Swampflix’s Top Films of 2017

1. Get Out – Jordan Peele’s debut feature displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form as it pushes past discussion of explicit racism to explore the awkwardness of microaggressions, the creepiness of suburban culture, and the fetishization and exotification of people of color. It’s a staggeringly well-written work that has convincingly captured the current cultural zeitgeist, becoming instantly familiar & iconic in a way few movies have in our lifetime. It’s a horror film that families should watch together, especially if you have some of those white “I’m not racist, but” family members. Let it flow through you and inform you about the daily experiences of people of color in our country. Let it teach you a lesson about the power of cell phone video as a liberator, and about the frequent hypocrisy of white liberalism. Let it be the light for you in dark (and sunken) places. Let its truth live in you and affect your daily life, teaching you to recognize the toxicity within yourself. Live it.

2. mother! – A sumptuous movie with haunting imagery, strong performances, an excellent cinematic eye, and an amazing cast. A movie about which it’s impossible to be apathetic but completely acceptable to feel ambivalence. A beautiful, messed up, literally goddamned movie that might just be the most important major studio release of 2017.  mother! demands discussion & analysis in a way most major studio releases typically don’t. The important part of that discussion is not whether you are personally positive on the film’s absurdist handling of its Biblical & environmentalist allegories or the way it makes deliberately unpleasant choices in its sound design & cinematography to get them across in a never-ending house party from Hell. The important thing is recognizing the significance of its bottomless ambition in the 2010s Hollywood filmmaking landscape.

3. Raw – The debut feature from director Julia Ducournau is one of the more wonderfully gruesome horror films of 2017, but it’s also much more tonally & thematically delicate than what its marketing would lead you to believe.  A coming-of-age cannibal film about a young woman discovering previously undetected . . . appetites in herself as she enters autonomous adulthood, Raw is actually pretty delicate & subtle, especially for a remnant of the New French Extremity horror movement. Although there are plenty horror elements at play, the movie also works as a dark (dark, dark) comedy. It’s gross, but it’s also hilarious, and surprisingly endearing.

 

4. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore – A movie about getting justice for yourself and fighting the assholes of the world, this is the sweetest tale of revenge that ever was. Part Coen Brothers, part Tarantino, but uniquely its own thing, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore deftly balances itself between romcom and gritty revenge flick. Melanie Lynskey’s mission of principle— not in search of compensation, but for the simple demand that “people not be assholes”— boasts an absurd, intangible goal and the movie itself never shies away from matching that absurdity in its overall tone, but impressively still keeps its brutality believably authentic. It vacillates between grave-dark humor and truly grotesque outbursts of violence, but it also demonstrates a wealth of heart and subversiveness.

5. The Shape of Water – A vision of hope & empowerment. Revisionist justice for the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Guillermo del Toro’s latest is emotional comfort food for the outcasts, downtrodden, and misfits of the world. A brutal, lushly shot fairy tale, The Shape of Water is a beautiful love story between a disabled woman and an aquatic humanoid. It’s also a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit, especially in seeing the world’s true, institutional monsters overcome by an alliance comprised of the “other”: a “commie,” a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, an older queer man, and their sexy fishman accomplice.

6. Split – A near-borderless playground for James McAvoy to villainously chew scenery. He does so admirably, fully committing to the film’s morally dodgy, but wickedly fun D.I.D. premise. Split is a thriller that makes you feel the fear and anxiety of the protagonist (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor Joy), whom McAvoy holds hostage. That horrible trapped & confused feeling overwhelms even as the film descends into gleefully trashy genre tropes that don’t at all deserve the attention to craft M. Night Shyamalan affords them.

7. IT – Steven King’s novel IT is a lengthy screed about friendship and the loss of innocence upon the road to maturity, a book that holds the record for “Product Most Obviously Created by a Coked-Up Lunatic.” It’s not King’s best work, but last year’s film adaptation finds the kernel of perfection in it and brings it to life. Many were quick to compare it to the terribly boring TV miniseries adaptation from 1990, but the film is a major improvement on that attempt. Loaded with jump-scares and legitimately terrifying sewer clown action, IT was the best true-horror film of the year, an excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of “elevated” horror, IT is a declarative, back to the basics return to Event Film horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions, which tend to lurk at the edges of the frame.

8. Logan – A somber meditation on age, obsolescence, loss, and death, this R-rated X-Men film’s throat-ripping hyperviolence offers a legitimate glimpse into the grim future of Trump’s America. It also breaks new ground as a superhero narrative that finally tries its hand in genre contexts outside the action blockbuster. This is a neo-western set in a dystopian, dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. It’s perhaps the starkest look into our likeliest future that came out all year.

9. The Lure – Gore has never been so glamorous! The Lure beautifully mixes fairy tale lore with glitterful violence and a fantastic synth-heavy soundtrack to deliver a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. The film somehow tackles themes as varied as love, greed, feminism, addiction, body dysmorphia, betrayal, revenge, camaraderie, and fluid sexuality while still maintaining the vibe of a nonstop party or an especially lively nightmare.

10. Marjorie Prime – The best hard sci-fi film of the year is a deeply introspective and meditative piece on the nature of grief, memory, loss, and family. Love and grief have a profound effect on the way that our memories evolve and devolve and undergo a metamorphosis as we age. The ravages of time on the human body and mind also contribute to our imperfect personal narratives. This serene, philosophical stage play adaptation about artificial intelligence dwells on these themes at length, mostly to the sounds of distant waves crashing and softly spoken dialogue. Marjorie Prime is the most quietly elegant film listed here, but it’s also the most philosophically rewarding in its reflections on memory, truth, and the erosive nature of time.

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

-The Swampflix Crew

Britnee’s Top Films of 2017

1. Raw – The debut feature from director Julia Ducournau is hands-down my favorite film of 2017. What I adore the most about this coming-of-age cannibal film is that its terrifying plot feels so real. The main character, Justine, was so relatable to me, even though our lives are vastly different. The way she is able to portray her emotions when encountering new, unfamiliar social situations while trying to figure out her internal struggles was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in a fictional character. Aside from the emotional side of the film, Raw also has some of the coolest/grossest gore scenes of the year. This is definitely not one for those with weak stomachs.

2. Split – James McAvoy is one of my all-time favorite actors because he gives every performance his all, and that’s exactly what he does in his lead role in Split. It’s a thriller that’s able to make you feel the fear and anxiety of the protagonist, whom McAvoy holds hostage. That horrible sense of feeling trapped and confused overwhelmed me to the point that I had to remind myself that I was in my own bedroom, where I do most of my movie-watching. Like with most M. Night Shyamalan films, Split is an endless puzzle. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, you get slapped in the face with an ending that is guaranteed to blow your mind.

3. Get Out – This is a horror film that families should watch together, especially if you have some of those white “I’m not racist, but” family members. Get Out is the perfect blend of horror, comedy, science fiction, and tear-jerking moments, so there’s a little something for everyone. The sound of a teaspoon stirring in a ceramic teacup has haunted me just as much as the film’s surprise ending.

4. IT – Loaded with jump-scares and legitimately terrifying sewer clown action, IT was the best true-horror film of the year. Many were quick to compare it to the terribly boring original television miniseries, but the film is completely different in the best way possible. For a film that centers on a killer clown, the spooky clown scenes are sparse; but when they occur, they are absolutely terrifying. This was the only film I saw last year in 3-D, and it was on of my most memorable 2017 film experiences for sure.

5. Okja – The silly CGI super pig Okja completely stole my heart, weird farts and all. Okja is a wild ride filled with themes relating to food production and animal rights, but it never loses focus on the main point of the story: the friendship between a young girl and her pet/best-friend. I watched Okja with my dog (who looks a bit like Okja), and I squeezed her so tight for some of the tear-jerking scenes. It’s amazing how a CGI super pig has made me question many of my life choices.

6. The Lure – This was the last film I watched in 2017, as it was featured at Brandon and CC’s New Year’s Eve movie-watching extravaganza. It was nothing short of a blessing. Gore had never been so glamorous! When it comes to movies about mermaids (possibly my favorite “mythical” creature), they’re either fairy tale-like or violent; The Lure is able to beautifully mix the two into a swirl of Polish horror insanity. Oh, it’s also a musical packed with loads of fantastic synth-heavy music that I immediately fell in love with.

7. mother! – The hype for mother! was just as enjoyable as the film itself. Advertisements branding the film as the “most controversial movie of the year” were around every corner, but when the film actually came out, people began to shit on it so hard. That’s when I became even more interested in watching it! It received a lot of criticism for containing very obvious allegories, but that’s one of the qualities I enjoyed the most, as it added to its unintended silliness. The bottom line is that mother! is just a lot of stupid fun and has a pretty sick scene at the end that shouldn’t be missed.

8. The Babysitter – This Netflix original teenybopper horror-comedy about a satanic babysitter is just as amazing as it sounds. The Babysitter is a satirical throwback to 80s teen horror, loaded with vibrant colors, fun musical numbers, and hilariously violent death scenes. Of all the movies in my top ten, I have watched The Babysitter the most. It’s just a fun movie to throw on after a long day of work.

9. Hounds of Love – Not only is this the title of my favorite Kate Bush album, but it’s also one of my favorite films of the year! Hounds of Love reminds us that human beings can be complete monsters. The film is loosely based on the Australian Moorhouse murders, and it does a great job of depicting the real-life tragedy that involved the capture and torture of a young woman by a sadistic couple. This is one of those movies that would be difficult to watch more than once, but as a true crime fan, I can’t rave about it enough.

10. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore – If you’re wondering what Elijah Wood has been up to lately, he plays a dorky rat-tailed neighbor to Melanie Lynskey in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (possibly the longest movie title of the year). The film follows the eccentric Batman and Robin-like duo on their quest to get stolen goods back from a group of dangerous criminals. It’s the sweetest tale of revenge that ever was.

-Britnee Lombas

Brandon’s Top Films of 2017

1. The Florida Project – Captures the rebellious punk spirit that laughs in the face of all authority & life obstacles among the children who run wild in the extended-stay slum motels just outside the Disney World amusement parks in Florida. The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults. Although financially locked out of The Happiest Place on Earth, they defiantly turn the Magic Castle & Futureland Inn knockoffs they are allowed to occupy into a punk rock amusement park all of their own.

2. We Are the Flesh – Disorients the eye by making grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to thematically pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitalia, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores.

3. The Lure – Synths! Sequins! Sex! Gore! What more could you ask for? The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. A debut feature from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, the film somehow tackles themes as varied as love, greed, feminism, alcoholism, body dysmorphia, betrayal, revenge, camaraderie, and (forgive my phrasing here) fluid sexuality all while feeling like a nonstop party or an especially lively, glitterful nightmare. It’s astounding.

4. Tom of Finland – Depicting the adult life of Finnish illustrator/pornographer Touko Valio Laaksonen as he drew his way into queer culture infamy, Tom of Finland excels as a kind of filmmaking alchemy: it turns an unlikely tonal mashup of Cruising & Carol into the feel-good queer drama of the year. While its sexuality isn’t quite as transgressive as the leather daddy-inspiring art of its subject, it’s a passionate, celebratory work that sidesteps the typical pitfalls of queer misery porn dramas, yet still manages to feel truthful, dangerous, and at times genuinely erotic. It’s hard to believe the film is half as wonderful as it is, given the visual trappings of its subject & biopic genre, but its leather & disco lyricism lifts the spirit and defies expectation.

5. Your Name. – From its tale of star-crossed, long distance romantics to its mildly crude sexual humor, bottom of the heart earnestness, supernatural mindfuckery, and pop punk/post-rock soundtrack (provided by the appropriately named Radwimps), Your Name. is the distilled ideal of a teen fantasy film in the 2010s. It’s also the most beautifully animated and strikingly empathetic picture I can remember seeing on the big screen in a long while. Small town angst & romantic desperation, cornerstones of teenage inner life, dominate its early proceedings, but several monumental narrative shifts completely disrupt those concerns as the co-protagonists’ stories strive to intertwine in a shared, physical space. The film almost operates like Persona in reverse, where two jumbled identities slowly detangle and then have to desperately search for common ground.

6. Brigsby Bear – 2017 was the year Kyle Mooney made me cry in a comedy about an animatronic bear, a time I never knew to expect. Although a darkly funny film that builds its narrative around a fictional television show that stars said bear & adheres to an Everything Is Terrible VHS aesthetic, Brigsby Bear is remarkably earnest, with genuine emotional stakes. I never thought I’d see the best parts of Room & Gentlemen Broncos synthesized into a single picture, but what’s even more impressive is that this film manages to be both more emotionally devastating & substantially amusing than either individual work. My only real complaint is in the frustration of knowing that I can’t be locked in a room to watch a few hundred episodes of The Brigsby Bear Adventures myself.

7. The Shape of Water – Easily one of Guillermo del Toro’s best features, assuming that you’re just as much of a sucker for brutal, lushly shot fairy tales as I am. The Shape of Water rights the wrongs of old school monster movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon by paying attention to how their supposedly villainous beasts are spiritually in line with the oppressed & the marginalized, depicting their governmental enemies as the true monsters instead of the assumed heroes. It also functions as a love letter to the visual delicacies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (whether intentional or not), an aesthetic I never tire of. Behind The Lure, it’s only the second best film of 2017 about interspecies fish-fucking, but the competition was surprisingly stiff for that honor.

8. mother! – The most important major studio release of 2017. From the rapturous praise to the horror stories of angry, vocal walkouts during its violently bonkers third act, mother! demands discussion & analysis in the way crowdpleaser comedies, superhero action epics, and computer-animated cartoons about talking animals typically don’t. The important part of the discussion it sparks is not whether you were personally positive on the film’s absurdist handling of its Biblical & environmentalist allegories or the way it makes deliberately unpleasant choices in its sound design & cinematography to get them across in a never-ending house party from Hell. The important thing is recognizing the significance of its bottomless ambition in the 2010s Hollywood filmmaking landscape.  There aren’t nearly enough major player Hollywood studios taking chances like this.

9. Good Time – Essentially a mutated version of Refn’s Drive with all of the sparkling romance thoroughly supplanted with dispiriting grime, Good Time filters an old-fashioned heist plot through Oneohtrix Point Never’s blistering synths and the neon-soaked cinematography of Sean Price Williams (who also shot Queen of Earth). That sounds like it could be a blast, but The Safdie Brothers employ those electric lights & sounds for a much more grueling purpose than you’ll find in typical action movie entertainment. The film is defined less by neon glamor than it is soaked in the economy-driven discomfort of state-sanctioned psychoanalysis sessions and the cold glow of television-lit hospital rooms. Good Time aims to disgust & discomfort, offering all of the surface entertainment of a film like Drive without softening its real life implications with the fantasy of movie magic the way that film does so well.

10. My Life as a Zucchini – A French language black comedy written by Céline Sciamma, director of Girlhood & Tomboy, My Life as a Zucchini is more spiritually aligned with the quiet comedic gloom of Mary and Max than the kid-friendly antics of more traditional stop motion works like Shaun the Sheep & A Town Called Panic. Its coming of age plot is quietly simple. Its stop motion animation style is adorable, but unambitious. However, its empathetic portrait of young, lonely orphans in search of a family to call their own is rawly authentic and had me crying like an idiot baby throughout. Still, it isn’t overly maudlin or emotionally manipulative. It’s just honest. One of my favorite aspects of My Life as a Zucchini is that (with very few exceptions) there are no real enemies driving its central conflicts. Life is just difficult.

11. It Comes at Night – Distinctly captures the eerie feeling of being up late at night, alone, plagued by anxieties you can usually suppress in the daylight by keeping busy, and afraid to go back to sleep because of the cruelly false sense of relief that startles you when you slip into your stress dreams. It’s in these late night, early morning hours when fear & grief are inescapable and nearly anything seems possible, just nothing positive or worth looking forward to. Trey Edward Shults stirs up that same level of anxious terror in his debut, Krisha, with the same deeply personal focus on familial discord, but It Comes at Night features a new facet the director couldn’t easily afford until this better-funded follow-up: beauty. The film’s nightmares & late night glides through empty hallways are frighteningly intense, but they’re also beautifully crafted & intoxicatingly rich for anyone with enough patience to fully drink them in.

12. Get Out – Instead of a virginal, scantily clad blonde running from a masked killer with an explicitly phallic weapon, Get Out aligns its audience with a young black man put on constant defense by tone deaf, subtly applied racism. Part horror comedy, part racial satire, and part mind-bending sci-fi, Jordan Peele’s debut feature not only openly displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form (directly recalling works as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Under the Skin, and any number of Wes Craven titles); it also applies that knowledge to a purposeful, newly exciting variation on those past accomplishments. It’s a staggeringly well-written work that has convincingly captured the current cultural zeitgeist, becoming instantly familiar & iconic in a way few movies have in our lifetime.

13. Split -A near-borderless playground for James McAvoy to villainously chew scenery. He does so admirably, fully committing to the film’s morally dodgy, but wickedly fun D.I.D. premise. When an M. Night Shyamalan film is great, it’s brilliantly stupid, combining over-thought & over-stylized art film pretension to an empty, trashy property that doesn’t at all deserve it. When a Shyamalan movie is bad, it’s boringly dumb, the worst kind of limp, undercooked cinematic inanity Hollywood dumps into wide distribution without giving enough thoughtful consideration. Split is brilliantly stupid.

14. Okja – Too much of an ever-shifting set of complexly self-contradictory tones & moods to be wholly described to the uninitiated. Okja is both a scathing satire of modern meat industry & a slapstick farce poking fun at the activists who attempt to dismantle it. It’ll stab you in the heart with onscreen displays of animal cruelty, but will just as often giggle at the production of farts & turds. I could describe the film as an action adventure version of Death to Smoochy or a more deliberately adult reimagining of Babe 2: Pig in the City, but neither comparison fully covers every weird impulse that distracts & delights Bong Joon-ho as he chases his narrative across multiple continents. It’s not something that can be readily understood or absorbed on even a scene to scene basis, but its overall effect is deliriously overwhelming and expectation-subverting enough that it feels nothing short of magnificent as a whole.

15. Raw – One of the more wonderfully gruesome horror films of 2017 is much more tonally & thematically delicate than what its press would lead you to believe. Early reports from the festival circuit sold Raw as a shock-a-minute gross-out that requires barf bags & potential trips in an ambulance. That reputation is definitely more a facet of its marketing than anything the film itself is attempting to accomplish. The heart of its story about a young woman discovering previously undetected . . . appetites in herself as she enters autonomous adulthood is actually pretty delicate & subtle, especially for a remnant of the New French Extremity horror movement.

True story: the first time I saw it in the theater, someone brought their tiny, tiny kids. They almost made it to the end credits too, despite the toddlers’ screams. Incredible.

16. Icaros: A Vision – Upon recovery from a near-fatal bout with breast cancer, visual artist Leonor Caraballo traveled to Peru to seek therapeutic guidance from the country’s local ayahuasca clinics to help emotionally process her unexpected confrontation with mortality. While participating in the religious ritual of ingesting the psychotropic plant with the guidance of shamans, Caraballo saw a vision of her own death. She returned to her home in Argentina convinced of two things: 1) that she was going to die of the cancer’s soon-to-come aggressive return and 2) that she had to make a film about her experience with the ayahuasca plant. The result of these convictions, Icaros: A Vision, partly serves as a therapeutic processing of dread & grief personal to Caraballo’s story. However, the film also strives to capture the religious reverence Peruvian people find in plants like ayahuasca and to poke fun at outsiders who treat the ritual that helped the filmmaker through her darkest hour like a colonialist act of tourism.

17. The Untamed – Not quite as structurally sound or as thematically satisfying as We Are the Flesh, but employs a similar palette of sexual shock value tactics to jolt its audience into an extreme, unfamiliar headspace. It adopts the gradual reveals & sound design terrors common to “elevated horrors” of the 2010s, but finds a mode of scare delivery all unto its own, if not only in the depiction of its movie-defining monster: a space alien that sensually fucks human beings with its tentacles. The Untamed alternates between frustration & hypnotism as its story unfolds, but one truth remains constant throughout: you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

18. Nocturama – I’m not sure the world necessarily needed a movie that makes acts of terrorism look sexy & cool, but with so few transgressive places left for cinema to go you’ve got to respect Nocturama for finding a way to push buttons in the 2010s. Nocturama is certain to ruffle feathers & inspire umbrage in the way it nonchalantly mirrors recent real life terror attacks on cities like Paris & London. That incendiary kind of thematic bomb-throwing is difficult to come by in modern cinema, though, considering the jaded attitudes of an audience who’ve already seen it all. It helps that the film is far from an empty provocation; it’s a delicately beautiful art piece & a hypnotically deconstructed heist picture, a filmmaking feat as impressive as its story is defiantly cruel.

19. I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore -As cartoonishly silly as I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore often feels, director Macon Blair does his best to place it in the context of a real, relatable world. Light beer, country music, upper-deckers, meth, and sudden bursts of intense violence all sketch out a real world playing field where Melanie Lynskey’s unreal vigilante warpath can be staged. Her mission of principle— not in search of compensation, but for the simple demand that “people not be assholes”— boasts an absurd, intangible goal and the movie itself never shies away from matching that absurdity in its overall tone, but impressively still keeps its brutality believably authentic.

20. The Little Hours – Profiling the sex & violence pranksterism of nuns running wild in a Middle Ages convent, Jeff Baena shines at his leanest, funniest, and most visually beautiful. Not only is his latest film an unbelievably tight 90 minutes of blasphemous, hedonistic hilarity; it’s also a gorgeous indulgence in the grimy, sunlit beauty of 1970s Satanic horror & nunsploitation cinema. Although obviously informed by improv experimentation, the film is sharply edited down to its most bare essentials in a way more modern comedies could stand to be. I especially appreciated the opportunity it affords Kate Micucci to run absolutely feral among her more seasoned vets of chaos castmates (Aubrey Plaza & Allison Brie). It’s also wonderful to see Baena let loose from his usual high-concept, emotionally dour black comedies to deliver something much more unashamedly fun & light on its feet.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lure (2017)

Synths! Sequins! Sex! Gore! What more could you ask for? The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. As a genre film with a striking hook in its basic premise, it’s the kind of work that invites glib descriptors & points of comparison like An Aquatic Ginger Snaps Musical or La La Land of the Damned, but there’s much more going on in its basic appeal than that sense of genre mash-up novelty. This debut feature from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska somehow tackles themes as varied as love, greed, feminism, alcoholism, body dysmorphia, betrayal, revenge, camaraderie, and (forgive my phrasing here) fluid sexuality all while feeling like a nonstop party or an especially lively, glitterful nightmare. It’s astounding.

Two young mermaid sisters, Golden & Silver, join us legged folk on land after curiously spying on some drunken revelers from just under the surface of the water at a cityside beach. Fascinated with the mermaids’ siren song duet & apparent ability to temporarily sprout legs (but no human genitalia, much to everyone’s dismay), the beach-side drunks adopt the sisters into their band: an adult-themed nightclub act that sounds something like synthpop act Berlin gone disco. Soon they’re the most popular act at any disco burlesque in all of Warsaw, first providing the backing track for other topless performers and then quickly becoming topless performers themselves. The club makes no effort to hide the fact that these are fantastical creatures, making their gigantic, muscular mermaid tails a central part of the act. The problems that break up this sexed-up reverie arise when Silver & Golden aren’t performing. One falls in love with a human, both grow frustrated with their over-controlling band mates, and neither are sure what to make of Triton, who leads a similar life on land fronting a wildly popular punk band at a nearby club. All of these conflicts come to a head the way they also did in Poland’s last significant international horror release, Demon: through a drunken wedding celebration that ends much, much later into the night than it should.

It’s possible that some of the cultural significance of themes lurking just under the surface of The Lure might be going over my head as an American outsider (a concern I also had with Demon, to be honest). Inscrutable dialogue like, “Do you live in some old monkey’s ear?” occasionally threw me off-balance in that way, but that open-for-interpretation oddness lends itself well to the universality of pop music lyrics’ subjectivity. Lines like, “Bitter tastes can be delicious,” “We’re all gloomy as hell,” and “Put your hand deep inside me and drag me to shore,” cut through the language barrier of the pop lyrics translations to feel significant despite their enigmatic nature. This dynamic also plays well into how the sisters relate to the outside world in ways we don’t fully understand as an audience of land-walkers. Sometimes their dolphin-noise communication between one another is subtitled for our benefit, but often we’re left completely in the dark. This not only maintains the suspense of whether Golden or Silver are about to strike out in another act of animalistic, flesh-eating violence (or equally animalistic acts of sexual perversion), but also supports the film’s necessary distinction of their unknowable inhumanity. As Triton puts it, “We are not human. We are just on vacation here.” Any tragedy that befalls the mermaids or the humans who desire to interact with them is a direct result of losing track of that basic truth, which is an easy enough narrative through-line to hold onto, even if some of the details in the phrasing present a communicative struggle.

Of course, the lure of The Lure isn’t entirely dependent on the film’s dialogue or thematic weight. From a filmmaking standpoint, my favorite aspect of the movie is just its value as a stunning collection of sights & sounds. Every scene in the film looks either like a music video dream sequence or a flashlight-illuminated crime scene. The costuming & old school musical sound stage imagery is impeccable. Its The Knife-esque synths & vocal distortions had me tapping my foot for the entire length of the runtime. I could ramble on forever praising The Lure for the way it handles themes like the infantilization & casual dismissal of women after their commodification loses potency or its admirably blasé attitudes toward bisexuality or feminist revenge narratives. That kind of highfalutin critical praise would be somewhat dishonest to what I most fell in love with in the film, however. Smoczyńska’s major accomplishment is in how she captures the grand scale spectacle of a Baz Luhrmann musical within the context of a slick, modern horror film that’s both comically light on its feet and chillingly brutal in its gore-heavy cruelty. It’s an incredible love-at-first-sight debut that already has me willing to give the director a lifetime pass just one entry into her career.

-Brandon Ledet