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

Quick Takes: Last-Minute 2019 Catch-Ups

I am terrible at watching movies this time of year, like bad at the actual act of doing it. Most of the Awards Season titles that light up pro critics’ lists don’t do much for me personally, and I’ll play catch-up with movies I’ve been dying to watch for months and genuinely think things like “This is really good but is it Best of the Year good?” Shameful. In the few instances where a surprise gem stands out as something special (Luz being my most recent example), I then fret over how to make room for it on my already overstuffed list of favorites from the year. I’m extremely grateful to have finally pushed through to the lawless chaos of January Dumping Season. Now we can all binge on gimmicky genre trash no one really gives a shit about; this is when I shine brightest.

Instead of entirely discarding the few last-minute splurges of 2019 catch-ups that I enjoyed but failed to be wowed by, I figured I’d collect them here in a short list of quick takes. Because I was aiming to cram in as many titles as possible, I knocked out the five shortest movies on my watchlist. They were all good-to-okay, and probably (definitely) all could have benefited from being viewed outside this unholy end-of-the-year cram session season. Here they are listed by shortest-to-longest runtime (with corresponding star ratings) in case you too want to rush through a few more interesting titles before we wrap up the list-making process and leave 2019 behind us forever, forgotten and discarded.

This Magnificent Cake! – 44min

A satirical series of stop-motion vignettes that mock the imperialist brutes of Belgian-occupied Congo as absurd grotesqueries. The soft felt & yarn materials used to construct the stop-motion puppets and the Looney Tunes-style modes of death—including discarded banana peels & falling pianos—clash horrifically with the real-life horrors of colonialism & racial subjugation. The film mostly interprets its setting through the nightmares of the oppressors, but it’s oddly reserved for something so steeped in surrealism & historical cruelty.

I never quite fell in love with it, but its combination of ambling dream logic & ice-cold Roy Anderssonian slapstick humor at least felt freshly upsetting in an interesting way.

Share – 87min

A dramatically realistic crossroads between Unfriended & HBO’s Euphoria, in which a high school athlete & honor student discovers a disturbing cellphone video of herself from a night she doesn’t remember. Our troubled teen protagonist wants to put the (almost certain) possibility that she was assaulted while blackout drunk at a party behind her, but the nature of social media & modern tech means her experience with the trauma cannot be handled privately. While the teen boys who filmed her (and likely physically assaulted her) mostly avoid legal & social repercussions due to a lack of physical evidence, their victim is the only one who’s effectively punished. Isolated, forced to dwell on the details of the event for months on end, and missing out on the best stretch of high school play, she sinks further into a private, internal misery while the outside world moves on, unchanged.

While the examination of rape & victim-blaming in the digital age is obviously a tough topic, the film nimbly deals with the aftermath & trauma of the scenario without succumbing to the potential for exploitation or alarmism. Its sickly digi-cam footage & fluorescent lighting were also very much on-brand with the Evil Internet media I’m always a sucker for. I’m ashamed to admit it, but with a supernatural horror element & a creepy synth score, this likely would have been one of my favorite movies of the year. Instead, it’ll have to settle for just being really good.

The Banana Splits Movie – 89min

A SyFy Channel Original that’s somehow a genuine delight? The Banana Splits Movie imagines a world where its eponymous Hanna-Barbera children’s show (which was a real-life TV program in the late 1960s) starred killer animatronic robots instead of failed actors in mascot costumes. At a live taping of the decades-running pop culture relic (which only lasted three years in real life), a Chuck E. Cheese-style cast of rock n’ roll robots go haywire and murder select, obnoxious members of their audience, contrasting a cutesy Saturday Morning TV setting with amusing fits of horrific gore.

I had a lot of fun with this, or at least more fun than I expected to. The dramatic writing is about on par with what you’d expect from a SyFy production, but the practical gore gags are a nasty delight once it gets cooking. It’s goofy & violent enough to be worthwhile despite how thin the character work is, which is more than you can say for most of the originals that network broadcasts.

Relaxer – 91min

The writer & star of 2015’s Buzzard (Joel Potrykus & Joshua Burge) team back up for yet another exercise in grotesque slackerdom. This time they deliver a magical-realism period piece set during the final weeks before the Y2K Apocalypse. Two shithead brothers locked in a one-upmanship game of escalating, pointless dares they call “Challenges” seemingly bring on the Apocalypse by attempting to beat an unconquerable level of Pac-Man in a single sitting. Unable to leave the couch until the Challenge is complete, Burge’s antihero slacker rots in his own putrid filth for months on end while the world crumbles around him and the Pac-Man lights & noises help pass the time. Also, the trusty pair of 3D glasses he uses as a security blanket when upset may or may not give him superpowers.

I appreciated this slightly more than Buzzard, but I’m still not totally sold on this duo’s variation on artful slackerdom. I got a few queasy laughs out of it, though, and the supernatural angle was a plus. Mostly, I just walked away from it disgusted with the human body and fearful that if I ever lived alone, I’d quickly devolve into this exact couchbound purgatory of filth.

Pihu – 91min

This movie has an incredible ripped-from-the-headlines premise. Left alone with a mother who commits suicide, a two-year-old toddler fends for herself for several days, unsupervised. Like a horror movie variation on Kore-Eda’s Nobody Knows, this Indian melodrama follows the toddler around her (upscale, but messy) apartment for days as she attempts to accomplish simple tasks like feeding & entertaining herself without suffering a gauntlet of potentially lethal obstacles: pills, fire, heights, sharp objects, live electricity, hot irons etc.

It’s an anxiety-inducing nightmare of a premise (one we’re told is “based on a true story”), but it’s also one that undercuts its own in-the-moment effect in a few disappointing ways. There’s a cheesy After School Special quality to the way its themes of suicide & domestic abuse are dramatized, not least of all because the actor who plays the toddler’s father (mostly as a disembodied voice) is excruciatingly awkward & insincere. Worse, the movie opts for a soothing, gentle sitar score to contrast the in-the-moment danger of its pint-sized protagonist, when it really needed a Mica Levi-style nightmare of creepy ambiance. Still, if you’re looking for a novelty horror version of Baby’s Day Out, its central hook is strong enough to carry it through its minor distractions & shortcomings, even if just barely.

-Brandon Ledet