– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and returning contributor Alli discuss the Australian New Wave whatsit Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), which happens to be set on Valentine’s Day.
– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew
Back when we could still enter one another’s homes freely and without anxiety or rapid testing, a friend loaned me his copy of the Peter Greenaway film Drowning By Numbers. I had never heard of the movie and nodded at the mention of Greenaway’s name because it sounded distantly familiar, although I wasn’t sure why. After returning that one, the same friend then loaned me the director’s more famous work, the title of which I recognized instantly: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. I’m not sure where I first heard the title, but its immediate association in my mind with Eating Raoul leads me to believe it was probably an essay of Joe Queenan’s that was all about the rise in (spoiler alert) the use of cannibalism as part of its narrative (as inspired by his queasiness upon viewing the contemporary film Alive, about a soccer team eating one another in the mountains after a plane crash).
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is the story of boorish, abusive, and violent mafioso Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), who purchases the noteworthy French gourmet restaurant La Hollandais, partnering with chef Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer). Spica’s well-bred wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) is the primary object of his ill temper, and is forced to accompany Spica and his criminal retinue to dine at La Hollandais on a nightly basis, where the population of upper class clientele slowly declines as his loud, bigoted, and crass dinner conversation drives diners away. One of the stalwarts who stays on is Michael (Alan Howard), who always dines alone and reads while doing so, intriguing Georgina and infuriating Spica, who forcefully invites the man to dine with his party even as Micahel and Georgina have struck up a secret affair under his nose, with the assistance of the sympathetic restaurant staff. Ultimately, this is one of those loves which forgets to maintain discretion, and Spica’s cruelty knows no bounds.
This is a gorgeous, sumptuous piece of film-making, dancing lightly between areas of intense green and red saturation, austere white hideaways, and a grey-blue car park. As characters move between these distinct locations within and near the restaurant, so too do the identically colored parts of their costumes, often in what appears to (but could not possibly) be uncut tracking shots. Spending a film’s entire runtime in so few locations could easily trend toward growing tired of the same places, but each place is so thoroughly baroque in its design that it’s an endless feast for the eye. The green-bathed kitchen of the restaurant is, one presumes, deliberately evocative of a backstage, even having an upper catwalk that serves no conceivable purpose. The center of the room is occupied by a great cooking island, but other areas are occupied by a washing station manned by a prepubescent albino soprano (Paul Russell) and a poultry plucking bench where the feathers drift through the air, caught in spotlight like snowflakes frozen in time.
The front of the house is a shocking red, a thoroughly British red of redcoats and the palace guard. It’s here that we spend most of the runtime, as Gambon devours every bit of food and scenery with his interpretation of the “nouveau riche by way of organized crime” vibe, and it’s a sight to behold. It’s almost impossible to overstate just how loathsomely gauche he is from the moment he appears on screen, forcing a man to strip and roll around in dog feces as part of his pre-dinner entertainment. Spica says multiple times that he loves to mix his business with his pleasure, and his business is cruel, inhumane, and loathsome, with his pleasures being all those things again and more. It’s a role that demands the incessant, endless chatter of a man who is completely full of himself, has very precise but malleable and questionable ideas about any and every topic under the sun. He’s thuggish and loud and contemptible, and Gambon’s portrayal fills up the giant dining hall; it’s a possible career best.
Mirren’s performance is one that is more rooted in physicality. She maneuvers and moves her way through the crowded restaurant with the poise and precision of a professional dancer, and Georgina’s wordless exchanges with Michael before they even learn one another’s names are passionate and leave an impact on the audience. Every step she takes is a virtual pirouette as she dodges her oafish husband’s rude demands and questions.
In searching for contemporary criticism of the film, I’ve found that there’s little of it out there, but what does exist appears to have been largely about the film’s use of nudity and brutality, and there sure is a lot of both. The love scenes are clearly simulated, but there are large sections of full frontal from both Georgina and Michael as they embrace one another post-coitally or are forced to hide from Spica in a walk-in freezer and escape in the back of a truck full of rotten protein. As for the brutality, well, I did mention that there’s forced cannibalism, which isn’t even the most horrifying thing to happen on screen, which also includes a man being tortured to death by being force-fed pages from a book, Spica forcing himself on Georgina while a child watches, and a woman being stabbed in the face with a fork. Notably, one of these actions is performed by Tim Roth as one of Spica’s goons, which does seem to mean that Roth never had a real chance to be the hero in anything, did he? Alex Kingston also appears in one of her earliest roles as Adele, the restaurant’s waitress, and she looks amazing.
This isn’t a movie that’s going to be for everyone. Wikipedia’s opening synopsis describes the film as a “crime drama,” which I suppose could be technically accurate but is wrong in every way that matters. This is a tragic story, about a woman who finds love with a kind man despite being a captive of her monstrous husband, but who loses said lover when her husband finds out. There is crime, and there is drama, but it’s not really about either of those two things. It’s a simple, quiet story about love in the wrong place at the wrong time, against the backdrop of an endless vulgar diatribe that takes up all the room. It’s a technical and technicolor marvel. If that sounds like your cup of tea, track this one down.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
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 Hanna made Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch The Match Factory Girl (1990).
Hanna: For this year’s first Movie of the Month, I’m returning to the cinema of my people with a feel-good romp called The Match Factory Girl (1990), which is written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki, arguably the most famous Finnish film director. The Match Factory Girl is the last film in the Proletariat Trilogy, which includes Shadows in Paradise and Ariel. All three films detail the dull lives of working-class people in Finland; they are very Finnish, very dour, and surprisingly funny.
In The Match Factory Girl, Iris (Kati Outinen) works at a match factory. By day, she checks the boxes of matches shooting past her on a conveyor belt for labeling errors; by night, she eats potato stew in silence with her parents (Elina Salo and Esko Nikkari) while footage of the Tiananmen Square protests flickers in the background. Iris eventually finds a man (Vesa Vierikko) to take her home, who assures her that “nothing could touch [him] less than [her] affection”. Even the local nightlife is unusually dreary. In one of my favorite scenes, Iris visits a local club where the band plays a rousing rendition of “Satumaa”, a popular Finnish tango detailing a far-off paradise à la “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” In keeping with the blunt ennui pervading the Finnish population, the chorus ends, “Unlike the birds, I’m a prisoner of this earth / And only in my dreams can I see that blessed turf.” Bummer! (As a side note, “Satumaa” was one of my dad’s favorite songs, and my sisters and I used to gather together and sing it while he played the piano. I never knew the English translation until I saw this movie, and it now strikes me as a strange song to teach to children.)
I initially feared that this movie would be nothing but a character study in pain, the kind of film where the protagonist suffers and suffers until they’re finally relieved of suffering through death. Instead, the drudgery of Iris’s life is presented plainly, sometimes with comic hopelessness. For instance, I couldn’t help but laugh when Iris visits her brother (who has a very cool black mullet) at his café, and he delivers her the saddest “sandwich” I’ve ever seen: just a piece of bread covered in six cherry tomato slices. Moreover, Iris eventually finds the will to stage her own subdued version of a violent revolution, which is incredibly satisfying (even if morally dubious).
The job market has changed drastically in the last 30 years, and dreadful factory jobs like Iris’s are increasingly automated, but I think this film still captures the basic frustration of laboring for a life that isn’t even fundamentally fulfilling. Britnee, can you still identify with the dehumanization that Iris feels in the match factory? What did you think of this portrait of working-class life?
Britnee: I am so glad you asked me this question! I work in an office job, which is quite different from doing quality control in a match factory, but oh boy, I definitely identified with Iris. There are times where I will think of how I’m working to just keep up with my basic needs (rent, utilities, health insurance, etc.), and I will basically spend my life on Earth working every single day until I die. I come home after work for only a few hours of pleasure, then go to bed early so I can wake up early and do the same thing the next day. When I partake in social events (pre-pandemic of course), I’m mostly too exhausted from work to even enjoy myself. Every day’s the same and there’s little to no opportunity to get ahead. Watching Iris open and close that dreary gate to get into the apartment she shares with her parents reminded me of doing the same to get into my apartment to and from work day after day after day. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with horrible parents when I get home like poor Iris did. Coming from a working class family, I witnessed this struggle of a life of labor every single day until I was old enough to join in the hell myself. Whether in Finland or the United States, it’s all the same I guess. Thankfully, the film is able to capture that day-to-day working class dreariness while being comical and entertaining.
One of my favorite films of 2020 was Swallow, where I found myself cheering on a bored housewife who found pleasure in swallowing dangerous objects. I did the same for Iris when she secretly started poisoning everyone around her. Instead of being horrified, I was proud of her for taking some sort of control in her boring life. Iris is such a likeable character. She’s a sweet, genuinely good person who is constantly shit on, and I just wanted her to find some sort of happiness. If that meant poisoning the horrible people making her life miserable, then so be it.
Boomer, do you also find satisfaction in Iris’s rat poison rampage?
Boomer: Boy, do I! Maybe I’m just a really twisted fuck, but I was not expecting this movie to go where it did, and I loved it. Although it slots perfectly into my beloved “women on the verge” genre, when those films go on a revenge kick, they rarely do so with such understatement. Most of the time, our character who is Going Through It either manages to pull back from the edge of their cliff, dissolves in upon oneself, or goes flying over the edge into vengeful Falling Down/God Bless America/I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore/Spree territory. It’s notable (and more than a little shameful) that most of the films in the last of these three categories are about men while the protagonists of the former two are universally women, but it tells you something about what the filmmakers think about women, their agency, and what warrants a breakdown. The “hero” of Falling Down is a terrible person who takes his anger about exploitation out on the victims of that exploitation (fast food workers and service station cashiers) while being performatively offended by the fact that a white supremacist recognizes a reflection of himself in the protagonist. Iris is a woman exploited by the system on every front. Her employment is dull and unfulfilling employment, and the spoils of her labor are transferred to her mother and stepfather in total. She experiences sexism at the hands of not only Aarne (who thinks she’s a prostitute) and her stepfather (who abuses and steals from her), but also by her mother, who like many trapped in the system of exploitation, becomes the oppressor in her own way (kicking Iris out of the house and only allowing her back in if she plays servant). Although Iris’s vengeance is arguably outsized, as a revenge fantasy, it’s fantastic. And who can blame her, when all the world is full of images of revolution against an oppressive state, as seen in her parents’ constant consumption of TV news.
Speaking of what I expected, I went into the film thinking it would be a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” I thought that maybe there would be a pun in the title, but looking at the Finnish title for the fairy tale (“Pieni ottelutyttö”), there doesn’t appear to be one; still, there’s something at play here, I think. Like Andersen’s little match girl, Iris fears her (step)father’s fury with regards to her earnings, all of which go to him, with the implication that the girl is supporting her lazy father’s drinking habit. The difference is that the match girl’s ultimate reward is death and ascension to heaven (it’s Hans Christian Andersen; surely you didn’t expect something different), a transition from earthly misery to paradise in the afterlife. Iris takes more agency in her life and, although the law catches up with her she moves from a prison of economic depression to one of her own choosing, at least.
What do you think, Brandon? Is there a fairy tale element to Iris’s transformation, or am I reading too much into it?
Brandon: I can’t say that fairy tales were at the forefront of my mind, since this takes place in a world so brutally devoid of magic and romance. However, you’re in good company making that connection. In Roger Ebert’s 2011 review for his site’s “Great Movies” column, he wrote, “Growing up in Finland Kaurismäki would certainly have heard Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Little Match Girl.’ It told the story of a waif in the cold on Christmas Eve, trying to sell matches so her father will not punish her. To keep warm she lights one match after another, and they summon visions which give her comfort. She finally finds happiness of a heartbreaking sort.” The parallels are certainly there, if not only in how the two Match Girls are both punished for seeking comfort in an otherwise bitterly cruel world (one in a lonely death and the other in arrest for her crimes), but their stories both still feel like minor personal victories. Our heartbroken factory worker is no longer a “free” woman at the end of this film, but her life before arrest didn’t seem all that pleasurable anyway. At least her poisonous vengeance afforded her a brief moment of selfish satisfaction & comfort before she gets caught, same as her fairy tale equivalent’s brief moment of peace found in a match’s flame before death.
I experienced The Match Factory Girl more as a low-key revenge thriller and a wryly dark comedy than as a modern fairy tale, but any one of those three genre labels would have to come with a warning that it is aggressively muted in its tone. This film is whimsically bleak, a seemingly self-contradictory descriptor that’s somewhat unique to Finnish cinema. It’s patient, largely dialogue-free, and understated in its vintage beauty – like watching a Polaroid in motion. And yet, it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and the third-act vengeance is just as thrilling as any rowdy big-budget action sequence despite choosing not to directly depict her body count on-screen.
Britnee: I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed by the soundtrack of this movie. All of the music is really fun, especially all of the club music. I had a lot of head bopping moments during some really depressing scenes. Badding Rockers, Klaus Treuheit, and The Renegades have made their way into my monthly playlist thanks to The Match Factory Girl!
Brandon: I’m a little ashamed of how pleasing I found the opening footage of the matchstick factory machines doing their work. I know its function in the film is to underline how automated factory work has made modern manual labor so impersonal & limiting (especially since the humans operating the machines are cropped out of the frame in that intro). Still, there’s a reason that kind of footage often ends up in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood field trip segments or YouTube highlight reels with titles like “Most Satisfying Factory Machines and Ingenious Tools 12”. It’s hypnotically beautiful, even if it facilitates a real-life evil.
