Full disclosure: I haven’t seen The Lighthouse. I know I would love it, and hope I get the chance to see it before I compile my “best of the decade” list so that it gets its proper acknowledgement from me.
First the 2018 holdovers. As I mentioned in last year’s year-ender, I was laid up for much of the last few months of 2018 after a pretty bad accident. I even already had tickets to Suspiria and Bad Times at the El Royale for the weekend after I got hit by a truck. I even reached out to some of my friends in The Industry to see if any of them could get me a screener of Suspiria because if there was anyone in the world who had a vested interest in how it would turn out, your boy here is that person. So here are my holdovers from 2018 that would have made my list were it not for other circumstances:
- Bad Times at the El Royale: I was a much bigger fan of this one than Brandon was. I loved just about every part of it, including getting to see Jon Hamm playing both into and against type as a much more openly racist version of Don Draper, vacuum salesman. As someone who generally feels anxiety in public accommodations, I always get a kick out of thrillers set at hotels (Bug, Identity) and doubly so if there’s a voyeurism element to them, even if they’re overall not very good (Vacancy). Combine that with a lethal cult, a necessarily oddball hotel, and great direction from Drew Goddard, and you’ve got a hit, as far as I’m concerned. 5 stars!
- If Beale Street Could Talk: A tender portrait of a love that is stronger than falsehoods and white police rage, a love that can outshine and outlast injustice even if it is unable to defeat or overcome it. Stunningly, achingly beautiful, this is a film that engenders rage, frustration, gentleness, and mercy, all wrapped in a single package, and although it passed pretty quickly from the public consciousness, I expect it to be vindicated by history. 4.5 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
- Three Identical Strangers: Holy shit, did you see this documentary? Every time I thought we had hit the weirdest wall possible in the story of these three brothers separated at birth, another revelation was waiting around a blind corner to pull the rug out from under me again. A heartwarming story of siblings who find each other as adults becomes a bizarre conspiracy about testing the limits of nature and nurture. This is not one to skip. 4.5 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
- Mom and Dad: Nicolas Cage builds and destroys a pool table, just as he built and destroyed a family. An interesting pairing with something like Who Can Kill a Child?, Mom and Dad is a hell of a ride, even for those among us who may be growing tired of Cage’s nonstop drag race to be in every movie that’s sent his way. Not to be overlooked here is Selma Blair, who really ought to be getting more work; she’s a treasure. 4 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
- Cam: Essentially a full length episode of Black Mirror focusing on one woman’s career as a successful cam girl whose identity is stolen wholesale by an evil… virus? Digital doppelganger (digiganger)? There are weaknesses in the film, especially when Patch Darragh as Arnold / TinkerBoy appears and the film drags, but overall, it’s a compassionate and humanizing look into the world of sex work and the travails thereof. It’s also a great showcase for Madeline Brewer, who at one point I laughed off as a poor addition to an already pretty terrible program, but she’s really proven me wrong. 4 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
- Suspiria: Holy shit, what a ride! Vulture may have ranked this one 5,234th out of the 5,279 films released this decade, but they are wrong, wrong, wrong. As a noteworthy fan of Dario Argento in general and the classic Suspiria in particular, I didn’t want this film to exist. En route to a screening of the Creepers cut of Phenomena last year, a friend asked me if I was excited for the then-upcoming remake, and I admitted that I preferred that it wasn’t happening, but since it was happening and—for better or worse—we would all have to live with it, I was cautiously optimistic. And I have to say: if you’re going to remake an inarguable classic, this is the way to do it. It even makes you wonder, retroactively, why the original didn’t include certain elements that were nominally part of the plot (i.e., dancing) as more integral aspects of the narrative. Despite being an altogether very different film, tonally and visually, the spirit was true. They even had characters discussing the importance of counting steps! 5 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
Honorable mentions! My favorite short-form horror-comedy of the year comes to us from the genius who decided to pair that horrible and horrifying trailer for CATS with the remixed version of “I Got 5 On It.” I have watched this video no fewer than twenty times since it first hit the internet, and I doubt I will ever get tired of it. I also wanted to give special mention to Happy Death Day 2 U, which I thoroughly enjoyed as a bubblegum pop horror flick, even if it skewed more closely to science fiction and I had no knowledge of the first one (the decision to watch a sequel to a movie I never saw came after a long and spirited debate that exhausted me mentally and physically).
