The Evolution of The Lonely Island Sports Movie

It’s been three years since The Lonely Island (Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, and Andy Samberg) released their latest commercial-bomb-turned-cult–classic, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and that 2010s update to Walk Hard pop music biopic parody finally has its follow-up. While Popstar mocked the modern “concert documentaries” (read: feature length infomercials) of acts like Justin Bieber & One Direction as an excuse to stage ZAZ-style gags & The Lonely Island’s classic music video sketches, the group’s latest release adopts an even flimsier format to do the same: the visual album. Self-described as “a visual poem” and surprise-dropped on Netflix in a Beyoncé-evoking distribution strategy, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is pure Lonely Island goofballery. It’s difficult to tell if its visual album format is meant to be a joke at the expense of hubristic projects like Lemonade & Dirty Computer or more of a self-deprecating joke at the expense of The Lonely Island themselves for even attempting to pull off such a loftily minded project in the first place. Either way, its’ a brilliant move that not only updates their cinematic sensibilities to a more modern version of pop music media, but also removes two barriers that tend to stand in the way of what makes them so enjoyable to watch: the necessity of a plot to justify a feature-length film & the necessity of box office success to pay their producers’ bills. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience isn’t as successful or as substantial of a work as Popstar, but it is one that further suggests that these very silly boys have finally reached a new sense of ambition & efficiency in their craft. It’s also an accomplishment that they’ve been building towards for years, if you consider the earlier, more restrained sports mockumentaries of their past as trial runs.

Appropriately enough, The Lonely Island’s cinematic career started with a feature-length sports narrative. While still producing Digital Shorts for SNL, the trio of pop music parodists delivered their first delightful box office bomb with 2007’s Hot Rod. While not quite as formally daring or riotously funny as Popstar (or even Jorma Taccone’s other SNL-era feature, MacGruber, for that matter), Hot Rod is still pretty damn hilarious from start to finish. It was the first instance when I can recall genuinely enjoying Andy Samberg beyond his usefulness as someone who makes Joanna Newsom laugh. Playing an overgrown man-child who wants to be a daredevil just like his deceased father, Samberg’s general mode in Hot Rod is slapstick comedy and it’s classically funny on a Three Stooges level as a result. Often missing jumps on his dirtbike & puking from the pain, Samberg’s titular Rod is far from the Evel Knievel Jr. he imagines himself to be. There’s a lot of solid humor derived from the disparity between Rod’s confidence & his actual abilities, which allows you to have a good laugh at his expense even when he drowns, catches fire, or explodes. That’s an interesting subversion of the traditional underdog sports story, but it’s still one that plays its comedic beats relatively safely. The premise is mostly grounded in reality yet is careful not to resemble any real-life public figures too closely (not even Knievel). Its structure remains true to the traditional sports movie narrative too, even if its greatest strengths rely on long strings of non-sequitur gags. For instance, most of the film boasts a killer 80s synthpop soundtrack, but towards the climax when Rod’s crew has their inevitable third-act falling-out, the score suddenly switches to melodramatic string arrangements – effectively poking fun at its own necessity to transform into A Real Movie at the last minute. With more filmmaking experience under their belts & more celebrity star power backing up their audacity, their sports movies parodies only strengthened from there.

At this point in The Lonely Island’s career timeline, Hot Rod’s timid SNL Movie comedy template feels more like a one-off anomaly than an early wind-up for what Bash Brothers delivers. If anything, Bash Brothers feel like it’s the final film in a trilogy of sports parodies that Lonely Island initially produced for HBO, mostly as a creative outlet for Samberg. At a half-hour a piece, Samberg’s sports mockumentaries Tour de Pharmacy (2017) & 7 Days in Hell (2015) are the earliest telegraphs of where the Lonely Island crew would eventually go with Bash Brothers. Respectively tackling the real-life sports world controversies of doping in cycling & angry outbursts in tennis, Tour de Pharmacy & 7 Days in Hell fearlessly make fun of some of the biggest scandals in sports history (short of the O.J. Simpson murder trial) in violent jabs of ZAZ-style chaos. What’s most amazing about them is that they invite the real-life sports celebrities involved in those scandals to participate in their own mockery. John McEnroe drops by 7 Days in Hell to poke fun at a fictional “bad boy of tennis” (played by Samberg, naturally) whose antics with sex, drugs, and physical violence result in a deadly Wimbledon match that drags on for a solid week, disrupting & disgracing a once-reputable sport. Serena Williams also pops by as a talking head, even through the media’s policing of her own supposed emotional outbursts is much more unreasonable than McEnroe’s. In Tour de Pharmacy, Lance Armstrong talks at length about how every single cyclist who competes in the Tour de France is aided by illegal substances, directly recalling his own downfall in a very public doping scandal. Wrestler-turned-comedian John Cena also appears as a steroids-enraged monster in the film, tangentially poking fun at the WWE’s own history with performance-enhancing drugs. Of course, both projects are still packed with the juvenile non-sequiturs & physical comedy gags that have been constant to Samberg’s sense of humor, now emboldened to be more sexually explicit than ever before thanks to the freedom of HBO – resulting in bisexual orgies, unconventional prostate stimulation, and characters high-fiving during cunnilingus. It’s the bravery of connecting those very silly gags to very real publicity crises for sports figures who are participating along with the creators that feels new & mildly transgressive.

As daring as it may be to trivialize real-life sports controversies in such a flippantly silly way, those two HBO productions still feel somewhat formally restricted. It wasn’t until Samberg rejoined with Schaffer & Taccone post-Popstar that his sports cinema mockery really hit is pinnacle, just a few weeks ago. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience makes full use of all The Lonely Island’s best cinematic qualities: the music video sketch comedy of their SNL days, the rise-and-fall (and fall and fall) sports narrative of Hot Rod, the gross-out sex gags of MacGruber, the shameless evisceration of real-life sports scandals from Sandberg’s HBO mockumentaries and, finally, the chaotic disregard for traditional structure of Popstar. The Netflix-hosted half-hour comedy special wastes no time mocking the steroids abuse scandal that plagued the 1989 World Series run of the real-life “Bash Brothers,” Mark McGuire & Jose Conseco. The very first verse Samberg raps in this “visual poem” (read: loose collection of music videos) references steroids abuse, a theme that’s reinforced over & over again in the group’s usual 80s-era Beastie Boys cadence with lines like “I never finish sex because I’m so juiced out” and “Stab the needle in my ass until I am rich.” The genius of adapting this mockery to a visual album medium is that is allows the boys to go full-goof 100% of the time, packing in as many music video sketches as they please, unburdened by the necessity of a coherent plot. As funny as Samberg’s HBO specials were, they’re still fairly grounded mockumentaries that parody the tones & structure of many HBO Films productions of the past. Hot Rod is even more beholden to classic cinematic templates, falling well within the boundaries of a typical SNL movie even if its individual gags are specific to The Lonely Island’s sensibilities. While Bash Brothers can easily be seen as a swipe at the hubris of the visual album format, it ultimately just proves the point that it’s a genius, unrestrained medium that brings out the best #purecinema potential of any popstar who dares to utilize it – even incredibly silly parodists with a fetish for traditional sports narratives.

The Unauthorized Bash Bothers Experience feels like an epiphanic moment within The Lonely Island’s cinematic output, a culminating achievement in the sports movie template that they’ve been trying to crack open for more than a decade now. Of course, I wish that feature-length comedies like Popstar & MacGruber were more successful as theatrical gambles, but I am glad that these very silly boys have finally found a more viable niche for their sports movie parodies. I’m also glad to see these comedy nerds continue to take the piss out of our deeply flawed sports gods of yesteryear – an achievement that’s only make doubly fascinating by those gods’ participatory amusement in their own mockery.

-Brandon Ledet

Swampflix’s Top Films of 2016

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1. The Witch – A cinematic masterpiece from the first frame to the last, The Witch at once acts like a newly-discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, a “Hansel & Gretel” type fairy tale about the dangers of the wild, a slice of Satanic panic folklore, and an impressively well-researched historical account of witchcraft unmatched in its eerie beauty since at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan. Despite its historical nature and Puritan setting, this film will make your skin crawl with dread. Each captured moment is elegant and haunting, transporting the audience back to the 17th Century and tempting those along for the ride to question their sanity. The Witch is a true New England American Gothic piece. It sidesteps the mushy romances and familial dramas typically set in New England, one of the most beautiful areas of the country, in favor of a spine-chilling Satanic tale that features dense layers of historical & moral subtext, an amazing soundtrack of ominous ambient sounds, and a breakout star in its scene-stealing goat, the almighty Black Phillip. It’s not the usual terror-based entertainment you’d pull from more typical horror works about haunted houses or crazed killers who can’t be stopped, but even as a beautiful, slow-building art film & a mood piece it just might be the spookiest movie of 2016.

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2. 10 Cloverfield Lane – Far better than it has any right to be, this sequel in-name-only combines elements of horror, sci-fi, and the supernatural thriller to craft an intimate, difficult-to-categorize indictment of doomsday prepper culture. In a year that saw an excess of great confined-space thrillers (Green RoomDon’t BreatheEmelie, Hush, The ShallowsThe Invitation) 10 Cloverfield Lane stands above the rest by locking its audience in the basement with a small cast of fearful apocalypse survivors and a complexly monstrous John Goodman. Relentlessly & intoxicatingly tense, this Louisiana-set woman-in-captivity horror will rattle you in a way that its 2008 found footage predecessor never even approached. It will disturb you, surprise you, and confirm your deepest fears about “survival” nuts’ ugly thirst for post-apocalyptic power grabs, largely thanks to a career-altering performance from someone we formerly knew as the cool dad from Roseanne.

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3. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – The pop music version of This Is Spinal Tap, Andy Samberg’s greatest achievement to date thoroughly skewers the totality of hedonistic excess & outsized hubris on the modern pop music landscape. In a larger sense, it also functions as an incisive & withering dissection of the dreamy pop culture star-making machine as the industrial complex that it really is. Popstar can be easily dismissed as a profoundly stupid film. In its smaller moments, it often delivers the quintessential mindless humor we all need to endure this increasingly shitty life & its throwaway consumer culture. There’s legitimate criticism lurking under its frivolously parodic mockumentary surface, though. Popstar smartly & lovingly dismantles the entirety of pop’s current state of ridiculousness, from EDM DJ laziness to Macklemore’s no-homo “activism” to the meaninglessness of hip-hop that apotheosizes empty materialism to the industry’s creepy fetishization of military action & nationalism. Do yourself a favor and at least download the song “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” to sample the film’s well-calibrated sense of pointed, yet absurd satirical humor.

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4. The Boy – There’s really no pleasure quite like a campy horror movie about a haunted evil doll. Not every scary movie is (or ought to be) the next big thing in horror, and The Boy is fairly run of the mill in its light supernatural tomfoolery. That is, until a sharp left turn in its third act completely obliterates its more generic psychological/supernatural slowburn to delve into some utterly bonkers motherfuckery that should be a crowdpleaser among all schlock junkies looking for entertainment in pure novelty. The Boy delivers both the genuinely creepy chills and the over-the-top camp that we crave in our horror flicks, ultimately feeling like two memorable genre pictures for the price of one. In its own goofy way, it completely upends what we’ve come to expect from the modern PG-13 evil doll movie as a genre in recent years, offering a surprise breath of fresh air in its last minute deviation from the norm.

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5. Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday – Our favorite Netflix Original in a year that saw many, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is essentially Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on a Big Top Pee-wee scale & budget, which is all that Pee-Wee Herman fans could really ask for in a direct-to-streaming release after a 30 year gap. Following a giant Rube Goldberg device of a plot, with each chain reaction proving to be just as kooky (or even kookier) than the last, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’s most immediately endearing aspect might be the love story of the year: a steamy bromance between Pee-wee Herman and Joe Manganiello (who are both billed as playing themselves). Manganiello enters the scene as a living embodiment of a Tom of Finland drawing on a motorcycle and the queer subtext certainly doesn’t end there, eventually blossoming into a really sweet, very romantic story about two souls who just can’t get enough of each other. We can’t get enough of those two either. In fact, we’re ready for a sequel!

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6. Tale of TalesIn a world full of fairy tale media (Once Upon a Time, Disney Princess movies, live action remakes of Disney Princess movies, etc), it’s a curious thing that more keeps getting made, and that so much of it is adapted from the same tales we already know. Adapted instead from the more rarely-seen source of 17th century Italian fairy tales that fell into obscurity, Tale of Tales is narratively unique, visually striking, morbidly funny, brutally cold: everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. The film fearlessly alternates between the grotesque & the beautiful, the darkly funny & the cruelly tragic. Its cinematography as well as its set & costume design will make you wonder how something so delicately pretty can be so willing to get so spiritually ugly at the drop of a hat (or a sea beast’s heart). There is no Disney-brand fantasy to be found here, only black magic, witches, ogres, and giant insects, each waiting to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson about the dangers & evils of self-absorption once you let your guard down in a dreamlike stupor.

7. Kubo and the Two StringsThe latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika is pure, gorgeous art. The puppetry is incredible, an overwhelming triumph in Laika’s continued attention to detail in visual & narrative craft. At heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic, Kubo and the Two Stings finds inspiration in Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics to craft an immense visual spectacle and to explore dramatic themes of past trauma & familial loss. This allows for a darkness & a danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but what Laika most deserves bragging rights for is the mind-boggling way they pulled off this awe-inspiringly beautiful innovation in the moving image, the most basic aspect of filmmaking.

8. Hail, Caesar! Would that it were so simple to sum up this movie’s charms. A smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous movie about The Movies, Hail, Caesar! might be one of the Coen Brothers’ strongest works to date. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens look back to the Old Hollywood studio system in Hail, Caesar! as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. In the process, they perfectly capture Old Hollywood’s ghost. There’s the hyperbolic threat of Communism, ancient Hollywood scandals, endlessly moody directors, a musical number featuring a tap-dancing Channing Tatum and, behind it all, an unsung hero just trying to hold everything together off-camera. Hail, Caesar! is not only worthwhile for being loaded with its stunningly beautiful tributes to Old Hollywood, however; it’s also pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that’s becoming a rare treat on the modern comedy landscape.

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9. Midnight SpecialFocused more on mood than worldbuilding, Jeff Nichols’s sci-fi chase epic mirrors the best eras of genre cinema giants Steven Spieldberg & John Carpenter. Midnight Special is surprisingly accessible for an original sci-fi property, never getting wrapped up in the complex terminologies and detached-from-reality scenarios that often alienate audiences in the genre. This may be the Nichols’s most ambitious work to date in terms of scale, but he’s smart to keep the individual parts that carry the hefty, supernatural mystery of its narrative just as small & intimate as he has in past familial dramas like Mud & Shotgun Stories. You never lose sight that these are real people struggling with an unreal situation. And, if nothing else, a world-weary Michael Shannon’s studied command of his role as the father of a child with godlike, unexplainable powers is something truly special, a grounded, believable performance that everyone should witness at least once.

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10. Hunt for the WilderpeopleThe story of a young boy going on the lam in the New Zealand bush with his reluctantly adoptive uncle after a devastating tragedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople very nearly tops Boy for Taika Waititi’s best feature to date, mixing small, endearing character beats with the large scale spectacle of a big budget action comedy. We all need a good laugh this year; we also need a good cry. Fortunately, Wilderpeople has both! It’s funny, cute, and even twee in a way that sometimes resembles a Wes Anderson movie, but there’s also a certain darkness to the film that doesn’t shy away from real life consequences or scathing political satire. Many people have rightly latched onto this adventure epic as one of the most consistently funny comedies of recent memory (with a surprisingly gruff comedic turn from Sam Neill registering as especially cherishable), but there’s so much more going on in the film than a mere assemblage of a long string of jokes.

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Honorable Mentions – Here are a few films we loved that just missed our collective Best Of list: The HandmaidenMoonlightArrivalShin Godzilla, Ghostbusters, and Keanu. They may not have made our Top Ten, but they’re each worthy of praise & attention in their own various ways.

Read Alli’s picks here.
Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

Brandon’s Top Campy Treasures & Trashy Comedies of 2016

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1. The Mermaid – At heart, The Mermaid is a very basic tale of “evil” humans learning that making money isn’t necessarily more worthwhile than simple universal needs like clean, unpolluted water & air. What’s fascinating is the way that director Steven Chow (of Kung Fu Hustle fame) tells this story through a kaleidoscope of different cinematic genres. Part earnest romcom, part heartbreaking drama about environmental destruction, part spoof of the 60s super-spy genre, The Mermaid is a bizarre, hilarious, wonderfully idiosyncratic live action cartoon that might stand as the director’s most satisfying work to date. Chow’s hyper-specific & increasingly focused comedic lens feels like a melting pot of aesthetics that establishes him as a sort of goofball auteur. At different times throughout The Mermaid, I felt sincere romance, I laughed until I was physically sore, and I sat in abject terror as the movie took a nastily violent turn in his portrayal of just how evil humanity can be. Like most parody artists (or at least most of the ones who are good at what they do) Chow has an innate sense of how genre tropes work & how they can be repurposed for varying effects. The film requires a leap of faith in its opening minutes, but once you get into its cartoonish, almost psychedelic groove it’s greatly rewarding as a slapstick comedic fantasy with a charming interspecies man-and-mermaid romance & a unique visual palette, one that puts its cheap CGI to profoundly effective & deeply silly use.

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2. The Greasy Strangler – As a creature feature, The Greasy Strangler undeniably delivers the goods. Although a decidedly camp-minded comedy, it boasts a truly hideous, horrifying, grease-coated monster that’s sickening to behold. What I find much more unique, however, is the way the film satirizes and sets aflame the modern indie romance genre. The color palette & social awkwardness of titles like Juno or Napoleon Dynamite (or whatever their post-aughts equivalent would be) is meticulously recreated here, but employed for a grotesque effect. This is quirk used for pure evil. Within seconds the antagonistic humor of this dirt cheap indie horror comedy establishes itself as the definition of not-for-everyone, but it shouldn’t feel too out of step for folks who’ve spent enough time following Adult Swim’s ever-evolving line-up over the years. I wouldn’t fault anyone who disliked the film for being cruel, grotesque, or aggressively stupid. Those claims would all certainly be valid. As a nasty slasher by way of Eric Warheim, however, that’s just a natural part of a very unnatural territory.

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3. The Love WitchThe Love Witch plays like a restoration of the best camp film you’ve never heard of. It’s pursues an eerily accurate dedication to recreating the half-hearted attempts at sophisticated smut of many erotic horror B-pictures of the 60s & 70s, right down to the awkward dead space that punctuates each line of dialogue & the over-use of goofy lighting tricks to evoke its love potion psychedelia. Filmmaker Anna Biller doesn’t rely solely on easy humor & cinematic nostalgia to make this schlocky throwback worthwhile, however. She instead uses her backwards gaze into the B-picture abyss to reappropriate traditionally misogynist modes of genre filmmaking for a fresh, fiercely feminist purpose. The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect from an intentionally “bad” movie about witchcraft & strippers.

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4. The Bronze – Anyone going into The Bronze looking for Melissa Rauch to deliver the broad, calculated comedy she’s associated with on The Big Bang Theory is going to be shocked by the loose, raunchy cruelty she brings to the screen here. Rauch helms The Bronze as a writer/lead actor & the film reveals that her personal sense of humor has a wicked mean streak to it that is sure to alienate a lot of fans, but also draw in some new devoted ones, myself included. Besides the dark humor of her merciless selfishness, The Bronze‘s ex-Olympic gymnast protagonist is eternally horny in a purely animalistic, Jerri Blank sort of way. She’s constantly barraging her mild-mannered, Midwestern counterparts with phrases like “cock hole” & “clit jizz” and lights up the screen with the film’s centerpiece: an epic sexual encounter that could only be pulled off by a pair of oversexed Olympic gymnasts. Some of my favorite comedies of the past decade have been this gender-swapped version of raunch cinema (The To Do List, Appropriate Behavior, Wetlands, etc.) and The Bronze fits snugly among them. Combine that genre subversion with the film’s heartless cruelty, the novelty of its gymnastics-world setting, and expert use of my all-time favorite movie trope, the plot-summarizing rap song, and you have a strong contender for a future cult classic.

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5. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – Andy Samberg’s greatest achievement to date lovingly skewers the totality of hedonistic excess & outsized hubris on the modern pop music landscape. Popstar smartly & lovingly dismantles the entirety of pop’s current state of ridiculousness from EDM DJ laziness to the devastation of a negative Pitchfork review to Macklemore’s no-homo “activism” to U2’s invasive album release snafu. The modern pop documentary format, the character, his world, and our own pop music terrain all back up each ridiculous gag Samberg & his fellow Lonely Island bros throw at the screen, making the film out to be an efficient little comedy machine in comparison to the sprawling, Apatow-dominated landscape comedic cinema’s been exploring to death in recent years. You’re never entirely shaken by a throwaway gag like a baby playing drums like Neil Peart or an artist responsible for the “brilliance” of catchphrases like “#doinkdedoink” having the self-confidence to declare the Mona Lisa “an overrated piece of shit” because the movie is well-calibrated enough to support those kinds of over-the-top indulgences. There’s certainly loose improv afoot in Popstar, but it’s arranged & edited into highly functioning efficiency.

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6. Ghostbusters – Easily the most over-complained about film of 2016, the Ghostbusters reboot is an all-around hilarious, well-made popcorn flick. I most appreciated the way director Paul Feig & casting director Allison Jones have delivered an undercover SNL cast ensemble. When they just comprised half of the main cast in the original property, all four of the Ghostbusters are SNL players in the 2016 version: Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and honorary cast member (through regular, fully-committed hosting gigs) Melissa McCarthy. They’re also backed up by the bit role roster of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Higgins, and Cecily Strong. More convincing yet, the movie is proving to be something of a star-maker for the consistently funny McKinnon, who’s been up there with Strong, Bryant, Moynihan, and (formerly) Killiam as one of the most essential backbone pieces of the show’s current cast. If Ghostbusters did nothing more than promote & develop Kate McKinnon’s screen presence, it would already have done its job, but by lighting internet nerds’ idiotic indignation on fire in the process, a nontroversy the film addresses directly in some brilliant moments of meta-commentary, it stood out as one of the more notable dumb comedies of the year.

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7. Clown – Without any intentional maneuvers in its fashion, music, or narrative, Clown effortlessly taps into a current trend of reflective 90s nostalgia by lovingly recreating the horror cheapies of that era. It does so by striking a very uncomfortable balance between horror comedy & gruesome misanthropy, forging a truly cruel sense of humor in a heartless, blood-soaked gore fest featuring a killer clown & his tiny tyke victims. You’d have to change very few details of Clown to convince me that it was actually a Full Moon Features release made twenty years ago. Besides small details like cell-phone usage and the inclusion of “That guy!” character actor Peter Stormare, the only noticeable difference is that, unlike most Full Moon “classics”, it’s a genuinely great product. Clown is smart & incredibly uncomfortable, but houses its horror film thrills in a very specific era of nontheatrical genre trash, so it’s easy see how its better attributes might be readily dismissed by those not in tune with its highly specific aesthetic.

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8. The Boy – I expected The Boy to play out more or less exactly like the last PG-13 evil doll movie to hit the theaters, the largely disappointing Rosemary’s Baby knockoff Annabelle, but the film sets its sights much higher than that light supernatural tomfoolery. It’s far from wholly original as a horror flick, but instead pulls wacky details from a wide enough range of disparate sources that it ended up being an enjoyably kooky melting pot of repurposed ideas. A sharp left turn in the third act of The Boy completely obliterates the psychological/supernatural slowburn established in its first half & delves into some utterly bonkers motherfuckery that should be a crowdpleaser among schlock junkies & trash gobblers. I’m always a sucker for the evil doll movie as a genre, so it was a given that I’d see The Boy no matter what, but the film really does prove itself to be a solidly fun thrill of a horror trifle in the end, even if it functions as a pastiche.

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9. Pee-Wee’s Big HolidayPee-wee’s Big Holiday is essentially Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on a Big Top Pee-wee scale & budget, which is all that fans could really ask for in a direct-to-streaming release after a 30 year gap. It also helps that the film finds Pee-wee just about as charming & hilarious as he’s ever been, even if its financial freedom & resulting ambition are somewhat diminished. All the movie has to do to succeed is provide Herman (who’s billed as playing himself) with a variety of backdrops & supporting players to bounce his bizarrely childish humor off of. In one highly pertinent scene, Herman proves that he can entertain an entire village of on-lookers with a single, ordinary balloon. Just about the only aspect of Pee-wee Herman’s Big Holiday that isn’t bare bones in this way is Joe Manganiello’s involvement. Manganiello, also playing “himself,” enters the scene as a living embodiment of a Tom of Finland drawing on a motorcycle. The gay subtext certainly doesn’t end there. By the conclusion of the film, Herman & Manganiello’s instant attraction to each other fully blossoms into a really sweet, very romantic story about “friendship”. If there’s any chance for a non-Pee-wee fan to enjoy Big Holiday it’d be in watching just how naturally & enthusiastically that “friendship” develops.

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10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows – Instead of pushing the brooding grit of the post-Dark Knight era of needless reboots to its most ludicrous extreme (like its hilariously hideous predecessor), Out of the Shadows calls back to the light, fun, cartoonish energy that made the original Ninja Turtles trilogy such a nostalgia-inducing pleasure in the 1990s. I guess you could argue that banking on 90s nostalgia is a dispiriting snapshot of where blockbusters are seated in 2016, but that’s not what makes Out of the Shadows special. Here’s what does make it special: a manhole-shooting garbage truck modeled after the franchise’s infamous pizza van toy; a pro wrestler that plays a tank-operating rhinoceros; a perfectly hideous realization of the villainous mech suit-operating brain Krang; etc. Given enough time, this is a film both silly & visually memorable (read: deeply ugly) enough to generate its own future nostalgia entirely separate from that of a previous generation’s (not that it was above playing the 90s cartoon’s theme song over the end credits). Kids are going to grow up loving this movie and its reputation will outlast the short-term concerns of however well it did or didn’t do at the box office this summer. In that way, it’s a successful work of art.

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11. Nine Lives – Speaking of 90s nostalgia, mark August 2016 down as the exact moment it reached peak ridiculousness, since we’re apparently now making movies about corrupt businessmen who learn life lessons by getting turned into talking animals again (in this case a cat). And I’m talking real movies with real theatrical releases, too, not just some straight-to-DVD trifle from Air Bud Entertainment. Said talking animal comeback film, Nine Lives, even features two (!!!) Academy Award-winning actors and hinges its lovable furball antics on topics as hefty as greed, adultery, the ethics of leaving a vegetative state loved one on longterm life support, and attempted suicide. If you regularly find yourself losing valuable time to internet wormholes of cat-themed home video, you’re likely to get a kick out of Nine Lives‘s simple pleasures: a cat drinking scotch, a cat falling over, a cat slow-dancing with his human daughter, a cat rushing to prevent his human son’s attempted suicide. You know, the little things.

12. Mother May I Sleep With Danger? – James Franco’s 2016 remake of the Tori Spelling Lifetime Original Movie Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? is a biting sociopolitical commentary on the pervasive homophobia, sexism, and rape culture issues that plague college campuses in the 2010s. That’s a half-truth. The film is also a shameless, leering camp fest about lesbian vampires that sometimes borders on the less-than-prestigious realm of dime store erotica. Either way you look at it, it’s is easily the most outrageously entertaining work I’ve seen from Lifetime in decades (unless you include those Mommie Dearest marathons they do every Mother’s Day; those are hilarious). It’s funny, it’s trashy, it’s dirt cheap, and it’s more than a little bit sleazy: pretty much the perfect calibration for an instant Lifetime classic. Better yet, its penchant for cheesy sleaze feels 100% earnest, never truly crossing into the winking parody of an Asylum mockbuster or a ZAZ-style spoof, despite what you may assume from its pedigree. If this vampiric “re-imagining” is an indication of where Lifetime programming is currently headed, we’re in for some tawdry good fun in the years to come, a second golden age of made-for-television schlock.

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13. Hardcore Henry – This trashy novelty’s central gimmick of mirroring the look of 1st person shooters by mounting GoPros to its camera/stuntmen is a lot to handle for 90 minutes of action cinema and the video game-thin plot & villains that accompany it don’t help much either. There’s far more to hate about Hardcore Henry than just its video game gimmick, too. Its rampant misogyny, gay panic humor, and constant, gleeful violence & gore are sure to turn off a lot of folks, rightfully so. However, I don’t personally see much of a difference between the misanthropy on display here and the macho-hedonism of any other generic shoot-em-up. Hardcore Henry is loud, obnoxious, one-note, nearly plotless, and entirely over the top in its meat-headed self-indulgence, but so are a lot of my favorite hallmarks of action cinema: Commando, Rambo IV, Invasion U.S.A., etc. I contend that the film’s glaring, perhaps even deplorable faults are all outweighed by its consistently goofy tone (particularly in the scenery-chewing sorcerer villain & 1st person POV visual experimentation). There are hordes of 13 year olds who’ll latch onto Hardcore Henry‘s naked girls, guns, and cocaine version of masculinity in an unsavory way, I’m sure, but I never really look to my dumb action movies for moral high ground and, truth be told, those kids will grow out of it eventually. Hopefully.

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14. The Shallows – The 2016 version of the giant shark creature feature is smart to recognize its place within this trashiest of cinematic traditions. The popcorn thriller The Shallows is brilliant in the way it keeps things simple. It’s Blake Lively in a neon bikini fighting off a CGI shark for 90min. What do you need, a road map? There’s so much swinging The Shallows in the direction of goofball camp: a couple especially silly encounters with CGI dolphins & jellyfish, a gratuitous explosion, a hideous model of a whale carcass, a caricature of a witless drunk so over the top it could’ve comfortably existed in the 1930s, a puke-eating sidekick named Steven Seagull (who’s easily up there with Black Phillip for Animal of the Year), etc. Even the film’s basic 1-shark-vs.-1-woman premise has a campy appeal to it. However, the shark attacks do have a real gravity to them as well. There’s intense gore in the film’s moments of self-surgery & genuine heart-racing thriller beats when our hero & her friend the seagull have to stave off real-life dehydration & cabin fever. The Shallows is satisfied relegating itself to a 100% trashy surface pleasure ethos, but it doesn’t let up on the practical results of its central scenario’s violence & confinement and that dual goofy/scary balance is what makes this such effective summertime schlock.

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15. Elvis & Nixon – Written around the photo op/publicity stunt in 1970 when Elvis Presley visited the White House & was awarded an official title as a federal narcotics agent, Elvis & Nixon is a low-energy camp delight. Taking great pleasure in its own historical inaccuracies & caricaturist liberties, the film finds easy camp value in casting Michael Shannon as Elvis & Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon and propping the mismatched pair up in a room (the Oval Office, of all rooms) merely so it can stew in its own unlikelihood. The result isn’t anything mind-blowing or revolutionary, but it is an offbeat pleasure to behold. Elvis & Nixon finds its best possible self in its laidback, weirdly relaxed vibe. Instead of pushing for big, unlikely moments between The President & The King, the film instead finds lowkey fascination in a past-his-prime rock ‘n roller living out a fish-out-of-water comedy in a political atmosphere he knows nothing about.

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16. Look Who’s Back – A Borat-style farce in which Adolf Hitler clumsily navigates & eventually finds popularity in the modern world, Look Who’s Back mixes seemingly tame, broad comedy with fiercely biting, unforgiving political satire, a tonal whiplash that’s as odd of a delight as it is difficult to classify. The film starts with a sci-fi/fantasy premise where Adolf Hitler is mysteriously transported to modern times Germany and follows his first-person POV as he tries to make sense of concepts like selfies, television, the internet, etc. This broad, cheaply campy farce mostly functions as a Trojan horse for the film’s real bread & butter: unscripted, Borat-style street interviews where Hitler interacts with the modern public. A lot of folks treat Hitler like a joke — hugging him, posing for pictures, chirping “I love Hitler!” & honoring him with a Nazi salute — an uncomfortable gaze at toxic hipster irony & modern refusal to engage with life sincerely. However, Look Who’s Back‘s main mode of political satire is in pairing Hitler with real-life, unscripted people who agree with his nationalistic, horrifically racist rhetoric when it comes to the issue of Muslim immigration. They aren’t all easily identifiable neo-Nazi skinheads, either. Think of the German equivalent of your average diehard Trump supporter and you pretty much get the picture. Look Who’s Back is something of a structural mess, but it’s a fascinating mess with a surprising amount to say about current political attitudes towards immigration that disgraces a vast majority of The West, America included (obviously).

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17. Keanu – Not unlike their sketch comedy show, Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele’s debut feature is not always consistently funny, but has really great, transcendently absurd moments. A fun action movie spoof featuring a cute kitten, plus some remarkable flashes of both Anna Farris and George Michael content, Keanu’s more memorable touches are rare gems to come by (especially in light of George Michael’s recent death). It also gets major bonus points in my mind for being the first movie I’ve seen smart enough to include not one, but two Future songs on its soundtrack, which is a resource more movies really need to start tapping into.

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18. Masterminds – A harmless madcap bank heist comedy starring Zach Galifianakis & three Ghostbusters (Jones, Wiig, and McKinnon), Masterminds is essentially a feature length visual punchline. The machinations of Zach Galifianakis’s hapless security guard being coerced into robbing a bank by his milquetoast seductress, Kristen Wiig, or her sleaze ball cohort, Owen Wilson, aren’t nearly as amusing as just the mere look of him. The Prince Valiant haircut, the full beard, the tight novelty t-shirts: Zach Galifianakis is the fashion version of a slapstick pratfall. Certainly, there are funny turns of phrase in the film (mostly delivered by Jason Sudeikis’s cold-as-ice contract killer) but no dialogue made me laugh nearly as hard as just the distinctly awkward visual tableau divisive comedic director Jared Hess crafted with his vanity-free players. In many ways Kate McKinnon was perfect casting for this comedy style, as it’s the criticism she most often receives from her work in SNL. She doesn’t deliver jokes so much as that she is the joke, striking such a specifically strange, crazy-eyed image that no verbal play is needed to sell the humor. This might not be enough for some folks, but just the mere sight of her posing for wedding photos with Zach Galifianakis to an Enya song is personally all I need to guffaw.

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19. Suicide Squad – The studio meddling of Suicide Squad, with its joke-heavy re-shoots, shoehorned-in neon color palette, diminished screen time for Jared Leto’s Joker, and Guardians-aped soundtrack was admittedly haphazard & disharmonious, but it at least made the troubled material a decently fun action picture in the process. In a lot of ways Suicide Squad is just as bloated & tonally inept as Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel. It’s never boring, though, and thanks to some studio meddling it actually allowed for a few interesting moments & decent performances to shine through all of director David Ayer’s trashy genre film bravado. In an ideal world I wouldn’t necessarily want to see Ayer’s Sabotage (a film I described as “oozing with scum” & “garbage water pessimism” in my review) reworked as a superhero spectacle, but Warner Bros. found a way to make that formula remarkably palatable. Kudos to the studio for reigning in Ayer’s bad taste & aggression just enough to make the movie work while still allowing it to breathe new, testosterone-corrupted life into what was previously a drab, depressive franchise. Suicide Squad is not the winning success the budding DC Comics film franchise desperately needs to turn its frown upside down, but I left the theater in a much better mood than I did with the two Batman & Superman films that preceded it.

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20. Scooby-Doo & WWE: Curse of the Speed Demon – Recognizing that its larger-than-life cast of musclebound pro wrestler characters don’t necessarily have to live in a wrestling ring in their animated form, Curse of the Speed Demon picks an entirely new context for them to flex muscles & deliver promos in: off-road monster truck racing. The sequel to WWE’s original Scooby-Doo collaboration plays less like an animated pro wrestling picture & much more like a little kid’s imagination as they smash together Hot Wheels toys in a sandbox. Instead of attending a second WrestleMania, Scooby & the Mystery Gang find themselves at Muscle Moto X, an impossible Vince McMahon startup that combines monster truck mayhem with dirt track speed racing. As the plot unravels, Curse of the Speed Demon gets further & further away from realistic versions of what off-road pro wrestling monster truck races might look like (as unrealistically goofy as that starting point is on its own), eventually just says “Fuck it.” and indulges in some Mario Kart-type cartoon races & settings you’d find doodled in an eight year old’s dream journal.

-Brandon Ledet

Britnee’s Top Films of 2016

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1. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Of all the wonderful films to come out in 2016, I can’t help but make my choice for the best movie of the year Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  The film left me completely satisfied after each time I watched it at the theater, a total of three. What I admire most about Fantastic Beasts is that it manages to have just a small hint of romance (if you would even call it that). It’s too often that films rely on romantic relationships to capture the audience. Fantastic Beasts focuses on non-romantic human relationships as well as human/creature friendships, and that’s why it won my heart and top pick.

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2. The Witch The movie that was not so much in-your-face scary but haunted me for months would be, in my opinion, the spookiest movie of 2016. The Witch is one of those films that makes you question your sanity. What is really going on?  Satanic panic? Full-blown witchcraft? I am a sucker for films set in New England, but many of those are mushy romances or family dramas, not spine-chilling Satanic tales. A slow-building horror flick that takes place in one of the most beautiful places in America is truly a gift from the movie gods.

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3. Captain Fantastic It seems that everyone wants to live in a tiny house way out in the wilderness these days, and this movie made me realize how that way of life could be so appealing. Captain Fantastic is sweet, but not in an obnoxious way, and it’s super funny.  It’s also stunningly beautiful. The landscape, the outfits, and the way the family interacts with each other are cinematically gorgeous.

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4. Midnight Special  I watched this one on a plane ride home after a long trip, and I remember waking up the couple on the side of me from all of my loud gasps. It was like watching a picture book story come to life. For a sci-fi flick, Midnight Special was surprisingly easy to follow, so I could focus more on enjoying the movie instead of trying to keep up terminologies and scenarios I couldn’t understand. Also, Michael Shannon as the father of a child with special, unexplainable powers is something that everyone should experience.

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5. The Boy There’s really nothing like a horror movie about a haunted evil doll. The Boy delivered the campiness that I crave in horror flicks, but it also seriously freaked me out more than I expected. When the big twist is revealed towards the end, it turns into a completely different film altogether. Basically, The Boy is like getting two really great horror films for the price of one. It’s a bigger steal than any Bluelight Special at KMart.

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6. Ten Cloverfield LaneJohn Goodman will always be the cool dad from Roseanne in my eyes, so seeing him as a completely unstable psychopath in Ten Cloverfield Lane was beyond insane.  The strange part is that he is so good at being crazy. Ten Cloverfield Lane combined elements of horror and sci-fi so well that it’s difficult to categorize it into one genre. The movie also takes place in Louisiana, so it made me feel a little bit special even though I hope there’s no psycho in a bomb shelter within at least 500 miles from me.

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7. Hello, My Name is Doris – I contemplated not adding this one to my list because I never got around to reviewing it, but it was truly one of my favorite movies that came out this year. Sally Field is a bomb actress. There’s simply no other way to put it. In Hello, My Name is Doris, she plays a socially awkward hoarder that falls for a guy that’s about half her age. It’s a quirky comedy, but there are some serious moments that’ll heighten your blood pressure. No lie, this is one of my favorite comedies of all-time.

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8. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping I hadn’t laughed so hard in a movie theater since The Hangover. Popstar delivers that quintessential stupid, mindless humor that we all need to get through this shitty life. Mockumentaries are hard to come by, but they are one of the best styles of film out there. Popstar is like the pop version of This Is Spinal Tap, and it even comes with its own soundtrack of hits like its predecessor. Do yourself a favor and download “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song).”

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9. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday2016 was the year of Netflix originals. They were coming out almost every week. My favorite Netflix original of 2016 is Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. It was about time that the world was blessed with another Pee-wee Herman movie. It was just as whimsical as the others and had all of Pee-wee’s classic personality quirks. The fact that Pee-wee had a questionable bromance with Joe Maganiello gave me so much to live for. I’m ready for a sequel!

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10. Keanu As a lover of all things cat-related, I initially went to see Keanu for the cute kitten dressed up in gangster clothes. I was unfamiliar with Key and Peele’s comedy, so I didn’t know what to expect. Key’s style of comedy was loud and annoying, but it really worked for his role in Keanu. It was Peele who was the show-stealer for me, though. He was so funny! The kitten that played Keanu was also fantastic. That little guy needs his own show on Animal Planet.

-Britnee Lombas

Boomer’s Top Films of 2016

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A forewarning: this list is incomplete. As an annual list, it necessarily excises films that I haven’t managed to see this year but I am certain could appear here if I had: Moonlight and Loving are foremost among them, although I also missed Kubo and the Two Strings while it was in theatres and The Edge of Seventeen seems to have flown by with little fanfare, although I thought it looked like a lot of fun. I’m also almost positive that Hail, Caesar! would be on this list, but my friend group has a bit of a procrastination problem, so we missed that when it was in theatres as well.

I’m also completing this list before most of the Christmas releases make their way to theatres (so there’s no Rogue One to be found here, or Passengers, which I am looking forward to seeing) so that I’m not trying to push to finish this list while traveling for the holidays. And, in case the inclusion of the divisive Jupiter Ascending on my list of favorite films from last year didn’t tip you off, this is a highly subjective list of my favorite films of the year, not necessarily those which were objectively the best.

There were also several films I saw this year that will definitely not be making this list, for various reasons. I don’t normally like to make a “worst of” list, but there were some definite stinkers this year. I didn’t care for Batman v. Superman at all, and Independence Day: Resurgence and Deadpool (which I enjoyed more than Brandon did, but it didn’t exactly have me rolling in the aisles), while adequate-if-hollow representations of their individual genres, were nothing to write home about. I also was underwhelmed by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is notably not on this list. I got a modicum of enjoyment out of Beasts, finding it to be perfectly serviceable and moderately magical, but overly reliant on CGI and lacking the charm that made the Harry Potter film series work for me, despite a few standout scenes and  an main role for Katherine Waterston, who was in my number one movie last year, Queen of Earth.

Ghostbusters got quite a lot of laughter out of me, but I can’t call it a favorite of the year, and the same can be said of Captain America: Civil War; I may have given it a 4.5 star review, but it hasn’t stuck in my mind the way that other films on this list have. I also found Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon quite unfulfilling; I know that Brandon gave it a 5 star review, but I was largely disappointed. Among my coven of aesthetes, I’m usually the one who makes the argument that, although we usually think of film as a medium with standard narrative conventions, film can really be anything (an idea we’ll revisit below in the number one entry). With that in mind, I was expecting to really enjoy Neon Demon, but even as an art house film, its Mulholland-Drive-by-way-of-Dario-Argento vibe didn’t quite work for me, even though that description should land it firmly in my heart. As much as I liked the “Are you sex, or food?” question that foreshadowed many of the events to come, and as beautiful and sumptuous the film’s color and direction were, it just didn’t work for me.

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10. Pet: There’s very little that can be said about this film without discussing at least one of its intricate and baroque twists. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but it is genuinely inventive and relentless in its growing unease and unpredictable (but mostly well-earned) path. There’s gore and home invasion and stalking, but none of that really matters once the ball gets rolling. I gently mocked the film as an attempt at doing a more radical “eXtreme” version of the similar story (“It’s like Hard Candy, but with a girl in a cage!”), but that’s not really a knock on the film or its ambition.

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9. The Boy: I genuinely adore Lauren Cohan and have ever since her ill-fated recurring role in an early (read: good) season of Supernatural. That show already had one failed spinoff, but if they really want to get my attention, they’d have Cohan’s Bela return in her own program to act as Hell’s bounty hunter à la the 1998 series Brimstone. I’m genuinely pleased she was in two films this year (even if the other was Batman v Superman). With regards to The Boy, it’s worth noting that it’s not really a great film, although it is sufficiently suspenseful and genuinely creepy. Not every scary movie is (or ought to be) the next big thing in horror, and this movie is fairly run of the mill other than one major element. I love horror, but if there is one thing that I hate about the genre, it’s the fact that the skeptic is always wrong. If a group of teenagers head out into the woods, there will be something scary lurking in the darkness, and the skeptical character will usually be the first to go; if a psychologist and a priest are at odds about whether a young girl is possessed or mentally ill, she will be revealed to have a demon  beneath her flesh; if a person who is certain that phantoms are not real spends the night in a haunted house, he will be terrorized by ghosts; etc., etc. If a film juxtaposes an argument between rationalism and fantasy, the film always shows that the irrational is true. There’s only one franchise in the West that prioritizes skepticism over blind acceptance, and it’s for children: Scooby-Doo (which tells the realest truth– that the greatest evil in the world is done by greedy white landgrabbers). This movie is a breath of fresh air if for no other reason that the audience is presented with what is ostensibly a supernatural horror film about a doll that may or may not be alive, then reveals that there is a grounded, rational explanation, slightly goofy though it may be (and no, it’s  not that Greta has lost her mind). For that alone, it deserves a place on this list.

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8. Ten Cloverfield Lane: Far better than it had any right to be, this sequel in-name-only suffers from an overly elongated denouement that is so tonally dissonant from the film that precedes it that I couldn’t justify placing it any higher on this list. I felt much the same way about Super 8 several years back: 90% of both of these film is absolute perfection, but the unsatisfactorily Syfy Channel ending mars what could be otherwise be an unequivocal classic. Still, the bulk of the film that is spent in John Goodman’s bunker is relentlessly and intoxicatingly tense, and the strong performances from the three players give the film an intimacy that many films that would be called “character pieces” lack.

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7. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: 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.

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6. London Road: Although I already spoke about the film in my review of it, I’d love to reiterate the intrinsic beauty of the way that this film is made and the voices that it uses to speak to us about human nature, in both its beauty and its spitefulness, its heart and its bile, while sidestepping the potential to be overly didactic. Tragedy can birth hope, or more tragedy, or both; communities can do good by creating solidarity and a desire for rebirth or evil by turning its back on those who need help most. The story of the people, in their own words, is at turns revolting and endearing, but never less than mesmerizing.

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5. Arrival: I like Amy Adams, even if her rise to stardom is an utter puzzle to me. To be honest, the first thing I think of when I hear her name is the episode of Charmed where she played a potential Whitelighter who almost kills herself (complete with terrible green screen effect); the second thing I think of is her playing a fat-sucking vampire because of kryptonite in her garden in Smallville (complete with terrible fat suit); the third thing I think of is her appearance as a vaguely self-hating member of Tara’s family in a Very Special Episode of Buffy where magic equals sapphic love (complete with terrible accent). Maybe that says more about myself and my wasted adolescence than it does about Amy (it does), but she’s come a long way since 2000, and I’m glad to see her here in this beautiful film about the nature of existence, how life is transient and ephemeral but also powerful, with ripples and effects that echo into eternity. Some of the plot elements are a little belabored, and I could have done with a little less idealization of romance at the end, but overall this is a touching film that could one day be the Contact of our generation.

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4. Star Trek Beyond: Nearly forgotten among the more high-performing comic book flicks and talking animal movies that made up the bulk of this year’s domestic box office successes, this third film in the reboot series actually feels more relevant now than it did at the time of its release. If the villain of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was Mike Pence (or, more accurately, amorphous forms of violence that are the direct result of suppressing one’s true nature due to political oppression, so… Mike Pence), then the villain of Star Trek Beyond is your average Trump supporter and voter. Krall is a man full of rage, a nationalistic fury forged to white-hot purity because of his viewpoint that the principles of unity and tolerance, the idealistic precepts under which the Federation flies its banner, are weak. In reality, the truth is that he is an anti-intellectual remnant of a bygone era, a time when strength and intimidation, not peace and acceptance, were the greatest of virtues; his madness and anger are the result of a society that has become more utopian in the time that he has been forgotten. Instead of finding a new niche for himself in this strange new world (as embodied in the way that Jaylah, who was born into Krall’s world but escapes it and finds a way to not only survive but thrive in Federation space), he would rather burn it all down than find a way to adapt. Ultimately, society is preserved because unity, peace, and compassion (and art!) are more powerful than the rage of the beast. At the time that the film was released, I could not have foreseen the outcome of the election, and when discussing this philosophical difference in my review stated that it was “not a terribly deep humanistic ideal, and is so faintly traced that the film could be accused of paying lip service to that idea more than actually exploring it.” In the wake of all that has happened in the weeks since the election, it’s an ideal that is worth remembering and even cherishing, and Star Trek Beyond may ultimately be the most prescient Trek since Undiscovered Country.

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3. Don’t Breathe: I wrote pretty extensively about this film in my review, so I’ll just paste over some of my thoughts from that piece: “[Director Fede] Alvarez’s beautiful cinematography and lingering camera work elevate what could otherwise have been a fairly run-of-the-mill horror movie. There’s an attention to detail that bespeaks a greater knowledge of the language of film, and Alvarez is obviously well on his way to being a master linguist. I can’t remember the last time, other than The VVitch, where I felt so much tension in my spine while taking in a fright flick, and I was haunted by the movie for hours after walking out of the theatre.”

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2. Anomalisa: This one is a bit of a technical cheat, since its release date (December 30, 2015; who the hell does that?) meant that there was no way to see the film in time to include it on my list of my favorite films from last year, but also meant that it shouldn’t properly be included in this year’s list since it was technically released in 2015. In case you missed it, Anomalisa is classic Charlie Kaufman madness, filled with quirky characters and sly character development that desperately wants (and often succeeds in having) the viewer sympathize with a main character who is ultimately morally bankrupt and unlikable, but pitiable in his mental dissolution. In my review of the film, I expressed my weariness with the seemingly endless “paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui” films that are littering our cultural motion picture landscape; in the ensuing year, I’ve moved past irritation into hostility, but I still recall this film with a great fondness. It’s atypical Kaufman in that it lacks much of the magical surrealism of Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York (minus the conceit that all characters other than Stone and his love interest have identical faces), but the intricacy of its stop-motion beauty far outweighs the mediocrity of its unappealing protagonist.

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1. The Witch: A New England Folktale: 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.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Ghostbusters (2016), Popstar (2016) and the Outsourcing of the Modern SNL Movie

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People tend to get overly nostalgic about Saturday Night Live, typically looking back to the supposed “golden years” of the show (an era that can shift around by decades depending on who you’re asking) in order to knock its most current, supposedly subpar season, whichever year they’re complaining. The truth is that the show might struggle a little here or there, but has overall been consistent in its quality in a way the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia can significantly alter. SNL generally produces a few great sketches on a weekly basis in one of comedy’s most demanding writing rooms (James Franco’s Saturday Night documentary is a good glimpse of that punishing rhythm if you’re interested). These sketches often define their current era’s height of comedic performance & off-the-cuff writing, but just as often appear among enough failure & filler to greatly soften their in-the-moment impact. Looking back at past seasons of the show allow you to remember the great work & forget the filler, constructing a false reality where the show was ever perfect or firing on all cylinders (and I’m saying this about a series I love dearly & never miss). One of the things that helps foster this skewed perception is many of the performers’ post-show fame. It’s easy to look back & think SNL was so much better when Will Ferrell or Bill Murray were on instead of these no-name nobodies they’re currently working with, but the show is where those comedians cut their teeth & made a name for themselves in the first place. The truth is that they suffered just as much public scrutiny & just as many comedic missteps in their own day, but came out the other end of the show’s star-making machine all the better for it.

One of the ways the SNL star-maker machine used to work was in movie production. The franchise’s first film, The Blues Brothers, was an outrageous hit that helped make its stars Dan Aykroyd & John Belushi insanely popular in the early 1980s. The brand’s follow-up, Wayne’s World, had the same effect on the careers of Dan Carvey & Mike Myers and has gradually become a near-universally well-regarded comedy despite its inherent stoner-minded silliness. Things got much stranger in the mid to late 90s. When SNL movies like Coneheads & It’s Pat critically & financially sank the franchise’s box office reputation, the SNL movie seemed to shift focus from defining pop culture to developing the strengths of its performers. The late 90s run of A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar, and The Ladies Man in particular play like movie star training wheels for the show’s performers (not unlike WWE productions like 12 Rounds & See No Evil). They’re low-stakes pictures aimed to help a future generation of comedic giants define their on-screen presence in a halfway point between a comedy sketch & a feature length character study. It’s easy to see, for instance, the beginnings of Will Ferrell’s future schtick, later defined in films like Step Brothers & Talladega Nights, beginning to form in his early roles as a club-hopping airhead in Roxbury or Jesus Christ himself in Superstar. The latest movie in SNL’s official sketch-to-silver-screen catalog (and my personal favorite to date), 2010’s MacGruber, seemed to be a similar incubator for comedic madman Will Forte, whose onscreen work gets weirder & more prominent every passing year.

It’s been six years since MacGruber and it’s unlikely that there are many sketch-to-film characters currently in development (not that I would necessarily be opposed to a Stefon or Olya Povlatsky movie), but that doesn’t mean the SNL movie is currently dead as a format. This hasn’t been the longest gap between SNL pictures by any stretch; there was a full decade separating both The Blues Brothers & Wayne’s World and The Ladies Man & MacGruber. It has been interesting, though, that in this most recent time span there’s been plenty of comedies I’d readily classify as “unofficial” SNL movies. Official SNL productions are traditionally helmed by the showrunner Lorne Michaels & have some sort of character connection to a recurring sketch from the show. Unofficial SNL movies, to me, exist solely in the casting. As a life-long fan of the show, I get incongruously excited when a comedy features a long list of SNL players, especially when I wasn’t expecting their participation. It happened, for example, in recent works like Inside Out, Skeleton Twins, and Zoolander 2 (which was a great showcase for Kyle Mooney in particular). Adam Sandler, for instance, has built a career around including as many of his SNL collaborators as possible in his own productions, which admittedly often disappoint in quality & basic human decency. Sometimes even his unofficial SNL movies can win me over, though. I doubt I’d have enjoyed an Adam Sandler children’s cartoon, horror comedy or otherwise, without a long list of SNL collaborators tagging along, but I gotta admit this long list of Not Ready for Prime Time Players brought too much joy to my heart for me to sour on Sandler’s Hotel Transylvania 2: Sandler, Andy Samberg, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Dana Carvey, Chris Kattan, Jon Lovitz, Robert Smigel, Chris Parnell, and oft-recurring host Steve Buscemi as a CGI werewolf. Similarly, the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy Sisters got me stoked last Christmas with this delicious SNL lineup: Fey, Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bobby Moynihan, Rachel Dratch, Kate McKinnon, and Chris Parnell. Moynihan in particular was allowed to steal the show in his role as the world’s worst amateur comedian and it got me excited about where his big screen career will eventually go, which is exactly what an SNL movie should be doing, undercover or not. That brings me to this summer’s undercover SNL movies: Popstar & Ghostbusters.

On its own, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is enough to make me feel as if the modern SNL movie is being officially outsourced to powers outside Lorne Michaels’s reach. Andy Samberg’s comedy troupe The Lonely Island are lifelong friends with roots much deeper than Samberg’s 2000s stint on the sketch comedy show. However, their “Digital Shorts” music parody bits are what made the troupe famous and now they have an entire This is Spinal Tap-style comedy built around the gimmick in Popstar. The Lonely Island’s first feature film, Hot Rod, included enough SNL collaborators to qualify as an undercover SNL movie, but that movie’s followup, Popstar, is even more ambitious in its inclusion of past personalities form the series: Samberg, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Jimmy Fallon, Steve Higgins, Will Forte, Sarah Silverman, and a fully-utilized Tim Meadows, which is particularly a rare treat. Not only has the Saturday Night Live roll call gotten even longer, but the film itself is an extension of a gimmick that was developed on the television series into a feature length narrative. The world was introduced to these pop star clowns on Saturday Night Live in songs like “I’m on a Boat” & “Jack Sparrow” and now their parody of pop music hedonism is on display in movie theaters without the SNL or Lorne Michaels brands stamped on it in any official way.

The modern, undercover SNL movie formula isn’t merely content with hjacking past sketches from the show, either. It’s now also infiltrating past works with only a small connection to the series. Early SNL staples Dan Aykroyd & Bill Murray received top billing in the 1984 horror comedy Ghostbusters, but they were the only two cast members involved with the movie, which had about as much to do with SNL as the Chris Farley, David Spade buddy comedies of the mid-90s, maybe even less. Compare that to the undercover SNL movie ensemble Paul Feig & casting director Allison Jones have delivered in the recent Ghostbusters remake. When they just comprised half of the main cast in the original property, all four of the Ghostbusters are SNL players in the 2016 version: Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and honorary cast member (through regular, fully-committed hosting gigs) Melissa McCarthy. They’re also backed up by the bit role roster of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Higgins, and Cecily Strong. More convincing yet, the movie is proving to be something of a star-maker for the consistently funny McKinnon, who’s been up there with Strong, Bryant, Moynihan, and Taran Killiam as one of the most essential backbone pieces of the show’s current cast. If Ghostbusters did nothing more than promote & develop Kate McKinnon’s screen presence, it would already have done its job, as that’s the best post-Coneheads titles like Superstar & Roxbury ever hoped for.

Ghostbusters does accomplish more than that, though. It’s an all-around hilarious, well-made popcorn flick that’s actually visually striking in its play with aspect ratios in its large format release (ghosts, lasers, lighting, and such spill over the letterbox border to enhance the film’s 3D effects), a kind of ambition I don’t normally anticipate from a summertime comedy, much less a reboot. Popstar is equally successful in its humor & ambition, bringing the Walk Hard brand of pop music cinema parody into the 2010s by tackling the Justin Bieber & One Direction style of “concert documentaries” that have been released since that modern John C. Reilly classic (which featured a few SNL contributors of its own). Two of the best summertime comedies of 2016 boast strong SNL roots, but don’t openly display the series’s brand. Meanwhile, Lorne Michaels supports smaller projects from his sketch comedy children, like the Hader-Armisen series Documentary Now or Maya Rudolph’s various attempts to launch a successful variety show of her own. In the six years since MacGruber left the theaters Michaels has shown little interest in pushing for a project like Riblet: The Movie or One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy: The Male-Driven Comedy. I would totally be down for either of those features, being a huge sucker for the brand (a Tonkerbell movie could work too while we’re at it), but I’m proud to see undercover SNL movies like Popstar & Ghostbusters fill that void in the long-running sketch series’s current theatrical absence. I doubt we’ve seen the end of the official SNL sketch-to-big-screen movie, but it’s been great to see the younger cast find their own collaborative space at the movies in the meantime. Especially Kate McKinnon. Everyone throw all of your money directly at Kate McKinnon. Now.

-Brandon Ledet

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

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Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is doing dismal numbers at the box office right now, but so did the cult classic comedy it most closely resembles: Walk Hard – The Dewey Cox Story. The Judd Apatow-penned John C. Reilly comedy Walk Hard applied ZAZ-style spoofery to the musician’s biopic genre and wound up covering the entire history of rock & roll from its blues origins to its Vegas crooner swan song. Popstar picks up exactly where Walk Hard leaves off, mixing ZAZ spoofery with a Spinal Tap documentary format to skewer the modern state of pop music as it has developed since Walk Hard‘s release nearly a decade ago. It’s a shame both of these films failed to make waves financially (Popstar‘s seemingly complete lack of advertising couldn’t have helped there), but they do promise to hold onto a more significant longevity among their respective comedy nerd fandoms. Case in point, just look to the other The Lonely Island film that failed at the box office & found a second life among dedicated fans, Hot Rod. Popstar is just as funny as Hot Rod & just as primed for repetitive viewings, so there’s no doubt in my mind it’ll get the same cult comedy treatment as that militantly goofy title in the long run.

The really interesting thing about that lack of immediate financial success, though, is the way it plays directly into Popstar‘s plot. In the film former SNL player Andy Samberg embodies a versatile stand-in popstar archetype that covers enough ground to resemble any popstar of note you could name from Kanye to Bieber to Skrillex to whoever. Samberg’s titular popstar struggles to repeat past success with a solo record & tour that only do a fraction of the numbers landed on his hit releases. Over the course of the film he learns to put past grudges & current hubris behind him & give the people what they want: a cash-in reunion of the Beastie Boys-esqe pop group that first made him famous. In a lot of ways Popstar itself is Samberg’s way of giving the people what they want. Presuming that Hot Rod didn’t make as much money as it could have because its delightfully moronic daredevil subject matter isn’t exactly what audiences would expect from a The Lonely Island movie, Samberg & company return to their roots here to construct a full-length version of what made their SNL sketches & comedy albums popular decade ago: pop music parody. According to the film’s fantasy version of this well-deserved cash-in, they should be making absurd amounts of money right now, but that’s not exactly how things are working out despite the product being on-point.

Box office numbers & middling reviews aside, Popstar stands as Andy Samberg’s greatest achievement to date. His deeply silly magnum opus lovingly skewers the totality of hedonistic excess & outsized hubris on the modern pop landscape. The film nails the feel of modern pop documentaries in terms of style coopting the on-screen text & social media illustration of titles like Amy along with talking head “interviews” with folks like Nas, Questlove, and Pharrell, the exact kind of contributors you’re likely to see pop up in films like Fresh Dressed. Popstar builds a solid, believable base to hang its gags upon & that in-the-know confidence allows the humor to go as broad or as absurd as it needs to in any particular moment without throwing the audience off track. You’re never entirely shaken by a throwaway gag like a baby playing drums like Neil Peart or an artist responsible for the “brilliance” of catchphrases like “#doinkdedoink” having the self-confidence to declare the Mona Lisa “an overrated piece of shit” because the movie is well-calibrated enough to support those kinds of over-the-top indulgences. The format, the character, his world, and our own pop music terrain all back up each ridiculous gag Samberg throws at the wall,  making the film out to be an efficient little comedy machine in comparison to the sprawling, Apatow-dominated landscape comedic cinema’s been exploring to death in recent years. There’s certainly loose improv afoot in Popstar, but it’s arranged & edited into highly functioning efficiency.

I don’t think I’d call Popstar my favorite comedy of the year so far (it’s got the looming presences of Hail, Caesar!, The Mermaid, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, The Nice Guys and The Bronze to deal with there), but I do think it outshines its closest comparison point in recent months: Zoolander 2. My main complaint with Zoolander 2, a movie I quite enjoyed, was that it gets “a little exasperating in its never-ending list of cameos & bit roles […] The film is overstuffed with both celebrity cameos & SNL vets dropping in for a dumb joke or two.” Popstar somehow adopts that exact cameo-saturated format & makes it work like gangbusters. It’s impossible to review this film without name dropping some of the musicians (RZA, Usher, A$AP Rocky, Arcade Fire, etc.) & comedians (Sarah Silverman, Eric Andre, Bill Hader, an actually-utilized Tim Meadows, etc.) involved, but their presence is actually necessary for the format to work instead of being distracting & dilutive the way they were in Stiller’s film.

Popstar smartly & lovingly dismantles the entirety of pop music’s current state of ridiculousness from EDM DJ laziness to the devastation of a negative Pitchfork review, to Macklemore’s no-homo “activism” to U2’s invasive album release snafu. Celebrity obsession & absurd acts of cartoonish hubris play right into that surreally vapid world, so Samberg has established a work here where needless cameos &  unhinged silliness are a necessity just as much as they’re an indulgence. Long after the lack of critical or box office buzz are forgotten, Popstar might just stand as Samberg’s greatest to work, the most efficient application of his distinct sense of humor put to record.

-Brandon Ledet