Hanna: Kaurismaki has been compared to Robert Bresson for his minimalistic directorial style, and to Rainer Werner Fassbinder for his working-class melodramas (in fact, Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar and and Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul are two of his favorite films). I think it’s the combination of those influences that makes The Match Factory Girl so compelling to me: Kaurismaki captures exactly how funny, cruel, and unbearably banal it is to be alive.
Boomer: I tried to see if there was a more concise term than “Falling Down/God Bless America/I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore/Spree territory,” since they’re all “revenge” films of a kind, but that terminology calls to mind Dirty Harry and Death Wish, which are much more macho and gross than what I’m thinking about. This led me to try Letterboxd for the first time to see if I could look for lists which have those films in common, but I didn’t have any luck. In fact, if you Google those film titles in quotation to see if anyone else is exploring those films in conversation with one another, Swampflix is the fourth example. I guess that means it falls to us to name it, and I propose we call it “Match Factory Girl on the Verge.”
-The Swampflix Crew
In my Silver City review, I mentioned my recent writing retreat, in which I went internet-free in a cabin for a week to get some fiction writing done, and the collection of “Blockbuster’s Twilight Years”-era DVDs that had been purchased during that organization’s decline and which found there way to the cabin. One of these films was Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 Bill Murray vehicle Broken Flowers. I have a complete and utter Jarmusch blind spot, never having seen any of his films. In fact, I only know him from his appearance on Fishing with John for, as you well know by now dear reader, I am a weirdo. After the abysmal experience of watching In Secret and once again trying and failing to get through Titus, I really wanted to clear my Jessica Lange palate, so I figured I’d give it a shot.
Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a serial womanizer, now retired after having done quite well in the field of “computers,” and living rather disaffectedly. When his latest ladyfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) leaves him, citing that she feels like his mistress even though he isn’t married, he receives a second blow: an untraceable letter from a woman claiming that Don fathered a now nineteen-year-old son with her and she kept it from him. The letter’s author warns that the boy is now on a road trip, and she has her suspicions that he’s looking for his father, and doesn’t want Don to be taken completely unaware. At the urging of his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don travels to see the five women who might have sent the letter.
First up is Laura (Sharon Stone), who married a now-dead stock car racer. Now a professional closet organizer, she does have a teenaged child—a daughter inexplicably named Lolita, who even more inexplicably expresses a sexual interest in 55-year-old Don. Next up is Dora (Frances Conroy), formerly a flower child but now leading a boring existence as the wife and business partner of real estate agent Ron (Christopher McDonald). Then it’s on to Dr. Carmen Markowski (Jessica Lange), who Don remembers as being very passionate about becoming a lawyer, but who is now some kind of animal whisperer, and from there Don locates Penny (Tilda Swinton), living in a bleak, crumbling clapboard farmhouse somewhere that definitely has a meth problem. Finally, Don visits the grave of Michelle, the fifth and final potential author of the letter. Returning home, he notices a young man (Mark Webber) whom he seems to remember having run into before, and buys him a sandwich and a coffee. Assuming that the boy is the long-lost son whose arrival was foretold, Don starts talking about being the kid’s father, freaking him out and causing him to run off. Alone in the street, Don watches as a car drives by slowly as a teenaged boy (Homer Murray, Bill’s real life son) makes eye contact with Don from the passenger seat, and then is gone.
While definitely a product of a certain time and of a certain generation of masculinity, which detracted from the end product for me, this was a good watch overall. The idea of Don Johnston as a Don Juan-esque lothario is a bit of a stretch (no offense to Murray, but let’s get real) and the fact that the film hinges on not just his one-time sexual voracity in his peak, but also his virility and that he’s never changed his behavior, is the weakest element. Murray’s also doing none of the heavy lifting here, as the editing is doing nearly all of the work while Murray sits back and lets his motionless silence be captured by Jarmusch’s directorial eye. There’s a great performance in here from the male lead, but it’s all in the Kuleshov of it all, while Murray does that thing that he always does (hey—if it’s not broke).
Looking at Jarmusch’s larger filmography, it seems his earlier films that predate Broken Flowers were largely anthological works, while his more recent ones seem to be more standard in their narrative structure, and this film is a kind of bridge between those two forms, conceptually, as it follows Don through a series of vignettes that consist of reunions with the women he once loved, each one shorter than the last, beginning with an overnight with Laura, a dinner with Dora and her husband, a constantly-interrupted period between appointments with Carmen, a four or five sentence exchange with Penny, and finally no time at all with Michelle. This adherence to structure is something that I love in any work of art; I think that the attention to detail is something that soothes my hyperactive brain. There’s also a lot of fun with the minor details of each interaction: Laura’s daughter’s detachment from the death of her father (“It was on the TV”), the utter sterility and banality of Dora’s bland dinner (a big slab of meat, unseasoned white rice, and crinkle cut carrots, possibly boiled), and the dilapidation of Penny’s home. There’s also something fascinating about the high number of basketball hoops everywhere he goes, which Don always instantly assumes means that there’s a teenage boy about and that he’s come to the right place, and yet their omnipresence renders them completely irrelevant as a clue.
Before Don goes on his adventure, Winston primes him to be on the lookout for pink items and objects to match the pink paper on which the letter was typed, and to try and obtain writing samples to compare to the written address on the envelope, which is the only handwriting on the letter. Although he isn’t successful in the latter endeavor, he (and by extension the viewer) is drawn to pink items everywhere in his adventure: Penny’s boots and motorcycle, Dora’s business card (to match her husband’s blue one), Carmen’s pants, etc. It’s a nice touch that, like the basketball hoops that appear so frequently, all of these clues are meaningless as well. The film sets itself up as a mystery: who sent the letter? And in the end, that mystery isn’t important, and remains unsolved. Each woman with whom he reunites is utterly noncommittal in their responses to Don’s roundabout questions, and in the end, it’s not as if he could have expected something different: if any one of them had taken the time to send Don a letter without divulging their identity, then they wouldn’t really allow themselves to be taken by surprise as he intends and suddenly confess when confronted in person. The possibility is even floated that Sherry wrote the letter as an attempt to shake Don out of his comfort zone, and that’s a possibility, but that resolution doesn’t really matter in the end.
As a showcase for the women who round out this cast, including Chloë Sevigny as Carmen’s assistant and Pell James as Sun Green, a compassionate florist who tends to the wounds that Don received from Penny’s friends, this is a pretty nice vehicle. It’s a film with a lot of breathing room but no real fat to be trimmed, playing out in shots that are long enough to convey meaning and last not one moment more. The blipvert/fever dreams that Don has in his quiet moments were initially distracting, especially as they simply once more reminded viewers that Don is still a perfectly virile man capable of sexual thought, which errs a little too close to the “New Yorker story in which an aging professional lusts after his student/protege” genre for my personal tastes, but not enough to derail the whole shebang.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
Writer’s Note: This was originally submitted for publication December 20, 2020, over two weeks prior to the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol Building. Life comes at you fast, doesn’t it?
While on my recent writer’s retreat, I spent some time free of wi-fi and, when I had run out of ideas for the day, enjoying the cornucopia of DVD delights that my cabin’s hosts had left behind. There were 21 DVDs, of which three were things that I had at home (Stranger than Fiction, Cabin in the Woods, and something I’m too embarrassed to admit), four that were exercise/yoga related, and a number of westerns that I obviously ignored. Most of them seem to have come from that 2003-2009 “Blockbuster’s Twilight Years” era, having been purchased from the now-defunct company during its last years, with a decidedly independent bent. And so it came to pass that I have now seen Silver City, the 2004 political satire directed by Passion Fish-helmer John Sayles.
The plot is relatively labyrinthine and cribs from Chinatown (there’s even discussion of water rights in a potential real estate development) and the then-contemporary election year political discourse du jour, which is depressing both in how unbelievably stupid the whole thing was and how much more dignified it was than 2020. Our lead is Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a former reporter turned private investigator after filing an explosive, provocative story whose informants later recanted under pressure from the political establishment, ending that phase of his career and ultimately bankrupting the paper that employed him. Danny is brought in when dim-witted Colorado gubernatorial hopeful and George W. Bush analog Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) accidentally hooks a dead body while shooting a bucolic political ad that sees him fishing in a pristine lake. His cutthroat campaign manager Karl Rove Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) hires Danny’s agency to help determine where the body, that of a tattooed Latino man, came from while keeping the whole thing under wraps. Danny is aided in his investigation by Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), a former colleague in his past life as a newspaperman who now keeps the public informed in his own jaded way: leaking enough of the incomprehensibly large, true evil done by government that is too tied up in corporate interests, in the hopes of getting legitimate news outlets to pull the thread enough to take down bad political actors. Along the way, he also receives assistance from Tony Guerra (Sal Lopez), who works within the undocumented community to try and identify the dead man.
There are three major enemies of the Pilager campaign that Danny is sent to investigate/quell: right wing radio pundit and political commentator Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer); former mining safety inspector Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), who was ousted in disgrace following a falsified scandal involving an accident; and Maddy Pilager (Daryl Hannah), Dickie’s disgraced “nympho” sister, the free-spirited black sheep of the family and once-and-current Olympic archery hopeful. Of them, we spend very little time with Castleton, but Ferrer makes an impression as what a right wing nutjob used to look like: power-hungry, conceited, and exploitative, but educated, tempered, and articulate, back when the people in such positions were merely obstructive backward, not completely insane or opposed to scientific progress, immoral but not amoral (Ben Shapiro clearly thinks he’s the heir apparent to William F. Buckley but he could never, and Buckley himself was a terrible person, but I’d take him over Charlie Kirk or Alex Jones any day of the week and twice on Sunday). It’s a stark reminder of how far we’ve fallen in so short a time—I’m in my mid-thirties, and I wasn’t even old enough to vote in the presidential election that happened the year this movie was released, so chew on that for a second. As a mirror of American politics of the new millennium, it feels like this movie is a reverse portrait of Dorian Gray that, though depressingly hideous, has grown more lovely with time as the body politik visibly betrays every hidden malice, every wicked act of greed, and every failure of decency.
The titular “Silver City” is a proposed land development deal to build a planned community in land that is beautiful but unfit for human habitation: mining has made Swiss cheese of the hills and rendered the groundwater contaminated, but Pilager patriarch Senator Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy) made a bad investment in it and was bailed out when family friend and multi-millionaire business mogul Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) purchased the land from him far above its value. In exchange, Benteen wants to skirt the regulations that have prevented the development of Silver City and, one presumes, swim around in his profits like Scrooge McDuck. Kristofferson is fantastic here, appearing in only a few scenes but leaving a lasting impression and an air of malice, casual evil-by-way-of-enterprise. In his major scene, he takes Dickie on a horseback ride through beautiful, uncorrupted nature while decrying the regulations that keep it so; he can barely contain his bile as he curses the name of the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies, and it’s evident that in his dreams he sees the purple mountain majesty in the background as crawling with excavators and bulldozers like ants, but he paints his vision of the future with such a lovely palate that Dickie buys it.
Benteen is aided in this endeavor on multiple fronts. There’s sad Mort Seymour (David Clennon), who’s trying desperately to sell local government authorities on the Silver City idea, and who gains ground when Benteen puppeteers a casual, ostensibly coincidental run-in with Dickie at a local restaurant (Dickie’s election to the office of governor is treated as a foregone conclusion). Also on Benteen’s bench is slick, sleazy lobbyist Chandler Tyson (Billy Zane at his absolute oiliest), who presages the Kirks and Shapiros of the present as someone with utterly no moral compunction about flat-out lying with a straight face. His moral compass points due south, as he demonstrates in one of the film’s best, most nauseating lines: “Every idea, no matter how politically incorrect, deserves an advocate.” What he’s talking about in that moment is his previous testimony to Congress that there is no identifiable link between smoking and lung cancer. The idea was absurd, even for 2004, but it foretells a time when the general public would fall for easily disprovable scientific fact, like that the earth is (generally) round, that climate change is real and affected by human action, and that COVID-19 is real and deadly.
Narratively, Danny’s investigation is complicated by two issues in his personal life: his employer Grace (Mary Kay Place) is married to Mort, which we learn late in the film, and the impending marriage of Tyson to Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello), a morally just crusading reporter who has a huge blindspot regarding Tyson’s lack of a conscience and also happens to be Danny’s ex. It’s clear to everyone paying attention that Dickie is completely out of his depth when he’s confronted without extensive preparation and coaching, at which point he repeats himself, cites jingoistic jingles, and makes it clear via an inability to express a single intelligent thought extemporaneously that he lacks any real savvy or acumen. (Remember, this was made in a time before The Right realized that they could get people to slurp that up with a spoon as long as it was sufficiently combined with white supremacist rhetoric.) This isn’t really relevant to the mystery of the watery corpse, however, except in the way that evil breeds evil. As it turns out,the deceased Lazaro Huerta (Donevon Martinez) was an undocumented day laborer who died in one of Benteen’s facilities. To prevent the exposure of Benteen as both (a) a hypocrite who exploits immigrants for cheap labor while decrying the practice and (b) a manufacturer who fails, mortally, to meet the OSHA regulatory guidelines that he derides as part of his deregulation agenda, Huerta’s body was hauled into the hills and thrown down an abandoned mineshaft that had previously been used to dispose of Benteen’s toxic waste. Casey Lyle (remember him?) had been trying to blow the whistle on the fact that the mines were now prone to collecting water in times of torrential rains and causing flooding in the future home of Silver City; one such flood had washed Huerta’s body into the lake, as will everything that’s hidden there, eventually.
There’s one man who could help reveal all of this: Vince Esparza (Luis Saguar), a cutthroat who obtains and arranges laborers, including for Benteen on the site where Huerta was killed. He threatens Danny and is shot by an overzealous sheriff’s deputy, the two men who initially told Danny about the mineshaft are captured by I.N.S. and prevented from corroborating Danny’s information; when he returns later, the entrance to the mine has been sealed. Grace also fires him, and all hope seems lost as Benteen’s organization has bought up the news outlet for which Nora writes, killing any chance of exposing the rotten heart of American politics. Except … Paine and his team have managed to expose the thread, if someone else in the media can only pull it and see where it leads. But, as every fish in the picturesque lake that girds Silver City dies in a mass event that leads us to the credits, the message is clear: even if the truth is learned, it won’t un-destroy the ecosystem.
Silver City received mixed reviews in its time, and that’s well-deserved. The core of the film’s narrative at first presents itself as a murder mystery, and it ultimately is exactly that, metaphorically—who killed Lazaro Huerta? The system. We just get there through a roundabout investigation, and by that time we’ve pulled the thread of something bigger, more insidious, and, worst of all, entrenched. Conceptually, that’s a rich vein to be mined, so to speak, but what we’re left with teeters on the edge of being a little too on-the-nose. We need to care about Danny, at least a little bit, and it’s hard not to—Danny Huston can pull of “charismatic loser journeyman” with charm to spare—but his trail of discovery has in its margins a truly harrowing story about oppression under a capitalism that seeks to consume nature for no other reason than because it’s there, and does it on the back of exploited labor while paying silver-tongued lobbyists to lie, baldly. That something like this is offset by conversations between Danny and Nora about their former relationship, in which she basically tells him that he was just too damn good and married to the job, or a scene in which Nora waxes philosophical about Danny with Tyson while the latter gears up for a bike ride while expounding on the lack of objective morality, feel very Sorkin-y and pedestrian. The comedy is just too broad, perhaps as best epitomized by Hannah’s Maddy character, a manic pixie middle aged woman who smokes pot, has a weird hobby (archery), and delivers huge pieces of exposition while jumping on a trampoline.* There’s a deadly serious thing happening here, but the whole thing feels very flippant, because—did you notice it? “Pilager” sounds like “pillager”! That gets a Perfunctory Liberal Chortle™ and then we’re on to a scene in which a man is crushed under a car while trying to learn Huerta’s identity. It’s a three-flavor swirl of political satire that’s too broad, a background event with implications that encompass broad ecological destruction and consequence-free manslaughter, and also Danny and his ex-girlfriend considering getting back together. The narrative throughline is solid, but everything hanging off of it makes the thing unwieldy. Worst of all, the film has made me wistful for the immediate post-9/11 years. Is this really what it’s come to?
*Without taking her shoes off first!
-Mark “Boomer Redmond
– Mark “Boomer” Redmond & Brandon Ledet
1. Deerskin – Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist thriller about a man’s obsession with a fringed deerskin jacket is consistently funny, but also incredibly vicious when it wants to be. Despite indulging in the ridiculous, high-concept genre of Killer Objects horror (think Death Bed, In Fabric, Christine, or the director’s own Rubber), it’s a surprisingly thoughtful film about the inadequacy that mediocre men face at middle age, and their psychotic efforts to overcome that deficiency. Jean Dujardin previously charmed American audiences in Best Picture-winner The Artist, but here he’s a sad, pathetic grifter who has to scam people just to hang out with him. It’s a hilarious joke at the expense of male vanity (including the vanity of making an entire movie about a deerskin jacket in the first place).
2. Color Out of Space – Richard Stanley returns to the director’s chair after decades of mysterious exile to adapt an H.P. Lovecraft short story about a meteor crash and a malignant color. Most criticism has fixated on Nic Cage’s over-the-top lead performance, but those antics aside this is a harrowing film about loss & cancer, fearing not just the disease but also its emotional erosion of familial relationships, interpreted through the powerful medium of cosmic horror.
3. The Invisible Man – A genuinely scary film that operates in a realm of traditional horror tropes. For a lot of its audience, it’s doubly scary because of its domestic violence aspect, capturing the feeling of the ground being pulled from under you when you realize your abusive relationship is not the loving one you initially pictured it to be. That realization happens before the film even opens, but we’re made to live through its terrifying aftermath.
4. The Twentieth Century – This pseudo-biography of a real-life Canadian politician is a gorgeous, absurdist fantasy piece that retells the history of Canadian governance as “one failed orgasm after another.” History says its events are set in Canada, but what’s onscreen is some nowhere nether-reality of dry ice and matte paintings, populated by caricatures rather than characters. It’s like Guy Maddin directing an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch, stumbling out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor.
5. The Wolf House – A nightmare experiment in stop-motion animation that filters atrocities committed by exiled-Nazi communes in Chile through a loose, haunting fairy tale narrative. It’s got all the trappings of a pre-Brothers Grimm folktale: the sour ending, the moralistic behavioral warnings, the magic that is both beautiful and cruel. It’s a relentlessly grotesque display, one that fully conveys the hideous evils of its allegory’s real-life parallels even if you aren’t familiar with that particular pocket of fascism history.
6. Possessor – This techno body horror from Brandon Cronenberg feels like the cursed love child between his father’s eXistenZ and his own Antiviral. It’s a compelling psychological battle between its characters to gain possession of the corporeal vessel they share (a battle powerfully performed by Christopher Abbott & Andrea Riseborough). A truly shocking film, both beautiful and disgusting.
7. Birds of Prey – A wonderfully stylized, deliriously hyperactive superhero movie that doesn’t drag or feel laboriously obligated to comic book backstory or pathos. It steps on other superheroes’ capes, soaring in its own unique, chaotic way (a power seemingly fueled by Vodka-Red Bulls).
8. Bacurau – A Brazilian film that mutates familiar details inspired by “The Most Dangerous Game” into a surreal sci-fi-horror-western genre meltdown. It uses familiar tropes & techniques to tell a story we’ve all heard before in a new style & context that achieves something freshly exciting with those antique building blocks. In other words, it’s genre filmmaking at its finest.