I also want to give special commendations to Hulu’s Into the Dark series, produced by Blumhouse (stay with me here). An anthology series that aired its first few episodes in 2018, Into the Dark airs a new feature-length “episode” once a month, with each episode based around a holiday occurring in that month. I’ve been working on backtracking to do a review of each of these, but four of the episodes/films released in the first season of the show deserve particular attention. I couldn’t in good conscience put all four in my “top” list, but I did pick what I consider the best one for that (dubious) accolade and wanted to highlight the other three here.
- First, in April, ITD‘s producers skipped over the more obvious choice of an Easter-based feature and instead went for broke with I’m Just Fucking With You, an April Fool’s Day episode that features Keir O’Donnell as Larry, a man who seems like the posterboy for the word “nebbish.” En route back to his hometown to attend the wedding of an ex-flame, he arrives at a hotel and, after encountering the business’s aggressively impish clerk Chester (Hayes MacArthur, a.k.a. Mr. Ali Larter), proceeds to obsessively clean every surface in his room. Here we learn that Larry leads a double life: mild-mannered by day, edgelord supreme by night. He’s the worst kind of internet troll, and this includes slut-shaming and recommending suicide to the very friend whom he’s intending to visit. Chester is just the worst parts of Larry made manifest in the real world, a trickster who pushes him to go further and further until there’s no turning back. Gorgeously shot (I think that part of the denouement may even have been filmed at the same pink/blue saturated pool area as the end of Strangers: Prey at Night, which barely missed being on my 2018 holdovers list) and extremely tense, this one’s worth checking out, even if it doesn’t stick the landing (a common problem for Into the Dark episodes, if we’re being honest).
- After my Erstwhile Roommate and I finished watching Culture Shock, the Independence Day-themed episode that premiered in July, we turned to each other and I noted that while it wasn’t the most thoughtful Into the Dark, it certainly was the most thought filled. This debut directorial effort from Gigi Saul Guerrero is truly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen from an American production house, following the harrowing and dangerous journey of pregnant immigrant Marisol (Martha Higareda) as she makes a second attempt to cross the Mexican-American border in an effort to find a better life for herself and her child. And find it she does! Marisol, suddenly able to speak English with ease, awakes to discover herself in a seemingly perfect small American town, a pastel Pleasantville, where she is encouraged to integrate and assimilate. She slowly discovers that this new life is not all that it seems, but not in the ways one expects. Although the ending of this one is rather messy (again, an Into the Dark recurring feature), Culture Shock has the most powerful final image of any ITD episode to date.
- All That We Destroy, ITD‘s Mother’s Day episode, broke the boundaries of what the series had done so far up to that point. October’s The Body followed a hitman trying to get rid of a victim’s body on Halloween, November’s Flesh & Blood featured an agoraphobic girl wondering if her father was a serial killer, December’s Pooka! was the story of one man’s descent into madness during his employment as the mascot for Christmas’s hottest new toy, February’s Down was a banal “trapped in an elevator with a psycho” story, and March’s Treehouse was a confused jumble of mysticism and revenge fantasy. All That We Destroy goes full sci-fi thriller as a powerful geneticist (Samantha Mathis) confronts the reality that her artistic but withdrawn son (Israel Broussard) may be a budding serial killer. To determine how best to rectify this problem, she creates clones of his first victim (Aurora Perrineau) over and over again to see if she can find another outlet for his tendencies, all while he grows closer to a new girl in the neighborhood (Dora Madison), who must be really desperate for company. This is one of the few ITDs that manages to stick the landing, despite some narrative missteps.
Whatever, brah, enough talking, let’s blade.
15. The Perfection. Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer wasn’t a fan of this one and its narrative conventions, and neither was Brandon, who validly criticized the film for its lazy use of tired sexual assault tropes in its examination of the motivations of its main characters. I would never argue that the narrative crutch of sexual violence isn’t an overused trope in Western media, nor that any individual bears responsibility for overlooking its use in a work; I may have been disappointed that The Mary Sue stopped doing Game of Thrones coverage after a particularly heinous plot turn in that show’s fifth season because their coverage is always great, but far be it from me to be the kind of person who doesn’t respect that decision. But in an era when there’s greater visibility of the behavior and verbalizations of casual misogynists and sexual assailants with no accompanying increase in accountability, this is a film that lays bare the ways that dangerous men can be passively protected from public scrutiny by the inaction and presence of women in their lives (as Steven Weber’s Anton is by his wife, Alaina Huffman’s Paloma) while taking aim at the cabals of men who support and reinforce each other’s vile natures. The way that men talk about women when they think that they’re only in the presence of other straight men is fucking vile, and this is a film that doesn’t shy away from the end result of what can happen when that kind of attitude is unopposed. It also doesn’t lie about the consequences of what happens to victims: there are no happy endings; the happiest thing you can hope for, even when justice is meted out and revenge has run its course, is to still be only part of what you once were (visualized in an extremely literal way). There is no more innocence, no more perfection, no more feeling of being complete.
14. IT: Chapter 2. From my review: “Man, people really, really hated this one, didn’t they? I guess I can see why, but I’m also not really sure what anyone was expecting. IT is a novel that could be adapted a dozen times, and there’s always going to be one shining (no pun intended) truth about it: the Losers Club is always going to be more interesting when the constituents are children, and the ‘adult’ half of the narrative is always going to pale in comparison. There’s just no way around it; it’s baked into the narrative’s very structure. That’s even kind of the point: the extradimensional entity we call Pennywise feeds on fear, and it prefers the fear of kids because children’s fears (killer clowns, abusive parents, monsters) are specific and easy to manipulate, while adult fears (not being able to provide for a family, dying alone, being trapped in a loveless relationship) are abstract and amorphous. Director Andy Muschietti made the right call here by opting to forego the pants-soiling horror of the first film and channel more comedy into this one, although how effective you found that to be does seem to vary from person to person. There’s verisimilitude in that, though: as a child, you’re powerless against the monsters you perceive in the world, and your best hope is to hide under your bed until the ‘monsters’ go away; as an adult, one of the only real ways to defend against one’s anxieties and fears is to minimize and trivialize them, to turn them into jokes.”
13. New Year, New You. You may have noticed that, above, I skipped over mentioning the January episode of Into the Dark, and that’s because this one was so much fun that it surpassed honorable mention status and belongs on the list. Ably directed by Sophia Takal, who also wrote and directed this year’s Black Christmas remake (which I have not seen), I can honestly say that the 2010s contribution to the ongoing legacy of Heathers, Jawbreaker, and Mean Girls has finally arrived, and just under the wire, too. Starring Suki Waterhouse as Alexis, the film follows the New Year’s Eve reunion of a quartet of high school friends after years apart. Kayla (Kirby Howell-Baptiste of Crashing and Killing Eve) and Chloe (Melissa Bergland) are the first to arrive, and they’re doubtful that Danielle (Carly Chaikin), now a successful new media influencer, will show up. When she does, she first attempts to take advantage of their longterm friendships for more social cache with her online audience, but the other three women have other designs: to get Danielle to confess to bullying one of their high school classmates, social torture that eventually led the girl to kill herself. Alliances shift and, as no surprise to anyone familiar with the cutthroat world of Instagram influencing, things get out of control quickly, until people are locked in steam rooms with murderous intent. It’s a fun ride that demands to be seen.
11 and 12. Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened and Fyre Fraud. Speaking of influencer culture, the beginning of 2019 saw the release of two separate documentaries about the implosion of the dead-in-the-water music/culture event known as the Fyre Festival. The brainchild of Billy McFarland, a privileged kid from an incorporated suburb in New Jersey who ran one of the best long cons of the new millennium, Fyre Festival was a music “experience” intended to promote the launch of an app that would function as a kind of Uber for fans to set up performances with musicians, artists, and “influencers.” Co-signed by Ja Rule, the festival was a disaster from the word “go,” and the festival became a laughingstock of the internet, where the overprivileged goons who were foolish enough to pay a ludicrous amount of money in order to attend found themselves sheltered in emergency housing and feasting upon white bread and cheese slices instead of the promised luxury cabins and gourmet meals. Theoretically in competition (The Greatest Party That Never Happened was released by Netflix and Fyre Fraud was released by Hulu), the two actually function as sublime companion pieces that should be seen together to get the full picture of just how much schadenfreude money can’t buy. Read my reviews of Fraud here and Greatest Party here.
10. Shazam. Zachary Levi makes a star turn as DC’s Big Red Cheese, the Shazam formerly known as Captain Marvel, one of the oldest comic book superheroes in existence (fun fact: while home from work on Christmas Eve, I watched an episode of The Donna Reed Show in which the lead visited a bunch of children in the hospital and one of them was reading a comic book featuring this very character). A surprisingly good flick coming out of the DC film house, this one takes all the wish fulfillment that has long been a part of this character’s nature—a child becomes an adult superhero when he speaks the titular magic word—and crafts a narrative about two separate people whose home lives leave much to be desired and how each charts their own path, a narrative of choosing to let go of resentment and naïveté to embrace hope or hopelessness. All that, and it’s a throwback to the kids movies of the eighties, films that understood that children want to be scared sometimes, and embraces that paradigm, balancing fright and fun in equal measures. Read my review here.
9. Midsommar. From my review: “I’m pretty much always on board with a daytime horror movie. Midsommar pushes past the boundary of the ‘day won’t save you’ concept into a completely disorienting perpetual daylight. This starts even before the audience has the opportunity to ask themselves if something’s rotten in the village, when Mark expresses unease upon learning that it is after 8 PM, despite the sun still appearing high in the sky; the film takes advantage of the northern latitudes’ geographically anomalous prolonged days and plays on the effects that could arise from being unaccustomed to such an unusual night/day rhythm. Characters attempt to circumvent community rules under the cover of ‘darkness’ with about the success that you would expect. […] What makes Midsommar work isn’t just the unease that comes from the finding of no safe haven from horror in the light, it’s also the discomfiting nature of lingering on what Aster called ‘static image[s] of relatively little interest.’ […] The mainstream horror-going audience has spent over a decade now subsisting on films that depend heavily on unearned jump scares to produce a reaction, but Midsommar and its predecessor instead use the quietness of their presentation to inspire a disquiet of the soul. We’ve been forcefed Baghouls hiding behind open medicine cabinet doors for so long that when lingering shots of pastoral peace are succeeded by calm pans across striking farmhouses or documentarian framing of a Swedish banquet, there’s nowhere for that energy to go; so it just builds and builds until whoops, now you’re wearing a bear suit and boy are you not going to like it.”
8. Hustlers. Don’t let the marketing fool you: Lizzo is barely in this movie. But that’s okay! Jennifer Lopez gives what may be the performance of her career in this based-on-a-true-story crime comedy thriller set during the 2008 economic collapse. Ramona Vega (Lopez) is a single mother and veteran stripper with aspirations of becoming a swimwear designer. She takes Destiny (Constance Wu) under her wing and teaches her how to profit from men’s piggishness, and for a time, their cohort—including Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Anabelle (Lili Reinhart)—are living the high life. When the economic crisis hits the upper echelons of Wall Street, aka their clientele, the apparent glamour of their lives is removed and the bloom is off the rose, and desperate times call for criminal measures.
7. Knives Out. From my review: “Knives Out is [a] rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot. The film is surprisingly political, as well, and not just in a ‘Communism was a red herring’ way. Like Get Out before it, Knives Out mocks the occasional ignorance of the political left vis-a-vis latent and uninspected racism on the part of Joni and Meg, who profess progressive values while being, respectively, a largely uninformed buffoon and an easily corrupted intellectual. On the other side of the aisle, the fact that all of the Thrombey children and grandchildren consider themselves to be ‘self-made’ despite succeeding only due to the generosity of their wealthy patriarch calls to mind certain statements about a ‘small loan’ of a million dollars that a certain political figure has made.”
6. Us. From my review: “It doesn’t give too much of the film’s message away to say that it is about class and the way that it creates dark mirrors for ourselves everywhere, the way that getting out of the darkness of poverty is often impossible, and that those who manage to somehow embody the mythological idea of social mobility must do so at the expense of others, ultimately becoming complicit in the suffering of those who might otherwise have been your peers. Of course, with a film like this one, there are going to be other interpretations, but it’s all there. Consider: Adelaide’s father, playing Whack-a-Mole, knocking down facsimiles of rodents as they try to rise up out of the darkness underground. Consider: that Gabe constantly finds himself trying to one-up Josh, only to find that Josh himself is imitating his own decisions, in an orobouros of attempts to keep up with the Joneses. Consider: that ‘I Got 5 On It’ is about how one person covets an entire object despite said object being a dime bag that both parties going halves should share between the two of them (‘I got some bucks on it, but it ain’t enough on it’). Consider: the power of art as the impetus to empower the recognition of interclass economic struggle and the ability to transcend (or at least ascend within) it. Consider: the repeated refrain of the ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ that eternally attempts to climb and is forever pushed back down. Consider: when arriving at the beach house, the family eats fast food, except for Adelaide, who eats strawberries; why? Consider: what does a Black Flag t-shirt mean in 1986 when worn by a teenager working long hard hours versus being worn by the child of a comfortably wealthy family in 2019?”
5. Avengers: Endgame. Unlike in past years, I’m not just going to stick all of the Marvel movies in one slot, because really, only one of them really and truly stood out to me this year. Captain Marvel was good, and Alison Brie is always cool, but I haven’t felt the need to revisit it at all, and its position as the first Marvel flick to end up solely on Disney+ instead of Netflix has put it out of my reach (I’m at once disappointed in all of you for not boycotting the announcement of yet another streaming service in order to force Disney to put its material back on one of the existing services while also recognizing that we are all but ants in the House of Mouse’s shadow). Tom Holland’s latest outing was also nothing to write home about, either, other than some pretty good Mysterio illusions and that scene where everybody talks shit about dead Tony Stark. Love it or hate it, the MCU is here to stay, but if it weren’t (and even I have argued that a break would be a good idea, as I did in my Spider-Man’s European Vacation review), this would be a loving and lovely finale to the end of the first “volume” of a franchise that is going to either peter out in the next few years or outlive us all (see also: Star Wars). As I said in my review, this is the “All Good Things” of the Marvel film franchise, and I loved it, no matter what comes next. But I’d be surprised to find an MCU movie in my list next year, if we’re being honest. Also, Peggy‘s in it!
4. Doctor Sleep. From my review: “I loved this movie. […] This film never feels its length, and the muted public reaction and mediocre box office returns are a personal disappointment; this film was never going to surpass The Shining, but it’s not far behind, and [director Mike] Flanagan was right to mix the original film’s solemn meditative qualities with occasional frenetic setpieces. In a lifetime of watching movies, I’ve never been so invested or felt so much tension in my spine when watching a scene of a man eight years sober struggle to not take a drink, even in Kubrick’s opus; it’s powerful movie-making at its best, and I can’t recommend it more highly. McGregor gives one of his best performances here, and Ferguson is likewise a delight. Sleep really and truly deserves all the attention that it’s failing to garner in the mainstream, and is the rare horror sequel to live up to (and feel like it truly belongs to) the legacy of its predecessor.”
3. Parasite. From my review: “‘Money is an iron.’ This is the thesis statement of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a beautiful film about the lengths that one family living in poverty will go to in order to climb the ladder of social success. As stated by a member of this quartet, money is an iron, as it irons out all the wrinkles in life, both metaphorical and literal, leaving behind flawless skin and a life virtually devoid of the anxieties of the common man. […] Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.”
2. The Farewell. I loved The Farewell, so much so that it came pretty close to unseating my number one, which would have been the first time in my 4.5 years writing for Swampflix that my number one wasn’t a horror picture. A heartbreaking story of the ties that bind, across great expanses of land and ocean and time, of the love that only grandmothers can give (and receive), of the consequences of secrecy and the secret wounds we bear and take on in order to make life just that much more bearable for the people in our lives. It’s a story of the purest kind of love, the kind that comes from a loss of self as part of a greater whole, the loss of identity following the wrenching of being taken from the places and people that we love, even if all we have are impressions of them. Sometimes, to love is to scream and strike back at the world; sometimes, to be is to shout and declare “I am here.” But sometimes, to love is to sacrifice in silence, and the simple act of being requires a quiet acceptance of the inevitable which cannot be fought, and which shouldn’t. I can’t even think about this movie without crying; it’s just that beautiful. You can read Brandon’s review here.
1. Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife + Heart). Of course this is my number one. What else could it possibly be? This may be my new favorite movie of all time. Never in my life has there been a film that slotted into so many of my particular and particularly obscure interests. From my review: “Never before have I ever seen a movie that was made for me the way that Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife+Heart) was. Seventies [period piece] giallo featuring a masked killer in black leather gloves? Check. Queer story that focuses on a troubled woman who drinks herself into unconsciousness on a nightly basis and is unable to let go of a lost love? Check. Vertigo/Body Double-esque plot points about obsession with apparent doppelgangers? Check. M83-as-Goblin soundtrack? Check. A plethora of shots of old school film editing equipment being put to good use? Check. A peek behind the curtain of the seventies gay porn scene? Check! Women in white wandering around a forest as gales of wind blow all about them? You betcha. A strangely centric fable about grackles? Is it my birthday?” My year-end Spotify data even revealed that M83 was my most-listened artist this year, with the track “Detective Rachid” as my most-played song from the group. I think about this movie all the time, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond