Brandon’s Top 20 Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2019

1. Fighting With My Family This melodramatic biopic about WWE wrestler Paige does an excellent job conveying the appeal of pro wrestling as an artform, offers empathy to every character its story touches without shying away from their faults, and properly sketches out how much respect for women’s wrestling has evolved in the last decade (and how influential Paige was in that sea change). It’s also way dirtier than I expected, often playing like an R-rated Disney Channel Original.

2. Ma Octavia Spencer slums it as an unassuming small-town vet tech who parties with neighborhood teens in order to enact revenge for their parents’ past wrongs. It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Spencer devour scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.

3. Child’s Play An in-name-only, shockingly fun “remake” of the classic killer doll thriller by the same name. Much like the original, this is the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flick kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them too young on cable, and it directly pays homage to that very canon in references to titles like Killer Klowns From Outer Space & Texas Chainsaw Massacre II.

4. Paradise Hills An impressive coterie of young actors (Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle McDnonald, Eiza Gonzalez) square off against veteran badass Milla Jovovich in a near-future Patriarchal hell. It’s essentially Guillermo del Toro’s Stepford Wives staged on the set of the rose garden from the animated Alice in Wonderland. A femme fairy tale that takes its over-the-top, Literotica-ready premise refreshingly seriously despite the inherent camp of its (sumptuous) costume & production design.

5. Read or Not A list of things that make this Clue & You’re Next genre mashup immensely enjoyable: the careful attention to costume design, the Old Dark house sets, Samara Weaving, Aunt Helene, that “Hide & Seek” novelty record and, most importantly, the rapid escalation of its final ten minutes into full unrestrained delirium. Great nasty fun.

6. Saaho A Indian action blockbuster that opens as a fairly well-behaved Fast & Furious rip-off in its first hour, then pulls an outrageous twist I’ve never seen in an action film before, and finally reveals its title card and the announcement “It’s showtime!” The next two hours are then a throw-it-all-in-a-blender mix of Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious, The Matrix, John Wick, Iron Man, Fury Road and practically every other action blockbuster in recent memory you can name. Pure maximalism.

7. Pledge A nasty little VOD horror about a fraternity rush week from Hell. The dialogue and performances are alarmingly good for something on its budget level, which makes it all the more horrifying when characters you kinda like are tortured in extreme gore by frat bro monsters for a solid hour of “hazing.” It also sidesteps a lot of the usual misogyny of the torture porn genre by making both the victims & villains All-American macho types.

8. Good Boys Superbad is often praised for its final emotional grace notes shared between teen-boy BFFs who’ve struggled to maintain a tough masculine exterior throughout their entire preceding gettin’-laid adventures, to the detriment of their relationship. Here, the earnest vulnerability & emotional grace notes are constant & genuine from frame one, providing some much-needed hope for the men of the future. These are very good boys.

9. Braid Two amateur drug dealers escape police scrutiny by returning to the childhood home of a mentally unwell friend who’s trapped in a never-ending game of violent make-believe. A total mess but also a total blast. Gorgeous costumes & sets, gloriously self-indulgent film school cinematography, and genuinely shocking over-the-top turns in the “plot” every few beats. Think of it as Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era.

10. War Between this & Saaho, my two favorite action movies of the year are both big budget, Twisty blockbusters from India. This one is basically a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. It’s 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.”

11. Glass M. Night Shyamalan explodes his small-scale women-in-captivity thriller Split into an MCU-scale superhero franchise, but hilariously dodges all the accompanying genre spectacle that his budget can’t afford. I am very late to the table as a Shyamalan apologist, but by the time I was the only person in the theater cackling at his attempt to connect the mythology of his own cameos in Split & Unbreakable into a cohesive narrative arc, I was converted for life. What an adorable nerd.

12. Crawl A lean, mean, single-location creature feature in which a father-daughter duo fights off killer CG alligators during intense hurricane-related flooding. Only could have been improved by an alternate ending where they survive the storm only to discover that the entire planet has been taken over by gators while they were trapped inside. Should have ended with gators piloting the “rescue” choppers.

13. Escape Room Basically the ideal version of Saw, with all the nasty torture porn & (most of) the nu-metal removed for optimal silliness. All storytelling logic & meaningful dialogue/character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, truly preposterous gimmick: an escape room, except For Real.

14. The Head Hunter A medieval monster slayer seeks to add the head of the beast that killed his daughter to his trophy collection. An impressive feat in low-budget filmmaking that knows it can’t convincingly stage battle scenes on its production scale, so it makes up for it by leaning into what it can do well – mostly delivering grotesque creature designs & a nihilistic mood.

15. Booksmart Maybe not always the most hi-larious example of the modern femme teen sex comedy (in the recent The To Do List/Blockers/Wetlands/Slut in a Good Way tradition) but one with an unusually effective emotional core and more Gay Stuff than the genre usually makes room for. If nothing else, it felt good to know that the kids of Gen-Z are more than alright.

16. Greener Grass A warped Adult Swim-style comedy of manners about overly competitive soccer moms, featuring performances from D’arcy Carden, Mary Holland, Janicza Bravo, Beck Bennett, and similar Los Angeles comedy folks. Total illogical chaos and menacing irreverence from start to finish, with a particular debt owed to John Waters’s post-Polyester suburban invasion comedies.

17. The Breaker Upperers A New Zealand comedy about professional break-up for hire artists, a premise that’s pretty much a wholesome 2010s update to Dirty Work by way of Taika Waititi. Zings quickly & efficiently with incredibly well-defined characters, like a The Movie adaptation of a sitcom that’s already been going for years & years.

18. The Banana Splits Movie A SyFy Channel Original that’s somehow a genuine delight? It imagines a world where its eponymous Hanna-Barbera children’s show starred killer animatronic robots instead of failed actors in mascot costumes. Goofy & violent enough to be worthwhile despite how thin its character work is (with some especially nasty practical gore gags), which is more than you can say for most of the originals that network broadcasts.

19. Countdown Beyond just appreciating that there was a mainstream horror about a killer smartphone app in megaplexes this past Halloween, I admired this for adding three very distinct angles to the technophobic Killer Internet subgenre: the eerie unknown of user agreement text that no one reads; the startling menace of app notifications that unmute themselves every phone update; and car backup cam jump scares.

20. CATSTom Hooper’s deranged stage musical adaptation is the exact horned-up, ill-advised CGI nightmare that Film Twitter has been shouting about for months on end and I’m happy it’s been celebrated as such. Admittedly, though, I was absolutely exhausted by pro film critics’ competition to see who could dunk on the film online with the loudest or the funniest zingers, which tempered my enthusiasm before I got to enjoy its spectacular awfulness for myself (opening week!). As such, I suspect this is the camp gem of 2019 that will improve the most in years to come, once the hyperbolic discourse around it settles and it remains just as bizarre as ever.

-Brandon Ledet

Saaho (2019)

One of my favorite excursions to the theater in the last couple years was a blind-watch of the Indian sci-fi action spectacle 2.0, which I didn’t even realize was a sequel to a much bigger hit film until almost a half-hour into its runtime. The three hour onslaught of shapeshifting machines, music video interludes, and CGI-aided slapstick farce that followed was the exact kind of brain-melting spectacle I always hope for in over-the-top action blockbusters, but rarely see satisfied. The closest parallel in American cinema to the gleefully excessive cartoon lunacy of 2.0 (and its equally ludicrous predecessor Enthiran) is the ongoing Fast & Furious series, which long ago started as a street-racing flavored Point Break rip-off but at this point is a full-on Looney Tunes-scale middle finger to logic, good taste, and physics – bless its big stupid heart. That’s why it makes a lot of sense to me that the next Indian action blockbuster I’d catch in theaters would be a clear . . . homage to the Fast & Furious series’ global appeal as an obnoxious American export. The first hour of Saaho is a relatively well-behaved Telugu-language bastardization of the Fast & Furious formula, adapting the American series’ hyperactive game of cops & robbers to a different cultural backdrop while maintaining the exact look & tone of its earliest, least remarkable entries. Luckily, there are two more hours of runtime after that initial third, and that’s where that old 2.0 feeling flooded back into my theater and the movie rapidly transformed into its own beautifully ludicrous novelty – miles past its Fast & Furious starting line.

Almost as if purposefully restraining itself to American action cinema’s more conservative sensibilities for its first hour, Saaho waits until a third of the way into its colossal runtime to reveal its opening credits title card – “SAAHO” in massive block letters. That delayed announcement is then followed up with the warning “It’s showtime!,” as if the entire preceding hour were just a preamble warmup to the feature attraction. It’s not like the film shifts gears from there into being something other than a heightened Fast & Furious riff into something entirely novel, either. Instead, it tosses that series into a blender with Mission: Impossible, The Matrix, John Wick, Iron Man, Mad Max: Fury Road, and practically every other action blockbuster in recent memory you can name, all with a go-big-forget-going-home James Cameron maximalism fueling its engine. It’s fairly blatant about this post-modern collect-them-all amalgamation of American pop culture touchstones too. There’s a fictional courier company in the film named Fast & Furious Delivery Service. A key shootout tears up a living room where T2: Judgement Day is playing on a background TV. When a suspect in a heist is pressured to spill the beans on his fellow thieves, he retorts “Jon Snow, I know nothing.” Still, the film transcends merely feeling like a collection of familiar pop culture references to become its own beautifully absurd post-modern object – partly through unifying its blatant influences with a consistent hip hop music video aesthetic, partly by translating them through the highly specific cultural filter of an Indian blockbuster template, and partly by signaling its second-hour gear shift with a rules-changing character reveal that I’ve never seen in the action genre before, American or otherwise.

I wouldn’t dare spoil the genre-subverting Twist that prompts the “It’s showtime!” announcement at the top of the second hour, at least not in a proper review. It’s not like plot or characterization are the main draw for over-the-top action blockbusters on this scale anyway. Saaho doesn’t have much on its mind narrative-wise other than pulling the rug from under its audience in a constant parade of double/triple/quadruple crossings between its warring factions of corrupt cops & ambitious thieves. The thieves need a “black box” MacGuffin key to unlock a vault full of gold (that has a vague connection to a nationally beneficial Hydro Electric Power Plant project they’re embezzling from). The cops monitoring their activities need to catch them in the act of the robbery to prove that a crime is even taking place, since most of their illegal activities appear to be above board as a privately-owned corporation that does good deeds for the national public. Both sides of the cops & robbers divide have undercover operatives sabotaging the other’s missions and much of the fun of the film’s plot is trying to keep track of who’s really working for whom among the many, many characters onscreen. If all these good vs. evil espionage and secret identities shenanigans add up to any central theme, it’s that thieves are always a few steps ahead of the police, which affords them an anti-hero underdog status in the film’s hierarchy (in true Fast & Furious tradition). I’m not sure that it does add up to much thematically, though, since narrative was always going to take a back seat to the film’s value as a vehicle for over-the-top action spectacle.

Ludicrous, delirious, cartoon-level action is never in short supply here, not even in the film’s relatively well-behaved first hour. Body-mounted cameras spice up multi-level fistfights where muscle heads are beaten to a pulp with their own gym weights. Characters fly across the screen wuxia-style to emphasize the impact of a thunderous punch or kick. Slow-motion frame rates dwell on explosions & car wrecks so you can fully soak in their violent splendor. Because of the expectations of the Indian audience, these action cinema payoffs are often disrupted by romantic excursions & music video dance breaks for minutes on end. It’s not as if American action movies are devoid of extraneous romantic subplots or commercially-minded needle drops. It’s just that dispatches from Indian production hubs like Bollywood & Tollywood afford those touches extended, isolated screentime to fully play out. This can lead to some sublimely surreal cinematic moments, like when the film’s romantic leads slow-dance in a choreographed gunfight & flirt over an intense game of foosball, or when the film exaggerates action blockbusters’ propensity for product placement into a feature-length music video advertisement for Red Bull energy drinks. There is nothing subtle or nuanced about Saaho. Its boardroom of criminal thieves all look like Dick Tracey villains. Its bombshell lead’s hair is always glamorously blowing in the breeze, even when she’s indoors. It name-checks Fast & Furious in the first ten minutes to signal exactly what it’s up to. Once it’s officially “showtime,” though, and the film fully exploits its opportunities for action-packed, copyright-infringing chaos, their total disregard for subtlety becomes its greatest virtue. If you’re going to be a Big Dumb Loud action flick, you might as well be the biggest, dumbest, and loudest. I can’t help but respect these Indian action spectacles’ full-on commitment to their own emptyheaded extremity, since they make their American counterparts (and apparent sources of inspiration) seem relatively tame by comparison.

-Brandon Ledet