9. Swallow – An eerie, darkly humorous descendent of Todd Haynes’s Safe, in which a newly pregnant woman is compulsively drawn to swallowing inedible objects, much to the frustration of her overly-controlling family & doctors. It’s a subtle but highly stylized psychological horror about bodily autonomy, class warfare, and trauma, illustrating the complete lack of control you have over your own body & destiny if you’re born on the wrong end of class & gender dynamics.
10. His House – Reinvigorates haunted house genre tropes with the same tactics that titles like Blood Quantum, Zombi Child, and The Girl With All the Gifts used on the similarly overworked tropes of the zombie genre: by shifting the cultural POV and the purpose of the central metaphor. This bold debut feature from screenwriter and director Remi Weekes tackles topics of grief, disenfranchisement, loss, immigration, and cultural disconnection – all framed within the traditional scares of the haunted house horror film.
-The Swampflix Crew
It can’t have come to this, can it? Kyra Sedgwick isn’t old enough to play a psychobiddy. Right? Our eternally youthful Madam Sedgwick is a respectable 54 last year. How old was Bette Davis when Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was released in 1962? According to Wikipedia she was born in 1908, so … 54.
Villains is a 2019 comedy thriller about spacy, star-crossed stick-up artists Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe), whose getaway car runs out of gas at the worst possible moment. Happening upon a house, they break in with no real plan before realizing that they can siphon the gas in the car in the house’s garage, get back to their alleged vehicle, and then be on their way to Florida, where Mickey has designs on selling seashells down by the seashore. They stumble across something in the basement (I’ll come back to that in a minute), and before they can get out with their hides intact, homeowners George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Sedgwick) come home with their infant, Ethan. Although the younger couple start from a position of power—they have a gun, after all—their elders quickly get the upper hand and before you know it, Mickey and Julia are handcuffed to a pole in the basement while George and Gloria try to decide what to do with them.
All of the film’s marketing, such as it is, really hypes up the something in the house, and that was what originally drew me to the flick. Here’s Hulu’s synopsis: “A pair of amateur criminals break into a suburban home and stumble upon a dark secret that two sadistic homeowners will do anything to keep from getting out” (emphasis mine). IMDb’s description is virtually identical, but the reveal of what’s in the basement comes very early in the film’s runtime, less than halfway through Act I, and is the reason that the rest of the plot exists. If you want to check this one out with absolutely no spoilers, then turn around now and come back later (or don’t; it’s still a free country*). Here’s what’s in the basement:
A little girl named Sweetiepie (Blake Baumgartner).
And the “dark secret”? Gloria and George could never have children. Ethan’s just a doll (we learn this later but long after Gloria says, in roundabout religious language, that either she or George is infertile) that Gloria got from her mother before the latter died of cancer in the former’s childhood. George kidnapped Sweetiepie as a replacement for the child that Gloria could never have, but it didn’t work out, and so instead of just killing her they’ve locked her up in the basement. Which is obviously messed up, but I was expecting a twist that was less Room and more in the vein of Fright Night, or at the very least something in the ballpark of Apt Pupil.
That having been said, this is a fun little romp. I’m forever saying that there are far too few thrillers set during the daylight hours, and if we’re all being honest here, many of those which do exist look cheap. Not so here, as dual neophyte directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, who are also each credited as co-writer, craft a dynamically shot feature with an eye for depth of field and a couple of fascinating framing choices and shots that I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever seen before. Monroe is clearly having a lot of fun here, and it’s nice to see her getting to have a good time and let loose after great-but-understated performances in The Guest and It Follows. I know Donovan only from Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (I have a soft spot) and somewhere in the neighborhood of 786 commercials for Burn Notice during my final semester of grad school while watching Criminal Minds in syndication for six hours a day. While his is the weakest performance of the leading quartet, it’s only because George and Gloria are characters on the more exaggerated end of the scale, having a wholesome folksiness that lacks the edge of malice that the character requires, and Donovan doesn’t get to showcase the range that his screen partner does. There’s a fun bit toward the beginning when he attempts to ingratiate himself with Mickey and Jules, without success, and it’s fun, but each scene thereafter is a variation on delivery. I was surprised by Skarsgård here as well, as I know him almost solely from Hemlock Grove, in which he rose to the level of the material (not very high) and the IT films, in which he was fantastic. He’s magnetic here in a way that I haven’t seen before, as a man who isn’t terribly book smart, or street smart, but is charming and has a certain brightness about him that surfaces when it’s needed most.
Sedgwick is great here, hamming it up with an erotic dance and over-the-top seduction in one scene, then doing a perversely quick spin to sympathetic as she cuts the skin of her hands to shreds grasping at the porcelain shards of Ethan’s shattered head, then to threatening, then maternal. I saw Singles when I was sixteen and absolutely fell in love with Sedgwick, and even further back than that, for some reason, every time I watched Amazing Stories when I was a kid, it was always the episode where she sends food down that well in the desert. That scene in Singles when she delivers the monologue about garage door openers is peak cinema to me. Unlike other films in the psychobiddy genre, the camp here is undeniably intentional, and although this hurts the film a little on the whole, it also gives Sedgwick the opportunity to play things a little broadly and to the cheap seats in some scenes as she babbles about her past and Ethan, and to bring everything around her into sharp focus when she reminisces about her childhood and George’s courtship of her.
Standout scenes include a painful tongue stud removal, the repetition of the “carwash,” which is a unique and sweet act of intimacy in which Jules waves her hair back and forth over Mickey’s face like an automated car wash mop, a reverse laundry chute escape, and Gloria pantomiming. Check it out. Or don’t; again, I’m not your boss. It’s on Hulu.
*Void where prohibited, and your mileage will vary.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
15. American Murder: The Family Next Door is a frightening look into the future of the true crime documentary, not because the story that it tells is any different from one that you might have seen on Dateline or Unsolved Mysteries in the nineties or any of the hundreds of true crime TV shows that have sprung up in the wake of the sensationalist reportage of the past, but because of what constitutes its filmic material. Once upon a time, if 20/20 was relating the story of a spousal murder, producers were lucky to have a few minutes of useful, usable home video footage of the victim or perpetrator at a wedding or a child’s birthday party—shot on a fifty-pound, shoulder-mounted, air-cooled VHS camcorder—which could then be shown with melancholy music over it while Diane Sawyer delivered maudlin narration full of words and phrases like “ironically,” “cut short,” and “better days.” The rise of social media and its near universal use, alongside the proliferation of smartphones that allow for the instantaneous ability to effortlessly record oneself or one’s family, has created a strange new world of access to victims. This is especially true of those like Shanann Watts, whose interest in self-documentation bordered on the narcissistic, creating the opportunity for director Jenny Popplewell to use a wealth of Shanann’s own material in a documentary chronicling the dissolution of her marriage and, ultimately, her murder at the hands of her husband, who also killed the couple’s two daughters. It’s a harrowing peek not only into the soul of white male American entitlement but also what this style of reportage will look like as we move further and further into this new era, in which social media creates and reinforces narcissism and is powerful enough to (perhaps) topple nations through the spread of dangerous misinformation.
14. From my review of The Nest: “There’s nothing wrong with The Nest. The performances are great, as [Jude] Law effectively plays a man whose charm is so powerful he’s managed to convince even himself that his delusions are true, and he’s magnetic and contemptible in equal turns. You wouldn’t be able to accept a lesser actor in this role without thoroughly hating him, and that’s a testament. He’s also possibly the only actor who has ever managed to make BVD briefs look sexy, and at nearly 50 to boot. Similarly, Carrie Coon’s Allison is pitch perfect (and she’s proper fit, as one of Sam’s rude teenage friends notes). Each interaction contains the perfect amount of emotional distance and intimacy, and Coon is fantastic. By the time she really starts to fall apart, she’s held it together with such aplomb for so long that the audience feels her every revelation with empathetic exhaustion. I also like that there’s no beating around the bush about what the family’s problems are: there’s no infidelity (if anything, the couple’s sex life is the only thing about which they both remain passionate through the entire runtime), and all of the family’s anxieties stem entirely from Rory’s pathological obsession with money.”
13. W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight): Hailed as Poland’s first slasher film, this sophomore feature from director Bartosz M. Kowalski is a central European Friday the 13th with the serial numbers filed off (and with a few random bits and pieces taken from other American horror flicks and shows to spice it up a little). There’s not much more to it than that, but as a peak into Polish interpretation of the American slasher genre, which was itself born out of American interest in Italian giallo films and Spanish obras de suspense, it offers a look into the weird ways that a genealogy of horror can criss-cross the Atlantic. It has its moments of gore, but they’re not only few and far between but also campy in their sanitization; imagine a scene from Hostel but sweded with fake rubber arms and heads from Party City, and you get the idea. In any other year, this wouldn’t be anything particularly noteworthy here, but with fewer releases due to the plague, it’s worth checking out. What else do you have going on?
12. Class Action Park: A documentary about Action Park, a New Jersey amusement and water park that famously maimed, mutilated, disfigured, and even killed multiple people over the course of its decades-long ownership by disgusting capitalist and deregulation enthusiast Ebenezer Eugene Mulvihill. Through interviews with former attendees and adults who were employed at the park as teens, as well as the family members of victims of Mulvhill’s negligence who never saw him face justice, the film strikes a strange tone. It encourages a feeling of both reminiscence about a lost era in which children seeking agency for themselves could do so by going to a cursed amusement park straight out of your Pinocchio nightmares, while also delineating the criminal laxity of safety regulations and proper testing of facilities (famously, teenaged employees were offered $50 to try out a looping waterslide, in which people frequently got stuck and from which the teens emerged bloody and battered). The film also draws a straight line from the right wing’s raging hard-on for deregulation and Mulvhill’s ability to simply buy his way out of all consequences, even negligent homicide, to the Trump administration, with its seemingly bottomless pockets and lack of accountability. The film occasionally loses its footing when interviewees, including recognizable faces like Chris Gethard and Alison Becker, fondly recall their youthful expeditions to the park, but overall, this is a pretty decent look into what happens when greed is left unchecked.
11. The Invisible Man: I saw that “He is a world leader in the field of optics” meme on Twitter for what felt like months before I got the chance to see The Invisible Man, which made me think the whole movie was going to be more camp than thriller. It’s not, although it has its moments (the scene in the restaurant between Elisabeth Moss and her sister being the most obvious example), and it’s an effective story about both PTSD and dealing with others with NPD. Also, more people need to hire Aldis Hodge to do things; I’m always glad when he pops up in something. Give him a lead in something, already! (You can read Brandon’s review of the film here.)
10. Mamoudou Athie delivers a striking performance in Black Box, essentially embodying three different characters over the course of the film’s taut runtime. He spends a lot of the film playing off of nothing, really, as Nolan wanders through his unclear memories, especially as those recollections begin to appear more and more disconnected from reality. Also impressive is skilled child actress Amanda Christine in her portrayal of Nolan’s daughter Ava; it’s rare that a child performer delivers anything other than a toneless recitation of lines that they barely understand, but Christine pulls off the balance between patience with her father’s challenges and her muted frustrations and fears that she’ll be separated from him if he isn’t able to recover his faculties. Although the film feels like a lower budget full-length episode of Black Mirror, it tells its story without the presumptive moralizing of that series (although your mileage will vary on whether that’s a good or bad thing with regards to Charlie Brooker’s program) and instead is a narrative that uses the trappings of a near-future scientific breakthrough to simply tell a story, rather than browbeat the audience.
9. When Brandon and I first discussed Shirley on the podcast, I expressed my discontent with the way that the film fictionalized Jackson’s life, and I stand by my feelings that I would enjoy this film more if it were about a fictional woman instead of ostensibly being about the woman behind We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. I’m not CinemaSins and I’m not just a nitpicker for the sake of picking nits, and it’s not like I’ve never been annoyed by someone else’s complaints that such-and-such a thing never happened, or wanted someone to just shut up about how the real so-and-so never actually went to wherever a scene is happening. But I am also that person that gets annoyed when something that falls into my very specific wheelhouse or area of interest gets something inconsequential incorrect but gets it wrong to an absurd degree (if you need someone to be the curmudgeon when supposed interstellar distances are measured in hundred of millions of miles). For all of that, and regardless of my general antipathy for using Jackson this way, Shirley is a fascinating narrative about the interplay of reality and imagination, and an insight into the transgression of the act of creation, all wrapped in a tense period package. Just pretend it’s about a fictional author who happens to share some similarities with the real Jackson, then track down a copy of Let Me Tell You to get a more intimate insight into the real deal.
8. The Other Lamb was proposed by Brandon to discuss on one of the Lagniappe episodes of the podcast, both because it was about cults (more on that in a moment) and because it was specifically about a Christianity-adjacent cult of personality (which is kind of my thing, in case you missed it), and he thought it would be up my alley. He was right! This has been a year that has been adversely affected by the elasticity of time, where the endless everpresent “nowness” of staying at home in quarantine sometimes makes it feel like January 2020 was just a few weeks ago, while the prolonging of quarantine because some people keep ruining it for fucking everybody also makes it feel like the same month was 27 years ago. So much of that year feels like it was filled with very frenetic media, with frantic pacing and constant noise to fill the empty and aching void of the months that elapsed entirely without human contact, but The Other Lamb stands apart, with its story that at first appears to be about calmness, tranquility, and serenity. Even as the plot thickens, it never quickens, and is instead as languid in its storytelling at the end of the film as it is in its opening moments, to great effect. Sumptuous and powerful.
7. Speaking of the elasticity of time, The Lodge feels like it came out four years ago, but I guess it really was just at the end of the previous winter. A holdover from the 2019 year-end slate, I saw the film with someone with whom ties have been severed and whom I expect I won’t see again in this life. At the time, I underestimated how much it would stick with me, and felt smugly superior for guessing the twist to come; it’s been long enough now, but objectively and subjectively, to point out that this film fits in nicely with directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s debut film Goodnight Mommy, as this film could just as easily been titled Gaslight Mommy, since that’s what happens (with special bonus points for the fact that the beginning of the gaslighting features literal gas like its namesake). Still, if there’s anything we’ve seen in the past year, it’s the power of misinformation not just to mess with people’s psyches, but also to rend families apart. Following so closely on the heels of Doctor Sleep, perhaps I simply wasn’t prepared for another film that is so indebted to The Shining for its visual language, but it has a staying power that can’t be denied. (It’s also got a subplot about cults, and I am a man of simple but sincere interests.)
6. In my review of Kajillionaire, I wrote about how, “when I was going through a really bad breakup in 2014, there was a quote that I stumbled across on Tumblr (again, it was 2014) that spoke to me on an intimate, deep level. I thought it was part of a poem, but I could never find it again, and I spent six years occasionally plugging the random bits of it that I could remember into Google to see if it would spit out the name of the poem, or the poet. Finally, in September, the search engine of record returned a result. The author was [Kajillionaire director] Miranda July, and it wasn’t a poem, it was an excerpt from her book It Chooses You: “All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.” There’s something fascinatingly and fantastically alien about Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood)’s situation, on top of and adjacent to the world that the rest of us live in. Miranda July seems to have asked herself about how one extremely specific person was making it through life —where she was putting her body, hour by hour, and how she was coping inside of it. It’s a character study of someone raised in a culture that is invisible, tangential, and almost inconceivable.”
5. As I wrote in my review, Spree “demonstrates a profound understanding of the relationship between new and traditional media, the power of and potential for abuse within internet discourse, and the deleterious effect on mental health on a societal level that can result from a pivot towards a social reward system that depends upon toxic narcissism. Kurt (Joe Keery) has no desire to garner fame for money, political power, to increase his sexual desirability, or as a means of class mobility: notability, in and of itself, is the goal. It’s the timeless tale of wanting to be popular, with no other goal. He lives in a completely different economic system where clout is currency, and even disengagement from that alternate reality doesn’t make one safe from its reach. In the film’s closing moments, we are treated to the best demonstration of writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko’s understanding of the foibles of media in all of its forms.”
4. Horse Girl tells my favorite kind of story: that of a woman struggling with her sanity. I have recently had the opportunity to inspect this fondness for this genre in myself–is it sexist of me? Although I’m not really the best person to answer that objectively, I think my fondness for the subgenre of “women on the verge” is mostly because I prefer women protagonists in all of my fiction, and I always have. I’ve been reading Paperback Crush lately, Gabrielle book about girl-targeted YA fiction that is subtitled “The Totally Radical History of ’80s and ’90s Teen Fiction,” and realized that, although I was largely forbidden from reading “girl books” of the kind that she is writing about, I tried my best to sneak around and read them anyway in my youth. Many of them are about young girls fighting against societal norms that have no bases in logic or reality: girls can’t x, whether x was a sport or a certain familial role or a campus political position. I, too, often felt that various things were forbidden or unreachable for me, either because of my parents’ religion or our rural isolation or The Closet, and the fiction that featured that as a narrative device weren’t about other boys (to say that my endless hunger for girl fiction caused parental, rural, and Closet conflict is an understatement). My love for movies like Puzzle of a Downfall Child, An Unmarried Woman, Queen of Earth, and the most recent addition to this pantheon, Horse Girl, is just an extension of that fondness. Hear me and Brandon talk about Horse Girl here.
3. His House is the story of two people from South Sudan who find themselves in England fleeing violent conflict (presumably the Dinka/Nuer conflict, although it’s never explicitly stated). It’s also much, much more than that. This bold debut feature from screenwriter and director Remi Weekes tackles topics of grief, disenfranchisement, loss, immigration, disconnection, and the things we keep while other things are left behind. There’s so much unspoken but powerfully present in the interactions between Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku as, respectively, Bol and Rial Majur. There’s something so palpable in Bol’s desire to disappear into this new community, joining in with the old men singing songs to their futbol heroes and blending in by purchasing an exact duplicate of the outfit on in-store advertising. By the time he’s literally trying to burn everything that ties himself and his wife to their past, it’s impossible to predict where the film will go next. Even the most artistic horror film rarely transcends into something truly beautiful, but His House does all of this and more. Brandon’s review can be found here.
2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire left me undone. I was mesmerized by its every moment, captivated by every tableau. There’s nothing really “new” about queer love between two women that is repressed, silenced, and hidden, especially in period pieces with their long, loving glances across infinite spaces trapped in immaculate drawing rooms. I’m not really sure what magic Portrait has captured that is absent in its peers, but there is something truly astonishing about it. The sound design, the set design, the costumes, the cinematography: this is a film that is essentially perfect in every conceivable way. We have seen many films that are similar to it, but in its field, it is peerless. Read my review here.
1. There’s a scene in I’m Thinking of Ending Things in which our seeming protagonist, played by Jessie Buckley, is trying to explain to her boyfriend’s father (played by David Thewlis) how a painting with no people in it can evoke an emotional response. “No,” he responds. “I would have to see myself in it to know how I felt.” Although the rest of the Swampflix staff apparently did not feel the same way, this was, to me, the best movie of the year. My erstwhile roommate and his current housemates and I synced up to watch the film during a period of the year when I was putting down new floors in my home as part of my desperate attempt to make myself feel like I wasn’t trapped in the same place for the foreseeable future and my TV was briefly moved into my bedroom. As I sat, straight up, in bed and watched as Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend made their way to his parents’ house through a thickening snowfall, I felt myself taken in and entranced by an incredible intensity of feeling. By the time the couple actually arrive at their initial destination, I already felt like I had gone on a complete journey and that the film must be nearing its completion, only to realize I had felt a film’s worth of emotional movement in a mere 45 minutes, and that there was still nearly an hour and a half left, which I was soon to learn was even more of a journey ahead. During a long, strange, sad, infuriating year, this was a film that reached inside of me and found a deep, sincere, and profound loneliness and externalized it on a screen before me, engaging me with myself in a way that I’ve experienced precious few times in my life. After I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I am genuinely not the same as I was before it. (You can read Brandon’s less positive review here.)
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond