15. American Murder: The Family Next Door is a frightening look into the future of the true crime documentary, not because the story that it tells is any different from one that you might have seen on Dateline or Unsolved Mysteries in the nineties or any of the hundreds of true crime TV shows that have sprung up in the wake of the sensationalist reportage of the past, but because of what constitutes its filmic material. Once upon a time, if 20/20 was relating the story of a spousal murder, producers were lucky to have a few minutes of useful, usable home video footage of the victim or perpetrator at a wedding or a child’s birthday party—shot on a fifty-pound, shoulder-mounted, air-cooled VHS camcorder—which could then be shown with melancholy music over it while Diane Sawyer delivered maudlin narration full of words and phrases like “ironically,” “cut short,” and “better days.” The rise of social media and its near universal use, alongside the proliferation of smartphones that allow for the instantaneous ability to effortlessly record oneself or one’s family, has created a strange new world of access to victims. This is especially true of those like Shanann Watts, whose interest in self-documentation bordered on the narcissistic, creating the opportunity for director Jenny Popplewell to use a wealth of Shanann’s own material in a documentary chronicling the dissolution of her marriage and, ultimately, her murder at the hands of her husband, who also killed the couple’s two daughters. It’s a harrowing peek not only into the soul of white male American entitlement but also what this style of reportage will look like as we move further and further into this new era, in which social media creates and reinforces narcissism and is powerful enough to (perhaps) topple nations through the spread of dangerous misinformation.
14. From my review of The Nest: “There’s nothing wrong with The Nest. The performances are great, as [Jude] Law effectively plays a man whose charm is so powerful he’s managed to convince even himself that his delusions are true, and he’s magnetic and contemptible in equal turns. You wouldn’t be able to accept a lesser actor in this role without thoroughly hating him, and that’s a testament. He’s also possibly the only actor who has ever managed to make BVD briefs look sexy, and at nearly 50 to boot. Similarly, Carrie Coon’s Allison is pitch perfect (and she’s proper fit, as one of Sam’s rude teenage friends notes). Each interaction contains the perfect amount of emotional distance and intimacy, and Coon is fantastic. By the time she really starts to fall apart, she’s held it together with such aplomb for so long that the audience feels her every revelation with empathetic exhaustion. I also like that there’s no beating around the bush about what the family’s problems are: there’s no infidelity (if anything, the couple’s sex life is the only thing about which they both remain passionate through the entire runtime), and all of the family’s anxieties stem entirely from Rory’s pathological obsession with money.”
13. W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight): Hailed as Poland’s first slasher film, this sophomore feature from director Bartosz M. Kowalski is a central European Friday the 13th with the serial numbers filed off (and with a few random bits and pieces taken from other American horror flicks and shows to spice it up a little). There’s not much more to it than that, but as a peak into Polish interpretation of the American slasher genre, which was itself born out of American interest in Italian giallo films and Spanish obras de suspense, it offers a look into the weird ways that a genealogy of horror can criss-cross the Atlantic. It has its moments of gore, but they’re not only few and far between but also campy in their sanitization; imagine a scene from Hostel but sweded with fake rubber arms and heads from Party City, and you get the idea. In any other year, this wouldn’t be anything particularly noteworthy here, but with fewer releases due to the plague, it’s worth checking out. What else do you have going on?
12. Class Action Park: A documentary about Action Park, a New Jersey amusement and water park that famously maimed, mutilated, disfigured, and even killed multiple people over the course of its decades-long ownership by disgusting capitalist and deregulation enthusiast Ebenezer Eugene Mulvihill. Through interviews with former attendees and adults who were employed at the park as teens, as well as the family members of victims of Mulvhill’s negligence who never saw him face justice, the film strikes a strange tone. It encourages a feeling of both reminiscence about a lost era in which children seeking agency for themselves could do so by going to a cursed amusement park straight out of your Pinocchio nightmares, while also delineating the criminal laxity of safety regulations and proper testing of facilities (famously, teenaged employees were offered $50 to try out a looping waterslide, in which people frequently got stuck and from which the teens emerged bloody and battered). The film also draws a straight line from the right wing’s raging hard-on for deregulation and Mulvhill’s ability to simply buy his way out of all consequences, even negligent homicide, to the Trump administration, with its seemingly bottomless pockets and lack of accountability. The film occasionally loses its footing when interviewees, including recognizable faces like Chris Gethard and Alison Becker, fondly recall their youthful expeditions to the park, but overall, this is a pretty decent look into what happens when greed is left unchecked.
11. The Invisible Man: I saw that “He is a world leader in the field of optics” meme on Twitter for what felt like months before I got the chance to see The Invisible Man, which made me think the whole movie was going to be more camp than thriller. It’s not, although it has its moments (the scene in the restaurant between Elisabeth Moss and her sister being the most obvious example), and it’s an effective story about both PTSD and dealing with others with NPD. Also, more people need to hire Aldis Hodge to do things; I’m always glad when he pops up in something. Give him a lead in something, already! (You can read Brandon’s review of the film here.)
10. Mamoudou Athie delivers a striking performance in Black Box, essentially embodying three different characters over the course of the film’s taut runtime. He spends a lot of the film playing off of nothing, really, as Nolan wanders through his unclear memories, especially as those recollections begin to appear more and more disconnected from reality. Also impressive is skilled child actress Amanda Christine in her portrayal of Nolan’s daughter Ava; it’s rare that a child performer delivers anything other than a toneless recitation of lines that they barely understand, but Christine pulls off the balance between patience with her father’s challenges and her muted frustrations and fears that she’ll be separated from him if he isn’t able to recover his faculties. Although the film feels like a lower budget full-length episode of Black Mirror, it tells its story without the presumptive moralizing of that series (although your mileage will vary on whether that’s a good or bad thing with regards to Charlie Brooker’s program) and instead is a narrative that uses the trappings of a near-future scientific breakthrough to simply tell a story, rather than browbeat the audience.
9. When Brandon and I first discussed Shirley on the podcast, I expressed my discontent with the way that the film fictionalized Jackson’s life, and I stand by my feelings that I would enjoy this film more if it were about a fictional woman instead of ostensibly being about the woman behind We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. I’m not CinemaSins and I’m not just a nitpicker for the sake of picking nits, and it’s not like I’ve never been annoyed by someone else’s complaints that such-and-such a thing never happened, or wanted someone to just shut up about how the real so-and-so never actually went to wherever a scene is happening. But I am also that person that gets annoyed when something that falls into my very specific wheelhouse or area of interest gets something inconsequential incorrect but gets it wrong to an absurd degree (if you need someone to be the curmudgeon when supposed interstellar distances are measured in hundred of millions of miles). For all of that, and regardless of my general antipathy for using Jackson this way, Shirley is a fascinating narrative about the interplay of reality and imagination, and an insight into the transgression of the act of creation, all wrapped in a tense period package. Just pretend it’s about a fictional author who happens to share some similarities with the real Jackson, then track down a copy of Let Me Tell You to get a more intimate insight into the real deal.
8. The Other Lamb was proposed by Brandon to discuss on one of the Lagniappe episodes of the podcast, both because it was about cults (more on that in a moment) and because it was specifically about a Christianity-adjacent cult of personality (which is kind of my thing, in case you missed it), and he thought it would be up my alley. He was right! This has been a year that has been adversely affected by the elasticity of time, where the endless everpresent “nowness” of staying at home in quarantine sometimes makes it feel like January 2020 was just a few weeks ago, while the prolonging of quarantine because some people keep ruining it for fucking everybody also makes it feel like the same month was 27 years ago. So much of that year feels like it was filled with very frenetic media, with frantic pacing and constant noise to fill the empty and aching void of the months that elapsed entirely without human contact, but The Other Lamb stands apart, with its story that at first appears to be about calmness, tranquility, and serenity. Even as the plot thickens, it never quickens, and is instead as languid in its storytelling at the end of the film as it is in its opening moments, to great effect. Sumptuous and powerful.
7. Speaking of the elasticity of time, The Lodge feels like it came out four years ago, but I guess it really was just at the end of the previous winter. A holdover from the 2019 year-end slate, I saw the film with someone with whom ties have been severed and whom I expect I won’t see again in this life. At the time, I underestimated how much it would stick with me, and felt smugly superior for guessing the twist to come; it’s been long enough now, but objectively and subjectively, to point out that this film fits in nicely with directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s debut film Goodnight Mommy, as this film could just as easily been titled Gaslight Mommy, since that’s what happens (with special bonus points for the fact that the beginning of the gaslighting features literal gas like its namesake). Still, if there’s anything we’ve seen in the past year, it’s the power of misinformation not just to mess with people’s psyches, but also to rend families apart. Following so closely on the heels of Doctor Sleep, perhaps I simply wasn’t prepared for another film that is so indebted to The Shining for its visual language, but it has a staying power that can’t be denied. (It’s also got a subplot about cults, and I am a man of simple but sincere interests.)
6. In my review of Kajillionaire, I wrote about how, “when I was going through a really bad breakup in 2014, there was a quote that I stumbled across on Tumblr (again, it was 2014) that spoke to me on an intimate, deep level. I thought it was part of a poem, but I could never find it again, and I spent six years occasionally plugging the random bits of it that I could remember into Google to see if it would spit out the name of the poem, or the poet. Finally, in September, the search engine of record returned a result. The author was [Kajillionaire director] Miranda July, and it wasn’t a poem, it was an excerpt from her book It Chooses You: “All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.” There’s something fascinatingly and fantastically alien about Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood)’s situation, on top of and adjacent to the world that the rest of us live in. Miranda July seems to have asked herself about how one extremely specific person was making it through life —where she was putting her body, hour by hour, and how she was coping inside of it. It’s a character study of someone raised in a culture that is invisible, tangential, and almost inconceivable.”
5. As I wrote in my review, Spree “demonstrates a profound understanding of the relationship between new and traditional media, the power of and potential for abuse within internet discourse, and the deleterious effect on mental health on a societal level that can result from a pivot towards a social reward system that depends upon toxic narcissism. Kurt (Joe Keery) has no desire to garner fame for money, political power, to increase his sexual desirability, or as a means of class mobility: notability, in and of itself, is the goal. It’s the timeless tale of wanting to be popular, with no other goal. He lives in a completely different economic system where clout is currency, and even disengagement from that alternate reality doesn’t make one safe from its reach. In the film’s closing moments, we are treated to the best demonstration of writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko’s understanding of the foibles of media in all of its forms.”
4. Horse Girl tells my favorite kind of story: that of a woman struggling with her sanity. I have recently had the opportunity to inspect this fondness for this genre in myself–is it sexist of me? Although I’m not really the best person to answer that objectively, I think my fondness for the subgenre of “women on the verge” is mostly because I prefer women protagonists in all of my fiction, and I always have. I’ve been reading Paperback Crush lately, Gabrielle book about girl-targeted YA fiction that is subtitled “The Totally Radical History of ’80s and ’90s Teen Fiction,” and realized that, although I was largely forbidden from reading “girl books” of the kind that she is writing about, I tried my best to sneak around and read them anyway in my youth. Many of them are about young girls fighting against societal norms that have no bases in logic or reality: girls can’t x, whether x was a sport or a certain familial role or a campus political position. I, too, often felt that various things were forbidden or unreachable for me, either because of my parents’ religion or our rural isolation or The Closet, and the fiction that featured that as a narrative device weren’t about other boys (to say that my endless hunger for girl fiction caused parental, rural, and Closet conflict is an understatement). My love for movies like Puzzle of a Downfall Child, An Unmarried Woman, Queen of Earth, and the most recent addition to this pantheon, Horse Girl, is just an extension of that fondness. Hear me and Brandon talk about Horse Girl here.
3. His House is the story of two people from South Sudan who find themselves in England fleeing violent conflict (presumably the Dinka/Nuer conflict, although it’s never explicitly stated). It’s also much, much more than that. This bold debut feature from screenwriter and director Remi Weekes tackles topics of grief, disenfranchisement, loss, immigration, disconnection, and the things we keep while other things are left behind. There’s so much unspoken but powerfully present in the interactions between Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku as, respectively, Bol and Rial Majur. There’s something so palpable in Bol’s desire to disappear into this new community, joining in with the old men singing songs to their futbol heroes and blending in by purchasing an exact duplicate of the outfit on in-store advertising. By the time he’s literally trying to burn everything that ties himself and his wife to their past, it’s impossible to predict where the film will go next. Even the most artistic horror film rarely transcends into something truly beautiful, but His House does all of this and more. Brandon’s review can be found here.
2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire left me undone. I was mesmerized by its every moment, captivated by every tableau. There’s nothing really “new” about queer love between two women that is repressed, silenced, and hidden, especially in period pieces with their long, loving glances across infinite spaces trapped in immaculate drawing rooms. I’m not really sure what magic Portrait has captured that is absent in its peers, but there is something truly astonishing about it. The sound design, the set design, the costumes, the cinematography: this is a film that is essentially perfect in every conceivable way. We have seen many films that are similar to it, but in its field, it is peerless. Read my review here.
1. There’s a scene in I’m Thinking of Ending Things in which our seeming protagonist, played by Jessie Buckley, is trying to explain to her boyfriend’s father (played by David Thewlis) how a painting with no people in it can evoke an emotional response. “No,” he responds. “I would have to see myself in it to know how I felt.” Although the rest of the Swampflix staff apparently did not feel the same way, this was, to me, the best movie of the year. My erstwhile roommate and his current housemates and I synced up to watch the film during a period of the year when I was putting down new floors in my home as part of my desperate attempt to make myself feel like I wasn’t trapped in the same place for the foreseeable future and my TV was briefly moved into my bedroom. As I sat, straight up, in bed and watched as Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend made their way to his parents’ house through a thickening snowfall, I felt myself taken in and entranced by an incredible intensity of feeling. By the time the couple actually arrive at their initial destination, I already felt like I had gone on a complete journey and that the film must be nearing its completion, only to realize I had felt a film’s worth of emotional movement in a mere 45 minutes, and that there was still nearly an hour and a half left, which I was soon to learn was even more of a journey ahead. During a long, strange, sad, infuriating year, this was a film that reached inside of me and found a deep, sincere, and profound loneliness and externalized it on a screen before me, engaging me with myself in a way that I’ve experienced precious few times in my life. After I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I am genuinely not the same as I was before it. (You can read Brandon’s less positive review here.)
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond