Swampflix’s Top Films of 2018

1. Annihilation A beautifully terrifying tale of life, death, rebirth, and the trauma that haunts us throughout it all. On one level, Annihilation is just a visually gorgeous, weirdo monster movie that reimagines Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a pastel color palette & more traditional genre thrills. On a deeper level, it’s a powerful reflection on how grief & trauma transform us into entirely different people, to the point where that change becomes physical & irreversible. Our bodies and our minds are fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part of our original form remains. The fact that the movie itself is its own creature separate from its source material novel also makes it an oddly fitting adaptation, since transformation and change is an essential part of its DNA.

2. Mandy The most metal movie of 2018 (and maybe even of all-time?). When Nicolas Cage axe-murders biker demons & religious acid freaks in an alternate dimension 1980s, Mandy is headbanging party metal, a blood-splattering good time. In its quieter moments it also captures a stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs version of metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.

3. The Wild Boys An erotic fever dream that’s part Guy Maddin, part James Bidgood, part William S. Burroughs, and part Treasure Island adventurism. Its visual experimentation, transgressive gender politics, and surreal depictions of sexual violence achieve an unusually focused version of imaginative dream logic. Both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender, it lives up to the “wild” descriptor of its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could possibly want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic bazaar.

4. Sorry to Bother You Incredibly dense, gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire about the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re already living in today – just bursting with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out. Boots Riley’s debut is remarkably well executed despite the sheer number of ideas it throws in your face, especially in how it handles its brazen third-act rug pull. Still, its most impressive feat is how it captures the moment we’re currently struggling through, but somehow finds a way to make it even worse.

5. Unsane Filmed on an iPhone and shamelessly participating in every mental institution thriller cliché you can imagine, Unsane is a purely Soderberghian experiment in the lowest rung of genre filth. Since it trades on the worn-out clichés and tired tropes of the Scary Asylum genre to induce its ugly, cheap-thrills panic attack, it’s not the most original movie in the world, nor the most sympathetic or responsible. However, it does use that unlikely genre platform to explore themes ranging from capitalist greed in modern medical & prison systems to male-dominated institutions’ dismissal of the concerns of women to the power dynamics of money & gender in every tier of society.

6. Paddington 2 We always say we wish more children’s films were ambitious in their craft & purposeful in their thematic messaging; Paddington 2 wholly satisfies both demands. It’s timelessly wholesome, visually precious, and emotionally fragile – all while teaching kids an important lesson about applying simple concepts like politeness & manners to their interactions with social & cultural outsiders. After praising so much exploitative horror & lowly genre trash year after year, Paddington 2 was a welcome change of pace for the crew. It lifted our spirits and made us want to be better people. (It even inspired James to learn how to make marmalade).

7. Hereditary Effectively gaslights the audience by starting as a fairly down-to-earth exploration of mourning, rage, helplessness, and grief before fully descending into the supernatural – striking an uneasy balance between heart-wrenching family drama & spine-chilling horror. Where Hereditary overachieves is in anchoring all of its glorious 70s horror vibes & stage play familial viciousness to the best Toni Collette acting showcase to reach the big screen since Muriel’s Wedding.

8. Cam A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam is set in a digital world where identity is no longer stable nor protectable. It mashes up Unfriended-style user-interface horror about the Evils of the Internet with smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace. It’s excellently written, staged, and performed for a movie of its modest budget, one bolstered by subversive politics that will have you cheering for a sex worker to return safely to her profession instead of being punished for her supposed sins, which is sadly extraordinary for its subject & genre.

9. You Were Never Really Here Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell obscures the emotional release of traditional macho revenge thrillers by focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. This is a powerful film about the tolls that violence takes on its enactors & its witnesses, tracking the many ways it can destroy a soul. It hypnotizes and mesmerizes, but not in an uplifting way, just in a way that makes you feel hollowed & alone.

10. Eighth Grade With a piercingly astute eye for the way social media has reshaped & mutated adolescent anxiety into an entirely new beast, Eighth Grade excels both as a snapshot of what life online looks like in the 2010s and as a distinct, character-driven drama even when removed from that of-the-moment focus on social media. Following an actual 8th grader as she relives our own past moments of unbearable anxiousness, we both identify with her all too well and feel a desperate need to protect her from the world. It’s both a fresh, important coming of age story for modern kids and a timeless anxiety Litmus test for all ages.

HM. Dirty Computer An anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, this “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones of Janelle Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. Its story of non-conforming Others being captured to have their culture erased becomes such an explicit expression of Monáe’s own identity as a queer black woman in an increasingly hostile world, it reaches a point where a tyrannical government is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze before she rises against them in open bisexual rebellion. It’s fiercely queer, femme, and black – the most defiant, punk thing you can be in modern times.

Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.
Read CC’s picks here.
Hear James’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

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CC’s Top Films of 2018

1. Dirty Computer – A feature-length series of music videos from Janelle Monáe that combine to tell the story of a dystopian future society where non-conforming others are captured to have their memories & identity erased. On the surface, it’s just one of the most visually lush works of artistic beauty in recent memory. Beyond that, it’s fiercely queer, femme, and black – the most defiant, punk thing you can be in modern times.

2. Sorry to Bother You – Remarkably well executed despite the sheer number of ideas it throws in your face, especially in how it handles its brazen, astonishing third-act rug pull. Still, its most impressive feat is how it captures the moment we’re currently struggling through, but somehow finds a way to make it even worse.

3. The Favourite – The costume drama & the Yorgos Lanthimos dark comedy wrestle each other in this tale of two women wrestling for their queen’s affections. I’m always onboard for costume dramas for their visual treats alone, but they are rarely as adventurous in storytelling or tone as this stunning examination of power, aggression, and desire.

4. The Wild Boys – An erotic fever dream that’s part Guy Maddin, part William S. Burroughs, and part Treasure Island adventurism. Its visual experimentation, transgressive gender politics, and surreal depictions of sexual violence achieve an unusually focused version of imaginative dream logic.

5. Cam – The best horror film of 2018 is set in a digital world where identity is no longer stable or protectable. Its subversive politics will have you cheering for a sex worker to return safely to her profession instead of being punished for her supposed sins, which is sadly rare for the genre.

6. Eighth Grade – Holds up remarkably well on rewatches in terms of basic technical craft. The performances, editing, music, and narrative are all in service of a concise, precise story about something most modern audiences can relate to: anxiety. Following an actual 8th grader as she relives our past moments of unbearable anxiousness, we both identify with her all too well and feel a desperate need to protect her from the world.

7. Beast – A repressed young woman from a semi-abusive home falls in love with a mysterious stranger who may not be as harmless as he initially seems. There really aren’t enough modern takes on the Gothic romance, especially not enough that compete with this one’s plunges into Wuthering Heights levels of darkness.

8. Mandy – The scene where Mandy is violently abducted, involuntarily dosed with psychedelic drugs, and expected to bask in the splendor of her abuser but instead laughs loudly in his face is an incredibly cathartic moment to witness as a woman.

9. You Were Never Really Here – Narratively mimics the plot of a Taken-style thriller where a macho man rescues a young girl in crisis, but filters that formula through Lynne Ramsay’s very peculiar sensibilities, becoming a much stranger beast as a result. This is a powerful film about the tolls violence takes on its enactors & its witnesses, tracking the many ways it can destroy a soul.

10. Annihilation – The fact that this is its own creature separate from its source material novel is partly what makes it a fitting adaptation, since it’s a story about transformation and change. It’s also remarkable that it’s the third sci-fi film featuring Tessa Thompson on my list, making her the clear MVP of the year.

-CC Chapman

Boomer’s Top Films of 2018

Let’s get this out of the way: 2018 was a miserable year for yours truly. From March to June, I was locked in a constant battle with the manager of the property where I live with regards to a phantom leak that they “observed,” leading to them cutting a 4′ square section of my bathroom ceiling being cut, without being repaired or replaced, for three months. I picked up a staph infection while on vacation, arrived home after nearly a day-and-a-half of travel due to an overnight layover in Dublin, only to find that my luggage had been lost and that my refrigerator was abloom with monstrous polyps and fungi due to its motor failing while I was gone. And then in October, I was standing innocently at the corner of 7th and Colorado Streets in downtown Austin, waiting for my bus to take me home after a long Monday, when a man in a pickup truck ran the red light, was struck by another vehicle, spun out, and then ultimately hopped the curb and pinned my leg to the bus stop bench and dragging me the length of it before coming to rest in a position that trapped me and rendered me immobile. This broke my fibular neck and left me with extensive tissue damage, including an internal degloving event (don’t look it up unless you’ve got a strong stomach), and trapped me in my apartment for six weeks; I only got out to go to the doctor and to vote, because it’s going to take a lot more than being mangled and nearly killed to keep your boy from voting. As a result, anything that was released after October 15 pretty much flew under my radar. There was so much I wanted to see this year: I had tickets to Bad Times at the El Royale for the day after the collision that has (temporarily, fingers crossed) hobbled me, and a pass to Good Manners (As boas maneiras) for that weekend, both of which went unused. Perhaps the greatest crime is that I, the self-proclaimed foremost expert on Dario Argento’s body of work among all the people that you know (unless you know Maitland McDonagh, in which case, can you introduce me?), still have not seen the remake of Suspiria. Of course, this year also blessed me in some places: I took my first vacation since 2014 and got to go out of the country for the first time for it as well! Also, Black Panther came out and my cat outlived (and continues to outlive) the veterinarian’s projections, so here we are. Also, I’m not going to see Boy Erased. It’s just too triggering and personal.

All the movies that I wanted to see but did not in 2018, and thus should not be considered omissions from this list for lack of quality, but simply due to availability and my getting mangled: Bad Times at the El Royale, Foxtrot, Three Identical Strangers, Summer of ’84, Green Fog, Call Me By Your Name, Isle of Dogs, American Animals, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Blackkklansman, The Kindergarten Teacher, Let the Corpses Tan, Good Behavior, and If Beale Street Could Talk. Also, probably that one about the Spiders-men.

2017 Hangover
(Movies I Wish I Saw Last Year So They Could Have Been on My 2017 List)

The Babysitter: Every word of Brandon’s review of this one is correct: it is a sugar rush of gory absurdity, in the vein of Turbo Kid, one of my favorites of the past few years. I, too, could have done without some of the elements that were designed to pander to the lowest denominator of movie viewers, with their foundationally eradicated attention spans (more on that in a minute). The pop-up text on screen (especially anything to do with the pocketknife) was distracting and fundamentally lowered the level of discourse we can have about this movie, but I was still enthralled from minute to minute, even after walking shirtless scene Robbie Amell took his plunge. This one gets a strong recommendation from me.

I, Tonya: Although this fine crew found each other through the sheer force of will and love for cinematic Things That Should Not Be, we are not of one mind, and I, Tonya is a pretty clear example of that. Brandon was not impressed, but I was enraptured by every moment of it. I can’t remember the last time that I was so sucked into a movie that I watched it again almost immediately, and then a third time just a few days later. There’s violence aplenty, which I think was the main detraction for our Dear Leader, but while the omnipresent domestic abuse that permeated the film was so true-to-life that I wasn’t pushed out of the scene by it, but was only drawn further in, even in the moments that it got very close to home. It’s certainly a movie that needs a trigger warning, and I have my issues with a sympathetic portrait of a person whose political views are, um, bad, but I nonetheless found this utterly compelling.

It Comes at Night: Holy shit is this a great movie. From the disorienting refusal to clarify anything about the layout of the house in which all of the action takes place, to the twists and turns in plotting, this is another great A24 release, even if it comes so soon after the similarly plotted Into the Forest (2015, also distributed by A24), which found Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood as two sisters alone in a deteriorating cabin in another undisclosed location somewhere in otherwise idyllic wilderness. What I liked most about this one was the dread atmosphere that takes hold from the first moment, when an elder member of the clan meets his heartbreaking demise: it makes you side with the first family that you meet, although another film could just as easily follow the other family. What if their inconsistent information about their past is just the result of not wanting to give too much about themselves away in case their apparent saviors aren’t all that they appear to be (which . . . ends up being the case, essentially). This one is on Amazon Prime now and Into the Forest is on Netflix, so treat yourself to this double feature. Read Brandon’s review here.

Honorable Mentions

Sierra Burgess is a Loser: While certainly not the great follow up to the surprise Netflix hit To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before that Netflix was hoping it would be, given the reappearance of the internet’s newest celebrity boyfriend, Noah Centineo, and the presence of Shannon Purser (a.k.a. Barb from Stranger Things), Sierra Burgess is a Loser is a perfectly serviceable little teen romcom that retells the well-worn Cyrano de Bergerac story: a physically “imperfect” suitor woos a perfect specimen with the help of a more attractive counterpart. It’s not groundbreaking, even with the gender flip that lands Purser as loser Sierra Burgess trying to win the heart of Centineo’s Jamey through surrogate Veronica (Kristine Froseth), a mean girl with a rough home life whom Sierra ultimately befriends, albeit with some bumps along the way. Much of the negative reaction to this one, I’m assuming, stems from the desire for another pitch-perfect romantic comedy like TATBILB, not the movie’s actual quality. First time screen-writer Lindsey Beer does a pretty good job here, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her work.

Bird Box: My roommate read Josh Malerman’s novel Bird Box a couple of years ago and was super excited when he learned that it was being adapted into a film, citing the book as one of the scariest things he had ever seen. From his description of the novel, I was sitting in a movie theater in November 2017 to see Lady Bird and saw the trailer for A Quiet Place and thought “wow, they got that into production faster than I would have expected,” before realizing that it was not a trailer for Bird Box that was playing out before me. Here it is, over a year later, and the comparisons to A Quiet Place and The Happening are still rolling around out there on the internet, largely in response to (and revolt against) Netflix’s bizarre (but effective) meme-heavy marketing strategy. Still, derivative though the film may seem now after the release of other similarly themed apocalyptic titles in the years since the book was first released, this is a pretty effective little thriller with a star-studded cast and a new dimension from lead Sandra Bullock, who has rarely had the opportunity to play a character who is both sentimental and hardened, at turns charming and unlikable. The biggest drawback here is that the film somehow manages to feel both overstuffed and somewhat overlong as well, with a lot of plot points that should have been given more time to be explored, but having too many of these to make a film with a pat running time. This one should have been a miniseries.

The Haunting of Hill House: Speaking of miniseries (or limited series), I’m giving a special mention to The Haunting of Hill House, a breakout ten-episode mini that Netflix released this year. Very loosely based on the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, Hill House follows the story of the Crains, a large family headed by patriarch Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas in the past and Timothy Hutton in the present), a house flipper before that term really existed. He and architect wife Olivia (Carla Gugino), who looks forward to the day when the family can finally build their “forever house,” have moved their five children into the Hill House mansion, where a series of escalating supernatural events leaves the family broken and traumatized, with that trauma spilling over into their adult lives: Stephen (Michael Huisman) is a skeptic who writes books about other supposed hauntings; Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a mortician who resents that Stephen’s books have dragged the family’s history into the public eye; Theodora (Kate Siegel) is a queer social worker unable to form relationships because of her psychic sensitivity; and twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti), the former of whom is a drug addict who has burned his family more times than can be counted and the latter of whom was the most affected by the house in her youth and has never really recovered. I’m putting this on my list because it’s not a movie, in any technical or real way, but it does stretch the boundaries of what we can consider a movie, as it feels less like a series of episodes and more like a ten hour movie broken into manageable chunks. There’s also a one-shot in the sixth episode that blows away any competition from actual films on my list as far as technical mastery. As with Bird Box, I’ve seen the split on my Facebook feed between people who loved this and people who hated it, but unlike with BB there’s a notable difference: the only people I’ve seen consistently hating on Hill House are those who have terminally limited attention spans and who don’t have the patience to watch a whole movie, let alone a miniseries, without checking their phones every 5 minutes (sorry if you feel called out by this, but you know it’s true). If that’s you, stick to Vine compilations, but if you have the ability to, you know, watch things, give this a try.

Dishonorable Mentions

Solo: A Star Wars Story: I may have given a lukewarm defense of this one in my review of it last summer, but this movie really doesn’t work. Ehrenreich is charming in everything, and I got a kick out of L3-37, but further reflection on this film has really not been kind to my remembrance of it. It helps that so much of it was forgettable, and I’m hoping that we’ll see more of Ehrenreich and Donald Glover on the big screen in years to come, but I’m not holding my breath.

Deadpool 2: I fell asleep during this movie, in a theater. That disqualifies me from reviewing it unless I see it again, and through to the end, but honestly, I’m just not sure I’m up for it. I’ve always been a Domino fan, and her character is about the only thing that I remember from the film, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care (or keep my eyes open). Luckily, Brandon managed to stay awake through it.

Avengers: Infinity War: “What’s this?” you say. “He didn’t like Infinity War? But everyone liked Infinity War!” Well, sorry to break anyone’s hearts, but my opinion of this movie has only gone down following my review last summer. I even gave it a slightly higher star review at the time than I felt in my heart, because the people I had seen it with had enjoyed themselves so thoroughly and I wanted it to be better than it was. But while it was technically proficient, visually stimulating, and managed to weld together nearly two dozen characters into a plot that was serviceable and well-executed, it left me so cold. I didn’t feel anything in this movie, not even for a moment. I thought maybe I was just in a bad mood when I saw it the first time, so I gave it another watch a couple of months later and I was even less engaged the second time around. I should have loved this movie. I wanted to love this movie. And I just didn’t.

Ready Player One: Holy shit was this a pile of self congratulatory garbage. I’d diatribe here about the way that this reinforces toxic gatekeeper culture and also about how it’s still pretty vapid and shitty despite all of that (“You’d love me but not my birthmark!”), but this isn’t a movie worth investing that kind of emotional energy and labor into. Just read Brandon’s review or Vox‘s primer.

Open House: Britnee beat me to it with her review of this stinker a full year ago, but I stuck it in my Netflix queue last January, largely based on my fondness for Dylan Minnette, where I promptly forgot about it until I was housebound and working my way through those things I hadn’t watched yet. Having run out of Star Trek: Voyager, Haunting of Hill House, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and, god forgive me, Riverdale, I turned my sights on movies in my queue. I watched the Australian movie where Robin Wright and Naomi Watts bang each others’ sons; I watched a horrible coming of age movie called SPF-18 in which the most exciting thing that happens is that Noah Centineo breaks a disco ball; I even watched a boner comedy by way of Groundhog Day called Premature about a high school kid who is stuck in a repeating day that restarts every time he, well, ejaculates (prematurely). But by far the most disappointing one was Open House, a mediocre rehash of every “creepy things happen in a remote house to a family in crisis” movie that you’ve ever seen, but without the kind of twist or resolution that a film of this type needs to be memorable, or at the very least the catharsis that it needs to be passable. Forbes reviewer Paul Tassi wrote that Open House made him feel like someone was asleep at the switch in Netflix’s quality control, but if they managed to let this movie out into the world, the person in charge of QC must have died at the wheel.

And now . . . Boomer’s Top 15(ish) Movies of 2018

15. Mary and the Witch’s Flower: Make no mistake, this is a children’s movie. It’s also not a Hayao Miyazaki movie, or even a Studio Ghibli film, although you can be forgiven for assuming either given the film’s visual style. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, formerly of Ghibli (first working as a clean-up animator on Princess Mononoke before doing key animation on Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Tales from Earthsea, among others) and now well-known for his directorial debut The Secret World of Arrietty and, a few years later, his Oscar nomination for When Marnie was There, turns a fairly thin story about a young girl who encounters a world of magic and sorcery through the discovery of the titular “witch’s flower,” a kind of bud that, when burst, grants those whose juice it touches temporary access to magic. The film’s strong opening sequence, breathtaking flying scenes, and the exploration of the visually entrancing and dynamic magical college that Mary finds in the clouds elevate what would otherwise be just another The Worst Witch/Harry Potter knock-off (although one with a stronger pedigree: the source novel, The Little Broom, was published in 1971, a full three years before the first Worst Witch book). Read Brandon’s review here.

14. A Simple Favor: A bit of an uneven movie, this comedy thriller is held aloft by some decent twists and turns coupled with strong performances from Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Read more in my review here.

13. Love, Simon/To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: I’m taking the coward’s way out on this one, since neither of these films is really “quality” enough to belong on this list under its own merits. Upon Love, Simon‘s release, I was largely against it, even in theory. “Why do we need stories like this one?” I asked myself. “Where are the radical queer stories?” And then I went and saw it, and I was completely enraptured by its earnestness and clarity of vision. I wanted to hate Love, Simon, but instead found myself feeling a kind of warmth and sincerity that I haven’t felt in a long time. (The one moment of sarcasm that I allowed myself was when I leaned over to my companion during the scene in which Simon waits for his online friend “Blue,” and said “If this were Degrassi, a pedophile would show up right about now.” I also had a moment where I was like “Oh, Josh Duhamel is in this, just like Broken Hearts Club, which I guess lends this some gay romcom credibility” before I remembered that it was Timothy Olyphant in that one; I also realized in that moment that I am old.)  Likewise, I slept on To All the Boys I Loved Before because I didn’t think that I could get much joy out of a movie that generates that many posts on BuzzFeed with shirtless .gifs and quizzes about which boy from TATBILB you, BuzzFeed reader, should be with. And yet, in my time of need, I gave this one a try, and was utterly charmed by it. It’s certainly better than other efforts with leading man Noah Centineo (I refer you back to the aforementioned SPF-18), and it wears its social media age Sixteen Candles lineage on its sleeve. Lana Condor’s Lara Jean is effortlessly charming. If you just need a little warmth in your heart, either one of these would make good medicine.

12. Ant-Man and the Wasp: A fun follow-up to 2015’s Ant-Man, read my thoughts on this one here.

11. Game Night: I was warmer to this one than Brandon was; he liked it, but I really, really got on board with this one. Directors John Francis Daley (didn’t think that I would be mentioning a Freaks and Geeks alum on the same list in 2018, but here we are) and Jonathan Goldstein have churned out a fun little heist comedy that utilizes the talent of all of its participants. Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) have great chemistry, and Billy Magnussen is doing great work making a truly stupid character likable enough that you don’t find yourself doubting why he’s even friends with the others. Sharon Horgan also turns in a command performance with her continuing exasperation at Magnussen’s character’s idiocy. If I had one qualm, it would be that Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury are given little to do other than playing off of each other rather than the whole group, as Morris’s character’s obsession with the idea that his wife may have slept with one other person before they were married consistently puts the two of them in little joke cul-de-sacs rather than keeping them more central to the narrative.

10. Upgrade: Leigh Whannell’s latest is a sleek, fun, trashy romp through a futuristic Death Wish-style roaring rampage of revenge, with a cyberpunk twist. Blumhouse accidentally made a prestige picture in 2017 and has been riding that success for a while; a friend who will be doing some work on one of their upcoming TV projects told me that the first question that you would ask when you got tapped for a Blumhouse production was “Is it union?”, but now it’s a solid bet that you might end up working on something great. Upgrade may not be the greatest sci-fi, but it’s a super fun thrill ride with Logan Marshall-Green as a truly likable guy with a magnetic screen presence. While others might consider him a poor man’s Tom Hardy, he does great work here, especially when he’s in “conversation” with an AI that no one else can hear. It’s twisty, it’s turny: it’s Upgrade. Read Brandon’s glowing review here.

9. The Endless: I added this one to my Netflix queue some time ago based simply on the premise: two brothers who, years before, escaped from a UFO death cult return to the commune after receiving a strange video from one of its members. Younger brother Aaron (Aaron Moorhead) was apparently too young when they left to remember all of the truly creepy goings-on that older brother Justin (Justin Benson) has always told him they were lucky to escape, but Aaron is insistent that the video they received could mean that the UFO they were waiting for has finally arrived. Realizing that his younger brother will never be at peace until he sees the place for himself, Justin takes Aaron on a road trip, seeing a few portents of the irrational along the way. Once they arrive, things seem almost too perfect, although strange happenings and optical illusions (or are they?) begin to make the men wonder if they will be able to escape before something truly terrible happens. It’s a low budget indie sci-fi that occasionally shows it lack of money (there’s a scene in which a house is supposedly aflame but the fire itself is terribly unconvincing), but its heart is in the right place and the tension can’t be beaten. Read Brandon’s review of The Endless and its sister film Resolution here.

8. The Ritual: A kind of modern day Blair Witch Project (minus the found footage element) paired with a heaping dose of morbid survivor’s guilt and including a pretty original… let’s say “monster,” for lack of a better term, The Ritual follows four men who venture onto a Swedish nature hiking trail to honor a fallen friend. Luke (Rafe Spall) entered a liquor store with Rob (Paul Reid) after a boy’s night out with his university buds, only to discover that the place is in the middle of an armed robbery. Luke hides but Rob is seen by the thieves and, upon refusing to cooperate, is killed. As Rob’s wish was to take this hiking trip, Luke joins hardass Hutch (Robert James-Collier), gone-soft family man Dom (Sam Troughton), and nervous Phil (Arsher Ali). When Dom injures himself along the trail, the group opts to take a shortcut back to their last occupied way station through the deep, dark woods. Fair enough, until they take shelter in an abandoned shack during a heavy rain storm and emerge the next morning to find that the storm prevented them from noticing all the runes carved into nearby trees, and that’s not even getting into the bizarre effigy in a room upstairs, or the fact that they discover a dead elk pinned in a tree like an offering. At every turn, Luke is confronted by memories and hallucinations of Rob’s last fateful moments. Is he cracking up in another stressful situation, or is there something in the woods that’s forcing him to relive that night over and over again? Although not the most original story, it makes up for its flaws with a haunting ambiance and a reveal of a… being that is truly unique. Check it out, and read Brandon’s review here.

7. Sorry to Bother You: This is a movie that’s only gone up in my opinion since I first saw it. Read my review here.

6. Phantom Thread: I’ve previously mentioned my theory that if a film that comes out after December 20th, it really should only count on lists for the following year, so I’m including Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest (and supposedly Daniel Day Lewis’s last) film here. There’s so much to say about this movie, and so much of it has already been said, but I would say that this is a movie worth seeing, for all of the passive aggressive eating if nothing else. Read Brandon’s review here.

5. Black Panther: I’m not sure that there’s much more that I can (or am qualified to) contribute to the discourse on this movie that I haven’t already, so just read my review here.

4. You Were Never Really Here: Brandon said everything I could say about this movie better than I could here. This movie hypnotizes and mesmerizes, but not in an uplifting way, just a way that makes you feel alone.

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

2. Annihilation: Our bodies and our minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part remains. Read my review here. For those of us in parts of the world where this wasn’t released straight to Netflix, it’s now streaming on Hulu.

1. Hereditary: My favorite thing about Hereditary is that it actually effectively gaslights you, the audience member. Spoilers ahoy, so just skip this if you haven’t seen it: there’s some weirdness at the beginning with odd sigils appearing in places that make sense and which do not, strange mourners, and unearthly glowing and droning. But then after the event (you know the one), the film instead turns into a fairly down-to-earth exploration of mourning, rage, helplessness, and complete surrender to the abyss of grief, and you convince yourself that all of the signs of supernatural interference that you saw must have just been things you thought you saw. The movie teaches you to mistrust yourself, then turns another hairpin corner and says, nope, there were demonic shenanigans all along. Or, to put it another way: this movie was marketed as The Bad Seed and appears to be this at the beginning before turning into Ordinary People for an hour before morphing once again into Rosemary’s Baby. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Read my original review here.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Brandon’s Top Films of 2018

1. The Wild Boys As an art film oddity & a transgressive object, this gem lives up to the “wild” descriptor of its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could possibly want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic bazaar. More importantly, though, Wild Boys is thoroughly, defiantly genderfucked – a freshly radical act of nouveau sexual politics represented via the tones & tools of the ancient past. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender.

2. Double Lover Not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller, but rather a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare. Double Lover’s basic premise is a familiar template, but as it spirals out into total madness there’s no bounds to its erotic mania, which is communicated through an increasingly intense list of sexual indulgences: incest, body horror, gynecological close-ups, bisexual orgies, negging, pegging, “redwings,” erotic choking, and nightmarish lapses in logic that, frankly, make no goddamn sense outside their subliminal expressions of psychosexual anxiety. It’s a gorgeous work of fine art that disarms its audience with its nonstop onslaught of inelegant prurience as a means of crawling under our skin and rotting us from the inside.

3. Mandy So sinisterly beautiful & 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. Nic Cage may slay biker demons & religious acid freaks with a self-forged axe 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.

4. Dirty Computer A fifty-minute narrative film stringing together an anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, this “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones promised in Janelle Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. There are seven different directors listed as having collaborated on individual segments of Dirty Computer, but Monáe clearly stands out as the auteur of the project. A large part of that auteuism is how the film works as an expression of her newly public identity as a queer black woman navigating an increasingly hostile world that targets Others in her position, to the point where a tyrannical government facility is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze before she rises against them in open bisexual rebellion.

5. Sorry to Bother You – Incredibly dense, gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire about the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re already living in today – just bursting with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out. I can see how this movie’s third-act rug-pull could make a lot of people wince at it for going too far over-the-top, but that’s exactly when it went from good to great for me. The fact that it’s never satisfied with exploring one idea at a time when it could just as easily flood the screen with thousands is what endears it to me as one of the year’s clear stand-outs; more films cold benefit from being this wild & unrestrained, subtlety be damned.

6. Paddington 2 There has always been dissent against the wholesome tweeness of visual artists like Michel Gondry & Wes Anderson, but those naysayers typically don’t give full credit to the deeply devastating sadness that lurks just under their works’ meticulously manicured surfaces. Paddington 2 nails both sides of that divide – the visually precious and the emotionally fragile – while teaching kids an important lesson about applying simple concepts like politeness & manners to their interactions with social & cultural outsiders. We always say we wish more children’s films were ambitious in their craft & purposeful in their thematic messaging; Paddington 2 wholly satisfies both demands.

7. Annihilation It’s a shame more people didn’t take a chance on this Alex Garland sci-fi stunner when it was on the big screen. On one level, it’s just a visually gorgeous, weirdo monster movie that reimagines Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a Tumblr-ready pastel color palette & more traditional genre thrills. On a deeper level, though, it’s a powerful reflection on how grief & trauma transform us into entirely different people, to the point where that change becomes physical & irreversible. Haunting stuff.

8. Upgrade The very real, very macho anxiety of approaching obsoletion at the hands of automated future-tech is shown in gloriously over-the-top extreme, where a once-mighty macho man now needs a computer’s help to even move a single muscle, much less stage a gory revenge mission against an effete Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade has an entirely different plot & satirical target than RoboCop, but the way it buries that social commentary under a thick layer of popcorn movie Fun that can just as easily be read at face value is very much classic Verhoeven. It’s a subversive, playing-both-sides tone that’s exceedingly difficult to pull off without tipping your hand, which is what makes this sci-fi action gem so instantly recognizable as a modern genre classic.

9. Cam Between its Unfriended-style user interface horror about the Evils of the Internet and its smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace, this movie is so extremely weighted to things I personally love to see in cinema that my adoration for it was practically predestined. A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam was custom-built to be one of my favorite films of the year just on the strengths of its subject matter & visual aesthetics alone. It’s only lagniappe, then, that the film is excellently written, staged, and performed – offering a legitimacy in craft to support my default-mode appreciation of its chosen thematic territory.

10. You Were Never Really Here Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell obscures the emotional release of traditional macho revenge thrillers by focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. You Were Never Really Here’s artistic merits are found almost entirely in its editing room tinkering, searching for freshly upsetting ways to depict onscreen violence by both lingering on its brutality and removing all of its tangible payoff. In crime thriller terms, this resembles the skeletal structure of a Liam Neeson-starring Dadsploitation power fantasy, but its guts are all the emotional, gushy stuff most action films deliberately avoid. And because this is a Lynne Ramsay picture, those guts are laid out to rot & fester.

11. BlacKkKlansman As its buddy cop & blacksploitation throwback narratives power through their natural conclusions, BlacKkKlansman pretends to be a straight-faced, well-behaved participation in old-fashioned genre tropes meant to leave audiences entertained & satisfied. Then all of that easy, comforting payoff is swept away with an epilogue that effectively punches the audience in the gut, reminding us that we’re not supposed to feel good about the way the past has shaken out, that the modern world remains messy & nauseating in a way that can’t be captured in a fully satisfied genre exercise. Spike Lee knows exactly how storytelling conventions have trained audiences to expect easy, comforting resolutions to even the most sickening thematic territory, and he’s found potent, purposeful ways to weaponize that against us.

12. Unsane Filmed on an iPhone and shamelessly participating in every mental institution thriller cliché you can imagine, Unsane is a Soderberghian experiment in the lowest rung of genre filth. It uses that unlikely platform to explore themes ranging from capitalist greed in modern medical & prison systems to male-dominated institutions’ flagrant dismissal of the concerns of women to the power dynamics of money & gender in every conceivable tier of society. Unsane experiments with a teetering balance between microbudget exploitation cinema & power-skeptical radical politics. They’re two flavors that shouldn’t mix well together in a single container but do find a chemically explosive reaction in the clash.

13. Flames A collaboration between two filmmakers & conceptual artists documenting the rise & fall of their own romance, Flames presents a scenario where not being able to tell what’s genuine & what’s performance art can have emotionally devastating effects on a real-life relationship. Instead of merely manipulating audience perception, the filmmakers manipulate their own understanding of what’s even happening in their own lives, turning the already volatile emotional powder keg of a passionate romance into a daily terror of bruised egos, questionable motives, and petty acts of self-serving cruelty. It’s deeply fascinating, but it’s also deeply fucked up.

14. Shirkers This documentary figuratively hit close to home with me in its profile of a D.I.Y. art project tragedy, but it also literally, geographically hit close to home with me in the trajectory of its narrative. I was pleasantly surprised to personally connect with the film as a self-portrait of a socially tactless, self-sabotaging D.I.Y. artist; director Sandi Tan got through to me via the merits of her brutal self-honesty & her authentic zine culture aesthetic. More superficially, she also got through to me with her story’s exponentially rapid trajectory to my front doorstep. It’s shocking how much of this story about a conflict that begins in Singapore finds its way to Mid-City New Orleans.

15. Eighth Grade With a piercingly astute eye for the way social media has reshaped & mutated adolescent anxiety into an entirely new beast, Eighth Grade excels both as a snapshot of what life online looks like in the 2010s and as a distinct, character-driven drama even when removed from its of-the-moment focus on social media. Reductively speaking, it also excels as an anxiety Litmus test. You can either read its plot as a relatively low-stakes depiction of an adorable teen girl’s final week of middle school or as a horrifyingly relatable depiction of an anxious mess puzzling her way through a world that no longer seems conquerable & a changing self-identity she has little control over. I was personally watching it through my fingers as if it were a jump scare-heavy slasher.

16. Vox Lux – Brutal and coldly funny like a Yorgos Lanthimos film, yet absurdly earnest like a Mommie Dearest melodrama. A distanced philosophical statement on the current shape of Western pop culture, but also a gleefully perverse, intimate portrait of a woman behaving monstrously. Like mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, shamelessly unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.

17. The Favourite No matter how wild or devilishly cruel The Favourite may seem in a costume drama context, it’s also a rare glimpse of Yorgos Lanthimos on his best behavior. Part of this smoothing out of his most off-putting impulses is due to the setting; an 18th Century royal court is the exact right place for buttoned-up, emotionally distanced mockery of “civility,” whereas it often feels alien or robotic in his more modern settings. Still, the jokes fly faster & with a newfound, delicious bitchiness. The sex & violence veer more towards slapstick than inhuman cruelty. The Favourite is Lanthimos seeking moments of compromise & accessibility while still staying true to his distinctly cold auteurist voice – and it’s his best film to date for it.

18. Beast Partly a murder mystery concerning missing young girls in an isolated community, but mostly a dark romance tale about two dangerous people who can’t help but be pulled into each other’s violent orbits. There’s a distinctly literary vibe to Beast, nearly bordering on a Gothic horror tradition, that almost makes its modern setting feel anachronistic. The intense, primal attraction at the film’s core and the seedy murder mystery that challenges that passion’s boundaries make it feel like Wuthering Heights by way of Top of the Lake, like a modern take on Beauty & the Beast (except with two beasts).

19. Good Manners On a horror movie spectrum, this is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. Descriptors like “queer,” “coming of age,” “romantic,” “body horror,” and “creature feature” can only describe the movie in spurts as it loses itself in the genre wilderness chasing down the details of its own nature & narrative. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on centuries-old genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.

20. Hereditary Requires a little patience in allowing it to establish its peculiar version of atmospheric dread, but once the nightmare imagery & themes of familial resentment start piling up it more than makes up for the unease of that early stretch. Where it overachieves is in anchoring all of its glorious 70s-throwback horror vibes & stage play familial viciousness to the best Toni Collette acting showcase since Muriel’s Wedding (give or take a season of United States of Tara). You can’t overvalue a novelty like that.

-Brandon Ledet

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

The first book I read in 2018 was Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last. The protagonist and her husband, who lost their home and their professional jobs and now live in their car while trying to avoid sexually- and economically-motivated violence, agree to participate in a project called “Consilience.” Consilience is a kind of planned, gated community in which participants spend alternating months in a nice home and working professional jobs and in a “prison,” doing more menial tasks. Over the course of the book, the main characters become aware that the promises of Consilience are hollow, and that the corporate overseers of the community have many nefarious goals, as the work narratively explores themes of identity, oppression, corporate irresponsibility, and sexual predation in multiple forms. Despite being a huge Atwood fan going back over a decade since the first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale in 2005 (it’s a book that retains its relevance regardless of the particular authoritarian ugliness one is currently living under, be it the War on Terror or the current War on Decency), this is, other than the awful Surfacing, my least favorite of her books. The Heart Goes Last is simply too tonally inconsistent, rapidly flipping back and forth from the kind of insightful commentary that makes up her other works to a kind of absurdist humor that the astute reader can see is intended to make the darkness darker, but doesn’t work.

Sorry to Bother You has a similar plot point, and a similar problem. From the first few minutes, the audience is made aware of the existence of WorryFree, a corporate entity to which citizens can essentially sign over their freedom in exchange for the relative security of guaranteed employment and wages. This has become a more common feature of dystopian fiction of late, especially as broad trends point toward a governmental and social system that is more pro-corporatism and anti-consumer, as various writers and artists highlight the way that economically disadvantaged people can be pressured and herded into debt slavery and company towns from which there is no escape. (Aside: there’s a lengthy description of one such company town in Octavia Butler’s phenomenal 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, which should be considered required reading for every American citizen, in my opinion.) The issue in Sorry is the same of that in The Heart Goes Last: the abject horror of the concept of WorryFree and Consilience alike is undercut by the comedy of the absurd that permeates both works. Imagine that The Handmaid’s Tale and Idiocracy were involved in a teleporter accident and you’ve got a pretty good idea of why this shouldn’t work, and you’re picturing both THGL and STBY, although through different lenses (notably, the comparison to Idiocracy is almost too obvious, given the presence of Idiocracy alum Terry Crews in STBY as the protagonists’s uncle, who is considering signing himself up for the WorryFree program). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Sorry to Bother You presents the story of Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a resident of an alternate contemporary Oakland. Cash lives in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Crews) and, as the film opens, finds a job as a telemarketer for RegalView that will hopefully pave a way for himself and his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) to have a more stable lifestyle. On his first day, he is encouraged by more seasoned co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” (David Cross) when making his sales calls as a way of making (predominantly white) customers feel more at ease and trusting. Although this tack leads him to success in his career, Cash also feels drawn to the ideals of Squeeze (Steven Yeun), a fellow RegalView employee who is actively working with his peers to form a union.  Cash finds himself torn between two worlds and various factions as his star continues to rise; promotion at work leads him to learn that upper tiers of RegalView’s services includes selling the human labor of WorryFree. He finds himself the subject of special interest of WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who invites him to a bourgeois party where Cash’s “otherness” is put on full display as he is forced to, in the cultural theory lexicon of our times, “perform his blackness” for an audience of rapt white people. In a private meeting, Lift reveals his ultimate goals for WorryFree, much to Cash’s horror.

A very dear friend saw STBY about a week before I did and warned me off of it: “I hated it,” he said. A fellow writer and friend with whom I went to see the movie the following weekend walked out and immediately declared: “Well, that was a piece of shit” (she missed about 15 minutes of the film for personal reasons and re-evaluated that stance once we filled her in on what she missed, but her overall impression was still largely negative). I feel that my concerns with the negative elements of the film may give the impression that I feel the same way, but that’s not really true. This is a movie that is undoubtedly flawed and certainly has all the hallmarks of a first feature from a director who has too many ideas, even if all those ideas are interesting (or even brilliant) in isolation. Another friend advised that her co-worker broke down STBY thusly: Scott Pilgrim + Black Panther + Black Mirror + Office Space. At the time, a mere day or two after my screening, I responded that my breakdown was more 15% Get Out, 30% Naked Lunch, 10% Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 5% Rent (mostly that Detroit’s stunningly bad performance art piece is a lot like the horrible Maureen’s horrible “Moo With Me!” bullshit, presumably [hopefully] as a parody of the same), 10% Idiocracy, and 30% Being John Malkovich. After a couple of weeks to marinate on it, I’d probably change those percentages up a little bit and add that there’s also a few healthy pinches of that one episode of Degrassi TNG in which Liberty realizes that the only reason the Smithdale sorority wants her is to serve as their token black friend.

Make no mistake: this is a good film and a great work of art, even when the meaning of certain symbology is hard to parse. It’s worth noting that the negative reviews I got from friends were from white friends, which isn’t meant to impugn them, but demonstrates how a story about blackness, perceived whiteness, the navigation of predominately white economic spaces, code switching, and the magical realism of taking concepts like “talking white” and “workhorse” to a literal extreme can discomfit white audiences without them understanding why (bear in mind, I am a white person, so I’m trying to use my privilege to highlight this while staying in my lane, so please forgive me if there’s something I’ve overlooked).

This is good: making your audience aware of inequities and how they affect the psychology of every participant, those who are empowered and those who seek empowerment but can be corrupted by it, is important. And faulting a work of art for not providing a clear explanation of how to navigate this minefield is as foolish as expecting every disadvantaged or disenfranchised person to assume personal responsibility for your education about social issues and race relations. This film raises awareness without trying to make the audience feel better at the end by saying “oh, there is a path to a better world, just follow this light.” It just says “this is a bad time, guys” and means it, and leaves each member of the audience to sort out what that means individually. If there’s any truly glaring fault, it’s that the film occasionally makes the mistake that Crash (shudder) did, which was painting racism as solely an independent, personal flaw of character rather than as both an individual fault and as uncritical or insufficiently critical participation in hegemonic social constructs and systems of power that are the legacy of colonialism.

There’s a line in Sorry to Bother You that I really love, even if I can’t remember the exact wording and can only paraphrase: “When people don’t know how to fix a problem, they get used to it.” In a recent interview, writer/director Boots Riley noted that the undesirable—and yes, deplorable—elements of American society have made themselves more visible in the past few years, to the point that his original satirical screenplay, written in 2014, had to be rewritten to avoid being “too on the nose.” Notably, this meant the excision of the line “WorryFree is making America great again,” which was composed at least two years before that same rhetorical phraseology took on the connotation that it has now. (Another aside: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1984 publication The Wild Shore is another dystopian novel concerning a post-disaster U.S., like Parable. In Wild Shore, we see that “Make America Great Again” was the rallying cry of another dangerous leader who draws people to his banner in the name of nationalistic pride. It’s quite good, although it also shares some of the first time novelist/director issues that STBY has, as it was originally written as Robinson’s MFA thesis.) These continue to be dark days, and though we may not know how to fix them, we must not get used to them. And if you like your social commentary candy-colored but lacking in neat, pat answers, go see Sorry to Bother You. Hell, go see it even if that’s not your bag; your comfort zone could become your noose if you don’t push your boundaries.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond