “Sure, expand the scope of the franchise–but why this property?” Ant-Man couldn’t possible live up to the standard of a movie that turned schlubby everyman Chris Pratt into a legitimate movie star, but the hype for Rudd’s vehicle doesn’t oversell the inarguably fun, likable, watchable movie that Ant-Man is. As a CGI-heavy flick, it had the potential to look like computer generated garbage (again, see also: Jurassic World), but at no point did the imagery take me out of the moment the way other recent movies have. Although Lilly is underutilized, the groundwork for her larger future involvement in the franchise is laid well (comic book fans will probably guess in what capacity, but I won’t spoil that here), and Peña works well as a character suited both for comic relief and surprising heroism. An extended cameo from the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) seems somewhat tacked on, but does well to remind us that this relatively grounded entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still part of a larger narrative, and Mackie is always a welcome screen presence. Unlike gloating trillionaire Tony Stark, Scott Lang is a much more identifiable, sympathetic, and likable character, which makes for a more interesting and compelling character. And, as cited above, the sequences that feature tiny Scott navigating the normal world, but magnified, are a treasure—Scott flying around on the back of his flying ant steed, Antony, was a particular highlight.”

13. Iron Man 3 (2013). From our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. discussion: “A lot of people really disliked this movie when it came out, citing the appearance of a kid sidekick character and the purported ruination of The Mandarin. Personally, however, I have to say that this is probably my favorite of the Iron Man flicks. I’ll admit that the kid sidekick character doesn’t really bother me in the slightest (and he appears onscreen for such a short period of time that his presence is virtually negligible). As for the way that the film used The Mandarin … I actually think that it was a bit of an ingenious move. I understand that this is a character into whom a lot of people have invested time and emotional energy, and I can understand the outrage because I felt much the same way when Star Trek Into Darkness sprang a whitewashed terrible Khan on the audience. The difference, however, is that the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch’s character is Khan contributes nothing to the film other than a familiar name, whereas the Mandarin reveal in Iron Man 3 actually serves to further the plot in an interesting way, and the film does well to play that reveal close to the chest up to the point where we finally meet Trevor Slattery. This was a neat twist that played on expectations of comic book fans and mainstream filmgoers alike, and I think a lot of people were simply caught off guard by the revelation and overreacted to it.”

12. Shazam! (2019). From my best of 2019 list: “Zachary Levi makes a star turn as DC’s Big Red Cheese, the Shazam formerly known as Captain Marvel, one of the oldest comic book superheroes in existence (fun fact: while home from work on Christmas Eve, I watched an episode of The Donna Reed Show in which the lead visited a bunch of children in the hospital and one of them was reading a comic book featuring this very character). A surprisingly good flick coming out of the DC film house, this one takes all the wish fulfillment that has long been a part of this character’s nature—a child becomes an adult superhero when he speaks the titular magic word—and crafts a narrative about two separate people whose home lives leave much to be desired and how each charts their own path, a narrative of choosing to let go of resentment and naïveté to embrace hope or hopelessness. All that, and it’s a throwback to the kids movies of the eighties, films that understood that children want to be scared sometimes, and embraces that paradigm, balancing fright and fun in equal measures. Read my review here.”

11. Avengers (2012). From our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. discussion: “The Avengers is a fun ride, and although the Battle of New York—as the final action sequence would come to be called in later MCU media—admittedly experienced a series of diminishing returns, most of the myriad of other high-octane set-pieces were genuinely thrilling and engaging. It was a smart move to start the film with an action sequence that was largely Avenger-free and which instead focused on Fury, Coulson, and Maria Hill before following that up with a series of smaller scenes that reintroduce each of the key players with varying degrees of bombasity. Other checkmarks in the “good idea” column include the decision to have characters express reluctance and hesitance to commit to the idea of a full-on superhero team, and to introduce the seeds of discord early on. As a result, when the temporary falling out occurs at the end of Act Two, it feels properly earned and not as forced as it so easily could have.”

10. Logan (2017). From my review: “My apathy and weariness about Wolverine aside, this is a good movie. Sure, it makes no logical sense within the confines of the different timelines that the other films in this franchise have provided without a conspiracy theory board of newspaper clippings, post-it notes, and red string, but 20th Century Fox doesn’t care anymore, so why should you? The one problem I’ve never had with the film version of Wolverine is Hugh Jackman’s consistently strong performance regardless of the variable quality of the material available, and this is his best work as the character to date. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that, for once, we’re not reflecting back on his mysterious past as we have in literally every movie in which he appeared in this franchise and are instead seeing a man at the end of his career and, perhaps, his life. Logan deals with the more mundane aspects of growing old, like obsolescence in a changing world, the dementia of an elderly father (figure), and the betrayal of his own aging body and the disease thereof, despite his much-touted healing factor. This is not a character who is obsessed with learning about (or altering) his past, but one for whom the past is prologue to a slow, painful existence in an all-too-real dystopian future.”

9. Thor: Ragnarok(2017). From my review: “Here, however, everyone is totally committed to the job, which is probably easier under the guiding hand of the bombastic and colorful Taika Waititi, who seems to be the embodiment of Mr. Fun, than it was in a film helmed by Alan Taylor, whose work tends to be more grim, if not outright melancholy. This is a movie with setpiece after setpiece, all in different realms and on various planets with their own palettes and aesthetic principles, which lends the film a verisimilitude of scope, even though each conflict (other than the opening fight sequence) comes down to something much more intimate and personal: the friction between selfishness and the responsibility to something greater than oneself. The wayward Valkyrie forsakes her desire to drink herself to death while running from the past in order to defend her home once again, Bruce Banner risks being completely and permanently subsumed by the Hulk in order to lend a hand when Asgard calls for aid, Skurge finds a strength he didn’t know he had when faced with the extermination of his people, and even Loki ends up making a decision that helps others with no apparent direct or indirect benefits to himself. The oldest being in the film, Hela, has never learned this lesson despite having nearly an eternity to do so, and it is her ultimate undoing (maybe), and it’s a strong thematic element that comes across clearly in a way that a lot of films from the MCU do not.”

8. Wonder Woman (2017). From my review: “For a tale that takes place with WWI as a backdrop, this film’s not that gritty. Thanks goodness for that, because it could have easily been another gray, dull action movie about the horrors of war. That’s not to say that the horrors of war aren’t present here, especially since World War I was a particularly savage example of carnage and loss of life. The main villains are still an evil general and his mad scientist lover/sidekick, who are developing a particularly lethal form of mustard gas. Despite this, there’s a tone of hope. We believe in our seriously scarred and flawed heroes. Diana is a source of justice and light in the darkness. War is still hell, but in the end we know Diana is going to succeed. There’s no way she can’t. She’s Wonder Woman. The movie really sells us on the idea that she can do anything, and that’s not a bad thing at all.”

7. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). From my review: “While recently watching The 3% on Netflix with my roommate, he remarked that he found the show to be “effortlessly Tumblr friendly,” which is also true of this film. One thing you may notice about the cast list above is that, other than Holland, all of the actors listed are people of color. This is a great step forward as far as diversity goes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is something that I have written about here before, especially in regards to the largely white-washed and underwhelming Doctor Strange. More admirable than that, however, is the fact that the film has largely cast actors with strong comedic ability beyond any arguable (or marketable) “tokenism”  in what is probably the funniest film that the MCU has produced outside of the Guardians movies so far. Other notable comedians in the adult cast include comedic actors like Hannibal Buress as Coach Wilson (who has some of the film’s best lines), my beloved Donald Glover as two-scene wonder Aaron Davis, and Orange is the New Black‘s (admittedly underutilized) Selenis Levya, making her the second actress to break free from that program into a superhero film after Elizabeth Rodriguez’s appearance in Logan earlier this year.”

6. Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 (2017). From my review: “There’s no Infinity Stone MacGuffin here, and it’s a real break from the MCU’s usual storytelling machine that the narrative of GotG 2 isn’t motivated by set pieces, action sequences, or even plot, but by character. The only real example of this in the franchise thus far has been Winter Soldier, which was motivated by Cap’s desires to save one friend and avenge another, but even that film was organized around the plot of a conspiracy thriller as much as (if not more than) character motivation. Here, however, every choice and conflict is about character. The conflict between Peter and Rocket centers around Rocket’s insecurities about whether or not he deserves to be part of a family, even if that family is a group of outlaws who found each other. The violence Nebula seeks against Gamora comes from an obsession with besting her sister out of misplaced jealousy and rage, without realizing that they are both survivors of the same abuse but who have allowed that past to push them in different directions. The interaction between Peter and his father gives rise to the film’s climax (although it feels the weakest to me, despite being the primary conflict). Yondu’s desire to right the moral failings of his past give him the longest character arc of the film, and even the comedy bits between Mantis and Drax, both fish out of water but from very different worlds, is display of character, rather than the needs of pushing the narrative forward.”

5. Batman: Under the Red Hood. From our Movie of the Month discussion: “Cards on the table: Under the Red Hood is my favorite Batman movie. OThis may not be my favorite version of Batman, but it’s the best self-contained feature that both feels like a true standalone while also addressing the character’s long history. There’s no origin story, no belabored backstory showing how and why Bruce Wayne came to be the Batman, no attempts to make the character feel like he fits in a modern context or make the gadgets and gizmos seem “realistic,” and no damned pearls in an alley. This is a grim story, with a bleak ending that gives me chills every time [as] we fade out on [an] image of the hopeful, blindingly optimistic beginning of a journey that we as the audience have just seen come to a brutal, bitterly violent end; it’s a closed, nihilistic loop.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). From our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. discussion: “It was a smart move on Marvel’s part to follow up a somber MCU installment with a film that was exhilarating in a different way and for different reasons, but Guardians has a problem that the other films don’t have.Whereas the previous ensemble in The Avengers had the luxury of multiple individual films to flesh out the members of the team (minus the characters who were supporting players in previous installments, with Hawkeye never being fully realized as a character until Age of Ultron), Guardians has the unenviable task of introducing all five of its mains as well as their world and the ramifications thereof in a very short amount of time [but] The script is excellent [and] the film doesn’t feel overloaded.”

3. Avengers: Endgame (2019). From my best of 2019 list: “Unlike in past years, I’m not just going to stick all of the Marvel movies in one slot, because really, only one of them really and truly stood out to me this year. Captain Marvel was good, and Alison Brie is always cool, but I haven’t felt the need to revisit it at all, and its position as the first Marvel flick to end up solely on Disney+ instead of Netflix has put it out of my reach (I’m at once disappointed in all of you for not boycotting the announcement of yet another streaming service in order to force Disney to put its material back on one of the existing services while also recognizing that we are all but ants in the House of Mouse’s shadow). Tom Holland’s latest outing was also nothing to write home about, either, other than some pretty good Mysterio illusions and that scene where everybody talks shit about dead Tony Stark. Love it or hate it, the MCU is here to stay, but if it weren’t (and even I have argued that a break would be a good idea, as I did in my Spider-Man’s European Vacation review), this would be a loving and lovely finale to the end of the first “volume” of a franchise that is going to either peter out in the next few years or outlive us all (see also: Star Wars). As I said in my review, this is the “All Good Things” of the Marvel film franchise, and I loved it, no matter what comes next. But I’d be surprised to find an MCU movie in my list next year, if we’re being honest. Also, Peggy‘s in it!

2. Black Panther (2018). From my review: “Black Panther is as fantastic as we were all hoping, and I’m super excited that Marvel Studios finally started using the privilege of being this generation’s premiere film franchise (for better or worse) to finally push forward with an explicit intersectional, anti-colonialism, and afro-positive message. I’m here for this, and you should be too. […] It’s beautiful. As excited as I was to see this movie, I’m glad that I waited until it was in its second weekend, and that we’re going to be pushing back the publication of this review. As I was reading Shoshana Kessock’s essay “The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman” this morning while waiting for the bus, she perfectly encapsulated my feelings about this: “[T]here are other voices than mine which should take precedent [sic] in a conversation about a film so strongly impacting people of color right now. There are so many writers of color putting out thoughtful, insightful articles about Black Panther that I felt it was important for me […] to sit back and listen without stepping in and having my say.” I have so much more that I want to say about the movie, but it’s important now for me to stop taking up your time with this writing and send you forth into the world to see the movie, read the brilliant discourse that the film has created (here, here, here, and here are good places to start, and this is a counterpoint that raises interesting issues), and be excellent to each other.”

1. Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014). From mine and Brandon’s “Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.” discussion: “I love this movie. It’s the MCU picture that I’ve watched and rewatched the most and the one that I find the most enduring, thoughtful, and well-paced; for my money, it’s the best of them all. I’m not ever sure where to start with all the things that make this film work for me. I’m a sucker for a good conspiracy flick (and even some bad ones), and the tonal similarities between Winter Soldier and things like Enemy of the State, The Manchurian Candidate, and most obviously (and explicitly) Three Days of the Condor hit all the right buttons for me. [It] features [a] great and historical hero who finds himself framed and caught up in political machinations, dealing with strategic espionage maneuvering which is far outside of his control but in which he has a vested personal stake.”

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Boomer’s Top 100 Films of the 2010s

While reviewing Vulture‘s (supposedly) exhaustive list of “all” 5,279 films released between 2010 and 2019, there were some things that I realized about life, love, happiness, and trying to be a single girl in the city, living and loving and having it all. I had a lot of thoughts, like Holy shit, they really did remake Poltergeist, Running Man, and Point Break in the last ten years, didn’t they? and Was there a worse movie this decade than Savages? I found myself wondering if there were really two films entitled Thank You for Your Service (or two called The Trouble with Terkel) this decade, or if someone was asleep at the proofreading wheel (hey, I get it, my own stuff often is full of typos because I am in a rush). Amazingly, it looks like there really were two Terkels … kind of. From what I can tell, Terkel i knibe (literally translated as “Terkel in Trouble”) was a Danish computer animated film released in 2004, then re-released with a new english dub in 2010; Rotten Tomatoes has a page for a film of the same name released in 2017, which does appear to have images of higher quality than previous releases, although IMDb has no mention of it at all. So I guess we all learned something today.

That being said, it beats the hell out of me why George Takei’s Allegiance appears twice on this list (maybe one is a filmed version of the stage play and the other is the 2016 film?) while other movies are completely left off of the list. I’m not sure what the yardstick was for Vulture when it came to Netflix original films, given that The Babysitter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (and possibly others) are missing from their list, while they remembered to include To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. But, I mean, come on, I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore isn’t even on this list. Or London Road! So, yeah, the fact that they ranked Suspiria 5,234th out of 5.279 is only one of the problems here. Who’s running things over there?

As with my year end lists, I feel it’s my responsibility to note that there were several films that came out this decade that would probably have made this list if I had more free time, flicks I was interested in but procrastinated about watching. In no particular order, they are: Bone Tomahawk, Climax, Aniara, Beach Rats, Moonlight, Robot and Frank, Booksmart, Foxtrot, Holy Hell, I Love You Both, Little Pink House, Ready or Not, The Bad Batch, The Secret World of Arrietty, The Secret of Kells, Tigers Are Not Afraid, Vox Lux, What We Left Behind: Looking Back At Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and Under the Skin. I’ll get to them eventually, I’m sure, as soon as I finish with the entire Full Moon entertainment back catalog.

Also, there are no superhero movies on this list. They’ve got their own list, coming shortly.

Also also, the rankings for 41-100 are imperfect. I’ve been working on them for weeks and driving myself nuts. How does Killing of a Sacred Deer rank in relation to Catching Fire? What about Veronica Mars in relation to Scream 4, or Embrace of the Serpent, or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? I had to include them all, but boy oh boy did figuring out a way to rank them numerically nearly drive me around the bend, and it’s already a pretty short jaunt. Let’s get to it, shall we?

100. Mi mefakhed mehaze’ev hara (aka Big Bad Wolves, 2014).
99. El Bar (2017).
98. A Simple Favor (2018).
97. 1922 (2017).
96. Interstellar (2014).
95. Young Adult (2011).
94. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017). Mentioned on my 2017 list.
93. The King’s Speech (2010).
92. Pet (2016).
91. The Invitiation (2015).
90. I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016).
89. God Help the Girl (2014).
88. The One I Love (2014).
87. Sorry to Bother You (2018).
86. Black Swan (2010).
85. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).
84. Gravity (2013).
83. Girl Walk, All Day (2011). Read our Movie of the Month discussion here.
82. Her (2013).
81. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). Mentioned as my favorite horror movie of that year here.
80. It Follows (2015). Mentioned on my 2015 list.
79. Game Night (2018). Mentioned on my 2018 list.
78. Love, Simon (2018). Mentioned on my 2018 list.
77. Clinical (2017). Mentioned on my 2017 list.
76. Veronica Mars (2014).
75. If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).
74. Snowpiercer (2013).
73. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). Mentioned on my 2016 list.
72. Drive (2011).
71. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012).
70. Embrace of the Serpent (2015).
69. Midsommar (2019).
68. Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017).
67. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017).
66. La piel que habito (aka The Skin I Live In, 2011). Review
65. Jupiter Ascending (2015). Mentioned on my 2015 list.
64. It Comes at Night (2017).
63. Busanhaeng (Train to Busan, 2016).
62. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013).
61. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010).
60. The Babysitter (2017).
59. Scream 4 (2011).
58. Hail, Caesar! (2016).
57. Star Trek Beyond (2016).
56. The Guest (2014).
55. Hereditary (2018).
54. Green Room (2015).
53. IT (2017). Mentioned on my 2017 list.
52. Don’t Breathe (2016).
51. Phantom Thread (2017).
50. Fyre Fraud (2019).
49. Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened (2019).
48. Anomalisa (2015).
47. I, Tonya (2017).
46. Arrival (2016). Mentioned on my 2016 list.
45. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
44. Cop Car (2015).
43. Toy Story 3 (2010).
42. London Road (2016).
41. I Am Big Bird (2015). Mentioned on my 2015 list.

40. John Wick (2014), John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), and John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019). You’d think there would be a series of diminishing returns on this neon-drenched noir series about a retired hitman who gets pulled back into The Life because some punk kids killed his dog during an poorly planned B&E, but each film is wilder and more hypnotic than the last. The first film was a shock to the system in a world where good action films were largely a thing of the past, a non-stop theme park ride of carnage that created a world of assassins operating within and outside of society, with its own currency and customs. Successive films deepened that mythology with surprisingly positive results. In the third one, John Wick kills a man with a horse!

39. Three Identical Strangers (2018). This documentary is a wild, wild ride. Every time you think the narrative has hit the weirdest wall possible in the story of these three brothers separated at birth, another revelation was waiting around a blind corner to pull the rug out from under me again. A heartwarming story of siblings who find each other as adults becomes a bizarre conspiracy about testing the limits of nature and nurture. This is not one to skip. Read Brandon’s review here.

38. Gerald’s Game (2017). Gerald’s Game is a direct-to-Netflix film directed by Mike Flanagan, whose name you’ll be seeing again further down this list, from a novel by Stephen King that I was definitely far too young to be reading when I first experienced it (fun fact, that’s where I learned the term “degloving” over a decade before it happened to me internally as a result of my accident in 2018!). The film tells the story of Jessie (Carla Gugino), whose husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) dies of a heart attack while Jessie is bound to the bed by handcuffs. She hallucinates an apparition of Gerald, flashes back to horrible childhood memories, and sees other fearful things in the night, things she tries to dismiss of tricks of the light but which could be more; Jessie starts to deteriorate, and Gugino pulls off this transformation with gusto.

37. Shin Godzilla (2016). A true return to form: a Godzilla movie that mostly consists of disaster assessment specialists and government officials meeting in a series of different board rooms to talk about what to do about the unstoppable, stomach churning monster that has emerged from the sea and is making its way across Japan and destroying everything in its wake. The kaiju in this movie doesn’t even seem to be aware of humans or humanity as it cuts a swath of death before its mutating body. Thrill to the sight of his nuclear breath! This is a fun one, and way better than the other Godzilla that came out this decade. Read Brandon’s review here.

36. The Babadook (2014). An Australian horror gem that you’ve no doubt already heard about dozens of times, either because of its brief misattribution to the LGBTQ+ Netflix queue (resulting in the titular ghoul being memed as a queer icon) or because it’s just that great, The Babadook follows a mother who doesn’t like her son that much. At its simplest, that’s really all there is to it: the boy, who acts out and has a discipline problem, gets a book about a being called the Babadook, a kind of boogeyman who then goes on to menace the mother. Whether or not the Babadook is real or all in the main character’s mind, metaphorically it represents one woman’s apprehensions about what her inability to love her son means about herself as a person; and that does exist only in one’s head, all the time, here in the real world. Highly recommended.

35. Creed (2015). I did it. I liked a sports movie. A lovingly crafted film about legacy, defiance, and heroes, Creed (as you probably know) follows the story of Adonis Creed, illegitimate son of the late Apollo Creed, the opponent (and in the sequels, friend) of the titular character of Rocky. Unsatisfied in his work life, Adonis leaves the corporate world behind to become a truer version of himself, partially by grappling with the legacy of the father he didn’t know, and by both bonding with and being coached by the man who knew Creed best: Rocky Balboa. Michael B. Jordan delivers what would be a career best performance for virtually any other actor (it’s solid for him, too, but he never gives anything less than stellar), and Tessa Thompson injects what could easily be a lifeless love interest with verve and likability. Stallone’s return as Rocky is a shockingly powerful one, itself grappling with the actor’s questionable legacy over the decades since Rocky and reminding us that the star of The Expendables and Judge Dredd actually can act. Read Brandon’s review here.

34. Turbo Kid (2014). From my review: “This is an eccentric movie, and it’s definitely not for everyone. Simon Abrams of RogerEbert.com refers to the film’s aesthetic as an “infantilizing vintage fetish,” which isn’t inaccurate but fails to account for how much joy a properly attuned viewer can derive from the film’s strange blend of innocence and gore, born from nostalgia for a time when films like this were more commonplace. The late eighties and early nineties were a strange time, when R-rated films like Robocop, Police Academy, and Rambo were made for adults but marketed to children in the form of action figures and cartoon adaptations, and the peculiarity of that idiosyncratic time acts as a kind of unstated thesis or leitmotif at the core of this film. So much of the movie plays like something that a group of kids would make in their backyard, with the prominence of playground equipment in the areas where Kid spends his time, his eighties kid dream bedroom in the underground station where he has made a home, and the fact that the only apparent mode of transportation is by bicycle (presumably due to a lack of fuel); with this in mind, it would be easy to assume that the movie would feel like it was made for children as well, until the ludicrous blood squibs start popping off.”

33. Housebound (2014). From my review: “Horror comedies are always a high wire act. Some titles like Dead Alive and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil find the right balance between laughs and chills, transcending their genre limitations, while others, (Kevin Smith’s latest, Tusk, for example), aim to be both scary and funny, but end up being neither. The 2014 New Zealand horror comedy Housebound, falls firmly in the former category. It’s a mishmash of genres that gracefully moves between horror, comedy, ghost story, and murder mystery.The setup is perfect in its simplicity. Kylie, a troubled hooligan, is sentenced to eight months of house arrest following an attempt to break into an ATM. Forced to move back into her well-meaning, but clueless parent’s home, she lounges around, drinks during the day, and is a general pain in the ass. Things almost immediately start to go bump in the night. While she is initially skeptical of her mother’s ghost stories, an encounter with a maniacal, talking teddy bear convinces Kylie that the house is indeed haunted. She partners with Amos, the security guard in charge of monitoring her ankle bracelet, to investigate and discovers that there are plenty of other, more horrifying secrets waiting behind the walls of her family home.”

32. The Queen of Versailles (2012). There’s never a bad time for a bunch of rich idiots to get their comeuppance, and there’s rarely been a better time than during the 2008 economic recession. Jackie Siegel, husband of real estate mogul and general cantanker David Siegel, was a simple upstate New York girl who went off to college, got a degree in computer science, and decided to give all that up to become a pageant competitor. Then along came David, who gave her everything her heart desired, up until the point where they initiated, but could not (at the time of filming) complete, the construction of an Orlando home roughly based on the French landmark referenced in the title. The documentary chronicles the apparent fall of the house of Siegel, a clan whose nouveau riche tackiness is apparent as priceless vases are stored on bathroom shelves overflowing with towels, nannies reside (of their own will) in children’s playrooms built to emulate the larger house’s facade and are also forced to dress as Rudolph for Christmas parties, and taxidermied dogs—which—in life were named things like “Chanel.” (The living dogs shit everywhere.) The true hero of this story, of whom we see far too little, is Jackie’s niece Jonquil, who spent the first half of her life sleeping in a basement before the Siegels adopted her and who now lives in opulence, which she treats with (well earned, as it turns out) suspicion.

31. The Shape of Water (2017). From my review: “I’m a big fan of del Toro’s, as is likely evident from the fact that two of his films, Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, were my favorite horror films of their respective release years. He knows how to take a tired concept like European vampires or fairy tales and suffuse them with a new energy and vitality, even if he does so by looking backward through time. As such, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this isn’t exactly the most original of premises. A more dismissive reviewer or critic might call this a greatest hits compilation of plot threads from movies and TV shows like E.T. (both in the bonding between human and not, and the The government will cut you up!” angle), Hidden Figures (given that the facility is explicitly aerospace and features the presence of Spencer), Mad Men (in that both works hold a mirror up to the culture of the fifties/sixties as a reminder that to romanticize this time is to ignore many of the prevailing toxic attitudes of the time), and most heist films that you can name. That doesn’t make this film any less ambitious, however, nor does it negate the validity of the emotional reaction that the film evokes.”

30. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). As I wrote in my The Rise of Skywalker review, “I loved The Force Awakens. From the moment that first trailer dropped, a chill went through my body; I’ve always been more of a Trek boy, but Star Wars has a special place in my heart, too. With that trailer way back in the innocent days of 2015, I felt like I was eight years old again, seeing something that resonated with me in a special way as if it were the first time. And the film itself didn’t disappoint!” Sure, it’s not wholly original, and sure, fondness for this film has cooled in the intervening years (as the Star Wars brand has had a series of diminishing returns, give or take a Mandalorian, which I’ve never seen). But it’s still a romp, introducing us to a new set of characters and feeling like a breath of fresh air after the rotten prequels (don’t @ me).

29. The Cabin in the Woods (2012). A dark horse horror film dumped out into theaters at the beginning of the summer, you know, when everybody wants to go see a horror comedy, The Cabin in the Woods is the horror connoisseur’s horror movie. Featuring the time-worn story of a group of college friends who take a trip to a creepy forest cabin and find themselves at the mercy of evil, the now well-known twist (which I won’t spoil here, in case you’ve somehow managed to avoid it) makes for a fresh take on what you’ve seen before, but not nearly so well done. Read Brandon’s review here.

28. Unsane (2018): From my best of 2018 list: “I can say without a moment’s hesitation or mental evasion that Unsane is hands-down the most unsettling and disturbing film that I have ever seen. I have never, in my entire life, been more uncomfortable than I was when watching this movie. I know that Unsane is trading on a lot of worn-out cliches and tired tropes of the Unspeakable Horrors of the American Mental Health System, or the general Scary Asylum genre. I don’t care: this movie knows exactly where every single one of my psychological pressure points are and just how much weight to apply to each one in sequence to make me physically ill. My reaction watching this film was like my friend’s reaction to seeing Raw for the first time and being unable to handle it at all: I almost had a panic attack. It’s not the most original movie in the world, or the most sympathetic or responsible, but it made me sick. Read Brandon’s review here.”

27. Kingsman (2015). From my best of 2015 list: “I first saw an “extended preview” for this movie during an airing of American Horror Story’s fourth season, and I wasn’t impressed or intrigued in the slightest. I think the problem was that the preview in question chose to focus on the action-­oriented nature of the film, neglecting to highlight that this film wasn’t simply an action movie clone but a love letter to Roger Moore’s time as James Bond (meaning that this is the first, but far from last, film on this list that traded on nostalgia for my attention). From the disfigured henchman whose physique is enhanced with deadly weapons, to the world-­takeover plans of the eccentric villain, to the huge Blofeld-­esque base hidden deep within a mountain, this movie was a delightful revisitation of spy films of yesteryear. By deconstructing the idea of the gentleman assassin by having protagonist Eggs face classist discrimination within the ranks of the secret organization by which he has been recruited and gleefully combining the camp of Moore’s Bond with the brutality of a Bourne film, Kingsman stood out as an early contender for best action movie of the year, even if it did get dumped into theatres at a bad time.”

26. Us (2019). From my review: “It doesn’t give too much of the film’s message away to say that it is about class and the way that it creates dark mirrors for ourselves everywhere, the way that getting out of the darkness of poverty is often impossible, and that those who manage to somehow embody the mythological idea of social mobility must do so at the expense of others, ultimately becoming complicit in the suffering of those who might otherwise have been your peers. Of course, with a film like this one, there are going to be other interpretations, but it’s all there. Consider: Adelaide’s father, playing Whack-a-Mole, knocking down facsimiles of rodents as they try to rise up out of the darkness underground. Consider: that Gabe constantly finds himself trying to one-up Josh, only to find that Josh himself is imitating his own decisions, in an ouroboros of attempts to keep up with the Joneses. Consider: that ‘I Got 5 On It’ is about how one person covets an entire object despite said object being a dime bag that both parties going halves should share between the two of them (‘I got some bucks on it, but it ain’t enough on it’). Consider: the power of art as the impetus to empower the recognition of interclass economic struggle and the ability to transcend (or at least ascend within) it. Consider: the repeated refrain of the ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ that eternally attempts to climb and is forever pushed back down. Consider: when arriving at the beach house, the family eats fast food, except for Adelaide, who eats strawberries; why? Consider: what does a Black Flag t-shirt mean in 1986 when worn by a teenager working long hard hours versus being worn by the child of a comfortably wealthy family in 2019?”

25. Nightcrawler (2014). In 2014, my best friend and I were trying to decide between watching Birdman or Nightcrawler, and she said she didn’t want to watch either of those and that she was sick of superhero movies (what an innocent time). As much as I like to imagine a world where there was a film in 2014 that was all about everybody’s favorite fuzzy blue elf, Nightcrawler is undoubtedly a better movie than that would be. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a performance that is a career highlight (the high of which, arguably, he’s been chasing ever since, if Velvet Buzzsaw’s marketing campaign was anything to go by). At the time that this came out, I was two years out of grad school and working four jobs to make ends meet, after finally emerging from the cocoon of academia into an economically depressed Louisiana. As such, I was along for the ride with Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom in his quiet desperation … until I suddenly realized I wasn’t, and I wasn’t sure where exactly he had lost my sympathy. Riz Ahmed is also great in this one, and it’s a great showcase for Rene Russo as well.

24. The Square (2017). From my review: “The Square mocks not the artifice of haute culture and instead revels in needling the shallowness of artistic expression when self-important artists attempt to make broad social commentary while lacking any real depth of insight. In the introduction of the concept of “The Square” to the museum’s wealthy patrons, Christian’s assistant thanks two donors for their contribution of fifty million kroner (about 5. 85 million USD); following this, Christian launches into a practiced speech before a minor interruption offers him the opportunity to make an “impromptu” request to go off-script and begin again, a specific strategy to appear more personable and relatable, and which we have already seen him rehearse in the previous scene. This motif repeats itself throughout the film: Christian the curator embraces the importance of charitable humanity and the need to support the poor and the weak; Christian the person ignores the plight of people around him, writes a threatening letter to an entire apartment complex with reckless abandon, refuses to apologize to a child for the havoc in the boy’s personal life for which he is directly responsible, and when he does try to make things right, it’s both too little and too late.”

23. Bad Times at the El Royale (2018). I was a much bigger fan of this one than Brandon was. I loved just about every part of it: the location, the atmosphere, the casting, and the music.  It was great to see Jon Hamm playing both into and against type as a much more openly racist version of Don Draper, vacuum salesman. Bad Times pulls off a serpentine, nonlinear narrative better than any of the Pulp Fiction clones that appeared in the wake of that film’s popularity, and the way that we follow one character to the end of one “chapter” and then restarting from another point of view. And, as someone who generally feels anxiety in public accommodations, I always get a kick out of thrillers set at hotels (Bug, Identity) and doubly so if there’s a voyeurism element to them, even if they’re overall not very good (Vacancy). Newcomer Cynthia Erivo is delightful in her role as Darlene Sweet, and she and Jeff Bridges have magnificent chemistry in their scenes together; Chris Hemsworth is great playing against type as a charismatic sociopath, managing to pull off both menacing and alluring at the same time, pulling off a Mansonesque character that one could actually see oneself being fooled by. A great (if long delayed) follow up to Cabin in the Woods.

22. Suspiria (2018). Holy shit, what a ride! Vulture may have ranked this one 5,234th out of the 5,279 films released this decade, but they are wrong, wrong, wrong. As a noteworthy fan of Dario Argento in general and the classic Suspiria in particular, I didn’t want this film to exist. En route to a screening of the Creepers cut of Phenomena in 2018, a friend asked me if I was excited for the then-upcoming remake, and I admitted that I preferred that it wasn’t happening, but since it was happening and—for better or worse—we would all have to live with it, I was cautiously optimistic. And I have to say: if you’re going to remake an inarguable classic, this is the way to do it. It even makes you wonder, retroactively, why the original didn’t include certain elements that were nominally part of the plot (i.e., dancing) as more integral aspects of the narrative. Despite being an altogether very different film, tonally and visually, the spirit was true. They even had characters discussing the importance of counting steps! 5 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.

21. Berberian Sound Studio (2012). In this film, Toby Jones plays timid British sound editor Gilderoy, whose CV consists largely of nature documentaries. After travelling to Italy to work on a giallo film titled The Equestrian Vortex under the assumption that it’s a movie about horses, Gilderoy’s world becomes increasingly unfocused and the line between reality and the world of the film blurs and the real world becomes more surreal. Belittled for his timidness by his Italian colleagues, who find the older man’s shock and horror at the content of the film amusing given that he is on the inside and sees how the proverbial sausage is being made, Gilderoy finds himself likewise trapped in a Gilliamesque world of red tape and madness, epitomized by being told repeatedly by the Italian studio that he cannot be reimbursed for the ticket for his flight from England because they can find no evidence that the flight ever happened. A fascinating tribute to giallo films of the past and a love letter not just to that period but to that genre, this one is definitely worth checking out.

20. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016). From my best of 2016 list: “Easily dismissed as a profoundly stupid film, the mockumentary Popstar is actually an incisive and withering dissection of the dreamy pop culture star-making machine as the industrial complex that it really is. Although some of my fondness for the film is no doubt informed by the loss of my beloved The Soup (I’m still in mourning) and the resultant general dearth of media that is aimed at mocking and disempowering the grotesque machinery of entertainment industry synergy, this is also a movie that rides high on hilarity, with jokes flying off the screen at a rapid pace. The narrative of a band member whose success and ensuing egotism destroys their relationships before realizing that interpersonal connection is more important than fame is a tired one, but at least Popstar is a parody, which makes it work at least as well as its spiritual predecessor Josie and the Pussycats. From mocking Macklemore and the way that his music is paradoxically homopositive and insecure about masculinity (“Equal Rights“), the meaninglessness of hip-hop that apotheosizes empty materialism (“Things in My Jeep”), and the creepy fetishization of military action and nationalism (“Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)“), the film delivers on a lot of levels.” Read Brandon’s review here.

19. I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore (2017). From my 2017 year-end list: “In his review of I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, Brandon referenced Falling Down, a film about an unhinged person who goes on a spree following a traumatic event and triggered by the kind of acts of aggression that most of us see but ignore in our everyday life (with a few exceptions). When I saw I Don’t Feel at Home, I felt it was more of a spiritual successor to Bobcat Goldthwaite’s 2011 opus God Bless America, in which an unassuming insurance salaryman learns he has a brain tumor and spends the rest of the film tracking down and doling out justice to those individuals he believes are responsible for the ills of society. His is a sporadic cross-country trek that involves the destruction of Super Sweet 16 brats, reality TV judges who destroy people on national television, and the occasional real monster. Our heroine in I Don’t Feel at Home isn’t on quite that level, and her pursuit–not of justice but of an apology–is much more reasonably presented and linear, and thus favorably compares to Goldthwaite’s picture. There’s the same vacillation between grave-dark humor and truly grotesque outbursts of violence that Bless has, but there’s also more heart and more subversiveness. I also love that Elijah Wood is essentially playing a gender flipped Manic Pixie Dream Girl in this movie, with his bizarre fashion sense, eccentric behavior, and lack of any apparent life outside of assisting the protagonist in reaching his, or in this case her, potential. It’s refreshing but also highlights how real people would consider such a person to be, as he says he has been accused of being, ‘obnoxious.’”

18. Little Women (2019). From my review: “This is a beautiful film, a timeless piece of literature made fresh once more with a cast overbrimming with talent and filmed with an eye for chromatic storytelling and such beautiful Northeast scenery that when I tell you I was there, I was there. This is also such a talented cast that they breathe a new life into characters that, in the original text and in previous film incarnations, were at times sullen, unlikable, or intolerable.”

17. Annihilation (2018). From my review: “Let’s get this out of the way as quickly as possible: if you’re looking for a close adaptation of the novel, you’re not going to find that here. This is A+ science fiction that also happens to be a D+ translation of the source material, if your qualifications for a good adaptation revolve solely around how closely the film version adheres to the novel. Garland has admitted that he thumbed through the novel and took only the most noteworthy elements and concepts—a government-backed all-woman expedition makes its way beyond an incomprehensible barrier into Area X, a place of strange mutations of both flora and fauna stemming back to an unknown catastrophic event—and made a standalone film without the intention of revisitation in future films. It’s for the viewer to decide if this is to the detriment of the film and its source material or not, but those of you hoping for an adaptation of the entire Southern Reach trilogy should manage your expectations now. And hey—that’s okay. The narrative conceit in the novel that all of the characters are nameless and identified only by their occupations, which works so well on the page both as a method for giving the reader the space to imagine each character in the way they see fit and as part of a larger theme about the absence not only of knowledge but perhaps even the possibility of comprehension, simply wouldn’t work on film. That’s not a fault of the film so much as a fact that must be accepted about the difference between different forms of media, and as such I can’t detract from the film because of it.”

 

16. The Congress (2014). The trailer for this movie alone was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Robin Wright plays a fictionalized version of herself who opts to allow a film studio to buy her image in perpetuity in exchange for a lump sum, giving her the opportunity to essentially retire from filmmaking and care for her ailing son. That’s about the only thing that we know really happens because the rest of the film becomes a series of examinations of the malleable nature of what we perceive and consider to be “reality” play out as Robin, or at least a being that “used to be” Robin, searches for her missing son across worlds mundane and fantastic, colorful and desaturated, wherein we can never know for certain what’s meaningful or meaningless until it’s already happened, just like in life. Read Brandon’s review here.

15. Knives Out (2019): From my review: “I’ve long been a fan of comedy pastiches and homages of genres that function perfectly as examples of those genres despite humorous overtones; my go-to example is Hot Fuzz, which I always tout as having a more sophisticated murder mystery plot than most films than most straightforward criminal investigation media (our lead comes to a logical conclusion that fits all of the clues, but still turns out to be wrong). Knives Out is another rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot.”

14. A Ghost Story (2017): There was a moment in A Ghost Story in which my former roommate and I each tried to talk the other out of finishing the film. If you haven’t seen it and are only aware of the movie from its public profile, then you’ve likely already guessed that it’s the five minute sequence in which Rooney Mara gorges on a pie. This is a hard movie to sell to someone, because it has all the trappings of being a piece of hipster garbage (and I say this as a man who, as noted above, unambiguously loves God Help the Girl): an ostentatious image ratio choice; an alienating premise about the nature of loneliness, grief, and loss; the aforementioned pie-eating. But this is a movie that is achingly beautiful and psychologically fascinating, uniquely tuned to each individual viewer. Essentially, A Ghost Story is Kuleshov Effect the Movie: we see an image (perhaps of a piano), we see a blank face, an image (perhaps another bedsheet-clad ghost), we see a blank face, we see an image (perhaps of a building being dismantled), we see a blank face. The entire emotional arc of the film is just you, the viewer, asserting your own meaning on the text (guided by the film’s haunting score, of course). It’s a truly beautiful film.

13. Lady Bird (2017): From my 2017 year-end list: Every single trailer for Lady Bird made it look like exactly the kind of cloying, overly sentimental coming of age piece that I could live the rest of my life without ever seeing again. When we saw the preview as part of the coming attractions at our screening of Killing of a Sacred Deer, my roommate and I turned to each other in unison and made the “finger at the throat means puke” gesture, and made a rude noise or four. I wouldn’t have even given the movie a chance except that a friend I don’t get to see enough desperately wanted to go, so I joined him. Never let it be said that I cannot admit when I’m wrong: this movie was beautiful. I cried three times, big beautiful tears rolling down my face. Saoirse Ronan is fantastic, but the real MVP here is Laurie Metcalf, who’s been hiding out of sight for too long. Every performance is pitch perfect, and Greta Gerwig captures the honesty and earnestness of youthful dreams and the anxieties of class distinction (and how that distinction affects families at every level, and how class reverberates through a person’s whole life regardless of talent, brilliance, or desire). I want to wrap myself inside of this movie like a warm blanket for days on end. The cynic in me is sick to the point of near death when it comes to narratives about people who want to move to New York [….] But in this movie, as the shallow dream of a deeply real, flawed teenage girl who doesn’t understand just how good she has it, it works for me, against all odds. No one needs to be told that this is one of the best movies of 2017, as it’s been all over the place, but if you’re feeling contrary like I was, listen to a coal-hearted Grinch like me: it’s worth it. (You can also read Brandon’s review here.)”

12. The Favourite (2018). A stunningly baroque and sumptuous film from Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite features strong performances all around and a timeless story about the fickle nature of devotion, obsession, lust, longing, and the peculiarities of fidelity and accountability. There’s also a rad as hell dance sequence that’s shot like a hip hop video and a terribly unenthusiastic hand job. I personally loved seeing Rachel Weisz reunite with Nicholas Hoult ever so many years after About a Boy (I have a soft spot) and I’m delighted that the rest of the world is starting to get on board the Olivia Colman train. Read Brandon’s review here.

11. Marjorie Prime (2017):  From my 2017 year-end list: “Lady Bird wasn’t the only major feature to star Lois Smith last year. Smith is also featured as the title character in Marjorie Prime, a deeply introspective and meditative film about the nature of grief, memory, loss, and family. I can’t recommend it more highly without going too deep into the film and revealing more than I should, so I suggest reading my review for a clearer picture of whether or not this film will touch you as it touched me. Perhaps it’s that my grandmother, who passed away last Christmas, was very much like Marjorie in her own last days, but there’s a verisimilitude to this story that transcends personal experience as much as it is informed by it.  As Tess (Geena Davis) points out, when we remember an event, what we’re actually remembering is the last time we remembered the event, back and back and back, like a series of photographs slowly fading out of focus in a recursive loop. Or, as underlined in another of the film’s conversations that mirrors the plot, one of Tess recounts how one of her students had inherited their father’s parrot, which sometimes still spoke with the dead man’s voice, even twenty years after his death. Love and grief have a profound effect on the way that our memories evolve and devolve and undergo a metamorphosis as we age, and the ravages of time on the human body and mind also contribute to this imperfect personal narrative.”

10. Burning (2018): A sleeper hit, I expect this movie to be revisited more now than when it was first released, with the buzz about and positive reaction to Parasite causes more audiences to seek out Korean films. There are definitely similarities here; in fact, the first thing I thought of when we see the pitiful semi-basement in which the Kims reside in Parasite was the apartment Hae-mi kept in Burning, where she proudly showed Jong-su the one part of the home that receives sunlight (reflected from a skyscraper that dominates the view from her window) for an short, ephemeral time each day. An unblinking mirror to the realities of the stark contrast between rich and poor, the tethered and the free, Burning is a fascinating character study into the way that people are tethered with metaphorical chains that can theoretically be transcended but which in practice are often insurmountable: economic barriers, compulsion, moral weakness, obsession. Read my review here.

9. Doctor Sleep (2019): From my review: “I loved this movie. […] This film never feels its length, and the muted public reaction and mediocre box office returns are a personal disappointment; this film was never going to surpass The Shining, but it’s not far behind, and [director Mike] Flanagan was right to mix the original film’s solemn meditative qualities with occasional frenetic setpieces. In a lifetime of watching movies, I’ve never been so invested or felt so much tension in my spine when watching a scene of a man eight years sober struggle to not take a drink, even in Kubrick’s opus; it’s powerful movie-making at its best, and I can’t recommend it more highly. McGregor gives one of his best performances here, and Ferguson is likewise a delight. Sleep really and truly deserves all the attention that it’s failing to garner in the mainstream, and is the rare horror sequel to live up to (and feel like it truly belongs to) the legacy of its predecessor.”

8. Raw (2017): From my review: “2017 is turning out to be a banner year for horror. After the absolutely stunning Get Out, which was so richly steeped in both metaphor and lived experience, Julia Ducournau’s beautiful and haunting Raw has just hit American audiences like a ton of bricks, or buckets of grue dropped from a great height. […] To say more would give away too much of what makes this film such a delightful (if stomach-churning) experience, but I was beaten to the punch by Catherine Bray of Variety in the comparisons that were most evident to me, as she called the film “Suspiria meets Ginger Snaps,” which was my thought exactly while sitting in the theater.”

7. Queen of Earth (2015): From my review: This is a deeply emotional and cinematically beautiful movie that gets to the heart of interpersonal relationships and how affection can sour due to an individual’s blindness to his or her own faults. The musical cues, increasing tension, and sense of dread are all cribbed from thrillers of the seventies, but the violence on display never transcends from emotional to physical (or does it?), and the intentionally ambiguous ending is at once both a perfect ending and a somewhat unsatisfactory one, although that does not detract from the overall quality of the picture. What’s more, it’s impossible not to note what a funny movie this can be in its smaller moments, as it doesn’t shy away from the ways that a person’s breakdown can often lead to moments of unintentional hilarity. As rare as it is to see a film that so unabashedly stares into the face of mental illness, it’s even rarer to see a film that understands and appreciates that, from the outside, the behaviors of an irrational person can be objectively humorous even if they are subjectively heartbreaking, and the film manages to tread that line in an insightful and deft way. More than just adding more scenes to Moss’s career highlight reel, this movie is the most honest portrayal of unhealthy bonds I’ve seen in as long as I can remember.

6. Parasite (2019): From my review: “‘Money is an iron.’ This is the thesis statement of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a beautiful film about the lengths that one family living in poverty will go to in order to climb the ladder of social success. As stated by a member of this quartet, money is an iron, as it irons out all the wrinkles in life, both metaphorical and literal, leaving behind flawless skin and a life virtually devoid of the anxieties of the common man. […] Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.”

5. The Farewell (2019): From my 2019 best list: “I loved The Farewell, so much so that it came pretty close to unseating my number one, which would have been the first time in my 4. 5 years writing for Swampflix that my number one wasn’t a horror picture. A heartbreaking story of the ties that bind, across great expanses of land and ocean and time, of the love that only grandmothers can give (and receive), of the consequences of secrecy and the secret wounds we bear and take on in order to make life just that much more bearable for the people in our lives. It’s a story of the purest kind of love, the kind that comes from a loss of self as part of a greater whole, the loss of identity following the wrenching of being taken from the places and people that we love, even if all we have are impressions of them. Sometimes, to love is to scream and strike back at the world; sometimes, to be is to shout and declare “I am here.” But sometimes, to love is to sacrifice in silence, and the simple act of being requires a quiet acceptance of the inevitable which cannot be fought, and which shouldn’t. I can’t even think about this movie without crying; it’s just that beautiful. You can read Brandon’s review here.”

4. Get Out (2017): From my 2017 best of list: “What else is there to say about Get Out that hasn’t already been said? What tiny pieces of information could I pick up, turn over, and inspect for a deeper meaning that haven’t already been inspected to the point of total knowledge by various other critics, people talking about their lived experience, the black twittersphere and blogospheres, and every other person under the sun? This is the best movie of 2017.  There’s not much more to say about it that you haven’t read elsewhere and from a better writer than I am. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Let it flow through you and inform you about the daily experiences of people of color in our country. Let it teach you a lesson about the power of cell phone video as a liberator, and about the frequent hypocrisy of white liberalism. Let it be the light for you in dark (and sunken) places. Let its truth live in you and affect your daily life, teaching you to recognize the toxicity within yourself. Live it.”

3. Cloud Atlas (2014): This was my favorite movie of 2014.  It’s equal parts ridiculous and beautiful, absurd and transcendent, flawed and moving. Based on the novel by David Mitchell, this is a humanist fable of the beauty and the hideousness of which humankind is capable written across the margins of past and future across six different time periods. Life is banal and life is an adventure, and sometimes it’s both things at once. It’s a flawed movie, to be sure, and there’s an argument to be made that it shouldn’t exist. The narrative concerns the reiterations of several souls as they part ways and reunite across lifetimes (perhaps reincarnations, perhaps something else entirely) in a timeless cycle; infamously, in the portions of the film set in 2144 Seoul, we see the reincarnated souls of earlier (and later) timelines in this setting… which means that it applies “yellow face” make-up to white actors. The intention here is good, and I’ve wracked my brain for years to think of a way that this concept could have been communicated without, uh, doing what they did. It’s a real black eye for this film that something so beautiful and moving and challenging and thoughtful was faced with an insurmountable dilemma: forego the story’s need to demonstrate the continuity of soul over time, get rid of the Seoul plot altogether (not really an option), or… what happened. I know that makes this film contentious, and rightfully so, but I love it nonetheless.

2. The VVitch (2016): As I wrote for my 2016 top ten: “How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways! It’s a cinematic masterpiece from the first frame to the last; I’m still anxiously awaiting a second-by-second breakdown by Every Frame a Painting, because each captured moment is elegant and haunting. The film acts as a kind of newly-discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, what with its ruminations on faithfulness and faithlessness, acting as a kind of companion piece to both “Young Goodman Brown” in the way that both highlight the apparent Calvinistic truth that depravity is the true nature of man, and that the carnal world and its temptations must constantly be guarded against lest the smallest of sins (white lies, sexual curiosity, and even neglecting one’s prayers) snowball immediately into damnation. It’s a true New England American Gothic piece in this way, and that voice is clear and revelatory. The only real problem with the film is that it’s at once both a character driven drama, a horror flick, a mood piece, and an art film, and it’s that last one that I think is the biggest hangup for the film’s detractors. Unlike other movies that might fall under the generous “art film” banner, The Witch is not a hard film to follow or understand. If you recommend, for instance, Mulholland Drive to a friend, they may watch but not enjoy it, saying “I didn’t get it.” The danger with The Witch is that, despite its dense layers of subtext and meaning and its reliance on a basic understanding of Puritan morality, many may come away saying “I get it, I just don’t like it,” even though they fail to actually grasp the width and breadth of its mastery.” Read Brandon’s review here.

1. Knife + Heart (2019): As I said when writing up my review in my 2019 top ten: “Of course this is my number one. What else could it possibly be? This may be my new favorite movie of all time. Never in my life has there been a film that slotted into so many of my particular and particularly obscure interests. From my review: “Never before have I ever seen a movie that was made for me the way that Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife+Heart) was. Seventies [period piece] giallo featuring a masked killer in black leather gloves? Check. Queer story that focuses on a troubled woman who drinks herself into unconsciousness on a nightly basis and is unable to let go of a lost love? Check. Vertigo/Body Double-esque plot points about obsession with apparent doppelgangers? Check. M83-as-Goblin soundtrack? Check. A plethora of shots of old school film editing equipment being put to good use? Check. A peek behind the curtain of the seventies gay porn scene? Check! Women in white wandering around a forest as gales of wind blow all about them? You betcha. A strangely centric fable about grackles? Is it my birthday?” My year-end Spotify data even revealed that M83 was my most-listened artist this year, with the track “Detective Rachid” as my most-played song from the group. I think about this movie all the time, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.”

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2020

There are 38 feature films nominated for the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony. We here at Swampflix are conspicuously more attracted to the lowbrow & genre-minded than we are to stuffy Awards Season releases, so as usual we have reviewed fewer than half of the films nominated (so far!). We’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees, though, including four titles from our own Top 10 Films of 2019 list. The Academy rarely gets these things right when actually choosing the winners, but as a list this isn’t too shabby in terms of representing what 2019 cinema had to offer.

Listed below are the 16 Oscar-Nominated films from 2019 that we covered for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best, based on our star ratings. Each entry is accompanied by a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

1. Parasite, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best International Feature Film, and Best Production Design

“Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.”  – Boomer

2. Avengers: Endgame, nominated for Best Visual Effects

“This is the perfect capstone for this franchise. If there were never another MCU film, it would be totally fine, because as a finale, this is pitch perfect. Every important and semi-important character gets a moment to shine, as the Snap is undone (come on, you knew it would be). There’s even a moment where every living lady hero from the entire MCU is onscreen at once, and it is delightful, although I’m sure the internet is already full of comments about how it was ‘forced’ or ‘cheesy,’ but I don’t feed trolls and I try not to cross the bridges that they live under, so I wouldn’t know.” – Boomer

3. Knives Out, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

“I’ve long been a fan of comedy pastiches and homages of genres that function perfectly as examples of those genres despite humorous overtones; my go-to example is Hot Fuzz, which I always tout as having a more sophisticated murder mystery plot than most films than most straightforward criminal investigation media (our lead comes to a logical conclusion that fits all of the clues, but still turns out to be wrong). Knives Out is another rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot.” – Boomer

4. Little Women, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Saiorse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Florence Pugh), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score

“This is a beautiful film, a timeless piece of literature made fresh once more with a cast overbrimming with talent and filmed with an eye for chromatic storytelling and such beautiful Northeast scenery that when I tell you I was there, I was there. This is also such a talented cast that they breathe a new life into characters that, in the original text and in previous film incarnations, were at times sullen, unlikable, or intolerable.” – Boomer

5. The Lighthouse, nominated for Best Cinematography

“Packed to the walls with more sex, violence, and broad toilet humor than you’d typically expect from high-brow Cinema. If you can push past the initial barriers of Eggers’s patient pacing & period-specific dialogue, the movie is a riot.” – Brandon

6. I Lost My Body, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“This is two films for the price of one. And it’s a very low price at that, considering its 80min runtime. As with all two-for-one bargains, however, one of the two complimentary films on this simultaneous double bill is far more satisfying & impressive than the other. To fully appreciate I Lost My Body, then, you have to appreciate its two dueling narratives as a package deal. The stronger movie in this combo pack carries the lesser, even if just by the virtue of their pairing.” – Brandon

7. Marriage Story, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Adam Driver), Best Actress (Scarlett Johannson), Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Score

“A superb breakup story about how you can love somebody so much, and create a life with them that you love, and it still has to dissolve. It specifically illustrates how hard it can be for parents when their child arbitrarily prefers one over the other. The way those formative childhood phases affect permanent legal repercussions is devastating, as is the realization that you might not actually be best parent for your own child.” – The Podcast Crew

8. Joker, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing

“None of the endless months of vitriolic complaints against its honor resonated with me in the theater, where I mostly just saw a creepy character study anchored by an effectively chilling performance. If anything, the fact that a movie this unassuming and, frankly, this trashy was somehow causing chaos in the Oscars discourse only made it more perversely amusing.” – Brandon

9. Missing Link, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film

“Very cute in its slapstick humor, and often stunning in its visual artistry. It’s about on par with The Boxtrolls all told, which is to say it’s mediocre by Laika standards but still on a level far above most modern children’s cinema.” – Brandon

10. 1917, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects

“The video game mission plot might not make for especially complex drama between its solider protagonists, but the way those babyfaced boys contrast against the unearthly gore, rot, and decay of the war-torn earth beneath them is viscerally upsetting. There are many ways in which the long-take gimmick is a distracting technical exercise, but it does force you to stew in that discomfort for long, uninterrupted stretches. It’s surprisingly brutal in that way.” – Brandon

11. Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Leonard Dicaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing

“I appreciate this movie most as a passionate argument for a sentiment I could not agree with less. I have no love for the traditional machismo & endless parade of cheap-o Westerns that clogged up Los Angeles in these twilight hours of the Studio Era. Still, it was entertaining to watch an idiosyncratic filmmaker with niche interests wax nostalgic about the slimy, uncool bullshit only he cares about.” – Brandon

12. The Irishman, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Al Pacino and Joe Pesci), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Production Design, and Best Visual Effects

“Finds plenty more to say about the corruption & violence of organized crime that Scorsese has not addressed in previous efforts. Unfortunately, it allows that new material to be drowned out by an overwhelming flood of the same-old-same-old.” – Brandon

13. Jojo Rabbit, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Scarlett Johannson), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, and Best Production Design

“Works best as a maternal parallel to the paternal drama of Boy. The difference is that I left Boy marveling at how he pulled off such a delicate tonal balance with such confident poise, whereas I left Jojo Rabbit wondering if I had just seen him lose his balance entirely and tumble to the floor for the first time.” – Brandon

14. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, nominated for Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“Look, Rise of Skywalker is good. It’s not great like The Force Awakens or passable like The Last Jedi, but it’s also not that spectacular either. It doesn’t take the chances that TLJ took, and I was glad that the return of JJ Abrams meant that we went back to mostly practical FX for the aliens (those stupid chihuahua horses from TLJ will haunt me to my goddamned grave) even if the resultant film felt like he was trying to railroad the ending back to his original concepts after not liking how another director played with his toys.” – Boomer

15. Ad Astra, nominated for Best Sound Mixing

“Has all the building blocks needed to achieve something great; they’re just arranged in a confoundingly dull configuration. Worse, there’s literally not one thing about its combination of vintage sci-fi pulp & faux-philosophical melodrama that Interstellar didn’t already achieve to greater success, so there’s constantly a better viewing option hanging over its head.” – Brandon

16. Rocketman, nominated for Best Original Song

“The narration continually reassures the audience that Elton John’s life was ravaged by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, but everything we see onscreen is musical theatre kids playing dress-up in squeaky clean sound stage environments.” – Brandon

-Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Little Women (2019)

I have never experienced the apparently widespread phenomenon of being in a theater full of people who applaud the end of a film (at least not in a regularly scheduled film, as it has been known to happen at Weird Wednesdays and Terror Tuesdays, or when the director is in attendance), but I got my first taste of this peculiarity yesterday when Little Women concluded. Perhaps it is because I rarely find myself viewing a period piece at 1:15 on a Saturday afternoon and thus am almost never the youngest person in an auditorium by 30 years. I did expect that this might be the case, and I’ve certainly been in my fair share of screenings in which someone fell asleep, but this was definitely the first time I could hear someone snoring during the trailers (the same poor soul likewise dozed off again about an hour in, judging by the identical sounds). This is not indicative of the quality of Greta Gerwig’s latest, however; this movie is fantastic.

It’s the Reconstruction era. Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) has just sold a piece of writing to a newspaper in New York for $20, the same going rate as freelancers get in 2020, 150 years later, just in case there are any Boomers reading this and wondering why their grandchildren are so frustrated all the time. Elder sister Meg (Emma Watson) has married “a penniless tutor” and had twins, youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) learning painting and hoping to be courted by a man wealthy enough to support her and her family, including “indigent parents” Marmee (Laura Dern) and Father (Bob Odenkirk) March later in life. Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who many years earlier caught Scarlet Fever from a poor family that the Marches look after, is largely too weak to leave her bed after developing a weak heart as a result. Seven years earlier, Father March was working as a volunteer for the Union Army while Marmee tried to keep the family together, all four girls as vivacious and full of life as one small band of people could be, full of dreams. When the misunderstood lonesome older neighbor Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) takes his orphaned nephew “Laurie” (Timothée Chalamet, or Timmy Chalchal as we call him around these parts) into his home, he becomes close friends with all of the girls, inspiring an unrequited love deep within the young Amy while only having eyes for the independent Jo. Back in the “present” (seven years later), Jo makes her way home to Concord upon learning that Beth’s condition has taken a turn for the worse, while Laurie and Amy reunite in Paris as the latter begins to believe that her artistic talent is workmanlike and passionless in comparison to the pursuits and interests of her sisters.

This is a beautiful film, a timeless piece of literature made fresh once more with a cast overbrimming with talent (minus one odd casting choice, which I’ll get to momentarily) and filmed with an eye for chromatic storytelling and such beautiful Northeast scenery that when I tell you I was there, I was there. This is also such a talented cast that they breathe a new life into characters that, in the original text and in previous film incarnations, were at times sullen, unlikable, or intolerable. Aunt March in particular comes across quite well in this outing, with Streep infusing the role, one of a harsh spinster who condescends and proclaims a hardline fusion of morality and manners at her nieces (especially the recalcitrant Jo), with a mild comic edge that humanizes her. Her appearances are rare, but gone is the feeling of dread that her appearance could summon when reading the original novel, or in other adaptations. And it’s not the same old Miranda Priestly, either, but a new casual cruelty tempered by kindness.

Likewise, Pugh infuses Amy with a likability that can be absent in other versions, relying solely on the charisma of the actor to take the shallow, bratty, narcissistic monster who (spoiler alert for a novel that’s older than radio) in a particularly petulant moment burns her sister’s long-labored upon novel out of spite for not getting to go to the theater. That still happens in this version, and it is still treated as unforgivable, but Pugh’s elevated performance lends Amy’s childhood frivolity a lightness: when Jo cuts her hair in order to obtain money for Mother March to go the DC hospital where her husband is being treated, Pugh’s delivery of “Your one beauty!” is hilarious. Likewise, the recurring element of Amy being proud of her diminutive feet (“the best in the family”) is delightful, appearing first on the evening that she first meets Laurie as she proclaims that she would never twist her ankle while dancing as Meg had, and later when she decides to make him a plaster mold of said dainty feet so as to prevent Laurie from forgetting about them. Even her marriage, which for fifteen decades has been near universally read as the ultimate culmination of her childhood model of femininity, is presented here as the result of an awareness of the necessity of sacrifice as much as it is an unearned reward for her behavior. “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life,” Jo says at one point, and while she’s right, there comes a time when youngest March girl woman steps up and takes responsibility where her sisters can’t or won’t.

Of course, Jo is the star, and Ronan plays her with aplomb, but the internet will soon be full of gushing pieces that are better written than mine about her newest star turn. The only truly miscast part here is Odenkirk as Father March. I may be dating myself here, but the equation “Bob Odenkirk + period piece + sideburns” will always have the sum “A new Mr. Show sketch is starting!” to me, and there’s no way around that. When Father March comes back from DC after his recovery, there’s no way that your first thought isn’t that we’re about to hear about megaphone crooner Dickie Crickets or The Story of the Story of Everest (which you either love or hate). It’s not enough to bring the movie to a halt, but if you start laughing, you may get accusing stares from the elderly.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Boomer’s Top 15 Films of 2019

Full disclosure: I haven’t seen The Lighthouse. I know I would love it, and hope I get the chance to see it before I compile my “best of the decade” list so that it gets its proper acknowledgement from me.

First the 2018 holdovers. As I mentioned in last year’s year-ender, I was laid up for much of the last few months of 2018 after a pretty bad accident. I even already had tickets to Suspiria and Bad Times at the El Royale for the weekend after I got hit by a truck. I even reached out to some of my friends in The Industry to see if any of them could get me a screener of Suspiria because if there was anyone in the world who had a vested interest in how it would turn out, your boy here is that person. So here are my holdovers from 2018 that would have made my list were it not for other circumstances:

  • Bad Times at the El Royale: I was a much bigger fan of this one than Brandon was. I loved just about every part of it, including getting to see Jon Hamm playing both into and against type as a much more openly racist version of Don Draper, vacuum salesman. As someone who generally feels anxiety in public accommodations, I always get a kick out of thrillers set at hotels (Bug, Identity) and doubly so if there’s a voyeurism element to them, even if they’re overall not very good (Vacancy). Combine that with a lethal cult, a necessarily oddball hotel, and great direction from Drew Goddard, and you’ve got a hit, as far as I’m concerned. 5 stars!
  • If Beale Street Could Talk: A tender portrait of a love that is stronger than falsehoods and white police rage, a love that can outshine and outlast injustice even if it is unable to defeat or overcome it. Stunningly, achingly beautiful, this is a film that engenders rage, frustration, gentleness, and mercy, all wrapped in a single package, and although it passed pretty quickly from the public consciousness, I expect it to be vindicated by history. 4.5 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
  • Three Identical Strangers: Holy shit, did you see this documentary? Every time I thought we had hit the weirdest wall possible in the story of these three brothers separated at birth, another revelation was waiting around a blind corner to pull the rug out from under me again. A heartwarming story of siblings who find each other as adults becomes a bizarre conspiracy about testing the limits of nature and nurture. This is not one to skip. 4.5 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
  • Mom and Dad: Nicolas Cage builds and destroys a pool table, just as he built and destroyed a family. An interesting pairing with something like Who Can Kill a Child?, Mom and Dad is a hell of a ride, even for those among us who may be growing tired of Cage’s nonstop drag race to be in every movie that’s sent his way. Not to be overlooked here is Selma Blair, who really ought to be getting more work; she’s a treasure. 4 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
  • Cam: Essentially a full length episode of Black Mirror focusing on one woman’s career as a successful cam girl whose identity is stolen wholesale by an evil… virus? Digital doppelganger (digiganger)? There are weaknesses in the film, especially when Patch Darragh as Arnold / TinkerBoy appears and the film drags, but overall, it’s a compassionate and humanizing look into the world of sex work and the travails thereof. It’s also a great showcase for Madeline Brewer, who at one point I laughed off as a poor addition to an already pretty terrible program, but she’s really proven me wrong. 4 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
  • Suspiria: Holy shit, what a ride! Vulture may have ranked this one 5,234th out of the 5,279 films released this decade, but they are wrong, wrong, wrong. As a noteworthy fan of Dario Argento in general and the classic Suspiria in particular, I didn’t want this film to exist. En route to a screening of the Creepers cut of Phenomena last year, a friend asked me if I was excited for the then-upcoming remake, and I admitted that I preferred that it wasn’t happening, but since it was happening andfor better or worsewe would all have to live with it, I was cautiously optimistic. And I have to say: if you’re going to remake an inarguable classic, this is the way to do it. It even makes you wonder, retroactively, why the original didn’t include certain elements that were nominally part of the plot (i.e., dancing) as more integral aspects of the narrative. Despite being an altogether very different film, tonally and visually, the spirit was true. They even had characters discussing the importance of counting steps! 5 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.

Honorable mentions! My favorite short-form horror-comedy of the year comes to us from the genius who decided to pair that horrible and horrifying trailer for CATS with the remixed version of “I Got 5 On It.” I have watched this video no fewer than twenty times since it first hit the internet, and I doubt I will ever get tired of it. I also wanted to give special mention to Happy Death Day 2 U, which I thoroughly enjoyed as a bubblegum pop horror flick, even if it skewed more closely to science fiction and I had no knowledge of the first one (the decision to watch a sequel to a movie I never saw came after a long and spirited debate that exhausted me mentally and physically).

I also want to give special commendations to Hulu’s Into the Dark series, produced by Blumhouse (stay with me here). An anthology series that aired its first few episodes in 2018, Into the Dark airs a new feature-length “episode” once a month, with each episode based around a holiday occurring in that month. I’ve been working on backtracking to do a review of each of these, but four of the episodes/films released in the first season of the show deserve particular attention. I couldn’t in good conscience put all four in my “top” list, but I did pick what I consider the best one for that (dubious) accolade and wanted to highlight the other three here.

  • First, in April, ITD‘s producers skipped over the more obvious choice of an Easter-based feature and instead went for broke with I’m Just Fucking With You, an April Fool’s Day episode that features Keir O’Donnell as Larry, a man who seems like the posterboy for the word “nebbish.” En route back to his hometown to attend the wedding of an ex-flame, he arrives at a hotel and, after encountering the business’s aggressively impish clerk Chester (Hayes MacArthur, a.k.a. Mr. Ali Larter), proceeds to obsessively clean every surface in his room. Here we learn that Larry leads a double life: mild-mannered by day, edgelord supreme by night. He’s the worst kind of internet troll, and this includes slut-shaming and recommending suicide to the very friend whom he’s intending to visit. Chester is just the worst parts of Larry made manifest in the real world, a trickster who pushes him to go further and further until there’s no turning back. Gorgeously shot (I think that part of the denouement may even have been filmed at the same pink/blue saturated pool area as the end of Strangers: Prey at Night, which barely missed being on my 2018 holdovers list) and extremely tense, this one’s worth checking out, even if it doesn’t stick the landing (a common problem for Into the Dark episodes, if we’re being honest).
  • After my Erstwhile Roommate and I finished watching Culture Shock, the Independence Day-themed episode that premiered in July, we turned to each other and I noted that while it wasn’t the most thoughtful Into the Dark, it certainly was the most thought filled. This debut directorial effort from Gigi Saul Guerrero is truly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen from an American production house, following the harrowing and dangerous journey of pregnant immigrant Marisol (Martha Higareda) as she makes a second attempt to cross the Mexican-American border in an effort to find a better life for herself and her child. And find it she does! Marisol, suddenly able to speak English with ease, awakes to discover herself in a seemingly perfect small American town, a pastel Pleasantville, where she is encouraged to integrate and assimilate. She slowly discovers that this new life is not all that it seems, but not in the ways one expects. Although the ending of this one is rather messy (again, an Into the Dark recurring feature), Culture Shock has the most powerful final image of any ITD episode to date.
  • All That We Destroy, ITD‘s Mother’s Day episode, broke the boundaries of what the series had done so far up to that point. October’s The Body followed a hitman trying to get rid of a victim’s body on Halloween, November’s Flesh & Blood featured an agoraphobic girl wondering if her father was a serial killer, December’s Pooka! was the story of one man’s descent into madness during his employment as the mascot for Christmas’s hottest new toy, February’s Down was a banal “trapped in an elevator with a psycho” story, and March’s Treehouse was a confused jumble of mysticism and revenge fantasy. All That We Destroy goes full sci-fi thriller as a powerful geneticist (Samantha Mathis) confronts the reality that her artistic but withdrawn son (Israel Broussard) may be a budding serial killer. To determine how best to rectify this problem, she creates clones of his first victim (Aurora Perrineau) over and over again to see if she can find another outlet for his tendencies, all while he grows closer to a new girl in the neighborhood (Dora Madison), who must be really desperate for company. This is one of the few ITDs that manages to stick the landing, despite some narrative missteps.

Whatever, brah, enough talking, let’s blade.

15. The Perfection. Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer wasn’t a fan of this one and its narrative conventions, and neither was Brandon, who validly criticized the film for its lazy use of tired sexual assault tropes in its examination of the motivations of its main characters. I would never argue that the narrative crutch of sexual violence isn’t an overused trope in Western media, nor that any individual bears responsibility for overlooking its use in a work; I may have been disappointed that The Mary Sue stopped doing Game of Thrones coverage after a particularly heinous plot turn in that show’s fifth season because their coverage is always great, but far be it from me to be the kind of person who doesn’t respect that decision. But in an era when there’s greater visibility of the behavior and verbalizations of casual misogynists and sexual assailants with no accompanying increase in accountability, this is a film that lays bare the ways that dangerous men can be passively protected from public scrutiny by the inaction and presence of women in their lives (as Steven Weber’s Anton is by his wife, Alaina Huffman’s Paloma) while taking aim at the cabals of men who support and reinforce each other’s vile natures. The way that men talk about women when they think that they’re only in the presence of other straight men is fucking vile, and this is a film that doesn’t shy away from the end result of what can happen when that kind of attitude is unopposed. It also doesn’t lie about the consequences of what happens to victims: there are no happy endings; the happiest thing you can hope for, even when justice is meted out and revenge has run its course, is to still be only part of what you once were (visualized in an extremely literal way). There is no more innocence, no more perfection, no more feeling of being complete.

14. IT: Chapter 2. From my review: “Man, people really, really hated this one, didn’t they? I guess I can see why, but I’m also not really sure what anyone was expecting. IT is a novel that could be adapted a dozen times, and there’s always going to be one shining (no pun intended) truth about it: the Losers Club is always going to be more interesting when the constituents are children, and the ‘adult’ half of the narrative is always going to pale in comparison. There’s just no way around it; it’s baked into the narrative’s very structure. That’s even kind of the point: the extradimensional entity we call Pennywise feeds on fear, and it prefers the fear of kids because children’s fears (killer clowns, abusive parents, monsters) are specific and easy to manipulate, while adult fears (not being able to provide for a family, dying alone, being trapped in a loveless relationship) are abstract and amorphous. Director Andy Muschietti made the right call here by opting to forego the pants-soiling horror of the first film and channel more comedy into this one, although how effective you found that to be does seem to vary from person to person. There’s verisimilitude in that, though: as a child, you’re powerless against the monsters you perceive in the world, and your best hope is to hide under your bed until the ‘monsters’ go away; as an adult, one of the only real ways to defend against one’s anxieties and fears is to minimize and trivialize them, to turn them into jokes.”

13. New Year, New You. You may have noticed that, above, I skipped over mentioning the January episode of Into the Dark, and that’s because this one was so much fun that it surpassed honorable mention status and belongs on the list. Ably directed by Sophia Takal, who also wrote and directed this year’s Black Christmas remake (which I have not seen), I can honestly say that the 2010s contribution to the ongoing legacy of Heathers, Jawbreaker, and Mean Girls has finally arrived, and just under the wire, too. Starring Suki Waterhouse as Alexis, the film follows the New Year’s Eve reunion of a quartet of high school friends after years apart. Kayla (Kirby Howell-Baptiste of Crashing and Killing Eve) and Chloe (Melissa Bergland) are the first to arrive, and they’re doubtful that Danielle (Carly Chaikin), now a successful new media influencer, will show up. When she does, she first attempts to take advantage of their longterm friendships for more social cache with her online audience, but the other three women have other designs: to get Danielle to confess to bullying one of their high school classmates, social torture that eventually led the girl to kill herself. Alliances shift and, as no surprise to anyone familiar with the cutthroat world of Instagram influencing, things get out of control quickly, until people are locked in steam rooms with murderous intent. It’s a fun ride that demands to be seen.

11 and 12. Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened and Fyre Fraud. Speaking of influencer culture, the beginning of 2019 saw the release of two separate documentaries about the implosion of the dead-in-the-water music/culture event known as the Fyre Festival. The brainchild of Billy McFarland, a privileged kid from an incorporated suburb in New Jersey who ran one of the best long cons of the new millennium, Fyre Festival was a music “experience” intended to promote the launch of an app that would function as a kind of Uber for fans to set up performances with musicians, artists, and “influencers.” Co-signed by Ja Rule, the festival was a disaster from the word “go,” and the festival became a laughingstock of the internet, where the overprivileged goons who were foolish enough to pay a ludicrous amount of money in order to attend found themselves sheltered in emergency housing and feasting upon white bread and cheese slices instead of the promised luxury cabins and gourmet meals. Theoretically in competition (The Greatest Party That Never Happened was released by Netflix and Fyre Fraud was released by Hulu), the two actually function as sublime companion pieces that should be seen together to get the full picture of just how much schadenfreude money can’t buy. Read my reviews of Fraud here and Greatest Party here.

10. Shazam. Zachary Levi makes a star turn as DC’s Big Red Cheese, the Shazam formerly known as Captain Marvel, one of the oldest comic book superheroes in existence (fun fact: while home from work on Christmas Eve, I watched an episode of The Donna Reed Show in which the lead visited a bunch of children in the hospital and one of them was reading a comic book featuring this very character). A surprisingly good flick coming out of the DC film house, this one takes all the wish fulfillment that has long been a part of this character’s naturea child becomes an adult superhero when he speaks the titular magic wordand crafts a narrative about two separate people whose home lives leave much to be desired and how each charts their own path, a narrative of choosing to let go of resentment and naïveté to embrace hope or hopelessness. All that, and it’s a throwback to the kids movies of the eighties, films that understood that children want to be scared sometimes, and embraces that paradigm, balancing fright and fun in equal measures. Read my review here.

9. Midsommar. From my review: “I’m pretty much always on board with a daytime horror movie. Midsommar pushes past the boundary of the ‘day won’t save you’ concept into a completely disorienting perpetual daylight. This starts even before the audience has the opportunity to ask themselves if something’s rotten in the village, when Mark expresses unease upon learning that it is after 8 PM, despite the sun still appearing high in the sky; the film takes advantage of the northern latitudes’ geographically anomalous prolonged days and plays on the effects that could arise from being unaccustomed to such an unusual night/day rhythm. Characters attempt to circumvent community rules under the cover of ‘darkness’ with about the success that you would expect. […] What makes Midsommar work isn’t just the unease that comes from the finding of no safe haven from horror in the light, it’s also the discomfiting nature of lingering on what Aster called ‘static image[s] of relatively little interest.’ […] The mainstream horror-going audience has spent over a decade now subsisting on films that depend heavily on unearned jump scares to produce a reaction, but Midsommar and its predecessor instead use the quietness of their presentation to inspire a disquiet of the soul. We’ve been forcefed Baghouls hiding behind open medicine cabinet doors for so long that when lingering shots of pastoral peace are succeeded by calm pans across striking farmhouses or documentarian framing of a Swedish banquet, there’s nowhere for that energy to go; so it just builds and builds until whoops, now you’re wearing a bear suit and boy are you not going to like it.”

8. Hustlers. Don’t let the marketing fool you: Lizzo is barely in this movie. But that’s okay! Jennifer Lopez gives what may be the performance of her career in this based-on-a-true-story crime comedy thriller set during the 2008 economic collapse. Ramona Vega (Lopez) is a single mother and veteran stripper with aspirations of becoming a swimwear designer. She takes Destiny (Constance Wu) under her wing and teaches her how to profit from men’s piggishness, and for a time, their cohortincluding Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Anabelle (Lili Reinhart)are living the high life. When the economic crisis hits the upper echelons of Wall Street, aka their clientele, the apparent glamour of their lives is removed and the bloom is off the rose, and desperate times call for criminal measures.

7. Knives Out. From my review: “Knives Out is [a] rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot. The film is surprisingly political, as well, and not just in a ‘Communism was a red herring’ way. Like Get Out before it, Knives Out mocks the occasional ignorance of the political left vis-a-vis latent and uninspected racism on the part of Joni and Meg, who profess progressive values while being, respectively, a largely uninformed buffoon and an easily corrupted intellectual. On the other side of the aisle, the fact that all of the Thrombey children and grandchildren consider themselves to be ‘self-made’ despite succeeding only due to the generosity of their wealthy patriarch calls to mind certain statements about a ‘small loan’ of a million dollars that a certain political figure has made.”

6. Us. From my review: “It doesn’t give too much of the film’s message away to say that it is about class and the way that it creates dark mirrors for ourselves everywhere, the way that getting out of the darkness of poverty is often impossible, and that those who manage to somehow embody the mythological idea of social mobility must do so at the expense of others, ultimately becoming complicit in the suffering of those who might otherwise have been your peers. Of course, with a film like this one, there are going to be other interpretations, but it’s all there. Consider: Adelaide’s father, playing Whack-a-Mole, knocking down facsimiles of rodents as they try to rise up out of the darkness underground. Consider: that Gabe constantly finds himself trying to one-up Josh, only to find that Josh himself is imitating his own decisions, in an orobouros of attempts to keep up with the Joneses. Consider: that ‘I Got 5 On It’ is about how one person covets an entire object despite said object being a dime bag that both parties going halves should share between the two of them (‘I got some bucks on it, but it ain’t enough on it’). Consider: the power of art as the impetus to empower the recognition of interclass economic struggle and the ability to transcend (or at least ascend within) it. Consider: the repeated refrain of the ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ that eternally attempts to climb and is forever pushed back down. Consider: when arriving at the beach house, the family eats fast food, except for Adelaide, who eats strawberries; why? Consider: what does a Black Flag t-shirt mean in 1986 when worn by a teenager working long hard hours versus being worn by the child of a comfortably wealthy family in 2019?”

5. Avengers: Endgame. Unlike in past years, I’m not just going to stick all of the Marvel movies in one slot, because really, only one of them really and truly stood out to me this year. Captain Marvel was good, and Alison Brie is always cool, but I haven’t felt the need to revisit it at all, and its position as the first Marvel flick to end up solely on Disney+ instead of Netflix has put it out of my reach (I’m at once disappointed in all of you for not boycotting the announcement of yet another streaming service in order to force Disney to put its material back on one of the existing services while also recognizing that we are all but ants in the House of Mouse’s shadow). Tom Holland’s latest outing was also nothing to write home about, either, other than some pretty good Mysterio illusions and that scene where everybody talks shit about dead Tony Stark. Love it or hate it, the MCU is here to stay, but if it weren’t (and even I have argued that a break would be a good idea, as I did in my Spider-Man’s European Vacation review), this would be a loving and lovely finale to the end of the first “volume” of a franchise that is going to either peter out in the next few years or outlive us all (see also: Star Wars). As I said in my review, this is the “All Good Things” of the Marvel film franchise, and I loved it, no matter what comes next. But I’d be surprised to find an MCU movie in my list next year, if we’re being honest. Also, Peggy‘s in it!

4. Doctor Sleep. From my review: “I loved this movie. […] This film never feels its length, and the muted public reaction and mediocre box office returns are a personal disappointment; this film was never going to surpass The Shining, but it’s not far behind, and [director Mike] Flanagan was right to mix the original film’s solemn meditative qualities with occasional frenetic setpieces. In a lifetime of watching movies, I’ve never been so invested or felt so much tension in my spine when watching a scene of a man eight years sober struggle to not take a drink, even in Kubrick’s opus; it’s powerful movie-making at its best, and I can’t recommend it more highly. McGregor gives one of his best performances here, and Ferguson is likewise a delight. Sleep really and truly deserves all the attention that it’s failing to garner in the mainstream, and is the rare horror sequel to live up to (and feel like it truly belongs to) the legacy of its predecessor.”

3. Parasite. From my review: “‘Money is an iron.’ This is the thesis statement of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a beautiful film about the lengths that one family living in poverty will go to in order to climb the ladder of social success. As stated by a member of this quartet, money is an iron, as it irons out all the wrinkles in life, both metaphorical and literal, leaving behind flawless skin and a life virtually devoid of the anxieties of the common man. […] Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.”

2. The Farewell. I loved The Farewell, so much so that it came pretty close to unseating my number one, which would have been the first time in my 4.5 years writing for Swampflix that my number one wasn’t a horror picture. A heartbreaking story of the ties that bind, across great expanses of land and ocean and time, of the love that only grandmothers can give (and receive), of the consequences of secrecy and the secret wounds we bear and take on in order to make life just that much more bearable for the people in our lives. It’s a story of the purest kind of love, the kind that comes from a loss of self as part of a greater whole, the loss of identity following the wrenching of being taken from the places and people that we love, even if all we have are impressions of them. Sometimes, to love is to scream and strike back at the world; sometimes, to be is to shout and declare “I am here.” But sometimes, to love is to sacrifice in silence, and the simple act of being requires a quiet acceptance of the inevitable which cannot be fought, and which shouldn’t. I can’t even think about this movie without crying; it’s just that beautiful. You can read Brandon’s review here.

1. Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife + Heart). Of course this is my number one. What else could it possibly be? This may be my new favorite movie of all time. Never in my life has there been a film that slotted into so many of my particular and particularly obscure interests. From my review: “Never before have I ever seen a movie that was made for me the way that Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife+Heart) was. Seventies [period piece] giallo featuring a masked killer in black leather gloves? Check. Queer story that focuses on a troubled woman who drinks herself into unconsciousness on a nightly basis and is unable to let go of a lost love? Check. Vertigo/Body Double-esque plot points about obsession with apparent doppelgangers? Check. M83-as-Goblin soundtrack? Check. A plethora of shots of old school film editing equipment being put to good use? Check. A peek behind the curtain of the seventies gay porn scene? Check! Women in white wandering around a forest as gales of wind blow all about them? You betcha. A strangely centric fable about grackles? Is it my birthday?” My year-end Spotify data even revealed that M83 was my most-listened artist this year, with the track “Detective Rachid” as my most-played song from the group. I think about this movie all the time, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

I saw a Star War! And it was fine. Not great, but pretty good.

I loved The Force Awakens. From the moment that first trailer dropped, a chill went through my body; I’ve always been more of a Trek boy, but Star Wars has a special place in my heart, too. With that trailer way back in the innocent days of 2015, I felt like I was eight years old again, seeing something that resonated with me in a special way as if it were the first time. And the film itself didn’t disappoint! Then along came The Last Jedi, which was … fine. The discourse surrounding TLJ in the past two years has been exhausting, with a lot of hatred leveled at director Rian Johnson, containing a level of vitriol that should rightfully be reserved for—and aimed at—some of the real monsters currently haunting the venerated halls of our government. For me, I usually tend to forget about the elements of a work that I find boring and instead focus on the things that entertain me, but with TLJ, I don’t remember much about what I liked. In my mind, the whole pointless, infuriating side story about Finn and Rose going to the stupid casino planet seems to take up the entirety of the film’s run time in my recollection. I got into my general issues with the way slavery in the Star Wars universe is presented and my hatred of the stupid chihuahua horse escape sequence from TLJ in my Solo review, so I won’t beg your patience by revisiting it here, but suffice it to say that I’m not terribly invested in the fate of a bunch of CGI creatures when the end of the film shows that there are still enslaved children cleaning those stables. I hate that the body politic of the internet bullied Kelly Marie Tran until she basically quit social media because that’s idiotic on the part of her bullies (not to mention cruel); you have to be a child or an idiot to blame an actor for the poor choices that their character makes, but holy shit, Rose (as written) really was a horrible addition to this franchise. She didn’t have to be, but Christ almighty did that entire subplot drag the movie down.

But this isn’t a review of The Last Jedi; it’s a review of The Rise of Skywalker. When we last left our heroes, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were dead, and Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford were alive. Leia was alive, but Carrie Fisher has, sadly, passed. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (Jon Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) were reunited with Chewie, R2-D2, and C3PO aboard the Millennium Falcon and lived to fight another day. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was throwing a tantrum about not being able to kill his uncle Luke and live up to the legacy of grandfather Darth Vader, and General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) was pretty tired of his shit. Caught up? Well, unlike TLJ, this movie doesn’t pick up right where the last installment left off; instead, we’ve catapulted some period of time into the future. Finn and Poe are off on one of those generic “gathering intelligence” missions, Rey is getting some Jedi training finally (from Leia), and Kylo Ren is micromanaging the shit out of the First Order, flying all over the place and singlehandedly attempting to wipe out any and all threats to his new position as Supreme Leader. And that’s all from the opening crawl!

Do you remember whenever Batman, as played by Adam West, would feed a bunch of information into his Batcomputer and then come to an utterly incoherent conclusion that was inexplicably correct, despite the fact that it shouldn’t have been? Half of the plot points in this film feel that way. You’ll spend the first half of this movie wanting to talk back to the screen, asking characters how they “know” that they have to go to this planet or that moon. One plot coupon leads to the next at a breakneck speed, and there’s no time for any revelations or new pieces of information to breathe before we’re off to get the next one. Some of this works, and there’s some real Indiana Jones stuff that happens with a dagger that turns out to be a compass, but even getting to the place where the dagger is found (almost by accident) takes up an inordinate amount of screen time. Information and vistas come at you so quickly that you barely have time to get your bearings before jumping to hyperspace.

Even at that pace, there’s still far too much that happens offscreen, or relies on the audience to grant meaning to information that hasn’t been pre-established. The best comparison I can make is to the later Harry Potter sequels. As someone who was just a tad bit too old for the books when they came out, I’m really only familiar with the first two of those novels from reading them as part of a college course for people who might one day teach young adult literature. The movies were fun, though, and I enjoyed them, up until around The Half-Blood Prince, where they started too become incomprehensible if you didn’t have knowledge that came from the book series alone; from what I understand from conversations with friends who read J.K. Rowling’s books and Dominic Noble’s “Lost in Adaptation” YouTube series, later films adapted plot points from the novels on which they were based, but which followed up on plot elements which had been dropped from the previous film adaptations of the source material. A notable example is that, when I finally saw The Deathly Hallows in grad school, there’s a moment where Ron has some kind of accident while apparating, and Hermione screams that he’s “splinched.” As someone who had only seen the films, I had no reference point for what that could possibly mean. There’s a lot that happens here in Rise of Skywalker that feels much the same, except that there’s not even a source material from which this is taken that might give more insight, and the film wallpapers over these narrative leaps by moving so fast that (hopefully) you won’t notice it.

I’m going to get into minor spoilers here, so skip to the last paragraph if that’s not your bag. I’m not really a fan of the term “retcon” when talking about media franchises because of the overwhelmingly negative connotations that surround that term, both within the fandom and from the outside looking in. Retcons aren’t always bad; my personal favorite comic book character, Jessica Jones, only exists because Brian Michael Bendis wasn’t allowed to use Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) in his proposed noir private eye comic and had to invent a new character out of whole cloth, then retroactively slotted her into previously established Marvel Comics continuity. Even questionable retcons, like Star Trek: Discovery‘s insertion of a human foster sister into Spock’s backstory, have their fans (I don’t hate it). But there are things that happen in Rise of Skywalker that push the limits of what a narrative can expect its audience to go along with. The fact that Palpatine is still alive (or perhaps undead), despite the previous two films in this new trilogy even hinting that this might be the case, is a big one. That’s barely a spoiler, considering that this is literally the first thing that the audience learns in the opening crawl: “THE DEAD SPEAK!” is the text that immediately following the film’s title. The fact that Rey is, in fact, related to a previously established character despite Ren’s assertions to the contrary in the last film isn’t really a big deal in comparison to this horseshit. The fact that a major character that last appeared onscreen over a decade ago is actually not (quite) dead isn’t something that you establish offscreen. That’s just bad storytelling.

But even that doesn’t bother me as much as the moment where Rey is presented with a special gift: Leia’s lightsaber. It’s a moment that’s treated with such reverence that, as a viewer, you understand that you’re supposed to be awed by it, and by gum, I really wanted to be. I wanted to feel thrilled again; I wanted to feel the rush of childlike delight, but instead I felt the all-too-familiar sting of adulthood, the realization that you can’t go home again, a hollow dissatisfaction with the artifice that was constructed to play upon your nostalgia. It was like the first time that you realized that chocolate Easter bunnies are empty inside, and that now a little part of you will be, too, forever. There’s nothing magical about learning that Leia had a lightsaber, or even that she trained as a Jedi with Luke (who really wasn’t super qualified for that, all things considered, which would have been a much more interesting arc for him in these films). It’s just more bad retconning that, if you read the expanded universe novels and comics, may mean something to you, but which is lost on the rest of us.

Look, Rise of Skywalker is good. It’s not great like The Force Awakens or passable like The Last Jedi, but it’s also not that spectacular either. It doesn’t take the chances that TLJ took, and I was glad that the return of JJ Abrams meant that we went back to mostly practical FX for the aliens (those stupid chihuahua horses from TLJ will haunt me to my goddamned grave) even if the resultant film felt like he was trying to railroad the ending back to his original concepts after not liking how another director played with his toys. On the one hand, I wish the whole thing had ended with TFA so that we could just imagine our own endings, but on the other hand, no one’s stopping you from doing that anyway.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

IT: Chapter 2 (2019)

So there I am, trying to put together my end of the year list, and I’m trying to find the Swampflix review of IT: Chapter 2 so that I can link back to it, and to my surprise, it’s nowhere to be found. Somehow, this one managed to fly completely under everyone’s radar, even though I went and saw it opening weekend, and was a bit more fond of it than the majority of filmgoers, it seems. And then I figured, well, sometimes you just have to do it yourself.

IT: Chapter 2 continues the story of the Losers Club: Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher in 1989, James McAvoy in the present*) is now a semi-successful horror writer who’s bad at writing endings; Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard in 1989, Bill Hader in the present) is a well-known stand-up comedian; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis in 1989, Jessica Chastain in the present) is a fashion designer saddled to an abusive husband; Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor in 1989, Jay Ryan in the present) is a chiseled, handsome architect who runs his own firm; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer in 1989, James Ransone in the present) is a risk assessment specialist for an insurance firm and is married to a woman just like his mother; Stanley Uris (Wyatt Olef in 1989, Andy Bean in the present) is an accountant who loves puzzles; and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs in 1989, Isaiah Mustafa in the present) is the librarian of Derry. It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club first did battle with the ancient evil being known alternatively as Pennywise the clown or the titular IT (a returning Bill Skarsgård), and IT has returned from its cycle of hibernation to spread terror anew. Mike, as the only person to have remained in Derry and thus the only one who still remembers the particulars of what happened in the summer of 1989, recognizes the rising tide of general inhumanity and indecency in Derry that portends Pennywise’s return and calls on his old friends to do battle with IT once more.

Man, people really, really hated this one, didn’t they? I guess I can see why, but I’m also not really sure what anyone was expecting. IT is a novel that could be adapted a dozen times, and there’s always going to be one shining (no pun intended) truth about it: the Losers Club is always going to be more interesting when the constituents are children, and the “adult” half of the narrative is always going to pale in comparison. There’s just no way around it; it’s baked into the narrative’s very structure. That’s even kind of the point: the extradimensional entity we call Pennywise feeds on fear, and it prefers the fear of kids because children’s fears (killer clowns, abusive parents, monsters) are specific and easy to manipulate, while adult fears (not being able to provide for a family, dying alone, being trapped in a loveless relationship) are abstract and amorphous. Director Andy Muschietti made the right call here by opting to forego the pants-soiling horror of the first film and channel more comedy into this one, although how effective you found that to be does seem to vary from person to person. There’s verisimilitude in that, though: as a child, you’re powerless against the monsters you perceive in the world, and your best hope is to hide under your bed until the “monsters” go away; as an adult, one of the only real ways to defend against one’s anxieties and fears is to minimize and trivialize them, to turn them into jokes. Unlike everyone else, I thought that the Juice Newton needle drop was a delight! Whether or not the humor of that lands for you as a viewer is subjective, of course, but to make the defanging of horror through comedy part of the film’s actual text is fairly clever.

There are legitimate issues here. My first thought after exiting the theater was “Wow, that was a really good Nightmare on Elm Street movie.” Given that Freddy Krueger first appeared on screens in 1984 and Stephen King first started work on IT in 1981 and finished it four years later, it’s unlikely that the film was an influence on the book, but the potential for NOES to affect IT 2 is left up to the interpretation. Both boogeyman primarily prey on adolescents and children, and both can be defeated by their respective victims by refusing to give in to their fear (although a longer series of films means that successive filmmakers have had to create new methods of disposing of Freddy). This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that the climax and ending of this film is pretty similar to the ending of the first one, especially given that the adaptations of IT (wisely) choose to exise any references to Maturin the extradimensional turtle and reinterprets the Ritual Of Chüd as the tradition of a (fictional) First Nations group called the Shokopiwah. So, at the end of 2017’s IT, the kids overcome their fears and defeat Pennywise. And then at the end of IT: Chapter 2, they, uh, do the same thing again. But, like, more this time.

But here’s something that a lot of people may not like to hear: that’s okay. This movie has a distinct Dream Warriors feel to it, and given that both Dream Warriors and Dream Child feature the return of Amanda Krueger to assist in the defeat of her evil son (spoilers, I guess), there’s precedent for this kind of thing. I understand that when people go back to a franchise, what they want is more of the samethat’s the reason that over half of the Marvel movies feature villains that are just dark reflections of the hero, no matter how varied the individual films might be. Your audience is going to experience a series of diminishing returns if you’re not able to put forth something new over a long period of time, but when we’re looking at two films that exist purely as a diptych, it’s not a crime for them to metaphorically “rhyme” with one another. I’ve seen a lot of complaints that this film turns too episodic in its middle point, when each surviving member of the Losers Club goes off on their own individual talismans for their fight against IT, but I like that each thing that the characters seek out is a kind of anti-MacGuffin, in that they are ultimately irrelevant to the plot but are significant to the characters. The individual moments that we return to the kids we got to know in the first film and see them through the eyes of the adult selves do a lot more character work than the film is given credit for. These are people who have worked so hard to put their childhood traumas in the rearview, to distance themselves from their miserable and deadly youth both physically and mentally, that they let those traumas control them still. Beverly marries a man who is abusive, like her father; Eddie marries a woman who seems identically overbearing and over-attentive to his mother (down to the fact that they’re played by the same actress); Mike has literally never moved on. One could even interpret Bill’s inability to satisfactorily conclude a novel as a metaphor for the lack of closure he has surrounding the death of his younger brother Georgie. Even if the ritual that requires these talismans is ultimately useless, the act of finding them and remembering what happened to the Losers Club in 1989 is integral to their ability to fight back as adults and finally destroy IT. I found the plot sufficiently engaging that I was never bored; others may have felt the film’s length, but I was along for the ride from start to finish. There wasn’t a single other movie this year where I saw myself as much as in the scene with young Richie asks another boy, on whom he clearly has a crush, to play another arcade game with him, only for the other boy’s interest turn immediately to false disgust and name-calling when bully Henry Bowers shows up.

There are some complaints with which I can agree, however. The monster living in Bev’s old house isn’t very convincing when it moves from shadowed elderly woman to CGI beast; in fact, much of the CGI here is slightly substandard, although Spider-Pennywise looks pretty great in the finale. The way that the film dealt with Stanley’s fateful decision leaves a bit to be desired as well, given that the film not only forgives him for the choice that he makes but ultimately exalts it, which is capital-b Bad. Finally, although I’m never opposed to a Peter Bogdanovich cameo, I’m not sure what the point of including a scene at the beginning with Bill’s wife Audra was if (unlike the novel) she was never going to appear again. But other than those few quibbles, this is a pretty solid sequel, with some truly standout scenes. In particular, both the scenes in which we see Pennywise murder children are spectacularly well done, and don’t shy away from how horrible a thing it is when a child dies (it’s worth noting that Doctor Sleep also did this). The gay hate crime that starts the film is also a perfect reintroduction to the idea that when IT rises, it does so at least in part through the complicity of others and the bystander effect; compare it to the moment in the first film in which an elderly neighbor looks down to the street where poor Georgie was just standing, sees a huge amount of blood, and then goes about her business without questioning it. The same thing happens here to the couple who are bashed, and reminds us that in the years since 1989, hatred for and violence against LGBTQIA individuals may have decreased and support for queer causes and individuals may have ostensibly increased, that kind of freedom isn’t experienced by a large portion of queer people living in huge swaths of America outside of the coasts and other urban areas.

So yeah. Don’t believe the hype backlash.

*The “present” of the film is apparently late summer/early autumn 2016, just to be clear. I assume this is because there’s only room for one monstrous clown to be in power at a time.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond