Brandon’s Top Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2018

1. 2.0 The more I watch big-budget Asian cinema the more I understand that it’s common for a single movie to touch on as many genres it can instead of sticking to just one. This Kollywood flick fully lives up to that ethos, melding technophobic sci-fi, Environmentalist political advocacy, ghost-possession horror, android-on-android romance, slapstick farce, superhero action spectacle, and philosophical debate into one lumbering, silly-ass beast. I loved it all, both for the surprise of its novelty and for its audacity to go big & so silly.

2. The Misandrists Queer punk prankster Bruce LaBruce’s latest work is a little too cheeky & misshapen to stand out as my favorite movie of the year but it is the most John Watersiest film I’ve seen all year, which, close enough. The Misandrists has clear thematic & aesthetic vision and a distinct political voice, but its commanding ethos is still aggressively amateur & D.I.Y. Its burn-it-all-down gender & sexual politics are sincerely revolutionary but are also filtered through a thick layer of sarcasm & over-the-top-camp. You might be justified in assuming it was a film school debut from a young, angry upstart with a still-fresh appetite for shock humor & pornography, but it’s got the clear vision & tonal control of an artist who’s been honing their craft for decades – like John Waters at his best.

3. The First PurgeThere’s nothing subtle about The First Purge’s political messaging in its depictions of white government operatives invading helpless, economically wrecked black neighborhoods to thin out the ranks of its own citizenry, nor should there be. We do not live in subtle times. What I didn’t expect, though, was that the film would be willing to push the imagery of its volatile racial politics to the extremes it achieves as the violence reaches its third act crescendo. I greatly respect its bravery & lack of restraint, almost enough to finally give the rest of the series a chance.

4. Blockers This modern teen sex comedy shifts away from the bro-friendly humor of its genre’s American Pie & Porky’s past by approaching the subject from a femme, sex-positive perspective. I don’t quite understand the narrative that its mold-breaking challenge to the gendered politics of the typical high school sex comedy is revolutionary. If nothing else, The To Do List already delivered an excellent femme subversion of the trope to a tepid critical response in 2013 and 2014’s Wetlands has set the bar impossibly high for what a gross-out femme sex comedy can achieve. Blockers is a damn fun addition to that tide-change, though, one that’s surprisingly emotionally effective in a John Hughes tradition beyond its sexual buffoonery.

5. A Simple Favor Mainstream comedy mainstay Paul Feig shakes up his usual schtick with a tongue-in-cheek Gone Girl riff. The performances, writing, and costuming are all naughtily playful at the exact perfect one, especially in how they converge to create a career-high showcase for Blake Lively. The wild shifts in tone from dark humor to dime story mystery novel intrigue can leave unsuspecting audiences more befuddled than amused, but this has serious cult classic potential among the weirdos on its distinctly modern wavelength.

6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Into the Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & medium that should be a total drag but is instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity here.

7. VenomTom Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout the film as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

8. Hotel ArtemisUnlike most overwritten post-Tarantino crime thrillers, this misshapen gem is genuinely, consistently hilarious. With the hotel setting and absurdist mix-ups of an Old Hollywood farce, Hotel Artemis embraces the preposterousness of its exceedingly silly premise in a way that more cheap genre films could stand to. However, the joys of watching Jodie Foster waddle around the titular hotel and lovingly tell patrons they look “like all the shades of shit” are very peculiar & very particular. That kind of highly specific appeal can be a blessing in disguise for a scrappy, over-the-top genre film, and I can totally see Hotel Artemis gathering a dedicated cult following over time.

9. Overlord There’s nothing especially nuanced or unique about the message “Nazis are evil & gross and must be destroyed,” but in the context of 2018’s political climate it still feels damn good to hear. This is especially true when said Nazis are shot, set aflame, and exploded in an over-the-top action spectacle that cares way more about cathartic fun than it does about historical accuracy. We may be living in a world where war thrillers & zombie pictures are all too plentiful, but there can never be enough condemnation of Nazi scumbaggery.

10. Black Panther I can’t pretend that this movie hit me as the mind-blowing, form-breaking revelation most audiences see it as (mostly because its titular hero is something of a moralistic bore). I’d even feel comfortable calling it the least of Ryan Coogler’s works, even if it is his best-funded. As an Afrofuturist sci-fi spectacle with a killer villainous performance from the consistently-great Michael B. Jordan, however, it’s easy to cite this franchise entry as one of the best of the MCU canon. My appreciation for Black Panther might be relatively subdued when compared to others’, but I could contently watch spaceships fly around Wakanda while Michael B Jordan chews scenery & background actors model Afrofuturist fashion designs for a blissful eternity.

11. How to Talk to Girls at Parties A jubilant, musically-charged mess of bisexual, youthful rebellion that’s half theatre-kid earnestness & half no-fucks-given punk. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s (incredibly short) short story of the same name, How to Talk to Girls at Parties finds John Cameron Mitchell crafting his own Velvet Goldmine vision of pop excess, except set in England’s early-stages punk scene, years after the demise of the glam scene lauded in Todd Haynes’s film. The film’s future-kink set design, punk needle drops, irreverent culture-clash humor, and performances by indie scene heavyweights Elle Fanning (as a babe-in-the woods space alien rebel) & Nicole Kidman (as a parodic Vivienne Westwood knockoff) are all intoxicating pleasures that readily distract from the fact that Mitchell has greedily bitten off more than any human could possibly chew, only to spit the overflow into the air in defiance of tastefulness.

12. Halloween Like with The Force Awakens, this Halloween sequel/remake/reboot has the impossible task of pleasing everyone, ranging from devotees of the original who want to know how Laurie Strode’s doing 40 years later to first-weekend horror-gobbling teens who just want to see some jump scares & interesting kills. I believe it did an excellent job of satisfying the most extreme ends of that divide by treating them as separate tracks, then giving them a substantive reason to converge. The tension between the original Halloween’s storyline’s need to logically seek closure & the slasher genre’s need to propagate random, senseless violence makes this film one of the best examples of its franchise – one that has something substantive to say about Fate, Evil, and self-fulfilling prophecies.

13. Marrowbone If you’re not especially in love with the atmospheric feel of the traditional haunted house genre, this film’s aesthetic details and bonkers third act might not be enough to carry you beyond the sense that we’ve seen this story told onscreen many times before. More forgiving Gothic horror fans should find plenty of admirable specificity to this particular story, though – the kind of tangible, unhinged detailing that allows the best ghost stories to stick to the memory despite their decades (if not centuries) of cultural familiarity.

14. Assassination NationUpdates & subverts the Heathers formula by adopting the glib, dark humor of Twitter-speak, where all human experience – even the worst misery & public embarrassment imaginable – is fair game for a flippant, casually tossed-off joke. This weaponized, empathy-free brand of online humor sits on the stomach with an unease, only to gradually erupt into full-on, gendered violence once it escapes the anonymity of the internet and devolves into a public display. Assassination Nation may be costumed like a glib, modernist Heathers descendant, but it’s ultimately less interested in making you laugh than it is in making you sick to your stomach. Once you catch onto that nausea being its exact intended effect, it’s an incredibly impressive work.

15. Mom and Dad A wickedly fun satire about traditional families’ barely concealed hatred for their own; a chaotic portrait of selfishness & self-loathing in the modern suburban home. This movie hides behind tongue-in-cheek touches like a 70s exploitation-themed credits sequence & stylized dialogue like “My mom is a penis,” but just under its ironic camp surface rots a charred, bitterly angry heart, one with no respect for the almighty Family Values that mainstream America holds so dear. Show up for Nic Cage destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing “The Hokey Pokey;” stay for the pitch-black humor about “successful” adults who find their manicured, suburban lives with the right career & the right family bitterly unfulfilling.

16. Batman Ninja The concept of mashing up Batman with anime sounds like a nerd’s wet dream, a juvenile pleasure impulse Batman Ninja attempts to live up to in every self-indulgent frame. With intense character redesigns from Japanese manga artist Takashi Okazaki and an impressive team of traditionalist animators, this movie is almost well-crated enough to pass itself off as an art piece instead of what it truly is: nonstop over-the-top excess, a shameless sky-high pile of pop culture trash. Batman Ninja seems entirely unconcerned with justifying its own for-their-own-sake impulses. Its experiments in the newly discovered artform of Batmanime seem to be born entirely of “Wouldn’t it be rad if __?” daydreaming. It’s a refreshing approach to Batman storytelling, as most of the character’s feature-length cartoons are much less comfortable with fully exploring the freedom from logic animation affords them.

17. Ghost Stories For most of its runtime, this movie pretends to be a very well-behaved, Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level horror anthology with open-ended, unsatisfying conclusions to its three mildly spooky vignettes. It turns out that dissatisfaction is deliberate, as it sets the film up for a supernaturally menacing prank on an unsuspecting audience. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent-enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure us into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith.

18. Revenge “Resolving” rape through gory bloodshed may be a faulty narrative impulse, but the way Revenge filters its all-out gore fest indulgences through psychedelic, sun-rotted fantasy is an especially novel mutation of a rape revenge genre formula that must evolve to be sustained (or, better yet, must be destroyed for good). The trick is having the patience in watching the film participate in that despicable genre long enough to be able to explode it from the inside.

19. SuperFly A modernized retooling of one of the most iconic titles in the blaxploitation canon, this low-budget, high-fashion action thriller sets itself up for comparisons that jeopardize its chance to stand out on its own from the outset. The soundtrack may have been updated from Curtis Mayfield funk to Future trap, and some of the nihilism from the original may have been supplanted with wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it is still largely the same story of an ambitious hustler with beautifully over-treated hair struggling to get out of the cocaine business with one big, final score. It’s a gleefully trashy, hyperviolent action cheapie with more of an eye for fashion & brutality than any technical concerns in its visual craft or its debt to stories told onscreen in the past. It’s entirely enjoyable for being just that.

20. Truth or Dare – There are two competing gimmicks at war with each other in the gleefully idiotic trash-horror Truth or Dare?. As suggested in the title, one gimmick involves a supernatural, deadly version of the schoolyard game truth-or-dare that drives the film both to explorations of contrived ethical dilemmas and to even more contrived novelty indulgences in demonic possession clichés. As delightfully silly as a haunted truth-or-dare game is for a horror movie premise, though, it’s not the gimmick that most endeared the film to me. It’s Truth or Dare?’s stylistic gimmick as The Snapchat Filter Horror Movie that really stole my trash-gobbling heart. Films like Unfriended, #horror, Afflicted, and so on are doing more to preserve the history of modern online communication than they’re given credit for, specifically because they’re willing to exploit pedestrian trash mediums like Skype, Candy Crush, and webcasting as foundational gimmicks for feature-length narratives. For its own part, Truth or Dare? has earned its place in cheap horror’s academic documentation of online discourse by exploiting Snapchat filter technology as a dirt-cheap scare delivery system. As silly as its titular gimmick can be, it wouldn’t have deserved camp cinema legacy without that secondary Snapchat filter gimmick backing it up.

-Brandon Ledet

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Mandy (2018)

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Revenge (2018)

I’ve been hearing high praise for Coralie Fargeat’s hyperviolent gross-out Revenge for months, but have avoided following through on the recommendation out of squeamishness for its chosen genre. This is a rape revenge thriller, my least favorite corner of genre cinema & very much the reason why I’m cautious about approaching any 70s grindhouse titles without first glancing over their plots. The typical rape revenge structure is the male gaze at its most maliciously weaponized, leering at length at the violent sexual assault of a female protagonist and then hurriedly offering her supposed retribution through empowering ultraviolence of her own as an afterthought. I’m always suspicious of the rape revenge thriller, particularly in classic examples of the genre like I Spit on You Grave, for the obvious pleasure & titillation in the assault they later pretend to deplore & counterbalance. Where I find skin-crawling misogyny in the rape revenge thriller, however, some feminist genre fans have found emotional catharsis, which is where Fargeat appears to land on the subject. In its earliest stretch, Revenge shamelessly participates in the worst tropes of its chosen genre. Its teenage protagonist steps onto the scene in full Lolita drag—sunglasses, lollipop, bare skin, and all. The camera drools over her body, lingering on the leggy flesh that peeks out at the edge of her skirt’s high hem. This initial leering is a necessary evil to get to the subversive payoff of the film’s commentary on more nuanced topics like complicity, victim-blaming, and flirtation as obligation. It’s also an early source of tension before the violent fallout that follows. The worst exploitations of sexual assault in genre cinema is when it’s deployed as a cheap, easy motivator or plot catalyst (often for a male associate of the victim) when any other conflict would have done just as well in its place. It’s just as lazy as it is cruel. Revenge corrects this problem not only by rebalancing the weight of its depiction vs. the screen time afforded its fallout, but also by making sure the story is about the power dynamics of the inciting assault, fully engaging with the severity of its subject.

A millionaire playboy and his teenage mistress retreat to a romantic getaway in a remote, desert locale that can only be reached by helicopter. Their secret tryst is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his slobbish hunting buddies, who shamelessly leer at the outnumbered girl’s body. She meets this increased attention with accommodating flirtation, performing her youthful femininity for all three men’s entertainment as a kind of gracious hostess. This harmless flirtation is misunderstood for consent & invitation by the entitled male party guests, leading directly to her rape & attempted murder. Instead of fixating on the graphic details of the rape itself, Fargeat instead captures to toxic cultural forces that allow it to happen & go on unpunished: flirtation’s entitled misinterpretation as obligation, witnesses’ complicity in silence, victim-blaming, financial bribery, the threat of physical abuse, etc. The conflict established in this first act assault is all too real, even considering the way the protagonist is left for dead, powerless, and without resource. What develops from there is revenge fantasy, where she practically gets her vengeance from beyond the grave. Impaled, choking on her own blood, and eaten alive by ants, she crawls to a secluded place to repair herself in self-surgery, using peyote as an unlikely painkiller. Once that peyote kicks in, Revenge transforms from a damning exploration of the power dynamics of rape culture & masculine entitlement to a frantic, reality-detached bloodbath. There are only three potential victims to the vengeful wrath indicated by the title, but their demise is a prolonged descent into hyperviolent gore that lingers on all the explicit violence avoided in the depiction of the rape that instigated it. “Resolving” rape through gory bloodshed may be a faulty narrative impulse, but the way Revenge filters its all-out gore fest indulgences through psychedelic, sun-rotted fantasy is an especially novel mutation of a genre formula that must evolve to be sustained. The trick is having the patience in watching Fargeat participate in that genre for long enough for her to be able to explode it from the inside.

For all that’s commendable in Revenge’s pointed, angry commentary on complicity & entitlement in rape culture, the movie also excels as an exercise in pure style. The peyote & champagne-driven desert mirage of this film’s extensive indulgences in hyperviolent gore are incredibly stylish & confident, especially for a first-time director. Like last year’s blistering debuts We Are the Flesh & Raw, Revenge feels more like a surreal, distant echo of the New French Extremity movement of the early 00s than it does a subversion of 1970s schlock, at least in it its intensely gory visual cues. At times, the film also feels like as successful version of the rotted pop art sunshine horror attempted in The Bad Batch, especially in its desert-set psychedelic freak-outs. Its overall effect is entirely a vibe of its own design, however, even if it occasionally dips its toes into traditional genre markers like the base pleasures of neon & synths. There’s, of course, a moral self-contradiction in marrying these stylistic pleasures to such a grotesque narrative, a tension felt in almost all genre cinema. Personally, my favorite subversion of the rape-revenge narrative is in the much more muted Felt, where the inciting assault occurs before the movie begins and is only implied through context clues. Revenge at least does its part to match Felt’s focus on the aftermath & surrounding atmosphere of its assault, rather than the details of the event itself. It damns the macho culture that allows it to happen, then pulls out that culture’s guts to rot on public display in the desert sun. I was initially highly skeptical of how far the movie was willing to go in participating in its cursed genre’s worst tropes before launching itself into that sunlit psychedelic revenge fantasy. Once it fully reveals the scope & nuance of its cultural targets and floods the screen with a river of gore, however, I had little choice but to be overpowered by its potency. This might be the choice in genre that requires the most narrative & thematic justification for its continuation into the 2010s, but Revenge easily clears that bar in legitimizing the transgression. It’s an angry, beautiful gross-out of a debut and I’m glad I got over myself enough to give it a chance.

-Brandon Ledet

Dig Two Graves (2017)

It’s both fascinating and depressing how many minor indie films can slip through the cracks of theatrical distribution after first appearing for a festival run. The digitization of the film industry has democratized production to the point where almost anyone can make a movie, but opening the floodgates that way has meant that it’s much more difficult for a feature to stand out & be seen. The Gothic mystery thriller Dig Two Graves, for instance, premiered at the New Orleans Film Fest in 2014, but didn’t earn a “select theaters” release until nearly just three years later. The modestly budgeted film is now lurking, just a few months later, in the massive heap of under-publicized indies that eventually all find their way to Netflix. In some ways it’s easier to watch than ever before, but it’s also a victim of a distribution method that does it no favors in terms of visibility. It’s a shame too, because it’s actually a fairly engaging work that could be commercially viable with the right push.

There are two dueling timelines in Dig Two Graves. The film opens with 1940s cops dumping two bodies off a cliff into a backwoods river. It then jumps to two teen siblings standing at the same cliff in the 1970s. Unable to convince his sister to plunge with him, the older brother leaps to the water below on his own, never to resurface. The sister obsesses over this disappearance and is hurt that her family and community is able to move on. Her story starts to converge with the opening 1940s timeline from there, as she’s offered a proposition from old-timey gypsy vagabonds who promise to bring her brother back to life through black magic in exchange for the life of her schoolyard friend. The division between the 40s and 70s timelines loses its rigidity as she struggles with the implications of the magic that could bring her brother back. It’s a classic Southern Gothic tale of supernatural revenge that just happens to be set in the Midwest.

The pitfalls of revenge and the cycles of history repeating itself aren’t exactly novel territory for a mystery thriller to explore, but Dig Two Graves does a great job of visually distinguishing itself while remaining narratively familiar. Snakes, carnivals, magic tricks, the eeriness of the woods, and the hallmarks of hillbilly occultism all afford the film the feel of a strange bedtime story that resurfaces in your nightmares through half-remembered images. Jars of homemade moonshine and the field dressing of deer ground its supernatural story in a sense of real world brutality, while the lead vagabond’s battered top hat gives him a kind of Babadook quality. This is the exact kind of film I would have loved to have caught at a young enough age so that its specific images haunted me more than the mechanics if its central mystery; I’m thinking specifically of my relationship with The Lady in White. Still, even for an adult audience Dig Two Graves packs plenty of visually-triggered chills and can be technically impressive in its confident drifts between its two disparate temporal settings.

One of the biggest questions Dig Two Graves raises for me is just how many of these well-made indies are slipping through the distribution cracks and not even reaching Netflix. I even attended the 2014 NOFF where this film premiered (it’s where I saw Wetlands) and I’ve never heard of this film. I’ve had movies from subsequent NOFF screenings crack my Top Films of the Year lists, never to be heard of again in wide distribution. This is a strange time we’re living in for pop culture media, but I’m glad films like Dig Two Graves can at least find a way to get made even if they have to later struggle to be seen.

-Brandon Ledet

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)

Actor Macon Blair has made a name for himself in his two collaborations with up & coming filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin & Green Room, which has left him associated with a slick, low budget style of edge-of-your-seat thrillers. As a first time director in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Blair uses that reputation to his full advantage. He applies the same eye for real world detail and believably brutal bursts of unexpected violence that have distinguished Saulnier’s films to a refreshingly new genre context those two works only hint at: comedy. The violence in Macon Blair’s filmmaking debut is just as swift, brutal, and authentic as it feels in either Blue Ruin or Green Room, but is somehow adapted to a dark comedic tone that evokes howls of laughter instead of fits of nail-biting. Like a subdued, small scale version of The Nice Guys, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore finds a way to continuously surprise & delight, despite depicting realistic, out of left field brutality.

Melanie Lynskey stars as an Average American Woman, seemingly milquetoast in every way except that she can’t let go of petty micro-aggressions. Book spoilers, untended dog poop, obnoxious car exhaust, getting cut off at the grocery store checkout: our modern day anti-hero is disgusted by a myriad of tiny displays of selfishness, rudeness, and greed. She declares, “Everyone is an asshole . . . and dildos.” This Falling Down style of railing against modernity finally breaks her psyche when her home is looted by lowlife meth addicts and the police show little to no interest in helping her retrieve her stolen things: a laptop, her grandmother’s antique silver, and (maybe most importantly) her mood stabilizing medication. This inspires her to embark on a vigilante mission along with a similarly self-righteous neighbor (Elijah Wood in some convincing metalhead Napoleon Dynamite cosplay) to take down the den of meth addict thieves herself. Antics ensue. Horrifically violent, exponentially snowballing antics.

Because Melanie Lynskey’s audience-centering protagonist is unmedicated and increasingly unhinged, there’s a heightened, almost cartoonishly surreal sense of reality in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. The film’s vigilantism is anchored to a believable real world setting, but there’s something absolutely absurd about the way every hunch its protagonist entertains immediately pays off and she swiftly finds her way back to the creeps who invaded her home. The meth head monsters she finds at the end of this trail of neatly laid-out clues are headed by none other than The Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow (who was fantastic in the recent horror anthology Southbound), presenting such a grotesque personification of Small Town Evil that the film takes on almost a religious parable level of simplistic exaggeration. Elijah Wood’s sidekick vigilante is just as clearly coded as a Force of Good with an unbreakable moral code, no matter how much you underestimate him based in his rat tail, his nunchucks, and his lackluster “hacking” skills. The criminals are just as amateur and unprepared as “the good guys” in this allegory about the messiness of revenge and by the time the whole ordeal becomes a violent showdown in a cookie cutter McMansion & the nearby woods, every last player is made to look like a (bloodied, exhausted) fool.

As cartoonishly silly as I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore often is, Macon Blair does his best to place it in the context of a real, relatable world. Light beer, country music, upper-deckers, and smoking meth in the woods all sketch out a real world playing field where Melanie Lynskey’s unreal vigilante warpath can be staged. Her mission of principle, not in search of compensation, but for the simple demand that “people not be assholes” boasts an absurd, intangible goal and the movie itself never shies away from matching that absurdity in its overall tone. It’s rare that modern comedies are as tightly constructed or as visually striking as Blair’s debut. Each scene feels meticulously scripted, competently executed, and necessary to a larger plot with an inevitably bloody climax. In a post-Apatow world where we’re so used to comedies sprawling into overlong, heavily improvised tangential bits, it’s refreshing to see I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore function like an intricate jigsaw puzzle where every piece has its place in the larger picture. It also helps that the shocks of the film’s violence and the humor of its heightened sense of absurdity cut through any of its lost prestige as a product that was dumped straight to Netflix after a very brief festival run. It’s a great film no matter what circumstances dictated its (practically non-existent) theatrical release and I left it newly excited for the careers of several people I already knew I loved: Yow, Blair, Wood, and Lynskey. They’re all in top form.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bride Wore Black (La Mariée était en noir, 1968)

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In my reviews of The Legend of Boggy Creek and Anna to the Infinite Power, I mentioned my fascination with Maitland McDonough’s old TV Guide column “Ask Flick Chick,” in which she answered questions about films in general and provided readers with the titles of films that had haunted their subconsciouses for decades. Both Creek and Anna were films that were frequently asked about, as individual readers remembered disparate elements from each, and there were several other movies that would reappear as the answer to a new question with some regularity. Another such film was Francois Truffaut’s La Mariée était en noir (The Bride Wore Black), in which a woman whose husband was killed on their wedding day seeks out and visits revenge upon the five men responsible, crossing out their names one-by-one in her notebook. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. There are certain obvious similarities to Kill Bill, although Quentin Tarantino is insistent that he has never seen the film. It’s not unreasonable that he plucked this idea from the ether, especially given his openness about the films from which he did draw ideas and images for Kill Bill, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not that was the case.

Julie (Jeanne Moreau) is prevented from leaping out of a high window by her mother. Unable to end her life, we see her begin to call upon and kill one man after another. The first, a reformed womanizer (Claude Rich) preparing for his wedding, is talked into attempting to retrieve her scarf from a precarious balcony ledge; she tells him who she is before she pushes him to his death. The next man she kills is a messy, lonely bachelor (Michel Bouquet) to whom she sends tickets for a musical performance; she poisons him even as he protests that her husband’s death was an accident. Her third victim is a would-be politician and unsympathetic adulterer; she traps him in a small closet and allows him to suffocate as he reveals the circumstances that led to her husband’s death: the group of men liked to hunt and chase skirts, so they would get together from time to time and play cards; one of them was showing off his rifle and another picked it up and shot Julie’s husband without realizing the gun was loaded. They then escaped in order to protect their futures and careers.

Julie is understandably unmoved by this confession, and moves on to Delvaux (Daniel Boulanger), but he is arrested for an unrelated crime before she can exact her revenge. She then ingratiates herself with the artist Fergus (Charles Denner), modelling for him as he slowly falls in love with her. Her initial attempts to kill him fail, but she eventually shoots him with a bow he gave her to use as a prop. By this time, a mutual friend of Fergus and her first victim, David (Serge Rousseau), has figured out the connection, and he has her arrested at Fergus’s funeral. The end of the film shows that this was part of her larger plan, as she is able to kill Delvaux on the inside of prison.

This is an almost perfect film. François Truffaut had just finished a long series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, and this was his attempt to make a Hitchcockian thriller. Truffaut himself also expressed disappointment in this film for a long time, and it was only recently that this was revealed to have been due to artistic friction with cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Coutard worked with Truffaut previously but had worked with other directors in color before he and Truffaut reunited. As a result, they had conflicting ideas and the two would often have days-long arguments over composition and lighting that ultimately led to a very difficult shoot. Offscreen friction aside, however, this film has definitely only improved with age, featuring a uniquely French approach to the art of the mise-en-scene, which lends an air of the auteur to the film overall without forsaking the Hitchcockian elements that make it function as a mainstream picture as well.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

White God (2015)

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White God opens with an immediate delivery of its basic hook: a canine revolution. Our young teen protagonist Lili is shown biking down empty city streets, passing the same vacant cars & eerie urban voids that begin 28 Days Later. Before you can piece together an answer to “What happened here?” Lili meets a canine flood. Hundreds of real-life pups chase her down the road, suggesting some kind of Dogpocalypse. Even in these opening minutes you’re overwhelmed with the feeling that White God is an instant classic or, at the very least, something you’re not likely to see too many times in your life. The trick is once it has you on the hook with a taste of what’s to come, it has to earn the grand scale lunacy of that moment, which the film backtracks to accomplish with an intense tale of (somewhat supernatural) revenge.

Although Lili is first shown bracing the Dogpocalypse by herself, she’s far from alone in this world. Her pet mutt Hagen is Lili’s right hand dog, forming a strong sense of solidarity with her as the pair is passed off to her meat inspector father for a three month visit. Lili’s father is not fond of the dog, to say the least, and at first it’s tough to see his tenderness for his own daughter as well. The parallels between Lili & Hagen are established as early as when they’re being passed off to the nonplussed meat inspector at his slaughterhouse workplace. As they’re walked to his car, two cows are literally marched to the slaughter, hammering home the metaphor as much as possible in visual shorthand. As Hagen is shouted at, dragged by the collar, isolated, and abused throughout the film, Lili is similarly pushed around by the cops, teachers, and parental figures of her life. Her coming of age story poses a teenage girl’s lack of autonomy to be just as miserable & vulnerable as that of an abused street dog. As Hagen hurts his paw, Lili injures her leg. As Hagen’s filmed galloping down city streets, Lili prowls the very same locations on her bicycle, etc.

As similar as their troubled paths may be, however, it’s difficult to argue that Lili’s struggles with authority figures & indifferent older crushes are nearly as devastating as the indignities Hagen suffers. A mixed-breed street dog, Hagen is cruelly treated by every human being in his life in a gradually escalating gauntlet of abuse. After the cold beratement he suffers from Lili’s father, Hagen is abandoned roadside & left to fend for himself. A large part of the movie’s narrative takes a dog’s POV in a style that’s much more akin to the harsh realities of Baxter than it is to Homeward Bound. The confusing chaos of ducking through traffic, scavenging for puddles to drink & garbage to eat, and curiously pawing at roadkill are only the start to Hagen’s perilous journey. He initially makes enemies with animal control, a villain the film holds common with Shaun the Sheep & Babe 2: Pig in the City, but then his growing list of wrongdoers escalates to include butcher shop employees, desperate & homeless fiends, and heartless animal shelter brutes. Worst of all is an organized dogfighting ring (portrayed here in disturbing detail) that systematically abuses Hagen into becoming a trained killer instead of the sappy sweetheart he was in Lili’s protection. Speaking of Lili, even she becomes culpable in Hagen’s abuse as she gets so distracted with her own life that she gives up looking for her best friend, who’d been left to survive alone.

The good news is that as much as White God tests the strength & patience of animal lovers’ hearts (that dogfighting ring sequence is particularly brutal), it also delivers the immense sweetness of abused dogs’ revenge in a way so satisfying & so calculated that it approaches the supernatural. The final half hour of the film, which features extended sequences of Dogpocalypse mayhem & very precise acts of revenge on Hagen’s list of enemies, reaches a grand scale crescendo of chaos that rivals anything you’d see in a more well-funded natural horror film, like a Godzilla or a King Kong. White God pulls a surprising amount of pathos out of a dog’s dialogue-free journey through various forms of cruel captivity, whether he’s displaying the unbridled freedom of a leashless run, assembling a gang of dogpound miscreants (in curiously butsniffing-free exchanges), or, sadly, transforming from a kind soul to a hardened killer. Dogs really do just want to please us. They want to make us proud, asking only for love & attention in return. Even if you can see where the movie is going in its final minutes as Lili answers for her own participation in Hagen’s abandonment & resulting abuse, the climax still hits hard. Both in the sheer joy of beholding seemingly all of the world’s abused dogs exact their revenge on us human scum & in the tender intimacy of watching two wounded animals, Hagen & Lili, facing off & reconciling their pasts, White God makes every ounce of suffering that came before the climax well worth it. It’s a rare, satisfying conclusion of a genuinely strange film that gratifies both in its willingness to go over the top & in its ability to touch you emotionally.

-Brandon Ledet